Special report: AmericanaFest UK
Lisa Redford reports on what else, apart from the UK Americana Awards, was going on at AmericanaFest UK this year
I enjoyed a really inspiring time at this year’s AmericanaFest UK – two days organised by the AMA-UK that celebrate Americana music. Americana is a genre that is currently thriving and continually gaining more widespread acceptance here in the UK, including coverage in the national papers. The second UK Americana Awards ceremony, hosted by Bob Harris, featured an array of wonderful performances reflecting the eclectic nature of the music. Appearances by Van Morrison, who was presented with the award for Best Selling UK Americana album of 2016 with Keep Me Singing, and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Richard Thompson, who also performed, were testament to how hard the AMA-UK have worked to bring Americana into the forefront of roots music. Read a full list of who won what here.
The second day started with a songwriting workshop, which provided a fantastic opportunity for 10 artists to play their songs to a panel of successful songwriters. The panel included twice Grammy-nominated Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has had numerous songs recorded by country and pop performers, 10CC’s Graham Gouldman, Angaleena Presley from female country trio Pistol Annies, and Glen Phillips, songwriter of 1990s alternative rock group Toad The Wet Sprocket.
Artists including Jess Morgan (who played a captivating acoustic showcase the night before featuring songs from her latest album Edison Gloriette) and Megan O’Neill, whose band Common Threads will be releasing their debut EP Stories To Tell in February 2017, played their impressive material to the panel, who provided some excellent and constructive critiques suggesting edits, key changes and advice on song structure.
Megan says of the experience: “Performing my song for the panel at the AMA UK songwriter’s showcase was terrifying, exhilarating and incredibly informative. Such an amazing opportunity and I feel so honoured to have taken part.”
Beth, who is in-demand as a songwriting teacher and also hosted Back to Beth’s, a lovely intimate house concert as part of Bob Harris’s My Nashville documentary on BBC4, had some real gems of advice, such as ensuring every lyric has weight and purpose. She also suggested regularly stretching the songwriting muscle and trying some interesting techniques, such as taking a classic song like Yesterday and writing three new verses for it.
Angaleena felt more concerned with if a song moves her: if it moves people, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense. She didn’t understand some lyrics on Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ acclaimed debut album, but that didn’t diminish its emotional impact on her. Beth agreed, saying she adores the Paul Simon lyric Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes but has never known what it means.
The Q&A was also fascinating, giving insights into how the songwriters on the panel have dealt with their success. Beth said her songs were not cut straight away and she felt overwhelmed after having her first hit. Graham has enjoyed success for a long time – he was only 19 when he wrote The Yardbirds’ For Your Love. Glen was also signed young and it’s interesting that the parts he rejected in certain songs were the most successful ones. He felt it was about dumbing down and making material universal. Angaleena says she felt successful after she wrote her first song that had a real emotional impact.
They also discussed their writing routine. Beth emphasised the importance of showing up and being open to that creative flow, making time for it and writing anyway. For Graham, the act of taking his guitar out feels like going to work and he shared a Picasso quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” He also said he now really enjoys co-writing, arguing that it keeps you on edge and that another writer will listen to something you may have disregarded.
Glen recommended The War Of Art, a book that really gives him motivation. He also reiterated the importance of showing up and said a co-writer can see through gems and ideas you may have overlooked. Angaleena keeps a notebook at all times for when inspiration strikes as little nuggets can easily slip away. Keep your heart and eyes open so you can receive messages and it’s essential to record your melodies straight away.
When Bob met Mary
Further inspiration came in the next session, which saw Bob Harris in conversation with acclaimed songwriter and five-time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter. She talked about starting her career in Washington with the likes of Roseanne Cash, who she still tours with and reveres. They also discussed how, being the daughter of Johnny Cash, she provides the link in a chain, and told a lovely story of how Johnny wrote a list for Roseanne of essential songs that she should know, and how the result was her record The River And The Thread, wherein she revisited and explored her heritage and embraced the roots of US music.
They discussed the term Americana, which Mary felt is a broader term that’s helpful for those who don’t easily fit into boxes. Bob recounted another great songwriter, Mary Gauthier’s theory that you have to go through a lot to get to simple. Mary talked of her songwriting process and how she edits herself and makes every word count. The moving conversation touched on grief and loss and how 2012‘s Ashes And Roses was all about that. Mary acknowledged the healing power of music, how it makes you feel you’re not alone and how cathartic it is to write about what you’re going through. Mary is a solo writer and they discussed how Americana does seem more solitary as a writing process. As a songwriter I’ve always been drawn to how it has a more organic sound and provides a real narrative and heart within its songwriting.
With a rapidly growing membership and the introduction of The Official Americana Chart, which the US have now followed, it’s a really exciting time for the AMA-UK. Now five years old, it’s providing a strong network and real sense of community amongst those who are passionate about the music. As Clubhouse Records, an independent label with an impressive roster of excellent Americana bands state, the “networking was a key part of the whole event and it was great to meet so many like minded people.” Here’s to next year!
Words: Lisa Redford