My good friend Scott once admitted to me that he was a poor judge of character. “The problem is that my first impressions of people are always wrong. I always end up changing my mind about people.” I asked him what his first impression of me was. “Oh, I liked you,” he replied without thinking. We are still friends.
In November 2009, Mark got in touch with me. When we both worked at Oakmeeds, he was about the only person with whom I could have a sensible conversation about music. We often went to gigs together. “Do you want to see The Unthanks at The Komedia?” I had never heard of them. When we went, the support act came on and they were okay for a supporting act. A male guitarist/singer and a female singer who played fiddle. A bit dull. They started with “Hares On The Mountain”, a traditional song and I had much better versions by Chris Wood and Dick Gaughan. Then The Unthanks came on stage. They had just released a wonderful album called “Here’s The Tender Coming.” I was struck by the beauty of the singing, the synchronicity of the harmonies and the wonderful complexity of the arrangements. From the word go, I thought they were brilliant. Luckily, over time, I haven’t changed my first opinion.
I spoke to Roo about the gig and urged her to come with me to East Grinstead in a months time when The Unthanks were playing again. She agreed willingly but without undue enthusiasm. We went at the start of December. After ten minutes or so of the opening act, I looked anxiously at Roo, for fear she was bored, asleep or just irritated at being there. She was captivated. She has said since that from the opening notes of the first song, she was completely hooked and that Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell had made a wonderful first impression on her. Again, this hasn’t faded over time. As for me, after repeated listening to this album (or more strictly an E.P. because it only contains six songs), I realise that I was too dismissive on first hearing and that the music they played is wonderful.
Why is it that some pieces of music resonate on the first hearing and others take a few listens, or in some cases, a few years? In the days when I lived in Conyers I would proudly bring a new record home from Parrot records in Harlow, put side one of a record on and do something else – tidying, cleaning, washing up, picking socks up from the floor – that sort of thing. When side one had finished, I’d put it on again and again and again. Maybe that day or maybe the next day, I’d turn it over and play side two. (I heard Mark Ellen tell a story of someone he knew who had never heard side 2 of “Moondance” by Van Morrison because side 1 was so perfect he couldn’t bring himself to turn it over. I’m not sure I believe that.) Anyway, slowly my new record would seep into my consciousness and then after I had it on seven or eight times, I’d sit down and listen to it properly, leaning back in that lovely green armchair my parents had given me. In that way, my first impressions weren’t quite so important.
“The North Farm Sessions” was recorded by Adrian McNally of The Unthanks at his home in August 2009. It contains six songs; apart from “Hares On The Mountain”, four of the songs are written by Jonny Kearney and one by Lucy Farrell. They made one further album called “Kite”, also recorded by Adrian McNally with one song written by Lucy Farrell, two traditional songs and the other nine written by Jonny Kearney. The one Lucy Farrell song on “Kite” is called “Winter Got Lost” and is four minutes of sublime beauty. They haven’t recorded any more songs together since. The possibility is that gentle Jonny had a few mental health issues. When I saw them playing together, Lucy was always looking hard at Jonny. I think I misinterpreted this as her letting him know that he shouldn’t make any mistakes – sort of a control thing. I now think that was a look of concern – checking that he was okay. Jonny hasn’t been heard of since apart from a few dull efforts on Bandcamp in 2017. Lucy Farrell has subsequently worked with many other artists, playing with Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band, the Emily Portman Trio, The Furrow Collective and Carthy, Oates, Farrell and Young (Jackie Oates being a former member of The Unthanks). She has just released an album with Andrew Waite. I haven’t heard it. Yet.
The music on “The North Farm Sessions” is very very gentle. Jonny is a good guitarist and sings in a very deadpan, self-effacing manner. Lucy has a pure voice. Jonny is from Hexham, Lucy is from Maidstone and they met whilst studying on Newcastle University’s folk and traditional music course in 2005. They sometimes sing in harmony and sometimes sing by themselves. My favourite song on “The North Farm Sessions” is “Song For A Sweetheart.” It’s slow, Jonny takes most of the lead vocals, there’s a very subtle violin and the words are very positive, encouraging, loving and supportive. “And don’t listen to them three faced fakers/They’ll not understand/And if they shout you down/I’ll be there to hold your hand/But most of all don’t doubt yourself love/You’re doing just as well/Or better than the rest/As far as anyone can tell.”
“Lullaby” is quite amusing. Again, some lovely guitar work. The party has ended. Jonny suggests that his love has drunk too much Rose and she should come back with him and “lay down to sleep in my arms.” In the meantime he will look after her: “I’ll hold your hair back/When your head starts to swim.”
Roo and I have seen Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell probably half a dozen times. The best time was when we got tickets to see them on a Saturday night in Brighton above a pub near Preston Circus, only to get an email a week beforehand to say that the gig had been moved to Sunday afternoon, upstairs at The Prince Albert, near Brighton station. When we got there, we showed our tickets and the guy on the door said something like “Oh, so you’re the ones….” and he explained that the tickets were cheaper now so they gave us a couple of quid each to get in. At the gig there were about 20 people there and everybody else seemed to know Jonny and Lucy personally. I think we were the only paying customers. The show was filmed as part of a promotion for them. Search on YouTube for “Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell Prince Albert.” There’s a charming song called “Dickson Street” which they never released. There are other clips and excitingly, if you spot someone lifting a pint to sup from, it’s me! Roo was driving. I had a few beers, I listened to some great music in a very intimate setting and it was Sunday afternoon. Bliss.
It’s a real disappointment that they only recorded 18 songs together and for whatever reason stopped recording in 2011. Lucy wrote a song on “The North Farm Sessions” called “To The Boy.” Prophetically, she sings “To the boy on the end of my arm/Come meet me somewhere halfway/’Cause I heard everything that you had to say/But now we can’t play anymore”