“We’ve always been compared to folk rock bands, but we haven’t always fitted into the genre exactly,” says Galley Beggar vocalist Maria O’Donnell. “We’ve gone to folk festivals, but because we’re electric we don’t fit in there. People like to put us in boxes, and I suppose folk rock is the closest thing. We’re quite happy being different!”
To reduce Galley Beggar’s allure down to a simple matter of folk rock revivalism would be foolish. With a sound that incorporates all manner of unexpected elements while always celebrating the mischievous spirit of folk music across the centuries, these Kentish chameleons have been steadily earning a formidable reputation since forming back in 2009.
Over the course of three acclaimed albums – Reformation House (2010), Galley Beggar (2012) and Silence & Tears (2014), the band’s first for Rise Above Records – Galley Beggar have pulled off the neat trick of simultaneously honouring and upgrading the psychedelic folk rock template, both revelling in the simple magic of acoustic instrumentation and joyfully harnessing the lysergic power of the electric too. And now they are poised to release their fourth and finest album, Heathen Hymns. A dizzying blend of the traditional and the untried, it’s a record full of absorbing musical stories that showcase a newfound lust for experimentation.
“Silence & Tears was quite a laidback and chilled out album for the most part, and although it wasn’t deliberate, this album just feels a little bit heavier and more proggy,” Maria explains. “It’s still got some acoustic tracks on there, of course. There’s at least one song with just a guitar, a sitar and a cello! But overall it just feels a lot darker than the previous album and more adventurous, too. When we wrote Silence & Tears, and it was the first album we’d done with a label, and we worked with [producer] Liam Watson and he taught us a new way of thinking about and looking at things, about giving things space and trying different ideas. When we were writing Heathen Hymns, we just naturally wanted to try new things.”
For all its many detours down psychedelic rabbit warrens and shadowy, fog-shrouded footpaths, Heathen Hymns is still an album with melody and humanity at its core. Fresh originals like the hypnotic Four Birds and the woozy raga rock of Moon & Tide wield an insidious charisma, but it’s the way Galley Beggar’s collective ingenuity collides with the sacrosanct likes of traditional standards Let No Man Steal Your Thyme [here featuring a guest vocal from Celia Drummond of UK acid folk legends Trees] and The Girl I Left Behind Me that confirms this album as both an unequivocal triumph for creativity and a platinum-plated treasure trove for aficionados everywhere.
“We’ve done quite a heavy rock version of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, it’s a little bit early Fleetwood Mac/Comus, I suppose,” Maria notes. “Whenever we do take on traditional songs, we make a point of putting our own stamp on them. Everybody has done Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, and there must be dozens and dozens of versions, but we really wanted to do it and make that one our own too. We’ve also done The Girl I Left Behind Me and that’s just about the only easy-going song on the album. All the rest are our own writing and there are the usual songs about death! It wouldn’t be Galley Beggar if we didn’t write about that sort of thing, would it? So maybe being signed to a metal label did have some effect. We’ve definitely become darker.”
Although already firmly established in folk rock circles, Galley Beggar’s greatest achievement to date is arguably their ongoing assimilation into the world of heavy music. Aided by their association with Rise Above, the band are picking up fans from both the metal and the prog worlds, their reliably idiosyncratic flair ensuring that all but the most cynical punters will eventually be drawn towards the GB web.
“We do take a lot of inspiration from heavier bands, so it’s great that the rock and metal audience are starting to embrace us,” says Maria. “However, all of us have a varied taste and grew up listening to loads of different things, so we just take a little bit from everything along the way.”
2016 was a relatively quiet year for Galley Beggar but as Heathen Hymns begins to cast its spell on the psychedelic (and not so psychedelic) hordes, it seems that Maria and her comrades are ready, willing and eager to hit the road and share these new bursts of dazzling sonic light with the masses.
“I was heavily pregnant in the second half of 2016, so we gave gigging the back seat,” Maria points out. “Plus, we did have to focus on the album and we spent a lot of time writing. But this year we want to concentrate on gigging again and we’re filling up our calendars. We’re playing gigs in Glastonbury, Preston, London and some folk festivals around the country, before finishing the year supporting Curved Air in our home town. We’ve started looking more at prog festivals, too. We’re starting from scratch to some degree with rock and prog audiences, so it’s good to have a label like Rise Above, because they’ve got a great reputation. Whatever happens, we’re really proud of the album and looking forward to playing these songs for everyone.”
“Heathen Hymns” is set to be released in the end of April 2017 through Rise Above Records.