Bella Hardy

We quiz Bella Hardy on winning BBC 2’s Folk Singer of the Year award and her blend of traditional and contemporary sounds.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 16 May 2014
  • min read
24 May is the 30th birthday of folk artist Bella Hardy and to mark the occasion, she’s going out on tour, visiting 30 of her favourite venues.

It’s a big gesture in a big year so far for Bella. After six well received solo albums, including the most recent (and possibly most loved) Battleplan, she won the BBC 2’s Folk Singer of the Year award back in February.

It’s a richly deserved accolade for an artist who has been writing and performing music since an early age. She's done much to bring the folk music sound to a new generation of ears.

More recently, she’s been involved in the Elizabethan Session, an English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) initiative - it saw her live and work with the likes of fellow folk artists Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr and Folk by the Oak patron Jim Moray for a week in March. They managed to come up with new music inspired by the era which should be released later this year.

We quizzed Bella about the project, winning the award and how she fell in love with folk…

Can you remember the first time you fell in with music?

I grew up in Edale, a village in Derbyshire and sang in the community choir. My dad is from Hull and loved folk - he was always singing these songs.

It was initially community singing, then I started playing the fiddle as I got slightly older. I went to a folk music summer school up in Durham and met all these young people who loved playing the music as much as I do.

I made the greatest friends at this summer school when I was 13. We went on to form bands to try and get into festivals without having to pay.

Were you a natural musician?

Singing is very much part of who I am. Performing made me feel slightly nervous but as soon as you do it a few times you get over it. I was always good at remembering songs. They were ingrained in me. I found the link between songs and stories very quickly.

How did your first albums happen?

I went to uni to do English Lit and then afterwards, I didn’t know what to do next. I went to London to work in an office and became miserable very quickly. Singing made me happy so I did a masters in music to kick start this. I did my first album as part of the masters and released it just after finishing the course.

How has the songwriting developed over the records?

Three black feathers is a song I wrote as a teenager. I wrote the chorus in my GCSE maths exam while my mind was wandering. I didn’t record it until I was 23. But I had such a great response to that song, it kind of fuelled my belief that it would be good to write more.

When you’re writing, you’re always scared of the response and it’s quite a personal thing to put that creativity over, especially when you’re used to singing traditional songs.

Is there a tension between trying to create something new and the traditional?

I really don’t treat them differently. Traditional songs were written by somebody and the reason they’re so popular is because they are so good. So many songs are left behind – and those that survive do so because they are so well written. When I’m writing, I try and integrate my music with the traditional.

How did the Elizabethan Session go?

I was really honoured to be asked to be involved by the English Folk and Dance Society and the Folk society. They arranged the whole thing. Their previous projects were based on Cecil Sharp and Charles Darwin and I was pretty envious of those involved. It’s an incredible thing to be hosted, have the chance to work with these amazing creative people and given the chance to just think about music.

We went to this house and spent five days there – we used the Elizabethan era as a starting point and wrote whatever we wanted in that time. It was fantastically freeing and all of us got on famously so there were no scandals or gossip. Just getting to hear each other’s music and thoughts was very inspiring.

What’s next for the project?

We performed it straight away. We went from the house to Hatfield House at this festival and performed the music we’d written, which used the Elizabethan era as a starting point, in this setting reminiscent of the era.

The next day we played it at Cecil Sharp House in London and recorded an album of songs in a day for a record coming out in early summer time. I can’t wait to hear them all.

You were recently named BBC Folk Singer of the year – how did you feel about winning?

It’s a huge honour. The folk scene is thriving at the moment so I was flabbergasted just to be nominated. I was overwhelmed to win. It means that your music is highlighted to a much wider audience. It does an important job of promoting the industry and what’s going on in the folk music scene.

Is folk music in good health?

It’s in great health at the moment. There’s a lot of new talent coming through thanks to youth music initiatives which have been working hard for a number of years. It’s interesting when you talk about Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons – regardless of how much you think they fit into the traditional folk industry, it’s all great exposure for folk music in general.

Have you any advice for aspiring musos?

Keep going - I’ve had my sixth album out this summer. I’ve been performing at festivals since I was about 13. This industry and what we do is a lifelong thing for us to do. In order for us to enjoy it, you need to continue making music from an honest place - and if you do, people will continue following you and respecting what you’re doing.

Visit Bella's website to find out more about her music and current tour. Head to the English Folk Dance and Song Society website for more information on the Elizabethan Sessions.