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State Of The Union, National Centre for Early Music, York, May 9
IN the grand tradition of the “Special Relationship”, State Of The Union combines the talents of England and America in the form of cult singer and songwriter Boo Hewerdine and stalwart guitarist Brooke Williams.
Tomorrow night, courtesy of the Black Swan Folk Club, you can hear their contemporary folk, acoustic pop and bluesy Americana at the National Centre for Early Music in York.
“Exactly a year ago, as it happens on successive weeks, Boo and Brooks both did solo shows at the Black Swan,” recalls club organiser Roland Walls. “They were two nights of great music with capacity audiences, so we’ve jumped at the chance to bring these master musicians back to York as a duo.
“This time they’ll be promoting their self-titled album, which taps into a multitude of influences, from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to Blind Lemon Jefferson, the wide open Fenlands to the frenetic buzz of London.”
The seeds for State Of The Union were sown when Brooks was called in at the eleventh hour amid “terrible snow” to replace the billed special guests at his Fenland neighbour’s annual Christmas shindig two winters ago.
Boo lives in Ely while Brooks, originally from Statesboro, Georgia, USA, had settled over here in Cambridgeshire too.
“Normally I have to go abroad for collaborators but Brooks lives in nearby Cottenham,” says Boo, former frontman of The Bible.
“Boo rang me up that morning and asked: ‘Could you, would you?’ To which I responded, ‘Yes’,” recalls Brooks. “The audience loved it, we loved it, and soon we were playing together as often as our schedules allowed, and working on a collaborative album.”
Boo had been instantly impressed by Brooks’s musicianship. “For that Christmas gig, he came down and learnt it all in an hour!” he says. “After he played that night, we straightaway said let’s do an EP.
“We wrote songs over the summer, ten days or so, writing h together and separately too, and we then booked a week in my friend Mark Freegard’s studio in Glasgow.
“We talked a lot about how we wanted the record to have a vintage sound, so we needed ribbon microphones, which I think Mark got off eBay. They’re quite bulky things that no doubt someone was happy to be rid of!”
Boo and Brooks had envisaged recording the album over five days last August. “But we then played back the first track and it sounded so amazing, we thought, ‘let’s record the second track’ and I’ve never worked like that before, as it’s normally a job at the end of the recording sessions, but this time we did it in track order, all in one take, and in only a day and a half.
“We also did something neither of us had done before, working without headphones, so what you hear is two people reacting to each other.”
Brooks had been dissatisfied with the production on his previous records and it was his suggestion to make the album in a retro style. “We wrote the songs as if they could have been on a record in the Forties or Sixties, which is a really freeing experience,” says Boo. “We wanted to play the songs as simply as possible, though actually the trick is to make the difficult sound simple, as Paul Simon said, and I’ve always carried that thought around.”
The album, which has been described as “like a concert delivered in your living room”, was released in early April on Reveal Records to enthusiastic reviews in Q and The Word magazines.
So prolific have been Boo and Brooks that they have written most of their next album already. “We’ll go back to the same studio this summer,” says Boo.
“We’ll be bringing in more musicians: Roy Dodds, the drummer from Eddi Reader’s band; Kevin McGuire, who plays with Kate Rusby; and Gustaf Ljunggren, who made a record with me in Denmark about ten years ago, when I was going to make a solo record but I was told about this great Swedish guy who could play anything – Gustaf.”
Should you be wondering how Boo and Brooks settled up their band name, let Boo explain: “I was standing in garden where I’m standing now for this interview, and I was thinking, ‘he’s American, I’m English, let’s call it State Of The Union – though we did discover there was a hardcore dance group that had the same name in America!”
They won’t be covering any of that group’s numbers any time soon, but the album does feature Boo and Brooks’s interpretation of a Pet Shop Boys single. “We thought that if we were going to do someone else’s song, let’s do the most unusual one we can, so we chose the electro-pop Rent,” says Boo.
As for their own songs, he reveals: “A lot of them have come from our discussions about how Brooks feels about living over here and how I feel about touring over there.” Hence State Of The Union is the perfect name for the duo.
The Black Swan Folk Club presents State Of The Union at National Centre for Early Music, York, tomorrow at 7.30pm. A 30-minute set by York singer-songwriter David Swann will be followed by two sets by the headliners. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk