Profile : Winter Mountain9th December 2016
In a first incarnation, as a duo, Winter Mountain had a fine (and true) founding myth; in 2009 Cornwall's Joe Francis and Ireland's Martin Smyth met by chance travelling on a train to Memphis. They ended up playing together in both Memphis and New York; Francis visited Smyth shortly afterwards in his native Donegal, and almost organically Winter Mountain was formed.
With distinctive and pure harmonies they found success, especially live.
They drew well founded musical comparisons with Simon & Garfunkel and The Everly Brothers; they supported Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, Cara Dillon, Seth Lakeman, Fleet Foxes, Paolo Nutini and Patty Griffin. They toured incessantly. A debut album in 2013 was universally well received.
It was hard work, but a trajectory was being followed; they became the rare sort of support act who could step out unknown to an audience and earn an unashamed encore. Then, at the beginning of 2015, Smyth left.
After so long working together it must have been a traumatising period for both of them. Time heals, time goes on and time really flies - 2016 has seen Joe Francis back on tour alone, with a new album released under the Winter Mountain name. The album, I Swear I Flew, is great. More varied in tone than its predecessor, and featuring guest musicians such as Seth Lakeman, it is being measured in reviews against Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and (aptly) solo Paul Simon. At times it captures the natural swing and ebullience of the first Travelling Wilburys LP.
Francis' promotional dates took in The Blue Sky Café in Bangor, and when we met there he was strikingly thoughtful and composed - listening back to the interview tape it is notable how many times there would be silence after a question as he worked his way mentally around what he wanted to say before speaking.
We started talking about what must be the still painful subject of the split, especially what may have lain behind it rather than the immediate precipitants. At this point he looked momentarily doleful meditating on the memories, but whittled them down to an essence:
"Martin left at the start of 2015 - to be honest we had been very busy for a lot of years and spent a lot of years on the road. My memory is of a great deal of touring, with not a lot of time at home, and that must have been a major factor."
You feel from his answer that he is simultaneously reflecting honestly and carefully avoiding reopening wounds. More importantly the experience is clearly still being processed. What he does have is a definite view on how and why they worked so well together:
"We both wrote songs for the first album, mainly separately. I wrote tracks such as 'January Stars' and 'Stronger When You Hold Me', 'Kissing in the Rain'; but there was always the filter of the other person; you'd play your new song, and talk about the composition and the arrangement - anything really - down to not being sure about a word or the way the end of a phrase is lilting. Gentle experimentation until we found something we both liked. And that was really productive."
And when that ended?
"The initial writing of the songs, for me, remains the same; it's how they evolve afterwards that is different now. I have replaced the partnership to an extent by working informally with musical friends, sending them drafts of songs and just asking what they think. To be fair I also always probably took more of a lead on the arrangement and development of the songs when Winter Mountain was a duo - that experience has helped"
And you have ended up with a lot more rock edge to most of your new album?
He mused out loud for a moment before responding: "How did I arrive at that? ... Rock has always been part of what I do - I was a rock singer for a long time as a teenager and into my 20s; I was in a band called The Ammunition, we were signed and recorded an album at Abbey Road - that was an out and out rock band."
"It was through meeting Martin, and the musical chemistry between us and our voices, that dictated our path into acoustic and country music. We specifically looked for a sound that was built around our harmonies - we both loved rock, we'd talk about it a lot (laughs). When it came to putting this new album together I wanted a rawer sound, and it was natural to move back towards my own roots."
"This album is me re-establishing who I am and what I do, as much as being a series of songs I have written from the heart - I am presenting the differing facets of my own musical interests and capabilities.... so a lot of the new songs are produced quite fully, with layered guitars and harmonies, but it also seemed right for a couple of the songs to have them in their essence, stripped back and acoustic."
On the new album that fully produced sound is seen almost from the off - the first track, Platinum & Gold, starts with the poignant impression from the production that Joe is stood alone singing in an empty concert hall, before suddenly switching to something full and triumphant as the song launches. It is an effective, attention grabbing ploy (it is reminiscent of how Wish You Were Here starts with the song heard through a radio). It could have meaning, or not:
"A later track on the album, 'Banba's Crown', was originally going to start with a radio shipping forecast - the BBC shipping forecast starts with Malin Head, and that's where Banba's Crown is; it is the most Northerly point of Ireland. But I couldn't quite make it work in terms of the impact I wanted - then I ended up taking an element of that, the almost radio-like distance in the sound, and trying it on 'Platinum & Gold'; well it just works! (laughing)."
And what is Platinum & Gold about?
"I have often wondered whether it is right to talk about how songs come about. But with this song, whenever I listen to it with someone else there, they always feel they have it pegged - especially with the opening 'I feel much the same, since you left, on that day.' - they think it is about Martin leaving."
"The absolute truth is that I wrote this song after watching the Jude Law American Civil War film 'Cold Mountain' - it's an amazing film about a rural community where all the young men go off to fight in the Civil War, and it's a character study about how three women left behind cope and change. The chorus is about getting over yourself and picking yourself up after something has gone wrong - but that is still from the plot of the film!"
To take the theme of the chorus though - having invested all that time in working as a duo did you find it difficult to pick yourself up after the split?
"Initially it was a struggle. Definitely. We'd always been friends and close - it was difficult. I'd find myself wondering what I was going to do next - it was Sam Lakeman, who'd been our manager as a duo, and is now very much a mentor to me, he said, 'Just get back into it - you write songs, you record them, play live and tour - why not carry on?' But I spent much of the summer of 2015 mulling before I made the decision."
I read you travelled a lot around that time?
"Yes, it gave me real time to find myself again, and who I was. When a project you've worked on for a long time suddenly changes there is a huge feeling of displacement. This is still a slight sense when touring of that dislocation, it's strange. When it first happened I went back to Donegal, where I lived previously for a long time, then the Alps in France - to try and find myself (smiling)."
And have you?
"I'm getting there - we all are (laughing). Musically - I've kept the name and there is a degree of continuation, but in a sense it is also a complete new start for me."
In that context there is one song on the album that stands out - Morning Bell - which for its purity and poetry is the one that attracts the Paul Simon analogy. It's abstractly about a sense of freedom and exploration, and for Joe is from a very specific childhood experience:
"It's about my first act of rebellion - I was about eight or nine - I'd be put to bed, and once alone I'd hop out my bedroom window onto the roof of the coal shed and lower myself down into the alleyway that ran alongside the house and run off to explore in the darkness. This is in a very small, picturesque, village in Cornwall - St Agnes on the north coast. I never went far, it was the experience of being free."
"I still love night walking - going out at 10 o'clock into the dark and walking for a couple of hours; maybe listening to music or having the time for my own thoughts and imagination."
All the time we were talking a description chalked on the venue notice board of Winter Mountain as 'Folk from Cornwall' had been nagging in the corner of my eye - so as the interview closed I asked finally if that was a label he saw as accurate; a last thoughtful pause and he replied:
"Not at all really now and the first album had a more country sound. It's the harmony singing that led people to the folk description I think. To us it was more Californian music from the 60s that was an influence."
"I do love the folk scene in England though - and what Martin and I did was always very welcome in clubs and festivals; when we were playing live, just two voices and my acoustic guitar, maybe we did fit in."
Whether rock or an acoustic whisper on the album, stripped back to just his voice and guitar the two sets played to an appreciative audience in The Blue Sky emphasised the character of the songs. Drawing on both albums, it is his voice that projects the music; it fills the room - powerful, emotive and always heartfelt. A slow, hymnal version of Platinum and Gold formed the keystone - robbed of its recorded multilayer swagger, it was mournful, evocative and brilliant.
A real, genuine singer songwriting talent - and utterly engaging live - as we may have said before, whatever the changes and shifts, Winter Mountain is still in understated, majestic flight.