By Rowan Gavin
Skinny Lister play one hell of a live show. In fact, so raucous and rousing are the London six-piece folk outfit’s performances, I’ve yet to encounter any journalism about them that doesn’t start by stating that fact – and I see no reason to change that here. With guitar and accordion and their ever-present flagon of rum, they set the Norwich Arts Centre a-jumping last Friday night, just as they did the Waterfront on their last visit to Noz in late 2017. This time, I was lucky enough to sit down with frontwoman Lorna Thomas in the bar beforehand, to talk all things Skinny.
Given how captivated music media and the Skinny fanbase are by the band’s stage presence, I’m curious: is their live work a bigger part of the band’s identity than their recordings? “Live, we do our thing”, Lorna responds simply. “We love what we do and we love that people come and sing our words back at us – there’s not a greater feeling than that really. The minute I’m on stage, everything else feels worth it. It’s my natural habitat.” In a six-piece though, it’s never quite the same for everyone. While everybody in the band loves getting on stage, for songwriter Dan Heptinstall it’s not just a great feeling: “it’s an affirmation of what he’s written”.
And he’s been writing plenty this past year. On the day of our conversation, Skinny Lister’s fourth album, The Story Is… , was released on Xtra Mile, to some acclaim. As with all their previous albums, Lorna explains, Dan writes some lyrics and a melody, brings each new song to the group, and “it either gets put in the bin or it gets worked out. Or it gets worked out and then put in the bin!” Their recording process was a bit different this time round, however. “We recorded the album in two halves”, spending a few weeks either side of their customary festival-filled summer at producer Barny Barnicott’s Kent studio. “It allowed us to be far more relaxed and meant that we could experiment a bit more. It’s longer than past albums, because tracks came up and we couldn’t decide which ones we wouldn’t put on, so we just put them all on!”
It quickly became apparent to me, as I listened to The Story Is… for the first time that morning, that the album’s title is more than just set-dressing. This is an album full of stories, and moreover an album focused on the act of storytelling itself. “We’re a folk band, so tales have always been in the songs we’ve written”, Lorna confirms – in this case, tales of a dangerous neighbour in Artist Arsonist, of an unfortunate misuse of fuel in Diesel Vehicle, of an adulterous romance in Alister McAllister. “We couldn’t believe how true that one was!” After coming up with a catchy name change for Alister, “we were having a laugh about that and saying we need to cover our backs in court, so we wrote the last track: Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Living or Dead, is Purely Coincidental.” A smart and insightful little number about the process of creating story and song from lived reality, Any Resemblance ties up the album perfectly as its final track. As a whole, Lorna says, “it’s a very loose concept album” about storytelling, with a lot of variation in both the stories told and the style of their telling. “But that adds to it – that’s life, it is varied.”
So The Story Is… is in many ways a natural extension of the relatable, modern-folk storytelling that Skinny’s fans have loved for years. But it’s also different from their previous albums. “We always try and capture the live sound as much as we can, but… it’s a different thing. This album, you can sit and listen to it.” And, Lorna predicts, “it’s gonna be a richer album” as a result. “The sound of Skinny”, she tells me, is a living and changing sound. When they originally released tracks like Cathy and Trouble on Oxford Street, they were concerned that people would think ‘this isn’t Skinny Lister’; now, of course, these are among their most defining tracks, with a permanent place in their setlist. So they learned not to be afraid of changing the sound of Skinny: “we just find that once the songs have lived and breathed a while, they are Skinny”.
So which other sounds are influencing the sound of Skinny – what are Skinny Lister listening to right now? Lorna mentions Mattiel, Beans on Toast, Will Varley and the evening’s supports Wood Burning Savages and Trapper Schoepp. “There’s just too much – as soon as I walk into a venue and see an interesting poster I’ve got another person to listen to!” They do their best to keep up though, sharing their latest discoveries through their spotify playlist ‘Skinny Lister’s Latest Listens’. Worth a follow!
As we approach the end of our short slot before Lorna goes for dinner, I have one more question: do Skinny think of themselves as a political band? “I don’t think it’s that straightforward. We’ve always said, leave your politics at the door – everyone is welcome at a Skinny Lister gig”. And yet two tracks on the new album, opener track Second Amendment and Brexit-dissecter Thing Like That, clearly engage with current political issues more directly than Skinny’s previous work. “We have dipped our toe into it”, Lorna admits. “I think people can do great things politically by writing songs, and I’m all up for that. Wood Burning Savages wear their left on their sleeves very openly – their album’s called Stability and it’s incredible.”
Well, from my spot in the crowd a couple hours later, roaring in chorus with a hundred others, I’d say Lorna’s claim that “we’re not hugely political people” understates a politics of kindness and kindred spirit that can be clearly felt in the energy of Skinny’s live shows and in their true-to-life storytelling. I don’t know where their story goes next – and I don’t think they do either – but I do know that I’ll be coming back to Rattle and Roar with them again whenever they return to the fine city.
Skinny Lister are:
Dan Heptinstall – lead vocals, guitar, and stomp box
Max Thomas – melodeon, mandolin and vocals
Lorna Thomas – vocals
Thom Mills – drums
Sam “Mule” Brace – guitar, concertina, vocals, mandolin
Scott Milsom – double bass, Bass guitar and vocals
Featured image credit: Paul Hudson
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