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Under the Radar
The market town of Rhayader nestles in the Elan Valley in mid-Wales. On the outskirts of the town on the road to St Harmon sits an old farmhouse with wonderful views close to some old Roman remains. Red kites and ravens ride the winds, and salmon play in the river that snakes through the dramatic landscape. The land of mystery ,myth and legend, it is here you will find guitarist Toby Hay, his dog Bear and the home of Cambrian Records.
With just a handful of limited releases Hay has created his own micro label that is part of the blooming independent folk/roots scene in South Wales. Originally a vehicle for his own instrumental guitar compositions Toby Hay has added some carefully selected “unknown” musicians to the roster.
The first two releases 'Marteg' (a local beauty spot) and 'Rhayader', which are both by Hay, are beautifully crafted EPs, melodic and detailed in the vein of Renbourn and Fahey but clearly in his own style and reflecting his surroundings with such touch that you can almost smell the fresh air.
Cambrian Records is truly independent and uncomplicated. Hay tours regularly, collaborates with others and is clearly dedicated to his work.
Last year saw Cambrian Records add fellow guitarist Jim Ghedi to the label and release “Home is Where I Exist, Now to Live and Die', Ghedi’s finest work to date and a superb instrumental travelogue that defies description. Together Hay and Ghedi took these two releases and toured the UK, extensively playing in small venues in unexpected places. They are real musicians actually doing it properly for little reward other than the satisfaction of bringing joy and light into people’s lives.
Next up Cambrian collaborated with Deserted Village and released 'All Who Wander' by Gavin Prior. One of the most unusual albums you will hear in a long time Prior combines field recordings with acoustic instruments taking the form of a travel diary.
Cardiff singer-songwriter David Ian Roberts recorded 'Sending Out Fires', an EP of four new tracks. Roberts has a growing reputation as a troubadour and his soulful vocals and deft guitar playing on this release are a joy to hear. He is the perfect antidote to the more “popular” singer-songwriters you might find in the mainstream.
There were two more releases - 'Time Takes Away' by Rusainia, a psych folk extravaganza featuring Sharron Krauss and then a real departure with the highly acclaimed 'Duski'. It is an exquisite jazz album from this Cardiff- based band of the same name that almost defies categorisation with its atmospheric and slight dark vibe.
At the end of what must have been an exciting year for Toby Hay came his own third EP 'Birds'.
The 'Birds' EP showed a real maturity in both writing and performance and received critical acclaim and a large amount of radio play over the winter of 2016. It was well-deserved praise after a year of hard work touring and refining his art.
At the beginning of 2017 Cambrian Records announced the first release of the year would be a new album from founder Toby Hay, 'The Gathering' which is set for a March release. He is obviously not a man to rest on his laurels, Mr Hay.
My pre-release advance arrived in the post - Cambrian Records' first vinyl offering.
Delightfully packaged in a gatefold sleeve, 'The Gathering' is, from the first note , an outstanding record. As well as his own six and twelve string guitar, Angela Chan (violin,viola,cello), Rob Bromley (violin) and Peter Scott (double bass) provide a fresh and meaningful canvas for these new compositions to bring out the depths of these tunes. Full of melody and melancholia, Hay’s craftsmanship is apparent from the opening 'Mayfair at Rhayader' and sets the scene for the whole record. Shards of light seem to sparkle in the air, rays of sunlight break through cloudy skies as his guitar weaves a magical tapestry. It would not be too dramatic to say that this music is like the mountain streams that flow on the mountains In times such as these the soul needs music like this, music that transports you to open moorlands, big skies and birds flying free. 'The Gathering' captures something that cannot be translated into words. 'Black Brook' is hauntingly beautiful. On 'Claerwen' Hay creates a tone poem full of meditative passion that reveals an underlying confidence that is a characteristic of the whole project. 'Starlings' rises and soars, crystal clear with a haunting motif , reflecting the “murmerations” the birds create in the skies. 'The Gathering' is one of the most beautiful and reflective albums you will hear this year.
Although available on CD and as a download the ritual of putting the record on the turntable and actually reading the evocative liner notes from writer Robert MacFarlane (yes him!) make this a most satisfying experience.
Cambrian Records is the perfect antidote to the mass productions of the music industry. A fine example of, as Gandalf says in 'The Hobbit', “the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Toby Hay,however, is far from ordinary as this album proves. Small questions, yes, but huge in the things that matter.
I had some questions for Toby Hay.
KH: How did Cambrian come into existence?
TH: I set up the label in the Autumn of 2014, so it is still very young. It was initially just a way of releasing my own music, but very quickly it became something else. I realised if I could put out my own records that I could put out other peoples to, and it just kind of started growing.
KH: How do you decide who you will release?
TH: People get in touch, and I meet others at gigs. You tend to naturally meet a lot of likeminded musicians just by accident. It is very organic, and I never try to force it.
People just started coming on board, and it kind of got out of control in a good way! It's nice to have a supportive network of fellow musicians who can all help each other out with releases and tours. Feels really good.
KH: Your first visit vinyl release is 'The Gathering'. Will there be more records?
TH: I really hope so. I always knew that my first album would be the first vinyl, and I hope to continue on from here and make more. I love it.
KH: As a guitar player do have any major influences?
TH: I think a lot of my influences tend to come from listening to 'non-guitar' music. Other instruments which I don't understand tend to have a greater power over me, and I think it seeps into my playing and I try to emulate tones and techniques and rhythms from these other instruments.
KH: What does this year hold for you?
TH: 'The Gathering' is released on the 29th March and I will be taking it on tour all through April, May and June with some festivals over the summer also. I have got some interesting collaborations on the horizon. My fellow guitarist Jim Ghedi and me have a duo album of six and twelve string pieces to release.
Then I will be starting work on my next solo record, which I am really excited about. I have had my own custom guitar built by the incredible Roger Bucknall of Fylde guitars. It is a beautiful thing, the best guitar I have ever played, and I am excited about composing music for it.
KH: Thank you, Toby, and good luck.
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In the second in his new column 'Under the Radar', in which he will examining the great but often under-rated, Keith How investigates Cambrian Records, the micro-label of Welsh guitarist Toby Hay
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