Gwyneth Herbert opens up her Sea Cabinet at the Snape Proms
- Credit: Archant
There’s nothing quite like the sound of the sea crashing on to a shingle beach and then rolling the pebbles over one another as the water is pulled back into the undertow.
There is something calming in its repetitive nature, coupled with the cries of gulls circling overhead as you walk across the stones which make up Aldeburgh beach.
The fresh breeze off the North Sea is invigorating and as you watch the fishermen returning with their catch, you are suddenly aware that this stretch of the Suffolk coast has a special sense of place.
This atmosphere has been captured on her new album Sea Cabinet which was the result of a residency in Aldeburgh two years ago and was recorded at the Snape Maltings last summer.
The Sea Cabinet is a collection of different songs about the sea and life along the coast. Some like I Still Hear The Bells is very much about Suffolk (it’s a reference to the drowned town of Dunwich) while other numbers like The King’s Shilling and Fishguard Ladies look at the work generated by the sea, and Alderney conjures up a different type of coastal experience.
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The songs themselves are also presented in an array of different tempos and styles. Some have a sea shanty air to them, others have a jazz-feel, while the majority are delivered in Gwyneth’s trade-mark singer-songwriter style.
Rather reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s slung mugs in Noyes Fludde, Gwyneth Herbert decorates her recordings with a collection of unusual percussive bells, bottles and ringing sounds.
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Also in between tracks, instead of the two or three seconds of silence Gwyneth inserts the sound of her walking across the stones at Aldeburgh.
She said that recording the album in the Hoffman Building at Snape Maltings brought the project round full circle, a process which will be completed at the end of August when an extended live version of the album will be staged at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Snape Proms.
“The whole thing started about four years ago when I did a gig at Snape and Jonathan Reekie, the creative director, said that they would love to make a home for me here and invited me to stay as part of a residency.
“I have always been really fascinated by the sea. It’s a muse because it’s such a mass of incredible contradictions in the fact that he can be a robber as well as a giver of life. It feeds us as well as kills us.
“Also I find the Suffolk coast very inspiring. It’s constantly changing and you have a real sense of history and you can see how the sea has shaped the landscape.”
As a result of Jonathan Reekie’s offer Gwyneth came back and said that she wanted to write a suite of story songs about Britain’s coast and stayed in a cottage just off Crag Path in Aldeburgh.
“It was pretty tempestuous weather. It was raining hailstones, blowing a gale for an entire week. The beach was absolutely deserted and we had it to ourselves. I went for long walks, talked to the fishermen, visited the pubs and just soaked up the atmosphere of the town.
“Heidi James the writer came to stay with me and the concept of the narrative which accompanies the live show was born out of her stay.
“I find the seaside such a musical place. There’s so much going on with the cries of the sea gulls and the clattering of the yachts’ masts, so I wanted to weave all that into a sonic tapestry which runs all the way through the album.
“It gains even greater importance in the live show because it’s an unbroken 70-minute mixture of songs, sounds and narrative.”
She said that the Britten Studio provided the perfect environment for the recording sessions. Unlike most modern recordings where all the instruments are recording individually, Gwyneth brought her band to Suffolk and recorded the majority of the tracks live in the studio.
As part of the recording process Gwyneth teamed up with Suffolk singer-songwriter Fiona Bevan to add duet vocals on a couple of numbers and to add extra guitar and piano tracks.
“We co-wrote a couple of additional songs and I’m delighted that she’s doing the tour with me as well.”
She added that she was delighted that the album was part crowd-funded which meant that fans and people who liked the idea of the album could pay for the album in advance or donate money to the album project. Funders were given rewards depending on their pirate or buccaneer status.
“It was a very rewarding way to fund an album because it meant that you knew that people wanted to hear it before it was recorded.” Gwyneth has released the album on her own label. “It is such an exciting and empowering model for independent artists. I think we have a real reticence for putting a value on what we do. I have a real distaste for asking for money but I know from my dealings with a major label that I associate recording with artistic compromise.
“What I love about crowd funding is that you are communicating directly with the people who buy your music and come to your shows without having to go through the filter of a large record company.”
She said that one of the joys of being a singer-songwriter is that you can share your creations with the audience. “I love to establish a dialogue between you and the audience. I think the greatest privilege is when your songs, your stories, become part of the fabric of other people’s lives.”
She said that during the Sea Cabinet live performance at Snape they will be recruiting a Pirate Chorus to join the band on stage for one number.
“They arrive one hour before the doors open and I teach them a four part harmony and they become part of the show.”
She said the live show was an expansion of the central idea behind the album. “There’s a prose narrative running through it about this woman who wanders the beach picking up all these discarded objects which she then takes home and locks into her sea cabinet. She then enters each object into a ledger with the rigour and precision of a scientist.
“Each object that she logs resonates with its own secret sea story from a different moment in time, part of our history. The prose narrative is one part of the evening but I’m also working with a wonderful sculptor called Alexandra Carr who has created some amazing visuals to go with the songs – some are pre-recorded and she has been working with an ice sculptor using found objects but she’s also doing something called cymatics which is live engagement with what is going on on stage – it’s a blend of music, film, art and storytelling.”
She said that she uses a mixing desk which takes a feed from the bass, drums and the various instruments being used and creates different ripple patterns in water and in various substances contained in bowls lodged in speakers.
This is then filmed and then projected on to screens on stage. “It should be a real audio-visual experience.”
Gwyneth said that although there are a wide variety of different songs on the album she didn’t set out to have a representative from each style of sea-song locked away in its own metaphorical drawer.
“It wasn’t as thought out as that. Everything came from the stories really. But we do have a spread of different styles and I think it happened naturally. It was a very organic process. I gathered the material by trawling the history books, chatting up fishermen and talking to my granny about Fishguard ladies – drawing on myth, folk tales and more personal love stories.”
She said that during her stay in Suffolk she went down to Dunwich and marvelled at the way that the sea had gnawed away at the cliffs over the centuries.
“I stood there with the chill wind slapping you in the face and you really do get a sense of the power of the sea. You Can Still Hear The Bells was inspired by Dunwich and we used it as a metaphor for an eroded love affair.”
She said that she is really enjoying re-connecting with Fiona Bevan who she first met at a fundraising gig for the homeless charity Crisis. “She’s great to be around because she is so instantly likeable and she just radiates sunshine and warmth but I was also blown away by her capacity for storytelling and her dark, quirky sense of humour.
“So when I was thinking about who else I wanted to bring on board for the Sea Cabinet, she was an obvious choice.”
It is having a challenge and being in charge of your life and career which has given Gwyneth a strong sense of creative independence but, at the same time, has occasionally made life more difficult.
Ask Gwyneth how she defines herself as a musician, and she gives off one of her trademark chuckles, and tries to bat away the question with good grace.
Push her and she replies: “I don’t see myself as one type of singer. I like story songs, I love people and characters, so I like to do funky, bluesy, jazzy, poppy, folky story songs – but it’s difficult to put a label on what I do.”
Her resistance to labels is what led Gwyneth to walk away from a very lucrative recording contract with Universal after they had designs on turning her into the next Jamie Cullum.
Although she started out on the jazz circuit, her work has matured and grown into a host of new directions.
She started performing while she was still studying at Durham University. She and friend Will Rutter started busking and then became a duo known as Black Coffee. “I knew very early on that I wanted to make music for the rest of my life. We signed about six months after coming down to London; we were gigging in places like Pizza Express.”
But even early on in her career she was shying away from being pigeon-holed as a musician. “I think the problem was that when I was at Universal they told me I was going to be a big poster girl for jazz in Heat magazine and I just didn’t see myself that way.
“I am so glad that didn’t happen, because I have complete control over what I do and I can do these project-based pieces which I find really exciting and really interesting. Who knows what I will be doing next year?”
Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet will be performed at Snape Proms on August 22.