If life was a bowl of cherries, we'd all be surrounded by grinning idiots. If every day was halcyon, nourished by cakes and ale, we'd all sing silly songs and the radio would resound with such standards as Ken Dodd's "Happiness". If this unlikely utopia does genuinely sound like your existence, then you're probably a) North Korean and b) fibbing.
For most of us the music of British folk duo, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker is substantially more representative of how our lives tend to feel. Soulful but doleful, they are very much the ideal poster couple for the Guild of Lugubrious Troubadours. Signed by Rough Trade in 2016, it's no coincidence that they're on the same label as a band that once gloriously sang, 'I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour,/ But heaven knows, I'm miserable now.' Four successful albums into their musical partnership, and well-deserved recipients of a 2015 BBC Folk Award, they may well be proving true the Orwellian maxim that 'the only "ism" that has justified itself is pessimism', but perhaps not in the way he meant it.
They spoke to Contact Music after their set at the recent Bournemouth Spring Folk Festival.
CM: Some people are born melancholy, some achieve melancholia and some have it thrust upon them. Is the conspicuous melancholia that you acknowledge something that's come from within you, or a role you've assumed over time?
JC: My parents always pick up on it, but when I look at the books they gave me as a kid, or think of when I was ten and my dad played me Peter Green's "Man of the World" and said, 'Listen to this; this is a brilliant song', is it then a surprise that I then went on to approach songwriting in a similar vein?
BW: I think music has to make you feel something and I think that melancholy gives the listener a lot to think about and to work with. It's not like turning up and giving someone a big brass tune that's going to make you feel uplifted and joyous; it's got a lot more going on.
CM: Is there anywhere you've been where you've found that the melancholia doesn't quite translate?
JC: I think every culture has its melancholia. Mediterranean cultures have a real sentimentality and what we do works as an English version of that.
BW: You have things like Portuguese fado; that's really melancholic.
JC: You do occasionally get the reaction from people who say, 'It's all a bit gloomy (*mimes hanging*)' and do the 'slit the wrists' actions and ask 'can't you just play one that's cheerful?' and we just think 'F*ck off. Go and watch something else. I hear Jack Johnson's still going.'
CM: Is he? Blimey!
JC: I understand that everyone needs both types of music, but melancholy's what we do. We don't do 'jolly' so well.
CM: Having read interviews and seen you perform, you actually seem like quite light-hearted people. What are you like down the pub?
JC: I'm not sure I'd describe myself as light-hearted, I'm just really, really sarcastic. For me, joy is something you go out and experience, but you don't necessarily feel the need to work on that. You don't need the catharsis for it. So, all of the more tortured, melancholic feelings are the ones that you process through making art or consuming art. We're not miserable all the time - well, I'm not. (To Ben) You can speak for yourself.
BW: I don't consider myself to be miserable all the time. It's quite easy, especially in the current climate, to sit there and say that everything's going to sh*t and we've got this political situation going on and this global economy in crisis - where do we go from here? But you just have to find pockets of joy in the moments that you're living from day to day.
JC: I just don't feel the need to write songs about those moments
CM: In a staring contest between the two of you, who would crack up first?
JC: I don't think we ever do much prolonged eye contact. (To Ben) I think the idea would probably terrify you, wouldn't it?
BW: Pretty much.
JC: So I would win, but I don't think laughter would be Ben's reaction.
BW: I'd probably run away and hide.
CM: "Overnight" has been out for six months now. It had a distinctly stripped-back sound, subsequent to "Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour". Was that a deliberate move? I know you couldn't get a much bigger sound than the previous album.
JC: Where else can you go, short of getting the BBC Symphony Orchestra involved? We had to take it down a bit.
BW: Everything is a conscious choice. We deliberately chose to go for a really big sound for "Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour" and to change the sound for "Overnight".
CM: A conscious decision to go for an over-arching concept on the songs too?
JC: I'd started to do it with the way we collected the songs for "Fire and Fortune" and I honed that idea a bit with "Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour", because they were all vaguely about the passage of time, so it was gradually coming that I would do something that had a whole theme.
CM: You described a 'bounce' after winning the BBC Folk Award in 2015, with people changing their perceptions of you. Have you felt any changes from making this album?
JC: It's funny because we were always pushing the boundaries within the folk genre, so "Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour"-
BW: It rattled a few cages.
JC: After that, because we'd signed to Rough Trade, we could basically do whatever we wanted. The problem for me was that we'd always had restrictions to rail against. We'd always defined ourselves as pushing against something, and then we didn't have anything to push against. When you're free to do whatever you want, it becomes more difficult. I went through a two-month period of not knowing what was 'me'.
BW: We've reached a happy medium now. We both have lots of different influences, so there are lots of things we'll hear and decide to experiment with, whereas previously we've been reserved about how far we'll push things.
CM: You talked about annoying the 'bearded Brians' previously didn't you? Where do you think that constituent is at presently?
JC: This tour, because we've brought the drum machine, I've been looking for Brian, checking where he is and what he thinks. If people get up or move about during the set, I wonder if it's because we're not doing what Brian wants us to do. I think partly that Brian is a figment of my imagination.
CM: Is he your nemesis?
JC: We do genuinely get a few emails questioning why we do things a certain way, but the idea that there are tons of Brians at every gig being unhappy with what we're doing is just in my brain. I take Brian everywhere I go.
BW: It's a projection of a series of anxieties.
CM: You had your loop pedal today and your drum machine to give 'Brian' chills. Are there other directions you can see yourselves experimenting with your sound?
BW: I think if our synth was smaller, we'd bring that with us more. We had that on the "Overnight" album launch.
JC: In an ideal world, we would have everything from an orchestral string section, to several Moogs as well. It's horses for courses because we might want a classical chamber ensemble on one song and a drum machine, loop station and a laptop on the next.
CM: How has your UK tour been?
BW: Good. We've seen a lot of the inside of the car and a lot of the insides of Travelodges. Other locations to stay are available.
CM: What's been your best gig so far?
BW: I really enjoyed the Mount Pleasant eco place in Truro.
JC: We played a self-sustained eco park, which had wind turbine and solar panels. It's nice to do a gig and know you're not ruining the planet.
BW: It was beautiful for views too. You'd wake up in the morning and you'd be looking from a hill down onto a tiny Cornish village on the coast.
CM: So on tour, if it's just the two of you in a car, who's in charge of the stereo and what's on?
JC: We're pretty democratic.
BW: Usually both of us will say, 'I've got this thing I think we should listen to' and since most of the journeys are about three hours in length, we can listen both of our choices.
JC: We work all the time, so when we're listening to something, Ben will be picking out the bass line, or we'll analyse the artist's weird use of string parts. We listen to things with a view to production and aesthetics.
CM: So it's never a case of just banging on some S-Club and putting your foot down?
JC: It's not that we never listen to anything for pleasure.
BW: But it is mostly for research purposes.
JC: We like to make every moment count.
CM: So what next for you two?
JC: We've got a good tour lined up for the autumn and we're working on new material for future release, but I can't tell you any more about that right now.
CM: Tantalising. Watch this space, readers! I assume it's not packed with raucous sea shanties.
BW: At the moment, we've just got a couple of guitars, voice and other little bits.
JC: It's more electric.
CM: Josienne - you're endlessly compared to Sandy Denny and Joan Baez. Do you sometimes wish people would just stop it?
JC: There's a thing where people do a review, a live review or an album review and they say really nice things and they say about the essence of Sandy Denny being in there somewhere, but they always feel the need to add 'but not quite as good'. I never said I was, and I don't want to be the next Sandy Denny. I'm more arrogant than that. I want to be the one and only Josienne Clarke that there'll ever be.
CM: For you, Ben, at least there are more guitarists out there that you can be pinned to…
JC: It's still pretty much always the same three, isn't it?
BW: Knopfler, Cooder and Thompson are all still kicking, though. Cooder played the Folk Awards the other week and it was amazing. For me, it's good if the influence of these people is being picked up.
CM: What do you consider to be the spirit of 'corduroy punk'? ?
JC: You can play anything as small and strange and weirdly classical and sad - music as generically disparate as you like and it still works (*Josienne makes ironic rock 'horns' hand gesture*).
BW: I'm rarely seen without corduroy trousers.
JC: Rough Trade is always thought of as having this forward-thinking, 'anything goes', punk aesthetic, and I can see why that doesn't look immediately like what Ben and I are doing, but you have to have a certain front to play an hour of ballads - minimal and sparse, with an Elgar cover.
BW: I also think it's a bit of a 'fingers up' to convention, that Rough Trade have got Sleaford Mods, and then they have us.
CM: Is the new material you can't tell us about a collaboration with Sleaford Mods? ?
BW: That'd be hilarious!
JC: Our next gig could just be Ben pressing a button on a laptop and drinking a beer, while I swear into a microphone.
CM: Apart from Sleaford Mods, obvs, if you could collaborate with any living musician, who would it be? ?
BW: Jonny Greenwood, Squarepusher or Nils Frahm.
CM: Are there any unlikely or unexpected songs you've considered covering? ?
BW: We've done "Nude" by Radiohead at a few gigs.
CM: Any songs you've really thought, 'I'd love to cover it, but I just can't'? ?
JC: The Folkroom night that we're part of in London had an ABBA theme, so we did "Knowing Me, Knowing You".
BW: I even had a microphone and had to do the 'Aha!' bits.
CM: Did you resist the urge to do it Partridge style? ?
JC: Oh no, it was full Partridge. Everyone in the audience went for it too. You can't do it any other way.
CM: Finally, if someone wanted to book you for a children's party, would you go for it?
BW: We could do it in clown costumes, like that French crying clown, Pierrot Lunaire.
JC: I think we're most appropriate for wakes.
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