Here at Core music we regularly host events and gigs.
Dan Coggins was born in the 1970s and grew up in County Durham. He lived in rural Holmside but went to school in Sacriston during the dying years of the pits. He remembers the impact of the coal strike and pit closures on the community: his friends collected newspapers to sell to the local fish and chip shop so the family would have enough money to buy food. He was luckier – his father had a regular job – but you can’t grow up in an area where almost everyone relied on the mining industry for work without the events of those times colouring your outlook on life. “The village fell to bits,” he says. “It was not a happy place.”
He left school after GCSEs to do A-levels at college. Aged 16 he joined a band with a strong liking for synth music, playing covers of Roxy Music and Duran Duran songs as well as original material. People who know Dan might raise their eyebrows at this – he prefers early blues – but he says he was just happy to be making music.
“It was definitely an aspiration since I was young to be in a band,” he says. “There was always a lot of music in our house and always a guitar lying around.” His first musical memories are playing his Mum’s record collection on his Grandma’s stereogram: 45s from the 1950s like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, so he grew up loving RnB, rockabilly and jazz-influenced tunes. He got his first electric guitar (a Kay Les Paul copy) at age 13 or 14 and never looked back. Living in a rural area there was not much to distract him from practising until he could play along with the 50s classics.
The early 1990s was a great time to be in a band and Dan’s taste in music broadened to include everything from punk to the Pixies as well 60s greats like the Kinks and the Stones. He learned to play guitar in many different styles. “I was just curious about music,” he recalls. When the band split, Dan and the drummer formed a new band – Mooch – and started gigging around the North East. They attracted interest from major labels, moved to London, recorded in the best studios and toured nationally but their management didn’t work and the whole lot eventually fell to bits. A regular wage must have looked appealing and Dan started at Mushroom Records and its subsidiary Infectious Records – labels whose rosters included the likes of Ash and Garbage as well as the Minogue sisters. Exciting as it was to be London at this time, the music industry was cut-throat and dirty. “It was hard for musicians – they’d come back from touring the United States and I was employing them to sweep the floor just so they could afford to eat,” Dan remembers.
He took a year out to travel and returned to work at a friend’s recording London studio. “I was playing with people I respected,” he says. “They were cool people who knew a lot about music and production. I played with some astounding musicians. I didn’t make any money long-term but I learned a lot.” From there he moved to the film industry and, though it was fun working on big productions, the pressure was intense. “I was just about to get married and realised I couldn’t start my new life being on-call 24/7,” Dan says. He and his wife came to a friend’s wedding at Slaley Hall, took a morning walk in Corbridge and decided it was the place to raise a family.
The experience of the film industry was put to good use when Dan produced the North East Arts and Culture Show for Made in Tyne & Wear TV (now Tyne & Wear TV). He had begun teaching guitar in London to help out a friend and realised he really enjoyed it, so he started tutoring one afternoon a week. This was how he came to meet Core Music founder Mike Coleman.
“I totally loved what Mike was doing at Core – what he’d put together was really impressive,” Dan says. “He was doing it because he has a total belief in making music accessible to everyone.” He started one afternoon a week at Core Music and enjoyed the feel of the place. “I started telling Mike what to do and he invited me to join the Board so I could tell him in an official capacity!”
Dan is keen to share his experience of performing and the music industry through Core Music. “I know what benefits it has given me,” he says. “I’ve done what I have because I picked up that guitar at age 11. It opened up a path in my life that I wouldn’t have followed otherwise. It’s great to be able to share this knowledge.”
Core Music is working hard to develop an environment that nurtures music-making in Tynedale and Dan sees this as the best way to help people. “They’ll find a way if they really want to do it but they need the ecosystem around them for support,” he explains. “I found I learned best by being around people who were making music. Core Music provides the experience of a generation of musicians, writers and recording engineers. Being able to recognise people with creative talent and encourage them is the reason I’m here.”
Core Music has put on gigs for budding musicians to play in a safe environment and it aims to establish an accessible recording and rehearsal space for local musicians. “People need a permanent place to go, a hub – somewhere they can buy gear and have lessons but also somewhere to hang out and be creative,” Dan says.
Dan has been creative himself this past year. He and long-time friend Davey J – aka The Shining Levels – have composed an album of music inspired by The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose Books), written by Davey’s friend Ben Myers. The novel has been well received, winning the coveted Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2018. Ben has now been signed by Bloomsbury and The Gallows Pole will released in the US by Third Man Books, the publishing company set up by musical genius Jack White.
This noir tale describes the death of 18th century moorland culture as the industrial age approaches through the fall of the charismatic self-styled King David Hartley and his gang of coiners. Set in the bleak moors above the Calder valley, it is richly atmospheric and it revived memories of the north Pennine moors for Dan and Davey. They began composing as they read the book. “It seemed natural,” Dan says. “Living in Northumberland, you feel like you want to write something in keeping with the local traditions.” He sampled instruments such as fiddles and accordions to create sound collages and wove these into tuneful and reflective songs. “It’s earthy, very natural-sounding,” he adds. “We were writing very instinctively, an emotional response to the book.” The album credits several great local musicians, including Core Music’s own Mike Coleman, George Hutton and Owain Bennett.
The Shining Levels didn’t expect to shine quite so brightly. “We didn’t plan to perform the music live,” Dan explains,“but Ben Myers thought the music really suited the book and the album had over a thousand plays when it was posted online.” Rehearsals are now underway as four musicians work out how to perform songs that each used up to 35 tracks in the recording studio.
The Shining Levels will premiere The Gallows Pole at Forum Books, Corbridge on January 19th (Facebook: @forumbookscorbridge; tickets available by clicking here). “It was the first place we thought of to perform it,” Dan says. “Forum Books supported Ben from the outset and the chapel [which is the bookshop] is a great music venue.” (For those who can’t make the premiere, there will be performances in Durham and Halifax).
Few can claim (or even imagine) a musical heritage stretching from Duran Duran to The Gallows Pole but Dan Coggins has learned a thing or two about making music on his long roundabout journey from Durham to Hexham and he wants to share what he knows. “I believe everyone who wants to should get involved in making music,” he says. “The main thing is, enjoy it.”
The Gallows Pole album is available to download at https://theshininglevels1.bandcamp.com/releases
Songs from the Outlands, the debut album by the Brothers Gillespie, James and Sam, was launched in Hexham Abbey in December 2015. Its mostly traditional songs are played on fiddle, flute, shruti box, mandolin and guitar, underpinning harmonies tinted with Borders accents. Listening to the album, few would imagine the rich musical heritage that inspires the Gillespies and on which they’ve drawn once more for their new collection of songs, The Fell.
Growing up in the village of Wall, Northumberland, they were aware of folk music through their parents’ record collection but they were listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Doors as well as Simon and Garfunkel, and the teenage James played with local rock notables The Flicks. But his perspective was wider than twelve bars and three chords would allow and every Friday evening he and Sam would meet with friends in a Haydon Bridge garage to play traditional songs like She Moved Through the Fair alongside Green Day covers.
Bert Jansch, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention were among many in the 1960s folk revival that reminded a new generation of its cultural traditions, reinvigorating a musical form that spoke more directly and more intimately than rock and pop. Listening to that voice, the Gillespies felt a connection to folk music. Their influences are now so many and diverse that they struggle to come up with a representative list but the names include Dick Gaughan, Anne Briggs, Leonard Cohen, Kathryn Tickell and Martin Byrnes. As they prepare to launch their second album, The Fell, at Hexham’s Queen’s Hall on December 11th, James and Sam reflect on the melding of sound and place that defines their music.
They relish wildness. The Fell is rooted in their love of the land above Wall, a fell that rewards the steep climb with the magnificent panorama of the North and South Tynes. From here you can see the rivers, valleys and villages that form their stories and their music. “We felt, up there as children, more in touch with what we wanted life to be like,” says James. “Now it feels like an old friend.” That affection shines throughout The Fell, which is almost all original work.
Some songs are old friends. The opener, Golden One, is a tale of finding strength in natural things with a guitar riff Sam wrote as a teenager in Wall. The poem featured in the sleeve notes of Songs from the Outlands is set to music in Northumberland 1 and has long been a concert staple. It is complemented by Northumberland II, a musical setting of a poem by Hexham’s Wilfred Wilson Gibson.
It’s not only Northumberland that inspires: the Gillespies have close links with the mystical area around Dundon in Somerset, where Glastonbury Tor and Cadbury Castle, an ancient site linked with King Arthur’s Camelot, stand over the floodplains of the Levels. Two songs on The Fell come from the love shared between Dundon and Wall. Coventina’s Daughter was written in Somerset but draws on the story of the Celtic water goddess whose temple was at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall; Wilderness and Wild, which grew from both locations, describes the calling of a community to the soul of a departed child. The Gillespies have fond memories of Somerset: “One of the guys who came to the gig had an ancient cider press in his barn, a creaking old hulk,” says James. “He invited us to breakfast on two pints cider at ten the next morning and we stood round the barrel with a shrine to the Green Man on the wall. It was a distinctly good brew!”
Such experiences are the rich fruits of travelling to perform all over the country. (The less romantic aspects of driving between gigs include camping by the car and getting stuck in the fairground dodgems that constitute traffic in central Paris.) “You have adventures, you have hardships and you have wonderful times,” Sam says, and these emerge in their music. The optimism of Banks of the Liffey comes from Sam’s experience falling asleep by the Dublin river with a friend, beer in hand, and waking with renewed awareness; but it has a sadder side, telling of a community no longer able to pass on its ideals to its young people.
The Gillespies met Tina Louise Rothery, the leader of the Lancashire Nanas anti-fracking group of grandmothers who was threatened with imprisonment for refusing to pay Cuadrilla the £55,000 in legal fees it incurred by taking out an injunction against her. Tina’s Song celebrates her bravery: “It’s almost an historical political ballad song,” says Sam. “It’s also a praise song for their warrior spirit of resistance.” The Fell has strong political threads, James adds: ““There has maybe been a wholesale depoliticisation of music – I sense this is changing.”
The track list of nine is completed by the traditional Scottish ballad The Road to Dundee and Blackberry Blossom, a traditional tune with lyrics by US folk activist Michelle Shocked telling a tale of transformation and loss – another regular on the set list.
Performance is the life blood of musicians but it’s hard work arranging gigs. The Gillespies book their own events – a job ideally for an agent but one they currently squeeze into the spaces between writing and playing. “It’s about building relationships with venues, building networks and lots of emails,” Sam explains. “You really should be on the phone for hours a day.” Recognising that ticket prices may be out of reach, particularly for young people, they admire innovative ways to reach an audience, like crowdfunding and pop-up events.
The house concert is one example of how a community can act: people decide they want to enjoy some music and they simply get musicians to come round to their house and play. Sam recalls one recent house concert in someone’s front room in Hexham. There was no entry fee – a hat was passed round and the proceeds went to the musicians. “What keeps us going are people around the country who help us to organise a gig here and there,” James says. “Communities reaching out are hugely encouraging for the artists and it creates affordable gigs.” It also strengthens the community by creating a shared experience and shared joy in music, and this has the potential to tackle social ills such as loneliness and isolation. “This is a huge part of restoring the value of music, otherwise it’s an expensive way of sitting on a hard chair for a couple of hours.”
So the three years since Songs from the Outlands have been well spent, honing the music for The Fell through performances throughout the country. But these are challenging times for the arts generally and music education in particular. The Gillespies are strong advocates of public support. “We need to celebrate culture, we don’t do enough,” James points out. “Yes, it is important to fund science and engineering but there is a tacit undervaluing of things that engage the imagination. Music education shows young people that it offers a legitimate path, not just something to dabble in before finding a ‘proper job’.”
Music and the arts in general need local cultural activists. Rural Touring (www.ruraltouring.org) is one example of how the efforts of community volunteers can be coordinated to make touring economically viable and the Nest Collective (http://thenestcollective.co.uk) is showing how folk music thrives in non-traditional venues.
So the spirit of folk music is alive and well and positively thriving at the grass roots level – which is arguably the healthiest place for music to thrive. Anyone who has a yearning to join in should pick up an instrument and start now, the Gillespies say.
“Play for the joy of it,” Sam says. “Don’t get bogged down thing you should be at a certain level and don’t worry about comparing yourself with other people. Find people to play with and play on your own as well.”
“Share your music with the wild places,” says James. “River banks and hills enjoy hearing music, even if there’s no people there. It reanimates the landscape.”
After Mariae’s successful workshop at St Aidan’s church in October, here’s another chance to learn some songs from Eastern Europe! Mariae is a Polish-American singer and actor who is highly experienced in voice work and in running workshops. This workshop will look at traditional polyphonic songs, primarily from Ukraine, as well as Serbia.
The workshop will cover breathing, a small introduction to “white voice” singing, which creates the unique sound of Eastern European traditional song. There will be a focus on blending and harmonising one’s voice with other voices, and a chance to improvise vocally.
Whether you’ve been singing your whole life or you’ve never dared to sing outside your shower, come try something new and exciting!
To book your place, email Mariae at firstname.lastname@example.org – spaces are limited, so book ASAP
Ages 16 and up
Please bring water to drink
Mariae Smiarowska is a Polish-American actress and singer. She trained with Ecoles Jacques Lecoq in Paris and with Song of the Goat Theatre in Wroclaw, Poland, where she led vocal courses and workshops over the last few years. Mariae collaborates with various artistic collectives, such as the Jubilo Foundation and IP Group in Wroclaw, as well as Théâtre Sans Frontières in England as an actor and singer.
For the last couple of months, Steve Gray’s been running a twice-monthly session for beginners on the mountain dulcimer. Because it’s been so much fun (and because there were a few people who couldn’t make the current run of sessions), Steve’s going to be running another 6 sessions in the New Year.
The sessions will be 7.15–8.15 pm on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, starting on 9 January 2019.
If you’re not familiar with the mountain dulcimer, check out some videos on YouTube to experience the sweet sound and see how simple they are to play.
If you’d like to book a place on Steve’s New Year dulcimer sessions, drop him a line at email@example.com. It’s just £30 for the 6 sessions, payable in advance; there are only 5 places available, so book soon!