Email interview with White Sail conducted by Alan Hewitt.

TWR: How has Lockdown affected the creation of this album?

Sarah: It was really interesting because all through lockdown we carried on working and 'meeting' on Zoom...we certainly didn't stop being creative, albeit in our own little worlds. But we continued to keep to a routine of doing Facebook Live concerts, each from our own kitchens and lounges, like so many musicians we found new ways of working. As part of this we still continued to work on new songs and soon as we able to meet we carried on the planning and rehearsals as best we could. Becoming used to practising outdoors in all weathers! We would play until our fingers were too cold to move! But this collection of songs are ones that we've had for some time and we just continued to develop them until we were happy that we had arrangements that would do the songs justice. The form that the song takes on, in its recorded form has the luxury of augmentation. So we very much enjoyed thinking about how we wanted each song to sound.

Chris: I think one aspect of doing this album was that after having such a fragmented time of things during lockdown it was a real joy to come together in the Crooked Room Studio, and this gave us a really great energy for the recording process. We had also had a lot of time to work on and prepare the songs, which meant that we were able to work quite efficiently and use the time well, supported by our wonderful sound engineer Isaac McInnis. That said, the renewed energy we had from coming together again in the studio also allowed us to develop some wonderful new ways of developing the song arrangements, eg adding other instruments such as the trumpet and extra percussion on top, double tracking the vocals, and so on.

TWR: Tell us a little about the ideas behind each of the songs.
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Sarah: Well, of the two songs I brought to the collection...Warm Sea is a story of me and my nephew Will swimming at Dane's Dyke near Bridlington – in late October! We're going back years actually. We decided to brave it and went for a swim on one of those weirdly balmy Autumn days...hat's off for a young Will for coping with his Auntie in her pants quite frankly! We swam out a fair way as the bay is quite shallow and it was just us, the calm sea and a horizon that stretched as far as the eye could see. A lone seagull was flying around in large circles, we were just floating and laughing, enjoying this wonderful quiet serene moment when we realised that the seagull was flying in ever decreasing circles, lower and lower to the water. Closer and closer...until it came within inches of my head! I think it was just curious to be honest but it was something that stayed with me and came out in song. Sailing Home is me standing on one leg and channelling me inner Tull. I started playing the flute more years ago than I care to mention and my main inspiration was trying to play along (badly) to Ian Anderson. During lockdown I gave myself the challenge of trying to be a better player and really put some hours in – out of the noodlings came Sailing Home, then of course Janey and Chris added the fab harmonies and their magic and there we have it.

Chris: Gravity is a song I wrote in memory of Keith Jackman. Keith was an important figure in music in York, as a master world drummer, workshop leaders and so much more. I played with him in several groups, and Sarah and Jane also knew him really well. When he was terminally ill a few years ago we all got to spend time with him during his final months, and the lyrics to Gravity were written out of that experience. I recorded the song as a solo with guitar as part of a charity CD raising money for MacMillan’s. For the ‘This Great Ocean’ EP we kept that original recording, which I just didn’t think I could improve on in the vocal or the guitar accompaniment. Jane and Sarah added the beautiful harmonies, which totally lift the song to another level.
On The Blue was co-written by myself and Jane when we were ‘To the Blue’ (it’s different now with Sarah’s amazing harp work!) I had written a chorus and had no idea what to do with it, and gave it to Jane, who quickly came up with the wonderful verse lyrics. (This is why I’m singing the choruses and Jane’s singing the verses on the track).
Jane’s song Shingle Street is named after the Suffolk coastal hamlet of the same name, which Jane and her family visited for summer holidays. Jane picked up a story of how the people there were displaced during the Second World War, which is the foundation for her song.
As you’ll notice, there’s a ‘sea theme’ running through the album and in fact almost a concept album feel to the way the five tracks connect up and move from the sea sounds at the beginning and Shingle Street through to the big Warm Sea ending…

TWR: Do you work separately or collectively on the songs?

Sarah: It's a real mix to be of us might have the idea or the lyrics, or quite often a fully formed song and then bring it to the band...and from there we work collectively. We should really do a Phil and record all our jams too, as that's when a lot of magic can happen. Chris quite often records a 'work in progress' on his phone and sends it through after the rehearsal and that helps us individually, listening and thinking about ideas. We are all really active strong songwriters and all have performed solo as well, so that really helps that there's a spread of ideas and styles. I think it makes our band really strong in that respect. We feel quite passionately and respectfully about each of us having a 'voice' both musically and how we develop ideas. For example Warm Sea – if anyone has my little 'Blueprints' EP will hear this song in its original form, all languid piano and dreamy vocals. We then gave it the White Sail treatment and I just knew that there was a more upbeat version just waiting in the wings! And it's totally transformed the song, in a good way.
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Chris: As Sarah says, it’s a real mix. I love the way that one person will bring a song along that they’ve written and then how that is worked on, with everyone contributing ideas, whether it’s harmonies, backing vocals, instruments, song structures, and so on. This is a real strength as the other members can come up with so much that the original songwriter might not have thought of. As Sarah was saying, this is absolutely part of what makes us a little different I think. And this real mix of things finds its way into our performances – audiences won’t know who is going to be lead vocalist on the next song, what instruments are going to be played in what combination – this is very much part of our USP!

TWR: How did you all meet?

Sarah: Well, we've known each other for a long time...Jane I met around 1993 I think when she joined the world music choir Chechelele that I was singing in – Chris also around the same time through mutual friends. Jane and Chris had a duo 'To The Blue' for a number of years and we used to do gigs together and I would join in with them and vice versa with me solo...York’s a very small and wonderfully intimate place for working with musicians, everyone knows pretty much everyone else! When they asked me to join them and form a trio I was incredibly excited. We have a musical chemistry and equally importantly a deep friendship that I think shows in our music together. We also laugh! A lot! Our rehearsals are essentially us laughing and enjoying each others’ company but also working hard, then rewarding ourselves by eating vast amounts of cheese and biscuits. Did I mention that we like cheese? ;-)

Chris: I think I only actually met Jane, and shortly after that Sarah, in 1997, via a friend of Jane’s at a drumming workshop run by Keith Jackman, who I mentioned earlier in connection with my song Gravity. Jane and I worked as the duo ‘To The Blue’, Sarah joined in for a gig, and then another, then another – and it eventually became obvious that there was a real chemistry, that we enjoyed working together, and that with the combination of all the instruments and our vocals, we had something a little bit different. It became obvious that we might as well officially be a trio! The ‘To the Blue’ name had come from the lyrics to a song Jane and I wrote, and ‘White Sail’ came about similarly, the title of one of Jane’s songs.

TWR: How does it feel to be able to perform these and other songs of yours again after all this time?

Sarah: Oh it's beyond words really – as I mentioned before we did a lot of performing solo and as a group on Facebook which kept our 'chops' up so to speak! But the first proper gig we did was a private garden gig and it's about so much more than the music, we always probably knew it, but actually it brought it home to us...friends all being together, connecting with the audience, feeling the songs and being able to share music making which is our passion. I've learnt also that it's not about perfection, but about emotion and the power that people playing and people listening can create. Playing music is spiritual in so many ways, being in the moment, letting it surround you, wash over you and then letting it go. For me personally I don't get as nervous as I used to, it's about so much more than giving a note perfect's about connection with the music and the audience and sharing that 'magical music moment' that only music can give. And the funny stuff too! Stage craft stuff...did I really think that playing an Appalachian Dulcimer balanced on my knees with slippy slidy velvet trousers was really going to work! Those funny moments on stage... after that gig I had a conversation with Rob Cottingham of Cairo and he said how much he'd missed that stuff, not just the live music but the funny moments that really connect you with an audience, it's real, in the moment and we're remembering and valuing just how joyous it is!
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Chris: It’s been truly wonderful. When we did our first ‘proper’ gigs again in August – a house concert in Norfolk, and a set for the Black Swan Folk Club here in York – I could feel the difference with performing live to an audience in the same place. It’s hard to define exactly, but must have something to do with the ongoing interaction between performer and audience. We can see and sense the audience responding to our performing, which of course must in turn change what we are doing. Only being together in the same place allows for this, doing ‘live’ events on social media just isn’t the same. As Sarah says the stage craft aspects can be really funny. For instance, remembering how to move around the stage without tripping over things, a real possibility in White Sail, where we play so many different instruments, where we share things like the ‘shruti box’ and where we sometimes move around, e.g. to get to the African djembe drum, which usually stays where it is during a gig.

TWR: Future plans?

Sarah: Well, by the time your lovely readers are reading this, White Sail will be on a ten date tour with Liam O'Maonlai of The Hothouse Flowers. This tour has been in the planning for two years and we are so excited about this. Liam is a wonderful performer, he embodies everything that music is about. We are going to watch and learn! When the tour is finished we'll be back to our normal weekly rehearsals and carry on developing a number of new songs that we have on the go. We have various gigs coming up so we try and balance our rehearsals so that we are keeping all the songs 'gig ready' but finding time to keep being creative.

Chris: Our forthcoming tour with Liam is obviously foremost in our minds at the moment, a really exciting adventure that will see us performing in a whole host of new towns, cities and venues. We also have a lot to look forward to, including a gig in the new year with the wonderful Ray Cooper, formerly with the amazing Oysterband. And we also hopefully have a tour of France on the horizon, which has had to be postponed previously for obvious reasons. And, we also have a lot more songs that it would be nice to get recorded, hopefully for a full 10 to 12 track CD.

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