Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Sara Dennis Interview: Part 3

The Sara Dennis Interview:  Part 3

Following on from part 1 and the recently published part 2 of our major interview with Folk singer/writer Sara Dennis, I am delighted to present part 3, in which Sara talks about her musical beginnings, her writing and return to music.

Photo © Gary Mockler

Let’s go back a bit further now. How old were you when you first became interested in music?

I can’t put an age on it because it’s always been there. My father and Grandfather were musicians and they were also music teachers, so for as long as I can remember music has been in my life. As a family, it’s just something that we all did. So my first influence was definitely my Grandfather – Billy. He made music accessible to me and made me want to do it; he was so encouraging.

Apparently, as a child, you used to go to festivals in Saltburn to sing…

…and play piano, yes.

Was that a duet with Billy?

No, it was me solo, really. He used to come with me and encourage me. I started learning to play the piano when I was six. When I was five, my Grandfather said to me, ‘Choose an instrument!’ I loved his piano and I was always playing on it. I fell in love with it – it’s mine now. So I said I’d like to play the piano and I had private lessons from the age of six and he would help me with my theory and I did my grades on the piano.

When I got to eight he said, ‘Look, you need to choose a secondary instrument. It won’t ever be the same as the piano, but you need a second instrument. Pick something different’. I’d say ‘another string to your bow’, but that’s daft, isn’t it! I picked the cello and I did that for about four years. He was a music teacher and he went to all the different schools in the area and he started the Eston Campus band as well, which my Dad took over. I think it’s called The Band of ’78 now, or something like that. 

Every time I went to his house he had something new for me. One day I’d walk in and there’d be a tuba. ‘We’re going to play the tuba this weekend, Sara!’ so we’d be out in the garage playing the tuba and then the next there’d be a trumpet, or a clarinet, or an oboe…by the end of the weekend he’d always have me playing something else. So my family were into music in a very big way.

What can you still play now? I know you can still play the piano, but how about the cello?

I can get a tune out of it. That’s the ethos I’ve got now – pick something up and I can get a tune out of it, because that’s the way I was brought up by him. ‘Don’t be scared of anything – just play it, and get a tune out of it!’ He used to say, ‘If you can play the piano, you can play anything’. But I had a break from it and didn’t do music for about 20 years.

How do you write your own songs? What comes first – the music, the lyrics, or does it change from song to song?

For me…it was always the words first. Then I’d go to the piano and I just try playing some chords to go with the words, or fit in with the rhythm of the poem. I think they all start off as poems, really.

We can talk about your poems now. There’s a selection on your website, mainly from the era 2009-2010. You must have a large number of earlier poems.

I do, yes. Some of them aren’t very good and some of them are OK.

Are you planning to add more of them to your website?

I’d like to, yes. I’d like to get a collection published but I’m not quite sure if they will fit in with what’s wanted today. My style is more embedded in Keats and Dickinson, the romantic poets and all the other 19th Century poets as well. When I’ve sent them off to places they say, ‘Oh, you’ve used too many archaic words’, but I just enjoy that type of poetry. Maybe that style will come back one day – who knows?

You could start the style off again! It’s best to set trends rather than to follow them.

Exactly, yes. Everything usually comes back around in a circle anyway, doesn’t it?

‘Unfurling’ is an interesting poem because sometimes I’ll just wake up with an idea in my head and I woke up and just wrote it straight down and that was it. With some poems I’ll pore over for months and months…

…one word at a time!...

…yes! And I’ll edit it and craft it, but that one just flew out of the pencil when I woke up. That’s why I called it ‘Unfurling’ because it really did just unfurl as I woke up.

I think ‘Unfurling’ is my second favourite, just behind ‘Redcar Scars’. Actually, it’s difficult to say ‘favourite’ in some ways when it comes to poetry. Often they are very deep and sometimes about not very nice things, so the word ‘favourite’ doesn’t really seem to suit.

Was there a particular moment which inspired you to return to music after so many years away?

I met Daniel Pettitt, a local folk musician in February 2010 when I was planning the Middlesbrough Literary Festival, he introduced me to the Saltburn Folk Club where I met Andy Broderick and many other local musicians. I started reading poerty there and Andy bropderick asked if I could sing. I said I could but hadn’t sang in public since school. I gave it a go, people enjoyed it and I fell in love with musical performance again. It was just like going full circle back to doing what I always wanted to do.

Are you a happy person?

Very happy. VERY happy now, yes. I’ve got such fantastic friends and a great life. I’m very lucky; I enjoy what I do for a living and what I do at a semi professional level. I’ve cut my hours down so one day a week I can concentrate on my writing, my music and things like that.

Following the successful launch of ‘Time and Tide’ and your new website, what are your future plans?

So far I’ve got some new songs that I’ve been writing. There’s about five that I’d like to do for the next project, so I’m on the ball with that. There’s going to be a bit of a change because I want to do more of my own thing. I’m working on some traditional songs. There’s a version of Scarborough Fair which will be interesting and I found a lovely traditional song called ‘The Blacksmith’; it’s beautiful. There’s a link with that to Nordic mythology which I found and I like the story element of that. There’s a song called ‘Frozen Charlotte’ which is based on a poem; the poem was based on a newspaper article.

It was in 1840 and a young girl had gone to the ball but she’d refused to wear a coat because she didn’t want to spoil her dress and one the way to the ball she froze to death because it was one of the coldest winters that year. So I’ve written a song about that. It’s kind of interesting now that I’m a little bit older; I see young girls and I think, ‘Where’s your coat!?’ and it made me laugh that this happened in the 19th century and it still happens now. Nobody ever learns!

I’ve written a song which is very much on a traditional folk style about a young girl who…what I find with folk music is it always seems to be young girls who are portrayed as quite stupid and are lured by gentlemen who take them off and they end up dying. So I thought it would be interesting if we had a girl lure a young, naïve boy off to his death instead. So that’s one of the songs – I tried to shake the idea up a little bit.

That would be shocking, 200 years ago. Which is why their songs were all the other way around.

That’s true, yes. This one is quite a ghostly one. So all of the new songs are going to be about people and done in a traditional style. There’s one about my Great Grandmother, called Mary Ellen, who was from Ireland. She came over here to work and she married a German who was never naturalised and he was interned in the First World War and went to the Isle of Man to the internment camp and never came back. She remarried – to a Lithuanian! It represents Middlesbrough at the time for me. Everyone came here for the industry and the work and the iron ore mines and the steel works and everything. She had a shop that apparently sold everything from tin baths to eggs and ham and all that type of thing. She could sell anything to anybody! She was a prevalent figure in South Bank at the time. She used to play all these Irish folk tunes on the melodion, so I’ve written this song about her and the people who lived at that time and tried to bond through music. I’m working on a song about the Eston iron ore mines as well.

You’re extremely productive, aren’t you? All of this material pores out of you.

It’s like it’s all been stuck and is now finally coming out, just like a cork has been released from a bottle. I’ve got work as well course, but luckily my job is quite creative.

It helps doing a job you love, of course.

Yes. And I get to meet interesting people. It’s a lovely job.

What about the projected release date for your next CD?

I want to take more time with this one, so I would say about the middle of the year – June or July. Oh – not June, because that’s when we have the Literary Festival…

Well, you could time it to coincide with the festival, so you could launch your CD there. You will be on all of the brochures! 

Image © Sara Dennis

Time and Tide is a kind of statement of where I am now and I think all of the songs on it reflect something I’ve just come out of and been through.

...and what a statement it was; full of promise and hope, with one eye on the future and the other glancing backwards to the disappearing past. How has Sara's music and career developed since the interview was recorded? We'll found out soon, as a full update is currently in the planning stages...

Meanwhile, keep an eye on our special event page for news of a very special live appearance!

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