Harking back to a simpler time in the British folk tradition, THE FERNWEH bring a burnished, copper-hued perspective to a deep-rooted strand of popular music.
“It was conceived as an album more than a band at first,” explains guitarist Jamie Backhouse. If you’ve not heard of THE FERNWEH then you could be forgiven. Having only played one gig to date in a rural pub hidden amongst the Wirral woodlands, the group are still shrouded in a certain mystery. Other than this rather small live show, the only record of the band available to the public is a couple of songs on Soundcloud and a rather sparse Twitter profile. But for those lucky enough to have heard their music, they offer up something quite unlike anything being made at the moment. Having caught their elusive performance, I was blown away by a sound that fuses traditional English folk sensibilities with the hazy, harmony-filled psychedelia of the likes of The Byrds. Drawn in with a sense of both awe and curiosity, I meet the core of the group (Jamie, Ned Crowther and Austin ‘Oz’ Murphy) on a beautiful yet blustery day to find out a little more about the trio behind the debut album that was completed before they had even played a show.
Those who have followed the Liverpool music scene for some time now may recognise the faces that make up the band. Having played alongside some of Liverpool’s most prolific musicians – including Edgar Jones and Candie Payne – and for London singer-songwriter Alessi’s Ark, the group met some 10 years ago. As saxophonist and keyboardist Oz explains, “we were playing for Candie Payne and the idea started fermenting over a rather lucid summer of festivals.” Guitarist Jamie adds: “I remember the three of us sitting on a hill at Glastonbury festival and we discussed wanting to do something similar to what Fairport [Convention] did in the late 60s – tapping into an older English soundscape to create something fresh and exciting. We never formed a band – we just wanted to make an album that had a certain sense of feeling and a strong identity.”
Having bonded over a great appreciation for Fairport Convention’s fourth album Liege And Leaf, along with classic English folk music and sixties psychedelics such as The Moody Blues and The Zombies, the three set out to try and write an album for themselves rather than anyone else. An album which encapsulated their influences, their inspiration and, also, the world in which the three grew up. Singer and guitarist Ned expands on this: “We knew exactly what we were going for and I think that’s what made it such a pleasure. We could never predict how it was going to sound but we had a vision to aim for.”
Despite having to commit time to family and work, with Ned now residing back down South, the idea refused to fade. With the group passing those ideas around each other and across the country, they were able to build songs: “We kept getting together over a period of years to make all these pieces grow – refining melodies and ideas together, Oz dipping into his sizeable bag of instruments that he can play, and just generally having a lot of fun with it. And they’ve become songs along the way.”
“As we all grew up around the same time, we all have the same reference points. So, if Jamie asks for a Bagpuss guitar we all know exactly what that means,” Ned tells me. There is a serendipity and chemistry amongst them as people which has obviously translated to their music. You can tell that the record has been a labour of love which has been nurtured and cared for over a number of years, but would never have evolved past an idea if it were not for the bond between them. Whether that be the television they watched growing up, the records they listen to or the bands they played in together, there is something that inextricably links them all.
“We’re not a collection of Paul McCartneys or Gene Clarks that wake up on a morning and knock off song after song. We all have different creative strengths that we bring and collectively it seems to click,” Jamie explains. “For a lot of the stuff I brought in for example – stuff like Next Time Around, The Liar and Timepiece – initially I was trying to create interesting cinematic instrumental pieces that are built around a theme. They didn’t begin life as ‘songs’. I was listening to a lot of [Frederick] Delius’ Tone Poems and I wanted to do something similar but using a more psychedelic-folky palette. So, I’d layer up folky picking patterns on a guitar with melody lines at home on the 8-track, and develop them at home or with Oz, bringing in drum samples, mellotrons and pianos – and then give these to Ned. And Ned has a wonderful knack for taking something quite abstract and finding a narrative or theme that just fits to the point of feeling like it was always there. He inserts the people into the landscape, so to speak.”
The landscape which Ned builds ain’t Mumford And Sons, and nor are The Fernweh a twee postcard portrait of an ‘England of Yore’, as he explains. “Folk music is often perceived singing about corn dollies and dancing round the maypole. But it’s important that it is relevant. The difference between the big folk revival of the 60s compared to now is that was a hopeful, post-war time and it there was a certain Arcadian paradise about it all. We’re posing different questions with the album, so it’s naturally gonna have a slightly darker tinge to it. It’s very much an album about this country. The darkness and violence has always seemed to be very close to the surface. There is a lot of tension and friction. The likes of Shane Meadows and Ken Loach seem to have really captured that and I don’t think all is well in this country. I think it’s an important time for culture to flourish and document the feeling of the time.”
With a barrage of folk songs crafted for a modern day, the group only had one thing left to do. Having been session musicians for many a year, the group are no strangers to the recording studio: but with such a personal and precious album in their hands, they felt that a studio may not be the right setting for it. Instead, they settled for a remote old telephone exchange, just along from Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire. “Unlike being in a studio, as such, the experience gives you a lot more time to play around,” explains Oz. “We were never trained in sound engineering, we never went to LIPA, so it was more a matter of teaching ourselves and going with what sounded right,” Ned adds. Much like the original folk recordings, they settled for a simpler set up, their choice to use less mics creating a much warmer sound which breathes an organic charm. “On the trip, we befriended a local folk singer and photographer called Robin Dale while down the pub. We invited him back to the house and he actually sang an old composition he’d written – Seacoal – as well as kindly allowing his pictures to be used as album artwork.” Dale’s imagery, which dons the album, harks back to a simpler time with children smiling beside a bonfire in 70s Stockton-on-Tees.
Dale is not the only guest on the album, with Rozi Plain (from This Is The Kit) and Alessi Laurent Marke (from Alessi’s Ark) helping out on vocals; Mirabelle Gilis, a French fiddle player; and zither player, Graham Mushnik (Orchestre du Mont Plaisant) also appearing on the album. What started as an idea for an album by a group of like-minded musicians has developed into a full band, with Maja Angevik joining on vocals and flute as well as Phil Murphy on drums. Though it may have taken some years to finish, The Fernweh’s debut offering is one of the richest albums we have heard in quite some time. Folk revivalist icon Shirley Collins recently stated that songs written hundreds of years ago are now more relevant than ever, as is very much the case with The Fernweh: a group who hark back to simpler times while approaching the issues modern Britain faces today.