Interview: Sheelanagig @ Womad 2015 (July 2015)

WOMAD and Bristol have developed a tight-knit relationship. The festival has always hosted many bands from this southwestern city on its stages, and thousands of Bristolians visit Charlton Park every year to enjoy hearing their fellow city-dwellers playing in a different context. It’s not surprising then that one of the most thrilling acts of WOMAD 2015 was Sheelanagig, which is also one of the liveliest expressions of Bristol’s stimulating music scene.

On the morning after their thrilling and intoxicating performance on the Ecotricty Stage, which literally blew away the audience with a colourful celebration of Balkan rhythms, traditional Irish melodies and carnival-like attitude, we met the band members for a photo shot. Minutes later we chatted with Aaron Catlow (fiddle player and founder member of the band) during a short but engaging interview about the oddities of Sheelanagig, their music and the above-mentioned Bristol music scene.

We couldn’t avoid leading off the dance by asking about the name they chose: Sheelanagig is quite a bizarre inspiration for a band moniker. After ten years Aaron has not yet got used to this question.

I knew this would come up, but I wasn’t expecting it so early in the interview. You got straight in there!”

Well, at Rhythm Passport we are fans of the saying ‘better out than in’. So, what is behind the obscure name?

Basically Sheela na gig is the pagan goddess of fertility. Well, people think it’s about fertility, but no one really knows what it was about. There are these carvings of Sheela na gig all over England. You can find them in the churches in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, but no one really knows the meaning so can’t go into too much detail”.

Let’s just say that Sheela na gig are figurative carvings of naked women, with a quite accentuated physical trait. But, beside its meaning, the reason the ensemble chose that name is singular.

Actually, we used to be called Thingamagig, which I reckon was a bloody awful name. I firstly heard about this thing called Sheela na gig when I was a teenager and then the sound of this word has always followed me. So, since the name sounds really better than Thingamagig and is not too different, we chose it”.

A more poetic way to put it would be to connect their name with the music they play.

We used to play a lot more Irish music when we started playing together.

So it was natural to look for a name that would mirror that tradition. Then we moved more into the kind of Balkan and Eastern European genres”.

One is naturally led to wonder why a Bristol based band would decide to play Balkan and Gipsy music?

Actually Balkan music is massive in Bristol. People love it! There are a lot of bands that play that kind of music and we just found that the response we were getting from the Balkan part of our set was a lot better, and people were really engaged with it. Even if we don’t play exclusively Balkan music there are a lot of flavours coming from that region”.

The choice to move towards a more Balkan-oriented sound was also motivated by a personal reason:

I’ve listened for a very long time to Balkan and Gipsy music. I’m also a big fan of Django Reinhardt, who’s the one who introduced the Gipsy-jazz style. And then I came across the Romani band Taraf de Haïdouks, who are great, great musicians. In particular their violin player is fantastic!”.

As a matter of fact, when you experience Sheelanagig’s live shows you can see that they are one of those Balkan bands that give it their all on stage. Aaron told us that their drive is part of process that goes back to their busking past.

Our live shows have become more and more energetic, almost circus like and acrobatic. That’s because we have played at a lot of street festivals and busked all around Europe. It’s something like street performance, and when you’re playing at those busking festivals you’re in competition with other artists. There are jugglers, fire-eaters, magicians, and you need to stand out, be loud and big, and that was our thing and our shows got louder and louder. Then, we translated it to the stage.

Unfortunately, we can’t do all the things we do on the street, but we still have a lot of fun. Sometimes we also dress Jonah as a woman, but we can’t perform in the same way”.

Sheelanagig are a band that draws emotion out of the audience. Their gigs are one-of-a-kind shows during which anything can happen – and people easily follow the jubilant musical flow. Aaron confessed that the first to be surprised by this side effect of their music was the musicians.

It’s bizarre to notice how people can effortlessly connect with our music, whether they’re five or eighty. Maybe it’s because our music is pretty inoffensive, accessible and people can get into it quite easily”.

So we guessed that it’d have been a hard task to turn their live drive into an album.

It’s undeniable that we are a live band. Our natural dimension is the live one. However we’ve already got four albums out and we try hard to translate our style into the studio. Also when we record an album we can also include many tunes we never play live. So, in the end it’s all about finding and giving a balance to the album as well”.

For sure, their musical experience and story is helping them to get along well and sound more cohesive on stage and in the studio too. Sheelanagig will indeed turn ten this year, so we asked Aaron how the project started and how he feels approaching the first decade of the band.

Basically everything started between me, the drummer and the bass player. We all went to university together at Dartington College of Arts in South Devon. Then we moved to Bristol and Sheelanagig started there. As said, initially we were a little more Irish music oriented, but then our Balkan soul took over”.

We wondered how many other souls the band is hiding and what will happen to Sheelanagig in the next ten, twenty, maybe thirty years. Aaron laughed and said:

The project is moving into more jazz-fusion things, then rock ballads. Every year we are going to change our style! No, I’m joking! Actually we just want to keep on playing what we do today, maybe being even crazier once on stage. Then, we also have a new album coming out next year. It should be out around March. And there will be a new single out before the end of this year too. Finally, save the date because we have a ten-year anniversary tour in November. We will have a big show at the Colston Hall in Bristol and gigs around UK, for example in London at the New Cross Inn. So yes, we’re definitely going to continue playing: more gigs, more money!”

Since Aaron mentioned it, we wanted to follow up with Colston Hall, and Bristol too. The venue is arguably the most dynamic cultural place in the city, so Bristol could have the most vibrant music scene in England, taking its size into consideration. It’s no coincidence that Sheelanagig come from that city and have a privileged relationship with the cultural centre too. Aaron quickly agreed.

I think that outside London, Bristol is the most vibrant music city I’ve been to.

Music is literally everywhere: live venues, pubs with music seven nights a week, record shops and so on. For some reason musicians feel the need to move there and I think it’s also about the location. If you want to tour you can easily get to Wales, North and South England, then it’s not too far from London too. Logistically Bristol is a really good place to start!”

So we asked Aaron who amongst his fellow Bristolian musicians we should be listening out for. He immediately answered:

Oh definitely Nuala Honan! She’s a fantastic singer-songwriter and did some great stuff. Then, the Carny Villains, who’re a crazy circus band – they’re quite similar to us. They are fantastic! And who else…let’s see…it’s always the same, when you have to answer this question you never remember the names! But if you like music and the UK scene, you must go to Bristol”.

That’s the reason why there are many Bristol-based bands playing on WOMAD’s stages. So our final question was related to their WOMAD experience, and how it was to play in front of a large crowd. After reminding us that Sheelanagig also played at Glastonbury this year, he enthusiastically answered:

We loved it! The bigger the crowd, the less nervous I get. The worst I can ever imagine is playing in front of three friends. But I mean, the festival audience is always great. Everyone is willing and ready to go for it. They want to have fun and we always try to let them have fun, to involve them and relate to them. No matter how big the audience is, we always try to make it into a kind of intimate gig and make them feel as part of the show”.

We really don’t know what their secret is, but as we have experienced at WOMAD, they easily succeeded in their purpose. So keep your eyes and ears open because with the first winter chills Sheelanagig will celebrate their tenth birthday, and we are pretty sure they know how to celebrate in style!

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