5 Minutes with… Steel Songbirds

Live to your Living Room Marilla-Emily-23-of-83-1024x684 5 Minutes with... Steel Songbirds
Photo credit: Piers Cawley

Harmony-singing duo Steel Songbirds will be joining us on Saturday 23rd October. Ahead of the gig, we caught up with them to find out more about their songwriting and how the duo came about.

You met working behind bars at festivals – how did that develop into you becoming a duo?

We were both working for the same publican. Marilla was in Worcestershire and Emily in Warwickshire, before each independently moving to Sheffield in 2016. We started going lane swimming together and singing in the fabulous acoustics of the changing rooms just for fun! At the Sheffield Folk Sessions Festival at Easter 2017, Marilla entered the John Birmingham Cup (a songwriting competition) and Emily came along to cheer her on. After the event, having listened to the judge’s comment on writing about topics you know about, Emily had the idea for a song in her head, and asked Marilla if she wanted to write a song together. YES! And so, after a rather large amount of storytelling and giggling, and figuring out rhymes and harmonies, our first co-written song T’Internet Dates was born.

Humour seems to play a big role in some of your songs – what inspired you to take that route?

In many ways, our humour seems to reflect the fun we have together. There are so many songs about loss and sadness, that it is nice to have a chance to make each other and our audiences feel good about themselves. We are pretty good at laughing at ourselves, although we are still learning that skill some days. We still sing songs that cover important topics, like depression and struggle, strong women in history, and local history stories, there just seems to be a healthy chunk of laughter mixed in.

“There are so many songs about loss and sadness, that it is nice to have a chance to make each other and our audiences feel good about themselves.”

What’s your process for writing songs together?

It is very much a collaboration when we write together. One has an idea, whether it is a melody or words or a fragment of a chorus, and then we tease it out together. We both have to agree on the words, or they don’t get included. When we wrote Gifford and Spey, we had both spent a few days aboard the two old narrowboats, and then had some time away on the canal to write together. We got the chorus down first, and were practising the harmonies in the acoustics under a long bridge. The people at the other end applauded us as we went past, so we knew it sounded ok! In that case, we wrote the lyrics and then sent them to the owners of Spey to be vetted and make sure we had it right. We had to change the words of the chorus slightly to be historically accurate.

When it comes to harmonies for songs, we seem to have a pretty similar musical aesthetic, and we often find ourselves on the same harmony in chorus songs. It becomes a choice of who is singing the melody and who is harmonising, and whether we swap. It depends on the song. We also sing songs that Marilla wrote before Steel Songbirds formed.

Have you done any online gigs together before?

We have done one online gig together, as guests of Piers Cawley’s Song Swap, which was fun and laid back. Piers did all the work setting up the tech and dealing with computers, so we just had to sing and enjoy ourselves. That was the first time we have been able to sing together since our last gig for Folk The Patriarchy back in March 2020. We have both been guests individually with Piers too. Marilla has recently done a few solo online gigs, doing all the Zoom tech herself and learning on the job. Online gigs are a lot of fun and it is great to be able to interact with the audience and see everyone’s smiling faces!

“Online gigs are a lot of fun and it is great to be able to interact with the audience and see everyone’s smiling faces!”

You’ve released your first album together, Sheffield Made – tell us about that.

We spent two days in the Park Head Studio at Birdsedge with Brian Bedford (of Artisan fame), recording our songs pretty much live. Marilla has three previous albums, but this was the first album recording experience for Emily and she was understandably nervous – especially recording the song Too Old to Care by Brian Bedford in front of him, so we left that until the end! He was very nice about it.

The experience was a lot of fun and, as all albums are, it is a record of where we were musically at the time. Some of the songs have undoubtedly evolved a bit in performance since then, and we are adding to our repertoire. There are a few of the more bawdy songs that we save for live gigs, rather than recordings! The album has 13 tracks, with songs of local history, strong and intriguing women, stories from both Australia and the UK, silly songs, funny songs, healing songs, and excellent choruses to join in with!

Steel Songbirds will be playing for us on Saturday 23rd October at 8pm BST. Fancy joining us? Find tickets here!