Now settled in Sheffield, singer and musician Jon Boden talks to Peter Kay about his discovery of the local carols and the ‘juggernaut’ band coming to the city on Sunday.
ARMISTICE Day has passed and that’s the traditional marker for the start of the Sheffield carols.
Pubs on the rural edges on the city will ring to the likes of Hail! Smiling Morn, Star of Bethlehem and Sweet Chiming Bells.
It’s a tradition maintained with relish, especially on the north west fringe of the city – no more so than the Royal Hotel at Dungworth on the edge of the Peak District where queues form outside the pub well in advance of noon opening on Sundays.
Among the participants raising the roof could well be Jon Boden, who lives in the area. However, he will be missing this year for a couple of weeks.
For he is touring the UK with the band Bellowhead, an assembly of 11 musicians that hitches brass and drums to a folk bandwagon that roars along at breathtaking pace.
The group, which comes to the Leadmill on Sunday, has won the Best Live Band at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for four of the last six years. “With the exception of The Who, Bellowhead are surely the best live act in the country,” declared the Independent.
Jon won Folk Singer of the Year at this year’s BBC awards and is acclaimed as one of the country’s foremost exponents of the UK folk tradition, not just as the dynamic frontman, singer and fiddle player with Bellowhead but as part of an award-winning duo with John Spiers and fronting his own band, the Remnant Kings.
His passion for communal singing has seen him launch the ‘folksongaday’ project, aiming to post a traditional song online at www.afolksongaday.com every day for a year until June 23, 2011, collating 12 digital albums in the process.
“I have been very lucky that I have lived in a number of places where social singing is still very strong and because of this I have been exposed to a great repertoire of ‘singers’ songs’ and to the unbeatable experience of sitting in a pub with between five and 100 singers, all trying to raise the roof – just for the sheer joy of doing it,” he says.
Well, he has come to the right place, settling in the Sheffield countryside with partner Fay Hield, a respected traditional folk singer in her own right and a founder member of female a cappella quartet The Witches of Elswick. They have two children, Polly, aged four, and Jacob, 15 months.
The couple gravitated to Sheffield after Fay completed a degree in folk and traditional music in Newcastle and applied to do a Phd at the University of Sheffield. Jon had been in Oxford for five or six years and Sheffield appeared to be a convenient halfway point.
“We lived at Banner Cross for a year, which was great, then we saw this little house,” says Jon. “We never thought we would be able to afford to live up here, among all the old farmhouses. As soon as we moved it was fantastic.”
The couple have made their mark in the area by running a singers’ club called Royal Traditions at the Royal Hotel (there’s a Christmas party on Saturday, December 4). Meanwhile Fay released her debut solo album, Looking Glass, last September.
The couple have joined an esteemed list of folk singers and musicians who are now based in the city, including Martin Simpson, Roy Bailey, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan. There is now a “critical mass”, suggests Jon. “When you get a few folk musicians they tend to draw in other folk musicians. And Sheffield is very central for touring.”
His own journey started in Chicago, although he grew up in Winchester. He has degrees in medieval studies from Durham University and composition for theatre from London College of Music. He has written a number of theatre scores.
Bellowhead employs dashes of theatre and humour in its tour-de-force live performances. “It’s like a juggernaut,” says Jon. “You just have to hold on tight…”
As well as giving the audience a good time, the band aims to have one itself. “You find little things that work that are funny and add to the story telling or drama. You spend quite a lot of time laughing on stage, which is nice. We judge the success of a gig by how funny it was…”
The band’s stature has risen with the release of its latest album, Hedonism, which was recorded at Abbey Road with producer John Leckie, who has worked with the Stone Roses and Radiohead.
The Leadmill is part of a 19-date UK tour, its longest ever, and with no days off, which suits Jon. “I’ve never been a fan of days off. You find that you unwind and get out of the routine. It is very tiring but the routine and regulation mean you get on with it.”
There is also the benefit of a tour bus – as opposed to driving around with John Spiers to meet the demand for performances in the wake of them twice winning the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Duo.
On Sunday Jon has the bonus of going home to his own bed, albeit for one night. And the tour ends the following Sunday after which Jon can look forward to Christmas with his family in Sheffield and plenty of those local carols.
He had heard rumours of the tradition before coming to the city. “It was mentioned occasionally in hushed tones in singing sessions but you had to know which pubs to go to.”
He found out and is now a fully-fledged participant, familiar with many of the songs and tunes. “I know all the Royal stuff. I have been to Grenoside a couple of times and there’s a few I don’t know. I also go to the Sportsman at Lodge Moor.”
So the next time you are belting out Spout Cottage in a packed pub you could be rubbing shoulders with somebody who was next on the bill after Eric Clapton on the Jools Holland show the other week.
To Jon the Sheffield carols are “a bit of a revelation”. He says: “It confirms that there is still a demand for proper social singing, that it is still there in everyone, the desire to get together and sing really loudly. I find it really life-affirming.”