The day we speak with Stu Hanna, one half of the husband-and-wife folk duo Megson, he’s breaking in a new banjo for their latest tour and it’s left him a little sore.
‘It’s actually quite energetic,’ he laughs. ‘It’s different to the old one, you’re using slightly different muscles, so you find yourself aching in different ways. The old one looked great but only three of the strings sounded great, so that’s a quarter of the strings when you've only got four…’
Megson recently released their ninth album, Contradicshun, featuring their usual blend of updated traditional numbers and clever originals. The title track was originally by one Joe Wilson.
‘It’s spelt phonetically – there have been a few people asking if we’ve got that right, but it’s how Joe Wilson spelt it. We came across this song in a book, he was a Victorian balladeer, I guess you’d call him, he wrote his songs and travelled around the folk clubs and music halls of the time singing his songs.
We thought it was an interesting song to work with and then we built the album around that, looking at contradictions in conversations and so on.’
Once they had a theme, Stu and Debbie found their own songs soon came.
‘We always have some ideas for songs we’ve written ourselves, almost lurking in the subconscious, it’s when you have to focus the mind, they tend to come out.
‘Like the first song, Are You Sitting Comfortably? I’ve had that idea for a while – why not start an album with something that invites people to put everything down that they’re doing and come on a little musical journey? We then worked it into this album - a contradiction about how when you’re trying to settle down to relax, no matter how much you try and get done, there’s always something else you can do.’
The song Two Sides In Every Conversation is the most obvious examination of the album’s themes – and it draws on the couple’s own experience.
‘There a few old music hall songs with similar ideas, there’s one I Remember It Well, where two people have their different views of certain events. It’s happened a few times with me and Debs. There was one time where we went on holiday when we were first dating, and we went down and stayed with her parents in Cornwall. A few years later, she said: “Do you remember when we went on that bike ride?” And I said, I didn’t do that!
‘She was like, “I assure you, you did!” And I am sure I didn’t do it – there’s no photo evidence of it, so I think it didn’t happen. That’s one of the inspirations for it.’
The trad songs come from the pair’s own research.
‘There are some staple northeastern songwriters and books of songs. We tend to pick songs from the northeast, not always, but they tend to suit our dialect, the way we sing and the vowel sounds. We’ve got a stock of them - like Rhymes of The Northern Bards - that’s my favourite one, Allan’s Tyneside Songs, Northumbrian Minstrelsy.
‘A lot of the time they’re not songs with music written down or notation, they’re more like poems and it says “Sung to the tune of...” Sometimes you can almost tell by looking at them as people at that time would tend to write new songs to existing melodies which everyone knew.
‘It’s really exciting when you find something that you really like. Some of them aren’t the most immediate, like Voice of The Nation (on Contradicshun). In terms of the language, they can be quite challenging – it’s tough to remember all the words for that – Debs was cursing me!
‘But the amount of history you’re learning from the songs you dig up, it really is fascinating.’
The stop in Havant will also see them performing an afternoon set of their popular Family Folk Show, aimed at their somewhat younger fans.
‘They’re such fun to do,’ says Stu, ‘and it’s great to just share the music with that age group and seeing how responsive they are to the music.
‘As soon as they can toddle around they get into it – and the enthusiasm as well, we get them singing and dancing and doing actions.’
They started the shows after recording the album When I Was A Lad in 2011, itself a response to the birth of their daughter.
‘We thought it was the right thing to do to record some children’s folk songs, and then a few venues said, you should do a show to go with this.
‘It took us a little while to find out how it works, but we’ve done a lot of them now. It can be a bit exhausting doing two shows in one day though!’
The Spring Arts Centre, Havant
Saturday, June 22