Head Heart Hand 2015
“Some of the songs were months in the writing and refining,” says Megan Henwood, “but it’s an amazing feeling when they’re finished. And it’s a really exhilarating thing, sometimes, to stand on stage and sing these things, because you’re so vulnerable in so many ways. That’s why I do this, I think.”
It’s been nearly four years since the award-winning singer-songwriter released her debut album, and while much in her life has changed, the only difference in how Megan approaches her work is that, if anything, she’s even more determined to make music that defies the boundaries and boxes others have sometimes tried to place around this most singular and distinctive of new British voices. “This new record is a lot darker,” she says, “and there’ve been times over the last year where I’ve thought what I was doing was terrifying. I think that comes across in some of the songs.”
It’s not just Henwood’s honesty in conversation that strikes you. She’s every bit as open in her songwriting, which finds her dealing, as often as not, with deeply personal – though universal – themes and drawing on sometimes painful experiences. As a writer and performer she belongs to a tradition, though perhaps not solely to the one many expected after she and her brother, Joe, won BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Award in 2009. Instead, the lineage that Henwood can claim is the same one that Bob Dylan tapped in to when he upset folk purists, first by writing his own songs, then by going electric; she is closer in spirit to idiosyncratic singer-songwriters such as her key influences – Elliott Smith, Bill Withers, Anaïs Mitchell – or to those writers who similarly dig down deep into music’s roots to find new ways to innovate: Terry Callier, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey.
Megan, now 27, began writing songs at the age of nine. She learned from the greats and absorbed the most important lessons early on.
“I remember a compilation my mum would play in the car,” she says. “It was called Every Song Tells a Story, and had Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, Kate Bush’s Babooshka, Kenny Rogers’ Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town. I listened to it incessantly. I think I always just loved words: I had a fascination for really well written songs, and I hate lazy songwriting. Singing comes naturally to me, though it’s taken me a long time to find what my voice is. I can lend it to other things, but it seems most real when I’m singing what I’m feeling.”
It was mum who entered Megan and Joe in the Folk Awards, mainly so that the pair would be able to attend the first stage of the competition, which was a weekend of workshops. Their victory came as a complete surprise.
“Suddenly, everything exploded,” she recalls. “It was amazing. We were meeting all these people, and I think it was the first time that I felt really confident in my ability – I’d been recognised as a songwriter and my brother had been recognised as a really sensitive instrumentalist. So we had this crazy, amazing year, then recorded the first album.”
Making Waves was an impressive opening statement, with songs like the single What Elliott Said – a homage to her songwriting hero – showing that Megan could captivate listeners with a beguiling sense of deeply personal mystery, while Free and Focused found her opening up on the difficulty of maintaining self-worth in a world that rewards relentless drive, where the line between confidence and arrogance is often blurred. But by opting to record with some big names from the folk world, the record may have given too limited a glimpse of her capabilities.
Head, Heart, Hand puts that right. It is an altogether more accomplished work, Megan’s formidable and growing writing skills matched by a meticulous production that burnishes the songs until they glow. Whether she is carefully balancing contrasting images in These Walls (“Sick to my stomach, cold to my core”; “Throw me a lifeline, show me the dead”), sketching enigmatic characters in Garden, or telling complicated family sagas with powerful economy of detail (the closing Painkiller deals with the death of her uncle and the astonishing story of her father’s adoption), Henwood is in absolute command of her art.
The record was produced by Megan and multi-instrumentalist/writer and performer with ‘Nubiyan Twist’ Tom Excell, and recorded in a studio Joe and Megan built inside a renovated farm building in Oxfordshire, where the soundproofing was provided by 580 straw bales. Megan is keen to stress its collaborative nature, and pay homage to the extended family of musicians, artists, instrument-builders and photographers who she enlisted to help bring her ideas to fruition. It may not be “folk” music per se, but there is no doubting its sense of place, its rooting in an artistic and creative community, and its intrinsic and undeniable claim to authenticity.
The album is the culmination of a philosophy about art and life that Henwood has absorbed from birth. She borrowed the album title from her dad, a boat-builder, who had coined the phrase for a book he published in 2012. The idea is something Megan has carried through to her music, which maintains a perfect balance between intellect, emotion and effort.
“I’m not a boat-builder and my dad’s not a songwriter, but there’s that idea connecting everything,” she explains. “It’s about working really hard at what you do, and honing your craft and trying to be the best you can at it – not letting your heart completely cover over things, but not letting your head get in the way either.” There seems little danger that she will ever let that happen.
Making Waves 2011
Megan Henwood picks up a finished copy of her debut album ‘Making Waves’ for the first time, handling it with care like a gift she’s been anticipating. “This has been a really good day,” she smiles. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
So has the growing legion of admirers of one of Britain’s most promising singer-songwriters. The wait has been completely worthwhile, because the winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award for 2009, when she was just 20, has been polishing her performing and writing skills with a maturity way beyond her years.
‘Making Waves’ may be her first album, but Megan has been places and done things, from giving up her talents in the cause of music therapy to touring with Eric Bibb, recording in Kathmandu and driving across Europe and Asia. Now, as we’ll hear, she’s preparing to live life on the road in the truest sense of the phrase.
The album is a collection of assured and imaginative work featuring guest appearances from an impressive array of contributors, including beloved British performer Joe Brown, his daughter Sam, Steve Marriott’s singing daughter Mollie, violinist Peter Knight of English folk treasures Steeleye Span, one-time Jethro Tull member Barrie Barlow and Megan’s younger brother, saxophonist Joe Henwood, with whom she won that prestigious folk award recognition.
Megan has been road-testing the album not just across the UK (including at her debut Glastonbury in 2010) but on her extensive worldwide travels. Now she gets to take these songs for a spin for the summer, with appearances at the Larmer Tree Festival, the Secret Garden Party, the Cambridge Folk Festival and more, and in unusual style, as she explains.
“I’m about to become a full-blown gypsy,” she says. “I’ve just bought a 1972 vintage Airstream caravan, which I’m going to renovate and live in and tour in. When I was 18, my partner at the time had a camper van that we converted, and we ended up going a bit mad. We drove it around Europe, shipped it from Greece to Singapore, then drove it up through Malaysia and Thailand.
“Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do that again. Just living in a small space and being able to make your home wherever you park it, it really appeals to me. If you’re a musician, I don’t think you spend a lot of time at home, so there’s not really any point in renting somewhere or buying it. Really all I want is a guitar and my caravan.
“Last time I played Cambridge Folk Festival, I took an old canvas bell tent, which flooded really badly. Then we got a wasp’s nest! When I was touring with Eric Bibb, you get to the point where you wake up in a Travelodge and you can’t remember where you are, they all look the same. It’s going to be really lovely to be able to have my own things around me.”
Megan speaks like the real troubadour she is. “It was an amazing process doing the album, and I had some incredible musicians that I was really lucky to be working with,” she says. “I really feel like I can stand by this album now.” With her love of language, ear for captivating melodies and harmonies and her distinctively rich and sumptuous voice, we should have expected nothing less.
Based near Oxford, she’s what you might call a young veteran of songwriting, even if the memory brings a wry smile to her lips. “I used to write with my friend Rosie when I was about nine years old, about love and marriage and heaven, all these things we knew a lot about,” she says drily.
“Then I just realised that I really enjoyed it. I’ve never really been taught guitar, I did piano and hated it when I was young but my mum really forced me, and I’m very grateful that she did. Then I was given a guitar when I was 14 and just went from there.” Inspiration would follow from the soulful brilliance of Bill Withers to the acoustic sensibilities of singer-writer Anaïs Mitchell.
Soon, her path was clear. “All I loved to do all throughout school was music, English and art. When I left music college, I met this guy and we went travelling. I thought, ‘the more I do that, the more writing I can do.’ I never thought ‘I’m not going to go to university,’ it was just so the wrong thing to do.”
The place she truly fell for was Nepal. “I have so many stories and so much love for the country that I tend to get pretty carried away,” she smiles. “I first went there when I was 18 and I’ve been back many times since. I love India, but it’s so hectic and often overwhelming. Nepal still has the energy, vibrancy and colour of India but with a much calmer atmosphere and slower pace.
“It’s the most beautiful country, the mountains are breathtaking and the people are amazing. I can write very easily there, everything is so inspiring. I found a small studio in Kathmandu and I’ve done quite a lot of recording there, and worked with some very successful Nepalese musicians. I’ve learnt so much from them, the way they approach music is completely different from the western world. I also gained a huge amount of confidence and learnt how to be happy.”
Another aspect of Henwood’s musical make-up is the work she’s done over the last three years with adults who have learning difficulties. “‘Music therapy’ is a loose term for it,” she says, “because I’m in no way qualified and there isn’t really any conventional therapy involved. It’s basically me turning up with a guitar, playing to them and having fun. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
Now Megan plays her own custom-made guitar, which she loves so much, it has its own page on her website. “It’s expanded my playing a lot, mainly because I can’t put the thing down,” she says. “It’s a Fylde, they’re made by a man called Roger Bucknall, up in Penrith in Cumbria, who makes incredible guitars for lots of people. The back and the sides are made from purple heart rosewood, and the natural colour is this amazing purple. Then the topboard is from a whiskey barrel, from a distillery in Scotland, so it’s got all the stainage.”
Appreciating such craftsmanship is in her blood, because Megan’s father makes traditional wooden boats. “I was taught to appreciate wooden boats and different types of wood, so it’s amazing to meet someone who appreciates all that but from a completely different angle, from a sonic point of view.”
The depth of thought and detail that’s gone into the songs on ‘Making Waves’ rings true every time you play it, from ‘What Elliott Said’ (inspired by another of her favourite writers, the late Elliott Smith) via the pensive ‘Free and Focused’ and ‘The Honest Song’ to the sunny ‘Shape and Colour’ and engaging opening track ‘Hope On The Horizon.’
What a pleasure, then, to say a proper hello to a truly original British talent, who came in through the folk door but has real multi-lingual skills that also embrace pop, blues and more. “I’ve been brought up with the idea of loving what you do and making beautiful things no matter how long it takes,” says Megan. She could be talking about her album.
Paul Sexton May 2011