Trembling Bells' haunting folk-rock lined up for Celtic Connections date - interview
Glasgow date for band ahead of third album The Constant Pageant
A blend of soaring vocals and Fairport Convention melodies, Stewart Smith chats to Trembling Bells founder Alex Neilson about their haunting folk-rock
Last year was a golden year for visionary folk-rockers Trembling Bells, beginning with the release of their second album Abandoned Love in the spring and culminating in songwriter Alex Neilson’s nomination for the Arts Foundation Fellowship in Folk Music.
‘I have been nominated as an individual for the award. It’s very flattering to be considered and my work is being represented by Trembling Bells at a showcase ceremony at the Southbank Centre. There is some stiff competition from the other nominees so to have come this far is an achievement in itself.’
As for other highlights of 2010, Neilson cites ‘seeing Richard Thompson and Ray Davies at Glastonbury. Going to Brazil with Trembling Bells. Playing at Bowlie Festival ten years after attending the first one as a plukey teenager. Touring with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Playing at Cecil Sharp House [HQ of the English Folk Song and Dance Society] with Shirley Collins and Alasdair Roberts and teaming up with the female Morris dancing trio Belles of London City’.
To bring 2010 to a close, the band issued a majestic festive single featuring guest spots from Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band and Will Oldham.
‘The idea for the collaboration came about over an expensive round of drinks in a Danish bar in September. Mike Hastings [who plays with Trembling Bells and Mike Heron] suggested doing a cover of ‘Feast of Stephen’ and I thought we could pair it up with another seasonally themed song I’d written for our next album (‘New Year Is The Loneliest Time of the Year’) but to make it distinct from the album version I asked Will Oldham to sing it,’ explains Neilson, ‘I’m currently writing a bunch of duets for Will and Lavinia [Blackwell] to sing in the near future.’
Neilson is delighted to be invited to perform at Celtic Connections, but is reluctant to be aligned with any particular scene.
‘I have had a long-term love affair with traditional British folk music but it is just one God-head in a vast pantheon of interests. It’s as much about Link Wray, George Jones and John Coltrane as it is about Peter Bellamy, the Copper Family and Joe Heaney. In some ways it feels like folk music was my first serious girlfriend and all my subsequent dalliances are indelibly affected by it.’
These passions are reflected in Trembling Bells’ music, which waltzes with giddy abandon through the realms of folk, acid-rock, country, soul and early music. Courtly Renaissance horn parts, Herb Alpert trumpets and Hastings’ fuzzed out guitar leads vie for attention with Blackwell’s pure, soaring vocals and Simon Shaw and Neilson’s supple rhythm section.
With third album The Constant Pageant due for release in March, Neilson is excited for the future. Word has it that the album ‘is a little more rocking and less ornate’ than its predeccesor, but still finds room for new instrumental colours, including french horn and oboe.
‘I initially imagined the next album to be a little bit more pared down than the last but it’s ended up having a similar degree of orchestration. It’s an attempt to try to synthesize interests in arrangers like Gordon Jenkins (Frank Sinatra), David Munrow (early music revivalist) and Cab Calloway. Lavinia has done a great job in scoring the parts and I think it is our strongest set of songs yet.’
Trembling Bells, with support from Emily Portman [also shortlisted for the AFF], Oran Mor, Glasgow, Fri 21 Jan, part of Celtic Connections.