9Bach on keeping the Welsh folk music alive, fresh and evolving

There’s a haunting quality and beauty to 9Bach’s music that brings to life the essence of the Welsh folk storytelling tradition through a unique prism of their own making. Ten years ago the band brought out their debut album, the eponymously titled 9Bach, on the Welsh language label Sain, and Real World are here re-releasing this 10th anniversary edition.

It’s a wonderful revelation, a collection of traditional Welsh folk songs encompassing timeless topics such as death, heartache and lost love, exercised through 9Bach’s dubby, ethereal bass, drum, guitar and harp sounds, topped by the addictively beautiful vocals of Lisa Brown. A staging point in a way for their next two albums.

It was through wonderful happenstance that 9Bach came about. Singer Lisa was singing a traditional Welsh song she’d known since childhood in the kitchen of the London flat of her boyfriend Martin Hoyland. Guitarist Martin, who had become disillusioned with the music business and hadn’t played a note for months, stopped washing the dishes and picked up his guitar. The seed was sown…

9Bach in 2009. Photo credit: Dewi Glyn Jones.

From then on whenever the couple got together music was made, with no thought of getting a band together but just for the sheer fun of it. While on a holiday in Spain with friends, child-free and pre-marriage, their friend Esyllt mentioned, during a sing song, that she played the harp. ‘Do you want to be in our band…?’ was Martin’s response, although there was no band to speak of at this stage. Things progressed from there, people were co-opted and 9Bach made their debut at one of the earliest Green Man Festivals in 2005.

“I don’t come from a musical background and I never fantasised about being in a band,” says Lisa. She did sing backing vocals for Welsh band Big Leaves though and with Cerys Matthews for Bill Clinton at the Hay Festival and is a long-term collaborator with Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals. Coming from Bethesda in the slate quarrying heartland of North Wales she was used to singing in the Welsh Eisteddfodau —the traditional singing and poetry festivals— but in her own style. “I was a huge disappointment to my mum because she wanted me to be winning in eisteddfodau and all sorts, but I never got stage and the adjudication and beirniadaeth (judgement) at the end was always ‘oh, she’s got a nice voice but she took a breath in the wrong place and her rhythm was wrong on that word’…”

Lisa Jen Brown and Martin Hoyland from 9Bach at Real World Studios. Credit: York Tillyer

Meeting husband-to-be Martin and also singing to women in the toilets of various dance clubs and raves made her realise she could woo a crowd! “I’d be there not a care in the world, Mart looking for me all round the building, and I’d be in the toilet entertaining them…”

“I think Big Leaves headlined an Eisteddfod gig in St David’s and I ended up singing backing vocals and it never even crossed my mind that I could form my own band, but the momentum of meeting Mart and him being a band leader by nature and having the vision and liking my voice and we fell into that, although we didn’t record the album for another few years.”

Photo credit: Dewi Glyn Jones
"I love our traditional songs. They are our soul music, our storytelling mechanism, our historical songlines, and dreaming and ancestral heaviness, but I like them as they are." Lisa Jen Brown, 9Bach

The way that 9Bach interpret the traditional songs on this album, the style that was a stepping stone to their subsequent music, hasn’t always pleased folk purists but ironically is the very essence of keeping folk music alive, fresh and evolving.

“I’ve got a contradiction in myself in that sense where I love our traditional songs,” says Lisa. “They are our soul music, our storytelling mechanism, our historical songlines, and dreaming and ancestral heaviness, but I like them as they are. The minute you start putting traditional instruments to them and putting them in a one-two-three-four or any sort of rhythm it grinds up on me a little bit. This was also a problem when I brought them to the band where I was like ‘I don’t want any rhythm’ and so the drummer and the guitarist and the rhythm section said ‘yeah but we need to know’, and it was ‘no, you just have to follow me’. There was this huge thing of trying to marry my love of acapella of these songs traditionally sung in that way with rock instruments basically. And a harp. The essence of difference in what we did is that we did marry it successfully I think.”

“By slowing down the songs, putting a groove in place gives the vocals a chance to breathe and weave through it, although there is a beat,” adds Martin.

“Also that traditional Celtic sound would dominate the melody and the vocals,” says Lisa. “These big fiddles dominate and drown. Hence why most Celtic music, the Irish and the Scottish and the Welsh music, are instrumental in that kind of sense. Whether it’s a twmpath dawns (traditional Welsh dance night) or a ceilidh or a fleadh or whatever, they heave in instrumentation, whereas Mart did all of the arrangements on the first album— every single bass line, harp line, everything.”

Lisa and Mart from 9Bach perform 'Pontypridd', a Welsh folk song which featured on their debut album.

“I was struck by the beauty of the melodies,” says Martin, “the beauty of Lisa’s voice. Put that up there, keep it simple, and give it space for the voice to breathe and be dominant.”

He talks about the non-conformity of the band who don’t play the way many traditional Welsh musicians interpret folk music, and the lack of adventure and risk and ambition in keeping to the same old parameters all the time.

“I think it’s really sad. I think one of the reasons that folk songs have survived is because back in the day when people first started singing folk songs someone from Caernarfon who passed through Bethesda on the way to somewhere else would come and hear the folk songs of Bethesda, learn them, evolve them and change them, sing them in that pub there, someone else would sing them change them round and they grow and they change. But what we found was the custodians of folk music said ‘oh no the evolution stops here’ —that’s what it felt like they were saying. Well, if you want to survive and if you want it to grow and evolve it doesn’t, it continues to evolve…and the problem is I don’t see a lot of young people getting into folk music the way it is traditionally.”

“It’s true about the language as well isn’t it?” adds Lisa, “Unless it evolves it’s going to die. People are scared, but I’m kind of ‘screw you I think I’ll take a song and sing it like I want’, but the language people will say I can’t. Where’s the inclusivity of it, where’s the diversity of however you want to interpret these songs? That’s where the anarchist and the punk in me came in when I said I’m going to do an album of Welsh folk songs and I’m going to do them how I want.”

9Bach in 2009. Photo credit: Dewi Glyn Jones

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9Bach have taken their music far and wide, their unique sound and Welsh vocals entrancing audiences everywhere, from Spain to Holland, Canada to Australia. In Australia they collaborated with the Black Arm Band Company— a ground-breaking music and theatre company focusing on Aboriginal experience and identity. This had a profound effect on Lisa: “We went over to Australia, collaborated with an Aboriginal band, therefore I was then vomiting my own folk songs in a way because I needed to tell a story that was as exciting, powerful, historical, theatrical, poignant, dark, horrible as some of our Welsh folk songs.

“Two women in particular, Lou Bennett and Shellie Morris, who are incredible people —one’s a woman from the Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung Tribe and the other from the Yanyuwa, Gudanji, Marra and Garrwa families— influenced and opened something in me in terms of the need to tell a story because before I met them I couldn’t write songs. But I would call myself a songwriter now. I write the lyrics and the melody.”

“…and I compose the music,” adds Martin. “Same way we do the folk songs, the melody will be there and I compose the music around it.”

“I can’t sing anything unless I feel it and understand it,” says Lisa, “So the influences from the stories and the storytelling and real live poignant pain has influenced my songwriting.”

'Bwthyn Fy Nain', which opens the debut album 9bach, is a song about the beautiful simplicity of life when you are living in harmony with the land and nature.

The myriad stories on this first 9Bach album have certainly influenced the band’s own songs over the intervening years, reflecting the slate quarries and the rugged beauty of the landscape that Lisa comes from. As Lisa says: “I don’t do heartbreak and ballads. I have nothing to report on those kinds of themes. I’m a very emotional person; I get moved very easily, but by nature, the ghosts of our ancestors, the mountains, the history of the quarry, and the men that slaved there.”

9Bach (10th Anniversary Edition) is out now on Real World Records, and the band will tour the UK this October.

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Featured Release

  • 9Bach


    Released 15 August 2019

    On 9Bach's debut album, the combination of live harp and guitar accompanying ethereal voices and dubby beats takes you in to the North Wales landscape, on an emotional rollercoaster as the heart and soul of each story is revealed through compelling and exquisitely sung narrative.

By Elfyn Griffith

Elfyn is a Bristol-based freelance music writer/reviewer who has written for a number of publications and websites over the years including Venue Magazine, 24/7, Bristol Live, and Bristol Evening Post in Bristol, Folk Roots, NME and other national titles.

Main image: 9Bach in 2009. Photo credit: Dewi Glyn Jones

Published on Wed, 14 August 19

Further reading

9Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown on the art of storytelling

If you have a story to tell, my default setting is to always tell it. 

The incredible story of 9Bach and the boy who lived with dogs

'Ifan' tells the story of Ivan Mishukov, the boy who lived with dogs in the streets of Moscow.