Feature Interview for Tykes News Autumn 2013

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1 TWO three – Getting to know UNION JILL

 

Nigel Schofield talks to the duo everyone’s talking about.

 

 

union - ˈyo͞onyən  -  [n] increased strength through collaboration.

 

 

There once was a union maid,

 

She never was afraid
Of goons and ginks

 

And company finks

 

And the deputy sheriffs who made the raid – Woody Guthrie

 

 

 

In the last issue of Tykes, I gave the new Union Jill album a well-deserved favourable review. After repeated plays (see I don’t stop listening to things once I’ve reviewed them – at least not when they are this good), I was looking forward to meeting Helen [Turner] and Sharon [Winfield] who are Union Jill.

 

Our interview, or to be more precise extended chat lasting a couple of hours, was a reflection of their personal harmony. Regularly stepping across each other, adding details, completing each other’s responses, they presented none of the problems one normally encounters with a double-headed interview. Very much in accord, they were the epitome of Union, everything I expected they would be.

 

They were discursive and inquisitive, frequently pursuing topics that caught their interest. What follows omits the fascinating tangents which our conversation followed and also the huge number of qualifying adverbs (“basically”, “essentially”, “actually”, “seriously” etc. with which Sharon and Helen pepper their conversation.)

 

We started with the new album  – Union Jill’s debut but not their first album.

 

 

Helen

We’ve been playing together for a few years. We’ve already made two albums.

Sharon

Though not as Union Jill. They were made before we chose the name.

Helen

You have to have a name, though. So first of all we called ourselves TWO, which we thought was quite clever because there are two of us and it used the initials of our surnames.

Sharon

It was an attempt at having our names in there. It was a bit embarrassing really.

Helen

People kept telling us, “We like you, but it’s a rubbish name”

Helen

Anyway, Turner-Winfield sounded like a firm of accounts

Sharon

It is actually the name of a firm of antique cabinet makers in the States!

Helen

So we became TWO

Sharon

The problem is  - it’s not memorable as a name. Try Googling TWO…it’s a long time before you find us. Union Jill brings us up straight away.

Sharon

When you’re picking a name for a group, you go through thousands of possibilities. Most are rubbish.

Helen

Some are just stupid and make you laugh

Sharon

Some you find have been used before.

Helen

We wanted to avoid Babes, Witches, Sisters and all of those things – because we’re none of them! So TWO it was and we made our first two albums under that name.

Sharon

We’ve tried to reclaim the first two albums and bring them into the Union Jill fold.

Helen

We’ve had stickers made for the old albums…though now it looks like the first Union Jill albums were both called two and then we explain that Respectable Rebellion is actually our first album.

Sharon

We liked Union Jill – taking a masculine name like Union Jack and making it feminine – it’s sort of humorously subversive, which kind of sums us up.

Intrigued by its ambiguity, I ask about its inspiration…the naval national flag; workers’ cooperatives; nursery rhymes; the 1930’s “peach farm peach” who organised California’s migrant farm workers.

Helen

We think it’s a kind of layered name…and we like to think our songs are layered in the same way. It’s not obscure but it’s hard to pin down because its meaning shifts depending on how you approach it.

It gets people talking, sparks discussion which is what we like to do.

Sharon

We’re experienced chatters….have you noticed that?

So far – so confusing. What about the album? You’re a duo but you’ve chosen to record the album with other musicians.

Sharon

That was a difficult one. We don’t want people to come see us and ask where the rest of the band is. Equally, I think an album is a different thing to a live performance.

Helen

We wanted the musicians to add to what was already there.

Sharon

Witch Hunt is a song which we knew needed a kind of medieval feel to it. We explained that to Kate St John.

Helen

As soon as Kate started to play the part she’d created for the song, we were going “That’s it. That’s it. Perfect.”

Sharon

She really nailed what we wanted.

Helen

When we asked, Ric [Sanders] to give us a solo for Morecambe Bay that reflected what we felt when we wrote the song, he came up with a fiddle break that is…

Sharon

                                                            ferocious would be a good word for it.

Helen

The way Ric ended up playing on our last album – and as a result on this one – was because we knew a promoter who was putting Fairport on in York. He asked us – as a local band – to appear as support. We got chatting to Fairport: they were so friendly and welcoming. I mean we were just two local girls and they treated us like proper musicians who deserved to be there. So we got cheeky and asked Ric if he’d mind playing on our album.

Sharon

He was really generous with his time. We sent him the track. He recorded loads of parts, did a lot of different mixes and then basically said “Use what you want.”

Helen

It lifted the album. We were determined to have him on this new one.

Sharon

It was really nice, because this time he came up and played in the studio with us. It was really fascinating to watch him work.

Sharon

I have to say, this was an album we approached in a live way. All the musicians were in the studio, contributing ideas, making suggestions, listening as well as playing…

Helen

                                                                              offering constructive criticism, for which we were very grateful.

Sharon

So vocally and instrumentally we could do more or less what we do on stage but in a musically enhanced environment.

Helen

Well, that’s one way to put it!

 

Aside from Ric and Kate, the other players on the album are Clive Gregson, Andy Seward and tThe Durbevilles’ drummer Mark Boyce.

Sharon

So you can listen to the album, as an album, with all those great players working with us, but when you see us live it’s a different context – the audience and the venue provide that – but we still do what we did on the album. It was Clive’s idea to work live in the studio as the basis of the album and I think it was a great decision.

 

Clive Gregson plays seven instruments (guitars and keyboards, mainly) on Respectable Rebellion. He is also the album’s co-producer. The other producer is the redoubtable John Wood, whose pedigree includes some of the greatest folk rock recordings (Fairport, Sandy, John Martyn, Nick Drake, ISB, Richard Thompson, The McGarrigles – not to mention Pink Floyd). I put it to UJ that one high profile producer is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards: wasn’t having two a bit of overkill?

Sharon

We didn’t think of it like that. Clive suggested John and , much to our surprise, he said Yes.

Helen

They’ve worked together before and know they make a great team.

Sharon

Clive likes to be hands on, in and out of the studio, working with instruments, suggesting things, playing things.

John is much quieter and prefers working at the mixing desk. Basically we got the best of both worlds.

Helen

Clive did all of the preproduction and he spent hours going through each song and restructuring it, making suggestions about arrangements and so on.

Helen

John was great because he was a kind of third voice. He’s very quiet but he listens and every so often he’s say “that isn’t quite right” or “that didn’t work”.

Sharon

He’s got a great ear for detail and he spotted things that you maybe wouldn’t have noticed because you’re concentrating on something else.

Helen

Just generally feeling amazed and a bit overawed at what was being achieved with our songs. When people are contributing so much, it seems a bit small-minded to say “Could you not do that” or “Could you do this instead”, but John was in a position where he could.

Sharon

We’re really grateful that he did, too.

Helen

They even coped when eqipmemt didn’t always work quite the way it should, though Clive kept suggesting we should record the next album in Nashville.

Sharon

He was thinking in terms of all the latest equipment and everything working perfectly and, again, some great musicians that he can call on. We were just going “Nashville…Wow!”

Helen

And then doing the sums to see whether we could actually afford it – it turned out we could.

Sharon

He said it was no more expensive than where we were but I think our calculations were quite creative.

NS

So does that mean the next Union Jill album may have a country feel?

Sharon

Nothing’s decided – it’s just a nice idea to toy with when we’re on a bit of a high. In truth, I think our music is very English and the people we record with – like the places we record – are sympathetic to that.

It’s an intangible thing, of course, but that’s part of the chemistry that meant everything came together.

Helen

I hope we’re not going to sound big-headed when this appears in print!

Sharon

Seriously, we are amazed at how well the album has been received. Most reviewers seem to get what we are trying to do. We were pretty sure they’d appreciate how well the album is produced, but they also, as you did, picked up on our harmonies and songwriting. That is very gratifying.

Helen

And quite a bit scary because we now have a lot to live up to.

 

Speaking of song-writing – all thirteen tracks on the album are self-penned – I point out that there is a theme that runs through the album. Most of the songs seem to deal with Human Rights and inhuman wrongs.

Sharon

That’s absolutely true. Though we didn’t set out to make an album with a message.

Helen

We rehearse in my front room – while the kids are asleep. Very glamorous! Because of that atmosphere we will get chatting about things that interest us – things that have cropped up during the day very often – and out of that will come songs. So I suppose most of the songs begin as a collaboration rather than one of us writing something and bringing it to the other.

Sharon

So we didn’t set out with a concept but inevitably the songs reflect us and what we are thinking about at the time. That provides a kind of common theme.

Helen

Sometimes you’re rehearsing a song and it leads to a related discussion that might be the seed of another very different song. But it’s still connected.

Sharon

I think because there are two of us working together we tend not to fall into that introspective singer-songwriter mode.

Helen

Our songs are pretty outgoing.

Sharon

We can be strident. We like to rant about women’s rights and so on. So much so that on stage we tend to make a joke out of it. We make a point of saying that actually we really like men. Sometimes we rub our thighs a bit to emphasise the point.

Helen

We sing about what we believe, but without it alienating anyone in the audience. Not by being bland but by approaching things with humour…

Sharon

And the fact we get good-natured heckling back suggests we’re getting it right in that respect.

I point to the words of Drive – the line about not being mistaken for “one who stands up for the rights of womankind”.

Sharon

Ah, but do we mean it? Is it a song about us…..or is it a character song?

Helen

The first song on the CD [Queen of Holloway] has made people assume we are feminists – which we are, but not in the way they assume – we wrote the song because she was a person who interested us.

Sharon

That’s how most of our songs start out – one small thing that really grabs our attention….a detail in the big picture that gives us a particular slant on a story. Mad Alice, for example: there’s lots of ways to write about her, but we wanted to get beyond the nickname that kind of pigeon-holed her. Mad Alice started out with us thinking “That’s an odd name for a street”. Then you think about it – and it isn’t really that long ago – and you realise everything that lies behind giving a street a name like that – Mad Alice Lane.

Helen

That was a horrible thing to happen. And it happened in York, which is where we are from. How awful is it that this poor women is remembered by the street that was once named after her and really, even though she was clearly someone who made an impression in her day, that is now really all we know about her.

Sharon

Her whole life was reduced to that. A tragic legacy.

One shouldn’t get the impression that Helen and Sharon are merely dwellers in the past. Morecambe Bay  is certainly not the first song to be inspired by the tragedy of the cockle-pickers, but it towers above its fellows

Sharon

That’s Helen’s song. There was a film out called Ghosts and it was about the cockle-pickers in the Bay.

Helen

Description: http://www.davidbryandesigner.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Ghost-Poster-featured-470x260.jpgAt the time, I was going to a thing called The Big Screen – basically it was an 11 o’clock screening where you could take your baby along and feed it while you watched the film. That’s what I did on a Wednesday to help keep me sane. So it was pretty random: you saw whatever they put on and Ghosts was one of the films they put on. It was so striking and I sat there thinking ‘There’s an injustice, a massive injustice’ and I knew somehow I had to make a song out of it.

The film is by Nick Broomfield: you can find the trailer on YouTube.

Sharon

Helen could have gone for something mournful, a minor key lament. Instead she came up with something very angry, almost fierce, a real sense of outrage. It’s not a tearful sad thing; it’s genuinely angry.

Slowly the conversation moves up a couple of notches. I begin to glimpse the passionate outrage which lies behind the song.

Helen

These were not people who lived lives that you can dismiss with a few regrets. They lived hard brutal lives, far from home, cut off from their families, in a very alien place, risking their lives, controlled by gangmasters.

Gangmasters!

How can you not be angry at a word like that?

Sharon

When Ric brought out his fiddle to play on that track, he said “What do you want, girls?” and we both said “ANGRY”

As if to prove the point Helen choruses the word with Sharon as they speak.

Sharon

That’s exactly what he gave us. Even thinking about it now makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end!

For all the album’s historical portraits and social commentary, at its heart is a trio of very personal, romantic songs. These immediately follow the aforementioned Drive

Helen

There’s only one song that was consciously written as a kind of sorbet, a break from the politically themed songs, or the songs with a definite message, you like. That’s Home Again.

Sharon

That was a deliberate thing, a kind of relief against all the raging and ranting, much as we love it! For the listener as much as anybody really.

Helen

The thinking was – let’s include something that’s light and positive. Though I have to say, originally there was a verse about death at the end of it, which Clive politely suggested we should lose.

Sharon

So we did – bowing to his expertise. Actually, I’d forgotten about that, but you’re absolutely right.

Helen

Home Again started out as a song about the First World War. The women waiting not certain whether their men would be coming home.

Sharon

Then we realised that is the way it’s been for the last century – well, for ever really. There are still women who wait for news of their husbands and sons, just like there were in the Second World War and the First World War and every other conflict. Somewhere along the way the song was being written from the man’s point of view, which is a bit of a twist on how that scene is usually portrayed.

Helen

I’m really only interested in singing about something that’s true. That’s valid. We’ve done the love-song-y thing – you  know: “this is my emotional journey”. Quite honestly I’ve run out of emotional journeys that I want to share with other people and anyhow lots of other people have been on far more emotional journeys that we ever will.

Sharon

Or would ever want to, come to that.

I decide to end with what I know is an unfair question.

I ask Union Jill directly if they are aware of just how good their latest album actually is.

 

Helen

We’re too close to judge.

Sharon

We actually haven’t got over the fact we were able to make the album the way we wanted to with the people we wanted to.

Helen

It’s been really well received and it’s had some great reviews. Sometimes you read a review you almost can’t believe it’s your album they’re writing about.

Sharon

It’s surprising to me that we are getting the kind of praise that we’ve received for it.

Helen

It’s just us, after all.

Sharon

Well us, plus some great musicians and two really good producers.

Helen

Anyway I can hear my duff notes on it.

Sharon

I keep telling you, there aren’t any….

Helen

OK – I can imagine how I could do it better.

Sharon

We went into the studio believing that perfection wasn’t an option – we wanted to capture the feel of the recording. We didn’t want to polish the life out of it. I’m just this West Yorkshire lass who sings and strums a bit.

Helen

The praise received is really welcome, of course: but it’s also really unexpected. We didn’t think we were well enough known for anyone to notice.

Sharon

Basically, our ambition is huge but at the same our egos are small.

 

 

 

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