Waking The Witch
album review and artist reflections
review, interview and HTML © Russell W. Elliot 2004
all images © Craig Oddy 2003 | used with permission
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Last updated: 02 February 2004
Image © PARAMIJO 2004
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Four women from various corners of England are the foundation of the rapidly emerging folk/rock band Waking The Witch. Pictured on the album cover above are Patsy Matheson, Jools Parker, Rachel Goodwin and Michelle Plum. Their debut album Like Everybody is an exciting collection of accessible guitar-laced vocal harmonies with leads sung by the individual songwriters. Based today in Leeds, England, the band are touring the UK with plans to spread their wings to Europe and America. We learned that Michelle played earlier in her career with the musicians that went on to form Mostly Autumn. Read about their backgrounds, influences and plans in our interview and learn more about their album in our review below.
The debut album from Waking The Witch entitled Like Everybody (PARAMIJO (UK) 01, 2003) is a ten track collection featuring lush vocal harmonies. Classified by some as folk, the music is actually a blend of accessible guitar-laced soft rocking tunes. That the four women--Rachel Goodwin, Michelle Plum, Jools Parker and Patsy Matheson--all contribute to the songwriting, vocal leads, harmonies and guitar playing underscores the strength of the quartet. We especially like the way the lead passes from one woman to the next as the album develops. Guitar excursions and light percussion provide additional depth to the material. The band is ably assisted by Jon Short (bass) and Mick Bedford (drums/percussion). Although references to similar-to sounds didn't emerge in our interview with the artists, the harmonies will attract Wilson Phillips and October Project enthusiasts.
Each of the women's songs have a slightly different texture. The album opens with the upbeat "There For Me" by Patsy Matheson. Rachel Goodwin's "Again & Again" has a great bass groove and some great vocal excursions by the songwriter. "Silence Can Be Gold," written and sung by Michelle Plum, is a country-tinged in beat and structure with Will Jackson on slide guitar. The downtempo ballad and title track "Like Everybody," written and lead sung by Patsy Matheson, is an evocative tune with band giving the lead singer plenty of room in the verse and all of the women ample opportunity to harmonise in the lush choruses. Jools Parker's tune "Colours" is a light folky tune. Jools sings lead and plays the lovely acoustic guitar that accompanies the vocal work. Accompanying harmonies work extremely well never overpowering.
"Waking Hour," written and sung by Rachel with Patsy on mandolin, is the catchiest track on the album and the one with the most single potential. Rachel carries the song with evocative and crystalline vocals while the other women provide some backing vocal work, albeit less than typical for the band. Patsy's mandolin solos within the instrumental breaks are just fantastic. Michelle's tune "Hands To Fists" is a light rocker. The richly arranged guitar parts perfectly underscore her lead vocal while the vocal harmonies add to the great texture of the piece. We especially enjoyed Michelle's vocal solos within the track and in "Nothing To Do With You," a folky track that follows.
Patsy sings and plays guitar on the heartfelt acoustic ballad "Build Me Up." Vocal harmonies provide the balance of the arrangement although bass and drums are also in the mix. The album concludes with Jools' "Poet Of Harlem." Guitars are played by Jools, Patsy and Michelle and the all vocalists contribute to the rich harmonies that forms an essential part of the arrangement. Jools' crystalline lead vocal is lovely, sung well atop the arrangements. Michelle contributes a tremendous operatic vocal to the number, especially as it builds to the climactic conclusion. This debut album is an excellent introduction to these rapidly emerging artists.
How about we begin by you telling us about your backgrounds?
Rach: I was born and raised in Harrogate and come from a musical family, initiallyraised on classical but branched out into modern as a teenager! I listened to everything over the years from The Police to Kate Bush!
And what about you Jools?
Jools: Well, I was born in Leicester in the middle of the UK. I had a totally fabulous childhood with my mum singing to me from morning till night and my Dad recording us on an old reel to reel! I snuck in to see Alexis Corner playing a blues gig at The Jesters in Leicester and have been totally hooked ever since! And I decided without any corroboration that I could sing and learnt to do so working with rhythm and blues bands in Germany as a teenager.
Tell us all about it Michelle.
Michelle: So I was born in Leeds. I remember my earliest memories of music really vividly. I have images of mum dancing round the room to Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, etc., and my Dad trying--and failing--to do Elvis impressions. My dad has always had a more diverse taste in music than my mum, who likes country music, country music and ... oh ... country music. As a child I preferred the variety of my Dad's record collection: one day he'd be listening to The Everly Brothers and the Hollies, the next day he'd be playing Maria Callas, whom I tried to copy constantly.
It was my Dad who introduced me to Kate Bush--not literally!. I used to be a keen dancer when I was young and loved the way she moved on stage. I also loved the tonal acrobatics of her voice and her ambiguous lyrics and got hooked properly when I was about 13 yrs old and started to go through the whole "introspective teenager" phase. At the same time I was listening to The Eurythmics, The Hollies and The Beach Boys--basically everything my dad was listening to--plus Madonna and Dire Straits! I didn't actually start to explore music properly until I was in my early 20s.
OK, we're on a roll--tell us the rest of the story!
Singing has always been a natural release for me, and I used to love singing along with records in my bedroom when I was young. I would sing harmonies to everything! I was so scared of singing in public though so I didn't perform on stage until I went to University. At Uni I remember thinking "fresh start--fresh confidence!" and I really got stuck into everything I had the slightest desire to do. At Uni, age 19, I auditioned for the role of Anita in West Side Story. I got the part, and that gave me a massive buzz. I didn't ever think I'd get one of the main parts! The show was excellent fun. We performed it for one week at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York to a full house every night! I'd never realised that performing on stage could make you feel so good. I was bitten by the bug then.
As a result of that I got to know some girls from the production and five of us formed an A capella harmony group called "From the Hip" performing well-known songs, mainly pop, but some folk. We used to go to folk clubs in York and do Abba songs, Mamas & Papas, and we even did a version of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen--obviously without the guitar solo. The way that group just magically slotted together was very similar to the way Waking the Witch formed. Everyone found their parts easily. I thought it was amazing then. I didn't think it could happen again! How wrong I was!
After Uni I wanted to go into musical theatre and polish those skills but I joined a band in York who needed a backing singer. They performed Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and David Bowie covers. I loved it because I got to do some great vocal stuff, like "Great Gig in The Sky" by Pink Floyd: the best song for a singer! Many of the band members later went on to form a folk/rock band called "Mostly Autumn" who have been doing well. I think they've won a few "Classic Rock [Society]" awards.
Yeah, we're friendly with the folks from Mostly Autumn. They've done very well and are reviewed/interviewed extensively at Musical Discoveries.
How about you Patsy?
Patsy: I was brought up in Surrey listening to cassettes stolen from my brother's bedroom: Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, America, Mike Oldfield and many others. I always sang at home. My sister and I used to sing Simon & Garfunkel songs in harmony whilst drying the dishes, but discovered traditional music when I arrived in Leeds and I bought a mandolin. I remember the excitement I felt the first time I saw people playing jigs and reels just sat around in a pub. I felt compelled to learn how to do it.
However, I soon realised that I was missing the songs, so I acquired a decent guitar and a started writing songs in a traditional vein. Most of the time I listened to Planxty and the Moving Hearts. Or to June Tabor, whom I think is magnificent. I then came across a few people who were writing contemporary songs--using Joni Mitchell-type open tunings--and just started doing what they were doing. About this time someone played me Solid Air by John Martyn and I was knocked out. I still adore this record.
And how were you all musically trained?
Rach: I was classically trained, in Germany then England.
Jools: I tried, very unsuccessfully, to learn to play the violin as a child I am totally full of admiration for anyone who can play this instrument well! Have tried to learn something from everyone I've played or sung with. The best training ever was actually being out there in front of a real audience.
Michelle: When I was gigging with them around York I met Charlie Daykin, a keyboard player who liked working with female vocalists. He was inbetween women (so to speak!) so I approached him and we started working together. I started singing covers at bars and small venues in York and Charlie kind of forced me to learn to play my guitar so I could play it at gigs. Up to then I'd only learnt four chords, but I found a whole heap of songs I could do with those four chords and found I could quickly pick up more chords. I can't describe it, but I have a natural chord creator in my head and when I hear a chord, I can recreate it on a keyboard or a guitar because I can hear all the notes within the chord and separate them in my head.
Tell us more.
I got by on guitar at that time, but I wasn't too comfortable playing an instrument. I just wanted to sing. However, I'd started to write lyrics and melodies to songs and I needed a way of completing them, so I taught myself more and more chords on the guitar but I never knew what the chords were ... still don't to a certain extent! I've never been trained formally either to sing or play guitar. I've picked up musical terminology from people just so I can explain ideas, but for no other purpose. I'd like to learn how to read music but I'm lazy. I prefer things to just come naturally. It feels more real that way, less contrived.
Over the last three years I've been doing live gigs with Chumbawamba, as a kind of job-share with Lou, one of the core members of the band, who can't do all the live tours. That has been fantasic. The band is great, the members are lovely, generous, intelligent people whose politics mean as much to them as their music. I've become more interested in politics and social issues as a result, which has shown itself my song writing of late, but I've only just dipped my foot in the pool of political knowledge. I'm still at the 'emotional response to injustice' stage, a stage Chumbawamba and other political activists were at when they were 12!! I still need to investigate facts and it's mind boggling how complex and disturbingly corrupt the world of politics is. Michael Moore is helping me to understand that!
What about you Patsy?
Patsy: I have absolutely no formal musical training, which I regret very much. I started to learn the clarinet when I was about eight years old, but was too impatient to learn how to read music. Like Michelle, I frequently don't know what chord I am playing, or indeed what key I'm in, so I very much rely on Rachel and Jools to enlighten me!! I always have my guitar tuned to DADGAD though, so I have to find my own chord shapes. It's really just a process of trial and error with me until a find a shape that sounds acceptable.
Who are some of your favourite artists and how have they influenced your singing and songwriting? How would you characterise your "sound"?
Rach: The person who made me want to sing was Maria McKee. I love her acoustic guitar and piano-based stuff. The Indigo girls are a huge inspiration vocally. My sound veers more towards "celtic" than "pop/rock".
Jools: Big Momma Thornton for her impact and fabulous vocals and Robert Johnson for his impact and song craft. Then there's Rod Stewart for the voice and John Lee Hooker, Fred McDowall and Adrian Byron Burns for their guitar playing and finally Melissa Etheridge for her guitar playing and guts.
Michelle: Variety is the spice of life, as they say: I don't favour one particular genre of music, but I do love great melodies, big songs, heart wrenching chord structures, complicated arrangements: you know, music that makes you want to weep or jump around! Kate Bush sort of encapsulates all of that for me, without ever sounding "samey"! Even though I love Kate Bush, I don't think it's obvious from my song writing. I do love to listen to catchy, hooky songs because of the immediacy of them and Aimee Mann does that for me. I'm totally for "the moment" and I like music to be a quick fix. It depends what mood I'm in as to what kind of song I write and what I listen to.
Patsy: I do favour singer songwriters, I have to admit. I love the Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Martyn, David Grey etc. At the moment, I listen to Coldplay a lot; Chris Martin writes brilliant songs. In my car today I have two records by local singer songwriters: Jon Gibbons and Dave Keegan. Both of these guys should be world famous. There's a lot of great unknown writers who live around these parts and I get a lot of inspiration from them.
Please tell us about the time leading up to your first CD--what was going on in your lives and how did you express that in the finished product?
Rach: It was a time when we decided to join forces after individual solo work. The end result represents an initial idea to do something fab--"quote unquote"!!
Jools: We are all very different as artists. I could not believe how well we blended and how unique our "Waking the Witch " sound became. It was such a joy to be involved in our first CD. I have never felt, musically, so moved and so special in my life.
Michelle: We were voraciously writing and arranging songs around the time of the album and doing alot of live work. We love the live feel of what we do and when we were recording the album we wanted to retain that. We'd heard about artists spending months, even years in the studio on one album, and we thought that sounded like hell. As I said earlier, music, to me, is supposed to be immediate, a moment in time. If you listen to great albums by bands like The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, you don't get over-production, you don't even get perfection, but you get an amazing vibe which describes the moment they recorded a song, a moment which can never be re-created. There's a certain "one-off" quality to our album. We'd never be able to get that exact same sound again, because it was so essentially live. We love that about it. I think performances should be different every time. Surely that's what makes going to see a band more than once worth the cost and the effort!
Patsy: Yes, the time leading up to the first CD was very busy. We worked very hard prior to going into the studio to ensure that all the arrangements were water tight so that we could just go in and record virtually live.
Where did the name of the band come from?
Michelle: Patsy and I came up with the same name independently of each other so it was fate really. "Waking the Witch" is a song by Kate Bush from the Hounds of Love album, and the name just seemed to fit. It was spooky really. We didn't have to think about it. It is also a form of medieval torture used on women who were considered so dangerous by the fact that they were different, or wilful perhaps, or just too intelligent and strong that it had to be proved that they had forsaken God, and confessions were extracted from them by sleep deprivation. Macabre stuff.
Tell us all about your tours and the different people you worked with. What was the response like?
Jools: Our first tour together as a band was the autumn 2003 launch tour for our debut album Like Everybody. We played to fabulous audiences across the Yorkshire region of England. The response was tremendous--almost knocked us off our feet!
Michelle: We're getting alot of great feedback, both from audiences and from industry bods. People are really excited about us. It's incredible really. I mean, we are excited too, but you're always much more into your own project than you think anyone else is going to be, so you really don't know how good you are until people start telling you by coming to your gigs and/or buying your album, or inviting you onto their radio shows, etc. People are doing all that, and this energy is propelling us along. It's incredible.
Is there work on a new album--what is it going to be like and when can we expect it?
Rachel: Our second album due latter part of 2004. It'll be more joint creativity in the form of collective songwriting, so could well be quite different from the first.
Do you ever do covers or do you plan to put your own touch on a popular "classic"?
Michelle: We have been known to put our stamp on a couple of covers which we perform live. For instance, live, we do our version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It's a beautiful, haunting, cynical song, which is perfect for four voices. Yeah, we do other people's songs if we think we could customise it. I don't think there's any point in just cloning a song. There has to be a perspective that makes people listen to your version of it and think they're effectively listening to it fresh.
Patsy: We also do a version of Hazel O'Connor's "Will You" as part of our live act. It's a beautiful song, and we're told that our version is marvellous. On the whole, though, we prefer to do our own songs. With four writers in the band, we've plenty to go at!
What is it like for you to perform in front of a live audience?
Jools: Playing live is a real buzz, an emotional and exciting experience. There is nothing like the rapt attention of an audience really into our music.
Rachel: There's nothing like performing in front of a live audience. It brings out the best in us. The reaction is quite overwhelming sometimes. You can connect with people sitting watching you simply by looking back at them--something that can't be matched by the four walls of a studio booth!
Michelle: Performing live is amazing. I love seeing the looks on peoples faces--small intimate venues are better for that than large stages--when they're enjoying themselves, and knowing that people have travelled to see us. It's flattering and it shows we're doing something right. I also love watching people mouth the words of our songs. It's surreal. It's another form of communication and so you know you've gotten through when someone has taken the time to learn the words.
Patsy: We do have a reputation as a good live band, which sets us apart from lots of music that is around today. We can really do it! Someone who came to one of our early gigs told me after the show that he was so moved at one point that he forgot to breathe. Wow.
What would your greatest moment as musicians be so far?
Jools: For all of us, hearing our completed first album and realising just how special it is.
Is music now your full time thing or do you have a "day job" so to speak?
Rach: Music is my main income.
Jools: I'm in the throws of clearing all the decks for our next tour in spring 2004.
Patsy: The demands of the band now have got to the stage where we have had to make it our full time occupation. We're going to be very busy over the next few months. Whether we'll be able to afford to eat is another question!
What is the most difficult thing you had to overcome in you professional music career?
Rachel: Clearly the most difficult thing to overcome has been the freedom of solo singing and being able to go off on a tangent mid-song if you feel like it. But then the thrill that's created being on stage with three others just like me soon outweighs that!
Michelle: Realising that it's a cut throat business with musicians at the bottom ranks.
Jools: Stage fright!
Patsy: Yes, I'm with Jools on this one. It took me a long time to overcome my nerves. Now it's not an issue. I still get nervous, but I've learned not to let it effect the performance. A few butterflies can sometimes have a positive effect.
What are your hopes, plans and dreams for 2004 and beyond?
Michelle: To be able to make a living out of Waking the Witch and to carry on making records and touring.
Jools: We'd like our lovely music to reach a really wide audience.
Patsy: We've a lot of work planned for 2004: a Spring tour of the UK, a whole bunch of festivals through the Summer, and then a new record in the autumn. There's talk of us going to Europe and the States towards the end of the year. Exciting times.
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