The interview: Polly and the Billets Doux

Polly and the Billets Doux
Polly and the Billets Doux
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This weekend the genre non-specific four-piece Polly and the Billets Doux visit Preston, prompting MALCOLM WYATT to talk rock ‘n’ roll clichés with lead singer Polly Perry

Polly Perry, who plays the Continental in Preston tomorrow, is on a train somewhere between Devon and Hampshire, heading back from a weekend of fossil hunting.

Yes, fossil hunting. Not very rock’n’roll? Well, there’s plenty more such deviant behaviour revealed as we carry on our conversation.

But while her band’s leisure-time pursuits hardly rival those of Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones in their prime, it’s just how this South Coast outfit like it.

As I was about to find out, you’re unlikely to read about the off-stage antics of Polly and the Billets Doux in the court listings or annals of Music Babylon.

The 31-year-old singer had just left Axminster, changing at Basingstoke before a return to Winchester after a weekend with a few girlfriends on England’s Jurassic Coast.

We were just jamming in the evenings… and playing badminton

“I’m a big fan of fossils and geology. My friends and I have been camping at Charmouth, which is really good for fossils. We had a busy time, looking at rocks.”

A successful expedition?

“Oh yeah, a whole bucketful! We laid them out, picked out our favourites and put the rest back. That way they get washed in the sea ready for the next people to find them.”

Very considerate, if not the stuff of legendary rock anecdotes. But then why should it be? After all, this is a band that prefers to do its performing on the stage.

Polly has no idea of the exact number of dates her quartet have performed, but lets on that last May alone they did a staggering 36 gigs.

Then came heavy schedules in Ireland and Germany, and you can factor in regular UK dates and festivals.

Currently, things seem a little less frenetic, although they’re part-way into a 16-date tour that started in Wellingborough and ends with Middlewich’s Folk and Boat Festival on June 20.

Tomorrow(May 29) they are sure to charm a whole new clientele at South Meadow Lane, and they’re back in four months for the Fylde Folk Festival in Fleetwood (Saturday, September 5).

I’ve been listening to their second album, 2014’s Money Tree, recently, and they seem to offer a whole swathe of musical genres over 12 impressive tracks.

That’s only part of the story though, the band having first charted at No.17 on the BBC Radio 1 indie chart with their Head of Steam EP back in 2008.

That was followed a year later by often-exquisite debut album, Fiction, Half-Truths & Downright Lies.

Then there were the mighty-catchy Follow My Feet, Cry Cry and Hold Fast singles, followed by Money Tree last year.

And the band are now set to release new single, Tourniquet, with a whole lot more material coming our way.

I put it to Polly - carrying on our conversation with a far better mobile signal on her arrival home in Winchester – that there’s a marked difference between the albums.

“Both albums have very different sounds to them. We consider the first a bit lighter, and the earlier material slightly polite, whereas we wanted the second album to sound a bit more live and kind of gritty.

“But I still feel we need to go a little heavier and edgier, as with the new single, Tourniquet, which we’re in the process of releasing.”

And are you working on a third album to follow that forthcoming Genepool Records release?

“Well, we haven’t booked into the studio yet, but we’re working on material for the new album.”

So is the live set they’re bringing to Preston a trawl through both albums, the singles and the newer material?

“I’d say so. We start off with some of the singles, like Cry Cry and Follow My Feet, but our songs are so diverse and in so many different kinds of style.

“That keeps it quite dynamic really, ending in full-on electric guitars and solos.”

It’s certainly difficult to categorise Polly and the Billets Doux. They seem to veer from blues to country, from folk to soul, from gospel to rock’n’roll.

If you love good guitar and fantastic vocal performances, driven by quality stand-up bass and percussion, you’ll be made up. But don’t try and stick a label on them.

They call their style genre-defiant. I’d go for genre non-specific. And it all comes with a quintessentially English twist.

For example, on Money Tree they put me in mind of early Fleetwood Mac on bluesy opener Black Crow then Norah Jones on the more whimsical, dreamy Stories of our Own, amid a variety of guitar and percussive styles.

Then there are touches of others, even including Dido in places. Am I even close?

“That’s good! You’ve named some people I really love and a few others have stated.

“I always get Norah Jones mentioned I think because of my voice, although I don’t think our music is like hers. And I love Fleetwood Mac.”

Calico Blankets was one of the first songs to jump off the deck at me – a bit of country noir in the tradition of Emmylou Harris and co, but definitely homegrown.

“Now you say that, I see the fit. But rather than thinking, ‘Let’s write a country song’, we just start writing and they end up what they are.

“They’re what we like doing rather than being any specific genre – as they come.”

There’s even a very French feel, one you might associate with the band’s name on closing track, the gorgeously laid-back Old Virginia.

Meanwhile, The Fallow Road is a favourite, with more of a breathy blues crossover thing going on, and the band kind of laid-back funky, all in a South Downs setting.

I could even hear Faces-era Rod Stewart having a go at it. And in the same way Rod was a big Sam Cooke fan, it appears that Polly likes her gospel music.

“Yes, I’m a big fan of gospel. I’m not religious, but love the growling passion of some of the old gospel.”

You mention that growl, and there’s a bit of that on the recordings, not least on Money Tree‘s title track. In fact, it’s best you don’t hold your pint glass too hard while they’re playing that at the Conti.

“Yeah, I do enjoy that - and it was done in one take!”

Polly certainly has an impressive voice on her, whether via more breathy treatments or the other end of the spectrum, often under-stated but perhaps all the more powerful for that when she does let it rip.

Are they getting closer to what they’re trying to convey, or do they remain a band of split personalities?

“I think we’ll always remain a band with split personalities! We all love so many different kinds of music, and I like it that we bring in so many genres.

“But I feel we want to be a bit edgier, a bit heavier, take more risks, and we’re interested in bringing other sounds and rhythms in.”

Apparently, the band debuted in a smoky Winchester venue backroom in 2006. That seems to age Polly and the Billets Doux’s story slightly, making me realise how long it’s been since the UK smoking ban came in.

“Yes, that first gig was in the back room of our local venue, The Railway, and we didn’t have any amplification.

“I booked the gig before having songs, but got that together for the gig and we just belted it out in the middle of this room, having not quite sorted out pick-ups.

“But it’s a nice thing to do it all acoustic, stripped down.”

Has it been the same foursome from the start?

“Yes, we’ve never been one of those bands who get another drummer or whatever. We lived together, and the other guys were in a rock band.

“We were just jamming in the evenings… and playing badminton together.”

Oh dear, she’s off again. That doesn’t sound very rock’n’roll either, Polly.

“Well, no, but we are so rock’n’roll! It’s just that we’re big fans of visiting train museums and art galleries, rather than throwing TVs out of hotel windows.”

Very wise. I should really introduce the rest of the band there, lead vocalist Polly, just about the youngest in the band, joined by Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen (lead guitar, vocals) Dan Everett (double bass, guitar, vocals) and Ben Perry (drums/percussion).

“We all met in Winchester. Dan came here to go to art college, Steeny came down from Ulverston to study archaeology, ending up doing English literature and excelling.

“Ben and I lived in Winchester, and always bumped into each other in Sainsbury’s. it’s a small city and everyone in music knows each other.”

Of course, she is opening herself up to misspellings from promoters with that band name too. Are they already turning up at venues to memorable misnomers?

“Oh, always! We’ve had Polly and the Billy Dux before, but it’s usually just missing the ‘x’.”

Bear that in mind, Continental staff. So is this your first gig in Preston?

“It is. We have been in the area, and my Nana – who lives in Doncaster – was from Lancashire originally. We’ve played the Lake District too, as Steeny’s from that region.”

Did Polly’s musical genes perhaps come from the Northern side of her family?

“My Nana was a singer during the war, and was always singing. When I was growing up she used to sing sentimental 1940s songs, so I did too. We still do when I visit, and when we’re doing the washing-up together!”

So what can your Preston audience and for that matter others on this tour expect?

“Some songs are three-part harmonies, finger-picking folk with double bass and acoustic guitar, a few lively numbers a little more like Bo Diddley, to which people like to have a dance. We tend to start lighter and go heavier.”

I can imagine you going down well at festivals too, and that’s proved to be the case so far. Any highlights from that summertime circuit?

“Playing Glastonbury has been an amazing experience, and we’ve played there three times now.

“Then there’s the Loopallu Festival in Scotland, another of my favourites, where it was absolutely pelting down with rain and we had a caravan next to Mumford and Sons.

“Each band, when it was their turn to play, had to just run for it on to the stage.

“On the main stage you look across to Stornaway, and during our slot the sun was setting and it was stunning.”

En route there’s been lots of love for the band on the airwaves, including plays on BBC Radio 1, 2, 4 and 6, and the band has earned plenty of DJ support, not least from Whispering Bob Harris, Terry Wogan, Tom Robinson and Cerys Matthews.

“We did a live session for Cerys, and I’ve always really liked her as an artist and really love her show too. She plays some great stuff, so I was proud to be on there.

”She got me to record a jingle, and it’s so weird when you have someone with such a distinctive voice talking about you and your songs. It was the same with Wogan.”

And with thoughts of Sir Terry, I leave Polly to it. At that point, she was set to enjoy a couple of days off before the next live dates, and looking forward to ‘getting back on the allotment’.

Rock’n’roll, indeed.

l Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, with his own blog at http://writewyattuk.com/

Polly and the Billets Doux play The Continental tomorrow (Friday, May 29). Tickets £7 from Skiddle, SEE Tickets and WeGotTickets, from the bar (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772).

For more on the band see www.facebook.com/pollyandthebilletsdoux or www.twitter.com/pollybdoux