How is Americana music faring in the UK? Judging by this year’s AmericanaFest UK, very well indeed. Billy Bragg, Robert Plant and Mumford and Sons were just some of the leading lights who turned out for this festival. LISA REDFORD reports on the Americana Music Association UK’s (AMA-UK) two-day celebration of Britain’s flourishing Americana music scene.
The UK Americana music scene is diverse and exciting – something that was reflected at AmericanaFest UK, which delivered two days of inspiring talks, informative discussions and a series of stellar performances.
The conference drew some major artists; Billy Bragg kicked off day one with an inspiring keynote speech about the history of roots music and the importance of articulating your truth as an artist. Frank Turner contributed to a panel discussion about building your fan base.
Writing the Nashville way
Day two started with a fascinating live co-writing session with renowned songwriters Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mary Gauthier. The two illustrated the process of writing a song the Nashville way and shared their insights. Nielsen Chapman sees a mini movie in her mind and feels it’s key to let ideas come into the creative flow, like pulling “magic out of the air”. Gauthier prefers to nail down a song’s title and go from there. Other advice included: show your co-writer respect and allow them to feel comfortable; and don’t feel you’ve wasted your time if nothing comes from a session as your writing will ultimately become richer. As a songwriter, I found it inspiring to see these two acclaimed writers play around with a melody and lyrical theme whilst recording it all to catch “a nugget”.
Following the session, there was a rare opportunity for artist members of the AMA-UK to play their songs to a panel of top songwriters that included Nielsen Chapman and Gauthier along with Squeeze’s Chris Difford and American folk musician Sam Baker. Liv Austen played her moving song Detour to the panel, an experience she found fascinating. She says: “I love how subjective songwriting is and that different songwriters, even veterans like the artists on this panel, have different opinions about the process. In the end, all you can do is to learn from other people’s experiences and thoughts but trust your own instincts as a writer.”
UK Americana Award night
A great day was topped off with a great night: the UK Americana Awards hosted by Bob Harris at the Hackney Empire. The highlight was Robert Plant receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. Harris paid a heartfelt tribute to Plant, whose music has encompassed folk, blues, rock, gospel, world and who has “never rested on his laurels”. Plant, who also received the Best-selling Americana Album Award for Carry Fire, was joined by Mumford and Sons for an energetic collaboration which also featured respected fiddler Seth Lakeman. It was a busy night for Mumford and Sons who also picked up The Trailblazer Award and delivered a stripped-down, unplugged performance of Sister.
International Artist of the Year winner Courtney Marie Andrews also took to the stage, with a solo performance of Table For One from her acclaimed Honest Life album, a wonderful confessional record evocative of the classic Laurel Canyon artists. Andrews’ yearning soprano is reminiscent of Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell.
It was great to see so many stunning performances from female artists including duo Worry Dolls, Imelda May with a moving performance of The Girl I Used To Be from her album Life Love Flesh Blood and Angaleena Presley with an emotionally raw version of Wrangled, the title track of her latest album. UK Artist of the Year 2018 Emily Barker performed a haunting Over My Shoulder solo from Sweet Kind of Blue recorded at Sam Phillips’ legendary Memphis studio.
The Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award went to Decca Records signings The Wandering Hearts, who captivated the audience with their sublime harmonies on Burning Bridges while International Song of the Year nominee Aaron Lee Tasjan wowed with Ready to Die. The evening closed with a host of artists performing Wildflowers in tribute to the much-missed Tom Petty. Huge credit to musical director Ethan Johns for putting together such a great show.
The calibre of the performers and presenters – who included Sir Patrick Stewart – is a testament to how hard the AMA-UK has worked to bring Americana music to the forefront of roots music. As UK Album of the Year winner Robert Vincent puts it: “The AMA-UK family is growing and showing the music industry the way. UK Americana music is here to stay and it’s getting stronger.”
As an Americana artist and member of the AMA-UK myself, I must agree. The organisation provides a strong network and sense of community for those who are passionate about the genre. With a rapidly growing membership, that comprises musicians from both from the UK and overseas and music professionals from all areas of the industry, it’s an exciting time.
Photos by: Michael Hingston