Bestival 2012: Mary Epworth (Interview)
Singer-songwriter Mary Epworth released her debut album, Dream Life, to great acclaim earlier this year, having been putting out singles since 2008. Displaying more of a bite than many of her more folk-based contemporaries to whom she’s often compared, its mix of pop, rock and psychedelia has won her many fans and festival bookings alike.
Mary and her band played the Replay With Rob da Bank stage on the Friday lunchtime of this year’s Bestival, and those who were sharp enough to catch her set were treated to an electric performance, featuring guitar, brass and autoharp (plus a member of the band seemingly dressed as a wizard). Urgent requests to load equipment as soon as the gig was finished meant Mary’s planned interview with No Ripcord didn’t happen on that Friday afternoon, so she caught up with Joe Rivers a few days later, when everyone was safely back on the mainland.
So, how are you?
I’m alright. I’m applying for a couple of grants so I’ve had my head deep in forms and things; they’re PRS foundation grants. I’ve had an Arts Council grant before to help record my album but I really want to write the next one so I thought I’d apply to get some support.
What are the criteria for getting one of these grants? How do you apply?
It depends, really. PRS do a ‘Women In Music’ one, so you have to have ovaries for that one! I don’t know, I think they’re trying to address the balance a bit.
How do you go about writing? Can you talk me through the process?
Usually, what happens is that I write when I’m moved. I don’t really see myself as a ‘technical’ writer. If I’m moved to write then a melody will come with some lyrics because I’m feeling something. Then, if I’m really lucky, the whole song will come, or perhaps a verse and chorus will come. I then have to go back and figure out what the first verse is about to write the second one! I have to work out the rhyme scheme; just fill in the blanks.
Is it normally just you and an acoustic guitar?
It used to be but I hardly ever play an acoustic now. Sometimes I write on autoharp but a lot of the time I write a cappella. I write into an 8-track and just sing it because that’s the instrument I’m most comfortable with and I can do anything with it, whereas guitar and other things I find more difficult. I’m not a lead player on anything.
I suppose the voice is much more instinctive as well.
Yeah, plus I can throw the chords together without knowing what you’re doing is an augmented sixth or something like that which I perhaps wouldn’t be able to play on guitar. Then I have to go back and anchor them onto an instrument.
How’s the second album shaping up? Is it in the writing stage now?
I’ve got some ideas and some things which are half-formed that I think would work. What I didn’t have with Dream Life at all was a period where I could just focus on that. The songs – some of them were quite old, some of them were quite new – didn’t really come together. There’s been all this stuff I’ve been listening to since making that record, so I want to start afresh and think, “Right, what do I actually want to do now?” I feel that I’m perceived in a way that I don’t really see myself. I’m seen by a lot of people as being folk or they think it’s going to be acoustic or they think it’s going to be nice-sounding. I think I’ve shot myself in the foot with that because I’ve said in the past that I’m folk-rock.
There’s a folk resurgence at the moment so there are worse things to be tagged with, but is it also related to the Sandy Denny tribute concert you did?
That’s one of the first things I did that got a bit of a profile. To be honest, the main thing is that’s what my Wikipedia page shows. We send out a press release with the details of a record and you see that everything that’s on there has been lifted from a Wikipedia page. I think you have to be careful what you put out there! It’s getting harder to reinvent.
So, going back to Bestival, how did you enjoy the festival and how did you enjoy your set?
The set was good. It’s always hard to tell but I don’t think there was anything that made me come off stage and think, “Oh God, we did this wrong and we did that wrong,” which was quite nice. That probably means it was ok. I had to alter the set as we went along; we had to drop a couple of things or switch things because I felt the pace was maybe not right.
You played very early on the Friday – is that more a challenge in terms of pacing things?
It’s alright – I think you just have to do your gig and not think about that. We did the Friday at Hop Farm and opened the main stage which was really interesting; the headliner that night was Peter Gabriel. That was daunting because there were quite a lot of people watching, but not enough to fill the main stage area at Hop Farm at 12.30 on a Friday! So we’re kind of used to that; it’s a comfortable position now. In a way, you’ve got nothing to prove when you’re on that early. You just get on and do your gig and if the people want to see you, then great.
And how about the rest of the festival?
I stayed the whole weekend and definitely enjoyed it. It was a bit of a culture shock because it’s a long time I’ve been to a festival that big. We’ve played a lot of them this year which are quite a lot smaller, so I hadn’t quite steeled myself for the forty minute walk from the campsite. Plus, I was a bit shocked at how lairy some of it was. I’ve got friends who go to Bestival every year and even they were surprised at how there was a bit of a different vibe this year. But I’m pleased I got to see Stevie Wonder; I absolutely love Stevie Wonder, so that was just amazing. I was really gutted Frank Ocean cancelled though because I love Channel ORANGE. The day he was supposed to play, my friend in America emailed me saying, “Hey, he was amazing on the VMAs tonight,” and I thought, “You stole our gig!”
I saw you mentioned on Twitter that you wanted to get your wildlife costume sorted but it didn’t materialise.
No, I completely failed at that, but I do spend all of my waking life obsessed with wildlife.
You mentioned that on stage – did you see anything interesting?
I saw a red squirrel, my first red squirrel in the wild, in the Ambient Forest. We went to End Of The Road a few weeks ago and I saw a hare on the site backstage there. But we definitely had fun there and it’s always good hanging out with other bands.
You made it back to civilisation okay after Bestival?
It was fine. In fact, the biggest problem we had was getting into Bestival because somebody else had our wristbands! We turned up and they said to me, “Who are you?” and I said, “Mary Epworth,” and they said, “Well, Mary and her band are already here, so who are you guys?”
How did that get sorted out?
They gave us our wristbands but then we had to battle for our meal vouchers. Somebody turned up pretending to be my manager and blagged all of our passes, basically.
So that’s the way to get into festivals then?
Yeah, I think I might try it next year! It’s pretty clever. I think it’s amazing that people have the guts to go and do that stuff really; it really must take some planning. We were walking round looking for someone dressed as me with an artist wristband on so I could say to them, “Are you Mary Epworth?”
I read that when you were younger you used to attend gypsy music workshops. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how it’s influenced your writing?
My Dad’s a scientist and very open-minded, so he started going to them. It’s working with the voice but it also has a very therapeutic aspect to it which is almost a bit addictive – you feel really good after going on one of these workshops because you’re working in a really emotional way with song; it’s quite cathartic. I first went with him when I was sixteen or seventeen. The first one I did was in the UK but then I went out to the Czech Republic and I’ve since been out there loads doing workshops. They’ve been a really big influence on me but not perhaps in the way you’d expect. I’m a really big fan of proper gypsy music which means I’m a bit sceptical about pretend gypsy music. I’m always a bit funny when white guys suddenly say, “Yes, I’m a wild gypsy soul,” because I think, “Actually, you don’t know anything about the culture” – it’s a bit like somebody blacking up. I really love that music but I don’t think it massively influences my writing. I’ve always been really into harmonies – the workshops teach harmonies a lot and sliding notes and things like that, so in a way I think I’ve always done that. What’s definitely come from there is more my approach to writing and performing which is that if you make it real, it’s a much better experience – not only as a performer, but as an audience too. If somebody’s on stage not really performing, just acting and not really thinking about it, it’s different to when somebody’s putting real feeling in it because that’s a really affecting experience. I think that can work even if it’s not the kind of music that you really like.
Your album came out in June. How do you feel about how it’s doing?
I’ve had loads of amazing press actually. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s easy to sit there and think that nothing’s happening so I have to be constantly reminded by other people that there is stuff going on. But it’s not been life-changing yet, put it that way. When you’ve been working on it for that long and are so focused on just getting the album out, after it does come out, it’s very much like, “So now what?” I’m wondering at what point I’m actually going to earn any kind of income from music.
I’m assuming you’re in the same boat as everyone else in that your album’s on Spotify but money earned through Spotify is negligible.
When [2009 single] Black Doe came out, I got £20 from one day’s worth of plays on Spotify which I was really amazed about because everyone says that Spotify’s so bad. I don’t know what to think about Spotify anymore because I’d never heard of anybody earning any money from it. I think we got played on Radio 1 that night and then 5,000 people listened to it on Spotify in one day. But basically, it’s extremely difficult and, to be honest, I’m personally stretched to the limit in terms of what I can sell, what I can borrow from people, so at this stage I really need something to start happening where there’s some kind of income rather than just outgoings otherwise I’m going to have to start thinking very carefully about doing this. Unfortunately for me, I’ve spent so long focusing on making music that I don’t really know what else I’m qualified for. I just think you have to be realistic and be really DIY about it. You can’t waste money on things, you have to be smart about it and I haven’t given up yet but at some points it’s hard to sustain the enthusiasm for something especially when people are constantly congratulating me for how well I’m doing. Every bit of press you get and every time you’re visible, somebody thinks that means you’re earning money. There’s this disconnect between how you appear to be doing and how you’re actually doing. There are a lot of artists out there and we’re all perpetuating this myth. Whenever I say something like this on Twitter I get messages from other bands who look really professional saying things like, “I haven’t got money to feed my children.” I think we’re all in that boat really.
So, you're putting the new album together – is there anything else on the horizon for you?
I’ll say this the impressive way – we’re playing the Albert Hall! We’re actually playing the Elgar Room at the Albert Hall but it always sounds much better the other way. That’s on 20th October and should be fun – it’s an amazing place to play. We’re playing in Belfast on 1st November and we’re doing Sound & Vision, which is this amazing music industry event in Norwich. It’s well worth going to, it’s like SXSW except in Norwich! Other than that, I’m looking forward to not having any gigs for a bit so I can concentrate on the next album.
I guess it all winds down when festival season finishes.
We’re hopefully doing some Europe gigs in the new year, so it is winding down but we’re also starting to plan forwards at the same time.
Dream Life by Mary Epworth is available now on CD, vinyl and digital download through Hand Of Glory. Visit maryepworth.com for more details.9 October, 2012 - 17:36 — Joe Rivers