in conversation with… Georgia Lewis - by Jo Freya

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 18:59
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Georgia Lewis is a folk singer, accordionist, whistle player and sean-nós step dancer from Wiltshire. She studied Professional Musicianship at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and works in various musical collaborations with others such as Rowan Piggott, Evan Carson, Ross Grant and Aidan Bew. She performs traditional material, poems set to music and her own compositions. Georgia worked hard to create her debut CD, The Bird Who Sings Freedom, which received a nomination for a Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

That was one of the few Folk Awards evenings I hadn’t managed to attend. The Horizon Award is always a category that interests me because, even if you manage to get out and about to folk events on a regular basis, you can still miss things by not being in the right location, not recognising a name or just simply not being able to attend. I, therefore, use that category as a recommendation list and sure enough, this performer’s name kept popping up all over the place. Doing an article about Georgia felt like a wonderful opportunity to talk, musician to musician, about her life in music so far and her plans for the future. Where do you start? Logically it was a ‘what are you currently up to question?’ to which I got an unexpected response, showing that Georgia is not shy about taking on challenges and developing new skills that are not necessarily musically related!

“I’ve started renovating a Victorian terraced house in Bristol that was falling apart. The experience has been very rewarding. I’ve been learning to lay floors, change windows, tile, use power tools… the list goes on! It’s incredibly demanding and has been going since the beginning of July so I hope to finish soon and move in finally!”

Musically, Georgia began talking about her recent performances, quests and by doing so demonstrated her in-depth knowledge of music theory. “I teach a lot. Most students request voice, piano or music theory; but I teach accordion and whistle whenever asked. I first began teaching at the age of 12 and since then have gone on to lecture at my University. I teach from home and online. It’s been amazing using Skype because I’ve taught, and learnt from, people I geographically wouldn’t have been able to previously.”

“Recently I did a live appearance on the Johnny Coppin show which was recorded at the Bradford on Avon Roots Festival. I sang a song I’d written called Dead Woman’s Ditch, inspired by the spooky and historic place of the same name near Halsway Manor. The story held a fascination for me, especially for the punishment carried out at the scene of the crime. Writing the song gave me an opportunity to look at local history and experiment with writing in meter, often how folk songs are constructed.  The most famous meter I am interested in is iambic pentameter - a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable; ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… like Shakespeare uses in his prose and plays. Folk songs are often constructed in ballad form; a line of four iams followed by three. It’s been really interesting to experiment in learning the rules and then how to break them. I sang Dead Woman’s Ditch unaccompanied as I feel it takes a while for a song to be ‘worn in’. Singing without an accompaniment allows space for the vocal phrasing to develop. Later, it was this song I had the pleasure of hearing someone else perform, when I was part of an audience. It was a huge compliment to hear someone else sing something I had created. The way things get passed on and interpreted is one of the many amazing things about the folk scene.”

“I’ve also been doing step dance workshops with Les Bennet. Les and I are trying to raise the number of step dancers in the South West. Les is interested in the Mendip tradition and in reviving it. He’s revived the forgotten agility stepping competition at Priddy Folk Festival and I won the competition last summer. To help get more people up and dancing we have been doing these workshops. We’ve started an online platform for steppers to get together. It’s about encouraging people to get up, be involved and enjoy the music whether that’s singing, playing or dancing.”

I wanted to know if there was anyone who had inspired her when she first experienced folk music.

…They say don’t meet your idols... but I am glad to say I treasure the time I have spent meeting mine…”

“The first musician who really got to me, and who I would choose to listen to of my own accord, was June Tabor. Without doubt it was her voice and approach to folk music that influenced me in more ways than I realised. I first heard her live as a little girl at a concert at St George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol. Many years later it was at St George’s that I first met her on tour after the release of Apples, with guest musician Andy Cutting. Thanks to a mutual friend, Genevieve Tudor (radio presenter of Sunday Folk - BBC Shropshire), I was able to make her acquaintance. As a result, I have enjoyed many walks, talks and songs with June in the countryside. They say don’t meet your idols... but I am glad to say I treasure the time I have spent meeting mine.”

The conversation about Georgia’s house led to more detail on the practicalities and difficulties of being a professional musician, housing costs and the problems of getting on the housing ladder. Having made that step, despite only being able to do it by taking on a project, Georgia feels this will give a bit of much needed stability that many musicians never attain in their lives.

Georgia is an easy person to talk to. Our conversation flowed, with many avenues wandered down, and she often made thought provoking observations about why she has done some of the things she has done or is doing at the moment. She’s keen to emphasise the need for mental as well as physical health, and keeps those two things in focus throughout. I wanted to keep that in focus too, for this article, but felt that first we should visit the Folk Awards, how she heard about her nomination and what impact that had on her life.

“I had no idea I would be nominated until I received a telephone call from Tom Sweeney (Rootbeat Records) at midnight while I was getting ready for bed in Goa, India! I was so excited I remember jumping around the room and messaging friends and family until 5am! I had worked hard at promoting the album and I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who nominated me, the band and the album.” 

“The album was made in my parents’ kitchen, with five musicians, including myself. I co-produced the album with Josh Clark who is an incredibly talented man. The album came out on Rootbeat Records and the title track of the album was a song called The Bird Who Sings Freedom. The track was arranged by myself and the guitarist, the tune was by Jerry Jordan and the lyrics a poem by Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou was an incredible woman, she empowered so many people and I know her legacy lives on.  The Nomination helped me get recognition and put my music on the map! It’s a very handy introduction to the industry side of it all. What was really spectacular was the attention it received from all of my friends, family and the wider community. It stood for something outside the bubble of folk.”

I felt at this point I needed to back track a little as this conversation was a prime example of a stream of information that then sends you off down another little road full of interesting information…. “Eh, Goa? Tell me more,” my brain was saying, and so apparently was my mouth. “Why Goa? Was this a holiday, how long were you there and did this have a musical element?”

“I used to listen to the amazing Sheila Chandra who blends the music of her ancestors from India with folk music from the British Isles. If it hadn’t been for her or my mother’s adventurous spirit and constant need to migrate, I may never had been introduced to the amazing culture.  Both folk music and traditional Indian music share many similarities. Firstly, in the use of ornamentation to embellish a phrase and the types of songs: stories of love, loss, nature and longing. If you look at the traditions of both the Gaelic sean-nós and songs of the Baul singers from Kolkata you see an oral tradition, that is part of the community, songs of religion and spirituality. I learnt a few of the many different styles of music: South Indian or North Indian ragas, filmi songs, Rajasthani folk and music of the Baul.”

“Since my first visit to Rajasthan with my family in 2006, I have been at least four, if not five more times since. Each time I have met with musicians and shared many interesting cultural experiences. I have sung at a friend’s wedding in Maharashtra while everyone was throwing rice, sung into the wind off high temples and serenaded crowded train carriages filled with wide eyed listeners. There have been many doors opened and homes shared through being a travelling musician.”

Such beautiful eloquence. I could see this article whizzing off in all directions as every part of what Georgia says holds so much information. We live in a time where more people are aware of mental health issues and within that, or maybe because of that, it seems to me more people have mental health issues. Musicians are not exempt. Previous to the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia and I had been talking about this and we’d wandered on to her plans for fundraising activities. Obviously, some of these plans had to then be put on hold but I have kept them in here because I get the increasing feeling that Georgia is a very outward looking person who cares about the world around her and others within it. I find that refreshing, as many people don’t anymore. One of the charities Georgia likes to raise money for is MIND. Georgia talked about a skydive for charity as if she was doing it all again and vicariously taking me with her.

“On the 6th of March, after months of fundraising, I completed a charity skydive. It was an important time in my life to undergo this challenge and with no prior experience, I signed up to a level 1 Accelerated Free-Fall. I would undergo an eight-hour training, practical and written assessment, jump higher than a tandem jump and pull my own parachute.  There are no words that can explain how intense it felt waiting on the side of plane to jump towards the ground 15,000ft below. Then we jump. Commands are lost over the rush of air in my mouth, eyes wide, I’m falling fast…12,000 feet, 11,000, 9,000... until it was time to pull my parachute. Suddenly I’m left gliding alone in the sky. As I descend, the radio finally crackles into life as I follow the flight path to come in to land. 14 feet from the ground, I flare and break with the parachute, nice and steady, and finish gracefully still standing! The relief washes over me!”

“The experience hasn’t made me less afraid, but allowed me to recognise the fear within - a big mind over matter experience which I highly recommend. I’m grateful to the Black Knights for their expert teaching, advice, encouragement and sheer skill!  All donations went towards the mental health charity, MIND. If you haven’t already, please google MIND for better mental health. We raised £969.60 and you can still donate (https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/georgialewismus).

As someone in a similar situation to Georgia I am aware that there are things we want to do as a musician and things we have to do. I asked her how she managed to get that balance right.  “I’ve been able to focus on my own material thanks to the success of other music related jobs like session work, ceilidhs and teaching. It takes a certain calibre of person to want to be a full-time musician.”

…I haven’t lost work because I’m female, although the reverse is true. On occasion, a festival or club has booked me in order to gender balance and they make a point of saying it’s still based on talent and merit regardless…

I went on to ask whether she felt she had been treated differently because of being a woman.  “I find that hard to answer. I haven’t lost work because I’m female, although the reverse is true. On occasion, a festival or club has booked me in order to gender balance and they make a point of saying it’s still based on talent and merit regardless. It’s good to see people are aware and taking action.”

I asked Georgia what she has been up to since her first release, and what’s next? This question was asked before the current pandemic and shutdown kicked in, but I wanted to share with you some of what Georgia said as an example both of how exciting a time she was looking forward to and will do again the future, but also as an illustration of how many of these things will not happen or be postponed. “I recently took part in a wonderful residency at the National Centre for Folk Arts at Halsway Manor. It’s an incredible place full of magic and pastoral landscapes. The library is stuffed with goodies and the people are fantastic. They run workshops and weekend retreats all year round and I highly recommend visiting Halsway. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people! I look forward to working there a lot as it takes me away from everyday life. This year I’ve been working on a new project with a great fiddle player called Ross Grant. We shall be performing on the Saturday at Warwick Folk Festival 2020, with more dates coming!”

“I’ve also been working on new arrangements with a guitarist from Banbury called Dan Bones, our first show will be a lovely Folk Club in Wells.  This past year I’ve been very lucky in collaborating with so many fantastic musicians and songwriters; Finbar Maginn and Ben Trott (guitar), Rowan Piggott, Fred Holden and Ross Grant (fiddle), Tom Sweeney (double-bass). At England’s Medieval Festival and Nailsea Folk Club I worked with a harpist Naomi Trott, and at Downend Folk Club and London I worked with a pianist Andrew North.”

“But I haven’t stuck solely to the folk world... I co-wrote and featured on Evan Carson’s debut album, Ocipiski. Telling the story of his grandfather’s escape from Poland, the album seamlessly intertwines folk with prog-rock.  I also have two shows (Fusion & ArtRock) coming up with my previous prog band, MASCHINE. I was a prog rock keyboard player in a previous life and I can’t resist working alongside these musical giants once again!”

“I will be performing this summer at a bunch of festivals. I can’t say I have a favourite, but I was certainly impressed with Shrewsbury. Birmingham Tradfest is also such a highlight for me, it’s really well organised! For ‘the vibe’ I’d recommend Bromyard Folk Festival - it’s small and intimate with lots of cool workshops and great acts - a great way to wind down the summer as it takes place early September!”

“Recently I’ve discovered a friend of mine, Eddy Jay, has 3D printed a concertina! Eddy is a fabulous accordionist who performs with Will Pound and he also tunes accordions! So I asked him if he would alter the tuning on my box, the same as Andy Cutting’s. Now I finally have an accordion that sounds like a melodeon! It sounds beautiful - I’m thrilled to bits. We have a budding scene of Irish trad here in Bath and Bristol. If you’re passing through, I run a session on Thursday nights at The Grapes, Bath.”

My conversations with Georgia were taken at a leisurely pace over quite a few weeks, and then everything changed dramatically for everyone. I wanted to know, particularly in light of her attentiveness to the health of mind and body, how she was dealing with the coronavirus situation. “I’ve been self-isolating for the past 18 days already. My sister works for the NHS, and I can see why people at home might not realise the effect this virus is having on our hospitals and care system. You won’t know until you need help.  Musicians interact with many different social groups (students, weddings, sessions, festivals etc.) and for this reason I didn’t want to put any more people at risk.  The difficulty of loss of income will hit musicians hard. I was booked to go to China for their New Year’s Festival in February. During this time the first death was reported in Wuhan.  I never could have imagined it would spread like it has. The trip was cancelled by the Chinese government two days before our departure.”

…We won’t know the effects it will have on the music industry. The silver lining is having time to spend at home, being creative, and finding new solutions as we face this crisis

“We won’t know the effects it will have on the music industry. The silver lining is having time to spend at home, being creative, and finding new solutions as we face this crisis.  It doesn’t help that self-isolating makes it easier to be sucked into social media. With everyone showing what they’ve been up to, it feels like a greater pressure to seize the moment and promote online. For good mental health I don’t think this is helpful and a bit of social media distancing can be beneficial. I’ve taken to removing banners and pop up messages so I don’t lose time in the day responding to every message as I receive it.”

“I’ve seen a rise in online student requests recently, which is great - people looking to start or continue with their musical education. For the past two weeks all my students have been online only. I’m always developing new ways to problem solve and keep the teaching process productive and entertaining!”

And finally, I asked Georgia where she saw herself in five years’ time?  “Hmmm... in five years’ time I imagine I’ll be doing what I’m doing now, but more of it! I would love to see myself performing at Celtic Connections! That’s my dream for now!”

www.georgialewis.co.uk

Photo: Joe Hulbert

Published in Issue 134 of The Living Tradition - June 2020

Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop