Powers of two: Why the duo format is taking over the folk scene

THE duo format tends to be viewed as the bread and butter of today’s folk scene: a halfway house between solo acts and full-sized bands, offering added dynamic value over the former while remaining significantly cheaper than the latter.

For musicians, too, it’s the ideal vehicle for weathering financially straitened times – everyone and everything literally fits into one car. On the other hand, double-acts can be perceived as inherently straitened themselves; narrowly confined both in terms of their overall musical and creative compass – perceptions which often confine them in turn to smaller venues and pre-headline festival slots.

Whether or not the recession is a factor, however, the Scottish and international folk scene seems to be experiencing something of a purple patch for duos just now – including the likes of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Liz Carroll and John Doyle, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Spiers and Boden and Saltfishforty – partnerships which, in forging virtue from one-on-one necessity, far transcend both the sum of their parts and any constraining niches.

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Also deserving of a place on that list are two home-grown twosomes who’ll both be on the road next month, promoting newly-released second albums, on which each pairing has addressed their format’s putative limitations in markedly different ways.

As its title suggests, Mairearad Green and Anna Massie’s Doubling deploys the fellow Highlanders’ multi-instrumentalist talents – on accordion/bagpipes and fiddle/guitar/banjo respectively – in both its core duo arrangements and multi-tracked additional accompaniment, expanding on the no-frills, as-live approach of their self-titled 2010 debut while nonetheless keeping things strictly between themselves.

“It meant we could achieve the bigger recorded sound we wanted while still making an album that was just us,” Massie says. “It shows the full potential of our instrumentation, and also made us experiment to get the musical range we had in mind. There’s one track, for instance, where I was thumping the back of my guitar to get a bass drum sound, flicking a banjo to mimic a snare-drum, and using a scouring-pad to sound like brushes – a percussionist could have done all that in minutes, but figuring out how to do everything ourselves, exploring what our instruments were capable of, was much more interesting for us. At the same time, the heart of every track is a duo arrangement that we can and do play live, and the other elements grew organically out of that.”

While Orcadian singer/guitarist Kris Drever and Dublin-born banjo ace Éamonn Coyne’s first album together, 2007’s Honk Toot Suite, likewise aimed largely to reflect their live sound, its follow-up, Storymap, broadens the canvas with several musical guests. Again, however, the new material is fundamentally anchored in what the duo can perform onstage. “We started out recording everything with just the two of us, then basically built a little band around that, rather than picking individual guests,” Drever explains. “But apart from wanting something a bit different from the first album, there’s no big mission statement involved: essentially it’s still a pretty raw, realistic representation of how the two of us sound together six years on.”

High-quality results might seem no more than predictable from these duos, given the calibre of individual musicianship involved. Massie, for instance, was 2003’s Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, while Green – who also plays with The Poozies – won Composer of the Year at the 2009 Scots Trad Music Awards. Drever is one-third of the all-conquering Lau, as well as an acclaimed solo artist; Coyne a stalwart of the Treacherous Orchestra and Salsa Celtica. In each case, though, their combined talents have been catalysed by a highly potent if indefinable mutual chemistry, and the resulting synthesis refined through relationships dating back to the 1990s.

“Both coming from the Highlands, I think we shared a similar approach to melody, as well as a background where ceilidh music was very prevalent,” says Massie, who first met Green during their early teens. “So there was quite an immediate understanding, which has just got easier and easier, to the point where it can almost feel like telepathy, the way each of us can anticipate the other’s next move without thinking. It’s a lovely thing, which feeds directly into the sound we make together – people have said there’s a real sense of banter about our playing – and into the whole way we approach the duo, which is very much on an equal footing. Rather than having fixed roles as lead and accompaniment, we swap them about the whole time, which really expands the musical possibilities.”

“Playing with Kris has always just felt really easy,” echoes Coyne, having first duelled with Drever in the thick of Edinburgh’s session scene. “We can sit down and play a tune we’ve never done together before, and straightaway come up with the same variations and ornamentation.

“It means that even during concerts things are never rigid – we often change the set-list night to night, and even then don’t necessarily stick to it, and if one of us does something different midway through a tune, the other one’s totally comfortable with that: even though it’s so easy, we still often surprise each other.”

A highly developed mutual familiarity and understanding is also crucial on a personal level, given the intensity and intimacy of both duos’ live interaction, together with the exclusive, 24/7 companionship involved in touring. “Mairearad and I also share a lot of teaching work, so we do spend more time together than we do with anyone else,” Massie says.

“It is quite an abnormal relationship, in a way, but we know each other well enough to recognise when one of us needs space – and we always have great craic together, which is really important.”

“When Éamonn and I tour it’s quite compartmentalised from the other stuff we do, and we’re not necessarily in touch that much in between,” comments Drever. “I think in general it’s different with guys and girls, too: we have a lot of fun on tour, and we’re both quite capable of a night out, let’s say, but we don’t get involved in each other’s lives the same way. We’ll spend the first couple of days in the car catching up on each other’s news – then after that, we just get the shuffle on the iPod.”

• Storymap is out now; Doubling is released on Monday. Kris Drever & Éammon Coyne are touring Scotland from 6-13 April, see www.krisdrever.com. Mairearad & Anna are touring Scotland from 2-28 April http://www.facebook.com/mairearadandanna