Getting the lowdown on Duotone
Anyone who has seen cello-playing genius Barney Morse-Brown live will be dumbfounded by the variety of instruments he can play and his dextrous use of a looping machine. He is probably best known for being part of folk collective The Imagined Village and for supporting the likes of Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates, Birdy and Oxford’s own Jess Hall, but he has another life as Duotone, whose third album, Let’s Get Low, is out now. Shire Folk caught up with Barney on the eve of the album’s release.
SF: You play the cello rather like a lead guitarist plays the guitar – like it’s the most important instrument in the band. How did this playing style come about?
DUO: I guess I’ve been developing this style over the years. Different jobs require different styles of playing, but when I have the opportunity it’s great to be able to use the cello as a lead instrument and explore its capabilities. I’ve also built on my use of effects over the years, which can really help take the sound somewhere new whilst retaining a part of the authentic cello sound.
SF: Perhaps not surprisingly for a cello player your background and training was in classical music, yet you’re more associated with folk. How did that come about and do have a concerto in you that you’d like to get out?
DUO: Ha, yes maybe. That might be the next record. I was introduced to the folk world by Simon Emmerson of Afrocelts fame and founder of The Imagined Village. It was through playing pub sessions in Dorset that we met and I was invited to be a part of The Imagined Village. I’ve been really fortunate to have played cello with a number of established folk names and even though my session work takes me through many different styles, I feel indebted to the folk scene and will always be connected to it.
SF: Over the course of three albums Duotone has essentially become just you. What impact do you think that’s had on the sound?
DUO: Yes, Duotone started with just me, then became me and James Garrett and is now just me again. Working with James certainly helped make a fuller live sound I think. Collaborating with a band mate often made the creative process easier, taking the pressure off just me to write, create and deliver, but with this new record I’ve been able to work with a handful of other musicians in the studio which has steered Duotone’s sound to a different place altogether. All I have to do now is work out how to play it all live!
SF: Playing live you play numerous instruments and feed them, along with your vocals, through a loop pedal. Did this style come about through choice or expediency?
DUO: In a way, looping came out of necessity, to help me to deliver the songs live in the way I wanted to. In another way though, I kind of just fell into world of looping, progressing from a simple one-shot looper to the one I use now which allows me to plug in even more instruments. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing though.
SF: Anybody that’s aware of your backstory [Barney’s wife, singer and musician Kate Garrett, died of cancer in May 2009 aged just 37] will understand that there appears to be a certain element of melancholy that runs through your music – the opening track on Let’s Get Low, ‘Little White Caravan’ is beautiful, but seems unbearably sad. You seem like a happy enough person ‘in real life’ – do you think listeners impose this narrative on your music?
DUO: I don’t feel it’s imposed on my music necessarily, it’s always the most interesting part of the creative process, giving it away to the listener and hearing their thoughts on it. You’re certainly not the only one to pick up on the melancholy within my music. It plays a big part in my writing and even though it always seems to creep in though the back door, I’ve made a conscious effort this time around to either disguise it with a jolly tune or to deliver it with conviction.
SF: As a cellist you’re in great demand. Do you get most satisfaction from Duotone or your various collaborations?
DUO: There have been many times where I’ve wanted to be just one type of musician. Single mindedness and focus can be a very good thing. I’ve been lucky over the years to have had the opportunity to play with some fantastically talented people and see the world, and after a few false starts, wanting desperately to work as a professional musician, I feel I might not have had the same experiences, met all the people I have (or been able to pay the rent) had I decided I was just going to focus on me.
The latest Duotone album, Let’s Get Low, is out now.