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