Andy was born in Harrow in 1969. His parents were regulars at their local folk club (Herga), and became interested in Morris dancing. Andy and his younger brother were often taken to dance practices, and also on tours, so they were surrounded by traditional dance and music from an early age.
I first heard Andy Cutting with the wonderful Blowzabella at The Brewery, in Kendal, in the mid-1990s, and thought at the time how young he looked to be such an accomplished musician. I last saw him in 2017 when he was playing with the differently wonderful Leveret, and thought... how young he looked for such an accomplished musician.....
Just for a moment, I began to wonder if playing the melodeon was the way to eternal youth, but quickly recalled other melodeon players I had come across - particularly with Morris teams - and realised that the mystery of life is probably not explainable with reference to the melodeon. I then went on to wonder if the key to his eternal youth might have something to do with the countless take-away meals he has had to consume in his 30 years on the road, but quickly recalled how I feel - and look - after the occasional Chinese pig-out, so I thought I had better track the man down and see what he had to say for himself.
Firstly, though, a few facts: Andy was born in Harrow in 1969. His parents were regulars at their local folk club (Herga), and became interested in Morris dancing. Andy and his younger brother were often taken to dance practices, and also on tours, so they were surrounded by traditional dance and music from an early age. Interestingly, Andy’s first instrument was the drums, sometimes with his mother’s Morris team, and also in rock bands at school, but he knew that he wasn’t going to be the next Ginger Baker, and started thinking about taking up a melodic instrument, instead.
“I had set my sights on the hammer dulcimer, but I couldn't afford one. One day at a local session I was with a friend, Pete Thompson, who was a box player and he was talking to the pub landlord who was thanking Pete for the loan of the melodeon, but he just didn't get on with it. It was a beaten up old instrument, and I offered to repair it as I had done an ‘O’ Level in woodwork. A couple of weeks later having sorted out a load of leaks and non-working reeds, I returned the melodeon to Pete. He asked how I'd got on. I said about sorting the leaks out and how it seemed to work much better now. He said, ‘No, I mean how did you get on playing it?’ It had only been back together for a couple of days, but I played him a couple of tunes I’d worked out, and his response was, ‘You bugger. It took me six months to get a proper tune out of a box.’ And so my box playing began.”
With a good number of tunes under his belt, Andy was asked to join a local ceilidh band (by name of Happenstance), and stayed with the band for a year or two before Blowzabella beckoned. Popular as this band was, there were still lots of blank pages in Andy’s diary, and his next move was to join forces with singer and fiddle-player Chris Wood. The duo proved hugely successful, but still didn’t dominate his musical life, and left plenty of opportunities for him to appear with just about every well-known individual and band on the current UK folk scene.
I think Andy has the unique distinction of having become BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards’ Musician of the Year on three occasions, the last being in 2016. On the night of the 2016 awards, he also appeared on stage providing what, to my ear, was the only bright spot in an otherwise rather dull performance by Mark Knopfler (why does the Folk Awards programme feel it has to promote pop-stars, when there are plenty of folk-stars out there?), and one of his current groups, Leveret, was also nominated, but lost out to the irrepressible Young‘uns.
Before delving further into Andy’s musical life, I thought it might help non-melodeon players to learn a little more from him about the instrument. As a starter, I asked him if it wasn’t just a concertina on growth hormones. “Well, basically it is! As far as I know the concertina came first and the button accordion followed. Using a free reed fixed to a frame and blowing air through it is nothing new. The Chinese Sheng dates back as early as 1100 BC. Using bellows and a frame with multiple reeds attached with pads and buttons fitted opens up a whole world of design options.”
Without wanting to get too technical, I asked Andy to tell me about the different instruments described as ‘melodeons’. “If you think of the free reed world as a family tree with different branches, you have concertinas (each with different button layouts - English, Anglo, chemnizer, bandoneon and duet); accordions (piano and chromatic button accordion); diatonic (diatonic button accordion, melodeon), and mouth organ. Diatonic simply means the notes of a major scale without any chromatic alteration. Just a point of note: in the UK people insist on calling the diatonic button accordion a melodeon. A melodeon is a single row instrument with ten buttons or keys, with an exposed action, playing a diatonic scale with either two or four bass buttons. Anything else is a diatonic button accordion.” (I hope this wasn’t too technical!)
A question all non-melodeon players will want me to ask is: Why is the melodeon/button accordion so LOUD in sessions? Andy knows why: “Most melodeons and diatonic accordions have more than one reed per note. These reeds can be tuned exactly the same (dry) or slightly out of tune with each other. The greater the difference between the pitch of the two (or more) reeds on the same note, the more interference (beats) there is. This effect can make the instrument really cut through and sound very dominant. However, the volume of playing is the operator’s choice and sadly so many play inappropriately loudly.”
Well, that’s got the contentious stuff out of the way, and feel free to direct any vitriol straight to Andy himself! Nowadays, I regard Andy as one of a growing number of musicians actively and effectively promoting English traditional music, and wondered if he could see the day when it was as popular as, say, Irish music. “No, not really. It's a different thing and for me it serves a different purpose. I'm happy with that.” Andy also has played loads of music from ‘across the pond’. “The music I learnt from Quebec came about because Chris (Wood) had been over there and came back wanting to play some of that music, mainly because he saw it as having European roots, but it had developed in a way that music in England hadn't. We thought it would be a great way to inject a bit of colour and light into our own music. I'm not sure it worked though.” (Others might disagree!)
Andy has written some memorable tunes - from the completely manic Spaghetti Panic, through History Man, Flatworld and, more recently, Milford (a personal favourite). I wondered how he went about the business of writing tunes. “I'm very much a maker-up of tunes rather than a composer, although I've done a bit of writing to order recently. Most of my making-up happens away from the instrument, usually while walking my dogs, and singing into a recorder.” I wondered if it bothered him that that a tune like History Man had been ruined thousands of times in sessions across the world. “Once you have written a tune and it is out in the world I think it then has a life of its own. Yes, it bothers me that many people are lazy when learning tunes, playing what they think it sounds like rather than how it actually goes, ‘ironing out’ the tricky bits, etc. Someone once accused me of being really particular about a certain note they kept on playing wrong, while I was teaching them. It is our responsibility as musicians and players to learn a tune as accurately as we can from our source, whether it is in a session, off a record or from the composer directly.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Andy wouldn’t describe himself as a multi-instrumentalist. “I play the triangle occasionally, and I also own a hurdy-gurdy, but I wouldn't say I can play it although I have done on a few records. I can sing, but it just sounds terrible. Basically, as I don't sound like James Taylor, I don't bother.” If the melodeon had never been invented, I wondered what melodic instrument Andy might well have taken up. “I'd probably give the piano a proper go. I had lessons years ago and even have a couple of grades, but I was terrible.”
On a more personal note, Andy is married with a family of three, and I wondered how he managed to keep the family happy when spending so much time away from home - and it wasn’t just idle curiosity which prompted this question, as there will be many aspiring musicians out there who might be wondering how to achieve a work/life balance. “It is really hard. By its nature I am away a lot on tour so my wife has to be - and is - incredibly understanding. She has worked with bands and been on tour many times both selling merchandise and as a tour manager, so she understands that it is hard work and not endless parties. My children know it's what I do and seem fine with it. It is important when you are back from a tour that you fit into and partake in home life. Yes, it's a bit like a weird state of jetlag, but very important.”
Andy’s musical influences are many and varied: “Most of the people I've ever worked with have influenced me in one way or another. Bruce Warburton, Pete Thompson and Ian Dedic, John Kirkpatrick, Marc Perrone, Riccardo Tesi, Chris Wood, Ian Carr, Karen Tweed, Huw Warren, Ceri Rhys Matthews, Julie Murphy, June Tabor, Martin Simpson - I could go on.” I dared to ask Andy if he would mention two or three of the individuals/groups he has most enjoyed playing with, and why: “Chris Wood - from the moment we sat down to play for the first time it just worked. Without any discussion it was obvious that whatever we were doing, we were aiming for the same goal. June Tabor is just so good. It is really hard playing at that level, but everything is so focused and it makes your playing and musicianship so much better for it. Leveret - it is a total joy to find people to work with who say in music what you try to say yourself. They are such brilliant musicians and are so generous with their music. I love working with Blowzabella and Martin Simpson as well.” Having played for so long with some of the best musicians on the folk scene, I wondered what Andy might hope to achieve over the coming years, and his modest reply sums up the man: “To play the same, but better.”
And finally, I wanted to know the secret of Andy’s eternal youth; surely not make-up? “Ha! Ha! I think it must be the genes.”
Of course, I have been focusing on Andy’s age in this article, but I came across the following on YouTube, so perhaps I now need to ask him another question!!
by Nigel Harbron
Published in Issue 125 of The Living Tradition magazine.
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