Q&A and Guest Playlist: Anna Hughes
Fiddle player, singer and composer Anna Hughes completed her final year of Folk and Traditional Music at Newcastle University last year, with a year studying in the folk music department of The Sibelius Academy, Helsinki.
Intrigued by simplicity and beauty, Anna is committed to finding a personal relationship with folk song. Having lived in many places in the UK is intrinsically linked to her connection to traditional music – its ability to create a sense of home and belonging is something she seeks to incorporate in to her work. A founding member of the contemporary folk quartet, Balter, she also writes music for theatre; her sound design for the award winning In Tandem Theatre Company’s A Great Fear of Shallow Living was showcased at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and then later transferred to London. This has led to a long term collaboration with actor, writer and sister to Anna, Isobel Hughes.
Anna and Isobel were Summer Studio residents at Sage Gateshead in 2019 and spent time collating, developing and improvising work for their spoken word, storytelling and live music show.
We caught up with Anna to find out more about music, gigs, holidays and perfect happiness…
What was the first record you bought?
The first album I remember asking for when I was really young was Innocent Eyes, by Delta Goodrem(!), but the first album I bought with my own (but not my own) money, and I suppose agency was Feels Like Home, by Norah Jones. It was a staple in the car on a long journey and I’m sure still a favourite of all my family. I think I was about 8 or 9 and this is the first time I remember being especially taken by lyrics.
I find myself coming back to this album over and over again, and each time I do the writing feels even more special to me. There is something about the music you love when you are young – even though taste changes you never lose the love for those first albums that changed your world somehow.
Where in the world would you like to play that you have not already?
There was a residency, or “soundcamp” that I really really wanted to be a part of this year, in Skagen, right at the Northernmost point of Denmark. Skagen is a really unique place for bird migration, and the idea was to follow bird excursions, recording and listening sessions, and to create music and sounds, alongside the birds. It would culminate in a performance with the dawn chorus of Skagen. I think that would have been a beautiful place and setting to play music.
Who was the first band/artist you ever saw perform live?
My very first concert that I went to was at Snape Maltings, in Suffolk where I lived during my youngest years. It was Benjamin Britten, my mum tells me Peter Grimes but I don’t remember any of it, apart from a huge, magical feeling. I know we moved from Suffolk when I was 5 so my mum was very brave to take me to this concert!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That feeling after a day outside, preferably having been in the sea! Sitting by a fire with wine, food, good company, the smell of salt in your hair, and the feeling of sand in your eyebrows.
I think I have experienced perfect happiness, when I lived in Finland (they do say it’s the happiest country!). I lived with some really special people, and we would often go out in the middle of the night to an Island very close to Helsinki. Sometimes we would make a fire and cook food, play cards, or listen to music and talk until the sun had set and risen again. I remember one night in particular, we took a bottle of whisky and the sky was so clear, we sat next to the still sea and saw the most starlit sky I have known. We lay on our backs, drank whisky and watched the sky.
On our way back across to Helsinki, we could see from the boat that the water was moving in such a strange way, I wondered if it could be the remnants of the frozen winter sea, or rocks, but it was only when we got closer, that we realised it was a huge, densely gathered group of birds. The boat disturbed them and they all took flight at the same time, over us and around us. I remember feeling so elated, it was such happiness that we just all tipped our heads back and laughed with such childish excitement. And then we’d go to sleep, and know that we could do it all again the next night.
Who are your favourite writers?
My sister, Isobel Hughes. (I am really not just saying this!). I suppose we have had parallel experiences and value the same things and she writes so beautifully about the things I know so well. We are currently writing an opera together, of folk music and storytelling, called A Place to Fall to Pieces (listen here). The book We The Drowned by Carsten Jensen has been particularly important in my life and I have used it for a lot of songwriting inspiration, but it’s the only one of his books I have read.
Other writers I love are Kate Tempest, Robert Macfarlane, KT Tunstall (lyrics) and of course all the anonymous writers of (the good) folk songs!
Who are your favourite painters?
I actually don’t know many painters, even though I grew up going to art galleries very often with my mum who knows so many! I love painters that capture human expression (Helene Schjerfbeck is one that I grew to love in Finland), and my mum has a couple of paintings by a Cornish painter, Zoe Cameron, which I love very much. There is a painting in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle of a young boy sitting with a dog in the back of a cart, I don’t know the artist but I often pop in to look at that one. I also love Mark Hearld and Jackie Morris for their beautiful animal paintings.
If you could collaborate with any other artists, living or dead, who would you choose?
It’s so hard to know! I love all of my current collaborations, and wouldn’t choose anyone over my beloved friends that I already work with, but I have to mention KT Tunstall because I’m such a big fan girl of her music and songwriting! (Although would be very scared of a don’t meet your heroes moment if we didn’t collaborate well together!) I would also love to be a fifth member of The Furrow Collective.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I absolutely love Ceitidh Mac’s new single Window Scene, and Elian Zeitel has just released a new album, which is absolutely stunning. Her band are so skilled and her vocal technique is impeccable.
I am really missing live music at the moment, but Rhiannon Giddens’ recent album with Francesco Turrisi is filling in for this very well so far – I think they did minimal takes and recorded it mostly live. When I listen I really feel the excitement of live impulses. Maybe that’s just because they’re both such amazing musicians.
I’ve made a current listening playlist on Spotify (listen here) to go with this, and included some old comforts, and of course a couple of my band Balter’s tracks. I loved putting this playlist together, and have purposely made it over 50% women, and highlighted some of the local goodness we have here in Newcastle.
Where’s your favourite place to go on holiday?
The best places I’ve ever been are South Africa and Finland. The natural landscape is still important there, and so stunning. But I think my favourite place is the North Coast of Cornwall, where my parents live. I’m very fond of the wild Atlantic coastline and the west coast drizzle! It’s so nice to have a place that you can go on holiday and also really get to know the corners of the coastline that are your favourite spots to stop on a walk, the most beautiful hedgerows on a drive down to the sea, the beaches that appear when its low tide etc. It’s a part of the world that I will never get bored of.
Best advice you can give to emerging talent?
Eesh, I don’t know if I qualify to give advice here – I think I could do with some myself! I suppose I’ve learnt this year to keep topping up with new influences, and to keep rediscovering why I love music in the present. Oh and to share my music! (I kept creating and never doing anything with it or letting anyone listen!) I feel much more a part of something bigger than myself since I’ve been putting stuff out there.
I’ve made a current listening playlist on Spotify to go with this Q&A, and included some old comforts, and of course a couple of my band Balter’s tracks. I loved putting this playlist together, and have purposely made it over 50% women, and highlighted some of the local goodness we have here in Newcastle.