Interview : Ninebarrow : From Concert Hall to Dining Room - Gigging During a Pandemic

Dorset-based folk duo Ninebarrow always combine extraordinary energy and grace in their work - whether studio recordings, tours, or, under the constraints of Covid-19, live streams.

The pair, Jon Whitley and Jay Labouchardiere, started to sing together in 2012 as a way of raising money to pay for tickets for the Larmer Tree Festival. They were immediately recognised as a very special folk phenomenon.

As they gathered plaudits, Jon and Jay set aside respective careers in teaching and medicine in 2016 and became full-time musicians. It was a decision that was almost immediately validated - in 2017 the duo were nominated for a BB2 Radio 2 Folk Award.

They have continued with rare momentum since - Mike Harding hailed their last album, 2018's The Waters and the Wild, as 'absolutely monumental'.

We spoke to them ahead of their third lockdown show. In conversation they are thoughtful, engaging and share a sympathetic wit as close as their trademark vocal harmonies.

Ninebarrow's music is bound, like iron staves secure a barrel, by its relationship to place, landscape and nature. The first port the conversation found was the reflexive character of these links;

Jay: "We had been walking around Dorset for years and years, long before we started singing as Ninebarrow. It has always been a big part of our lives. When we started looking for inspiration it made us delve further into the history of the places we love."

Jon: "We've always had that emotional connection, particularly with the Dorset landscape - it was deepened by what we do musically. Now when we walk around those landscapes we know so much more about the places, their names, and the stories - our relationship with the landscape has been intensified by the music."

This shared, profound fascination with place extends to the choice of venues for live performances, with churches often featuring in Ninebarrow's tour itineraries. With such clear sonic standards, you might think performing a live stream from a dining-room bay window would have been an idea that never left the drawing board;

Jon: "We love playing in churches because they are spaces built for sound - to perform in a space like that is hugely atmospheric for an audience. They light beautifully, the stonework is beautiful - we love working in venues like that. You go into a church and your primary concern is to do justice to the acoustics of the building."

Jay: "We always want to be in charge of our sound. We put so much effort into the sound when we do a normal gig. In a church you can't make it too loud, or the sound swirls, and no-one can hear anything - instead you have to work to enhance the natural acoustic."

Jon: (deadpans) "Whereas in the dining room ... " (both laugh) " ... it maybe is not so much about enhancing the natural acoustic." (both laugh again) "But there is an attention to detail that goes into different things, instead of catching a resonance from the choir stalls, it's about delivering a stream to 2,000 different sets of speakers."

With such awareness of minutiae, I suggested they might, if at all possible, like to visit each listener's house to check their speakers were correctly set up. Jon laughed immediately - as people do when the full extent of a truth is suddenly uncovered;

"Yes, exactly! We have to give the best quality streams for a broad range of settings - so we monitor it on laptops, phones, TVs."

Jay: "And in the days before we get all our friends and family to check on any device they have. Despite the constraints, we have to get it as close to perfect for the listener as we can."

The conversation then turned to what they will take from the experience;

Jon: "It has been really interesting. Foremost, having to learn a new skill - we are both techy but we had no experience with live stream broadcasting. We have approached each concert wanting to do it a bit better than the previous one, which has in part been about technology."

"The learning curve has been steep, but rewarding - dealing with unfamiliar technology trying to get the best out of it. Those are skills we will take forward - I don't see live streaming disappearing once this is all over."

Jay: "Yes. If we can get a couple of special concerts once or twice a year - bringing together everyone around the country, or beyond - that'd be awesome."

"Even though we have no audience to bounce things back off, seeing the comments coming up and reading emails afterwards saying it gave people a contact they were lacking - bringing music and a bit of joy to people’s homes - it obviously made a big difference for many people."

Jon: "Folk music has always been community orientated, but it has surprised us that the venue is not what creates that - it's the people, online or in a village hall, church or a folk club - the community is still there. That has struck us - the enjoyment of people getting together digitally has been as much as coming together for live shows."

They have also studied how other performers have put their own streaming shows together;

Jon: "We have watched a lot - in exactly the same way that when you start out as a performer the best thing you can do is see as many gigs as you can."

"You learn from them all. As live streaming is so new - watching as many as possible, particularly to see when other people are doing things right."

"Everyone has their own take on it, but what Steve Knightley does has been very good - concerts, but workshops too - folk music loves its workshops, and that has given people a bit of normality, which is vital."

Jay: "As a performer, even though when you are streaming you can't see people in front of you - knowing they are watching, it is live; you have to get it right, as you would in a gig - the frisson of anxiety is the same, and the excitement, the energy."

Jon: (laughing) "It is far more nerve-wracking than a regular gig. So much more can go wrong, and so much of it is out of your hands."

Which suggests that the complexity of the collaborative recording of their lockdown charity single for MIND, The Hour of the Blackbird, with two virtual choirs, might have been a daunting experience;

Jay: "It was complex. For the first half - when parts were coming in dribs and drabs, and you could not quite see how it would fit together - it was hard work and we could not be sure how it would turn out. But the more voices we added - it started to sound amazing."

Jon: "It was somewhere between 60-100 hours of editing before we sent it to our producer to be mixed and mastered. But so worthwhile. We have just gone past £7,000 raised for MIND in a week. It is a brilliant cause that resonates with everyone at the moment - even people who have always thought they had robust mental health are not taking it for granted."

A concern which in turn highlights what Ninebarrow can deliver through a live stream - as in a turbulent pandemic sea the harmony and enchantment of their music can provide anyone with an hour of feeling anchored, calm and safe.

You can find out about Ninebarrow's future live dates - real or virtual - here.

NINEBARROW I The Hour of the Blackbird I Donate to MIND