One Magazine’s Jake Tucker meets Marie Findley, founding member of the talented seven-piece vocal group, ahead of their upcoming concert at Exeter Cathedral to find out more about singing in Mediaeval Manx, touring with Jools Holland and ITV’s Victoria.
Q: Our readers might know you best for providing the Emmy-nominated, haunting and uplifting soundtrack for the popular ITV series Victoria. How did this pairing come about?
We had previously worked with the composer Martin Phipps on the soundtrack for the Virgin Queen – a BBC production about Elizabeth I. This had earned him an Ivor Novella Award so, I guess, he thought he may be able to repeat the success. Despite the historical context, both productions are dramas that peel back the steely exterior of the monarch to reveal a real, flawed and fragile person beneath. I think, in a way, Martin Phipps wanted to replicate that through music and that’s why he choose to work with us instead of a more traditional choir. We have largely untrained voices which makes for a less formal sound. In some ways our sound is more expressive because it is often raw, exposed, imperfect and emotional – just like the modern portrayal of our queens.
Q: The title theme earned you two Emmy nominations. Did you ever expect for the piece to be so well received?
Martin Phipps is a superb composer and we worked exceptionally well with him so that was a good sign. As I’ve said, he’d already won an award so it seemed perfectly possible that he’d have further success in the future. Making waves in the US though – that’s another matter. I don’t think anyone predicted that. Breaking America – that’s the musician’s dream, isn’t it? Well, we haven’t exactly broken America – but a couple of little ripples will do us fine.
Q: Singing in a number of past languages and dialects must be a challenge. How many languages do you sing in and is it a case of learning to sing those specific words or do you go further and try to get an understanding of the whole language too?
I’ve never actually sat down and counted how many different languages we sing in. I think it’s about 12 to 15, including Mediaeval Manx – which was the language of the Isle of Man. How obscure is that? It is hard enough just learning one individual song, so you can forget about finding the time to explore each language. It definitely helps if you have studied a modern language though – at least a few words will be familiar and that’s something to hang onto, but much of what we sing would seem like nonsense to anybody but a scholar. This means we have to learn the songs by singing the words over and over and over until the muscle memory kicks in. It’s not the vision of us learning songs that you had, is it?
Q: You’ve had the privilege of touring with Jools Holland, played at The Royal Albert Hall and even performed at the legendary Lilith Fair in the states. You must have quite a few stories to tell!
Of course there are stories I’d love to tell you about but there’s the performer’s code: what goes on the road, stays on the road – that’s certainly true of the Jools Holland tour! One especially amusing night was a New Year’s Eve at the Edinburgh Castle. We were due to be performing live on television just before midnight but we had a reputation for being rather naughty so we’d been stuck in a room six hours earlier without a rider. We decided to take matters into our own hands and trouped off to the nearest pub. I was just about to take my first slurp of wine when I was unceremoniously hauled out of the pub and marched back to the castle by the production company, where we were locked in our room – the very room that held the keys to the castle. We managed to let ourselves out and were running loose around the hallowed halls. Fortunately we stumbled upon Duran Duran who provided us with a few more drinks – cheers boys. The trouble was we had to be back in our room in time for a run through or we’d be rumbled, and we were now lost. As we were groping around in the dark we came across the most magnificent sight – the Scottish crown jewels. That’s when the real trouble started because the Scottish crown jewels were of course accompanied by a Scottish security guard. Once again we were locked in our room where we got the lecture of our lives and were told we were barred from entering the Edinburgh Castle… for life!
Q: Your music is famed for pulling lyrics from mediaeval texts and setting them to original scores using an array of long forgotten languages to create drama and reflect on a number of dark themes. How does this stylistic approach combine with the traditionally jolly Christmas carol?
Ahhh – the dark themes… we seek those out because deep down we are a bunch of shameless goths! But actually, most Mediaeval music, and a large portion of what we sing, is devotional so perfectly in keeping with the jolly Christmas carol because we’re celebrating the purity of Mary, mother of God, the immaculate conception and the glory of the virgin birth. We love singing carols – there is no better way of arousing the festive mood but exploring the darker texts gives our performances dynamic and theatrical variation. The Mediaeval era was not exclusively about religious piety, courtly love and the valour of the noble knight – that was the remedy to the very visceral daily experience, where the threat of poverty, war, death and disease were ever present. So in our set there will be a little light and shade and some bawdy Mediaeval humour thrown in for good measure – we just can’t help ourselves!
Q: How much choice do you get over your tour locations? Is there a particular reason you chose to bring your Christmas Carol Tour to Exeter?
Sadly, we don’t make the decision about where we go but we always return to the places that have given us the warmest welcome, so thank you for that Exeter. Happily for me, this is my home county so I get to sing for my family and friends. I come from Torquay and as a child Exeter Cathedral was always a towering symbol of the city and promised adventures beyond the English Riviera! So, singing at Exeter Cathedral is my triumphant homecoming – ha ha!
Q: What comes next for the group?
There’s a Game of Thrones festival that I know very little about other than it takes place in Canada. We don’t need to know much – who can resist the lure of GOT? We’re also producing a nursery rhyme album. There are nursery rhymes that you will be familiar with but many that have been lost in the mists of time. We will be resurrecting and preserving these songs for generations to come, and, in this sense, the album is an important musical document of English folklore and history.
See the Mediaeval Baebes perform their Christmas Carol show on 7th December at Exeter Cathedral. For more information and to book your tickets, visit www.mediaevalbaebes.com