Simon Harper traces the paths that led to a very special collaboration between the old and the new.
A beautiful meeting of minds can sometimes occur in the strangest of places.
If social networking websites are the new forums for discussion, then it’s perhaps no surprise that a fitting musical collaboration arose from such a conversation, bringing together folk-rock act the Owl Service and Alison O’Donnell, formerly of prog-folk legends Mellow Candle.
“I noticed Steven’s work with The Owl Service from trawling through artists working in folk and its sub-genres when my MySpace page was first set up,” recalls Alison.
“I have had a number of suggestions to collaborate with musicians in various parts of the world, and this situation seems to be gathering momentum. Most have panned out wonderfully well with only a few falling by the wayside.”
This collision of the old and new in folk music has resulted in a new EP, The Fabric of Folk, released on Birmingham label Static Caravan, which has already released three-track CD Cine by the Owl Service - a collection of songs from classic films such as the Wicker Man.
It comes at a time when interest in Mellow Candle is riding high again, in the wake of the reissue of their classic Swaddling Songs album, and a string of summer dates – culminating in a set at the weekend’s Green Man Festival – saw them joining together on stage as well as in the studio.
Chief Owl Service songwriter Steven Collins found that the process led to The Fabric of Folk being entirely different from anything that either act had done before.
“I’d describe it as a bit of a journey; a melding of traditional British folk with contemporary songwriting, all doused in experimental psychedelia and topped off with one of the best voices you’ll ever hear if you live to be 100,” he enthuses.
Featuring two original compositions by the pair, the five-track EP serves as a way of capturing both the glorious past of British folk and a future where anything really is possible, melding the two in order to create something exciting and invigorating.
The superbly crafted songs feel like snapshots of fleeting moments, yet aren’t tied to a specific era.
The concept of collaboration isn’t new to Steven, and with the aid of technology comes the freedom to work in different ways.
“The Owl Service doesn’t really function like a regular band; it’s more of a collective with collaborators spread out across the globe. Discussions for the EP were done via email and then files and CD-Rs were sent back and forth once we’d started on the music.
“That’s pretty much how all the Owl Service tracks have been recorded too. I hope to have more of a band feel in the future, now that we have a core line-up in place for live shows.”
The thought of playing live didn’t cross Steven’s mind when he first conceived the idea of the Owl Service around two years ago. Since then, he has steadily moved towards the live arena, with the band evolving and the songwriting developing too, building towards the EP and their debut album, A Garland of Song, released earlier this year on Southern Records.
“It started out purely as a studio project - I had no intention at all of doing it live. Offers started coming in after a while and I couldn’t resist putting a live band together.
“The two are quite different entities - because the album was recorded with no thought as to how we’d do it live. We went to town on the production and used all manner of instruments, layered to high heaven.
“We have to scale it down when we play live and simplify it considerably, so the songs are very different in their live form.
“For the shows with Alison we’ve made more effort to recreate the recordings, and it seems the material lends itself well to the current musical make-up of the current Owl Service live band.”
For Alison, such a meeting of two different generations is hardly unusual, having worked with Greg Weeks of Espers, and a host of other new folk-inspired acts.
“There are far too many contemporary acts to mention that I feel a connection with,” she says.
“I try to listen to as much new music as possible, to keep in touch with what’s going on and to learn. I’m a great fan of Espers’ music. I think the various members are extremely fine musicians.
“I’m currently finding myself getting together quite a bit with members of Agitated Radio Pilot and United Bible Studies, both on record and onstage. A lot of the stage work is winging it and improv – great fun and extremely stimulating.
“Then, on the other hand, I have structured sets which I perform with other musicians – the best of both worlds.
“I’ve noticed elements of Mellow Candle’s influence in a number of contemporary folk artists, including Espers and Ex Reverie.
“Naturally, the more I hear these traces, it brings back memories of my time with Mellow Candle and other bands of that era, like Fairport Convention, Dr. Strangely Strange, The Incredible String Band and Pentangle, but more importantly, it spurs me on to make as much music as possible.
“Ironically, these artists who have been so inspired by my work, are now in turn inspiring me.”
Currently working together on each others’ projects, including writing two songs for Alison’s next solo record, the duo’s songwriting relationship is one founded on a mutual sense of recognition and respect, as well as sharing a knack for crafting sublime tales and arrangements which carry plenty of interest for folk fans both young and old.
“It feels quite incredible - I’m honoured to have worked with Alison and I’m very proud of what we’ve created,” grins Steven.
“It’s the stuff of dreams really - something I just couldn’t have ever imagined being possible two years ago. For me, the collaboration itself was the inspiration - we had a blank canvas. It all happened very effortlessly and was a real joy to do.”