FOLK LAW – interview with Northern songwriter & folk musician Celia Bryce

 

Celia & Lee

What are your current projects ? I’m singing and writing songs, mainly for the band but also for children in schools and the occasional folk hymn. The Celia Bryce Band does mainly original numbers and plays at Roots Clubs, folk clubs and festivals. The line up is me on vocals, rhythm guitar and accordion. Colin Bradshaw on harmony vocals, bass and occasional acoustic guitar. Lee Cramman on keyboards. Eddie Harris drums/cajon and harmony vocals. James Palmer lead guitar and harmony vocals. Mike Swindale appears with us at some acoustic gigs playing violin. We can be a 3, 4 or 5 piece band according to venue’s requirements. The songs come from both albums and we’re now working on material for a third, some of which is co-written with band members. There’s a mixture of folk, blues, country and almost anything that takes our fancy really. My songs tend to tell melancholic stories but they’re balanced out with more upbeat numbers. which we tend to work on as a band. We nearly always inject a traditional song plus my favourite songs by Kevin Montgomery and Gretchen Peters. Last year I did a couple of interesting sessions called ‘Women On Song’ with Chloe Chadwick (Americana/country/folk singer-song writer from UK). We both explored our songs, how they came about, the themes behind them and then performed them with a backing band with Colin Bradshaw, Eddie Harris and Chloe’s guitarist Mark Bushell. It was really nice to have the time to talk about the process of song-writing at a gig. At around the same time along with Colin Bradshaw I supported Tia McGraff an Americana/Country singer from Canada, when she performed at the Old Low Light in North Shields. That was such a special evening. Tia’s a wonderful singer and songwriter’.

image2

Who were your influences in music ? ‘They go back to when I was a kid singing in school performances of church music – mainly in Latin – and Gilbert and Sullivan. But I was heavily influenced by the music played at home by my father on piano and various stringed instruments and even Scottish Half Long pipes at one time. My mother was very keen on singing and listening to opera and particularly Puccini. It was a musical household. As a teenager playing in a folk band I loved The Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts and Clannad. I always loved country music and jazz standards too. So very mixed influences and new ones come along every now and then. If there’s something I’ve heard and liked then often I’ll try to emulate the style in a song’.

How did you get interested in playing music. Was there a defining moment when you said “I want to do that” ? ‘I don’t think there was a ‘defining moment’ except maybe when my cousin next door started having piano lessons and I wanted to do the same. Actually I hated those lessons but carried on for at least a few years, learning more than I probably deserved, because I rarely practised and told my teacher that I wasn’t taking any of the exams. My parents paid for those lessons and it was only years later when I realised that it was money they could little afford. The only thing I really enjoyed was trying to play like my father who was brilliant. Dad played an awful lot at home. We had a grand piano and when the house was empty I would lift the lid and play stuff I’d heard him play in my own way. Very loudly and incompetently, but I knew the tunes well enough in my head. I loved the freedom of producing something which bore nothing more than a faint resemblance to the real thing but was identifiable, at least to my ears! I was in sixth form when I met Benny Hudson who with his brother Gerard wanted to start a folk group. It coincided with me being given a 12 string guitar from a friend of one of my brothers. It only had six strings – I knew nothing about buying strings – and I could only play 3 chords. It had no case so I carried it around in a black plastic bag to rehearsals. I then bought an accordion from a Scottish family member, which also didn’t have a case. I managed to find one, donated to me by a member of a folk band I’d gone to see. He was sitting on an empty accordion case. Why I don’t know. He didn’t play accordion. Can’t remember if I bought it or just smiled winningly. It fitted my 120 bass Baile accordion perfectly’.

band

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play ? ‘Gigs as a teenager were in church halls but mainly they seemed to be just getting together to play. We did a lot of Saturday afternoon ‘sessions’ at Jarrow Hall before it became the centre it is now. We’d play Irish tunes with the likes of George Welch, Jez Lowe, Ged Foley, Paul Dickman. Those sessions developed my  love of Irish and to a lesser extent Scottish tunes. By then I was only playing the accordion with Benny and Gerard playing bouzouki, mandolin,  bodhran and bones. It was through Paul Dickman and George Welch that Benny and I began to play with the Trent House Ceilidh Band led by Norman Bell. This was a 16 piece band which practised in the Trent House pub in Newcastle. We played for dances, mainly in the Tyneside area but did travel to the borders, to Arran and Yorkshire. We didn’t support anyone. I did play regularly at the Irish Club in Newcastle and played at a Fleadh Cheoil in Leicester with the Irish Club Band which won first prize in one of the competitions. I had never seen so many startlingly good musicians all gathered together. It was great. I began to sing songs in folk clubs when I was about 18 with Benny and Gerard but found the whole thing horribly nerve wracking. I’d forget words with incredible ease! To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NHS in 1998 The Katy Freeway, a country rock band we had going before we decided to do original material, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in London along with lots of other acts who had connections with the Health Service. At the time three of us were working in the health service. The main act was David Essex. The audience seemed to be all women who patiently put up with the many preceding acts, gearing up to go absolutely wild when he took to the stage! It’s a long time ago. The NHS is coming up to its 70th birthday!

What were your experiences of recording ?  ‘My first ever recording in a professional studio was at Ruby Fruit Studio in Newcastle and I recorded a song called ‘Don’t Need You Woman’ commissioned for a TV drama written by local playwright Alex Ferguson – of ‘Pineapple King of Jarrow’ fame. The drama didn’t actually hit the screens. In the first non-folk band I played in The Bill Stickers Band,  where I was now singing and playing saxophone – we recorded some songs in a Wallsend studio called Red Nose. The next band I sang in was The Katy Freeway and we recorded at home a CD simply for the joy of it. The next recordings, for my CDs ‘No Deals, No Promises’ and ‘Links’, were at Cluny Studios in Newcastle with Tony Davis. I found the first experience with Ruby Fruit quite unnerving and was rather star-struck to be honest. Basically I did what they told me to, didn’t question anything much and knew that they were the experts. I was truly amazed by the technology applied to my words and music. The production was fantastic. To be part of that was just great and it opened my eyes to what was out there in the world of recording. I was a bit miffed that the sound engineer wouldn’t put many effects on my voice. I wanted reverb and all my errors smoothed over. He said it didn’t need it. I suppose I should have been pleased at the compliment but still felt short changed!

My experience at The Cluny with the first CD, ‘No Deals, No Promises’ was much more involved and I was less starry eyed and spoke up a bit more. Jim Hornsby, Rob Tickell, Doug Morgan and Stuart Hardy played on that CD. With the second, ‘Links’ we mainly played with the band members of that time including the guitarist and song-writer Tony Schofield’. 

newton 2

Did you record any TV appearences or film any music videos ? ’I’d like to say no way, not at all, but we did do a video for one of our numbers ‘The Workers’ Song’ and it’s hilarious but for all the wrong reasons. The lads in the band look like they’ve just been released, after a very long time from somewhere very secure. Not our finest moment’.

Have you any funny stories from playing gigs ? Over so many years and so many bands there are lots of funny stories and one always sticks in my mind. It was while I was in the Bill Stickers Band. There I am, singing a song which requires me to play saxophone so I’m holding it ready to play between verses. This drunk guy comes up and wants to take the thing from me and play. He’s very slurred and doesn’t take no for an answer. While I’m struggling to sing and keep hold of the saxophone and fend him off I’m getting absolutely no help from the rest of the band who, like true professionals just carry on playing. Only things is ‘true pros’ have some crew somewhere don’t they. Bouncers… anything to take the guy out, in the nicest possible way. But no. I can tell you they got an earful from me at the interval !  Another time with the same band we were playing at a well known pub in Wallsend which had lunchtime entertainments  –strippers to be exact- and we played on the same stage at night. There always seemed to be talcum powder on the floor – though we were never sure what part that played in the proceedings – and interesting ‘art’ work on the walls’. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi May 2018.

Upcoming gigs for the Celia Bryce band:

Fri 13th July Blackfriars, The Ouseburn, Newcastle

Thurs 19th July Guy’s Bistro, York

Sun 29th July Music at the Ship, Low Newton by the sea Music Festival

Sat 8th September The Barrels, Berwick on Tweed

Recommended:

Trevor Sewell, Still Got the Blues, 21st June 2017.

Tony Wilson, For Folks Sake, 10th May 2018.

Ben Hudson, Bees & Bouzoukis, 24th May 2018.