The Betty Fox School of Ballet in Birmingham… The disused Dinorwig Slate Quarry in North Wales… The dramatic mountainous landscape of Snowdonia… A battered old lighthouse… A renegade 14th century priest in Kent… Film scores… Scandinavian folk music… Opera tours… Strings… Brass and woodwind…
Such is the wide convergence of influences drawn from The Old Dance School’s individual backgrounds in jazz, classical music, folk, world music and pop that pigeonholes are impossible, but this is a band on a mission.
“I’m not a fan of pigeonholing,” leader and guitarist Robin Beatty agrees. “When we began writing we weren’t aware of boundaries, we were more informed by stuff around us. These days it’s perhaps necessary to sum yourself up in one sentence. We draw from classical and jazz as well as folk musics. We’ve been described as cinematic folk, which implies taking things from soundtracks, the qualities of film music. When we’re writing, we want to evoke an image and sense of place.”
Originally from the Peak District, Beatty has been described by National Geographic magazine (and how many musicians get to quote that in their promotional blurb!) as “the Nick Drake of the mountain world”. No idea what that means, but Beatty did appear at the World Environment Concert at Camden Palace, has composed numerous scores for nature films, listens to a lot of jazz and Scandinavian music and cites Bill Frisell and Ian Carr as his primary guitar heros.
The rest of the band have similarly disparate tastes and backgrounds. Violinist/viola player Helen Lancaster studied with the great Israeli musician Rivka Golani and has a shelf full of awards from her work with the Nero String Quartet. Samantha Norman spends much of her time in the pit at the Royal Shakespeare Company; Dartmoor-born trumpeter and flugel player Aaron Diaz has played with endless jazz/fusion outfits including the legendary Destroyers; singer/whistle player Laura Carter was tutored by William Lyons, director of the Early Music group, The Dufay Collective; and double bass player Adam Jarvis is also a member of pop trio Buzzard Lope.
The one thing they have in common is that they were all studying at Birmingham Conservatoire in 2006 when they sat in the garden of the Betty Fox School of Ballet discussing their mutual interest in traditional music forms and decided to form The Old Dance School. They released their debut album Based On A True Story in 2008, winning enthusiastic reviews and Radio 2 airplay from Bob Harris… and they’ve been having the time of their lives ever since.
In 2012, the band parted ways with Cajon man Tom Chapman, also of The Urban Folk Quartet, and was joined by multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux, whose other credits include being Grand Finalist in the 2008 Young Musician Of The Year, televised to 1.1 million people, and Manchester folk fusion outfit, 4Square.
It’s a tight, but ebullient unit, as you might expect from a group of 20-somethings who live together, bicker genially, rehearse constantly, mercilessly take the rise out of one another and operate as a genuine democracy. This has its drawbacks of course – “we’ll spend an hour niggling over one bar” – but it all comes together on stage.
“There’s a great scene in Birmingham with all the jazz and world and folk musicians and we found we had a shared interest in traditional music. You don’t expect to find that around a classical music school. So we started playing for ceilidhs, then writing our own stuff and experimenting. Melody is our building block but everyone has their own voice and there are so many amazing rhythmic possibilities with this music, and we’re loving it…”
– Colin Irwin, Properganda [Abridged]