The second album’s just out, they have a summer of gigs lined up and they went down a storm last year at Glastonbury. You would imagine North East band Bridie Jackson and The Arbour have plenty of reasons to be happy.
Then again, the night before I interviewed the four of them (I’d met Bridie before but never been introduced to her Arbour) I had listened to that album, New Skin, and could not in all confidence recommend it as a foot-tapping, feelgood number.
By their own assessment (it’s on their website), they “sit somewhere between the lushnes of Norah Jones and quirkiness of Joanna Newsom” and “create songs that intertwine melancholy with joyful, rich harmonies”.
As song followed song, each a more determined antidote to happy clappy pop than the last, I waited patiently for the Sandgate Dandling Song.
While most of the album’s 10 songs are the work of Bridie, this is a traditional number attributed to an early 19th Century blind Tyneside fiddler called Robert Nunn. It’s a lullaby, dandling being what you do to babies on your knee, but the name, I thought, had a jolly ring to it.
I should have known better. In Bridie’s version the dandling is done in characteristically downbeat fashion. It probably would work if you were trying to get a baby to sleep.
If all this sounds as if I’m not keen on Bridie Jackson and The Arbour, then you get me wrong. I can be happy being miserable and I’m certainly not averse to a bit of “sombre lyrcisim” (this off the website again).
When I first heard the group, at Woodhorn, near Ashington, when they were promoting their Music in Museums project last year, I was transfixed, not least because they were performing on instruments, belleplates, that I’d never seen.
But even setting that aside, I was drawn to what sounded like grown-up music with intricate lyrics and no easy recourse to foot-tapping rhythms and catchy chords.
Of course, Bridie is anything but melancholy or sombre and neither, I can now report, are her Arbour.
They came into the office and one of them brought her mum – and when I tentatively suggested that this was not the happiest music in the world, their eyes lit up and the mum all but punched the air. It meant I’d got it.
Bridie Jackson’s Arbour are Carol Bowden (cymbals, belleplates and cajon, a drum-like percussion instrument and another I’d never heard of), Rachel Cross (fiddle and belleplates) and Jenny Nendick (cello and belleplates).
A belleplate, since you’re asking, is a hand-held aluminium plate with an attached ball on a spring – flick the wrist and the ball strikes the plate with a clear, ringing tone. Like a handbell, but affording more control to the player, it is part of the Bridie Jackson signature sound, alternately plaintive and joyful (but mostly plaintive).
Sitting in the office, Bridie Jackson and The Arbour were very happy. They giggled about the confusion their name has caused, with Birdie Jackson and The Harbour one of their favourite near misses.
Bridie told me how the second album, coming after the debut Bitter Melodies, was born.
“It is a combination of songs, some that I have been writing recently and others that I wrote years ago and decided not to put on the first album.
“There are also two that aren’t original. One of them is the Sandgate Dandling Song (which I’ve got in my notebook as the ‘dandelion song’. Did someone say that? More than likely).
“I found it on a DVD when I was doing the Music in Museums project. Two folk musicians were singing it but it’s a very different version to ours.
“I listened to it and recorded it on my phone. I loved it. It is a bit miserable but often lullabies are... there’s that thing about nursing parents who confide in their babies because they’re too young to process bad stuff.
“The song was written by the blind folk musician but I don’t know what made him write it.
“The North East has a very rich folk music tradition and partly that’s because stuff gets moved around, shared and adapted so traditional songs can become something very different.”
The other borrowed song on the album is Scarecrow which was written by a friend, Louis Barabbas.
“We heard him play it and really loved it and he said we could do it. We’ve been performing it for quite some time now and it was our first music video.”
I did check out that video. It was filmed in a Liverpool church and Bridie does indeed play a bride... but there’s a funeral, too. It’s not a joyous occasion but I wouldn’t be surprised if there giggles off camera.
Bridie comes from Bishop Auckland and music is in her blood. Dad Andy set up the Cobweb Orchestra for all-comers and Bridie and her sister, an artist who styles herself Lady Kitt, were taken to a lot of concerts.
For several years Bridie worked at Sage Gateshead as a community musician but she has been writing songs for a long time. Her musical life, she reflected, “has been a constant process of change.”
She explained how she used to perform solo but became frustrated. “It was boring. I found I had ideas for developing music which I couldn’t do on my own so I started collaborating with lots of other musicians. As these things often do, it started off being quite casual but then gradually it became more focused.”
Carol, from Newcastle, worked with Bridie at the Sage and has been part of the group since the first EP; Rachel, who joined in 2011, grew up in the Scottish Borders and studied on the folk music degree course at Newcastle University; Jenny, originally from Northampton, came to the North East to study music at Newcastle University but found she wanted to perform rather than study so switched to psychology and sociology and now works in mental health research.
It is clear these are busy people. Bridie herself runs four choirs and offers music therapy for tots.
“We have to be really, really organised and get as much flexibility in our professional lives as we can,” she said.
All stressed that they are more than just musicians and that there’s more to Bridie Jackson and The Arbour than writing and performing songs and bringing out albums.
““We’re all very culturally aware which is why we like to run projects, make videos and collaborate with other artists,” said Bridie. “We are all interested in lots of things.”
The group, though, is currently to the fore. New Skin, which will get under your skin after a couple of plays, has been getting lovely reviews and an enthusiastic response on the launch tour.
Still capitalising, to a degree, on their Glastonbury success (they were chosen from among thousands of entries to be last year’s Emerging Talent winners), they have a lot of festival appearances lined up over the summer.
Before any of those, however, you can see them headlining at Evolution Emerging in the Ousburn Valley, Newcastle, tomorrow. They’re on last at Cluny 2 (10.45pm) as part of the festival of emerging North East talent, following Sam Fender, International Departures, Fé and Vinyl Jacket.