One of the things I love the most about doing this blog is getting turned on to all kinds of great music I may have never heard myself. Every now and then a band makes its way across my desk and stops me dead in my tracks demanding my full attention. One of those bands is UK based psychedelic folk rock group Galley Beggar.
Galley Beggar is a band whose sound is so different yet comfortable and familiar. With influences ranging from Fairport Convention to Led Zeppelin and all else in between, Galley Beggar has captured their own magic in a bottle with their new album Heathen Hymns. Lead vocalist Maria O’Donnell was gracious enough to take time out from being mum to talk with me about the band’s influences, how it feels to be embraced by the metal world, and her affinity for Arcade Fire. This was a really fun interview and I hope you all enjoy getting to know Maria and Galley Beggar.
Maria, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with me today.
I’m so sorry I missed your first call. I had my phone on silent when my son was asleep [laughs]. Well, I’m happy to be here now.
I also have to thank you for not being scared off by doing an interview with a site called The Great Southern Brainfart.
[laughs] Not at all. It is an interesting name though.
Do you like doing interviews? I know this can be a painful process for some artists.
I don’t find it painful. I’m just not usually the one to push myself to the front. Normally I’d get Mat (Fowler; Guitars, Mandolin, Vocals) or David (Ellis; Guitars, Mandolin) to do it but they’ve told me that I have to start pulling my weight [laughs]. I have to do my fair share. I’m doing another interview tomorrow on a local BBC station which is about a 40 minutes drive from here for Radio Kent and that’s going out live.
That’s fantastic. You’ll do great I’m sure.
I just always say the wrong thing and you can’t take any of it back. I’m going to have to watch my language [laughs].
While there are definitely obvious signs of bands such Fairport Convention and even Donovan, there are also some subtle hints of early occult/psych rock bands like Black Widow and Frumpy. It creates a sound that I feel is accessible to those that love the roots thing and those that like the psych-rock thing as well.
It’s so weird that we do have such a mix of backgrounds and influences. David has a massive record collection and is into all types of rock like Led Zeppelin. It was hearing Sandy Denny on “Battle of Evermore” that led him down road where he found Fairport Convention. Mat is kind of the same. Mat and David used to play in a Led Zeppelin tribute band together about 10 years ago [laughs]. They’ve been playing together a long time. Mat went to music university and is classically trained and so is Selene (Marshall; Violin). Her violin playing is what sets us apart from most folk music because it’s got such great, somber move too it.
Did the over all creative process differ much this time around?
We started writing more quickly after Silence and Tears. We were used to pleasing ourselves but when there’s a deadline, we got very panicky and got used to writing more quickly and becoming very dedicated to it. We did get loads of ideas together for Heathen Hymns and just picked the our favorites that worked and they fit together nicely. I feel like this album is a lot darker. I don’t know why or whether everyone would agree but that’s the kind of sense I get from it. We’re already writing new songs for another new album at the moment and they’re sounding more like early Led Zeppelin and less folky just from the ideas we’ve been getting together. It’s deliberate. It’s all because there are so many kinds of influences in the band that it’s whatever makes it on to the final cut.
This is album number 4 for Galley Beggar. Has the overall recording process changed a good bit now that you have been doing this a while now?
Yes. We were a bit more polished when we went into the studio to make Heathen Hymns. When we did Silence and Tears, we had never recorded with a record company before. When we were told that we would be working with Liam Watson it wasn’t intimidating but we were all very nervous because we had never done it like that before. This time we felt a lot more comfortable and a bit more polished. Sometimes Liam would say, “Can you play that track one more time so I can get the levels right?” We’d play it and then he’d say, “I was recording the whole time. That was perfect.” [laughs] I think some of those recordings actually made it on to the album.
I love that as a fan, I can hear the gradual transition into new styles from album to album. With this album, it’s got almost a cosmic/psych rock element to it, especially on a song like “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” That song is so outstanding.
Awe, thank you Don. Mat and the basic idea for the riff of that song. Mat and I are married so we do all of our writing together. We have this little 4-track recorder and he had this kind of basic idea in his head and he recorded all the different tracks like the bass, and the guitar to try and show everybody what he meant. I found the lyrics in the Folk Archive. We always want to try and make something our own and not just do a copy of what somebody else has done. Because I had never heard the song, I didn’t have anything in my head starting from scratch. I find it easier writing vocal lines on the piano than in my head so that’s where the vocal came from. We then took it to the rest of the band and just flushed it out. Sometimes we’ll try something five different ways before we pick the one we like but that one just was a lot more natural. We knew what we wanted to do with it straight away. A lot of the time the writing tends to happen more at mine and Mat’s house. We live in the middle of the countryside and we sit in a room and just try different things.
The song is so epic and so full of great musicality. How many takes did it take you to do this one?
We actually got that song done in one take. We did the same thing with “Pay My Body Home” as well. They’re both such long songs and we’re recording them on tape. If somebody came and says, “I don’t like that tiny part”, well, then we’d have to record the whole song again so then it’s like, “How much do you hate it and do you want to do it all over again?”[laughs].
With a sound and style such as yours, is it hard for Galley Beggar to be categorized when it comes to performing live and/or touring?
Yeah it is hard but what we’ll try and do is to curate our own gigs. We’ve started to get a bit of a following of our own so when we recently played in Glastonbury, we knew that people where there to see us and that some of them had seen us before. We’re getting to that stage.
Being signed to Lee Dorian’s Rise Above Records has exposed Galley Beggar to a heavier audience that what you’re probably used to.
It’s been a big surprise to us that a metal audience would like us [laughs]. When Lee Dorian approached us and said he wanted to work with us I remember thinking, “I don’t know why he likes us. We sound nothing like the music he would play.” [laughs] Lee Dorian does have very eclectic taste in music. The reviews I’ve read about us in the metal press all kind of say, “When all the metal gets a bit too much, you might want to relax a bit and put Galley Beggar on to unwind.” I am surprised at how well received we’ve been. We went and played at a metal festival last year in the Netherlands and we must have stuck out like a sore thumb [laughs].
Another thing I love is the different kinds of instrumentation that Galley Beggar brings to the fold. I loved hearing the sitar on “The Lake.”
Awe, thank you, Don. We do like to try new things. David had that sitar for I think about 10 years and we had always hoped to maybe break it out at some point. We tried to do different things with “The Lake” like some electric guitar and some piano but it didn’t work. David tried the sitar and we all loved it. It wasn’t easy for him. He had to make up the tuning because I don’t even know how you would tune one of those things [laughs]. I doubt we’ll ever be playing it live on stage.
Will North America ever get to see Galley Beggar live?
Oh that would be amazing to tour America. If somebody wants to put us on a tour, we would love it. We’d definitely be open to it though.
What are your plans for the rest of 2017 and what can you tell me about the new material you’re working on?
I think it’s just a natural thing when you enjoy writing music. You can’t help yourself. You come up with an idea and you like it and you just start passing it around. That’s happened quite naturally. We had just finished recording Silence and Tears when we wrote “Lorelai” back in 2014 and that song just appeared on Heathen Hymns. It’s such a long process that the stuff we’re writing now probably wouldn’t be heard for at least three years. We just like to keep the creative juices flowing. We also have festival gigs booked up until the end of December.
So when will we get another Galley Beggar album?
Well, Lee hasn’t actually told us if he wants another Galley Beggar album. He may just tell us to fuck off [laughs].
Is there a band that I would be surprised to hear that you were a fan of?
I personally love Arcade Fire [laughs]. I discovered them with their first album. I just love the subject matter that they write about. They use several different instruments and their lyrics are quite mystical. I think what they do is really interesting. Another band I listen to is a band called London Grammer who are from the UK. They’re very chill, very laid back. I also listen to a lot of Van Morrison.
What are your hopes for the future of Galley Beggar?
Oh gosh. I’d like to be the next Adelle! I’m only joking [laughs]. I’ll go solo and conquer North America [laughs]. Really, I love what we’re doing at the moment. I really like playing festivals. I don’t ever thing that we’ll be able to do this for a living but it’s a lucrative hobby I’d say that more than pays for itself. It’s really almost like a 2nd day job. We spend so much time writing music, rehearsing, getting gigs, all of that. If we only got as far as we are now I’d be very, very happy. When you put your heart and soul into a song, you just want people to hear it. I just want our music to get listened to.
Maria, it has been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and I really enjoyed our time together. Thank you so much for doing this.
Brilliant. Thank you very much, Don. Take care.