The first U.S. tour for British folk duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker includes a date at Bloomington's Lotus World Music and Art Festival.
Clarke is from Sussex, and Walker is from an area of England known as the Midlands. They met while they were both studying music in London, and have been writing music together ever since. When asked what made them want to team up to start making music together, both had a lot to say.
“Josienne is far and away the best songwriter I’ve ever heard,” Walker tells me. “You get the opportunity to work together and you just go 'yes.' This is sort of a yin yang sort of a thing. You sort of combine the two things and you end up creating something that is larger than the sum of the two parts.”
“On a personal level,” Clarke points out, “that can make it quite difficult because we’re such different people and we speak such a different language both musically and personally a lot of the time, but that’s kind of why it works so well professionally, and that we communicate musically a lot better than any other format I would think.”
“Passive-aggressive post-it notes on the guitar playing” Walker jokes.
A Musical Kinship
“Ben’s guitar playing, he has a lot of the same influences as me,” Clarke reflects, “like there’s that slightly classical approach to his phrasing and that kind of is a common ground for us, but also he’s got all of these other musical interests that I don’t have which makes it kind of unified and varied.”
“He also has a kind of complementary skill set like he can do arrangement, orchestration, he’s really good with the harmonic language of music, which I’ve never been that good at, or he’s playing melody instruments. So he’s got no desire to be the singer or the front man, and I don’t want to do string parts, so it blends well in that sense that we’ve got our really defined skill sets and we just get on with the bits that we’re best at and we don’t have to do the stuff that we’re not good at.”
“You learn what the other person’s up to and when to leave it alone,” Walker says, “and when to speak and that kind of stuff … We are often the first person we speak to first thing in the morning and the last person we speak to at night, and you just spent eight hours of the day traveling to the next gig, in the same car together, so … it’s very intense.”
“But like Josie was saying, it’s been seven years now and if it didn’t work out then we should have known about it by now.”
Clarke cuts in, “Well you have to accept that it’s a bit like a marriage but without any of the good bits.”
Making Music Overnight
The duo has put out four albums in their seven years making music together, (Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, Fire & Fortune, Homemade Heartache, and The Seas are Deep) with a fifth, (Overnight) coming out this October.
"The last album we did two years ago was called Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour ," explains Clarke, "and it was all about the passing of time. And I think that everything I’ve ever written is basically about that anyway. And I think all art kind of touches on that anyway. And really it’s about me being able to keep to that subject, but what I’ve done is I’ve kind of drawn the focus onto the kind of smaller turn from day to night to day again. So it’s kind of just looking at some of those same things from a different perspective. It’s kind of drawn the eye in closer to one turn of one day."
The duo’s new album Overnight was inspired by the seemingly magical everyday event of night turning to day and day turning to night. During the process of writing the album, Clarke was particularly struck by the character of the moon, which makes an appearance on the album. She recalls
I had a book by Arnold Lobel when I was a kid … the central character was an owl, and one of the stories was one evening he was sitting on a little hill by the sea and looking at the moon and he was saying like ‘Aah, you’re so beautiful over the sea there, but I’m going home now moon…’ and he kind of went to go home, and then he thought the moon was following him and he keep saying ‘No, no, no! stay over the sea where you look so beautiful.’ And then the moon disappears behind a cloud and he’s a bit sad that the moon’s not there anymore, and then he gets to his bedroom and he looks out his window and there’s the moon like shining in. And so that’s the first kind of personifying of the moon that I had seen and that kind of being small it had quite an effect on me…
Historical Inspiration, Modern Sounds
Clarke, who is the lyricist, has not only looked to various genres of literature for inspiration, but the duo has set some famous pieces of literature to music, such as the Robert Burns poem “Love is Like A Red, Red Rose.”
“You have to be very careful with Burns,” Clarke remarks seriously, but with a bit of humor in her voice, “it’s very important to the Scottish, and you can’t mess about with it.” She laughs. “So that was quite an undertaking that one, but amazing to do.”
But creating their own adaptations of classical and modern folk tunes seems to be something the two do quite regularly for their albums.
“That can be difficult sometimes and it was certainly difficult the first time we did it, trying to make the modern and the ancient sit well together,” Clarke tells me. “But, that’s part of the challenge, and it’s what I really enjoy doing… on the new album we have the 16th-century lute ballad of John Dowland, and trying to fit that in a way that made it sit next to a cover of a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings tune, and then one of our own songs, it’s a challenge but if you pull it off it can be quite satisfying…”
This will be Walker and Clarke’s first tour in the United States, and besides their appearance at Lotus, the duo will makes stops in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, and Toronto, Ontario. The two are rather excited to visit the homeland of some of their favorite folk musicians, and artistic influences.
“Gillian Welsh and Dave Rawlings is our one of our favorite things,” Clarke says, “and we’ve one, we’ve covered one of their songs on our album. And yeah, I mean that’s probably the top, isn’t it Ben?”
“Yeah,” Walker assents.
“We’re sort of trying to be the Anglo version of them,” Clarke admits.
A US Tour And A Legendary Label
“As British musicians … so few people at the level we were at get to do a full tour like that,” Clarke tells me, “it’s always … you’re thinking ‘Oh I’d love to do that,’ but not really holding a hope of actually coming and doing it because the visa process and financially making it work, it’s all quite hard to do. So the idea that Rough Trade was going to be able to help us to do that, is amazing.”
Rough Trade is both an independent record label and a group of record shops in the United States and the UK. It was established in the mid 1970s during the punk explosion in the UK, signing such acts as the Smiths in the 80s, and more recently, Sufjan Stevens, the Strokes, the Decemberists, and Alabama Shakes.
Rough Trade is passionate about “helping the music they love get the exposure they think it deserves and to facilitate the artists' growth.” This upcoming US tour is something Clarke and Walker believe will facilitate growth, or at least help them to reach a wider audience.
“I don’t think we thought that we were going to be able to do [a tour in the USA] for at least a few years, did we Ben?”
“No, no, not at all,” Walker says, “and it’s always good to play to new audiences. You suddenly realize that the UK is so small, and there are [only] so many places you can play especially in the sort of through the background we’ve come up through… and going to a place [the USA] that’s completely virgin territory where.. the country is so huge.. you go out and you’re never going to find the same group of people twice … and that’s sort of what makes it exciting, the idea of taking our music out there and just playing to completely different audiences.”
And then there are the smaller perks of a trip to the U.S.A.
“[With] almost everything in the US you get like twice as much choice. So when you go out for ice cream you’ve got 46 different flavors to choose from. That’s just not a reality here. And that’s what I mean about it bringing out your kind of inner seven year old. It’s kind of exciting on a fundamental level.”