Shelley Marsden meets one half of Irish-Cornish Americana duo Wintermountain…
IT sounds like something in a novel by Jack Kerouac. An Englishman and an Irishman step onto the same train at Chicago’s Union station and happen to sit down beside each other. Both are musicians, both pretty broke, and both in the States on a voyage of sun, sea and musical discovery. Both wanted to get to Memphis, the birthplace of Rock n Roll.
It was October 2008 when Donegal man Martin Smyth and Joe Francis from Cornwall, both backpacking and trying to find gigs where they could, met on that train, and their conversation as it hurtled through the darkening Illinois planes soon unveiled a mutual love for harmony singing and old Americana; specifically, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Paul Simon.
The softly-spoken Martin, who started out as a bass player in outfits like The Inishowen Gospel Choir, explains: “I’d been in San Francisco, and was making my way east towards Chicago. Joe had spent a while playing around the bars in Greenwich Village, and we hit it off straight away. We started writing and singing together then on the road, with the idea of setting up something together when we got home. When I got back to Ireland and he Cornwall, I invited Joe over for a week of song-writing.”
The week proved fruitful. While Joe was in Ireland, a friend of Martin’s was organising a battle of the bands in Derry. One of the acts pulled out and he called him up to see if he could fill the empty spot. Martin and Joe had only started playing as a duo, but they turned up, played – and subsequently won the thing, which Martin still giggles about – the two of them strumming their acoustic guitars and up against all these noisy rock bands. They won some recording time, and were able to put out their first EP, as Wintermountain.
The pair had had a very serendipitous start, and the lucky streak continued when Martin asked some people he knew at music bar run McGrory’s in Caldaff if there were any gig spots coming up. They were given a support slot to Cara Dillon and husband Seth Lakemen.
Says Martin: “I gave them our EP, and they loved it, and ended up inviting us on tour with them. They took us under their wing and nursed us through recording our first album. I think you make your own luck in life, but there’s definitely a touch of fate, something else about Wintermountain which is hard to explain!”
As well as playing gigs with Cara Dillon, Wintermountain have gone on to share the stage with other acts, like Seth Lakeman, Sam’s brother and, one they’re still a little blown away by, Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash.
With a stripped-back, vintage sound reminiscent of the Everly Brothers or, for a more contemporary comparison Fleet Foxes, their self-titled debut album produced by Sam Lakeman features some heavy-hitters, some brought on board through Cara Dillon and her husband’s connections in the business, others through the duo “chancing their arm” and the guy at the other end liking what he heard. They include Robbie McIntosh (guitarist with McCartney), Audrey Riley (string arranger for Coldplay) and Leo Abrahams (guitarist for Brian Eno, Florence). Even Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys) came on board to mix a few tracks.
“At the start I found it a bit overwhelming”, says Martin, “sitting there thinking, this guy has played with The Pretenders and Paul McCartney, and now he’s playing on my track! But it was an incredible experience. Our aim was to make sure the treatment didn’t “tramp over” the clear quality of the songs. I think we’ve done it.”
The studios they used weren’t short of history either. In Wales, they were in Rockfield Studios (where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody) and in London they used Mark Knopfler’s impressive British Grove Studios, which Martin describes as “more like a spaceship than a recording studio”.
Martin explains the sound they achieved: “We draw from a lot of older influences, the guys I mentioned before, plus The Beatles, James Taylor, Springsteen, all the old heroes. Without snubbing anyone, we try not to get too sucked into any contemporary scenes. We wanted it to sound as pure, as possible – like an old classic record from the 70s.”
The idea that every Wintermountain song can be played with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and two rich vocals is borne out by the band’s live shows. Much of the time, they head out as a duo with no backing band. Though Martin plays piano on the record, he doesn’t play anything on stage, something he calls “a Simon and Garfunkel set up”.
“The way the two harmonies move together is as important, if not more important, than the song itself”, he adds, to underline the central aspect of Wintermountain’s retro sound. “We split song-writing duties, and write in lots of different ways. That collaboration is something you couldn’t come up with as one person; it opens every song up, which is interesting.”
Shed A Little Light, the single, has been getting some decent airplay – Dermot O’Leary was complimentary when he played it on his Radio 2 Show Saturday Sessions, as was his BBC Radio 2 colleague Janice Long. A gorgeously understated album with soaring harmonies, it will appeal to both old hands and younger generations that continue to discover Crosby, Stills and Nash via their folks’ record collections.
It’s a far cry from batting around song ideas on a train. Next up, Wintermountain support Cara Dillon on her UK tour, mostly in theatres -which appeals y to Martin’s musical sensibilities: “We’re stepping out, just the two of us and a guitar, singing our songs in front of 600 people each night. It’s perfect – our songs come into their own in their barest form.”
Album (Charcoal Records) is out now. Tour with Cara Dillon begins on October 5.
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