The Rails: New Directions in British Folk Rock

An exclusive conversation with the best husband-wife duo in English folk since Kami Thompson’s parents

James Walbourne and Kami Thompson at the pub

The first time James Walbourne and Kami Thompson sat down to play music together they knew they had something special. “I first met Kami In London, when I was playing guitar on a record her mother, Linda Thompson, was making,” Walbourne says. “She came into the studio and I thought, ‘Well, OK!’”

After a few more random meetings, the duo got together to play music and the rest, as they say, is history. “We started singing together in June 2011 and it wasn’t an effort at all. The way the harmonies came together was like telepathy. We wrote all the songs on our first record, while we were beginning our romantic relationship.”

Their debut as The Rails, Fair Warning, was an immediate success, winning the prize for Best Newcomer at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, shortly after its release. Their burnished vocal harmonies, and Walbourne’s sharp songwriting, made it one of the best albums of the year. Critics praised its ability to reinvent the classic sounds of British folk rock for a new generation. “We went into the studio thinking we’d make a British folk record from the ‘70s, a Fairport Convention-sounding album. We recorded live at an analogue studio, straight to tape.We had a bunch of interesting players helping out, including Eliza Carthy, from Waterson-Carthy (a super group of British folk musicians) on fiddle and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars playing drums.”

The duo began touring to support the album, with Walbourne’s electric guitar prowess bringing an extra kick to their live shows. After a few years of persistent work on the road supporting Fair Warning, and an acoustic EP of traditional folk songs they cut on the fly between gigs, they were ready to return to the studio to make their second album.

“We made Other People (out on Thirty Tigers on June 29th) with [producer] Ray Kennedy in Nashville. We wanted a heavier, more brash and electric sounding album. Ray described it as ‘folk-rock on steroids.’ We flew over from London, put together a band, went into the studio and made the album in a week. We all played live – Kami on acoustic guitar; my buddy Jim Boquist, from Son Volt, on bass; Cody Dickinson on drums and me on electric guitars. We sang and did the harmonies live, at the same time we played. Because of the cost, we had to do it quick, so Ray thought it was best if I went in and added all the other instruments I wanted to hear. I overdubbed mandolin, harmonium, accordion and a bunch of other stuff, but the basic tracks were all done live and fast, onto analogue tape, just like the old days.”

Like their debut, Other People echoes the sounds of the early years of the British folk rock movement, but Walbourne’s work on synthesizers and a panoply of stringed instruments gives the arrangements a cinematic, ambient feel. “The songs come out of me almost fully formed,” Walbourne says. “We tweaked a few of them, but I arrange them as I write, all at once. They can change slightly in the studio, but not that much.

“The bands I personally played in over the years, like The Pogues, The Pernice Brothers, Son Volt, all have a dedication to roots music, British, Irish and American. I surrounded myself with it and I guess it rubbed off. It shows up in the British, Irishy idiom of the melody lines. It’s imbedded in me. I grew up listing to that stuff and Kami and I both hang around a lot of British and Irish musicians. That melting pot of Scottish, Irish and British music crossed the sea and influenced American folk, blues and country music, and then returned to England in the form of rock’n’roll to influence us gain. We try to take it into a different realm and put our own spin on it.”

The lyrics on Other People are dark and ominous. Loss, regret and apprehension about the direction we’re moving in as a society are overarching themes. Thompson croons the title tune, a put down of the narcissistic millionaires that are catering to the worst aspects of human nature, to a funky Irish melody. “The Cally” is a mournful reel that describes the urban renewal that’s changing the face of London. Walbourne sings it from the perspective of a working class man that’s slowly being priced out of his hometown. “It’s an album about what’s happening in London today. The songs like ‘Brick and Mortar’ talk about all the pubs and music clubs in London that are getting torn down to make way for expensive housing. All the places where we played music and drank and hung out with our friends are gone. Rents are so high; you can’t really afford to live in London anymore. I was out in San Francisco last week and the same thing is happening there. It’s happening in all the cities around the world, really. There’s nowhere to go to find a small club you can play music in. I don’t know how the young kids coming up are going to find space to rehearse. Everything costs a fortune. It’s a shame.”

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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