Tim Cumming talks to Nicola Kearey about keeping in touch with the past and how their plainspoken take on traditional English songs is shaking up the folk world
You sometimes get the feeling that contemporary English folk has become an art ensemble music, the raw nerve of the tradition dressed in brilliant filigree, its young performers trained at either Newcastle or one of the big music schools – Trinity, the Royal College of Music. Stick in the Wheel are the obverse of that. The London-based group, with a core of Nicola Kearey, Ian Carter and Fran Morter, are singers and players with working-class roots and a direct, visceral take on traditional songs and how we relate to them and the past they come from in the here and now.
Their album, From Here – ‘here’ being the downtrodden parts of greater London, awaiting the five-quid loaf of gentrification or Operation Trident – comprises new and old songs depicting a turbulent present upon which the struggles of the past barge in like a heavyset bouncers. So it is that the Copper song, ‘Hard Times’ – often revived in a good-hearted, retrospective way – is here a flinty message of intent, warning and complaint that’s as hard and forthright as any urban track. “As we just said at the Houses of Parliament,” Kearey texted me after they had performed there shortly after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, “it’s about people being poor, and while people continue to be poor, we’ll continue to sing that song. Just as relevant now as it was 200 years ago when it was first written down. Apparently it made an MP cry tonight. Job done.”
The band emerged from the dubstep scene, and an anonymous electronic duo, Various Production, whose electronic A-sides were complemented by folk tracks. Around 2010, guitarist Ian Carter parted from Various, and with singers Kearey, Rachel Davies and later Fran Morter, set about gigging, recording at home and cutting songs for a series of beautifully made EPs. In an interview Kearey said: ‘We see this music as part of our culture, we’re not pretending to be chimney sweeps or 17th-century dandies, but a lot of people are really disconnected from their past… People live in the present these days. Everything is about the now, and that is part of my reason for doing this – getting people to connect with their past.’
That sense of the past working its jaw in the present is the essence of Stick in the Wheel’s approach and repertoire. Their take on ‘Four Wheel Weaver’ isn’t a costume drama but driven and spiky – shouting about the crisis of losing work when you’ve not lost your skill – the industrial scrapheap. It’s not pretty, but it’s real. Stick in the Wheel aren’t pretty, but on modern riot tales like ‘Me n Becky’, or powerful old songs like ‘Bows of London’ or ‘Bedlam’, they’re real and riveting. Add in the more eldritch likes of ‘Who Knows’, ‘By of River’ and its beautiful instrumental, semi-electronic reprise – inspired by meeting the mage of comics, Alan Moore, at a Nottingham gig – and it gets even more interesting. This wheel’s on fire. You want to see where it rolls.