They’ve had a career many acts would kill for.
In a little over a decade, Bellowhead have released five albums, each increasing their popularity – including the highest-selling ever independently-released folk album, then signed to a major label for most recent album Revival, received national airplay by the bucketload and won the Radio2 Folk Awards Best Live Act crown a staggering five times.
But earlier this year, Jon Boden, the lynchpin of this hugely successful 11-headed folk juggernaut, announced he would leave the band.
A statement was put out saying that they’d release a ‘best of’ album, and then after one final tour the band would dissolve.
As part of that tour they will be coming to Portsmouth Guildhall on Sunday, November 21.
The Guide caught up with Jon to find out, tongue firmly in cheek, where it all went so wrong?
‘I suppose we had the last album came along and it was quite a clear project,’ he explains. ‘We were going to have a go at working with a major label and that was great. It all worked, then it finished.
‘These things have cycles – it was released and toured, and then it was: what next?
‘I had to decide whether it was a priority to make a sixth Bellowhead album and do another 300 gigs with the lads or deliberately be trying to make some space for myself and try to do other things, and that’s what I decided was more important.
‘But it was a difficult decision – I’m loving Bellowhead as much as, if not more than, ever.
I am well aware that this is the thing in my career that might be seen as the most significant, whatever I go on to. Bellowhead may be the defining thing, and that’s fine, I’m proud of itJon Boden, Bellowhead frontman
‘It’s fun but I’ve done it a long time now and it’s a question of not wanting to repeat myself.’
Bellowhead began as a pipedream, hatched by Jon and his musical partner John Spiers while they were on tour together, and after 18 months of getting the line-up right they played their first show in 2004 at the Oxford Folk Festival.
‘I’ve been working on it a long time. I’ve been doing lots of other things too, but what I’ve found is that everything else that I try and do inevitably falls into the shadow of Bellowhead – from all angles – whether it’s press interest or the audience.
‘The audience have been very loyal and supportive of me and the other guys, but there’s always a sense of: “Yeah that’s great, but when’s the next Bellowhead tour?”
‘It’s great, but I also feel I need to remove myself from that if I am going to do anything progressive within my own remit.’
So have they been victims of their own success to some extent?
‘I wouldn’t use that term because it’s been brilliant and I’ve loved it all and am very proud if it.
‘I am well aware too that it is the thing in my career that might be seen as the most significant, whatever I go on to.
‘Bellowhead may be the defining thing, and that’s fine, I’m proud of it.’
While he achieved no small success with his earlier projects, such as his solo albums and as Spiers and Boden among others, Bellowhead took things to an entirely new level.
‘There was a festival fairly early on in Canada, and we played in front of 30,000. That was fairly mind-blowing to stand in front of that quantity of people.
‘We’ve done a few more of that size since, and it’s not quite hit me with the same force as it did that first time.
‘Recording at Abbey Road was an awe-inspiring experience and selling out the Royal Albert Hall and walking out on that stage was a crazy moment.
‘There’s lots of stuff like that, but there’s also the little musical achievements – a few arrangements, the first time the band played them, there was that moment of “yeah, that works, that’s going to be good”.
‘Moments like that I remember too.
As to any posthumous releases though, don’t bank on it, as Jon reveals: ‘There are a fair few arrangements around that didn’t make it on to albums, but we haven’t recorded them and there are no plans to do that.
‘There is stuff kicking around that hasn’t been used, but how we would use that, I don’t know.’
And does he have any plans for after that final show?
‘In the last decade necessity has been the mother of invention for me in terms of: I have to get an album written for such and such release for such and such tour, or someone’s pushing for more material for something, or I’ve taken on a theatre project, so I have to write a score by this date – it’s been very deadline-led, which creatively, has actually been great.
‘I’ve achieved a lot more than if I hadn’t had those deadlines.
‘I’m kind of looking for a blank page now and really, absence being the mother of invention rather than necessity. That’s the vague plan.’
Their last ever show in Oxford on May 1 has already sold out, but how does Jon think he’s going to feel after they take that final bow?
‘It’s going to be crazy, I don’t know how I’ll feel, probably pretty exhausted by the end of that tour!
‘I’ve worked quite a lot in theatre, and at the moment it’s feeling like it’s been a great production and its run is coming to an end, so I’m thinking of it more like that than the end of a band.
‘Whether that feeling will stay with me, or I’ll be a total emotional wreck and they have to drag me off stage, I don’t know.
‘Everyone’s being really positive about finishing on a high, and using that to move on in all sorts of interesting and individual creative ways and configurations.
‘Hopefully that will remain the case right up to the last gig.’
...Spiers and Boden
I think at some point we’ll look at bringing it back. Having stopped doing it for a while it needs to come back with some new material – I’d be a bit reluctant to get back in the saddle right where we left off.
...the song Gosport Nancy
I was interested in finding some more recent folk songs, and there’s some interesting ones on the navy – they’re often quite rude. I came across this book on eBay, Songs From the Royal Navy, and that one jumped out at me.
...a final live album
There’s live recordings around that we haven’t done anything with. It’s something we’ve often talked about but never got around to.
Bellowhead – The Farewell Tour comes to Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday, November 21, doors 7pm. Tickets cost £21.45-£26.95. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call the box office on 0844 847 2362.