Every so often, I mean to write something here about the music scene in Cornwall. Then I forget about it. Then whatever point it was I was going to make seems tired. Music fans could be forgiven for forgetting about the duchy; over the years it has hardly set the international music world alight: ignoring Andy Mackay and Mick Fleetwood, who were born there but grew up elsewhere, the list comprises of Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) and, more depressingly, Alex Parks (I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember her) and Fisherman’s Friends. I make that one bona fide success story, measured against one TV-hyped wannabe and one celebrity endorsed act who would not have been missed on the world stage had they stayed in the pub singing for themselves.
So what’s the music scene like down in the land of pasty ha pernen?
Well, since the turn of the millennium a folk revival has been led by Dalla. Their third and fourth albums (Rooz and Cribbar) are particularly excellent and I’ve never been able to understand why they haven’t had more recognition: even the BBC’s folk programmes hardly ever play them; just the odd run on Radio 3’s world music oriented Late Junction. In their wake a vibrant folk scene has developed with acts such as Caracana and Pentorr occasionally threatening to reach the levels of musicianship and arrangement of Dalla but never matching them consistently.
In 2010 I fully intended to publish an interview with Hanterhir here; I’m not sure what happened to that. Hanterhir completely bind-sided me when I first heard them: they do sing some songs in Cornish but they are very definitely not folk; I actually find them redolent of AC Acoustics in their sound, others might disagree but they certainly owe something to that late nineties pop/rock guitar sound which seemed to draw inspiration from acts like Arab Strap and early Radiohead. They released their debut album, Agapus, last year.
So why post now?
Well, it seems like someone may finally be able to not just match but maybe even surpass the success of Dalla. Richard Trethewey was a founder member of Leski; a band, I must admit, I never really cared for (there again, I don’t tend to enjoy any folk music involving flutes, whistles or harps, finding it rather twee; perhaps I should simply add the hammered dulcimer to that list and admit I’m in no position to judge Leski). Now fresh from a degree in Folk Music he has, this week, released his debut solo album. I know Sam Lee was Mercury nominated this year (and not undeservedly) but I really do much prefer Trethewey’s effort.
On Dig Where You Stand Trethewey has combined his own compositions with arrangements of traditional songs in such a way that you’d be hard pressed to tell which is which, since story-telling is always to the fore, as on opener The Wreck off Scilly and on The Clay Workers Strike of 1913 (both titles pretty self-explanatory as far as story content goes!). In essence a concept album, tracks are dedicated to different Cornish industries (tourism not included) but room is made for lighter moments such as the gender-bending The Flower of St. Day. The album varies in style throughout, with Trethewey’s own accomplished fiddle playing (not dissimilar to that of a certain other Mercury nominated folk musician, just across the border) giving way on some tracks to a more percussion based approach (as on We Be) and to collaborations with the Camborne Youth Band (brass) on others. This kind of eclecticism was lauded on 2010’s Been Listening by Johnny Flynn but, to my ears at least, works better here: a more consistent album tonally it’s clear that as much thought has gone into the construction and editing of the album as into the writing of the songs – a sad rarity today where most albums seem to be thrown together in the belief that the tracks will scarcely ever be listened to in order anyway.
So, that’s where we are now. Has there been a lack of major Cornish music artists through lack of talent/application or through lack of opportunity? Do the talent scouts ever visit Cornwall? The Fisherman’s Friend story at least suggests that a good experience for a tourist with influence may land you a record deal and it’s to be hoped that at least one of the artists mentioned above achieves the success they so richly deserve. If I had to bet on one though, it would be Trethewey. Releasing his first album now, at a time when folk music is probably more popular than at any time I can remember, means that he must be in a good position to taste some of the success enjoyed by folk artists across the border like the Lakemans and Show of Hands.by