There are ten musicians in the Songs of Separation gang, hailing from across Scotland and England. Some of you will know some of us… but in case there are a few of us you’ve not encountered before, here’s an introduction in the form of a short interview.
Today we feature Jenny Hill, the double bassist who came up with the idea for Songs of Separation and who has largely driven the project forward, with the help of a fantastic team of musicians, managers, funders, musical advisors and much-needed sounding-board-pals (who at no stage sounded bored, even though they might have been!). We’ll be posting an interview with each of the musicians in the coming weeks. Please keep in touch or join our newsletter if you’d like to find out more!
What made you want to start playing music?
An inspirational primary school head teacher, Mrs Hickman, gave me (and everyone else) a recorder, which was grand. But then she gave me a tenor recorder, and I think something about playing the harmony line got me excited. She then sold my mum a really old piano for fifty quid. It had woodworm holes, and I liked to take it apart, look inside and play it with the front panel off. My mum also sang with us a lot, and there was something about the feeling of ‘community’ that comes from music making that made a huge difference to my life.
What made you choose your instrument?
The double bass found me when I was 12. It’s a bit of a long story but, in essence, I wanted to play the euphonium. My pal did too, we went head to head in a contest (aural tests and such), and she won. She then preceded to ‘parp’ through the wall of our adjoined semi-detached houses, which was a kind of musical torture for me. The music teacher at school could obviously see the level of distress caused by the loss of the euphonium, and uttered the unforgettable words “well, we do have one instrument left in the cupboard, but we’re not sure you’re going to be big enough for it”. They sat me on a very high stool for a few years, until I grew big enough (5 ft 3″ – who says bass players need to be tall?!).
Who would you say have been your influences (musical and otherwise)?
I’ve been so lucky to work with some incredible musicians and teachers. But I have to say that those early music teachers, my first bass teacher, David Knight, my first jazz band leader (who used to call me ‘bass man’, because he couldn’t remember anyone’s names), and later a teacher at conservatoire, Stephan Werner, made a massive impact. I then had the opportunity to work with so many different musicians, across genres, all of whom had a part in building my musicianship, confidence and skills. Hats off to people like Raphael Marchant (my first foray outside of classical music), Jed Milroy (who spent 18 months convincing me to play my first session, when I was quite unconfident) and Damian Helliwell, who threw me into the deep end of the trad scene. In the last 18 months, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with Danny Thompson, international bass guru, through Advance Mentoring (funded by Creative Scotland). We have been working on ‘different approaches to trad’, and I have worked up almost an album’s worth of material related to this. Danny’s like my ‘bass-Dad’, words cannot describe how much he has enthused and encouraged me!
My other influences, at least at the moment, are people like Pema Chodron and Erkart Tolle… people who create positive change in the world around us (and inside us!).
Tell us one unusual thing about you
I still suck my thumb. I stopped for a bit, aged about 14… and then I decided it was too good to give up. It has the same affect as a power nap, and is great use of time in tour buses.
What do you want this project to achieve?
The idea for Songs of Separation came to me in 2013, and I have worked really hard to get the project off the ground. So, as well as creating brilliant music which prompts listeners to think and reflect on ‘what separates us’ (and what we can do about it), I am really keen that the musicians have a great, creative week which leaves everyone feeling really positive. I’m also keen that the issue of ‘women in music’ is brought to the fore… it’s a contentious one, and has the potential to attract negative as well as positive commentary, but it *is* still an issue. We can ignore it, but if we do, it’s not going away.
At the moment, my life is consumed with the ‘practicals’ (transport, food, accommodation etc), so I’m hoping that these all come together and that there are no unforeseen problems! The original plan was for this project to attract interest in the Isle of Eigg as a ‘creative hub’, and so I hope this work helps the island build this reputation and a creative economy, which both musicians and islanders will benefit from.
What matters to you about the project? Why do you want to be part of it?
I am really excited about making music with the incredible musicians on the Songs of Separation project. I’m keen that we use the recorded songs to reach new audiences, sharing with them our amazing musical heritage and reflecting similarities and differences in the Scottish and English trad repertoire.
However, just as important is the ‘key theme’: the notion of separation. The idea for the work came in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, during which time the media and politicians worked hard to ‘separate’ the people of the UK and to undermine the aim for independence. I was astounded at the different messages we were receiving north and south of the border. This led me to think about other types of ‘manipulation’ we experience, which result from power structures in our society. I want this project to tease out some of those themes, encouraging listeners to think about these tricky topics. Part of my inspiration for Songs of Separation came from listening to the music of people like Eliza Carthy, Lady Maisery, Karine Polwart and Kate Young, whose lyrics prompt deep reflection (and who now form part of the SoS team). Ultimately, I want this project to illustrate that – through recognizing shared themes over generations of traditional song – human beings are not so ‘separate’ after all.
Got any news?
I’m teaching at the Feis Eige (a trad course for young people) on Eigg. This is only the second year they’ve included the bass as an option, and I’m hoping that young people will join us on the island in July for three days, to do both trad bass playing and also to explore some other approaches. Get in touch with Feis Eige if you’re interested!
Here’s a lovely video of Jen working with Damian Helliwell’s Metta, which shows a bit of that ‘different approach’ to playing bass for trad. Check out the mandolin-bass counterpoint!