Retro: Getting to Know The Bookshop Band

The main purpose for going retro with this interview from 2020 is that I want to celebrate the fact that The Bookshop Band’s hard work on the score for “Robin Robin” has resulted in the animated film being nominated for an Academy Award! It’s a sweet seasonal film about a baby Robin who has been adopted by a family of mice. It’s magical. The music is absolutely perfect for the film.

You can watch a trailer for the film here. The entire film is available to watch if you subscribe to Netflix.

Interview from 2020

Finding out about The Bookshop Band was one of my biggest aha moments of 2020 thus far!  I spent a good deal of time researching all the official showcase artists who are heading to the Folk Alliance Conference in New Orleans later this month. I was looking for music that made my heart and mind open to new ideas and possibilities.  The level of creativity and dedication of The Bookshop Band intrigued me more than I can tell you.  There’s something huge to be said about artists who are able to create music so spontaneously as this band does.  That’s dangerous territory, folks.  Major kudos to Ben Please and Beth Porter (and others who have contributed to music and videos throughout their incredible history).

Ben was nice enough to take some time out to answer some questions for me prior to their upcoming appearance in New Orleans.  I, for one, hope that they make enough contacts at this conference, to go across the entire United States and play before book lovers and music lovers alike.  I’d like them to come to my town, that’s for sure!

And, hey readers, don’t miss that part that Pete Townshend is involved with their upcoming CD.  Yes, THAT Pete Townshend and that’s only the cherry on top of this ice cream sundae.  I didn’t even know that when I first heard their music and asked if I could interview them!  Alert: Pay attention to this band!

Read more information about The Bookshop Band here.

Here’s one of my favorite videos by The Bookshop Band.

Were you both making music together before The Bookshop Band began?

We dabbled a little musically together before The Bookshop Band began. My brother Mikey is an animator and was making an animation for his master’s degree called The Eagleman Stag and had asked me to compose the music and do the sound. I wanted a string section so I asked Beth’s quartet, based in Bath, to record. I remember turning up on a bicycle with a small computer strapped to the back, and we sticky-taped microphones to chairs, plonked it in the middle of the group and recorded in Beth’s living room. The film went on to win a BAFTA and got long-listed for an Oscar so it was a pretty nice start. Separately Beth was a sought after cellist for hire, playing with all sorts of people, from Peter Gabriel to The Heavy, Eliza Carthy and The Proclaimers, as well as having her own band, Beth Porter & The Availables, which showcased her own songwriting. It was in that respect that I first saw Beth, playing her cello-led songs solo at an open mic night, and I was blown away by how interesting her songwriting was. Myself, I’d always been writing music since as long as I remember, on one of those personal keyboards with four-track buttons so you could overdub on top of yourself, with a mic placed on the speaker going into a tape deck. At university, while wasting away on a scene degree, I was in an indie-folk band called Urusen, which lasted about ten years and eventually broke after adopting a make or break strategy.

Did the owner of Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights propose the idea of you starting a regular gig to sing songs about books?  Or was it originally a one-off show?

My mum was often telling me of this great bookshop in Bath – Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, and I’d reluctantly (mum, you’re so embarrassing!) agreed to let her take in some of our CDs there to try and sell. In the final years of Urusen I moved back to Bath from London, and so would occasionally pop into the shop to see how many CDs they had sold. It turned out he really loved the music and wasn’t just being polite to my mum, and wondered whether we would like to come in to play a concert at Mr. B’s as part of their normal author event schedule, which my cousin (also in Urusen) and I did. It was the Bookshop’s first music event and we all enjoyed it. A few months later in late 2010 Nic [owner of the bookshop] and his team were trying to reinvent their author evenings, to steer away from the tried and tired format of the author reading a bit, chatting a bit and signing a few books. They came up with a whole immersive evening, based around a wider theme to which the author and their book-related, but to also include discussions of other books in the theme, and also food, drink, and music relating to the theme too. They hit on a 5 event season called “Travels From Your Armchair” where each event would be inspired by a different country, and he asked me if my band might come in to play songs for the occasion, covers of songs based on a theme. The rest of the band were not that keen as they were all based in London, but I was really up for it and saw it as a songwriting challenge. I agreed to it, but on the condition that I ask a couple of the other songwriters I’d recently met in Bath to see if they might come in with me, so I asked Beth Porter, who I’d recently seen at an open mic and worked with on my brother’s film, and other original member Poppy Pitt (2010 – 2014), who I’d met in our local pub who could literally write wonderful lyrics faster than you could sing them. They both said yes, and we went in for these first 5 events over the course of three months, writing songs inspired by folk tales that came from each of the countries that the events were based around. By early December we’d done five events together, playing two new songs at each to a small audience above the bookshop at the start of the author events. We decided that it’d be a wise move to record these songs, being as we had a ready-made shop to sell it for us, so we quickly recorded the tracks and came up with a name: The Bookshop Band, and got the album, also called Travels From Your Armchair, into Mr. B’s before Christmas that year.

We didn’t actually turn to the book of the visiting author until Season Two at Mr. B’s, when Nic tempted us back by doubling our fee to two glasses of wine and parking money. The first featured author Paula MacLain, and her book The Paris Wife – a fictionalised biography of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. The theme of the night was Adultery Night, and we didn’t quite know what to do, so we turned to the book.

What’s your general process when you write a song about a book?  Do you both read the book or does one of you read it and inform the other about the main themes or characters?

Our process hasn’t really changed at all from when we first started. We basically read the book, generally finishing it on the morning of the event. We then panic and write a couple of songs that day to be played in front of the author and a small audience in the shop at 7pm that evening. Before Beth and I had a child, we would always both read the book, and we’d always get two songs out. We’d each come from completely different places – there’s no right answer for what song to write, and it’s totally informed by your own experiences and reading of the book. If ten thousand people did the same, they come out with ten thousand completely different songs, no one any more legitimate than the other. All legitimate as a personal response. The books inspire the songs, but we can’t predict how. We try to read the book not thinking that we’re going to have to write a song at the end. Shut the book, and then just run with the first thing that comes into our head. It could be a character, a theme, a chapter, a line, the cover, something the book reminded us of in our own lives, a tune, a feeling. Anything. All that is consistent is that we generally only have a few hours to do it in, so no time to procrastinate, second guess your approach, doubt if it’s any good or not. It could be really stressful (and sometimes it is), but generally, it’s quite liberating, just to hand yourself over to whatever you can do and wherever your first idea takes you.

The other great thing is that once we have played those two songs to the author at 7pm, they are finished. They have had their best moment so why bother changing anything. They may never get played again. It’s actually quite wonderful writing for something like that, not worrying if it’ll be a hit or not. It is written just at that moment. It’s particularly great that we feel free to move onto the next song.

You’ve produced 13 CDs of material.  Just curious if you play at bookstores or festivals and read from certain books or talk about them and then discover that your enthusiasm about the books has made some people fans of the author?

Most people who see us will have not read any of the books we sing songs inspired by, but that is totally fine. We would have not read them were it not for this curation we receive by Mr. B’s Emporium. We always talk about the books and how it inspired us before we play each song. I guess at Folk Alliance, with our short sets, this might come across a bit weird that we’re not racing through as many songs as we can in the short amount of time we have to play, but it’s a crucial part of our set not only to acknowledge the authors and their work but also to draw the audience in with just enough story so they can empathise with how we felt when we put that book down for the first time and the memory of it had come into our heads. The songs are not meant to be advertisements for the book, but inadvertently they sort of are – it’s our way of talking about a book we’ve just read and loved to someone. A musical book recommendation that has emerged from a rather weird little musical book group but has been curated by one of the best bookshops in the world. Songs are emotive things and so in those few minutes of the songs people hear our emotional response to the story, and I think that certainly sends people to search out a book or two that particularly intrigued them.

Do you generally let authors know when you’ve composed songs about their books?

95% of the authors we’ve written songs inspired by will have also been within a few meters away from us when we first play the song. Many of them didn’t know we were going to do it, but the response has always been positive – at least to our faces. The songs are not adaptations, but a personal creative response to the work of art produced by the author, and I think any author is more than happy to know that their creation has inspired someone to make something else. We’re occasionally been commissioned by festivals, radio shows, museum exhibitions, and have been approached by authors, such as Philip Pullman or Kate Moss. Very very occasionally would we approach authors, but we did recently with Robert Macfarlane and his latest book Underland. There have been a couple who are completely unaware, however – we wrote a bunch of songs for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday party, but he’s never even showed up.

What was the most challenging song you’ve written?  And, also, what song just poured right out of you?

The song is probably one and the same for both of those questions. I was away one time so Beth had to do an event by herself. She was a bit shocked to hear that the book in question was a dictionary, called The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth, and she thought “how on earth am I going to write a song inspired by a dictionary?!” It was a dictionary of lost words of the English language, words that had not seen the light of day for hundreds of years and was laid out like a book of hours. Mark wrote about a day in the life of waking up, getting dressed, having breakfast, going to work in an office, drinks afterward and then bedtime, but using and referencing all these lost words. Beth has never worked in an office, so instead she wrote about a day in the life of The Bookshop Band when we have to get up and write a song inspired by a book and play it that evening at Mr. B’s. So actually, if you want a good idea about our songwriting process, have a listen here: Don’t be put off by the title. It’s called “Cackling Farts,” which is old English for eggs

Tell us about how the video of “Take Your Step in Stride” came about? The video by Eilidth Nicoll is breathtakingly poignant.

Ah, thank you. This was done as a one-off collaboration with some good friends of ours Upcycled Sounds, a studio in Oxford, who also works with an extraordinary festival called Tandem Festival. The song explores the research of Oxford University lecturers Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) and Professor Yadvinder Malhi, and looks at the challenge of living within the limits of our planet. We decided to explore these themes, such as the myth of exponential growth on a finite planet, by writing a lullaby, because we felt if the themes would make sense for a parent singing those themes to a child, then surely it could be simple enough for an economist or politician. The video was done by an animation student at Edinburgh University – beautifully created by Eilidh Nicoll.

Last year you did a tour of some of the United States.  Are you planning to visit some of the same cities or other new once in conjunction with your trip to Folk Alliance in New Orleans?

No, this is going to be a wonderful focused week at Folk Alliance.

We thought that our trip to the US early last year was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for us. It took months to organise, much of that time was spent just getting the visa, and we don’t have the money to keep doing things like that. However, we had such an AMAZING time, playing through New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Colorado, that in fact, it has sparked a real desire in us to come back. One of the highlights for us on that tour was playing at the American Booksellers’ Association in Albuquerque, where we shared a stage with Margaret Atwood in front of over a 1000 booksellers, and we left the stage with hundreds of invites to return to America and tour bookshops.  This trip to New Orleans is not part of that return, but rather it is a short but focused opportunity for us to play and meet people in the music industry here. We want to initiate the relationships that might bring opportunities to book music venues and festivals in the near future so that when we do put together our return tour to the US, we can put together something that is not only financially viable but also diverse and really special. We’re started our next studio album, and we’re staggeringly lucky to find ourselves working with Pete Townshend from The Who who is producing that for us, so we have a brewing plan for our next US tour to coincide with the release of that album.

But it’s still very much a cottage industry, we don’t have any manager, label, agent, distribution or anything. To be honest we haven’t met much of the music industry in the UK either, having spent all our time in bookshops, but are looking forward to saying hello, and what better place to start than Folk Alliance. The opportunity to attend FAI was given to us by the PRS Foundation’s International Showcase Funding the UK, we couldn’t have come without their help and are massively grateful for that opportunity.

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