Watch: Edgelarks singer Phillip Henry prepares for Lancaster gig
For someone on the edge of society, who started off busking, folk singer Phillip Henry is successfully taking centre stage.
The 36-year-old from Euxton is currently touring with his partner of seven years Hannah Martin and the pair are in the running for the Radio 2 Folk awards Best Duo gong. The winner will be announced on April 4 during a ceremony in Belfast.
This will be their third nomination, with the pair winning the accolade in 2014.They have toured extensively from the UK, Japan and South Africa, to Canada and Australia and collaborated with ex-Steeleye Span member Peter Knight and Show of Hands – yet Phillip feels at home circling the edges, so much so it has inspired their name.
He says: “We had always intended to come up with a band name and it has taken us a few years to get the right one.“Edgelarks is a word we came up with to mean ‘to sing from or about the margins’ and ties together the themes of the songs on the album well. “As a band name it is also fitting as we spend a great deal of time on the move.”
Their new moniker was used as the title of their fifth album, which was released in October.Phillip adds: “This album is about transitional spaces. The idea that, despite often being places of marginalisation, these are also places of change – and therefore places of hope. When social norms break down, when you are between two established worlds, there is a chance for new perspectives.“In the end, we have far more in common than things that divide us, because we are all liminal – we are all standing on the threshold of tomorrow. We are all just passing through.”
Phillip, a former Leyland St Mary’s High School pupil, admits he came to music quite late on, after originally pursuing a career in civil engineering.He says: “At first it was a bit of a whim when I was 15. I started by listening to The Beatles and people like that.“I taught myself to play the guitar and it went from there.“I went to Cardinal Newman College in Preston and studied science, biology, chemistry and physics. I worked in civil engineering for a couple of years but I felt I was treading water.“I was very interested in music and had been playing around the Preston live music scene but I could not see a way of making it a career.“When I was 20 I discovered a music course at Exmouth University that was open to people who had not had any formal music training.“I moved down there and started busking in Exmouth and Exeter and running open mic nights.“It progressed from there as I did bigger gigs and festivals.”
While studying, Phillip found a unique love of the slide guitar and he spent three months in Calcutta, being tutored by Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, India’s premier slide guitarist. Phillip adds: “I was very interested in Indian music, in particular the slide guitar.“I had studied quite a lot about Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, who was the best guitar slider in the world and I wanted to study with him.“So I arranged it myself and got some funding from the Arts Council to work with him.“I learnt about Indian music and got a great insight into how to play the slide guitar.“It was a great trip. It was quite difficult at times but it was all about character building.“The study was quite difficult and intense, as I was practising for 15 hours a day.“I had to go back to the beginning from being self taught, which was hard, but it did me a lot of good to unpick what I was doing and rebuild it from scratch.“Being in India was certainly an eye opener.“I had never been out of Europe before so it was a big culture shock. India had a totally different approach to making music and life in general.“It was quite a humbling experience.”
Before he travelled to India, Phillip was in The School Of Trobar, with his old friend Tobias ben Jacob. In his absence, Tobias began to work on some new material with local fiddle player Hannah Martin, 31, from Torbay. When Phillip returned, the project evolved into the band The Roots Union, and drummer Mike Sykes joined them.The band spent three years on the road gaining a loyal fan base but came to an end in 2010. Noticing a strong musical connection, Phillip and Hannah continued working together as a duo.They were ‘discovered’ by Show of Hands frontman Steve Knightley who first encountered the duo busking on the seafront during Devon’s Sidmouth Folk Week.
From recording their first album, Singing the Bones, at home in their living room in the dead of night, they have gone on to produce three more records, each time refining the process and honing their production skills – Mynd, Live in Calstock, and Watershed, the latter of which garnered them a second nomination for Best Duo at the BBC Folk Awards in 2016.
Phillip adds: “Now there is two of us, it is a different sound. We lean towards the traditional music aspect, from gospel to electronic. “We draw on a lot of things for inspiration, from the historical past to the current time.“With a lot of folk music there is an underlying practical edge, coming from a working class aspect. “We find two is a practical number to keep on the road.“We have been together as a couple for seven years. We live together and work together.“We make it work by having a laugh when things get fraught. It has its challenges but for the most part we get on really well.”
The pair have enjoyed great recognition through the Radio 2 Folk Awards and have teamed up with Peter Knight to form the Gigspanner Big Band and joined Show of Hands as part of their Wake the Union band for a very special show at the Royal Albert Hall. They have also worked with up and coming folk singer Martin Simpson.
Phillip adds: “It is nice to be recognised for the work we have put in.“There is a lot of work in the background that you don’t see. When we won the BBC Folk award in 2014 it was a nice pay-off for the previous 10 years of graft. “It has helped to open doors and work internationally as the BBC is a recognised brand overseas.“I am looking forward to the awards ceremony next month.“Having won it in 2014 maybe they will give it someone else. But we can’t rule it out.”
Phillip and Hannah tour two to three times a year and have recently come back from Australia.Phillip adds: “The most beautiful places we have been to are Vancouver Island and Tasmania. “When we tour abroad we are always looking at their native animals and both islands have some amazing species. I think my most memorable experience was learning native Canadian Pow Wow as part of Vancouver Island music festival. That was really interesting.”
Phillip currently lives in Exmouth with Hannah but stays with family in Chorley when he is touring up north.He says: “I try to get here as often as possible as I really miss it. Whenever we have a gig up north we stay at my parents’ house.“So we have a safe house in the north and one down south.”
Phillip and Hannah are currently touring to showcase their new name and album Edgelarks.They play at Ellel Village Hall, Main Road, Galgate, near Lancaster on Friday March 9, from 8pm. Tickets are Â£14. To book call 01524 840539.