English songwriter and former Hefner frontman Darren Hayman continues his journey around the UK’s fifty-four Thankful Villages with the release of Volume 2 out on 26th May. A Thankful Village is a village where every soldier returned alive from World War One, and Hayman has taken it upon himself, with funding from Arts Council England, to celebrate British rural life by pulling together first person interviews, folk tales and songs, field recordings and his own personal experiences to piece together community, history and legend.
The Fountain spoke with Darren Hayman about the inspiration behind the project, PJ Harvey, a British history of opening it’s doors and being awarded the “Hardest Working Artist” at the AIM Awards.
TF: This is an interesting concept album – what inspired you to base your album on the villages that were affected by the First World War?
I find location to be an interesting thing in a lot of my records and song-writing. It’s also got to do with the fact that I find myself being slightly more creative when I am on holiday, when I am travelling, when I am not in my home. I work from home, I am quite house-bound and I find that writing songs based on place tends to inspire me. Gradually I also found that it wasn’t enough to choose a place and write about it. There is something about being in the place that you are setting the song that affects the creativity. My friend, Ian, recently cared for his 94 year old dad. His dad told Ian about thankful villages, and then Ian told me, and he knew what he was doing. He knew that when he told me that this is the sort of thing that would interest me. At first I thought it was a good name for a band, a band called Thankful Villages would be a nice name, and I suggested it to a band at the time and they thought that it was twee. Almost as soon as they said that, I had a sinking feeling in my heart as I realised what I had to do. I had to visit all fifty-four villages and write a song in each one.
TF: And from what I can gather it is not so much your relationship with the war itself, I mean you are quite an advocate of rural, pastoral life is where this stems?
Straight away I thought the problem could be with it is that it could possibly be seen as jingoistic or nationalistic or something like that. I think sometimes our relationship that we can have with the war is sometimes problematic. And I did not want there to be anything flag-waving about it. It was more just a curious quirk. I like chance in creativity. And I like the word, thankful. I guess what I am looking for is stories that somehow connect to this idea of thankfulness.
TF: Somewhat reminiscent of the likes of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, did those references spring to mind when you were writing this?
I should listen to her record because I don’t think you are the first person to say that and I think that this record also go referenced in another article last year. The Independent wrote an article, which drew the connection. Someone else has made that relation.
There is something that happens when someone says that such and such reminds me of this. My natural instinct is not to listen it. I don’t want it to influence me, adversely or positively. PJ Harvey is great, I think she is brilliant but I don’t want to listen to it.
What is it about that album that makes you think it’s similar?
TF: It depicts England in a non-Nationalistic fashion, with a historical take.
I could not have predicted how thorny that subject has become. I had started this project three years ago now. I guess what can happen when you write about history is that it can perhaps resonate with what is happening now. I would like to be better at writing political songs but the here and now does crop up in the songs. Not on this record but on the beginning of Vol 3. Whilst I was in the village, it was when Jo Cox got murdered so the news was filtering through to me very slowly because of very bad signal and with not really being online, so I felt cut off in a very sort of bucolic English landscape. And I was hearing about this very ‘unEnglish’ thing happening in the news being done in the name of England. Also the theme of immigrants has come up a couple of times. The second song on Vol 2 concerns itself with a Belgian family that was taken in, in the Second World War. We have not always been so keen to shut our doors.
TF: Over the years you have created many beautiful albums, collaborating with other talent, namely the Wave Pictures. Can we expect more of the same with this new album?
Collaborations? You mean live? Maybe. Dave from The Wave Pictures features on the first album, as we wrote the song together. The Thankful village of Wysall, which is on the first record, is only really a couple of miles from their home village. There are collaborations on the record. The original singer of Fairport Convention, Judy Dyble, sings on Upper Slaughter. I have to get other people to help me. There is no point in it being fifty-four songs all by me. I have to bring other people in.
TF: You played special concerts around the release of the first Thankful Villages set with accompanying visuals and films, headlining with a full band as well as solo supporting British Sea Power. What can we expect to follow and promote the release of this wonderful record?
Yes, it worked out really well. It is the first time I have ever tried to do something like that. Usually the way I approach a live show is to make it as simple as possible as there are so many things that can go wrong. Really the idea of projections seems to me to require a lot of help to make work and people that know what they are doing. But I was surprised how it worked so yes, we are going to do more. When I first started doing the project I did not consider doing it live at all. I have, since the first record came out, found it easier, as I did it as a talk, I also did it on my own and I would sometimes play and then stop and interview someone from the village. I am surprised how it worked. I am surprised in general to the whole reaction to the project in general actually. I really thought it was one of my quirkier, more niche ideas. I originally thought when I started doing it that it might just be an online thing, that it might just go on Soundcloud or be quite a small thing. Artistically if not commercially, it has probably been the most successful thing I have done for a few years. I was quite surprised by how much people have taken to it.
TF: And you have recently been awarded by AIM the hardest working artist in music so all the better.
That is literally on my mantel piece. I can see it from here where I am sitting. It is funny as I have always been kind of quite sniffy about the idea of awards and the idea of saying that any kind of art is “the best”, it’s not a race but what I liked about this one is that I had been awarded for doing the most graft, it was a completely quantitative judgement so I found it quite amusing. It is also like having like “tried hard” on your school report or something. I was really thrilled, actually. It’s not like I am down a mine shaft or a doctor or something but I do think it is not often talked about, the work that is involved. It is a nice way, a fresh way of considering creativity to be honest.
For more on Darren Hayman and his Thankful Villages project click here.