You are hereInterview: Jeni and Billy
Interview: Jeni and Billy
Northern Sky spoke to Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp backstage at the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival, whilst Appalachian dance troup One Step Beyond performed onstage.
AW: I'm joined now by Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp, how are you both doing?
BK: Wonderful, we just finished our second show here in Britain, our second show ever.
AW: It's your first visit to Britain, your first show and the first act (to play at the 2009 Beverley Festival..)
BK: Yes, we started the whole festival off
JH: Right! Three firsts and three is my favourite number, so..
AW: Oh that's good, did you enjoy it?
JH: Yes we did
BK: Lovely crowd
JH: People have been coming up to us throughout the day who saw us yesterday, because we were wondering after we played yesterday everyone stayed in their seats after our set to listen to Bruce Molsky, so we didn't interact with many folks but today people keep walking up to us saying 'oh I saw you yesterday' and it made us feel so good you know, especially to come and play this next set
AW: It's just the appearance, you need to be seen by a bunch of people and then they won't leave you alone really
JH: (Laughs) That's right, we had a fellah, Peter, who came, he found us on the Internet somehow and on Facebook he's been keeping up with us and he came just for our concert last night, I mean he literally just stayed to hear us and then he went back, he drove for like over an hour to get here and that meant so much
AW: Now your music appears to draw from traditional country, Appalachian, old timey, country blues, bluegrass and folk music; there’s a lot of music there, has it taken a lifetime to absorb all that?
BK: Well we've kinda pulled all that together and we call it 'new old music', so a lot of those musics you’ve just mentioned are from a long time ago and we’ve gone back and listened to a lot of the old music but we’re trying to write songs about contemporary issues..
JH: ..and give it slightly our own treatment you know, like we'd do a lot of unisons for instance, that's a little unusual, we’d sing unison almost through an entire song and that's not all that common so that's like a Jeni and Billy signature type thing that we might do, or we'd break into a harmony for a few lines or something like that. Harmony singing, well that's quite old, but to sing in unison through most of a song and then go to a harmony, well that's quite new.
AW: It works well that though. Everybody likes to hear harmonious voices and when you're singing in unison and then break into the harmonies, it sounds so sweet doesn't it?
JH: Yeah, it makes us feel good and it lifts us in the middle of the performance to have those moments
BK: It's really a different resonance once you break into it
JH: ..and then you come back, you get a very different physical feeling. Billy was drawn to country music from the very beginning and from a very young age even though he grew up in Baltimore and so he's been absorbing that for a long time now and then of course me coming from the Appalachian Mountains it was just part of my heritage and so both of us have had this 'past' I guess you would say in like older forms of music and I think coming from an English literature background for me, ballad singing and the kind of strange stories that you get with that are really appealing and Billy being a fan of Flannery O'Connor one of our great American Southern Gothic writers ..
BK: (to Jeni) You're my own Flannery O'Connor
JH: (Laughs) That's what he always says
AW: You're from Virginia aren't you?
JH: Right, yes I was born in the South West part of Virginia just below West Virginia
AW: ..and you've been compared to Hazel Dickens and I always remember first hearing "Coal Tattoo" and it blew me away that..
JH: Oh yeah, yeah
AW: Do you endeavour to carry on that kind of tradition of writing about songs about the coal miners, I mean they do figure quite strongly in your set and then you've got this background of coming from a coal mining family
JH: Oh yeah, I think it's something like this feeling of before I can really know who I am or what I’m meant to be, I need to think about where I come from and who I've been and who the people I belong to have been and so I think it was very important for me to bring those stories into song form and to share that with Billy and to get both this inside and an outside perspective, you know, so "Chicken Ridge" is a song that Billy brings a lot to because he’s somebody from Baltimore who’s not used to all these curvy roads and you know it's sort of a fun song, but it's actually about an outsider trying to make sense of what to me was completely natural going down this hair raising road at break neck speed, I was just enduring this when I was a child and I just got used to it and Billy's holding my hand you know, and his is dripping with sweat (laughs) so that was a great song for us to find together but I do think that there will always be a part of us that wants to speak about that way of life because it's just part of who I am and part of a culture that Billy has come to love but I'm sure we'll branch out into other subjects
AW: I'm sure you will
BK: There's more natural gas up there now than there are coal mines so I don’t know if we're gonna do a natural gas song, do you think that might go alright?
JH: Naw, I'm not sure about that (laughs)
AW: Now last year at the Friary where you did your workshop, I was talking to the mandolin player Zak Borden and he was saying that his introduction to bluegrass music was through the soundtrack to the film Bonnie and Clyde and I read recently that's the same for you Billy?
BK: Yeah, I think I was around thirteen when that film came out in 1967, and I went to the movie theatre with my brother and I was just floored by the music, I mean the film too, it was a great film, but the music really.. something inside me resonated and so, this was the days before video tapes and VCRs and so I went back and watched that film fifteen times..
JH: Just to hear it again (Laughs)
BK: Yeah, and then I went out and bought a banjo, immediately
AW: Was you aware that this music had been on your doorstep all the time?
BK: It was, Hazel Dickens was living in Baltimore I think right around that time but I was too young to go frequent those places you know and my mother and father they listened to more Tin Pan Alley kind of music so you know, they didn't take me out to places like that
JH: It's kind of ironic..
BK: Yeah, and it's the power of film, we're influenced as song writers by film too
JH: Yeah constantly we're writing songs that are inspired by certain films we've seen, we saw Johnny Cash's America, which was a documentary on A&E and we ended up writing a song about the death of his brother Jack when he was a child, we call it "Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven" which is going to be on our next record, so that's an example
AW: Well you've got a couple of workshops this weekend at the Beverley and East Riding Festival, you’ve done one; you’ve played two concerts already, so what's your next workshop?
JH: It's tomorrow at 12.45pm and it's called 'Music of the Coalfields'
AW: So it's something close to your heart
JH: Absolutely, it just gives us a time to talk about the themes that enter into coal songs like Hazel Dickens songs or Jean Richie or Nimrod Workman, these great coal field song writers and just tell people a little bit more about the people who we're influenced by you know because often at our concerts we only have time to tell the story behind our songs but we don't really have time to tell the story behind that, which is all these other people who have written before we have about coal fields so..
BK: We got to see Jean Richie last Summer at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and she was doing a workshop on coal mining songs with Kathy Mattea and it was just fantastic, she's quite a lady
JH: Yeah, she's really spirited
JH: Yeah, so I think for us it's nice to do the music of the coal fields workshop because we will talk about our songs but we'll also talk about the themes that seem to come up over and over again in coal mining music like displacement or..
BK: Alienation, losing work..
JH: Yeah, and mechanization, you know where machines are brought into the coal fields instead of people and sometimes even drug addiction like in our song "Oxycodone", which really tries to speak about that in the current struggle that miners have in South West Virginia with that, so a variety of themes that are repeated
AW: So how long are you staying in the UK?
BK: Two more weeks
AW: Well enjoy your stay, hope it doesn't rain too much more, we thought the Summer had come but it seems to have disappeared again, it's the longest day tomorrow you know
JH: Oh I know (laughs)
AW: It gets dark again after that
JH: We can't believe that it's 9.30pm and we're walking around in the daytime, we're very excited to be going to Wales, a real coal centred region and to go to Barnsley and we’re really anxious to meet miners from England and to hear how their stories may differ or be similar and I think for us that's going to be a real thrill
BK: We've met a gentleman here today who introduced himself to us as having been a miner, now retired
AW: Well there are a lot around this area
BK: From the South of Yorkshire, right?
AW: Well it's been a pleasure to meet you Jeni and Billy..
JH: Thank you Allan
BK: Thank you
Jewell Ridge Coal by Jeni and Billy is available now on Jewell Ridge Records