Belinda O’Hooley tells David Hennessy how the success of BBC’s Gentleman Jack and its title song has been a whirlwind for Belinda and her wife Heidi Tidow, aka O’Hooley & Tidow
Leeds-Irish singer-songwriter Belinda O’Hooley was a member of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (now The Unthanks) until 2008 and a frequent guest performer with Burnley’s Chumbawamba (1982-2012).
She has been recording with her wife Heidi as O’Hooley and Tidow since 2009 and the duo has been nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
But it was when the BBC used an early song of theirs, Gentleman Jack, as the theme for Sally Wainwright’s prime-time Sunday night drama of the same name that they found a whole new audience.
Sally Wainwright’s other series include At Home with the Braithwaites, Scott and Bailey and Last Tango in Halifax.
Gentleman Jack, from their 2012 album, The Fragile, was written about the 19th century English landowner and diarist Anne Lister.
Suranne Jones played the title role and Sophie Rundle played her partner, Ann Walker. Anne and Ann are reputed to have had a same-sex wedding ceremony in 1834, although it was not legally recognised.
Belinda told the Irish World: “Two years ago I would say that we were really happily doing small venues up and down the land, doing well but in a very folky way, under the radar, really.
“Then suddenly once the programme came on, people were contacting us from America, saying that they loved the music, they loved the song. They wanted to know more about us, they wanted us to come to America on tour and then it snowballed from there.
“Suddenly all our concerts sold out straight away and our shop on our website crashed because there was so much traffic.
“We do everything ourselves. We were selling our CDs and t-shirts, and things, and we just didn’t have enough time in the day to package all these things that people were buying all over the world. We had to get help in to do it. It’s been amazing.”
Belinda has a son, Flynn, born last year, with Heidi and was walking along the canal him when we spoke.
“He’s the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me. I feel very grateful,” she said.
Ireland was the first country in the world to endorse same-sex marriage by a popular referendum in 2015, which did not surprise Belinda given the response she received from there when she came out.
“When I was growing up, it was definitely not spoken about at all. You just knew not to say anything. It was a close-knit Catholic community so I felt like I couldn’t be honest about my sexuality until I got older but then when I did come out eventually, I was really surprised because my family over there and friends were very accepting.
“In fact, they were more accepting than some of the people in England and this was before same sex marriage was legalised. This was quite a few years ago.
“I’ll never forget how accepting and loving people were towards me and I’m glad about that.
“I feel very proud of who I am now and it’s great to be able to get married to Heidi and have a child and not feel ashamed about who we are.
“I’m very proud of Ireland for getting in there and legalising same sex marriage before lots of other countries. It’s brilliant.
“I thought that people would be very judgemental and actually they weren’t, they were very accepting and loving and maybe that’s a real lesson to not make assumptions that people are going to be prejudiced.
“I don’t think they care. I think they were just happy that I had been able to tell them and get on with my life really.”
Initially named something else, the show was renamed Gentleman Jack because this is what Anne was often called behind her back.
Belinda remembers when Sally came to see them play: “I think she had been told about us by Anne Choma who wrote the book Gentleman Jack. I think Sally had an idea of who we were and had come to have a look and a listen basically. She came straight over afterwards and asked could she use the song. We were gobsmacked.
“We kept thinking, ‘She’ll change her mind, she’ll pick something else’. Really near to the end, we went for a meal with her and we said, ‘Hopefully you’ll use the song’. And she said, ‘What are you on about? Of course, I’m using the song, it’s integral to the show, don’t be silly’.
“You know what it’s like when something magical happens: you can’t quite believe it’s real.”
Belinda’s latest album, Inversions, released last year, was her second solo outing and is particularly personal. Many of the piano pieces were inspired by the songs and tunes her father inherited from a long line of male musicians from Monalea in Sligo. The first woman to be handed the tradition, Belinda expressed the music of her ancestors in her own way.
“I’m the first woman to be doing it. He was a singer and he was from a family of musicians and they passed the music down to the sons really. I’m really the only daughter that has actually done something with them. It’s a bit different. It’s a bit groundbreaking in that way.
“He passed away two years ago. It’s actually him dying that in some way got me playing these tunes again. I played the Bonny Boy at his funeral and then I started playing some of the other tunes that he used to sing.
“It is emotional, and it seems to connect with the audiences as well because people are saying that they feel emotional and they feel like they’re transported to Ireland when they hear them.”
Belinda is a cousin of the popular Sligo singer Tommy Fleming, who also played with De Danann.
Tommy and Belinda were born in the same year and grew up close to each other despite being on opposite sides of the Irish Sea.
“We used to sing together when we were kids and we used to go busking together and we grew up together. Me and my brother and my mum and dad used to go over every holiday to spend time there. Tommy was my best friend so it’s great to see how the music’s been central throughout our lives.”
Tommy is lucky to be alive, let alone still singing after he broke his neck in a car accident in 1998.
“That was awful. It was such a shock. I think everybody was just reeling when they heard about it. I remember going over to Ireland to visit him. He was sat in his mum and dad’s house and he had this frame connecting his skull up. He was so brave because it was awful. I think he was very aware that he could have been paralysed. It was basically millimetres away from being paralysed.”
If Tommy had gone to bed after the accident, as he intended as he thought there had been no serious damage, he would probably have woken up paralysed.
As it was, he was given the choice between surgery or wearing a brace and neither came with any guarantees. He avoided surgery because of the damage it would have done to his vocal cords. He wore the brace for seventeen weeks and made a full recovery.
Belinda puts that down to her cousin’s spirit: “It’s not a miracle, it’s Tommy. Tommy is very hard working. He knows exactly what he wants. He’s ambitious and I can’t imagine him just sitting and letting that beat him. He’s so full of life. Anyone who’s met him knows he’ s just full of fun. I could imagine that he just said, ‘Right, I’m gonna try my hardest to get back and do the thing that I love doing’.”