National Folk Festival Interview: Chaika

Chaika
Image Courtesy of Chaika

Sydney world/balkan/bolk/jazz/classical group Chaika will be heading to The National Folk Festival for the first (official) time this year so we thought it was about time to sit one of the band down – multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Laura Bishop – to chat about the band and the big plans they have for 2015.

Gareth Hugh Evans: Chaika is playing at The National this year. You’ve played their before right?

Laura Bishop: We’ve never been on the program before but we have actually played a couple of times as part of the MoFo concert or The Flute & Fiddle asked us to play. We always love doing a blackboard because we have members that are part of other acts, different conglomerates of different things so we’re usually down there. Apart from last year where we didn’t actually play at all as Chaika I think for the last four or five years we’ve had a play around somewhere on The National. But yeah, this is our first time on the program.

GHE: I had no idea. I just assumed you’d played on the program before. I’ve seen you there a number of times.

LB: I know, most people don’t. They think we’re actually part of the program.

GHE: I guess it’s because The National is kind of like your “home” festival.

LB: Well it certainly feels like that to me.

GHE: I guess that goes to show the power of The National Folk Festival – you don’t have to be on the program to feel like you belong there. I just assumed you’d been playing there for years.

LB: Myself and my sister [Susie Bishop] who are one third of Chaika, we’ve been going to The National since we were very very small. Possibly I’ve been going there since before I was born – I haven’t checked out the timing of it. Our parents are born and bred folkies and for many years we were part of our family’s dance band called Crazy for Contra. We used to live in The States and out parents brought back this form of dancing called contra dancing and we just played at The National every year as part of that. And then we started making our own bands and fell into playing there as part of other acts.

GHE: It’s great that there are those venues at The National who do the blackboards or put on non-programmed artists. It must be really nice to feel you can turn up to the festival with the band and still get gigs even if you aren’t on the official program.

LB: Yeah, it’s been great over the years. Before Chaika became Chaika we were a four piece girl group which was based more on Yiddish Klezmer music. It got one of its first gigs at a blackboard at The National. It’s kick started a lot.

GHE: And the other great thing about the festival is it’s not just about singer-songwriters and anglo-celtic folk like a lot of folk festivals are. You guys still find an audience there even though you’re outside of the norm. For some people the “world” music program, for want of a better term, is why they go to The National.

LB: Not just at this festival but at lots of festivals we find audiences who love what we do which is a real mix of genres and influences.

GHE: And it feels like the music you guys are influenced by – klezmer, Balkan, gypsy, Eastern European – is being surfaced more at folk festivals at the moment. It seems to be everywhere.

LB: Yeah, I love it! It’s great! It’s nice to have such a diversity. I feel like we’ve come a long way as a band – our second album is building a lot on the first and we’ve got a third in the works which I think is going to be pretty stellar.

GHE: Does that mean we’ll be treated to some of that new music at The National?

LB: Not yet! Unless you haven’t seen us for a year it’s all going to be highly polished first and second album stuff. In May we’re lucky enough to be the Bundanon artist in residence. I don’t know if you know but the artist Arthur Boyd left his property to the Bundanon Trust for Australian artists just to go and be artistic. It’s a beautiful place – it’s got a river and lots of hills and wildlife. We’re spending a week about a month after the festival working on new material. But sadly no new music in time for the festival

GHE: Highly polished music from your first two albums sounds very exciting regardless. You guys haven’t played much at the beginning of this year, have you?

LB: No. The reason why is that half of the band has been in Argentina with a tango quintet, who were actually at the festival last year. They were the Infinite Elvis winners, Tángalo. My sister was wearing false eyelashes, a crazy wig and a stupid dress. All sorts of hijinks on stage. The bass player [Johan Delin] and the accordionist [Emily-Rose Sarkova] from Chaika were up there as well along with two other wonderful musicians. So yeah, they’ve been in Argentina for a couple of months doing a Jump Start grant, getting some study into that music. So they’ve come back with a whole lot of musical ideas – it’s going to be fun.

GHE: Do you think that will feed into Chaika?

LB: I think it will, yeah. I really do.

GHE: So the guys who are in Tángalo are back in the country now?

LB: Yeah, they got back only a month ago. We got together the day before the Cobargo Folk Festival, did a couple of hours rehearsal and went straight there. They played with a duo that they brought back from Argentina and we played together in some really great concerts for some really wonderful audiences. Apart from a gig that we did in September last year we haven’t played together before then. But it’s amazing to see how quickly we get back on the bike. Like there’s this crazy piece that we’ve written called “Vreme Senvič” which means “time sandwich” in Macedonian – and it is with lots of time signatures sandwiched together. And I was just pissing myself laughing looking at Emily-Rose’s face, the accordionist who takes the melody. Her face didn’t look like it knew what her arms were doing but her arms were doing it just perfectly.

GHE: It’s all muscle memory.

LB: Absolutely. It sounded good, it’s always fun to play with those guys.

GHE: With the band back together and one festival performance under your belt and The National coming up does it feel like you guys are now going to have a bit more of a focus on Chaika in the coming months? Especially as you’re going to the Bundanon residency.

LB: Absolutely. Always the difficulty with it, and with any musical project, is how much to balance against other projects that are happening. We’ll definitely be focusing on new material through May and June. In July I’m going on tour with a Bulgarian choir to Europe so that time with be dead time for me. I’m sure there’s gong to be stuff happening for Tángalo and the other guys. Laura Altman, our clarinettist runs improvised music festivals. Our percussionist Rendra [Freestone] is also in another act at The National called The Rhythm Hunters, which I highly recommend – if you’ve got time to see them they are awesome. Amidst all of that we still really love Chaika and whenever we get the time to do it we’ll be focusing on making new music.

GHE: So anything else you want to talk about before I let you get back to your day?

LB: Actually yes! We’ve got a songbook full of transcriptions that I made of the songs that we’ve written and traditional tunes that we’ve arranged with artwork that Susie and Emily-Rose have drawn in it – which is a pretty cool thing. They’re kind of going like hotcakes so if anybody wants to learn how to play our stuff, that’s where to find it.

GHE: People will have to pick that up early at The National I think instead of waiting until the last minute like I always do. Well thank you so much for that Laura – really appreciate your time!

LB: No worries. Thanks Gareth!

1 Comment

  1. April 3, 2015 at 06:01

    […] “We’ve never been on the [National Folk Festival] program before but we have actually played a couple of times as part of the MoFo concert or The Flute & Fiddle asked us to play. We always love doing a blackboard because we have members that are part of other acts, different conglomerates of different things so we’re usually down there. Apart from last year where we didn’t actually play at all as Chaika I think for the last four or five years we’ve had a play around somewhere on The National. But yeah, this is our first time on the program” – Laura Bishop from Chaika chat to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]


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