Hack-Poets Guild is a collaboration between three of UK folk’s most unique and prestigious voices: Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann. The trio rejuvenate and reinvent stories from classic broadside ballads, bringing them vividly to life for a new generation. Their high-concept debut album, Blackletter Garland (Released March 10th on One Little Independent records), is born of their research at the Bodleian Library, at the instigation of Sound UK. The Bodleian collections preserve disposable song sheets that once sold for pence –the forerunners of modern news media. Alongside fascinating glimpses into the past, these texts explore timeless themes that still resonate with audiences today.
Blackletter Garland boasts twelve fascinating interpretations and original compositions that tell intricate tales of birth, love, conflict and death, with all the imagination of the folklore on which they’re based. Celebrated film composer and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver helped in their exploration as a producer, and in adding fresh ideas to these past texts. Across the LP anecdotal, descriptive yarns are spun to a backdrop of atmospheric strings, rustic instrumentation and elegant vocal harmonies used precisely to communicate the victims as easily as they do the villains. The result is a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable balance between the traditional and contemporary.
Drawn to folklore, customs, ghosts, witches and legends, Marry Waterson wrote album opener ‘Ten Tongues’, a gothic windswept beauty, from a story collected by 18th century Oxonian Percy Manning. “Birds build a nest in a rotting skull, deliciously dark but here we see a cycle of rebirth too” she tells us. Fascinated by the origin of idioms ‘Laying The Ghost’ tells of spirits that are “read down” until they are small enough to be trapped in a box and laid in a body of water – Marry’s poetic lyrics and other-worldly voice forewarn as waters run dry and the spectre rises.
Marry Waterson is part of the fabric of folk history, making her first appearance when she was just 12 years old on the album ‘A True Hearted Girl’ (Topic Records) with her mother Lal, and Aunt Norma Waterson. Although there are echoes of her mother’s singular voice, Marry is as unique and daring as they come. Often collaborating with different writers, musicians, and producers, she stretches the boundaries of not only folk but songwriting itself, where real life is refracted through the myths, legends and proverbs that shape the memory. She adapted the lyrics for ‘Something To Love Me’ and ‘Be Kind To Each Other’ from the Harding Collection in the Bodleian. “This is the language of yesteryear shaped into contemporary melodies of my own”, she says, and the sentiments still resonate today, particularly on ‘Be Kind To Each Other’, with lyrics detailing the loss of loved ones, carry extra poignancy following the events of last couple of years. “No lies, no envy, no slights, don’t let anything get in the way of keeping your loved ones close, because the world can be a very cruel place”.
Folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, South London’s Lisa Knapp has been much in demand touring the length and breadth of the UK since her remarkable debut, ‘Wild & Undaunted’ in 2007. It marked her out as one of the brightest and most innovative players in a newly invigorated British folk movement. She brings her renowned expressive originality to the first single release off the album, ‘Daring Highwayman’, eschewing any allusions to grandeur Lisa delivers a disarming, brazen almost-spoken vocal to animate this pervasive story. “The idea of the highwayman as a sort of Robin Hood character has persisted for centuries, pushing itself out of ballad sheets and right into popular culture which is really intriguing. I thought it would be an interesting place to start and I think the narrative sits perfectly with the audacious glam-rock treatment here incited by producer Gerry and drummer Laurence Hunt.”
Nathaniel Mann, a prize-winning experimental composer, performer and sound designer, has also performed on the albums of many of the UK’s avant-folk scenes most revered stalwarts. He has shared the stage with Cath and Phil Tyler, Martin Carthy, Islam Chipsy, to name a few. He writes and presents feature documentaries for BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service; each of his programmes have been selected as BBC “Radio 4’s Pick of the Week” He describes the true history behind the solemn track ‘The Devil’s Cruelty’,on the album, based on the real-life tragedy of George Gibbs who in 1663 was tempted by the Devil to take his own life. “This is an inconsolable tragedy; and George Gibbs could represent anyone. In the song we learn that George has love, work, no debts and good health, and that his neighbours think he is quite happy. Yet the devil returns time and again to tempt him to take his own life. Folk song often references suicide, with star-crossed lovers making pacts, throwing themselves overboard, taking their own lives due to heartbreak. But it’s really unusual to find an account like this, one that can be so easily interpreted as someone severely struggling with their mental health. For me it’s insightful to hear this true story of a Londoner from the past, and to recognise the presence of these issues throughout time. Somehow that fosters a greater connectedness, an understanding, an empathy.”
This acclaimed trio combine a wealth of knowledge and history, on an album that deeply conveys the passion, research and authenticity that the writers, poets and their stories deserve.
For more information please visit: hackpoetsguild.com
📸 Featured image Rosie Reed Gold, Vincente Paredes and Scott Wicking Art credit: Pete Manley