Music Q&A:
The Blackheart Orchestra

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One half of the Manchester-based two piece orchestra, Rick Pilkington tells Big Issue North that the tour rider is the last desperate hope of a fading rock star to be treated like royalty, but that a cup of camomile tea wouldn’t go amiss when they play Manchester Fallow Cafe, 2 Feb, Leeds Oporto, 6 Feb and Sheffield Greystones, 15 Feb.

What informs your music and songwriting?
Does anyone really know the answer to this one? I guess if you are a Nashville factory songwriter the answer may be dollars. If you’re a traditional folk artist the answer may be history. If you’re a prog rocker the answer may be Yes. And the list goes on. But I think that every truly great song is informed by something that is stored in the writer’s experience. Somehow in a way we probably don’t understand, we log in to those experiences and feelings and then re-paint them into music and lyrics that become a reflection of a past moment recreated like a movie of a memory. Then we call it a song. That’s why when we hear a truly great song it hits us like a bus, because we’re actually sharing something real, deep and intimate with the person who wrote it. Kate Bush’s Woman’s Work, Jane Siberry’s Love Is Everything, Adele’s Someone Like You – I could be wrong, but I just suspect they’re not 100 per cent fiction.

How have you evolved over the years?

Hugely. When we started we were a two-piece singer-songwriter duo. Now we’re a two-piece orchestra. In the evolution we’ve also become a rest home for retired musical instruments! It began when Chrissy discovered an old Omnichord. Even though it was nearly 40 years old, the sound was so new and exciting it transformed our writing and performing instantly. Next she fell in love with an old vintage keyboard in a dusty second-hand shop when we were touring Australia. From there we got an appetite for ancient synths, every kind of abandoned keyboard and guitar, percussion, bass, vintage melodicas, guitars played with violin bows and all the instruments that people threw away 30 years ago. Bringing all this glorious junk onto our stage has expanded our music in a wonderful way. Writing a song on an instrument that you can’t play is more stimulating, and the challenge and excitement has been central to our evolution, making us more experimental and more thinking that whatever sound we hear in our heads, we can probably find a string, key, button, fader or some piece of old eighties plastic that will make it happen. It’s like, hey, I wonder what that knob does… woo let’s write a song!

What are you up to at the moment artistically?
We’re just putting the finishing touches to our new album Diving for Roses that comes out in February. We’re really proud of it but it’s been three years’ work and we’ve made a pledge to never spend so long making an album again. We probably write 10 times more material than we could ever put on our records and the next one is written already so we are doing a month-long European tour starting this week, then getting straight back into the studio for album number five. Two albums in one year? It could actually happen.

What’s it like to operate in the music industry today?
It’s never been tougher and it’s never been better. This is a golden age of creativity and opportunity where you can make a record in your bedroom on Monday, release it to the world on Tuesday and be famous on Friday. Trouble is you’ve got to be either better, cleverer or luckier than the trillion other people who want exactly the same as you.

What’s on your rider?
We are pretty undemanding really – vegan food and a pot of tea and we’re good to go. Chrissy sometimes gets a bit diva by asking for camomile tea. The most brilliant people we have met in the musical world have been the most humble. The sacred tour rider is the last desperate hope of a fading rock star to be treated like royalty. Nobody deserves to be treated like royalty. Not even royalty.

Tell us your most embarrassing or surreal experience.
A few years ago we were opening for quite a famous singer-songwriter. During our set I decided to turn off the monitors as they were feeding back. We then watched the headliner take the stage and it was clear that he was having a problem with his monitors, whereupon I remembered they were still switched off. Feeling a combination of terror and guilt I decided to creep on stage on my hands and knees like a snake to hopefully invisibly switch them back on without anyone seeing me, and proceeded to spectacularly fall off the stage, taking the monitors with me to the deafening sound of the audience’s laughter. It still makes me go cold to think about it.

What’s your worst lyric?
I’ve written whole songs that I wish I’d never written! Like the hate song about my home town when I really love my home town. And the song about America where our American publisher made us change the lyrics to avoid creating a world war. I now tend to leave lyrics to Chrissy who’s the genius poet in the band. It’s safer that way.

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The Blackheart Orchestra

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