National Folk Festival Interview: The String Contingent

The String Contingent
Image Courtesy of The String Contingent

Australian instrumental trio The String Contingent have just put the finishing touches Facets, probably their most ambitious album to date. Not content to rest on their laurels the trio decided that Facets would be a collaborative album, seeing them work with some of the country’s best and brightest musicians – lauded recorder player Genevieve Lacey, saxophonist Sandy Evans (OAM), the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ARIA award winning cellist Julian Thompson, ABC recording and ARIA winning artists Chris Duncan and Catherine Strutt, and instrument inventor Linsey Pollak. The String Contingent will be launching Facets at this year’s National Folk Festival to we took the opportunity to chat to violinist Chris Stone about the project.

Gareth Hugh Evans: Let’s chat about the new album Facets. You did a Pozible campaign for it last year and it’s a pretty cool concept. Do you want to talk through where the idea to collaborate with all these different musicians came from?

Chris Stone: After recording the three albums just with us three – Graham [McLeod], Holly [Downes] and I – we really felt like we spent a lot of years and time and effort growing together musically. Learning a lot from each other. Coming from different backgrounds – Holly classical, me folk and Graham rock and pop – we had a huge amount of ground to cover to be as good as each other at various elements of music making. We had a lot of material to work with and a lot of growth and over those three albums we really felt like we did that. We sort of got to a point where we felt like significantly we could move into each other’s territory, hold our own and make that work. We had so much fun really developing and growing and struggling – actually being really inspired and forced to learn and grow – that we kind of looked around for something for our next project that would continue that direction for all of us, so that we wouldn’t stagnate and make the same album again. That really meant that we decided to look out of the group for some form of stimulus or benchmark or something to help us continue to travel and grow. This album actually came out of a little game on the road. Travelling down the Hume as we do a lot and passing the time with games like “if you could could pick five musicians to play a stadium gig with who would they be”.

GHE: That’s the nerdiest music game of all [laughs]

CS: [laughs] Yeah! It’s awesome fun. We had to say that everyone can’t have Chris Thile – you’ve got to keep him out of it otherwise everyone goes “well, Chris Thile”. So this particular game was if we could collaborate with six of our favourite instrumentalists in Australia who would they be? And we came up with this cool list and we were like “wow, can you imagine that album? Can you imagine being able to play with those people, can you imagine being able to write and record with those people?”. At which point my brain, which is an affirmative brain, said “well I’ll email them” and everyone was like “yeah, whatever”. So I emailed them and within a couple of days they’d all written back and said “we’d absolutely love to. We’re in”. Which was absolutely crazy – suddenly there was a project. It fits exactly the bill that we were talking about and it’s been put on a plate in front of us.

So at that point we got freaked out and terrified and over joyed and had to try and figure out how we were going to do this – and that’s where the Pozible campaign rally came into it because this album was a messy, difficult, complex album logistically to put together and it would cost more money than our previous albums when it was just the three of us. And we felt like we had something to sell our audiences that wasn’t just us producing another album, which we’d always funded ourselves. So that’s how the project began.

GHE: Does this mean you’ve had to then chase these musicians around the country in order to record with them?

CS: I was on logistics for it. We wanted a rehearsal session with each person – a planning session for four hours, a rehearsal session/composition session for four hours and then recording for four hours. Some people we got those three sessions over the course of a month and then some people we just got one meeting before the recordings and then the recordings. So it was an extremely tight time frame. It was a bit of a mess – we flew a few people around and drove a lot of kilometres to meet people. Genevieve [Lacey] was overseas right until the two days that we met her and we rehearsed and recorded. She was in the UK right up until that point so we had almost no contact. Linsey [Pollak] we had to pick up for four hours as he flew to Melbourne – we picked him up from the airport, took him to a rehearsal room nearby, played for three hours then put him back on the plane. Crazy stuff to try and make it work.

So it was a bit of a nightmare but thankfully it all came together. I think the goal was so exciting for us that it was really worth messing around and making it happen.

GHE: Were the collaborators involved in the composition of each tune or did you come to them with written tunes?

CS: Different for different tracks but the idea was that we wanted to collaborate from the ground up. Like Sandy [Evans] was great – she and Holly were in contact about that piece and they both wrote tonnes of music and an arrangement and stuff for us to turn up to at the first rehearsal and play. We even got to do a little bit of personal practice on that before we turned up. Then we turned up and arranged it and expanded it I went away and transcribed everything then the second time we met everything was good to go and we got to really polish it up.

With Linsey we walked into the room with absolutely nothing. We stood there holding our instruments, smiling at each other for a few minutes and then started just jamming and playing around. Some melodies came out – it all came together in three hours.

Julian Thompson’s piece is a real pastiche of different ideas. Julian wrote a little trio bit and the end for Holly, him and I to play. We pasted it all together over a couple of sessions. So really very very different for each track. We were trying to get as much as we could of the individual artists that we were playing with into the music and trying to get the most benefit out of spending time with them and listening to them and learning from them.

GHE: I guess that’s the whole point of the exercise. You don’t just want to write a score for someone and get them to come in for an hour.

CS: We really wanted that organic, real feel of having an actual guest in the group rather than just a soloist.

GHE: How do you then translate this album to a live situation? Because you’re never going to get everyone at in the same place at the same time.

CS: For the concept, as soon as it was born, that was always a consideration. We are at base a touring band, that’s how we’ve always made our income and that’s how we spread the word about our must. That’s what we do with our time – tour. So we knew that this album would be different but that also keyed in a little with our goals of making our music work a little harder for us. Finding ways to make the music travel without us having to physically travel. Playing with these people is great because it really opens doors. We can approach a jazz venue or a jazz radio station for instance and say “We’ve just done this album, Sandy Evans is on it” and they’ll say “get it in, we’ll play it”. Same with Genevieve Lacey, we’ll send it through to the Andrew Ford Music Show on the ABC and he’ll say “that’s great”.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do this collaboration project is to open a lot of doors for us.

But it’s nice performing live, which we do need to do, and we have looked at doing arrangements with just the trio and I think we’ll probably end up doing a bunch of those and seeing what works. For The National Folk Festival, where we’re going to be launching this, we’re very lucky to have a very large number of amazingly talented musical friends who are going to be [there]. There’s a couple of guests who are going to be there – for instance Chris Duncan and Catherine Strutt are going to be there and also Julian Thompson. We can’t get Sandy Evans but our ex jazz lecturer at ANU, John Mackey, who is one of Australia’s preeminent jazz saxophonists has offered to come in and play the track with us – which is incredible because to get to play with John Mackey is such a great opportunity. Ian Blake is going to cover another piece. Emily Rose from Chaika is going to come in and play another. So it’s going to be a big concert of lots of our friends.

And that’s the other part of this collaboration project. You can’t really jump up on a String Contingent piece, it’s not really designed that way normally. So these pieces are written to have people come and play with us so it’s really nice to ask our friends to come and play. So that’s a really nice thing that we’re looking forward to and it’s opening more doors again for us.

GHE: Was that a consideration when you decided to launch at The National? Here’s a time and place where all of these amazing musicians come together.

CS: Totally. At that point we didn’t really know who was going to be at the festival. But we always knew that there were going to be so many fall backs and if on the day someone says “I’ve a gig clash and I can’t make it” then we turn around and say “who else are we going to ask?”. The National’s amazing like that. It’s just such a safe place to turn up and presume that someone can cover something for you.

GHE: I also imagine that The National is great for you because being an instrumental band you can fill a room, which doesn’t happen everywhere.

CS: It really is and that’s one of the big things. If you play the type of music that’s not easily brandable and also doesn’t have elements of music that are the popular ones of the day, it’s a big thing. There’s a bunch of different music groups and communities that are passionate about instrumental music – like jazz and classical and some parts of folk – and The National really has a nice blend of everyone. You’ll see some of the best classical orchestral musicians in Australia sitting in audiences and playing as well. And people who are sitting in the session bar playing mandolin in a bluegrass session just happen to be incredible jazz guitarists who have international reputations. It’s a really good mix, The National Folk Festival, and the audiences are very educated – people who not just listen and appreciate music but have studied music. It’s a really lovely environment to play in because it’s just so receptive.

GHE: After The National you guys are touring, is that right?

CS: Yep. We’re heading across to Fairbridge [Folk Festival] and then doing a whole set of gigs in Albury-Wadonga, Yackandandah, Canberra, down the coast, Sydney, Newcastle, some Southern Highland gigs, some mountain gigs and some Riverina stuff – all CD launching gigs for about a month before Graham heads back home again.

GHE: And then later in the year you’re heading over to the UK?

CS: That’s right. We’re doing some work in the UK doing festivals and gigs and also in Scandanavia, in Norway, Sweden and Finland doing festivals and concerts. Hanging out over there for the summer which should be lovely. And then coming back to Australia for an October tour with Graham again.

GHE: Awesome. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff planned.

CS: Yeah, we do have quite a lot of stuff going on – it’s a very busy year. Which is awesome really as it’s exactly what we want. It’s looking like a really strong, positive year with a lot of growth and development with venues and touring circuits and hopefully this album will help us open doors and travel further than we have before.

Facets will be launched at National Folk Festival. The full list of upcoming String Contingent dates are below:

Saturday 4th April – Flute & Fiddle, National Folk Festival, Canberra, ACT
Friday 10th April – Fairbridge Folk Festival, Fairbridge, WA
Tuesday 14th April – Arts Space Wodonga, Wodonga, VIC
Wednesday 15th April – Canberra Musicians Club, Canberra, ACT
Friday 17th April – On The Rocks, North Rocks Community Church, North Rocks, NSW
Saturday 18th April – Berrima Smalls, Berrima, NSW
Wednesday 22nd April – Unorthodox Church of Groove, Newcastle, NSW
Thursday 23rd April – Camelot Lounge, Sydney, NSW
Monday 27th April – Yackandandah House Concert, Yackandandah, VIC
Wednesday 29th April – Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Wagga Wagga, NSW
Thursday 30th April – Temora Town Hall Theatre, Temora, NSW
Friday 1st May – Mechanics Institute Hall, Moruya, NSW
Saturday 2nd May – Cadgee House Concert, Cadgee, NSW

1 Comment

  1. March 27, 2015 at 15:56

    […] “After recording the three albums just with us three – Graham [McLeod], Holly [Downes] and I – we really felt like we spent a lot of years and time and effort growing together musically. Learning a lot from each other. Coming from different backgrounds – Holly classical, me folk and Graham rock and pop – we had a huge amount of ground to cover to be as good as each other at various elements of music making. We had a lot of material to work with and a lot of growth and over those three albums we really felt like we did that. We sort of got to a point where we felt like significantly we could move into each other’s territory, hold our own and make that work. We had so much fun really developing and growing and struggling – actually being really inspired and forced to learn and grow – that we kind of looked around for something for our next project that would continue that direction for all of us, so that we wouldn’t stagnate and make the same album again” – Chris Stone from The String Contingent chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]


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