*On A Narrowboat
When I first meet Mark Holdsworth at Chirk Marina and step aboard the lovely Carriad VI, I am immediately greeted by his waterborne neighbours tapping at the window in search of a snack; resident ducks! Mark tells me they visit almost every day, but they won’t be ignored and can be extremely persistent with their knocking, showing little consideration for his work. You see, Mark spends each summer traversing the Great British canals on his narrowboat, recording top-quality live music sessions for relatively unknown artists in his unusually large cratch. The sessions are then compiled onto a CD to raise money for Cancer Research. Choosing a different area of the country each year, London-bound for 2017, Carriad VI sets sail each June in search of new talent to showcase; any genre, any style and size isn’t an issue. Whether you’re a solo artists or a 7-piece band, you’re welcome aboard; Mark can fit plenty in his cratch. It’s a part of the boat, get your mind out of the gutter!
Good afternoon Mark, thanks for inviting me aboard! How and why did you start recording music sessions on your narrowboat?
Well the unusual thing about this boat is the enormous front cratch area. You can actually seat 8 people in there around a table. With the sides rolled up in the summer it’s just absolutely sublime! Normally a narrowboat has only got a small area where you can just squeeze 2 people and a budgie in! On a good day! We were jamming out on the tow-path one day and it started to rain, so we all piled into the front and we were jamming away and we realised we got a really good sound in there. So we decided to have a go at recording, and it sounded really, really great and I said we really ought to do something with this!
So quite by chance really! What made you decide to start raising money for Cancer Research?
It was a bit of an evolution because...my wife was left as the oldest member of her family after her cousin died of cancer, and I realised that although I’m ex-forces...I’d lost more friends to cancer than I had to any form of active service or anything like that. I thought ‘This is ridiculous!’ and we decided to try and raise money for Cancer Research, and the only way we could think of doing it was to go round the country inviting friends to come aboard for a music session. Well, that was the plan, and then Maggie Boyle said online ‘Look I’m really, really sorry guys, I haven’t responded well to my treatment...’ I didn’t even know she’d got cancer!
Well I’d supported Steve Tilston and Maggie Boyle down at The Black Swan in Bristol in the very late 70’s/early 80’s. I just fell in love with their music, and if I’ve been in the area when they’ve been playing I’ve always made a point of being in the audience. So when we realised that Maggie wasn’t very well at all, we literally just turned round where we were and headed up to Hebden Bridge where she lives. On the way up I phoned up her daughter Molly and I said ‘What’s the chances of getting your mum and your dad on-board the boat together to do a session?’ and she said ‘Oh I don’t think it’s very likely Mark, not really, y’know, they are divorced now! And of course mum’s not very well...well, just ask her and see what she says!’
Anyway I asked and um...they both said yes! So we had, possibly, their last ever duet together. Very emotional. It was very hard when Maggie was recording because she was very poorly, and she was being really strong, but she had to take a long gap between songs. But to see her and Steve together again, laughing and joking, it was just like old times. Wonderful, it really was. So then Maggie asked ‘How are the session’s going Mark?’ and I said ‘Well to be honest, I’m a completely unknown quantity up her. I’ve got three sessions booked, that’s it, it is a bit dire.’ ‘Oh okay, oh dear...’, she said and left it at that. Well from about 8 the next morning, the phone was ringing off the hook! Maggie had been on the phone, and what was happening was that people were calling up and saying ‘Is that Mark? Maggie Boyle has told me I’ve got to come and do a session on your narrowboat!’ …Okay!! And because she was such a lovely person, she just gave all the time, if she asked for something people just bent over backwards to give it to her. So we had all the great and good of the Northern folk scene on the boat and so it just went bonkers after that, and of course it’s just snowballed now. We were on telly last week, that was rather nice!
Yes, you were interviewed by the BBC recently and they called you ‘the biggest unsigned music platform...of it’s kind.’ So what does that mean, exactly?
Well, we’re not entirely sure ourselves! Do they mean on a narrowboat? Because narrowboats are only found in the UK, so if that’s the case then we are the biggest unsigned music platform of it’s kind...in the whole universe!
I think you’ve found a great niche there! Would you say the sessions are strictly for folk music then?
It’s a very hard thing to define, because technically if people are writing songs in this country and it’s about life, it’s folk music! It doesn’t matter whether you do it in the general style of rock and roll, or traditional folk or whatever: if you’re singing about day-to-day life which most people are doing, it’s folk music. We’ve been trying to promote ‘Modern Acoustic’ as being a new genre but it doesn’t seem to be catching on. Anyway, our sessions are very eclectic.
Do you think the word ‘folk’ evokes a certain image in people’s minds?
It does! Traditional folk is very much accapella; trying to get your harmonies right with your finger in your ear! But modern folk is probably a genre you could go down. Its just so varied; we’ve had everything from emo, rockers, lots of blues bands...we’re actually going to release a separate blues album because there’s just so many! We just haven’t decided whether it will be on vinyl or CD. If anybody tries to throw it on Spotify I’ll jump up and down all over them! I hate Spotify with a vengeance. A friend of mind, Gary Edward Jones, had his payment through and I think it was something like £16 for 4.5 million hits. £16? Criminal! And yet the guys who own Spotify have got...villas, living up the high life! Very very wrong. I suppose I’m being a bit hypocritical because we don’t pay the artists for coming on board, and I hate this thing where you say to the artist ‘Oh you can come and play in my pub, you’ll get great exposure!’ The difference is, on The Narrowboat Sessions, they get massive exposure! And I mean it is massive; we get played every day on New York Radio as a breakfast thing, Miami Radio plays us...a Japanese station, I haven’t got a CLUE what they’re talking about but somewhere in Japan they play us! And I’ve got a friend out in a little city in China, she’s got her own private radio station who’s bunging it out over there, it gets played all the way across Europe and everything! When people come and play for us they know they’re going to be contributing towards Cancer Research, but in turn I really do push the fact that these people have done this for free and that they’re superb!
Wow! That really is a big international reach, and a lot of growth for a project only in its 4th year!
Yes, so it just snowballed and we’ve got quite a cult following, got some session videos like George Borowski’s ‘Landing Lights’ with 53,000 views! That’s our biggest hit of all time so far. Really wonderful that was. They all are though, and as I said before it’s just such an eclectic collection of music; the likes of Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson with their really fast, finger picking, resonator ukulele, you just go, ‘Oh wow! Why aren’t these guys household names?’ Well, George kind of is. It’s grown incredibly; that 1st year we did 36 sessions, the next year we did 67 sessions, the 3rd year we did 96 sessions! And we do 3 videos for each one, as well as the audio recordings. So, that’s about 300 videos last year, there’s over 500 videos on YouTube now, and we’ve had over 200 applicants for our London trip this year!
Not asking you to pick favourites, but is there anyone you’re particularly looking forward to recording in London?
There’s a couple of interesting people; Xander & The Peace Pirates, a chap called Luke Jackson. The thing is I don’t really know most of their music as we haven’t been down there. I always have a quick glance at what they do, but I like to try and keep it a surprise for the day rather than pre-judge. But out of 200 applicants, we might not even get to 100 sessions. I had to stop at the end of September (2016) because I’d not been too well and I was starting to feel it, so we finished the sessions and of course, 4 days later I had 2 strokes, so...yeah! I kind of over-cooked it last winter so I’m just going to spread it out over a bigger period, I don’t think people realise how much work actually goes into it, it is phenomenal.
Well I hope you’ve got a solid crew to help you?
I really do. We’ve got Kira, Katrin and my wife Sue. Katrin is still as school but she’s of this new age of kids, just does everything! Kira on the other hand is the last of the great luddites, she’s also a great sound engineer, we’d be kind of lost without her. We also have the boat crew; Alan Rutherford, he runs the Mad House in Burton-on-Trent, and it varies from year to year but usually Alan is a fixture now, on the boat for 1-2 weeks to get us around. When we’re on the move we try to get sessions in every evening when we pull up. Steve Rickard did the first and second years, but he didn’t do last year, he’s got too many commitments now, he’s doing a one-man Pink Floyd show. He’s an absolutely awesome guitarist, he really is. He’s a master of the loop pedal, well of course you’d have to be, but yeah he’s got a good voice, fantastic guitarist and it’s kind of taken off for him so he hasn’t got as much spare time now.
Sounds like all hands on deck come summer. What’s the secret that has pushed The Narrowboat Sessions to become such a huge platform for unsigned artists?
Because it caters for all tastes! And, this is going to sound a bit silly, but I rarely turn anybody down if they want to come and play. The Narrowboat Sessions are so good that people will listen and think, ‘Oh God, I’m not going to volunteer for that yet, I’m nowhere near that good!’ and they’ll keep playing and then they’ll think...’Yes, Ok, I’m good enough now. I’ve got 3 of my own songs, I can do it!’ and they’ll come aboard then. If I get somebody who I don’t think is quite ready I’ll say ‘Look, I’ll listen to them,’ and then say ‘What would be better is if you did this, this & this to whatever you’re doing, try it like that, practice, and come back next year.’ Because it’s a one shot deal, you only get to come and do the Narrowboat Sessions once!
It might be a one shot deal but I doubt the sessions get done in one take, right?
Yeah, I mean when people make a boo-boo we do just wipe them and start a new recording. Imagine how much space we’d need to record all the mistakes and false starts! Although occasionally I will just have a hunch about something; when my friend Henry Priestman did ‘End Of The Day’ it was quite emotional because he’d just written it, it was the first time it’d ever been heard in public. It was written for his mum who’d just died, and his mother-in-law had died 3-weeks prior. So ‘End Of The Day’ is one of those lovely songs... “who will hold my hand tonight?” – that’s one of the lines, and he was a bit choked doing it, and he said ‘I’d like to do that one again’ and I said ‘That was the perfect amount of emotion, it doesn’t affect your playing, it was perfect, just leave it’ but he said no. Fine, fair enough, but I didn’t wipe the first take. We did 27 more takes and he was getting more and more emotional about it every time and he said ‘Oh god you were right, I wish we’d kept the first one’ Well, I had! Yeah, a good call! Not often I have them, but occasionally!
So you find that artists respond well to your advice instead of getting the hump?
I think I’m reasonably good with people, I don’t suffer fools but on the other hand, we’ve never had a fool aboard! We did have an elderly couple, octogenarians, who were naturists. They wanted to do a session in the nude and I said ‘Look this is a family show, it really is! Your songs are lovely but you really can’t do it naked, that’s not what we’re about at all, I don’t want that sort of connotation.’ And they took the hump! Saying ‘It’s our belief, it’s what we do, we play naked!’ so I said ‘You might play naked in naturist camps, but you can’t play naked in the front of the boat! If you want to do your session then that’s fine, but it has to be clothed! At the very least wearing swimming costumes! But you can’t be naked.’ Anyway they...er...didn’t do the session!
Oh right, you weren’t able to do a sort of ‘Calendar Girls’ artistic pose behind a guitar?
I had thought about it. I won’t go into details but when men get older, bits dangle... In fact, ladies dangle as well!
Enough said! With the number of sessions and applicants growing annually, how do you pick which tracks make it onto the CD?
Hat draw! We go through everybody’s sessions and pick their best one, and then what happens is they all get thrown into a pot, except for a few exceptions. Like last year we had Tim McGrath, Nick Harper, Flea Bitten Dogs...and these are guys who have travelled a long way from Canada and The States to come and do a session, so they’re going straight on the album. But yeah, apart from the obvious ‘celebs’ that come aboard, everybody else gets thrown into a hat. So it’s all a fair crack at the whip, it’s a double album so at least 36 tracks.
Ah, so each year the chances of getting on the CD are smaller and smaller. Popularity always comes at a price.
Have you always had music in your life?
Ah right, well, oh, how far back does one go? We moved into a very large house when I was a child, and one of the rooms was a music room with a big piano in it. I was 12 years old and I sat there at it going plink-plink-plink you know, one finger thing, and my mum said ‘Oh-oh he’s got talent!’ Now, I had a long history of concert pianists in the family, and it had skipped a generation with my dad! So I went for lessons, and by the time I was 15 I’d got to grade 7. So I’d kind of got the knack of it and I played with various orchestras and things like that, but then I went to college and...now.…there’s a long family history of joining the Royal Navy. Since it’s formation there’s always been a Holdsworth in the Royal Navy. My older brother had already gone in the Royal Navy and so I decided to join the Merchant Navy, so I went to college and that’s where I met the dark side! I was at a place called Ray Castle up in Cumbria on the side of Lake Windemere, a stunning place, and of course the folk scene up there is, to this day, immensely strong. So my friend Bob said ‘Oh are you coming down to the folk club?’ I was like ‘Folk?!? Folk music?!? Oh come on!’ He says ‘No, come on, you’ll enjoy it, it’s a night out.’ So I remember sitting in sheer terror in a side-car on the way to this folk club and...I loved it! I absolutely loved it! And within 3 months we’d got seriously involved with it, there every week, do a bit of compering, do a bit of singing, and so I started meeting some of my heroes.
Well, they weren’t my heroes until I started going there, but Harvey Andrews is now an old friend. My first encounter with Harvey, who of course is a legend in his own lunchtime, is that I used to do fills and stuff, and I sang ‘The Soldier Song’, but it was a bit long to use as a fill, so I missed 3 verses out. Not important verses, I’ve always said this! So I sang it anyway, and then go round the back of the stage, talking to Bob. Well, this fella came round and he’s poking me in the chest, he’s purple in the face! And he’s saying ‘You missed verses out! Lost the whole song! Ridiculous! What would you do that for?’ and I didn’t get a chance to explain to him that I only had a certain amount of time and I really wanted to sing the song, I thought he was going to thump me at one point! Anyway he stormed off, and I look round at my mate Bob who is creased up laughing and say ‘Pheeeew, who the hell was that?!?’ and he said ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said ‘…Harvey Andrews?’ ‘Well, you’ve just met him!’ Harvey and I have now sort of kissed and made up. We met up about, 6 years ago, and he sang one of my songs and missed 3 verses out! He got even.
I can’t believe you didn’t mention playing the guitar, since there’s quite a few on board. Do you have a favourite?
Well...I only have 64 of them, and I’m a luthier as well! It really depends on what you’re playing. 64 is still not enough, I keep saying this. One for every day of the year isn’t even enough because you might want to play some blues first thing so you need a resonator, and then in the afternoon you might play some early-30’s blues in which case you need a steel resonator, and then you might go for a bit of folk later so the little tenor guitar comes out then and...you know...you need at least 7 guitars for every day of the week! I think the Washburn is probably my favourite, it’s a D36 Tahoe, only 100 of them every made, and it beats the Hummingbird hands down. But it’s not good for everything! Got a couple of lovely old D35 Martens, the Seagull of course; awesome guitar, nice big powerful bass-strummy guitar. There’s an acoustic bass down there as well, and there’s the ukuleles, dulcimers, dobro hound-dog, baritone ukuleles...I love my little tenor guitar, that’s a lovely thing because it’s tuned the same as a mandolin, it’s only got 4 strings, really unusual and bright.
They all sound lovely but I think 64 is plenty to be going on with! Thanks for your time Mark.
You can check out The Narrowboat Sessions on their Facebook and YouTube pages, and those of you in the South, keep your eyes peeled for Carriad VI sailing on a canal near you!