13 years ago Jim Moray released an album that changed the way people perceived, played and presented English folk music. Sweet England arrived at a time when, with just a few notable exceptions, traditional music was performed much as it had been in the 1970s to an audience of insiders and aficionados. The album was received with open arms by those who understood that the music of the people has survived for centuries by being just that – an expression of the times. Absent were the familiar affectations of those who sought to preserve an invented historical aesthetic, Jim Moray was a Bowie and Blur fan singing ballads with all of his influences unfurled.
The records that followed (Jim Moray, Low Culture, In Modern History, Skulk) embraced everything from electronica to Johnny Marr-esque guitar rock via symphonic pop, an award winning XTC cover and grime. But at their heart has always been Jim’s unmistakeable soulful and yearning voice; singing old songs in a new way.
As awards and rave reviews stacked up, much was made of Moray’s fearlessness in pushing the boundaries of traditional music. But it’s an accolade he’s always refuted. “I don’t see any boundaries,” being his oft-repeated response. “This is popular music and I love popular music.”
Festival and folk club crowds clearly felt the same way, never more so than in 2014 when Jim joined up with the ardently admired songwriter and guitarist Sam Carter to form the band False Lights. On a mission to make a glorious folk rock ruckus that owed more to Radiohead and Queens Of The Stone Age than Steeleye Span, False Lights quickly became one of the most in demand groups on the circuit. They also picked up a Best Album nomination in the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for their debut LP Salvor.
In recent years Jim has collaborated with such folk music luminaries as Andy Cutting, Patsy Reid, Martin Simpson and Nancy Kerr on the hugely successful Cecil Sharp Project and similarly acclaimed Elizabethan Project. He’s also been making a name for himself as a producer working with Maz O’Connor on her last album This Willowed Light and her most recent release The Longing Kind, as well as mixing the latest record by Jamie Smith’s Mabon. And this year he presented a documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the traditional song Brigg Fair, which saw Jim use cutting-edge sound technology to recreate the apocryphal moment when farm bailiff Joseph Taylor spontaneously added his voice to the premiere of Delius’ An English Rhapsody, which was inspired by a wax cylinder recording of Taylor’s singing. A more appropriate subject for Moray to tackle is hard to imagine.
At a time when the bright new lights of traditional music include Stick In The Wheel and Lynched, who come from the distinctly un-folk worlds of drum ‘n’ bass and punk respectively, Jim Moray’s dream that more people would discover and play these songs on their own terms in their own voice is steadily becoming a reality.
As for the future, Jim believes it’s time for him to start a new chapter. He’s described the making of his forthcoming album Upcetera as being like “learning to do it all again from scratch”. Drawing influence from the systems music of composers like Nyman and Reich (another of his formative passions) Upcetera features dramatically orchestrated Child ballads reimagined as torch songs or a kind of English Fado. It’s an album that places the narrative element of these songs centre stage, with Jim Moray’s supple soaring vocal leading the listener by the hand through strange old stories.
Making them new.