Duo's record pairs thoughtful stories with rich melodies
Jackie Butler talks to one half of a roots duo who are launching an award-worthy new LP.
Some might see the elevation of Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin from Sidmouth seaside buskers to serious contenders for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award as a swift uphill journey.
The truth is that it's taken years of individual toiling and determination to reach such a well-deserved turning point in the roots and folk arena.
The Exeter-based duo, also a couple in the romantic sense, proudly launch their sophomore LP Mynd with a special showcase party at South Devon Arts Centre in Totnes next week. It will offer a rare chance to hear some of the more complex new songs played in the live arena with some guest musicians to beef up the sound.
The record has already secured rave reviews from movers and shakers in the folk world, including Mike Harding. His Radio 2 Folk Show successor Mark Radcliffe gave album track The Nailmakers' Strike Pt II its first airing this week.
"This isn't overnight success territory," laughs down-to-earth Phil. "We've been through busking and living in a caravan and doing bad gigs. Now we are growing at a steady rate and hopefully we might get higher billing at some of next year's festivals."
Referencing the Old English word for memory and remembrance, Mynd is an album that has been two years in the making and represents a clear step up from their charming 2011 debut Singing the Bones, which was mastered at The Green Room at Upottery in East Devon by Mark Tucker. This time they invited Mark to take on full production duties.
"We got on really well with him; we share common ground and faith," explains Phil. "He has worked with most of the big names on the roots music circuit, including Show of Hands' Wake the Union album and Chris Wood's Handmade Life."
The result is a hauntingly good collection, steeped in the storytelling tradition, with tales both contemporary and historical, and a rich musical diversity drawn from a wellspring of English folk music, Indian classical melodies, gospel and American blues.
And so they create a unique sound, mesmerising, atmospheric and other-worldly; it's underpinned by Hannah's clear folk tones and emotive fiddle, viola and banjo playing, Phil's instrumental and vocal virtuosity, all spun into something magical by the pair's subtle chemistry.
Mynd, released on the Dragonfly Roots label, inhabits an English landscape of Neolithic barrows and haunted East Anglian fens, while other narrative songs transport you to the heat of Syria, Egypt and the American south and across to the Swedish chill and Arctic ice.
Some are based on existing songs. The Nailmakers' Strike is adapted from Roy Palmer's version of a workers' fighting song from a 19th-century protest march in the Midlands, coupled with another protest song by Jamaican reggae group The Abyssinians.
Others are inspired by previous texts. For Waterland, for example, Phil picked out a storyline in a book by Graham Swift which tells how fishermen, fowlers and reed cutters were turned off the Fen lands by rich investors.
"We also keep an eye on the news and read in-depth articles about what is happening in the world. Hannah has a keen eye and she follows issues relating to women," says Phil.
But the bulk are penned from scratch. Several tracks champion remarkable women; astronomer William Herschel's sister Caroline, whose own ambition was unrealised; Anna Charlier, the fiancee of lost Arctic explorer Nils Strindberg, who was buried in Torquay but wanted her heart put in his Stockholm grave; esteemed gardener Ellen Wilmott who sowed seeds in other people's gardens.
And Last Broadcast was inspired by the courageous journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria's siege of Homs last year.
"It's nice to make music about real stories with some depth rather than your usual love and break-up songs," adds Phil, 32, who was raised in Lancashire and came down to Devon to study for a music degree at Rolle College, Exmouth. A virtuoso on the harmonica, he injects beatbox harmonica into some numbers. Fascinated by the slide guitar tradition, he studied in Calcutta for three months with the most respected teacher in the world – Debashish Bhattacharya. Hannah, 26, was born and raised in the seaside town of Brixham and the two first worked together in the band The Roots Union. When that split in 2010, they continued as a duo. It certainly turned out to be a good call.
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin launch their album at South Devon Arts Centre, Totnes, on Thursday, September 12. They also play more Westcountry dates in October.