How AMAUK and Folk Alliance helped develop americana music recorded in Rotherham and Sheffield
This can be seen as a companion piece to the recent interview with Declan O’Rourke (here) as both he and Lauren Housley were featured in the 2021 Americana Music Association UK’s virtual showcase and both are evidence of the strength and variety of the americana music scene on this side of the Atlantic. Lauren Housley may hail from Rotherham and wear her Northern roots proudly on her new album, ‘Girl From The North’, but she is able to authentically channel her American roots influences in her increasingly sophisticated music. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Lauren Housley in Sheffield to discuss her musical partnership with her husband Tom Dibb, the arrival of their new son Noah and having Martin Simpson sing ‘Sweet Baby James’ to him, the strength of the music scene in Sheffield, borrowing Richard Hawley’s bass and harmonica players, her and her husband’s new Sheffield studio and the hidden benefits of lockdown which include the emergence of virtual performances. She also sings the praises of AMAUK and Folk Alliance as organisations that can really help artists develop their musical skills and careers.
How are you, I hope you, your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
This whole time I guess I’ve been in a baby bubble and a bit of an album bubble and stuff but now it has been over a year I’m like ooh, it has gone quick and slow at the same time, I can’t believe I have a 9 month old baby now who has not really met anybody yet. It has had so many silver linings as well, Tom, my husband, has managed to be off work quite a lot at the beginning and we got to spend a lot of time together as a threesome when he was first born, that was so nice and that would never have happened in any other situation. We would never have both been able to take months off work but that has been amazing. Tom has set up Northern Cowboy Films, and he has been doing really well with that and it has been a project that has been brewing for a long time, and he has had the time to really pursue it. I’m missing everyone now. It is crazy to think of it now we have been in the midst of it for such a long time, you forget how much of a shock it was at the start and I couldn’t get my head around it happening at the start. Surely you can’t not be allowed to leave for this amount of time and if people had known how long it was going to last at the start I don’t think they would have coped with it, but when you living it and in the midst of it I guess you just get on with it. I do feel hopeful now though, haha.
What was it like appearing at the virtual AMAUK showcase?
I thought the whole thing was just amazing, that was probably my favourite online event of the whole year. It was so well executed, it really did feel like the closest thing to being together. It could have been that I knew a lot of the people playing and there were a lot of people there who would normally be there in Hackney because I have been there for the last couple of years. I felt there was just a supportive atmosphere, I don’t know, everyone just seemed to be so supportive of the thing, artists were watching each other and commenting, it felt like a real community and it was really nice.
Being virtual it also had a potentially very wide audience as well.
Absolutely. There are definite positives to the online showcasing I think because you have more control over your own performance, you can make sure the sound is as you want it, you can make it look the way you want it to look and, obviously, it is a live performance still but you are not having to deal with any sound issues on the night and all that kind of thing, you are getting to present yourself as you want to present yourself. Also, if someone can’t make your showcase, because there is somebody else on in another room they have promised to go and see, they can just go on and watch your performance straight afterward. It is a really good idea to do the showcasing online, or at the very least have it as an option.
Once things get back to something like the new normal I think the virtual aspect will remain because as you say, it works.
As an audience member, it is fun watching the online shows and stuff and I think that can be really exciting in itself, especially if it is a live performance if you have got a broadcasting team who are broadcasting live there is an added element of excitement there. Certainly, as an industry member, somebody who wants to watch an artist’s showcase, I think it is a really great thing doing it online.
You also went to the Folk Alliance Conference as well, didn’t you?
Yeah, I’ve been really lucky actually.
And that was in New Orleans
I went to New Orleans and that was the last time I went away before lockdown, I showcased there at the beginning of 2019, pregnant, haha. I’ve just been having this conversation with somebody a minute ago because part of Folk Alliance is the late-night experience where you are walking in and out of all the different bedrooms where people are performing. Basically, it is in a big hotel, this one was in the middle of New Orleans and normally it’s in Kansas, and the other one I went to was in Montreal, it does change but this year it would have been back in Kansas in person if it hadn’t been for COVID. So they just hire out the entirety of a big hotel and downstairs during the day they have all of the official showcases, and then after 10:30 or 11:00 at night, all the bedrooms of the first couple of floors open up like smaller showcases. They are unofficial but they have become a massive part of the festival and normally you are up till like 5:00 in the morning, jumping from room to room, and that is what I was doing in the two years I was there. The second time was a lot trickier because I was like pretty pregnant and I didn’t have quite the stamina I had the first year, but I still did it and it was great. You meet so many interesting people, and people from all over the world, and there was no way they were able to do it in person, but the virtual one was great as well. I was lucky enough to have a performance I did at Real World Studios included in one of the showcases from the British artists. So technically I performed this year as well, and that was an official showcase and I got feedback from that, and the line-up for that was great so it was nice to be included.
Tell me about your new album ‘Girl From The North’?
A girl from the North, I should have called it lass from the North, haha. Originally it was meant to be released at the backend of last year, and then obviously touring and everything got changed and I just decided to take a bit more time off and enjoy being a mum, I guess, and allow myself a bit more time than I would have done normally. There have been three singles from the album already released, and the latest is a really feel-good upbeat track with more of a soul influence which I bring to the music and the the full album ‘Girl From The North’.
From Rotherham no less.
Yes indeed, a south Yorkshire lass, I grew up here and I live in Sheffield now so I am only ten minutes down the road. I did move away for twelve years up to Newcastle for five years and then moved to Manchester for seven years. I was then possibly going to move to London, so I moved from Manchester to home with the intention of going down to London, and then the day I moved back to Rotherham I got offered studio space and took the opportunity to build a studio with my now husband, and recorded the bulk of the album there, haha. I very much follow my instincts on a lot of things.
What is it like working with your husband, Thomas Dibb?
Well, we have been working together pretty much ever since I started out in music. We have played in bands together and we have been writing together for a long time, so we have always worked together. To be honest, and this is crazy, because most couples since lockdown have spent way more time together than they ever would have done, but me and Tom have actually spent less time than we normally would because I have been looking after our baby and Tom has been setting up a new business. This is the least amount of time we have spent together in lockdown, which is like the opposite of everyone else, because normally we spend every minute of every day together unless Tom is on a session for somebody else, other than that we work together all the time. We work really well together, haha, I hesitated then, haha. We have a nice set of strengths and weaknesses that kind of compliment each other. It is really nice feeling comfortable with somebody when you are making music because you really do have to put yourself on the line and leave all your inhibitions behind and it is nice to do that with someone you know that well. It doesn’t always help because sometimes they will say that wasn’t your best, haha, do you want to leave it and come back tomorrow or something like that, haha. He is great to work with, a great musician and we song write together.
Were the songs already to record before you went into the studio or was a lot done in the studio?
A couple of the tracks were written a while ago in 2019, there were snippets of a couple of the songs, especially the more soulful ones, where we had the choruses or we had the whole melody for one of the songs. In fact for the latest single we had that melody for such a long time but it wasn’t working lyrically, but then I had to craft that one a little bit more than I normally would just because I really liked the melody and I wanted it to work. It does work now but it did need tweaking. There are songs on there like ‘Sing To Me’ and ‘Stay Awake To Dream’, the first single, that were kind of written in real-time where I had just been playing around on the guitar, myself and Tom or myself, and just started singing the song and the whole song just kind of comes out in one go. It is always the best way to write a song because it is so much quicker, haha, and less painful, haha, and don’t forget you are getting yourself in a frame of mind where you are not really thinking and it is coming from somewhere else, from the muse if you like. There are also a couple of songs on there that were written in dreams as well, dreams played a big part in this album just in terms of specific things that I had in dreams that led me down a certain path in my life, I guess. The opening track, ‘Bless His Soul’, I remembered from a dream, I just woke up and pressed record on my phone. The ones that come quickly are always the ones that are less painful, haha.
This is your third album. How do you think you have grown as an artist with this release?
I would say I am more confident in my ability, I guess, as a singer-songwriter and I have way more experience in the studio which has given me more confidence to explore ideas, like production ideas, and I guess having the confidence to build the studio and be more involved in the production side of things. It is like everything, you learn as you go and I think you can sit down and read a book but until you are actually doing it I don’t think you really know what you are doing until you have experienced it. Experience comes into play when you are trying to get the best lyrics or the best vocal take you can get. I am playing guitar now, I started learning guitar, only a couple of years ago so I haven’t been learning very long, but I felt that I just really wanted an instrument to write with, even though I do collaborate a lot with Tom on co-writing, I just felt like I needed that freedom just to be able to sit and explore ideas on the guitar and that has led to a lot of the songs on this album. I have been quite inspired by cinematic music as well, like atmospheric music and tinges of that have begun to be explored on this album, there is a bit of a spacey vibe, haha. We locked ourselves away in the basement studio for a couple of months and we definitely lost the plot a little bit, we just followed it through where ever it went. It took us into quite a spacey vibe so we went with it.
Who else did you work with on the album?
It was a few of the musicians I had worked with before in the past, quite a few from Manchester, I think everyone has recorded on something with us in the past, apart from one guy, actually. We went and worked on one or two of the tracks in a Sheffield studio, which we now work out of because we moved the studio there, and this guy is Richard Hawley’s bass player. The harmonica guy I play with is a really good friend and he plays with Richard Hawley and he said why don’t you come along to some of his gigs. Me and Tom went along to some of his gigs and I was so blown away by Richard Hawley’s band and the sound of his music that I actually drew inspiration from that for a couple of the tracks, he just blew me away and I couldn’t believe this guy was from Sheffield, it was quite exciting.
Richard Hawley has stayed in Sheffield, hasn’t he?
Yeah, yeah, sometimes he just rocks up at little gigs we have done when we have had his harmonica player with us. He is a really nice guy and he is the real deal, I think, in terms of songwriting and being an artist and he has made some really good music. I guess the excitement of working with people he has worked with was pretty cool.
Martin Simpson is in Sheffield as well.
He is, yeah, and he is so nice and a friend of the harmonica player as well. I actually went to pick a campervan up from way down South and on the way back up we saw Martin Simpson was playing somewhere near Oxford. We had never seen him live before and Tom is a guitar player and he was really into him at the time and he wanted to see him live because he is one of the best guitar players in the world. We were listening to him all the way down and we said we have to go to this gig it is just meant to be, so we bought a ticket and went to this gig, introduced ourselves and said we know Clive and we had a good chat with him. When we first moved to the Sheffield studio, which has been since lockdown because we had to have access to the studio throughout this time, and he was in there working on something, and he could hear Noah, my baby, crying, he was so young at the time about four weeks old, and the next minute there was a knock on the door and I was thinking he was going to say can you keep it down, and I opened the door and he said “That’s not a noise you normally hear in a studio.” And I said “Oh no, sorry for disturbing you.” And he is like “No, no I absolutely love kids and I love babies, I have just come to say hello.”. So we had a little chat with him and we asked him to sing ‘Sweet Baby James’ to Noah because, apparently, he used to sing it to his kids. He is a lovely guy, and I guess that is the really exciting thing about being in Sheffield, there are a lot of amazing musicians there and it is a great scene.
I don’t think people nationally realise how much there is in Sheffield.
Absolutely. When we first started getting into this maybe more folkie world, our music has always been what it has always been but I guess people started hearing more of the roots influences in what we were doing, we met a guy from Shrewsbury who was a very nice guy and he was in the industry and he invited us to Folk Alliance, and he knows so much about the Sheffield scene and he was just like Sheffield is as vibrant as anything musically, there is so much going on. Since we moved here we haven’t been able to explore that too much because of lockdown, but it is nice we have managed to move into this studio, we are actually based out of Yellow Arch Studio, which is quite a well known studio in the North. We now have a space there and the people already in there have connections with local musicians, it is a really exciting place to be and I am just looking forward to coming out of this now so we can make the most of it.
How are you going to promote ‘Girl From The North’ with the COVID restrictions still in place?
Do you know what, because I write a lot and Tom writes a lot, I could have held this album back for even longer but it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Last September didn’t feel right either because we knew we wouldn’t be touring at that point and we had a young son, and it just felt like we should enjoy the experience of being parents for the first time, and the whole industry stopped anyway. I decided to put it back and said if it happened again with the touring I still want to release it because I feel like people need music, now more than ever, I know I do and I loved hearing new music during lockdown, that has been one of the main things keeping me sane. There is so much great music being made, and we are lucky we have the internet as a way of getting it out to people, but at one point the internet seemed a bit of an enemy to the music industry because it ruined CD sales and all that kind of thing, there was a lot of technology that has ruined it, but technology was also our saviour I think during this time because it allowed us to still connect with people and still share music. So yes, I still wanted to follow on with this release and let people hear it while we are still kind of shut off. Hopefully, people will still remember the songs when they come and see us live, haha. The plan is to tour at the end of the year, all being well, and we are working on getting that together now. We have a couple of summer festivals in the diary so fingers crossed they are going to happen. The people will have been playing the album non-stop by the time they come to see us, haha, they will know it so well they will be singing along everywhere, haha.
How many singles have you released?
The first single was ‘Stay Awake To Dream’, the second single was ‘What’s Troubling You Child’ and ‘This Ain’t The Life’ is the latest.
Don’t you mind Spotify keeping all the money?
Well, kind of, haha, I guess I am hoping that people will still want a physical copy of it, I don’t think anything can beat a physical copy of music, and I guess you agree.
You are right, when I listen to music it is mainly digital on the phone or in the car, however, I do love to own physical music for the albums I enjoy.
I feel I am kind of the same really. It is so easy to listen to music but if you want a real listening experience, and I think a lot of people since lockdown have learnt to appreciate it a little bit more and have gone back to that because people have a bit more time at home, and it has become more of a hobby, I guess, as opposed to something that is like a passive thing. I think people are giving listening to music more of their attention, it is not just something that is in the background or something, or just accompanying them on the way to do something else. That is exciting as well.
So who have you been listening to in lockdown?
Ooh, this week I have been listening to the Lake Street Dive album, Noah really likes it as well his little face lights up, haha, I’ve been listening to Black Pumas, Yola and I’ve been listening to John Smith and his album has been on a lot. I pretty much know most of those songs now because Tom has been working on some of the editing on one of his videos and I got a sneak preview of some of those songs. I always go back to the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
That is a marriage that also works musically.
Oh yes, definitely, haha. One of the best singers and one of the best guitar players in the whole world, they are bound to be a success. They have just inspired me so much, and I guess Tom as well. He is a jazz musician first and foremost but he plays everything. I remember years and years ago when I was at uni someone asked me to sing a Susan Tedeschi song and I never saw myself as a bluesy type singer, and someone asked me to sing one of their songs for one of their assessments, and I had never heard of her but once I sang that song I’ve just been obsessed with her voice, she is just incredible. James Taylor, I always listen to James Taylor, I’ve been listening to the Laura Marling album a lot as well. Katie Pruitt as well, she was one of the artists from the AMAUK showcase, she really stood out to me and I couldn’t believe how good she was, an incredible singer and great songwriter.
That is your current listening, who got you into music in the first place, who are your foundation influences?
They are really varied, haha, Carole King as a person and as an artist, and it is just a coincidence I have curly hair, she has definitely been an all-round influence on me. I am a massive Joni fan and they are probably five Joni Mitchell songs in my top 10 favourites of all time. I am a big Ray Charles fan, Sam Cooke and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. When I discovered Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ music it really changed the way I thought about songwriting, just because their songs are just so well crafted, and they really take you places you wouldn’t expect. Their songs feel really familiar but there isn’t one cliché in any of their songs. I am a huge Elvis fan, I was brought up on Elvis, my dad is a massive fan, I guess it is his persona, his voice, the songs that he sang as well. He didn’t write, but the songs he chose and the way he approached them as a singer definitely inspired me. Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and I have to mention Shelby Lynne as my mum had her album and I remember listening to it loads when I was younger. Obviously, I didn’t hear about her for a while after growing up but that album stuck with me, I always remembered the cover, the sound of it and her voice, and the songs were just amazing. I used to hear it around the house loads, but I used to sit with it and analyse the lyrics. I didn’t hear it for a long, long time and then, I remember when I released my first album we got invited to play Robert Elms BBC Radio London, and he said he really loved one song in particular on my first album ‘The Waiting Game’, which he still plays, and he said it really reminded him of Shelby Lynne and he asked if I was a fan. I was like I don’t know who Shelby Lynne is but I am going to check her out now. When I looked her up and saw the album cover I was like of course I am a Shelby Lynne fan, and things feed into you from such an early age that you just don’t even realise it. I have also just been thinking a lot recently about Dawson’s Creek, which I watched so much growing up, and the soundtrack to that was amazing and I remember having the soundtrack and thinking there are so many great songs on here, Shawn Colvin, Beth Nielsen Chapman like all these artists who I am now really familiar with and I see playing all the time, and I have had a bit of communication online with them and stuff. They are very much involved in this scene but I didn’t realise at the time I was listening to americana. Bonnie Raitt as well, her ‘Slipstream’ really got me into americana as well. Rosanne Cash, I loved ‘The River And The Thread’ which is an incredible album and I had on repeat a lot.
You are clearly not only a musician but a great music fan which is a good job given how you make a living?
Haha, I guess at the minute I am not really making a living, haha. Seriously though we have been very lucky and I think that while it has been awful what has happened to the industry, it has reminded people how much they want music and how much they love it, I think.
I hope that after COVID music will become more valued than it was pre-COVID. With the pent up demand, you may be too busy. Finally, is there anything you want to say to our readers?
I will just sign-off by asking everyone to stay safe and say I will see you soon, I hope.
Lauren Housley’s ‘Girl From The North’ is out now on Lovebird Recordings