With the arrival of their new album, We Know By The Moon (Hudson Records), in November 2023, the members of The Furrow Collective - Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts - discuss their fascination with dark folklore, their love of collaborating with animators and illustrators, and the logistics of their upcoming December tour. To celebrate the themes of their new album, and the changing of the seasons, we have compiled our very own Lunar Playlist, which you can listen to here.
Last winter, you released your EP The Longest Night and your new album is called We Know By The Moon (Hudson Records). When and how did your fascination with the winter solstice begin?
Emily: As a band we have often found ourselves gathering and playing in the darker times of the year. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering the summers in these parts are fleeting at best! The moon has already made appearances in a fair few of our songs, starting with our EP Blow Out the Moon back in 2016. We started to notice the common thematic threads in our songs and, for the new album, we gravitated towards stories that feature the moon or are set after dark. Some of the best stories take place under the cover of night; ghost tales, lovers’ meetings, murders, and all sorts. Though we feel the new songs are best listened to during the dark months, we hope people will listen throughout the year.
You recorded this album in midsummer and it is due for release in November 2023. How did you create a wintery tone during the studio sessions?
Rachel: I think there’s always a bit of a cosy, wintery feel to our sessions together, even in the summer months, because of the close harmony singing and the fact we’re often tucked away in a windowless studio. Once we’re in the space together and get into the story of the song, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.
The album is framed by two ensemble a cappella carols - the opener, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ and the closing track, ‘Oh Watch the Stars’. In ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, you sing ‘the worms shall eat your flesh my dear/ and your bones will mould away’. As a band, how did you go about finding these haunting traditional songs?
Emily: I was struck by both the brilliant modal melody and those lines you mentioned in the version we sing of ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ - a song collected by Ella Mary Leather [collector of local folklore and songs] from G Vaughan in Hertfordshire in the early 1900s. I love how the lines move so jarringly from worms and mouldering flesh to wishing you a joyful new year! These songs give us an insight into older ideas of Christian morality and [approaches to] mortality. Interestingly, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ is thought to have originally been a May song depicting folkloric May Day customs. We all instantly loved ‘Oh Watch the Stars’ and I guess both songs seem to say in their own way ‘all we have is this moment, who knows what’s to come…so look up at the sky!’
Much of the record teeters between lullaby and hymn, dream and nightmare. The album isn’t afraid to go to dark places, such as of a young man dying from eating deadly nightshade in the forager’s warning ‘The Wild Wild Berry’. Given these unsettling elements and gothic landscapes, were you inspired by any particular horror stories or fairy tales?
Emily: I think we are all united in our enjoyment of a good dark tale and certainly the songs we write as soloists are often inspired by those folkloric landscapes that have a healthy dose of horror in them. I’m a big Angela Carter fan and Ali [bandmate Alasdair] has been enjoying the stories of Arthur Machen, although I’m actually afraid of horror films! The great thing about these songs is that you can go as far into the darkness as your imagination is prepared to. Having said that, I’ve been surprised by how scary my kids find some of the songs we sing.
The artwork for this album is incredible! Each illustration is a vignette from a track on the album, illustrated by May Farrell [Lucy Farrell’s mother]. Lucy, what was it like to have your mum make artworks responding to your music?
Lucy: Aren’t they perfect! It was so interesting seeing those illustrations arrive; it was like my mum had gobbled up the songs and let them come out in a stream of consciousness. She was so quick with making them too, like they had been there all along and were just waiting for someone to uncover them.
It seems that, as a band, you have always valued working with artists and illustrators for your music videos. In particular, the video for ‘Wild Hog in the Woods’ from your 2016 album Wild Hog is a stand-out. How did the collaboration with artist Chris Cornwell come about?
Alasdair: The connection with Chris Cornwell came about through a friend of a friend. In 2015, a record label I work with forwarded me a message from cartoonist Sammy Harkham, whom I’d heard of as we had both worked with [musician and actor] Will Oldham. Sammy said that his friend Chris Cornwell appreciated my musical work and would love to make an animation for a song of mine. He sent me a link to some of Chris’ work, which was amazing. It was around the time that we were making the Wild Hog album, so I suggested to the rest of the band that we ask Chris to make an animated video for the title track, to which they agreed. This Chris did, and drew, in a humorous way, on his interest in traditional song to give the video a kind of twisted, psychedelic, Appalachian vibe.
At times, the songs on this album sound like scenes from a play, where different characters step forward into the moonlight to speak, or sing, and the others retreat into the darkness. I found this especially with ‘Are Ye Sleepin’ Maggie’. Did you find you had to get into character to sing these songs?
Alasdair: I kind of feel that there’s a need to ‘get into character’ to sing songs, pretty much all of the time. Perhaps it’s more obvious when they’re narrative songs, or songs featuring interesting, dynamic characters. It’s not really the case with ‘Are Ye Sleepin’ Maggie’, but many of the songs I sing are traditional narrative ballads where the action between characters plays a big role. I feel that finding different ways to voice different characters is important when it comes to successfully communicating the story. However, it’s a fine line between wanting to do that in a subtle yet effective way, so that it’s not melodramatic or over-acted, and wanting your own voice as a singer to still lead the way. I often think of singing these songs as a juggling act of three voices, perhaps more! There’s your own voice as a singer; then there’s all the other voices who have carried the song in the past (and will in future); and finally there are the voices of the characters within the song. All these voices come through in various ways at different points in a song.
To fans of your previous albums, how would you say We Know By the Moon differs or compares to Fathoms (2019) and Wild Hog (2016)?
Alasdair: Each album seems to emerge in different ways - Wild Hog was quite a big sound. We had Alex Neilson and Stevie Jones on drums and bass, and there was a certain energy around that record. Fathoms ended up being about the sea and loss. We approached We Know by the Moon in a different way again; we started with the title so when we were looking for songs we had themes of the moon and after dark to steer us. Even though, on the surface, each album has different approaches, I think the ‘sound' of The Furrow Collective has been consistent from the start. We all slotted in and it feels like there is room for us to be ourselves whilst creating something that feels bigger than all of us.
This is the fourth album you have made as a band. How has the way you collaborate with each other changed since your debut, At Our Next Meeting (2014)?
Rachel: It’s always felt very natural and easy to collaborate as The Furrow Collective, but I would say as we’ve developed and spent more time making music together, it has become even more so. I think we know each other so well now and have the confidence as individuals to find our place within a song and give it what it needs, even if that’s a very simple, stripped back contribution. The main thing for me, though, are the years of singing together, forming a musical bond that I think you can’t recreate without that time spent.
And finally, how are you all preparing to perform this album for your December tour?
Rachel: I will be on maternity leave as I’m expecting a baby at the end of November. I’m sorry not to be able to join the others for the tour, but I’m pretty sure it will be magic, and I look forward to joining them in the summer for some festivals.
Alasdair: First of all, I’m considering the logistical challenge of getting all my equipment to Sheffield at the beginning of the tour, as I’m travelling by train and won’t be able to carry it all with me! Thankfully I have the welcome assistance of the Hudson Records boss Andy Bell, as well as Rachel, who’ll be missed on this tour. Once I’ve got my stuff to Sheffield, Lucy, Emily and I will have a few days to rehearse and figure out what we’re going to play, and how we might make up for Rachel’s absence!
Emily: Yes, I’m looking forward to the arrival of Ali and Lucy in Sheffield, which is where Hudson Records is based and, coincidentally, where I recently moved. It’ll be a unique challenge to adapt the arrangements to a trio and we’ll miss Rachel. No doubt we’ll all be getting inventive and creating some one-off arrangements!
We Know By The Moon is available to order and listen to now; check it out here.