A Single Note Is A Symphony: Hedge Schools Feature, State, 2015.

This was an email interview conducted for State, primarily with Pat Barrett and Joe Chester, also with nice contributions from trumpeter Donagh Molloy, as Hedge Schools released the wonderful At The End of a Winding Day, the second of their third albums. I interviewed Pat again in 2018, for Psychiatry & Songs not State this time, as Hedge Schools released their third and, it turned out, final album. That 2018 interview was important for me. I was not writing all that much, a bit worn out, when Pat reached out to meet up for an interview because he’d liked this 2015 piece. I was chuffed and glad that he did and it certainly encouraged my writing and energised this site. One 2015 comment from Joe about Pat has never left me and is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard one musician say about another: “when Pat sings, a state of grace descends”. Seven years later: Wow.

In an interview with State in 2009, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh invoked a musical image that I’ve never quite forgotten: that of the “really juicy peach”.

Caoimhín was describing how a moment of music, if sung by the right voice or played the right way, can carry an abundance of emotional information: a “concentrated meaning within a certain note or a certain phrase”. He said that a sean-nós singer might “start maybe with their mouth one shape, and this is within even a single note, and it might last one second or less, and they might go through seven shades of the one vowel within that, and it might be imperceptible, but it just gives this beautiful richness. It’s like a really juicy peach; when you bite into it there’s all these things going on, and tastes, and smells, rather than just being a plastic peach that you look at.”

I’ve always loved this description, and thoughts of this beautiful richness, this really juicy peachiness, came back to me when I heard The Hedge Schools’ At The End of a Winding Day.

The Hedge Schools’ second album comprises nine sparely arranged songs performed primarily by Pat Barrett and Joe Chester, who used to be in Ten Speed Racer together, with acutely judged contributions by Donagh Molloy on trumpet and Kevin Murphy on cello. (It’s “120%” a band record, says Barrett.) Joe Chester says that the arrangements were inspired by Japanese minimalist painting and while I don’t know those works there is a Mark Rothko feel from these songs: simplicity and depth, starkness and warmth at the same time.

For optimum emotion in music, you don’t need huge arrangements, or histrionics. You don’t have to be The Flaming Lips, or Brian Wilson, or Beethoven (not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of thing). Played or sung perfectly, a single note is a symphony.

State: How did The Hedge Schools come about? I know this is your second album, and I know about the Ten Speed Racer connection, but I don’t know much else.

Pat Barrett: When Ten Speed Racer disbanded we were all writing, and we all had batches of tunes ready. Joe was out of the blocks first with his solo debut Murder of Crows, and during the Ten Speed Racer days his production skills and recording skills were always something we used.

I decided in 2007 to sit and record tunes, written over a number of years, and these were what became the first Hedge Schools record, Never Leave Anywhere. Joe was always going to be my go-to guy to get the first album moving. I think the main difference with the first record and the new one is the collaborative input from Joe was massive on this record, 50/50 splits.

Donagh Molloy, who plays trumpet, I’ve known for years, and I’ve known him to be a gent. That matters to me, working with like-minded good souls. Kevin Murphy who played cello is the same, a good soul from the old days who we’ve known for years. They are both great players, who listened, played over spaces, left spaces, just bought into it, gave themselves to it.

The four of us are The Hedge Schools for this record. That’s how it’s worked. There can be the perception that it’s my project. That’s lingered since the first record, because with this we just sent out the record to press: no info, no press release, just the Art. This is a band record. 120%.

The songs on At The End of a Winding Day are songs that are pared down to their essence. These seem like songs you have lived with for a long time. Can you say a little about the process you went through for this album—as writers and as a band?

Pat: It’s such a hard process to define because I think for every writer it’s different. Melodies in terms of voice matter to me, and evoking emotion matters to me. That great Bill Withers quote: “I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel”. With this record it was about home, being warm, about family, about normal life really, no great mystery in terms of theme.

Joe Chester: When Pat approached me a few years ago to say he was ready to record a new Hedge Schools record, the original idea was that it would be primarily an electronic record. Some of Pat’s reference points were those gorgeous early Blue Nile albums, A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats, which were also big favourites of mine. So we were pretty much in concert about that.

We recorded a couple of songs in The Living Room [studio] and they sounded pretty good but, to be honest, to me there was something not right. I felt like we were missing it. Around that time I was in London and went to look at some Japanese minimalist paintings that just blew me away. I don’t know what it was about them—they were just these small monochromatic canvases—it might have been where I was emotionally, but I just found them so extraordinarily moving.

It’s very rare in music that you have these kind of cinematic, Hollywood flashes of inspiration – it’s usually something you arrive at incrementally. But I remember coming back to Dublin in a state of fervour and telling Pat that this record needs to be just like those paintings. Almost nothing there. Get rid of everything. So we pulled out a track we were working on (might have been ‘Winter Coats’) and set about erasing everything but Pat’s vocal, including his guitar track. So all we had left was Pat’s voice, suspended in air. And what a voice it is – when Pat sings a state of grace descends.

Then I put a piano track down, playing as few notes as possible, to preserve as much space for the voice as possible but still communicate the movement of the song. And it was instant – we both fell around the place laughing because, well, we both loved the effect so much really. So then we followed that principle with all the other songs too, finding ways to create these almost completely empty spaces.

On the contributions of Donagh and Kevin—which were mighty—I would say that I met Kevin on Liffey Street and explained what we were at. He had just finished up with the first Seti [the First] record so he didn’t need any explanation from me or Pat; in fact as far as that kind of thing goes, Kevin, along with Thomas Haugh, is king of the castle, lord of the manor. We’re just scrambling around in the mud singing, “Bring out your dead”.

Donagh is a wonderful trumpet player—Pat knew him from Lisa Hannigan’s band. And he came in with his own ideas which, by and large, were absolutely right. Sometimes I talk to producers who are just starting out and the biggest mistake they make is that they’re so determined to be the driving force, to impose their vision on a record that they miss out on all the music that they can’t envisage. For me, I’d have to be completely stupid to have musicians like Donagh and Kevin in the room and not give them the freedom to express their musicality completely.

Pat: On day one of recording Joe pulled out a Roger Eno record on vinyl in the studio, which was just an ambient piece with cello and piano. That sent us down a road. He possesses the tools in terms of production and engineering to take a sound there and we just went with it. There’s a lot of space on the record, loads of really well recorded acoustic guitars; the thought and craft of classic records like Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight, Nick Drake string arrangements, Arvo Pärt pieces. These were all things we thought about throughout the whole recording process. When Donagh and Kevin came into the process the bones were there but the two of them had the musical understanding to leave spaces where spaces needed to be left, and flesh the bones that needed it. The two of them brought some glorious colours to the palette.

Donagh Molloy: Before going in to record I knew Joe only by reputation as a producer/player, and I wasn’t necessarily doing much trumpeting aside from the band I had been playing with full-time. Pat had given me pretty much free rein on the tunes (aside from direction like “familiarise yourself with it, live in it, breathe it” or “keep some melody in the locker”) but having not been able make much time to work on ideas, before I arrived I felt a little intimidated at the prospect of recording for the first time into the ears of both the lads. That lack of preparation ended up being perfect for the session. Joe immediately made me feel as if The Living Room was my own living room. Pat’s reactions to what we were putting down were uplifting and confidence boosting from the outset. I came in with some loose ideas, but between the three of us we naturally worked out what was best for each tune. I remember after we played through the title track a couple of times, Joe mentioned he felt I was trying to take the tune somewhere else with the trumpet, and suggested to stay within the music—perfect direction, he was absolutely right.

Joe, I love what you said about Pat’s singing: “a state of grace descends”. And I love that Pat’s voice—this gorgeous, aching, vibrato voice that he has—doesn’t actually appear until half way through track two on the album; the first song, the title track that Donagh referred to, is an instrumental. I admire the restraint.

Joe: Well when you have a weapon like that in your arsenal you don’t want to go straight to the nuclear option. People could get hurt!

Space in music, which you’ve touched on, has been increasingly important to me as I’ve gotten into Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Jóhann Jóhannson, the Erased Tapes roster, and so on. I think it’s because the more space there is, the more of a dialogue I can have with the song; the more I can bring myself to it.

Joe: Yeah I’m familiar with those records, really like Jóhann Johannson. Brian Brannigan introduced me to Disintegration Loops by William Basinski, which I really love. That was a big inspiration for the A Lazarus Soul record, which was actually made after the Hedge Schools, although it was released first. (I would say that that too is a very spacious record, although it’s wearing slightly more sinister clothes!)

Pat: Space is the king! One of my favourite records of all time is Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, the last record. It’s almost jazz—but the space! And also Paul Buchanan’s solo record Mid Air—the space around his voice on that record, just gorgeous.

Is it difficult or daunting to make a spacious, spare record? It must require a lot of confidence in the material. Like a recipe with only four ingredients; the ingredients better be good.

Joe: Is it difficult? Well all records are difficult, or at least they ought to be. It’s just that the particular requirements of this record demanded that everything else be taken away. That’s not courageous – it’s just good sense. If Pat says “space is king”, well that’s right enough for me.

Donagh: I think my understanding of the importance of space in a song came from working on Lisa Hannigan’s debut album, and in the following few years both performing and recording with her band, I learned so much more about music than the rest of my life before then. I’d rate Lisa with the finest songwriters going internationally, and few understand the importance of the space between the notes you play in music better than she.

Pat, you wrote on the album that you sent me “The art of something should always matter. Always”. Paul Page began his review of your album with a reflection on craft in music; specifically his concern that craftsmanship is being increasingly neglected. Is this a concern that you share?

Pat: God yeah. I think it’s too easy to find things these days: no mystery anymore, no magic. That matters to me. I’ve always been a forager when it comes to tunes; always avoid the obvious. I think the handmade Artwork has sprinkled some magic dust over this project. I wanted the craft of the recording reflected in the sleeve because I think when it came to the recording Joe was meticulous – when it came to what microphones we used, that we used real pianos; he added a beautiful upright piano to the studio setup about two weeks after we started recording and it ended up on everything. The detail into the spaces we left, the spaces we filled, obsessing over mixes and mastering: that’s his craft.

Tell me about the handmade artwork?

The artwork side if it for me was all my doing. I scoured the internet for an image that spoke to me, that was a rubber stamp. I bought it online, bought all the cardboard sleeves online, had rubber stamps made in a shop on Capel street. The Rubber Stamp Company, run by an old gent called Frank, who again loves his craft of making stamps. Talk all day to you about it. I’ve sat at home and when orders came in I’ve personalised messages going onto each CD that goes out. I’ve always been more of a fan of the letterbox rather than the inbox and it’s a lovely way to receive something. It’s the personal touch. We’ve lost that.

Is music in danger of being under-appreciated, taken for granted? Now that we don’t have to work to find it. (Speaking as someone who spends hours a week on Spotify, but guiltily.) 

Pat: I think the craft of it is, the detail of it, the uniqueness of it is something that has become under appreciated. Daytime FM playlists will always exist, that’s the commercial reality, you’d not bother with that fight for a start. But one thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks, since the record came out: the hunter-gatherers, the foragers, those who like a tune to mean something, those who give a shit – they come out at night, on Twitter, on radio, on blogs, they become alive. That’s why craft I think will always matter, because those people will always be there. That’s the magic. We’ve not uploaded the new record to Spotify, and I don’t think we will. 

Who is currently working in music that you admire, in terms of artistry and craftsmanship?

Pat: I tend to shop by labels these days. Certain brands of quality have emerged over the past few years: Erased Tapes, Bella Union, 4AD, Sub Pop, Full Time Hobby. They’ve all got great artist rosters. For about 10 years I worked as a music buyer for HMV so I’ve seen many changes down the years, but in recent times the resurgence of independent labels letting Artists make their own records is encouraging. I love ambient piano artists like Otto A Totland, Ólafur Arnalds, Roger Eno, Nils Fraham. Loving the Ryley Walker record from last year also; he’s got that classic 70’s folk songwriting thing going on. I’m a sucker for a decent folk tune.

You’ve been compared to The Blue Nile. Daunting?

Pat: To be honest anyone who knows me knows my love of The Blue Nile. It’s no secret. I would have to say no voice be it male or female has ever emotively moved me more than Paul Buchanan’s. That’s a gift. There is a wonderful emotion in those first two records: a sense of wonder, longing, love lost, pain, joy. I love those albums. I think if we’ve managed with this record to capture even a percentage of the emotion on those records, then it’s a job done.

Lastly, it strikes me listening to your music, as it struck me when listening to Mumblin’ Deaf Ro’s Dictionary Crimes in 2012, that you’re covering topics and emotions that are not covered well in pop music. Family life and the emotions that go with it: a nagging yearning; gratitude; happiness, often tempered by the worry that it’s fleeting. I suppose I’m asking: did you or do you deliberately set out to represent adult life, grown-up life in these songs—do you think as I do that songs  that are, as you say, “about home, being warm, about family, about normal life really” are hard to come by, and did you set out to fill that gap?

Joe:  Everyone’s different. Those themes are obviously a source of inspiration to Pat, and good on him. I love these songs. I, on the other hand, could never write a song about any of that stuff. I need some kind of monstrous distortion to get me going.

Pat: I suppose I’ve always written about what’s around me every day. The emotions I feel, the ups and the downs. ‘Oceans’, on the record, is a track about missing the bond of brotherhood. For the Ten Speed Racer years, we—myself, Dermot, and John, the 2 brothers—hung around in venues, recording studios, sat in vans travelling up and down the country always with each other. John is married with two kids now and lives in Australia and Dermot the same, married with 3 kids and living in Norway. It’s a bond I really miss. It was never a deliberate thing to write the songs around one theme. It’s just a place I’ve found myself in between the two Hedge Schools records. There’s a gratitude in what I have around me these days, in who I have around me. Some people take that for granted; I don’t.

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