Catalysts : Ben Webb (Bird in the Belly)21 July 2020
From its first austere guitar notes, there is a gothic, foreshadowing winter splendour to Robin & Starling, the opening track of Bird in the Belly’s second album, Neighbours and Sisters - which was released last autumn.
There is real depth to the quartet’s work - Neighbours and Sisters is riveting, bleak social history with a modern resonance and a folk album of stone-heavy heft.
Ben Webb’s distinctive voice is a key element of the band’s sound - and the songs he writes are a vital part of its brooding creative energy. He performs solo and writes as Jinnwoo - under that guise he is also one quarter of the unaccompanied traditional song project, Green Ribbons.
It is an evolving, complex body of work that sparks interest in Webb’s own cultural hinterland. Asked to choose three key recent inspirations, the range and fascination of his picks did not disappoint - each is detailed below in his own words:
Penda’s Fen (dir. Alan Clarke, 1974) - 'A coming of age film set in the fens, where a teenage boy’s sexual awakening is mixed with folk culture and visions of the last Pagan king, Penda. This film made English folk heritage seem really visceral and exciting, and beautifully illustrates the mix of cultures present in the heritage of England.'
Bird in the Bush (Frankie Armstrong, Anne Briggs, Lou Killen, A. L. Lloyd, Norman Kennedy, 1966) - 'A collection of traditional erotic songs put out by iconic folk label Topic. Some of the UK’s best storytellers have been recorded beautifully on this record, and the songs are incredibly special. British Folk culture is often seen as stuffy and pretentious, but these songs disprove this judgement - they are romantic, erotic and exciting.'
Collected Plays (Sara Kane, 1995 - 2000) - 'These plays are shocking, bloody, mystic and terrifying. Kane turned theatre on its head during her short life and career, and proved British Theatre can continue to evolve. The visual images she makes are wonderfully dark and inspiring.'
Offering a world of sunless and delightful folk-noir (“raw, vivid, magical music from the shadows of a nineteenth century back alley grog shop”), Webb’s band, Bird in the Belly, are paradoxically one of England’s most illuminating folk collectives - you can find their music here.
BIRD IN THE BELLY I Robin & Starling