You may have come across Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer somewhere in the UK or beyond. They’re one of the hardest working musical acts on the scene today and have been regulars at clubs and festivals all over the country for many years. But Vicki and Jonny’s immersion in the folk world may be slightly surprising when you discover how they started out...
They are both from classical backgrounds - Vicki played flute, piano and double bass, while Jonny was a cathedral chorister and played piano and trumpet. They met in the Essex Youth Orchestra in their late teens. Vicki went on to London’s Royal College of Music to study post-graduate solo double bass while Jonny ‘escaped’ to play jazz and funk. When looked at like this, it seems strange that their current ‘go to’ instruments are the nyckelharpa and bagpipes for Vicki and the guitar, bouzouki and accordion for Jonny.
I was aware that their work as a duo in clubs and festivals was just the tip of the iceberg, so I asked them to describe briefly some more of their current involvements. They must have been tempted to reply, “How much time have you got?” Their answer displays an astonishing range and a degree of workaholism: “Our emotional mainstay is still the traditional folk scene of clubs and festivals where we mostly perform our own brand of personally chosen folk material: a mixture of traditional and modern. Meanwhile, we also run a number of different shows for the Rural Touring Network in village halls, small theatres and the like. Current shows include Smörgåsballad, a Swedish themed show; The Whispering Road, a show with Nick Hennessey (a storyteller we worked with many years ago in the group Serious Kitchen); and Purcell’s Polyphonic Party, a baroque harpsichord trio with John Dipper that works as a classical concert show as well as a Playford Dance band. We also have two Christmas shows performed, with much merriment, in the style of Victorian Music Hall. Then, on a completely different tack, we take on period costume work for agencies and for our friends and colleagues Blast From The Past. Oh, and we’ve just finished a whole sequence of World Folk Music books for Schott Music Publishing.” Vicki has been putting together tune books for several years. She and Jonny write so many tunes between them that it seemed natural to put them together into books.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Vicki has, in recent years, taken it upon herself to build up the nyckelharpa scene in the UK. Just a few years ago, the nyckelharpa was an obscure instrument, rarely seen in the UK. It was a chicken and egg situation: nyckelharpas were difficult to come by, so hardly anyone played one. Determined to popularise the instrument, Vicki bought a number of them for people to use at her workshops. Once enthused, many students bought their own nyckelharpas and so the instrument’s popularity has grown. Vicki believes modestly that the nyckelharpa has raised it own profile. She explains: “It’s an instrument that without fail catches everyone’s imagination. I think what has allowed me to be successful in promoting it is a combination of several different elements. There are quite a few teachers in my family, and although my dad wasn’t a teacher by trade, he ran his own piping school. I went on to become a peripatetic instrumental teacher, so it’s in my blood to teach. Combine this with the advantages of being half Swedish, teaching a Swedish instrument and the wonderful instrument itself, it’s no wonder that it has really taken off. I was in the right place at the right time with the right tools. It’s been a great help to have the support of Halsway Manor behind me. I ran my first weekend there in 2012 with nine participants, and have since built up to a sold-out course in September 2015 of 42 nyckelharpa players and three tutors. This year I’ve had two fully booked weekends at Halsway, one for beginners and then again in September a full house with participants flying in from as far afield as Canada, Belgium and Germany as well as Sweden. I hope that we can continue this trend into 2017 and beyond!”
Obviously, Vicki enjoys playing Swedish music on the nyckelharpa, but she believes it is capable of much wider use. “This year Jonny and I have played for a lot of dances and I think that the nyckelharpa is an amazing ceilidh instrument. The sympathetic strings give the instrument a really powerful sound. We’ve also been playing a lot this summer as Purcell’s Polyphonic Party as a Playford dance group.”
When I first saw Vicki perform, she played mainly the Scottish smallpipes. Now, in addition to the nyckelharpa and all her early instruments, she plays the Swedish bagpipes: the säckpipa. Does she have favourites? “No, I love them all! They are all very different and I use them for different things. I started off with the Scottish smallpipes as my dad was a Highland Piper, so Highland style piping was all I knew from a very young age. I discovered the Scottish smallpipes in 1995; with the Highland Pipe fingering it was perfect for my dad to teach me. He died not long after I took them up though, and it was touch and go as to whether I’d continue playing pipes at all. Around this time I discovered the border pipes and after a long journey through several different types of border pipes I eventually found a soul mate in my Jon Swayne G pipes. These are now a mainstay of our heritage work and I love them to bits. Last to the stable of bagpipes was the Swedish säckpipa (which just means bagpipes) and I really, really love these. I’ve been spending the last couple of years really focusing on playing as ‘Swedishly’ as I can on them. It’s been a real challenge and a very rewarding one. In terms of ‘finding myself’, this was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle - Scottish smallpipes > nyckelharpa > säckpipa. If I was abandoned on a deserted island and could only take one of my sets of pipes, it would be the säckpipa. That’s if I couldn’t take the nyckelharpa, obviously!” Vicki vows she’s not interested in buying any more instruments.
Although Vicki and Jonny spend most of their time working together, they are occasionally involved in separate projects. In addition to Vicki’s nyckelharpa workshops, which involve Jonny only in chauffeuring, Vicki has done a stint at the National Theatre, and Jonny is about to do something similar at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in October working with Blowzabella’s Paul James.
The couple’s work inevitably involves a lot of time spent touring, and I wondered whether they’d prefer to spend more of their time at home in Essex. Vicki enjoys touring but bemoans the fact that it makes it difficult for them to practise and work on new material and to keep up with the mountain of admin that piles up when they’re away. Jonny’s answer has a different slant: “I adore touring, meeting new people, having new conversations, learning new music from new people. It’s what we do - and what we signed up for. I also love being at home. In some ways, time at home is all the more special for being rare. Being a bit soppy for a moment, Vicki and I have been together for so long that, in many ways, home is where we are. I miss home far more when I’m away on my own. My biggest regret is that so often when touring we have a car full of our most prized possessions and so we can drive within feet of somewhere or something amazing, but rarely get to see it for fear of leaving the vehicle unattended.”
So what do they do to relax? Jonny has recently started playing tennis and he’s inherited a nearly-functional clavichord which he plans to restore: a new time-consuming hobby. Vicki enjoys swimming and skiing. She says, “By choice I’d love to do more skiing both cross-country and downhill, but living in England makes that quite tricky. I have also spent quite a lot of time crocheting - mostly hats: 427 of them in all; selling these has enabled me to buy my latest nyckelharpa, which I’ve called Hattie.”
They are also prolific CD recorders and I asked them to describe the process of making a new recording from concept to production. They describe the process as “organic”, but what does that mean? Jonny explains: “We try hard not to over-think it. So, we haven’t yet felt the need to create a particular framework for the content of one of our recordings. We feel that we are changing over time and when a new CD comes out it reflects that musical progression. Similarly, we find that our own tastes are changing quite rapidly, so all our albums will be very different from each other as we develop. We are constantly creating new live material. Every couple of years (or so) we bring out a new album which celebrates our favourite live pieces. We rarely have a whole album of favourites straightaway. Over the years, some of the pieces we’ve recorded that we are most proud of have never been played live, and never will.”
I have seen Vicki and Jonny perform live many times and in my experience, their sets are unpredictable. We’ve all seen artists who repeat the same set list year in and year out. But Vicki and Jonny’s sets are always a fresh and interesting mix of songs and instrumentals. Do they aim to get an equal balance between songs and tunes? Jonny again: “We tend to have slightly more songs than tunes; for example, a folk club performance will generally have four songs and three tunes in each half. We tend to start with a tune to settle ourselves. That makes it sound like we have a plan - but we are very good at changing our minds too. We learnt a long time ago, having a set list and being prepared to ignore it is the most powerful place to be. Not having a set list can lead to indecision, unbalance and faffing about. Having a set list and religiously following it means that you cannot react to how an audience is responding to your music.”
Being an amateur folk musician myself with a ‘normal job’, I am always intrigued to find out whether being professional and having to take on as much work as possible to make ends meet, takes some of the fun out of playing the music you love. I asked Jonny and Vicki whether they saw any disadvantages to being professional musicians, rather than having normal jobs and being amateur musicians.
Their answer was revealing: “We feel incredibly lucky to be able to do full time what we love. To answer the question we have to deconstruct the differences between amateur and professional. In many ways, at the point of performance, there isn’t much difference between a good amateur and a professional. We are all striving to play the best we can, to be as entertaining as we can be and to win the hearts of our audiences. But there are two differences. Firstly, we have to work - so if our ‘product’ isn’t getting booked, we need to change what we do. And secondly, the work has to make money. This imperative makes us constantly redefine what we do, seek new audiences and evaluate how we run our music as a business. If we had ‘normal jobs’ we might not need to get the work, but also we wouldn’t have the time to invest in our own performance and come up with new ideas, new shows and better performances. Ironically, it sometimes feels as though we have a normal job - that’s the process of running our music business from our home office. Between those times, we go out and play gigs. The most significant disadvantage has to be the security. An ill day is a no-income day and there aren’t many contingencies that we can put in place to protect ourselves from that.”
“Having said all that, we only take work that we want to do and our joy is working together to do the absolute best that we can. However, with all the various projects that we are doing, we do have to distinguish between short-term finite projects and those that are more long term and which therefore demand more investment.”
I was interested to know how they saw their long-term musical future. Jonny explains: “Five years ago we wrote a five-year plan on the back of a pretty scrappy brown envelope. We amazed ourselves just recently by reading it again and realising that most of what we planned had come to fruition. It’s time that we made a new one. We have a number of ideas coming along for the medium term, most of which still centre around performance. In the immediate future our main plans are to develop Purcell’s Polyphonic Party, the trio playing Baroque music blended with English music collected by Playford, and a particular form of Swedish dance music that resonates with the Baroque style. We are also looking at a new storytelling show with Nick Hennessey, probably based around Baba Yaga. We are working on a new Christmas show for this winter. Finally, we are about to embark on a new collaboration with our friends Chris Green and Sophie Matthews. A sort of musical adaptation of Wind In The Willows. Watch this space.”
As will be abundantly clear by now, Vicki and Jonny are thoroughly professional folk musicians committed to a future of live performances in a bewildering variety of settings. They have enough strings to their bow and enough creative ideas to keep going for several more decades.
By Simon Haines
Published in Issue 116 of The Living Tradition