Virtual Folk Club 5 with Paul Walker

Tonight’s guest is Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, concertina/melodeon player with Granny’s Attic, one of the young roots outfits currently freshening up the English Folk circuit.

PW: Well 2017 will see Granny’s Attic livening up Chester, Saddleworth, Bromyard, Banbury & Hartlepool Folk Festivals among others. So I’m here with a biriyani from No Bones Jones & couple of virtual pints of Doombar from the Camra tent.

So we’ll kick off with a drinking song from The Dubliners (and one of your set list Cohen) “Whisky in the Jar”:

PW: Great to see a concertina on a Festival stage- is that a Jeffries Anglo you’re playing, Cohen? What’s your musical background?

CB-K: Yes, that is a 45 key Jeffries Anglo c. 1925.

I don’t come from a particularly musical family, my dad does play the guitar occasionally, but I didn’t grow up in a house surrounded by music and musicians. But my family were quite encouraging when I started getting interested in music. I started as a musician when I was 6, learning the violin at school. Through my violin lessons I was learning the occasional folk tune and I always found those more enjoyable than anything else I had to play, so I started exploring that music further. When I was around 10 I got myself a handful of books of folk tunes and taught myself how to play those and started going whenever I could to sessions and folk clubs and festivals. It was here that I started to encounter squeezeboxes of various types and I was absolutely fascinated by them. For Christmas in 2007 my mother brought me a toy melodeon and I learnt a handful of tunes on that. The following year when I was 12 I got my first concertina, then a year later my first melodeon. Since then it’s been the squeezeboxes that have dominated what I do musically. Most of what I do is music from the English folk tradition and a lot of it with my band Granny’s Attic. I’m also doing a music degree (as I write this I have just one month left until that’s finished) and through that I’ve been playing various other types of music on the concertina, particularly music by Baroque composers (Handel, Bach, Pachelbel etc.).

PW: You mentioned university work- it must be difficult to fit in such a busy touring schedule with studying?

CB-K: Yes it certainly can be!

PW: But good that the band is so busy/successful? How did Granny’s Attic come together, by the way?

CB-K: We all met a secondary school in Worcester. We all knew each other as musicians, we’d all played in the school orchestra (I didn’t play concertina in the orchestra!). We had each individually started to become interested in folk music and were looking for people to play with so we decided to come together. It was in 2009 when we started the band. The idea was really just for it to be a bit of fun, for us to play some tunes in our lunch breaks at school. We certainly weren’t thinking about being a regularly gigging band when we started but things just naturally progressed over the years.

PW: One of the things that impressed me about Granny’s Attic was your repertoire including traditional English songs such as “Death of Nelson”- here a version by the Wilson Family:

PW: So you chose the traditional route as a band, rather than possibly more commercial one as singer/songwriters of contemporary issues?

CB-K: That just seemed the natural route for us to follow. Really, I don’t think any of us had ever thought about being a band that focused mainly on contemporary material, I think the thing that drew us together was our shared interest in traditional music (of course I can only speak for myself, the other two may have completely different opinions). However, we do play some contemporary material in the band; Lewis (our fiddle player) has written a few tunes which we include in our set. Likewise I play a handful of original numbers in my solo set. But for me, my first love is certainly traditional material.

PW: Now for your version Cohen (which we’ll hear at the end), you accompany your singing with the Anglo. How did you pick up this (to me) difficult technique?

CB-K: The first time I encountered an Anglo in person, it was being used as an instrument to accompany singing. I remember that was what got me hooked on it, there was something special to me about the way that it worked with the voice and the blend that they achieve. So I knew as soon as I started on the Anglo that I wanted to use it as an instrument to accompany songs. At this point I didn’t sing in public, only at home, so this meant when I finally came to sing in public with the concertina (aged 17 at this point) I had 5 years of experience of practicing this at home. The way I’d picked my technique of singing with the concertina was mainly through listening to other concertina players and pretty much trying to emulate what they did. When I started, I was heavily influenced by the concertina accompaniments of John Spiers in Spiers and Boden and of John Kirkpatrick so I spent a while trying to learn what they did. Then I discovered Damien Barber and tried to apply the techniques he employs on the English onto the Anglo. I’ve moved away from that approach now, and tried to develop my own style, but this was certainly a very good way to start for me.

PW: Now you play melodeon on some sets- there’s a cracking version on YouTube of “The Growling Old Man and the Growling Old Woman”, with your fingers burning up the fingerboard!

Here’s an Irish infant prodigy – Lucas Candelino who got to play a set with Sam Humphreys and Patrick Rimes at a Calan house concert.

PW: What kind of contact mikes do you use on stage to amplify your squeezeboxes?

CB-K: I have four Audio-Technica ATM350 mics that I use. Two for the melodeon and two for the concertina. I’ve had to do some small modifications to them to get them to fit on the squeezeboxes, but it’s the best system I’ve found to date. Having said that, when I’m playing solo, quite often I’ll just go for the classic two instrument mics on stands method. I think that gives a slightly truer sound. If I’m solo I don’t tend to move around as much as in the band, and I don’t have to worry about other instruments spilling onto the mics either.

PW: What are the band’s plans for the future?

CB-K: More of the same really. As long as people want to listen to us, we’ll carry on doing gigs wherever we can. We released our most recent album in summer of 2016, we have vague plans to do a follow up but noting set in stone and it probably won’t be for a while yet.

PW: And now a funky version of another of your set – Solas : “Newry Highwayman” aka The Roving Blade.

PW: It was great to see a youth presence at the ICA AGM – what do you think the association’s priorities for action should be?

CB-K: I think it was best summed up at the AGM, that the ICA’s primary purpose should be to promote the playing and history of the concertina. As for the question of getting young people involved and encouraging them to take up the concertina, really my guess is as good as anybody else’s.

As for very young children (primary school age), I’ve often found that when they see me with a concertina, whether it be at one of my gigs or in some of the workshops I’ve done in schools or at festivals, they always seem to be intrigued by the instrument. I think there is something inherently intriguing about the concertina (at the AGM John Kirkpatrick described this as the ‘steam train effect), I think this is part of what got me hooked. I have quite often let young children have a closer look or a little play on my concertina and they always seem to be interested.

I think part of the problem with getting young children into concertina playing is firstly the lack of teachers and a standardised concertina syllabus (for want of a better word). If I think back to when I played the violin, pretty much every school had a violin teacher that would come in and teach from a pretty standard syllabus and you’d go through music exams and get various grades on the way. Whether that would be a good thing for the concertina I’m not sure, part of what I liked about the concertina was that I was self-taught and I didn’t have somebody telling me what to do. On the other hand looking at the number of young people playing instrument that have gone through ‘classical training’ shows that this method must have some success.

The other major constraint I think for young people is the price of concertinas. If you want a decent playable concertina you’re looking at spending at least £1000, and several times more for a decent quality instrument. Again comparing my experiences with the concertina and violin, my first concertina cost £200 and lasted me 3 months before it was basically unplayable, my first violin cost me £50, and it was my main instrument for my several years and is still playable today.

CB-K: Here are my choice of videos:

Spiers and Boden Bold Sir Rylas

CB-K: Seeing Spiers and Boden for the first time in March 2009 was a real life changing musical moment for me. At this point I had been playing the concertina for around 6 months, but John Spiers’s playing was a real revelation to me. But even more significant, I would say that seeing John Spiers was the most important factor in my decision to take up the melodeon. This song Bold Sir Rylas is one that I remember them playing the first time I saw them and was one of the first concertina song accompaniments that I worked out.

John Kirkpatrick The Nobleman’s Wedding

CB-K: John Kirkpatrick is certainly my biggest hero as a concertina and melodeon player and singer. This video of The Nobleman’s Wedding was my first encounter with John. I’d heard his name mentions in passing in a few conversations about squeezeboxes so I decided to look him up and this was one of the few videos of him online at the time (this must have been around 2008). To be honest I don’t remember the video having any great effect on me at the time. Really it was seeing John live for the first time in 2009 that instilled my love for his music. I think I have now seen John Kirkpatrick live more times than I have seen any other individual or band.

PW: Yes I know what you mean about John K- I played “Plain Capers” to death when I first got it.

CB-K: Peter Bellamy Cholera Camp

As a teenage folkie, my favourite acts were groups like Spiers and Boden, Bellowhead and the Demon Barbers. Quite often I saw the name Peter Bellamy cropping up in their album notes as the source of their songs, so I was inspired to find out who this was. I remember not being particularly impressed initially, but after a while I came to love his distinctive voice. I think Peter Bellamy seems to be regarded now as a very influential singer for many on the folk scene, but I think that his concertina playing has been overlooked. I have often seen Peter’s concertina playing dismissed as ‘primitive’ or ‘rudimentary’ (which is somewhat true of his earlier recordings), however, I think his later Anglo playing ranks as some of the greatest I’ve heard from anyone. Cholera Camp shows the distinctive concertina style Peter Bellamy employed in much of his later work.

Bandoggs Adam Was a Poacher/ Hares in the Old Plantation/ Hunt the Hare

CB-K: A little cheat for me since this covers four of my biggest heroes in one track. Bandoggs were a short lived folk group that Pete Coe, Chris Coe, Nic Jones and Tony Rose. Tony Rose and Chris Coe are two of my favourite concertina players (English and Duet respectively). I have also had the privilege to have been taught by Pete Coe during my time at university.

Adrian Brown Fantasia by Van Wilder

CB-K: Something completely different to the previous videos. I’ve only discovered Adrian Brown’s music in the past year or so, but (with no exaggeration) I think from a technical view, he must be the greatest Anglo player I’ve ever heard. This arrangement of a Fantasia for Lute written by 16th century composer Philip Van Wilder has been particularly inspiration for me as I have explored the idea of arranging music of the 16th-18th centuries for the Anglo. Also played on a baritone concertina, for which I have a particular fondness.

PW: Well you’ve introduced me to a player I didn’t know about. I’ll certainly check him out.

PW: So to finish off, Granny’s Attic with their version of “Death of Nelson”-featuring our guest Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.

And thanks for taking the time to interview for our readers, Cohen.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s latest releases:

  • Granny’s Attic, Off the Land, 2016, Wildgoose Records
  • Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Outway Songster, 2017, Wildgoose Records

Full gig details at:

cohenbk.com and grannysattic.org.uk