Acquire piano, plug in fancy wiring, now Joshua Burnell is ready for virtual concert

Joshua Burnell: Living room concert tomorrow night. Picture: Elly Lucas

THE future of folk, alias York multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Joshua Burnell, will be joined by his partner, vocalist Frances Sladen, for a one-off online concert organised by the East Riding Theatre, Beverley, tomorrow night (October 17).

“We’ll be playing acoustic versions of songs old and new,” says Joshua, who released his futuristic new album, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep, on September 4.

What can viewers expect when they head to ERT’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/365072138001228/ for the free 7.30pm concert? “I’m still figuring out exactly how it’ll work!” said Joshua, when first announcing the folk-fused baroque’n’roll virtual gig.

The artwork for Joshua Burnell’s new album, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep

“But we’ll definitely be sharing tales that influenced the songs, as well as reflections on how the lockdown affected our musical process.”

Here Joshua, winner of the Rising Star award in the 2020 Folking Awards, answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions on this weekend’s Live In Your Living Room concert.

How did this living room gig come about?

“We were supposed to be playing a live show at East Riding Theatre as part of the album launch tour, which couldn’t go ahead. Then, Chris [music and comedy programmer Chris Wade] sent me an email out of the blue, asking if we’d like to do an online show in anticipation of a real show next year. Of course, we were delighted and said yes!”

“There’s a handful of new songs we’ve been desperate to share with an audience,” says Joshua

“I’m still figuring out exactly how it’ll work!” you said initially when contemplating playing an online gig. Have you figured it out yet?

“Just about. I’ve invested in some fancy wires that I can plug into my normal wires and then we’ll be on the internet. If that fails, we’ll just have to go round to every audience member’s house, stand in the garden and perform two metres away from their window.” 

Which instruments will feature?

“I’m glad you asked! Especially for this show, I have acquired a piano. A real piano. With actual strings and wood and everything. I figured it’d be a relief having one thing I can’t forget to plug in… and it sounds beautiful too. I’ll have my trusty acoustic guitar to hand too.” 

“For the first time, I’ve had a real affinity with the 17th century minstrels,” says Joshua

How prominent in the set list will be songs from the new album?

“We’ll be opening the set with some favourites from Flowers Where The Horses Sleep. There’s also a handful of new songs we’ve been desperate to share with an audience: lots more stories and characters. Some of them are so new, it’ll be my first time hearing them live as well as the audience’s. I can’t wait!”

What do you most enjoy when performing as a duo rather than with your band?

“The first thought that comes to mind is that there’s less gear to carry. And now the commute consists of along the landing and down our staircase, it really is a dream. 

“Especially for this show, I have acquired a piano,” says Joshua

“On a slightly more sensible front, it’s a completely different show, so that brings different styles and genres and arrangements to the table. When we approach material that we usually play with the band, it’s good fun finding stripped-back arrangements that work for us, as opposed to just playing them without the other instruments.”

Do you have any other shows in the pipeline?

“Nothing else online planned yet, but there’s a whole album-launch tour that’s been waiting to go for a while. It was meant for this autumn but has been postponed to next spring. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens with the ol’ Covid.

“For the first time, I’ve had a real affinity with the 17th century minstrels. Just imagine what it must have been like trying to rearrange a tour in the middle of the bubonic plague!”

The future of folk is here as Joshua Burnell travels to Mars on portentous new album

“On this album, I’m tapping into that terrible looming dread of what could go on in the future,” says Joshua Burnell. Pictures: Elly Lucas

THERE is no time like the present for Joshua Burnell’s new album: the place where a retro past meets a bold other-worldly future.

Newly released through Proper Music, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep finds the York multi-instrumentalist returning to writing his own songs.

“The last two records, 2018’s Songs From The Seasons and  last year’s The Road To Horn Fair, were traditional, so that was cheating!” says Joshua, winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards.

“Certainly it’s been a big liberation to go back to my own song-writing for the first time since Into The Green [his 2016 fantasy epic].”

His website introduces his work as “folk-fused baroque’n’roll”. Some call it prog-folk with leanings to contemporary classical and vintage pop-rock too. His press release talks of Joshua “seemingly having his own musical time machine”, giving him the ability to teleport listeners between music’s yesterdays and tomorrows.

This is the moment for us to ask questions,” says Joshua

Or no more tomorrows, given his concern for our future. “On this album, I’m tapping into that terrible looming dread of what could go on in the future. There’s a doomsday feeling to some of the songs,” says Joshua.

“What’s going on now, with the pandemic, is a taster. What we’re going through is nature’s way of saying this is what you deserve, you horrible lot. But climate change ultimately is the bigger concern.”

In the transportation ballad Look At Us Now, Joshua imagines a future where we live on Mars in a tale combining folklore, climate change and space travel dreamer Elon Musk. “Definitely science fiction, yes, but science fiction is only science fiction until someone invents it for real,” he says.

“An uninhabitable Earth is something we can foresee, so while that song is sci-fi, with elements of doom and gloom thrown in, this is the moment for us to ask questions.

“What are we doing? Where are we going…when we take pleasure from all the delights of the 21st century that are a wonderful distraction from what’s happening?

“We’ve gone for a folky Bowie look, a folky, darker Aladdin Sane,” says Joshua, explaining Elly Lucas’s photographic portfolio for promoting his new album

“The problem comes down to economic greed. With all these advances, we wouldn’t be going there unless there was something to be made from it.”

Does Joshua consider himself to be a soothsayer? “There’s a romantic aspect to it, but folk singers have often talked about now and warned about the future; folk musicians are almost like political activists,” he says.

“But unlike politicians, folk musicians have the advantage of sitting on the sidelines, being able to be more daring in what they say, which fulfils the same role as punk music did.”

Equally adept on Hammond organ, acoustic guitar, accordion, mellotron, synths and a Steinway grand piano, Joshua’s boundary-pushing musicianship spans layered theatrical soundscapes and starker arrangements.

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories and take people somewhere else, taking them from the here and now, sometimes with a moral tale,” says Joshua, who was born in the Haute-Savoie in France but now lives, writes music and teaches in York.

“Folk singers have often talked about now and warned about the future,” says Joshua

“A lot of that comes from Tolkien…because so much of his work includes his own folk songs. Those stories are not fantasy rubbish. They’re giving people messages, but he didn’t want them to be allegorical. You can take something into the real world from them, or you can see them just as stories.

“From my teenage years, I adopted that as my ethos as a storyteller, where there’s something deeper there if you want to find it.”

Finished only two days before lockdown, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is timely…and NOT all doom and gloom. “The songs were all inspired by people, past and present, and explore humankind’s remarkable ability to find beauty, even in the hardest of times,” he says.

Should you be wondering, the album title came from a story on the Family Ghosts podcast wherein a Japanese-American woman, interned in an American concentration camp during the Second World War, recalled how the prisoners, forced to live in stables, grew flowers to bring beauty into the ugly reality of their days.

Mumbai husband-and-wife artists Hari & Deepti’s papercut artwork for Joshua Burnell’s album cover

Beauty extends to the papercut album cover by Mumbai husband-and-wife artists Hari & Deepti, whose imagery plays out in the song Run To Me, recounting a surreal experience when Joshua and partner Fe [vocalist Frances Sladen] explored a ruined fortress near Harewood House, only to be approached by men carrying guns.

They took to their heels. “As we were running, a deer leapt out of the undergrowth and for one gloriously fairy-tale moment locked eyes with me and ran alongside us,” says Joshua.

Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is broad-ranging. Joan Of The Greenwood is a traditional folk song pastiche so authentic, you would swear it must come from a dusty old folk songbook.

Let Me Fall Down evokes Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Club in its burlesque account of greed, while the Steinway on the album-closing Two Stars recalls the cabaret piano on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album.

“What we’re going through is nature’s way of saying this is what you deserve, you horrible lot,” suggests Joshua.

Yet Flowers Where The Horses Sleep also marks a progression in Joshua not over-elaborating in any of his song structures. “I used to throw everything into the mix, but now, knowing when a song is finished has been a case of deciding what is enough,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to do a lot more of stripping it back for a song to have more space…though I still love those prog-rock elements with multiple textures!”

Combining artwork from Mumbai with recording in England and mastering at Stirling Sound in New York, not to mention the video for stand-out track Le Fay being made in New York too, the creation of the album spans three continents, such are the possibilities of our technological age. “I must go for four continents next time!” says Joshua.

The promotional imagery carries a closer-to-home Yorkshire stamp:  the Sixties polo neck and make-up were fashioned by photographer Elly Lucas at Light Space Leeds. “We’ve gone for a folky Bowie look, a folky, darker Aladdin Sane,” says Joshua. “She works in a very hipster space and has become the go-to photographer of the folk scene, working with The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy, and I loved how she used black curtains, yellow light and dividing panels and did all the make-up herself.”

Inevitably his autumn tour with his six-piece band has been postponed until the spring, when Pocklington Arts Centre, among others, awaits. In the meantime, invest in Flowers Where The Horses Sleep: Joshua Burnell in full bloom.