Profile : Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage14th November 2016
Approaching Rhyl from the West on a cold, dark November Friday evening there were serried regiments of bungalows pressing against one side of the road, and hulking, bovine masses of holiday caravans against the other; the repetition over miles making it both bleak and surreal. Reaching the town's edge there was the sudden compounding, discordant rhythm of incessant and agitated homecoming traffic.
On instinct alone it's not the first place you might look for edifying music, but I was there to meet Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage before they played a couple of sets at Rhyl Folk Club. The trip was inspired by hearing their debut album as a duo, Before the Sun, which we have already framed here as 'a gorgeous, mellow delight'; and more specifically by a desire to understand where its elegant folk soundscapes come from.
I met them in a car park, the venue not yet open. They'd driven all the way from East Anglia for the gig, a tortuous journey, but they were sat happily, despite the gloom, in a car crammed with instruments. We drove to the nearest pub, and found a table in a corner of its loud and overlit interior to talk.
From the off they were both warm, and especially effusive about their music; Hannah the more immediately open, Ben slightly more reserved and focused - giving you the feeling at times that he was putting as much thought into his words as he would later on stage to the harmonies and guitar parts he'd weave around Hannah's vocals.
They are both from English folk-singing families, but their album brings together English and American influences, for obvious reasons once Ben started by explaining how they came to work together:
"All this has happened very naturally - I met Hannah in the Black Fen Folk Club near Cambridge, she had just moved back from America after eight years and I'd just come off tour with The Willows. I saw her perform, things developed from there and I produced her solo album (Charms Against Sorrow), then we toured it."
Hannah interjected, laughing:
"It might have ended up like that, but I started the tour on my own! I am perhaps not the best person to be a lone wolf as a musician (laughs again) - touring solo I kept calling Ben and he gave me a lot of advice and coaching ... then when he wasn't working with The Willows I'd persuade him to come and join me incognito and play some of the parts we'd worked on in the production of the first album. It became more fun and developed organically."
"We toured together a lot like that over a year - and then, in the daytime, waiting for the show, you play together in the gaps - not necessarily what you are going to play for work in the evening - and we slowly started writing, arranging and singing duets almost without thought, and definitely without a plan."
"I use to sing harmonies with my family, and I'd missed the element of hearing other voices - and when Ben started singing with me it was such a lovely thing - it gave a backbone to the songs which wasn't there when I was doing it by myself. We started to explore what we can do with our two voices and two instruments - and we are still in the exploratory phase of that journey..."
"...and it's pretty exciting what you can do with those four things - you can get a full dynamic range, you can make a fairly thick texture and you can also pare it down to beautiful thin textures, and adding different effects to give different colours is fascinating for us - we experiment a lot singing in unison or harmony; the perfect combination of limitation and potential interest. The songs almost fell into our lap working this way."
Before the Sun was produced in Canada by David Travers Smith - a renowned producer who was their first (and unlikely) choice - he only ended up actually doing the work as one night, fortified by red wine, they emailed him speculatively and then got the complete surprise of a 'yes' back a few months later. Despite his work on Hannah's first release Ben decided against doing it himself, as he wanted an outside ear to bring the ideas together:
"With a project like this your head is sequentially in the writing, arranging and then performance ... add in production (yourself) and you can lose the benefits of being slightly removed, like you would be on someone else's album."
Hannah (at first to Ben):
"You are such a perfectionist too - it might have taken us ten years to finish! (laughs) You are searching for the perfect performance and it helps to have someone outside help you see when you have given that."
"We had listened to the records David had produced - he combines a drive for absolute sonic clarity with a love of the authenticity of acoustic instruments and of the voice - he keeps the feeling of there just being two people in the room singing."
"I am not reviewing our own record (smiles) but David had made some beautiful sounding records. He is quite old school but produces ground breaking folk and country - very different (artists) to us, but he creates this clear image of the duet in the middle of a subtle soundscape. A master of musical colours."
"It only took ten days to record - it had to - it was the only time we had in the middle of The Willows spring tour!"
Listen to the album and the way Ben describes how David Travers Smith works is exactly what you get; it is deceptively simple at times, but there's hidden complexity, depth and colour. They brought the recordings back from Canada almost complete, but knew they wanted to add some other guests, as Hannah made clear:
"We wanted to bring in people from the scene we work and live in - we made up a wish list, including Jon Thorne, the bass player, who had worked on 'Charms', and then for 'Deep Blue Sea' we wanted a real sense of chorus and Jim Causely's voice fitted perfectly - we met Jim on Sark and mentioned this and the next thing we knew Phil Beer had recorded Jim's parts and sent them to us out of the blue - it was so generous. The guest parts were almost all pieced together in that ad hoc way."
Their own songs on the album are very successful, and there are new ones being written, but they want to keep a balance - as Ben spelled out:
"We treat our own songs and the traditional ones with the same level of care - it was important to Hannah after the traditional songs on her first album not to jettison that strand. How we go about the arrangements - it's all the same - just for some of the songs the source is us!"
"There's a pressure putting your songs next to such established work - already sung for hundreds of years. That comparison - it helps us keep the quality up!"
Time was slipping past, they had a gig to play - Hannah finished by stating why she has so much passion for what she does:
"In the most wonderful moments - and often this is when a whole room is singing, or something that happens between the two of us shared with an audience - we are all tapping into a shared moment of humanity..."
Ben then emphasised the point:
"... and we are trying to work with that more consciously than we have ever dared before. To give people something rawer and purer than all the noise and distraction they have to live with. It's for that moment."
Despite the apparent seriousness in their final thoughts they finished both laughing and joking, unhurried even with pressure on their time.
Hannah and Ben are considering a live album as a next step - and performing to an audience they manage to combine the absolute musical precision and grace of the recordings, with the warmth and honesty of their offstage characters.
In Rhyl they had the club crowd rapt from the start - effortlessly as there is a charisma that comes from the sheer connection they have to what they are presenting. Hannah sings as if she inhabits the songs and their stories; she has an exceptionally pure, plaintive voice, but it is never, ever bloodless. Ben's live guitar parts are flawless - every note is made to work (and be savoured); he articulates emotion with his instrument with no clutter. The interplay between their two voices is exquisite.
They stand almost facing each other to perform - the exact and often minimalist detailing of the songs demanding constant attention on their partner. Watching them lean momentarily, and almost imperceptibly, back from the antique microphone they use to get the perfect sound, or catch the other's eye as they play together, draws you into the performance. It is has all the intimacy and intensity of closely watching a master craftsman working fine jewellery.
I could list the songs and map out each with the necessary superlatives - but really you should just go and see them. I have to insist on that. It's folk music - it has the heritage and the songs evident - but it has a quality and depth to the arrangements and performance that means it easily transcends the constraints of any preconceptions.
As interpreters of traditional music, reinventers of cover versions, and singer songwriters in their own right, Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage are genuinely and absolutely extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word. Despite different influences they have all the freeze-time magic of early Gregson & Collister, and an added dash of their own.
HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE I Minor Key
HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE I Unquiet Grave