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Hansel & Gretel in the round at the SJT

The songs for the SJT’s Christmas production Hansel & Gretel features songs specially written for the play by Oli Steadman, perhaps best know as the bassist in indie-folk band Stornoway. Reviewer Adrian Riley caught up with Oli, now back in South Africa for Christmas, as Oli explains: "I write from KwaZulu Natal on South Africa's east coast where I grew up and where much of the music has its melodic roots."


So the obvious question is that, you're in Stornoway - a 4-piece band from Oxford - and regularly playing festivals all over the place, and you're from South Africa originally, but how did you come to be writing the songs for a Christmas play in Scarborough?

I knew the director, Henry Bell, through the Brighton music scene where we've both gigged and built bands. His brother is in a fantastic group called Octopuses, check them out!

One of the striking things about the SJT production of Hansel & Gretel is that the songs are all performed a capella. I wondered if this was the original brief or if your songs evolved that way to fit the mood of the play?

The original brief was for songs a capella, and the music grew from this; I see these restrictions as crucial to writing music. With no framework to build on, you can wander around for weeks seeking a melodic idea, a snatch of inspiration... So having a proper brief is very helpful.

Much of the music you've been involved in to date appears to have given serious consideration to arrangements, albeit often quite subtle and simple ones that provide just enough backing for the song itself - so was doing something so stripped-down a new a challenge for you or almost the next logical step?

My group has certainly focused on lush expansive arrangements in the past BUT beginning with European tours in 2010 and with our album 'Tales From Terra Firma (#2)' in 2013, we started to explore some unplugged performances and arrangements. Since then we've tended to combine the usual cinematic arrangements with at least two songs per album which are entirely stripped back. We enjoy recording our music in a non-technical manner: sometimes just two microphones in a naturally reverberant church, for instance. We also enjoy playing unplugged in unusual locations like RSPB reserves, or in disused tram-sheds like on our November 'Unplucked', tour playing music from the latest album 'Bonxie'.

In Hansel & Gretel the songs often rise out of the dialogue and then disappear back into it. in fact, the whole play has a slightly disorientating feel where different realities merge and the audience have to quickly figure out what is happening. Were these conversations you had with the director and the cast or was there some happy magic bringing things together once the songs were performed with the script?

These were definitely the intentions of Henry and of the scriptwriter Mike Kenny. Typically, Hansel & Gretel is told as a simple scary tale to discourage children from turning off from their path, giving in to temptation. Once elevated though, to become a story within a story (the witch character portrayed by one of the tellers, Mum; and household objects used to represent the oven, cage, birdlife etc) this story acquires the potential to be entertaining, and quite humorous. This depends on the embracing of parallel realities and, as we all know, music can be a great tool for creating those and for gluing them together: recurring melodies can signpost characters & themes in a subtle way, to help audiences figure out what is happening whilst not distracting from the storytelling.

One of your recent musical projects has been 'Count Drachma' exploring your South African musical heritage and performing songs in Zulu. Has that experience influenced your own approach to songwriting? I'm possibly thinking of storytelling and how that's often an essential part of folk music in many different cultures.

The language and the storytelling in isiZulu and isiXhosa is richly metaphoric, sinister, spiritual. Words often have 3-4 possible meanings. Within the traditional songs received from the past, as well as the original songs newly written for Count Drachma, songs are interpreted in different ways based on the context... and it can be quite confusing starting with one definite story you're trying to tell. So I often find it essential to begin instead, with the melodies rather than the words. Hummable music, once composed, can then be taken away from the desk, allowed to bloom in different surroundings, given space to develop into visual ideas for a song... and the words come after that. An example could be, starting with a snatch of birdsong and extending it into a full blown melodic line, then later figuring out what words could suit it. This is definitely a contrast with the songs I'm used to writing in English (a very precise and technical language) where you can usually take a paragraph of words, set it to countless different melodies/harmonies, and it will tend to come out telling the same story. In Zulu as in many other languages, the music will come first and will dictate what your words are going to say.

One of the things about seeing something performed in the round in how intimate it is - you're very close to the actors. Stornoway also have a reputation for delivering uniquely personal performances and I wondered if that's an essential part of music for you?

I've played to crowds of 10,000 and crowds of 1... the latter is more fun! You can more honestly engage with your audience, as an equal who is simply accessing a different side of their personality for a 20-minute set. Then you can talk to them afterwards about what it was like to play, or what it was like for them to listen. On a bigger stage removed from a large audience, you are expected to entertain, hold attention, and this tends to happen under a certain set of established customs... whereas in person there is no predicting what will happen, and what each of the people in the room will take away from the experience. I love events like Sofar Sounds which focus on intimate personal experiences. They have one in Leeds which I highly recommend!

Hansel & Gretel is getting good reviews and went down great with the audience when I saw it. What musical challenges have you lined up for 2016?

Let's wait and see!

Hansel & Gretel runs until December 27th - find more info here.

For Adrian's review of the show, click here.