Michel McDonagh talks to two fast rising music stars
I recently came upon the duo Zoe Nichol and Rosie Jones, who perform as The Worry Dolls, at a showcase in London. They have been described by on-line magazine The Huffington Post as a “brilliantly quirky duo, a super-shiny beacon of joy in a dreamland far, far away from the persistently ‘regular’ sound of folk that’s flooding the charts right now.”
They were back from Nashville where they had recorded their first album, GO GET GONE, produced by Neilson Hubbard. Zoe and Rosie first met an open mike session as music students at the prestigious Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). Paired together by teachers to be critiqued by Paul McCartney they were inspired to start co-writing.
Zoe, who has strong Irish roots, sings and plays the banjo whilst Rosie sings and plays the guitar.
They blend their music and harmonies in a delicious mix of Americana Country and our Folk Music to produce songs and tunes that are warm, fresh, infectious with the immediacy of pop.
Their music blends the tender urgency of Zoe’s Irish-inflected voice and Earl Scruggs-style banjo with the fiery integrity of Rosie’s vocals and rhythmic guitar. It really works.
Zoe grew up in a small village in Kent and was brought up by her mum. Her family came from Liverpool and Ireland so she inherited her music from her parents who, although separated, were both performers. Her childhood was spent going back and forth between her mum’s theatrical rehearsals and her dad’s club gigs so it was no surprise that at 12, she started learning to play her dad’s old Spanish guitar to accompany herself, then the songs just poured out.
Says Zoe: “My great grandmother was Irish on my mums side and that’s where my roots come from, I’ve been there on holiday and we are still very connected with the folk circles out there because it is so real and so honest. One thing I do know about my grandmother was that she was a very strong Catholic and married a Protestant so she lost her whole family for that as it was quite a big thing back then before my time.
Both my parents were performers so I was always exposed to music from a very young age and I grew up with it naturally. I then got inspired by people like Eva Cassidy who definitely had folk roots and I had grown up to love Cara Dillon, the Irish singer songwriter, who we actually got to support her on tour and love her music. It was great to be able to support somebody whose albums I heard since growing up, that was a big thing for me”.
Rosie moved on from punk and angst ridden songwriters to Country Music. She grew up singing and playing a variety of instruments in a music-filled household in Devon, learning guitar after finding an old nylon-string one under the stairs.
Aged 17 she wrote a song, ‘Tennessee, about wanting to live in Nashville not knowing then that she would one day record her debut album there.
“I definitely come from a background with more Country influences, whereas Zoe is more folky. I wrote the ‘Tennessee’ song before we met when we were both solo performers but Zoe heard me singing it and always liked it. We always went to each other’s shows when we were students in Liverpool and even if I did not do that song Zoe would always call out and ask for it,” says Rosie.
They met a LIPA, explains Zoe: “LIPA was definitely hard to get into as there are so few places but we both really wanted to go there and my mum’s family were really pushing for me to go to Liverpool and to make the connection as that’s where my mum is from. It is funny because I don’t know how they picked two red heads with guitars on the same day and that’s how we ended up meeting and working together. If they had picked just the one of us then the Worry Dolls would not have happened”
Rosie chimes in with a similar observation: “It is very hard to get into but we both applied before we knew each other and I am amazed that we two redheads were interviewed on the same day and they took us both. My grandma cut out an advertisement from a newspaper and sent it to me as grandmothers do and I realized it was the only place where I could study music properly and get a proper music degree but it was welcoming and into new songwriters and not just into classical or pop but was really well balanced and great to be a in a city with such a wonderful musical heritage.”
When they first decided to work together they both played acoustic guitar so to make them stand out and have a different sound Zoe took up the banjo, which colours the folk and Appalachian feel of their music, says Zoe. “The banjo came later really, it started to help with the song writing from when I was accompanying myself just with the guitar because I could not find anybody else to accompany me and then the banjo came when me and Rosie started working together because we did not want to be just two girls strumming guitars. We wanted to add something new, we wanted to add something different and not fall into our old habits.” “
We definitely made a conscious decision to do something different with out music,” adds Rosie.
Zoe: “Yes the banjo has been a massive inspiration for the music and has totally opened up my eyes to writing differently because as I am completely out of my comfort zone writing on the banjo and I would be much more comfortable working on the guitar as I always have done but it is just the sound that gives me different elements that adds to what we are doing.”
After LIPA they spent the best part of a year sofa surfing in London, and quietly building up a following. They quit their day jobs to fly to Nashville and record their debut album. Nashville welcomed them with open arms.
The Worry Dolls will play St Pancras Old Church on 1 March, their album Go Get Gone is out now.