WINNER of the BBC Radio 2 Award for Folk Singer of the Year, singer and fiddle player Bella Hardy has emerged as one of the biggest stars on the English folk scene.
This weekend sees her share her music with Highland audiences as part of Bruce MacGregor’s Northern Roots Festival in Inverness, although she already has a connection to the area through band member Anna Massie from the Black Isle, who can be seen playing alongside Hardy when not on duty with Blazin’ Fiddles.
Hardy, whose most recent album, Battleplan, has been lauded by the critics, agreed to answer some questions about herself and her music.
Congratulations on your BBC Radio 2 Folk Award. How did it feel to win after coming so close with nominations several nominations before?
I was right in the middle of a big spell of touring when I won the award back in February. I’d been on the road for three weeks, and the next morning I was on a plane for my first trip to America, just for five days, before coming back for another couple of weeks of touring. So it was a total whirlwind.
I think it’s still only just sinking in. I’d been nominated five times before, and actually won best original song for The Herring Girl back in 2012. But to win the Singer of the Year award was such a lovely vote of confidence. I’m still buzzing.
What drew you to folk music? Was it something you grew up with?
Partly. My dad is a great singer, and he’d always be singing something round the house, quite often a traditional song. He’s from Hull, and picked up some of his music from the singing of the Watersons I think. My mum’s musical too, and we all sang in the village choir.
There just seemed to be a community of music, but I wasn’t really aware of what folk music was, or the folk scene, until I was a teenager. I started playing fiddle in the school ceilidh band, went to a couple of festivals, and started meeting this social network of young people who loved folk music.
I wanted to hang out with them, we were all from different places and could only get together at festivals, and we couldn’t afford tickets. So we formed bands to get free tickets. That’s how I became a performer.
What artists have influenced you as a writer and singer?
I studied literature at university, and I do draw as much influence from prose and poetry writers as I do from musicians and singers. I love Angela Carter’s short stories, I quite often go back to her writing when I hit a stumbling block. And I’ve recently really been enjoying Carol Ann Duffy’s collections.
As a teenager, I listened a lot to Carole King, along with unaccompanied singers I was finding at folk festivals. And I fell in love with Kristina Olsen’s music then too, she’s one of my favourite songwriters from America. In the last few years I’ve listened to a lot of Tom Waits, and I tend to always go back to Ella Fitzgerald and Sam Cooke They’re all great storytellers, that’s what hooks me in to any music.
When did you get the performing bug?
The bug I got was a singing bug. I love to sing. I always have. It’s just part of who I am. And then as a teenager I really got the bug for writing too. And in my early twenties, I realised that being in an office wasn’t for me and I wanted to sing and write as much as I could. Unfortunately, people don’t pay you to do that in your own home, so that was when I became a performer! I’ve loved building up a community with other singers, that’s a real part of the joy of performing.
You’ve been known to associate with the odd musician from the North of Scotland, so has Anna Massie taught you how to speak Highland yet? On a more serious note, is there a musical border between Scotland and England?
Ha! No, I stay well away from mimicking accents, I am severely bad at it! I’ve a few Black Isle connections; on my first few records I worked a lot with the wonderful Corrina Hewat, and myself and Lauren MacColl became friends when we were both finalists in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards back in 2004.
In the singing community, I think there’s healthy connections across the border, and a great respect for each others traditions; I first got to know Scottish traditional singers at the English festivals in club tents and sing-arounds, and I attended Cullerlie Singing Weekend for the first time in 2007, I think.
That being said, there’s borders everywhere musically, you have to build an audience and get to know people wherever you go, you can’t just expect them to support you if they’ve not heard of you! And of course I’m very lucky to be part of music scenes in England and Scotland; I’m from the Peak District in-between Sheffield and Manchester, I get back there a lot, but I’ve actually lived in Edinburgh for five years now.
Any tips for other acts not to miss on the Northern Roots line-up?
I toured in February with Ross Wilson, aka Blue Rose Code, definitely catch him. His songs just hook you in and don’t let go. Very talented man.
And you should definitely see the gorgeous Aoife O’Donovan; I first got to know her music when she was in an amazing band called Crooked Still, she’s a great songwriter and had a song covered by Alison Krauss. And her voice is ridiculously great. I’d wholeheartedly recommend her.
As well as appearing under your own steam, you’re also a member of Carthy Hardy Farrell & Young, which is something of a female folk supergroup. What’s it like working with the girls and are there any future plans for the quartet?
In CHFY, we all fiddle-sing, play the fiddle and sing at the same time. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. Sometimes raucous, sometimes very lulling. It’s a lovely thing to share the stage with other solo artists and get to create something so unusual. We’ll be touring again next year, and there are plans in the pipeline for a new album to follow on from last year’s album Laylam.
And one final, tricky question: If you had to pick just one song to sum up the sound of Bella Hardy, what one would it be?
I land somewhere between Mike Waterson’s version of Tam Lyn, and Kool & The Gang's Celebration.
One of my own songs?! I try to never write to fit a certain sound or style, I just make whatever music has come to me that day. So it’s pretty varied. And I’ve recorded six albums to date, so that’s a lot to choose from! Maybe best just to have a listen at www.YouTube.com/bellahardymusic
• Bella Hardy and her band appear at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, on Friday 30th May as part of the Northern Roots Festival.
Also appearing on Friday will be Will Pound & Emma Sweeney, Blue Rose Code and The Dirty Beggars.