David Francey a star attraction at National Folk Festival in Canberra this Easter

David Francey a star attraction at National Folk Festival in Canberra this Easter

Folk musicians from around the world converge on Canberra this Easter, writes Chris Johnson.

Scottish-born Canadian folk singer David Francey insists he makes a conscious effort to write songs. That they don't just come to him. They are not "revealed". He sets out every time to write as good a song as he can.

British folk singer Bob Fox will be performing at the 2015 National Folk Festival

British folk singer Bob Fox will be performing at the 2015 National Folk Festival

"I'm not a fan of wasted words," he says.

And that in itself is a very powerful sentence.

Canadian folk singer David Francey will be performing at the 2015 National Folk Festival.

Canadian folk singer David Francey will be performing at the 2015 National Folk Festival.

Because Francey writes some very powerful and immensely beautiful songs.

Anyone who attended the National Folk Festival two years ago can attest to that.

Then, in 2013, Francey appeared at the National as one member of the grooviest trio Go Jane Go and delighted audiences with his original tunes and mesmerising voice.

His partners then were American tunesmiths Kieran Kane and his son Lucas Kane.

"Any chance to play with Kieran is a huge bonus for me. I was a massive fan of his long before I met him," Francey says.

"I'm so used to doing my own thing."

At this year's National, festival goers will get a chance to witness just that – David Francey doing his own thing.

Highly awarded in his home country of Canada, Francey is quite the enigma in that he didn't start his musical career until he was in his 40s.

He was a carpenter, working construction sites and railway yards across the Yukon until he was "discovered" for his songwriting ability and his angelic voice.

"I don't know where it comes from," he says.

"No one in my family was particularly musical. So as I say, I've always had to work at writing songs. I always knew I could sing and my wife kept telling me my songs were really good.

"I kept saying I should find someone else to record them but she insisted that I should do that myself – that I should record my own songs."

Wise words of encouragement from his wife, because he has since been three times awarded Canada's most prestigious music prize, the Juno Award.

He has released 10albums and won a string of other Canadian and international songwriting awards.

One such gong was the John Lennon Songwriting Award, which Francey won in 2010 for his gorgeous composition The Waking Hour.

"My manager entered me in that contest and lo and behold, we won it," Francey laughs.

"Winning the John Lennon award was pretty cool. A friend of mine made me realise it was indeed very cool. He pointed out that for the rest of recorded time my name would be linked to John Lennon's and that in itself made it all worthwhile.

"I've always been a Beatles fan and John was my favourite."

And Francey's folk music heroes?

"Well, as soon as I figured out that a lot of what I was listening to was actually folk music I really started taking note of these fantastic musicians and songwriters.

"You know, John Cain, John Prine, Joni Mitchell and of course Neil Young. I love all of those.

"Neil Young is brilliant. I love how he switches it up. He can go from folk to rock, back to country and then full on grunge in the blink of an eye. I really like that.

"Then there was Canada's Willie P. Bennett. He just left you with your mouth open."

Most folk singers cite Bob Dylan as an early influence, but when asked about America's greatest-ever songwriter, Francey gets a little philosophical.

"Yeah I was a fan of Dylan," he says.

"I say 'was' because I just heard he has put out an album of Frank Sinatra songs. If that's true, then the world as we know it is over."

[Author's indulgence: Immediately before interviewing Francey I was listening to a vinyl copy of Dylan's latest album Shadows in the Night and it is incredibly good. Dylan's voice is better than it has been for more than two decades. I told Francey so and he promised to have a listen.)

Like many Canadians, Francey feels an affinity with Australia. He has toured and performed here many times.

"It is harder to leave every single time. I love the place," he says.

"In this world we are kind of like first cousins – in the way we look at the world.

"You know, it's the coolest thing. When you travel to literally the other side of the world you kind of hope your audience will get what you're doing.

"You guys do every time and I've become a bit of an Australia-phile. I can't wait to get down there again and play the National Folk Festival."

Another folk singer who hails from the other side of the world and who also has a strong connection to Australia is Britain's Bob Fox.

Unlike Francey, Fox was a professional musician from an early age and was part of what is known as one of the (many) folk revivals.

"Britain's big folk revival began in the late 1950s and into the '60s," Fox says.

"From my point of view we're talking about the early '70s when we kept that revival going.

"Lots of artists started playing all the old songs again. It was a bit of an underground movement, playing in underground pubs and such.

"I came in that second wave as a young artist who started picking up this old material. I'm not a young artist now, I've been 40 years in the business and there have been lots of developments since in the folk music scene.

"We've seen folk-rock, progressive folk and all that. But it's the old English traditional folk songs that have continued because the material is so strong.

"People do it in different ways. There are brilliant musicians around nowadays, telling stories through songs."

Fox first came to perform in Australia in 1979 for a folk festival in Newcastle, NSW. He was from Newcastle, England and it was quite a novelty for the festival to have the link between the two namesake cities.

He was playing in a duo then, but has since toured Australia a half dozen times or so as a solo performer. He last played the National in 2008.

"I always look forward to coming to Australia. I one time even considered going there to live," Fox says.

"I have a good fan base in Australia. They really get off on old English folk songs.

"When I first went to Australia it took three days on a plane, I had four days in the country, then it was three days on the plane again to get back home. Different these days."

Fox plays guitar beautifully and says he found a style all of his own to present folk songs in a compelling way.

He started teaching himself to play at age 12 while listening to the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds.

Then a few years later a school teacher named Martin Carthy, who would himself go on to be one of Britain's most famous folk musicians, introduced the young Bob Fox to folk songs.

"Martin Carthy is still today my greatest musical influence," Fox says.

"And he's still out there doing gigs. He introduced me to modal toning and that makes everything sound ancient.

"The guitar is a tool for me. I use it. My style is a mixture of lots of different techniques and musical genres, but it's all about using it to help tell the story.

"It is always the song that is the most important component to me.

"You know, in the old days those original folk ballads were the way people would tell each other the news. They would sing about battles and about crimes and that's how people learned what had really happened.

"And they were long songs; songs that really meant something. Not the three-minute 'my girlfriend done me wrong' stuff you hear a lot of today.

"I do that stuff, but it's more of the 'his girlfriend does him wrong and then kills him' type of song."

Fox has recently completed two separate 18-month stints playing the role of Songman in the acclaimed musical War Horse, in the West End as well as touring Britain, Ireland and South Africa.

He starts another West End season in the same role soon.

"It is an amazing experience. In the play, Songman is invisible to the rest of the cast but he is on stage as much as the main characters," Fox says.

"I had to learn to play the melodeon and it was bloody hard. I learned three songs on it and now people think I can really play the melodeon but I can't play anything else on it.

"When War Horse came to Australia I expressed interest in filling the role of Songman, but they said they had to have an Aussie.

"You know, for decades I've sung sings about unions and supporting unions and the bastards wouldn't let me come there and be in the play."

Laughs all round.

"Don't use that bit ... oh, OK put it in."

Fox and Francey are two headline acts at this year's National and either one would be worth the entrance fee. But the festival will have about 23 international acts and more than 180 Australian performers over the Easter long weekend.

Both Francey and Fox say they are looking forward to catching a few of the other acts themselves.

"I'm performing on two of the days and the rest of the time I'll be watching others," Fox says.

"Festivals are where you meet your muso mates. It's a bit of soul food that you don't get when you're touring and just doing concerts.

"There is always lots going on at a festival. And you can also just chill."

Francey agrees.

"Music festivals are the best places to meet people and the National is a truly fantastic festival. It's a great way to spend Easter."

The National Folk Festival 2015 is on April 2-6 at Exhibition Park.

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