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Shire Folk Album of 2019
Josienne Clarke album
After not playing for 20 years ‘I dusted the fiddle down. I literally had to dig it out from the back of the cupboard.’
What do ‘Come on Eileen’, BBC comedy ‘Brush Strokes’, Tanita Tikaram’s ‘Good Tradition’, and classical folk quartet, Boldwood, have in common? They all feature the outstanding fiddle-playing skills of Helen O’Hara. Shire Folk caught up with Helen before a run of dates with both Tikaram and Boldwood, to talk about how she ended up having such a varied career.
SF: You’ve had a varied career and, I suppose, hit the heights with Dexys Midnight Runners quite early on. How did you come to work with the band?
HO: I was at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I went in as a mature student, although I was only 21, because I’d been heading towards, I suppose, a fairly typical ‘go to music college at 18’ sort of career, but I decided to leave home at 17 and reject the classical world I was in because I really wanted to play with bands. Interestingly, at the time, I didn’t want to play with folk bands because I didn’t really know anything about folk music, but I wanted to play with rock bands, if you like. It was difficult to find a way in as a fiddle player. So, the first band I joined was led by the Groundhogs drummer Ken Pustelnik, which was a sort of instrumental prog rock group. It was an instrumental group, but he formed it having left the Groundhogs that summer. That was my first learning, and dabbling in, rock music. Then I joined another group, which was a soul group, who wanted a keyboard player, and I played keyboards, so I thought if I can get into them playing keyboards, I’ll be able to sneak a bit of violin in as well. That was an amazing training for me that group, because we did a lot of gigs, we did a lot of supports. At that time there was a lot of university gigs on the university student union circuit, and we were supporting people like Carole Bayer Sager, and doing the rounds, gigging a lot, and so I learned how to play in a band and with a drummer.
After a while I felt I wasn’t really getting anywhere with these bands. We weren’t getting a deal and with one thing and another, one of my sisters said why don’t you go to music college now and do that for a few years. I took some lessons and I only applied to Birmingham, because I’d missed all the other deadlines, and I got a place. It was brilliant: I had four great years there. Great teaching, and I cut myself off completely from rock music and any other music other than classical. In my post-grad year, I got a knock on the door of my practice room. It wasn’t Kevin Rowland, it was Kevin Archer, who played on the first Dexys album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, but he’d left Dexys and formed the Blue Ox Babes. They were a great group and he asked me to play with his new band. I resisted: no, no, no, it’s all classical now, but he was like the devil – very persuasive!
I went to a little rehearsal room in Birmingham and there I was – back with the devil. He was so soulful in his singing and his songs were great, and I just thought – this is actually where I belong. I did some demos with them, but then Kevin Rowland was about to record Too-Rye-Ay, and he was working on demos and looking for string players. He heard me playing on Kevin Archer’s demos. He sent Jimmy Paterson and Paul Speare to come to the college to find me. So, devil number two came in and, again, I said ok, ok and when I got to Dexys rehearsal room I was blown away again, because there was this amazing band, fully rehearsed. As rehearsed as a professional orchestra, if you know what I mean? Obviously, they were still experimenting, but I was totally blown away by the band.
To cut a long story short, Kevin then asked me to play on ‘Celtic Soul Brothers’, prior to recording the rest of the album. That went really well, and he asked me to find two other fiddle players at the college, which I did, although it ended up with me and one other and I also did the third fiddle part for the album. So, I’m leading this double life of student in my last term and recording on the Thames somewhere, and also coping with the last term of music college, which was quite amusing really!
I was also doing the rounds for my classical career. I was doing a few auditions and got a job with the Bilbao Orchestra in Spain because I quite fancied working abroad. I’d signed a contract, but when I told Kevin he said that he wanted me to join the band. The album hadn’t been released yet, so I was in a bit of a quandary because my heart said join Dexys, but the practicalities, and having done the whole college thing, there was pressure to join the orchestra. One of my best friends said just do what your heart says, so I thought, right, join Dexys! There was no money in the band. They were broke, so I was joining for all the right reasons – just through thinking this is an amazing band to be part of.
SF: It turned out to be the right decision though. And then ‘Come On Eileen’ just goes stratospheric!
HO: Yeah it just went bananas.
SF: Although unfortunately you were then forced to wear ridiculous dungarees on live TV!
HO: (Laughs) Wasn’t it good though? It was an amazing look. It was right for the music and it was based on that Steinbeck, American thing. People keep resurrecting dungarees. People keep wearing them now!
SF: Then for Don’t Stand Me Down you’re in a business suit.
HO: It was interesting because Kevin has this amazing … the music is paramount, but he’s always had this overall vision. That’s one of the great things about working with him. It isn’t just about the music – it’s the really big picture. It’s like theatre really, he sees how he should present himself and the band with the clothes, how the theatrics of the stage will be. He’s very visual and so he comes from those … he was looking at the Brooks Brothers clothes, the Ivy League look, which had been used a little earlier on. He’s got an incredible eye for fashion. People might have thought we were looking like accountants, but it wasn’t about that, it was an Ivy League look and it was also a reaction to that scruffy .website It was the complete opposite, wasn’t it?
SF: In the folk world we’re used to raggle taggle gypsies, although less so the business suits. Then you played the fiddle part on ‘Good Tradition’. You’re still working with Tanita Tikaram now, aren’t you? What’s the dynamic of that relationship?
HO: It was interesting because when I joined her for the first album, I played on her first three albums – and toured with her until 1991. When I started my family I gave up playing for twenty years actually. I didn’t touch a fiddle at all.
SF: How did you manage to resist the temptation?
HO: I think there was an element of being slightly burnt out. I kept thinking I’d get back to it, but I didn’t! Then it started to nag at me – it really did. I’d ignore it and push it back. Then both my sons ended up in the music business. One is a drummer and when he went to Guildhall and going to his gigs I thought I can’t not play any more, so I dusted the fiddle down. I literally had to dig it out from the back of the cupboard. My head was in the right place. I knew that I’d really have to work hard and practice, practice, practice. Once I felt reasonably confident – I hadn’t spoken to Tanita for many years – I gave her a ring to meet up for coffee. We’d always got on well, but she was now a grown-up woman. She was about eighteen when I first met her. Gradually she said, I’ve got a gig in Poland, do you fancy playing with me on that, and with one thing and another I ended up doing more and more and have now become one of her new team of musicians and her MD, which is brilliant!
SF: I’ve lost touch with her a bit after the first two or three albums. I really liked her stuff back then, so perhaps I need to reconnect with her a bit.
HO: She has had some gaps and she hasn’t rushed albums out, but she has consistently released albums. Her last album, Closer to the People, is fantastic. I’m absolutely thrilled to be working with her again. I’m working on a new project with her right now, which is really exciting.
SF: You played with Dexys again on Let The Record Show, didn’t you?
HO: Yes. Again, that was when I got the fiddle out again. I’ve always stayed in touch with Kevin. We met up for lunch and he said, ‘I hear you’re back playing again?’. I said that yes I’m back seriously playing and he said that he was looking for a guest fiddle player for ‘Women of Ireland’, would I be interested? It’s quite interesting because he asked me to audition. It was quite funny, but I completely understood it, because he hadn’t heard me play for ages. Fair enough, you know? I think he knew I’d be right, but it wasn’t a given, and so he asked me to play to the cellist, who did all the arrangements on the album, he asked me to go round to his house and just play to him. Anyway, I passed! website
SF: Now you’re part of Boldwood. It’s a sort of classical-folk fusion that brings two elements of your past together I suppose.
HO: All Boldwood aren’t classically trained, but yes. I’d heard a rumour that they were looking for a fiddle player at a session I was at, so I wrote to Becky website and said I’d be really up for auditioning. To be honest, I don’t know much about folk music, but I did know about Boldwood because at a session I go to, Nick Good, our fiddle player, used to be in the early Boldwood and so I knew about Boldwood from him. I had the books and stuff. I checked them out on YouTube and I liked their spirit and the fact that they kind of did it their way. They think outside the box a bit. Me coming to them is a sort of wild card, but I think it works for them because they’re not about authenticity.
SF: You’ve got the Tanita Tikaram project and the Boldwood gigs, what else have you got coming up?
HO: We’re looking to record a new album with Boldwood, probably in the new year, but we’re in preparation for that, so there is a lot of research going on.
Since doing this interview Helen has left Boldwood (completely amicably, we hasten to add!) and is currently in the studio working on the new Tanita Tikaram album, which will be out next year. The latest Boldwood album, Glory of the West, is out now on Hobgoblin Records