BELINDA O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are on the road with their WinterFolk Volume I album of original, contemporary and traditional winter songs, playing a sold-out show at Thorganby Village Hall, near York, on December 22.

Far from the crowded market place of jolly, frothy, fake-snow Christmas albums, O’Hooley and Tidow reflect on the darker hues of Yuletide, considering the alternative, painful reality of Christmases more in keeping with Dickens’s two spectral children in A Christmas Carol, Ignorance and Want.

The absence or loss of children; domestic violence; global warming; poverty; religion; displacement; migration and loneliness: this is the ivy and holly bitter stuff of O’Hooley and Tidow’s health report on the state of the nation and the home at Christmas.

For balance, the West Yorkshire married couple also extend an invitation to indulge in the gorgeousness of winter, by the fireside, a favourite record playing, warming glass in hand, in what they endearingly call “The Introvert’s Guide To Christmas”.

“We feel that Christmas can be a different experience for some than the tinsel and mince pies for many of us," says Belinda. "It really can be a very difficult time and so we've recorded The Winterfolk Carol to reflect that.

"It's a Christmas carol for today, reflecting people’s need to connect to others, despite displacement through circumstances such as war, homelessness, debt, family conflict, sexuality and bereavement.

"We feel that with traditional carols, there isn't a carol that addresses those things: wanting to connect with other people, having a hand to hold, even if it's not a connection with your family."

BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ben Walker has contributed contemporary classical string arrangements, reminiscent of the melancholic beauty of Max Richter's compositions, while Belinda and Heidi have re-composed some of their own winter songs from early albums Silent June and The Fragile, creating mature, poignant and considered interpretations.

Among them is The Last Polar Bear, a glacial love song from 2012's The Fragile, re-booted with new words and a more contemplative performance. "We've slowed it down, changed the key to a lower one, Heidi takes the lead vocal this time, and we've swapped the lyrics around, so it's now also about loneliness and a feeling that love might not last, with bereavement reflected in that song," says Belinda.

"Ben has made a great contribution to the new recording with some amazing strings, which he recorded with southern musicians as he lives in Brighton."

York Press:

O'Hooley & Tidow's album cover artwork for WinterFolk Volume 1

One More Xmas, originally recorded for 2010's Silent June, wishes for a return to childhood and one more Christmas with mum, while also tackling the deeply troubling subject of domestic violence, often exacerbated at Christmas time. A new flugelhorn solo by Chumbawamba’s Jude Abbott adds to its poignancy.

"Domestic violence is one of the things that's more prevalent at Christmas because of the amount of time that families spend together, when people are struggling with money, feeling the pressure that the cost of Christmas brings," says Belinda. "Things come to a head and too much alcohol has an impact too, so I wanted to write a song that contrasts the beautiful decorations on the tree with the smashing of glass."

Belinda believes the recordings benefit from O'Hooley & Tidow being more experienced now. "We're better at harmonies and better at arranging songs, so we wanted to re-record One More Xmas in particular, and we couldn't believe it when [music critic] Colin Irwin said it was the best Christmas song since Fairytale Of New York," she says.

Ah, The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York. O'Hooley & Tidow have taken the deepest of plunges by risking to cover "the Holy Grail of seasonal song". "We wanted to wrap fairy lights around the words of this wonderful song to highlight the emotional and plaintive narrative of a highly individual couple and the rollercoaster of a life they have built together," says Belinda.

"It's always been my favourite Christmas song, but to most people it has a No Entry sign around it that you shouldn't go near it, but we think it lends itself to a piano arrangement, which is more classical, and you can hear the words better!

"The song has all words you might sling at each other, but in the next five minutes you'll be hugging each other. There's affection in their relationship, just as Heidi and I have been together for a long time and we're a right pair! There's humour behind the song, as well as being plaintive and we've turned it into a seven-minute song with a three-minute instrumental at the end, so we hope we've done it proud. We've had some lovely comments about it so far."

As O'Hooley & Tidow prepare to play Thorganby Village Hall next Friday at 7pm after last year's successful Christmas concert there, Belinda says: "They put on lovely beer there and the night's sold out already, which is great".

Will they have a WinterFolk Volume 2 album in their hands by the next time they perform at Thorganby? "There might well be a Volume 2, but I don't know when," says Belinda.

O'Hooley & Tidow play Thorganby Village Hall, near York, December 22, 7pm. SOLD OUT.

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