I’m sat in a cow barn in Dorset with Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts sat opposite. The barn is transformed into a stage every year for the intimate Purbeck Folk Festival at which Gilmore and Roberts are to play along with running a fiddle and guitar workshop. Jamie’s face sparks into a big grin as he completes the final tune of their set for a Folk Radio UK session (coming this week) beating the sound check about to kick off behind us with the Old Dance School. Their sound is instantly recognisable with Jamie’s lap-tapping guitar providing dual acoustic and percussion and Katriona’s fiery fiddle playing, enriching and bringing to life their original story-based songs. Combine this with their well-honed harmonies and you have the essential core of this duo which has been winning them fans across the British Isles since the release of Shadow & Light in 2006 and Up from the Deep in 2010, the same year in which they were nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award.
After the session ends we get to talking about their new album ‘The Innocent Left’ which will surprise many people, as a duo it’s their biggest leap forward to date bringing a whole new dynamic and breaking new ground because this time around they decided to do things a little different. They put together a band and then got a producer on board: Julian Simmons (Guillemots, Ed Sheran, Albert Lee) to help them add some fresh ideas into the mix.
Katriona points out that this decision was very intentional “we picked Julian because we didn’t want anyone who had anything to do with the folk scene. He has an indie / pop / rock approach so we knew we’d have a completely different take… “
As a duo Katriona and Jamie were able to express themselves very freely on this release as they were building things up from scratch almost. “It was something I didn’t really think about until we came to record the album” explains Katriona “if you’re a band then you’ve presumably got everything there that you need. We enjoy going out and playing as a duo and I think we make quite a big sound but it’s nice to fill in some of the gaps on this record.”
Whilst Julian Simmons clearly plays a part in this new creation by bringing in new ideas and getting them to think about their music a bit differently it was Katriona and Jamie’s choice of musicians that also became a leading factor. On double bass they opted for Ben Nicholls (Seth Lakeman). “Ben came up with the most amazing parts” enthuses Jamie “I was surprised how much the double bass could alter the sound of the tracks, it had a big impact on the general arrangement.”
They also got Tom Chapman (Urban Folk Quartet) on-board. “We chose Tom for his cajon hi-hat cymbal set-up” explains Katriona “although he ended up playing quite a lot on full drum kit which was something I didn’t expect to happen”. Tom is a very talented percussionist and the move to a full drum kit alongside Ben’s double bass creates a significant new dynamic. They bring a greater vibrancy and help the band create a greater atmosphere, an important element to Gilmore and Roberts whose songs deserve that class of arrangement.
Gimore and Roberts are incredibly talented songwriters creating storylines that grab the attention of the listener. What works really well on The Innocent Left is that the bigger wall of sound brings a greater emphasis to those songs, those additional layers of sound allow emotions to rise and swell as well as taking it to the pin-drop moments such as the finale of ‘Letters’ a song that brings to life the stomach wrenching wait which turns to deep anger and frustration, waiting to find out if a son is still alive during the Second World War…Katriona based the song on the point of view of her great-grandmother, a Dane who worked for the BBC World Service during the Second World War.
Another surprise in store on this album is the guest appearance of sister duo Larkin Poe. “A friend of ours booked them for a festival and recommended them” Katriona explains “they were my favourite band by the time they played over here. We approached them and they did an email session.” The track they feature on “Shuffle and Deal” features Larkin Poe playing mandolin, lapsteel, dobro and vocals. They gave the sisters free reign and the combination is perfect, a definite gem on this release. Another gem is the opening powerhouse ‘Scarecrow’ a sure announcement if ever there was one that this album is different. Like Katriona Jamie is a clever wordsmith, the verses are stabbed out emphasising the underlying hatred; metaphorical verses give a glimpse of an underlying deeper meaning ‘The right wing, left wing, sitting on the fence, leading a vote of confidence, the rogue crow plans his offence.’
From Katriona’s ‘Doctor James’, a tale of the Victorian true-life caesarian pioneer Dr. James Barry to Jamie’s everyday reflection on a regular customer at the subway sandwich shop on ‘Louis was a Boxer’ these two have a great way of interpreting stories from history to those of our everyday lives.
‘The Innocent Left’ is a stunning album on which the full band and expansive sound offer the perfect back-drop for the lovely harmonies and songs of Gilmore and Roberts. This is their best work to date demonstrating great songwriting and musicianship, simply brilliant!