Interview by Joseph CornforthWe've had our fair share of unique music acts, and Changing Horses is another portion on that plate of alternative bands. They have been regularly touted as Britain's answer to the White Stripes, yet they perform a mix of folk music and moody ballads. The duo hail from Preston, Lancashire and they consist of Richard "Rick" Birtill and Francesca "Chezz" Cullen.
After seeing them live at the Jam in Shoreditch 15th July of this year, I can say they're a band with mood-swings. They performed light-hearted songs and moody ballads as well. I went to see them at Jam in Shoreditch, and like true artists, they told the crowd to keep quiet and listen to their genius. A bitter disappoint for those chatting to their mates or those out on the pull.
It was a good thing everybody kept quiet because they all heard and appreciated them and I personally was astounded and thought it was refreshing to see a band stand out like they did. I suppose it would be fair, if you were to see them live, that when they start performing, you'd think to yourself "what the flip?" and then be fascinated with the pair's craft.
It's hard to tell whether they're an indie band, or a folk band, or even a pop band. Even just by looking at their photos on their website, with them wearing the classy outfits, you could tell that this band will cause a surprise or two in the music world.
For a new band, they have been really been out and about. They have recorded an album in Nashville, USA, with producer Chris Donahue, whose previous work included Elvis Costello and Ben Folds. Their album resulted in critical acclaim, including from the Mail on Sunday and the Incredible String Band, one of their influences.
I caught up with duo, whom I had been fascinated with since seeing them live, and we talked about their influences, their experiences in America and romantic rumours between the two.
PSF: How did you get into music in the first place?
Rick: I got into music through my parents. My dad's a Christian worship leader, but initially he was in the folk scene, he was part of the folk scene when he was younger, when I was a child, and he took me to all the folk festivals with him, so I was sort of like a hippy child in a sense, but not too much, you know, because he became a Christian, but that's me
Francesca: I got into music through my dad. He was a great guitarist and his family, they're an Irish family, and there's lots of music around all the time, Irish music was a big influence. That was really my influence
Rick: Chezz (Francesca) has got a Celt upbringing musically, I think
Francesca: Yeah, Celtic
PSF: Is unique a fair descriptive of your music?
Rick: It's a very generic description, I guess. If anything, it's a little bit different, which is another normal description. If anything it's a little bit different. I guess you can call it unique, but unique's like a fair description, I guess. It's fair to say to say that it's unique. It's a compliment, isn't it? That it's unique, but someone might want to say "why do you think it's unique?" or add more to that, but unique's fine, we don't mind that. As long as we don't have to say "it's shit", then that's ok.
PSF: How did you come up with the name Changing Horses?
Rick: It's an Incredible String Band album. We're both really big, Incredible String Band fans. They're a huge influence on me and I've even got Robin Williamson, who was one half of the Incredible String Band. I've got him in quoting REP. He gave me a call actually, he got hold of it and gave me a call, which was kind of weird, because he's kind of like my idol, but he has a really good album called Changing Horses, so we wanted to honour that and call ourselves that.
PSF: How did you two know each other?
Francesca: Basically, we went to rival schools in Preston, and we used to walk past each other, so we've always seen each other around. It was just through hanging around in Preston really, we got to know each other and then, through strange events and coincidences, eventually we decided to have a jam and then, a few years later, we'd have another jam, and then that was it.
Rick: We've always grown up in the same town. We always knew of each other and kind of grew up together. We were friends since we were 16, and we've always, whenever we met up, before we started a band, we always just start jamming. We're both from musical families.
PSF: Being a male-female duo, do you get any romantic rumours about you two?
Rick: We get asked that all the time. We feel it's an irrelevant question, or an irrelevant point. You're always going to get it, with any girl-guy duo, you're always going to get "are they a couple?" or "are they having sex together with instruments included?" You're always going to get it, but we, I speak for the both of us, find it totally irrelevant. It's irrelevant to any other band, you know, whether they're going out or not. Whether they're in a relationship or not, or whether we are, is totally irrelevant, I think.
PSF: On your MySpace page, you're seen wearing classy outfits. Is this a trend you hope to continue when you perform live? Which bands did you look up to?
Rick: Like I said, I looked up to the Incredible String Band, a lot of metal, that's where I learnt my craft, if you will. For me, from 16, all I wanted to do was be in a metal band, and I kind of still want to be in a metal band, but that was where I learnt how to play aggressively fast and all that kind of stuff, big vocal range and things like that, all the really technical stuff I got from metal, but I'm not a technical player. I got as much as I could from that genre, and then a lot of folk stuff from my dad's record collection like the Incredible String Band and stuff like that.
Francesca: I got a lot of my influences from having the radio on in my house all the time, and Irish music and even Enya. I hate to admit it, but they're big influences really for me.
PSF: You have been regularly deemed as Britain's answer to the White Stripes. How do you react to that?
Rick: Nothing. I don't see it as a negative or a positive. I see it as complete nothingness. You're always going to get that kind of thing, kind of an obvious thing, but we don't sound like them, so because we're guy and a girl, but then you couldn't relate us to the Ting Tings if you wanted to, maybe that'll be the next thing.
Francesca: It's irrelevant really. We don't sound like them, but it's not a band you can compare them to
Rick: Yeah, it's not like saying we're the Cheeky Girls, although they're two girls, but I could be a girl!
PSF: You've had a lot of critical acclaim. Is it hard not to get ahead of yourselves?
Rick: Yeah, it's hard as we're not massive and we're not completely nothing and we're not signed or anything, but we're on our way to getting there, hopefully, you know, we're working hard and trying to get there, but when you're constantly surrounding yourself in itself, and you're constantly in your own little world all the time, and you want to keep getting better and better at writing and performing and recording, but when you come away from that, when you talk to other people and not talk about yourself, because that's all you've been doing, so that could be taken as, and especially as you're getting critical acclaim and things like that to any degree, it makes you feel good. It's encouraging, if anything I think. It makes me encouraged to keep going.
Francesca: You have to take everything you can to keep going and if it's hard work to get ahead of yourself, then that just helps you really.
Rick: You have to have self-confidence to a certain degree, or you have to have a big head to a certain degree sometimes to really push what you're doing and make it believable. It has its limitations, doesn't it? It's a tricky one. It's tricky as there are some bands who are really arrogant, but then it's part of their character, and then it comes down to a matter of opinion, like Oasis and the Gallagher brothers. You look at them and you think, it's divided, some people think "what a load of tossers" and some people think "what great characters." At the end of the day, they are characters. That's what makes them great. If they weren't like that, then they wouldn't be exciting to watch in interviews and things like that, depending on whether you like it or not. It's a trick one. I could go on about it forever, I think.
PSF: With your music being out-there, do you get nervous that others may not get your style?
Rick: Yeah, well that's when we get reviews back and when we're praised or whatever, and that's when we feel better about it. I think every artist, if you will, anyone who creates something, you're always going to put it out there. Even if you have confidence, there will be a little part of you will feel unsure whether it's just dogshit and you call it ‘brilliant.' It's good having Chezz because, when we were growing up, I used to write these songs. I got my metal band, but I used to write these acoustic songs of late and have become part of the set years later, but I used to send them through and she always was the only person I sent them to, and it was great to hear her feedback, and seeing her again in Preston years later and said "that song's great."
Francesca: Some people don't get it, but that doesn't mean they dislike it. They just don't get it, that kind of exciting.
Rick: Yeah, I guess at the end of the day, we're all going to do it anyway. We're not scared to a point where we're not going to do it. We're not really scared, to be honest, every artist will get nervous, but we're not scared, we take every criticism. We love all criticism, we love all the bad criticism. We enjoy it, we laugh at it.
PSF: Being based up in Lancashire, do you prefer gigging in London or your hometown?
Francesca: It was exciting in the beginning; it's really excited playing in Preston, being in a big scene, lots of amazing bands. That was cool, but when you go down to London, you're playing to a different audience every time, so you never know what to expect really.
Rick: I prefer tougher gigs to easy gigs. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I get from that from my dad. I like tension, and I like confrontation in that context, but I like tough gig. People don't know who we are, they're not here to see us, here to see the band who are on after us, those kind of gigs, so I like seeing if I can win people over in a tough situation. That's the challenge, it's good, and it gives you more confidence in your music when people tend to like you, makes you believe you're doing something good.
PSF: You flew to America to record your album. Please tell me about your experiences in the States.
Rick: We just experienced recording really. We had one night out where we got in trouble with a taxi driver. That's another story, but we just recorded the whole time. Literally, Nashville looked like a studio. It was good though, it was really good.
Francesca: It was really interesting to see how professional musicians worked and how quick they were to record. It was amazing really.
Rick: We saw a yellow school bus, which was exciting enough for me.
PSF: Do you have any plans to do any gigs over there?
Rick: Yeah, hopefully. We really want to get over there and start gigging. We're planning a tour in the UK at the moment. We're looking at going to China and America, yeah, that's top of the list too. We're hopefully going to go there soon, we really want to go there.
PSF: What does the future hold for Changing Horses?
Rick: We're recording another EP soon, and then there'll be our first album, but we're planning a UK tour, our first UK tour. We've got a website, which will be www.changinghorsesmusic.com. We haven't had a website this whole time! We're just recording and we've got a tour, and that's it!
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