The last two years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Sound of The Sirens. Over that period, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have risen irresistibly out of the local and support slot circuit to playing major festivals and headlining their own tours. They’ve won many supporters along the way with their superbly-crafted songs, beautiful harmonies and exhilarating live performances. All that’s missing so far is the chance to convert that to national airplay. “For All Our Sins” should be the chance to put that right.
The opening of the first song, the lead track “Smokescreen” is a good indicator of the new approach with the addition of bass and drums and some Spanish style nylon-strung guitar and percussion giving the song an added dimension. It’s not so much a move away from their live sound as a subtle augmentation. The arrangement reminds me of the way Al Stewart was produced in the mid-seventies, an he’s still being played on commercial radio forty years later. Hannah and Abbe’s voices and instruments are still right up there in the mix, but the addition of some more daytime radio-friendly instruments and a few hooks have certainly worked. Jeremy Vine thinks so; he was at the album launch a couple of weeks ago and played the song on his Radio 2 show the following day. That’s a pretty impressive flash-to-bang time.
There are a couple of songs that have been reworked for the album, and it’s interesting to compare the originals with the new versions. Both “Together Alone” and “In This Time” have been smoothed out a little, with the vocals coming down a couple of notches to blend better with the other instruments, and some slight structural changes. Using a drummer has made the transitions between sections smoother, particularly when the tempo changes, and the production team has introduced some studio effects (some dub echo in “Together Alone”) and even created a psychedelic vibe with the ambient sounds, echo, and reverb of “The Circus”.
But all of the studio wizardry’s just window dressing if the raw material isn’t right. Abbe and Hannah’s songwriting is a huge part of their appeal. They write with a darkly poetic romanticism about subjects that are important; mental health in “The Voices”, the impermanence of relationships in “In This Time” and maybe even embittered journalists (amongst other things) in “Smokescreen”. They often explore the elemental side of human experience (“Chaos”) but there’s usually a message of empowerment in there as well. They care passionately about what they do.
With “For All Our Sins”, Sound of the Sirens have succeeded in creating studio versions of their powerful and dynamic songs for mainstream consumption without losing the creative fire in the process. The songs will be there on their upcoming tour and during the festival season in all their dynamic and noisy glory but, for now, this sounds like the next step up the ladder.
“For All Our Sins” is released on DMF on 26 May 2017.
Meanwhile, you can have a look at this:
Remember the High Fives feature we run throughout December each year? Come on, it’s only a few weeks ago. Well, when we got in touch with Sound of the Sirens, they were really busy (as they were for most of the year) and promised to get back with something in the New Year, and they did. This came through in a series of messages yesterday and all we had to do was reconstruct it. Abbe and Hannah have had another great year and 2017’s looking pretty good as well. Got to say I love the way they seamlessly slipped in that plug for the new album in the second paragraph.
We are doing our top 5’s with pictures of our year. In March 2016 we were given the opportunity to go on tour with the nicest man in Pop. He and his team were so welcoming and friendly and we learnt so much on the road with them all. Every night we got to play to an audience of a 1000+ in some of the UK’s most beautiful and prestigious venues. Rick Astley’s crowd are super loyal and have followed him for decades and yet they welcomed us as his support. We sold tons of CDs every night and talked to the fans and met some lovely, lovely people. It was the perfect opportunity to try out new material to a friendly and big crowd every night for weeks. We loved every minute of it. We also met our new best mate Dave ….Rick Astley’s Stage Manager who adopted us and looked after us. Thanks Rick x
In June we set out to record our new album which is out on May 5th 2017. We are now under the watchful eye of DMF records and they put us in touch with a great producer called Mark Tucker. We’ve written many new songs but have taken 3 old songs and tweaked them with a bit of production. It’s been a brand new way of working for us and has really helped us to grow as artists. For one song we invited friends, students and general Siren support round to ours to create a choir. This has been included on the new album and we love that our friends are in on the act. Thank you to the Sirens choir!!!
In July we were asked to play at The House Festival in Twickenham. It was unbelievable to say the least. We were invited to play a small set in the Ebay corporation tent and when we had finished we were let loose into the most extravagant playground. We could help ourselves to cocktails, play on the carousel, eat olives and cheese until it was coming out your ears, have your hair done, glitter your face, make a music video and hang out with giant people on stilts …..and then Kylie arrived along with Tinie Tempah. It was a surreal day.
In August we were invited to play on the main stage at the very popular Cropredy Festival. We weren’t quite sure what to expect and whether we would be received well. Upon arrival we were given a dressing room, given drinks, they took our pictures, we did interviews, they wouldn’t let us carry a thing. The set went so well and we enjoyed every second. Afterwards we did our first signing in a tent and it was such a great experience. For an hour solidly we spoke to people, had pictures, heard stories and we laughed alot. We sold all of our merchandise (a first for us) and we felt euphoric. Cropredy …..pleeeease have us back . It was our first whole day of ‘working’ at a festival. If we can call this work then we are lucky girls.
In August we played at Carfest to another big and exciting crowd. It’s been an incredible year for us. We knew Bryan Adams was playing and we couldn’t wait to see his set. After our set we were asked if we would like to join our friend for a tequila in one the backstage rooms. Whilst we were sat about swapping stories and sharing drinks in walked the one and only Bryan Adams. Our jaws dropped and we both hugged him. This is definitely one for the album. 2016 you were a right cracker ……roll on 2017. Let’s fill the rest of our album x x x.
Here’s the second set of my photos of female artists, taken in widely differing venues with one thing in common; live music. It’s fair to say there were that conditions were challenging in some of the venues, but if it was easy all the time it would be no fun and photographers wouldn’t have use creativity to get killer shots. It’s just a matter of attitude. So here are the shots.
Kit Bennett (Wildflowers) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
I saw Wildflowers a couple of times this year, once at an AMA UK showcase and once supporting Sound of the Sirens at Bush Hall and the obvious subject seems to be Siddy Bennett, centre stage and lead vocal, but we don’t like obvious do we? To one side of the stage is Siddy’s sister Kit, effortlessly cool keyboard player and if you want extra photographic wow factor, she plays accordion as well, and you don’t see that every day. I got some decent shots of Siddy but, at both gigs, I loved the photos of Kit, particularly at Bush Hall where the lighting was spot on for subject and background. As a bonus, Kit can look quite intent when she plays, but this pic caught a bit of a twinkle in her eye. See the full gallery here.
Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
The very same gig. I admit it, I’m a fan and I’ll take every chance I can get to see Sound of the Sirens; my photos tend to be 40% Abbe, 40% Hannah and 20% both together. One of my fellow photographers, Richard Bolwell, likes to catch Hannah when she’s at her most animated (and very successfully too) but there’s a peaceful, serene side to Hannah that shines through when she’s totally immersed in the music and that’s what I was trying to catch here by wedging myself against a wall to try to get the right angle to frame the shot. I’m pleased to say Hannah then created the perfect image for me. See the full gallery here.
Lux Lyall of Sister Witch @The Unicorn, Camden Road (30/07/16)
One of those gigs where anything could happen, and a bit off the beaten track for me (at least half a mile away from Camden Parkway). I’d gone along to see Anna Christina and Belle Star from Lilygun playing in David Ryder Prangley’s band, Sister Witch and I was looking forward to photographing all of them again, although I had no idea what the light would be like (not too bad, as it happens). Turns out that, despite the undoubted photogenic qualities of that trio, I had overlooked a true star. Sister Witch singer Lux Lyall has that bit of mystique and theatricality that the camera can’t resist. There were a few good shots on the night, but this one seemed to capture her cool, almost disdainful stage persona perfectly and with only a bit of colour correction at the processing stage. See the two galleries here and here.
Carina Round @The Lexington (05/08/16)
You know, of course, that all gig photographers always play by the rules and would never cheat (unless it meant getting a really cracking shot), don’t you? Well, I was puzzled when the three songs rule was applied to a gig in a room above a pub (admittedly a great live music room, but three songs?). I spent the first three songs down at the front of the stage in almost pitch darkness trying to get anything usable. I even blocked the view of someone in a wheelchair (it’s ok, I asked her and she very kindly allowed me to stand in front of her for a few seconds and we had a lovely chat). After three songs, I wasn’t really happy with anything that I’d shot, but I could see that the projection Carina was using was warming up and would create some interesting effects later. Towards the end of the set, I could see an incredible image starting to appear and, without realising how it happened, I had a camera pointing at the stage to record this. I’m saying now, I have no regrets whatsoever about not playing by the rules. Sorry Carina, but it is a stunning image, particularly with the black and white treatment. See the full gallery here.
Elisa Zoot (Black Casino and the Ghost) @Camden Roundhouse (17/02/16)
Elisa’s another one of these people that I’ve photographed a few times now (and a serial offender in my photos of the year) in various venues, but this was something else. Black Casino and the Ghost had landed a support slot with Kula Shaker for a European tour and the London gig was at The Roundhouse. The photo pit was really busy and most of the pros gravitated to centre stage where the action usually happens. I sloped off to stand in front of Elisa’s keyboard on my own and waited for the band to start. Before the end of the first song, I was surrounded as everyone realised where the focal point was. Elisa’s a bit like Mollie Marriott in that it’s quite difficult to take a bad picture of her; there were probably three from this particular night that could have been in this selection, but the action and the lighting made this my favourite. See the full gallery here.
It’s less than a year since I first saw Sound of the Sirens doing a support set for Mad Dog Mcrea at The Half Moon in Putney. It’s been an eventful ten months for Abbe and Hannah, with festival appearances and a headline show in their home town of Exeter, and this time around they were headlining a sellout gig at St Pancras Old Church, so absolutely no pressure at all. The venue was a pretty inspired choice; it’s an intimate setting but big enough to cope with the full dynamic range of Sound of the Sirens, from a cappella to two guitars, two voices and percussion. The stage was lit by a bedside lamp at either side, creating a cosy ambience which worked well for the performers.
Annie Rew Shaw, also from Devon, was first on stage, playing her melancholic piano-backed songs of sorrow and loss, helped out by an occasional bit of fiddle accompaniment. The songs, and Annie’s fabulous voice, got a good response from an appreciative audience. Tom Figgins was up next; again the songs were good and Tom’s swooping, soaring delivery kept the audience enthralled throughout his set. Both support sets were really strong performances, building up towards the headliners without threatening to steal their thunder.
The runaway train that Sound of the Sirens were riding for most of last year could have been derailed at any time if they hadn’t been prepared for it, but they took everything in their stride and looked completely unfazed by their increasing popularity. Becoming a headline attraction almost overnight (after years of hard work) is a huge challenge that Abbe and Hannah seem to be dealing with pretty well at the moment.
Wednesday’s gig was a ninety minute set, a huge leap from the tight thirty minute support sets they’ve been doing for so long. A lot of bands with one album would struggle to find material to fill an extra hour, but with an album, three EPs and a constant stream of new songs, they made it look like the easiest thing in the world. They both like to interact with the audience and their intriguingly random humour builds a strong rapport between songs as guitars are swapped and mandolins retuned.
They took the opportunity that the longer set presented to build up the momentum, ease back a little and then build again to a barnstorming climax with the live favourites “The Gift” and “Together Alone”. The rest of the set was a mix of songs from the three EPs (including “The Fear”, “Next Year”, “All That I Could Find” and “Stars”) the album “A Long Way to Fall” (including “The Night Before”, “Up to the House” and the magnificent “Faith in Fire”) and a few surprises. There was a cover of The Maccabees “Pelican” and a few new (or unrecorded) songs including “Best Intentions, “For All Our Sins”, “Cross Our Hearts” and “Smokescreen”.
Any nervousness that Abbe and Hannah had before the gig didn’t last very long. It’s fair to say that the audience were onside right from the start but, by the end of the night, the potent mix of well-crafted and powerful songs, superb harmonies and counterpoint and sheer enthusiasm sent everyone home buzzing. I suspect it won’t be too long now before Sound of the Sirens will be playing in a venue near you.
OK, I’ll admit it, I have gone on a bit about Sound of the Sirens this year but I think events have proved me right. I was absolutely blown away the first time saw Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood supporting Mad Dog Mcrea at the famous Half Moon in Putney. Since then they’ve had a stratospheric rise which saw them play at Carfest South and appear live on the first edition of the revived TFI Friday, so I was really chuffed when they agreed to do something for this year’s High Fives. I should say that they’re lovely people (and that includes Johnny Wood as well) and I wish them all the best for 2016. Thanks once again, Abbe and Hannah for sharing this insight into the world of Sound of the Sirens.
We arrive at the services with extra wide smiles and sit for a second to take in the full extent of what has just happened. People in the car park double take when looking at the car and we sit inside with the cheesiest grins. We don’t look like the owners of this vehicle… we look like we’ve stolen it. We are sat in a top of the range brand new Land Rover Discovery and the usual battered van is long gone…..for the day. It’s a Sunday morning in August and we have just played Carfest South to a crowd of 20,000 and we are in a complete daze of disbelief that this is now a memory of ours. It happened! Sunday morning sees us packing up to leave the beautiful Surrey countryside and head back south to Somerset for the lovely Watchet festival. Chris (Evans) suggests we head back to Carfest for the night after the gig but the van will never make the journey on time. ‘Do you want to borrow one of my cars instead?’ So here we are at the services smiling and laughing at how strange and fun life can be.
It’s January 2015 and I (Abbe) book tickets to see Ben Howard on his last European gig of his tour. He is playing in St Petersburg and I have always wanted to go. This is the perfect trip. In the mad panic of Christmas and sorting visas, I never once double-check the venue location. On arrival in Russia I discover that he playing the first date of his American tour. It is then that I discover there are 2 St Petersburgs and I am in Russia and he is in America. I am on the wrong continent! This gives our friends back in England fuel to tease for me life and one in particular tweets Ben Howard to tell him about my faux pas.
It’s now February and we have just played a gig in Birmingham and we are heading back to Devon. Johnny (driver, roadie, all round sirens organiser) pulls into the services and we all bundle out together as Hannah announces what percentage she needs a wee. This is a normal soundtrack to our drives. 20% is ok but 97% is a bad situation. We are all on a high 80% when I get a message sent through with a link to a video where Ben Howard is laughing at the St Petersburg disaster. Well, he laughs and then calls us ‘******** idiots!’ Totally fair though. As I am watching the video and following the corridor through the services I wander into the wrong toilets look up and scream as I disturb Johnny. My screams echo round the services as Hannah’s laugh erupts from the ladies next door. Bad times!
It’s April 2015 and we are sat in the Bristol Gordano services and Han is in need of a hot chocolate and a hug. We have been waiting at the airport for hours whilst she is detained by the police. We have just played at the Frankfurt Messe working alongside Elixir Strings and Freshman guitars and have flown home excited and full of stories to share. We step off the plane and through passport control when I realise Han is no longer behind me. A commotion breaks out ‘I can’t find my passport Ab’. My heart sinks. I should let you know that Hannah is a ‘loser’(Not an insult, Hannah loses things – AM). So ….. she can not come back in the country and the police chat to her. She has left her passport on the seat of the plane but they can not find it. Unfortunately at that point a flight comes in from Amsterdam and hundreds of people assume Han is a drug smuggler. More bad times! We are eventually let back in after they realise she is English and not a mule.
We have arrived at the services for a strong coffee to ease the self-inflicted ache in our brains at an overload of excitement . It’s a Saturday morning in October and we are electric with energy as we have played live on TFI Friday the night before. Our slot was set between the mighty U2 and Take That and endless messages are pouring in from the lovely people we’ve acquired on our musical journey and each one puts a smile on our face. As we arrive at the services one message comes through from a friend to tell us that we are 20 in the ITunes chart and it just keeps rising as the day continues. I don’t think the services have heard a scream like ours before.
We have just finished supporting Mad Dog McRea on their tour and we are heading back to Devon eagerly awaiting the services sign on the side of the motorway. This was it. We had found the perfect services. We all piled out like animals at feeding time. You should know we base our day around mealtimes and we take it very seriously. This services had everything to offer. There was a vast selection of different places to eat and we all set off in different directions to get food. However, we kept meeting each other in different queues heading to the front and then changing our minds and joining the back of other queues. We were all in a fluster that we would make the wrong choice on our food and worried that food envy would set in and so nothing was achieved. We all needed time out from all the choice on offer. This services was too good and we were not prepared for such decision making. We have since stuck to simple services as we fear the larger ones that offer too much. We are small town girls and the big services are just too confusing.
In December 2014, I made a conscious decision that I would get to as many gigs as I possibly could during 2015. Not all of those gigs became reviews or picture galleries, but I certainly broke my previous record, which has stood since my second year at university. I love those moments at gigs when something happens which is either so unexpected or so exceptional that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know that you’ll remember it forever. Here are five of those from 2015:
Sound of the Sirens – In mid-March this year I was at The Half Moon in Putney to see Mad Dog Mcrea. I’d just reviewed their “Almost Home” album and thought they would be good to see live. I hadn’t heard of the support band, Sound of the Sirens, but I like to see support bands because you never know when you’ll make a great discovery; this was one of those nights. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood grabbed my attention from the opening notes with superb songs, perfect harmonies and counterpoint and a huge dynamic range combining to create a set of acoustic anthems for the twenty-first century, all of it completely new to me. The entire set was stunning, but “Faith in Fire” had me transfixed; I had to just stand and watch, open-mouthed as the song progressed from the quiet intro to a rousing finale. Just perfect.
Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel – My first visit to the lovely Union Chapel and I was there with Phil Burdett to see one of my teenage heroes play a stripped-down set with Brinsley Schwarz (who was in the first proper band I saw live). Graham Parker has such a huge catalogue of songs that it’s impossible to predict which ones would make the cut on the night. Over the pre-gig pint, I came up with a small wish-list; one of which was almost a certainty, and the other a bit of an outsider. The opening song “Watch the Moon Come Down” ticked the certainty box, but it wasn’t until much later in the set that the harrowing “You Can’t be Too Strong” completed the list. The audience reaction of awed silence throughout the song and an explosion of applause at the end showed that I wasn’t the only person waiting to hear that one. I think I may have had something in my eye at that point.
Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – This is another gig that came out of hearing an album and deciding that I had to see the artist. Hannah’s debut, “Razor Wire”, is a wonderful piece of work featuring some brutally honest and sincere depictions of her life and I was keen to hear how these songs would strip down to an acoustic format. As expected, the songs worked perfectly in their original forms with Hannah’s pure, clear voice and acoustic guitar; Hannah was engaging between songs, giving some background to each piece, explaining the inspiration behind it. The song which completely silenced the full house at Green Note was “Parchman”, a song that, uncharacteristically, isn’t autobiographical; it’s the story of a woman on death row for murdering her abusive husband. I swear you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe as Hannah pulled the maximum emotion from the song by playing it completely straight; no vocal tricks or adornments, just a perfect song and a beautiful delivery, leaving the audience emotionally drained.
Dean Owens at The Union Chapel – It’s fair to say that Dean Owens is a bit of a Riot Squad favourite and it’s great to see that he’s having some very well-deserved success this year. Landing the support slot for Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel gave Dean a chance to play in front of a full house and an appreciative audience in London with only his guitar and a bunch of great songs. He had the audience with him from the start and got a great response for the whole set but saved something very special for the end. He went completely unplugged; no amplification for guitar or voice. I’ve seen this done in smaller venues (Hannah Aldridge did it at Green Note) but it was big moment in a venue this size, however good the acoustics are. Dean hit the ball out of the park; he pulled out a rip-roaring version of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” which rightly earned him a huge response from a slightly stunned audience. A magical moment.
Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal at The Union Chapel – I know, I’m just being greedy here; two epiphanies on the same night. Rosanne Cash featured a lot of songs from the award-winning “The River and the Thread” and, with husband John Leventhal, was superb throughout, taking time to tell some of the stories behind the songs and establish a warm rapport with the audience. Strangely enough, the entire set seemed to come into sharp focus on someone else’s song, Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic “Ode to Billy Joe”, which pulled all of the other threads together. A very simple arrangement and heartfelt performances pulled the audience into the song and generated a response that was part acclamation and part relief at escape from the song’s interwoven strands of tragedy and banality.
And I suppose that’s one reason that we go to gigs; we always hope that we’ll see those moments that you can’t capture on film or record/CD/MP3; the things that only happen once. I think five in one year’s pretty good going. Thanks to Sound of the Sirens, Graham Parker, Hannah Aldridge, Dean Owens and Rosanne Cash for those fabulous memories.