The first time I saw Megan Henwood play live was a short interval set at the Nettlebed Folk Club on the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames. Let’s say that it was a “mature audience” who had paid their money to see Cara Dillon. Henwood took no time in upsetting the status quo.

'Our Little Secret', one of her songs, isn’t cryptic in any way, shape or form. It’s very simple. A schoolgirl is about to have sex for the first time with a man, not a boy, a man. When Henwood delivered the lines, “This can be our little secret/I won't tell anyone at school,” a wave of spilled pints and regurgitated gulps of Chardonnay erupted as the audience sound checked the lyrics and their earpieces….”Did she just say a schoolgirl was about to have sex?” The word sex was mouthed and whispered to partners in case it caused oral contamination. I was about to learn that Henwood has the ability to entertain and unsettle in equal measure.

I got hold of her latest album 'Head, Heart, Hands', which was released towards the back end of 2015 on Dharma Records. The sceptic in me wondered if the album was likely to be as good as the folk club interval set. I listened through once, then again and again...The result was startlingly reassuring, Henwood is good. On this hearing she’s better than many current artists and duos in the singer-songwriter market. Fact not fiction. So, what’s the story with this woman? A late afternoon rendezvous with Henwood in Oxford provided some clarity.

Henwood was born in Reading, raised in Henley-on-Thames. Schooling, discipline, routine didn’t sit well throughout her teenage years. She says of her musical education, “My first guitar had nylon strings, and was bought for me when I was around twelve, maybe thirteen years old. It sat unused for while until I had a few lessons and picked up the chords, mostly self- taught. I also had piano lessons for a few years aiming for various grades, but I became more interested in composition and doing my own thing.”

At eighteen years old she was off, backpacking, busking travelling to Nepal, Thailand, India, Venice. She returned to Nepal on numerous occasions recording with the likes of Nirmal Kula, Binod Katal, Shyram Saram Nepali. The list is extensive. Having toured for six months in a around Europe, Thailand, via Singapore, Blighty beckoned her home. She purchased a beat up Airstream caravan in which she lived for six months whilst gigging and visiting various festivals. Its static location was a field in Reading, until mice served their eviction orders on her tenancy.

In 2009 she gained her first break, winning the BBC2 'Young Folk Award' with her brother Joe. Come 2010 she played at Glastonbury, following this up with her debut album 'Making Waves' in 2011. Then...nothing, and a four year hiatus. Henwood is now 28 years old, though she probably still gets asked for her ID when visiting an off licence. She doesn’t want to dwell on her debut album. “It was messy and there were too many people involved. I felt restricted. I think the process and energy in its creation put me back rather than moved me forward. Having said that, I connected with some incredible people and musicians through the album from which I learned a great deal. I’m really proud of some of the songs, others well let’s just say that was my developmental stage,” she says inadvertently playing with her red curly locks. “I understand the folk award and debut album provided a certain level of interest and momentum in my music, but that faded. It feels like I’m starting all over again. It’s not as though I’ve been sat on my arse doing nothing. Oxford has become a place where I’m more settled, which is a surprise as I thought I’d constantly be on the move. Over the past few years my family circle had health issues which needed everyone’s support. I’ve grown, matured which has provided an added depth to my lyrics. My bolt hole and preference is always to be reclusive. It is not always possible, but preferable. But I can disappear within my music”

Lyrics are important to Henwood. She writes with honesty, openness conveying an exorcism and irrigation of her past, covering lovers, self doubt, claustrophobia and hope. Her new album recorded at her brother’s Oxfordshire studio is a well thought out body of work, from sleeve design, to the string arrangements of Matthew Forbes enhanced by the production of Tom Excell. The here and now is more comfortable territory as her smile confirms when discussing 'Head, Heart, Hands'. “When it was complete I felt huge relief. I was pleased that it was out and am ready to accept people's thoughts on the album. More than anything I’m pleased people seem to have understood the themes I’ve covered on the album.”

Indeed they have. The album reviews were universally positive. My colleague Malcolm Carter enthused, “The whole album is one of the most diverse, compelling and instantly accessible sets to come this way in a while…”

Henwood makes no secret of the fact her writing is cathartic. She gets her thoughts, moods, anger, pleasures down on paper, out of her head like a prescribed medication. “Must be completed daily, do not miss a day.”

She has an engaging habit or swearing then apologising. When I ask about her next gig she says. “I’m so fucking excited. Playing at Cecil Sharpe House with a full band. Sorry about the swearing…Yeah, really fucking excited.”

Downstairs at the reverential Cecil Sharpe House on a Wednesday evening in Camden, if you ain’t got a ticket, you ain’t getting in. The show has sold out. From what I can gauge it’s the audience who are “fucking excited.” Almost on time the band, which consists of Matthew Forbes (cello, Pete Thomas (double bass / bass guitar), Tom Sibly (Drums) and Joe Henwood (percussion/electric guitar/saxophone), join Henwood on stage, along with Rosie and Coco (her guitars!)

They stay close to the album's arrangements and pacing, which is no bad thing.

The opening songs, 'Grateful Ghost', 'What Elliot Said' and 'No Good, No Fun', confirm the band have immediately hit their musical stride and Henwood is settled, cheered on by a partisan, raucous crowd. When explaining the background of the songs, there is a strange dichotomy. Her style of delivery when explaining her songs is that of a monologue, without much emotion or expression. “Most of my songs cover death and despair. It’s what I tend to do” she says, whilst tuning Rosie, which the audience find amusing. It’s a though she’s having a chat with herself, then realises an audience has turned up. A bit unsettling, strangely amusing but not surprising, this is Megan Henwood after all.

The album version of 'Our Little Secret' is a gem, but, however, to hear it live is simply exquisite. Although Henwood tries to “warn” of the content, it still has the two 30+ years olds in front of me putting hands to mouths when hearing the sexual storyline. It’s the strings of Thomas and Forbes which, however, capture the illegal act of fornication and sinister reverberations which will undoubtedly follow. The bowing duo continue long after the vocals have ended, conveying a sense of menace and heaviness to those actions of lust, which are now “the consequences of irreversible sin…”

Before the first half closes Henwood has managed two fucks, a range of piss, pisser to pissing, a heartfelt twat, a pair of tits when eulogising about her dad, and two apologies for swearing. The girl is enjoying herself and so are the crowd.

'These Walls' encapsulate Henwood's acoustic skills and her ability to pen lines which can be a tough listen. The song is a plea for an escape route, from herself. She says of the walls which have become her paranoia and source of claustrophobia, “If these walls could talk they would ask me to leave...The clock ticks to mock me, tease me with time, help me escape my own head.” She is dark, brooding, expressive in a way few other songwriters can match.

She is working on her next album and throws in a couple of teasers to her fan base. 'Cows Come Home' explores the relationship between youth, age, advice and memories. The acceptance she isn’t ready or wanting to leave her current home in Oxford is covered in 'The Dolly'. The new material confirms she has found a template of consistency and confidence in her phrasing and musical arrangement.

She pays tribute to her band on more than one occasion which is richly deserved. Her brother Joe Henwood on electric guitar and percussion with a deft touch on glockenspiel keys has some standout moments during the set.

There is a line in 'Puppet and Songbird' which goes like this: “I did not choose to whistle this tune/But a songbird made a nest in my lungs.” It expresses to perfection, the freedom and vocal range she has developed since her debut album. Megan Henwood sounds as if she is a songbird released from her cage, never to return. It’s a playful arrangement, balanced somewhere between a gypsy and East European dance, interspersed with overtones of Stephenne Grappelli. Once again percussion and string arrangements weave in and out of Henwood’s sumptuous vocals.

There are audience groans with more than a ripple of “No, no…” when she announces 'Garden' is the last one of the evening.

The audience stand demanding an encore. Henwood gives thanks for the gesture, saying it hasn’t happened before. A voice from the back shouts, ”It’s just that these seats are uncomfortable.” What was it Kipling said about triumph and disaster?

She closes with 'Painkiller', a tribute to her late uncle, a physician once dedicated to assisting others with their ailments, but now inflicted with illness and his own pain - “Ironic injustice, your muscles in agony.” The song's chorus line of "head, heart, hand" is taken up by the audience, repeated over and over again, resulting in an emotional bonding with those taking part. Henwood managed to conjure up laughter, sadness, reflection, poignancy, shock, all in one evening. I’ve no doubt the experience will stay with those in attendance for some time to come.

During our interview in Oxford I ask Henwood where she and her music are going?

“Well it’s not as though I have a master plan. That wouldn’t be me. I’m now making the music I want too. Thankfully I feel in control. I just want to perform, share my music. I’m blessed with having an amazing management and label team supporting me. I’m working on my new album along with my brother and Tom Excell. We have spring and summer gigs lined up, with new ones being added when studio time allows. I guess for me life is good at present.”

Henwood is a talent, a rare talent. Her live performances and albums confirm there is a successful career awaiting. What she does, however, need in the short term are gigs, lots of them. The little secret of Megan Henwood is in need of sharing. Once heard never to be forgotten, for which she should make no apologies.
















Related Links:

http://www.meganhenwood.com/
https://meganhenwood.bandcamp.com/
https://twitter.com/meganhenwood
https://www.facebook.com/meganhenwoodmusic


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