YOU COULD say that Belinda O’Hooley has a signature style. Her stark, minimalist, haunting piano playing dominated The Unthanks’ Mercury-nominated album, The Bairns, which was recorded on O’Hooley’s piano in her Huddersfield home.
But there’s more to O’Hooley than her keys.
The pianist and singer has left The Unthanks and started up a duo with Heidi Tidow: “The Unthanks was not managed in a way I like. I felt I wanted to be in a more democratic band. It got harder and harder until I reached the point where I decided I had to leave.
“I have no regrets. I’m now in a duo where I’ve got more control.”
O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow – both advocates of autonomy – have signed to the No Masters record label, which quite literally means no bosses.
“It’s a co-operative. And it’s lovely. We were introduced to it by Chumbawumba. We really like their politics and we’ve supported them a couple of times.
“The label’s run by members, not bosses, we all pitch in.”
The duo play serious, chamber-like neocalssical music with breathy, warm vocals and heart-tugging lyrics covering a spectrum of universal themes.
But, unlike the record company backing of The Unthanks – who were signed to EMI – No Masters doesn’t come with a huge marketing budget.
“EMI is a fantastic marketing machine – it’s a tough one. I’d feel hypocritical going with a big label – it’s about integrity. With No Masters there’s no external control but if you need advice, advice is there.”
Being on a small label hasn’t held O’Hooley and Tidow back. Their debut, Silent June, has been critically acclaimed by the music press and combines eerie, haunting melodies and tales of bravery, age and risk-taking.
This is an album not of personal anecdotes but of universal themes.
Que Sera tells the tale of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who famously helped soldiers and refugees escape from the German army during WW1. Despite widespread public protests, she was court-marshalled by the Germans and found guilty of treason.
Edith Cavell was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad. “We wanted to bring to light the fact that women had a role in war,” says O’Hooley.
After her death, Edith Cavell was used in propaganda for British military recruitment. Her case represented an act of barbarism on the part of the Germans.
“There are so many songs about the war but they are usually from a man’s perspective,” says O’Hooley.
In Too Old to Dream the duo tackle society’s unforgivable habit of shutting away the eldery.
The song opens with vocals from Irene Rourke from Burking Banks Care Home in Dewsbury and tells the tale of a women whose exciting past and dynamic character is overlooked in light of her zimmer frame and care home residence.
‘Music invites her down memory lane / She danced with her at the Majestic’ sing O’Hooley and Tidow.
It’s a sombre, emotionally-stirring affair, but, as O’Hooley points out, it touches on a serious issue: “This song’s very close to my heart.
“My day job is musical reminiscising – I go to care homes and play the muisc that elderly people remember from their past.
“I’ve seen how it’s changed people. It helps bring back memories for them. The song highlights the fact that elderly people were just like us but we put our older generations away.
“There’s a lack of respect for elderly people, we as a society forget about them.”
And there are other universal themes in the album, like taking risks.
Beautiful Danger recalls urges one to take risks and climb out of the box, as O’Hooley explains: “My mum died nine years ago and afterwards I felt a strong need to hide away. I often do that when something happens.
“I go back into my ‘box’ and this song’s about taking the risk, climbing out of the box and not seeing all risk as danger. It’s like parents not letting their kids play outside – some dangers are beautiful.”
Already O’Hooley and Tidow are proving popular. On Halloween the duo played a sold-out show at All Hallows Church in Leeds.
“We’re really pleased with how it went and it was nice to have your first show sell out.”
O’Hooley and Tidow played at The Boardwalk on Sunday (November 7).