Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Sara Dennis Interview: Time & Tide

'Time & Tide' is the debut CD of the multi-talented Sara Dennis. It features 13 songs including some of her own work and a number of covers of her favourites.

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Sara to find out the full story behind 'Time & Tide'...

Image © Sara Dennis

Let's talk about your CD first - Time and Tide. I thought we could have a quick chat about each and every song and you can perhaps tell me why they are on the CD and what they mean to you, who wrote them and why they are your top choices to be on your first CD. Track number one is 'Martha's Harbour'. What can you tell me about that?

I just think it's a lovely song. I first heard it when I was growing up in the 80s and I thought it was just such a different song. I quite like the eerie, haunting songs and it's very much like that. It's a nice song to sing as well.

Was it always going to be the starter track of your CD?

When we recorded them I didn't really have any sort of order in mind and when I listened back to them it just seemed the natural opening song really.

'Northern Sky' is next...

I adore Nick Drake; really love Nick Drake. I haven't been a fan for very long. I came to his music later on, as a lot of people do, I think. He was ahead of his time. 'Northern Sky' is such a happy song. He did write a lot of melancholy stuff; he was a troubled guy himself - but a genius - and it's just such a fantastic song and I love singing it. We rearranged that one a little bit because it was difficult for me to sing, with my range being different to Nick Drake's.

How about 'Lemuria'?

That's one of Dan's songs. I heard him sing it quite a while ago. In fact, when we first met, I asked him what his favourite song was and he said it was that and I went to have a listen to it. It's a really beautiful song. When I asked him if it was OK to sing some of his songs, he suggested that. We tried it and it worked really well. I like it because it's based on mythology and that type of thing,. It's a nice, dreamy song and I enjoy singing it.

Sara and Dan at the 'Stories and Oceans' launch

One thing which occurred to me on the CD, apart from it bringing your voice to its full potential, is that I think it brings the best out of Dan's playing as well. Stripped down, with mainly just one guitar, it really suits his style.

It does, yes. he's done a really smashing job.

How about 'Next Time Around'?

That's a Sandy Denny song that I came across about six months ago. I first came across Sandy Denny when listening to Fairport Convention and I listened to some of her solo stuff. I listened and just fell in love with it. It's such an unusual song...quite a challenge to sing and quite a challenge for us to work out as well, so it took some practicing, The lyrics are really strange and the chord changes are strange but it's just such a stunning song and one I really wanted to sing.

Image © Sara Dennis

'House Carpenter'.

That's arguably my favourite. That's the one I always turn to when I don't know what else to sing. I first came across that one on Natalie Merchant's 'House Carpenter's Daughter'. I just love it. That was the first song I wanted to sing when I came back to music. It was only in July this year that i started to perform and that was my first choice. I said to Dan, 'I really like this song'; I played it on my piano for him and he said it was really nice, and he went away and figured out some chords. One day he said, 'Let's go to the open mic and give it a go!' So we did, and then started going to the folk clubs. So that was the song that started it all off. It's a traditional song and I love the folk songs with a warning. She runs away to sea with her former lover; she'd settled down with a nice house carpenter and had a baby but she goes off to see with him and the ship sinks and they both drown.

Happy ending then?

Yes - they've all got happy endings, folk songs!

‘Crazy Man Michael’.

That's a Fairport Convention song. It's such a beautiful, haunting song with a really, really interesting story to it. When you listen to the song's story, it's just amazing. It's about a guy who goes for a walk one day and meets a raven - but it's not really a raven; he murders his girlfriend.

Ravens feature quite heavily in songs and stories. In Edgar Allen Poe's works, for example.

In lots of poetry as well.

'The Letter'.

'The Letter' is off Natalie Merchant's 'Tigerlilly' album. I'm a big fan of Natalie Merchant. The song meant a lot to me because when I first heard the lyrics, I could very much identify with the song. I love the structure and it's a lovely song to sing because it's quite powerful in parts. I decided to do that one on my old piano. The piano's got an interesting story to it, actually. It was my Grandfather's piano and I think he bought it in the late 60s...

Is that Grandfather Billy?

Yes, and that was the first piano I played, when I was five. Then I started having lessons and that was what I grew up with, really. It was always in the family and it was always promised to me; 'That's Sara's piano!' When both Grandparents died it was left to me. So I've got that now and it's a very important thing for me. It's a beautiful white, gloss upright piano. It's stunning and I really wanted to capture that on the album. Unfortunately, I recorded it myself and I'm not an expert at recording, so it's slightly muffled but it gives it a nice feel, I think.

I think that really works on this song. It's like the past seeping through to the present.

That was the thing I was trying to do...I asked for the vocals to be crisp and clean to contrast the past with the present, so I'm glad you said that.

I thought it was one of the most effective songs on the CD.

Oh - wow!

'Pretty Polly' is next.

Another one I heard from Sandy Denny. Fairport Convention, anyway. Quite a lot of people have done it. I've been researching into folk tunes recently because I want to know the stories behind them; who sang them, where they came from, what they mean...and quite a lot of people have done 'Pretty Polly'. I really like the Fairport Convention version, so that's the one I did. I love it because it's a bit more upbeat. It's got more rhythm to it and the way Dan plays guitar on that makes it quite a rocking tune. People said to me, everyone always dies in my songs but I quite like the sort of darker folk tune and again it's one of those with a story and a message, where a young girl sillily goes off with her boyfriend and he gets her into trouble and he murders her and throws her in a shallow grave.

There's a lot of it about!

There is in the folk world, isn't there? I adapted that one, I changed the lyrics slightly, because there's a few different versions and in the version I liked - the version Sandy Denny sang - he goes to the jailhouse but he seems to get away with it in the end and I wanted to hang him and send him to Hell, so that's what I did in my version. But in other versions that I've come across, he goes off to sea and is haunted by Pretty Polly and I started to wonder if that's where the sort of parrot on the shoulder Pretty Polly comes from. In one of the versions it's the captain and everybody sees the sailor, who murdered Polly, he comes to haunt him and the baby on the ship. Nobody else sees him so they think he's mad and make him walk the plank. I started to wonder about the idea of animals having a kind of sixth sense. They say dogs know I wondered if that's where the Pretty Polly myths come from. I've tried to research more into it, but I'm sure I'll find the answer one day.

That's connected to what we said about ravens as well.

Yes, about birds and omens. In folk law, birds were messengers and carriers of omens weren't they, so I wonder if there is anything in that?

Nowadays, the parrot has become more of a comedy figure so perhaps its darker past has been hidden. The next track on the CD is one which I thought particularly suited your voice; 'Emily Said'.

Oh, right! That's one I wrote myself. It's about the poet Emily Dickinson, who I'm a big fan of. I find her story fascinating, because she was pretty much a recluse and she wrote all this wonderful poetry and it wasn't discovered until after she died. She had seven pieces published but she was never really taken seriously and when she died they found, underneath her table, a box containing 18,00 poems. She'd written them all by hand and she had really unusual handwriting, a really unusual way of putting things together. She'd used random capitals and dashes instead of commas and all this type of stuff. I think she's a fascinating character and her poetry moves me to tears sometimes. It sounds dramatic, but it does!

It's an interesting an artist, is it best to be virtually unknown during lifetime but then to live forever afterwards, or to be famous while alive and then not especially remembered...?

Well it's kind of like that with two people on the album. Emily Dickinson and Nick Drake were both pretty much unknown in their own lifetime.

Image © Sara Dennis

How about 'Life is Hard'?

That's written by a friend of mine called Kieron. I heard him play it at the folk club when I first started going in May and he played it a few times. I thought it was a famous song and I spoke to him afterwards and he said, 'Oh no, it's my song' and I was really impressed because it's such a simple song but it's so effective; such a lovely song. One day he said, 'Would you mind singing along if I give you the lyrics?' so I sang along one day. Then I said, 'Would you let me record it?' and he said, 'Of course, I'd love you to record it' and he gave me permission to use it on the album. It's such a good song; life is hard, but you can get through with friends; as long as you've got people around you, you'll get through it, but it makes no bones that life is hard. Kieron's beenpoorly recently - he had a heart attack a few weeks ago. He's OK, thankfully.

'Poor Wayfaring Stranger'.

I heard that on Natalie Merchants 'House Carpenter's Daughter'. I was in two minds about this one. I actually recorded two a cappella songs for the album, but one of them I didn't put on in the end; I kept it at 13 songs. A nice number, 13! 'Poor Wayfaring Stranger' is an old spiritual hymn really, but I think it's very folky and I like the lyrical content.

I'd say that's probably the best known song on the CD.

It does get sung quite a lot in the folk clubs, so it is popular.

I have a version by Emmylou Harris which is very nice.

It's nice to sing as well; I enjoy singing that one.

'Undiscovered Country'.

That's another one of Dan's songs. Again, I heard him sing it and I just thought, I really love that song. I asked him, 'Would you mind if I have a go?' and he said, 'By all means!' I think the lyrics are really beautiful. It's a bit like Kieron's song - a simple song but very effective. I think it's quite moving and I think he's done a cracking job with it. He's got so many songs and he lets me sing them, which is great! We've started to do it as a duet, actually. It works well. I'm very pleased that he lets me sing his songs.

The influential Daniel Pettitt

He has a huge body of work.

It's amazing, isn't it?

'Renaissance Wave'.

I was talking to Dan about that recently. It's another one I wrote myself and kind of an important song for me.It's about where I've come from and where I am now. I said to Dan, 'I'll probably never sing that again' because it's about somewhere I was and I had to write this song to get it out of my system and I've moved on now. It represents my past. It's a bit like a poem set to music rather than a song, I think.

Well, that's the 13 songs. How did it all come together? How did you come up with the idea of recording your own CD?

It was Dan's idea, I think. He just said to me one day, 'Why don't we go along to an open mic and give it a go?' I was terrified and I forgot all of the words at one stage! So the next day he said, 'We can go and do it again'. He gave me a real push which motivated me. So we started performing together, with Dan backing me on guitar. It's a bit difficult for me as I don't play guitar and it's tricky dragging a piano around! Then he just said one day, 'Why don't you put a little CD together?'

I started to think about it more seriously and I thought I'd make a few demos and the more we did, the more songs we got together, we thought, 'Why not do it properly?' and it just went from there. We recorded quite a lot of stuff at his place with his recording equipment and then we went into the studio in Stockton and just recorded it all in three hours. So pretty much, they are all first takes. It captures the essence.I think I'll take more time on my next project but for that one it captured what I was trying to get down. I'd love to do this song (which was on the radio in the background) - 'Summertime'. We'd need to find a way to do it with guitar.

I'm sure Dan can find a way to make his guitar sound like a trumpet.

You never know - he's full of surprises!

Sara, post interview

Part two of our interview, scheduled for January 2011, will focus on Sara's life and influences. Meanwhile, for more information on 'Time and Tide', a list of forthcoming gigs and a whole lot more, pop along to the Sara Dennis website.

No comments: