Mediaeval Baebes

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2002
Mediaeval Baebes

Bringing exquisite vocal arrangements to ancient poetry and prose, the Mediaeval Baebes have crafted a unique style that draws from the past yet sounds extremely fresh. The group was founded by Miranda Sex Garden vocalist Katharine Blake and currently boasts a line-up of 9 talented singers. Any notions that the medieval angle is gimmick are quickly quashed upon listening to their music. THe Mediaeval Baebes seem to have their hearts completely into what they are doing, and they have certainly found a way to turn the centuries old texts into captivating music. The following is an interview with member Marie Findley.

How has the current tour been going?

“Well, America has been quite quiet, and Canada as always has been fabulous. We had a standing ovation a couple of nights ago in Halifax. So we’re looking forward to touring Canada. I think Canada has a slightly more intelligent and open-minded view of music. I think that’s why we fit in, they just tend to get it more. Basically, the audiences are just more friendly and warm to perform to, and that encourages us to perform better.”

What other countries do you get particularly good reactions in?

“Germany is fantastic to play in. We did basically a tour of churches there. In Britain, if we play a gig in a church we tend to get a kind of staid audience, but in Germany it’s the opposite. We played churches and they were packed with goths who were dancing in the aisles. It looked like some kind of pagenistic ritual rather than a Christian one.”

How would you compare the current live show to previous tours?

“We’ve had 2 drummers before but this time we only have one, and we have Dorothy Carter as usual, our instrumentalist. We’re also doing some medieval movements to go along with the songs, so we have medieval choreography. We play a lot of different venues and thought it would be more interesting for all different kinds of punters to be able to see something visually as well as hearing what we do. So that would be the big difference, I think. And also a lot of the girls have become more confident about their writing. On ‘The Rose,’ the latest album, a lot of the girls who haven’t ever written songs were writing and that will show in the material we play at the gigs. It’s a much more eclectic mix of sounds.”

With so many people in the band, is it at all difficult defining a role for each member?

“Not really. There’s so many personalities in the band, there’s so many reasons why different people have joined. Some people are interested in the history, some people are interested in writing music, some are interested in singing, some people are interested in performing, some people are interested in the social life. So we all find our niche. I’m particularly interested in that period of history, and not interested in writing songs particularly.”

What is your background? How did you come to join the Baebes?

“What I do besides the Baebes is write, primarily. I’ve written comedy for television and I write about films and review films for a magazine in London. I originally got into the Baebes because I met Katherine Blake in a field at the Phoenix Festival in Britain. She sat down beside me with a bottle of cider and offered me some. Of course I couldn’t refuse that, and then she started to sing to herself. It was absolutely fabulous. I asked her what it was, and she said it was medieval music and I just was like ‘wow, that’s amazing.’ She didn’t even know me but she said ‘do you want to join my band?’ and I said ‘ok.’ And that was it really.”

Has the line-up remained the same over the years?

“It’s gone down, we’ve got a smaller number now. I guess we’re getting older. One of our members wanted to have a baby so left to do that. But Ruth, who’s also had a baby, is still in the band. People want to go off and pursue their own dreams. Some have gone off to do other creative projects, and that’s fine. All the girls who are currently in the band were there in the very beginning, which is 6 years ago now.”

When you create songs based on medieval poems or text, do you usually start with the words and create music for it, or do you seek out words to go with musical ideas that you have?

“Usually, we will take a medieval text and set it to music. It’s quite rare that we do it the other way around but occasionally we do. And we look for a poem that’s got interesting lyrical content, or where the rhythm of words would work well with music. And we go from there.”

Has there ever been a text you really wanted to use for a song, but weren’t able to get to work with music?

“There are songs that don’t work, but it’s usually because musically they don’t work, not because we can’t fit the words in or anything like that. They might not fit in with the style of a particular album, it’s not that they’re not any good. In fact, some the songs that are on “Undrentide” and “Worldes Blysse” we originally intended for the prior album, but because they didn’t work with the whole theme we moved them to a later album where they slotted in a lot better.”

How do you feel about the use of electronic instrumentation in your music?

“We would never choose to do it ourselves, but we welcome other people who want to do that. With John Cale, it was actually quite a surprise to us, we had no idea he was going to do some of the things he did. I think there are some very pleasant results, and some that don’t particularly work for me. But they might bring a whole audience to our music.”

What’s it like when you open for a band, and are playing in front of an audience that doesn’t know what to expect from you?

“I think it’s quite a thrilling, slightly intimidating, process. Because you’re not sure if you’re going to go down well, but what you are sure of is that you’re a novelty. So the people are at least going to be interested in that you do. We’ve had some positive results from it. We played with Bran Van 3000 in front of their audience, which was absolutely huge, and they were just screaming and roaring, its was really fantastic to experience that. I thoroughly welcome it. And one of our managers previously suggested that we open for Marilyn Manson, he was interested in having us open in Lisbon or something like that, but unfortunately we couldn’t do it. That would have been amazing.”

Why do you think there aren’t more bands doing this kind of music?

“I think there are a lot of people doing this kind of music, but they tend to have an academic background or aren’t looking to release it commercially. You get a lot of people who turn up at renaissance fairs who wouldn’t think of putting out a record. I think also that in Britain we kind of cornered a market. We became successful so quickly that I don’t think anyone would think to do it because it would look like they were directly copying us, because we had so much publicity at the time.”

How would you feel if others were inspired by you to start similar bands?

“I think it’s flattering. We’ve heard that there is a group of all female singers in Italy who were wearing white as we did around the time of our first album, and singing sort of classical music. And they’re all quite young and sexy. We must be having some kind of influence, so that’s very flattering, but if they started to sell more records than we do I think I’d be pretty unhappy about that!”

Do you think there’s a danger of people who aren’t familiar with your music thinking you’re a novelty?

Yeah, absolutely. But initially when we were trying to market ‘Salva Nos’, the press sort of jumped on the idea that perhaps we had been put together as some kind of marketing ploy, and we couldn’t really sing and weren’t really interested in the history of music. Although that’s a negative outlook, it did get us a lot of press. And only recently, there was something in the British newspapers, a classical baritone who was flagging off us and other classical cross-over acts. But what we’re seeing more and more is that there’s a backlash against that sort of abuse, and people are defending us. So that’s encouraging to see. It doesn’t bother me in the least, because we don’t have an academic approach. We have a very spirited approach, and what we’re doing is in fun. It may not be completely accurate, I don’t know, as how much can you know about mediaeval music? But I think our hearts are in the right place. It’s kind of a flagrant indulgence in fantasy, and I think that’s what audiences want to hear. More importantly that whether it’s absolutely historically accurate.”

How much of your time do you devote to the band?

“It depends, really, because it can be quite sporadic. If we’re going to be touring, then it’s pretty full on. Definitely you have to give up some of your normal working life and dedicate it to the Mediaeval Baebes. When you are touring or recording an album, then that is your full-time job and that’s where you’re focused. We normally rehearse 3 or 4 times a week if we’re coming up to a gig, and really close to a gig we’ll do 4, 5, or 6 rehearsals, sometimes 8 hours a day or something like that. In between, we might not see each other for a month, maybe have one rehearsal a month, maybe one a week, depending on if we’ve got new songs to learn.” What does the future hold for Mediaeval Baebes?

“More and more, band members are becoming very confident with their writing abilities. So the music is becoming more and more eclectic. If you listen to an album like ‘Salva Nos’, the instrumentation was quite bare and the album was very unadorned and virginal sounding. And I think that now that we’re getting on a bit, and we’re no longer virgins, the music is sounding a lot more experienced. The vocal harmonies are more complex and the instrumentation is fuller and more diverse. I think that’s definitely something we want to continue to explore. We’re also thinking about maybe having a remix album, because there is potential for us to cross over in that sense. We’ll only do it if we’re completely happy with the remixes that we hear. I think that the Mediaeval Babes is a completely organic thing, and it develops in a way that you can’t really foresee. So I can’t really pin down where I see it going.”

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