Penguin Eggs

I'm delighted to announce that I've been asked to contribute to the awesome Canadian roots magazine, Penguin Eggs. Hooray! I'll let you know when my first piece is about to appear...

A ghostly tale

PROJECT PROJECT PROJECT!

Yes, it's that time again... I've got stupidly excited over a new project. And it really is new - a new challenge, to be precise. I've been asked to ghostwrite, and it's something I've never done before. I probably shouldn't say who it is for now, just to keep the intrigue, but I'm sure he won't mind me revealing his identity further down the line. It's just that he's been encouraged to write his story for a long time, and he had begun, but due to his very active lifestyle - he trains most days - he was simply not finding the time to sit down and get on with the project.

At first, I was apprehensive - how could I get the voice right for a man who is a few years older than me, lives in a different part of the country to me, and has a completely different lifestyle to mine? It made the Wayward Daughter project seem like an easy task: after all, I could say pretty much what I liked about Eliza and her story, as it was my interpretation. But on speaking to him, and I've met him a couple of times now, I think it will be fine - he has such a way of speaking, such charisma, then I need to stick as closely to his own words as I possibly can. And already what I've got down on the page isn't recognisable, so hopefully that's a good sign.

We don't yet have a publisher lined up for this project, so I'll be getting some sample chapters, a synopsis and a content plan together and pitching. Though I'm under no illusion - getting a publisher is damned hard - I'm enthusiastic. After all, everyone like's a 'triumphing over the unbelievable' story, don't they? And for someone like him, who has achieved so much and... well, I don't want to give too much away. But fingers crossed, and let's hope a future post is me announcing our new publishing deal! He deserves it.

 

 

Get your knits out!

My very talented friend, Beki, runs Where's Me Jumper, a bespoke knitwear company. This week she has released her very first book, The Knit Parade, which contains patterns and tips to make your own statement knitwear. So make sure you get a copy and fingers crossed you don't notice a single error, as it was proofread by my fair eyes! Eeek!

Song Collectors Collective - live!

The brand new SCC website is live: http://songcollectorscollective.co.uk/ and I am delighted to have played a very small part in its creation, writing profiles of the 'Tradition Bearers' and transcribing some of Freda Black's repertoire. I hope you enjoy having a sort through of the material the SCC has already amassed, it's really quite a resource.

Song collecting

The more I learn about folksong, it seems the less I actually know. It's such a vast subject, with some many fascinating characters and historical context. I always thought song collectors were middle class, genteel types who flitted about the countryside on bicycles at the turn of the twentieth century, listening to farm labourers with stalks in their mouths. Of course, there was a lot of that, but what I didn't think about is that song collecting has been going ever since, and continues to happen today. After all, there are still people singing, and still songs and stories to hear.

The Song Collectors Collective is one such group of people who have been calling in to Gypsy and Traveller communities to hear the songs they sing. Naturally I was interested, and kept abreast of their discoveries on their Facebook page.

But then Sam Lee, one of the founding members, got in touch and asked if I'd be up for transcribing some of the Collective's findings. I couldn't help myself, of course, and ended up transcribing a whole range of different stories and songs that the Collective recorded when visiting Hampshire Gypsy singer, Freda Black. It was quite tough at times, writing each and every word without seeing the singer in action, but it was absolutely gorgeous hearing these songs, the majority of which I didn't know, fall from the lips of such a lovely singer.

I was enthralled in no time at all, and I've since been listening to more recordings in order to put together short biographies of the singers which will be uploaded to the new SCC website, set to go live next month. I've had a sneak peek of the site and it's going to be fascinating, such a resource - especially for people so new to the subject, like me.

 

The proof is in the...

I've always enjoyed proofreading. I know that is possibly the geekiest thing in the world to say, but I suppose it's how mathematicians feel: they like having a problem, and finding a way to solve it. Sometimes it can cause controversy, or sometimes it involves looking up different rules or following a different school of thought, but in the end, it needs to be resolved. And there's nothing more enjoyable than finding a sentence that doesn't read quite right, or has peculiar punctuation, and working out how best to get it to flow.

But I've been enjoyed a particular proofreading task of late. I've been introduced to a woman who is currently studying social work in Liverpool. English is not her native language - though she's not far off, in terms of fluency - and she's found that her essay marks haven't been as good as they could be as she's finding it difficult to be fully understood. I've been proofreading her work - essays, literature reviews, dissertation - and it's been absolutely fascinating, not just because of the subject matter  but also because of the ways in which she constructs her sentences. The vast majority of the time, her written language makes perfect sense; it's just that she spins her sentences the 'long way round', so my job is probably more in the editing field, actually. The thing I've got to be really careful with, though, is not to change any sentiment or to second guess - after all, this is her work, and she has the work experience and the theoretical knowledge.

What I'm finding difficult is explaining why something isn't quite right - it's never wrong; it's just it could be slightly better, concise, more fluid. Like many of my generation, I wasn't taught the construction of a sentence (which is probably a good thing, as I can't imagine anything more boring!) and although I know what a verb, noun and adjective is, that's about it. Instead, I think I've just picked up my knowledge from reading widely and from a young age, and then the proofreading course I took a few years ago just compounded and extended my knowledge (I didn't know publisher proofing marks, for example). I guess with any language learning, though, you just pick it up as you go along: as you use it, abuse it, and get corrected. Anyway, she's doing fantastically well - how she can discuss the complex theory she does in another language (and another alphabet!) is absolutely mind-blowingly amazing.

A whole year.

In little under an hour, my first book, Wayward Daughter, is a year old. It's been such a great year, one that has whizzed by unrecognisably. I've had so much support and interest from so many people: friends, family, colleagues, folk fans, other musicians... I've had emails from happy readers, and some excellent reviews from magazines, newspapers and blogs. I'm utterly delighted, all in all. So thank you.

Extra gushing thanks to Soundcheck Books who have always been so supportive and generous with their time and patience (I like to email, truth be told!) over the past year. I know we'll always be firm friends.

And I've written a new chapter about what 2012 held in store for Eliza, and this will be available in the e-book version which will be released to coincide with Eliza's new retrospective, two-disc album, also called Wayward Daughter. Make sure you get your hands on an autographed CD from Proper.

Inspirational Woman Wednesday: Lily Greenwood

I’m not sure how I first met Liz Evans, artistically known as Lily Greenwood. Like many people I know in Manchester, our initial introductions are long forgotten. But I’ve always been a fan of her gorgeous canvases which hang in her studio in the Craft and Design Centre, and as soon as Chris and I moved in together, we wasted no time in skipping along to purchase one of them. Her red butterfly canvas now adorns the wall of our living room and we know we will take it with us wherever we go.

As another highly inspirational woman, I thought I’d be cheeky and ask her how she began making art and what lies ahead in the future.

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So how did your interest in art begin? Was it something your parents do and so seemed a natural path to follow?

My mum is very artistic, a really good photographer amongst other things, but never followed that route work-wise and perhaps wishes she had pursued it more, so my parents were always very encouraging about me following what I wanted to do, as opposed to what I ‘should’ do, whatever that means. My dad isn’t artistic in a traditional sense, but is a ‘maker’ and creative when it comes to the technical side of things. He and my mum have now been self-employed for a number of years making bagpipes.

During school, I always hated that moment when teachers would go around the room asking what children’s parents did for a living – which seems an odd thing for teachers to do, but they did. I was quite shy anyway and just knew the mention of the word ‘bagpipe’ would encourage a barrage of questioning! It would also make me cringe if a friend called to the house only to hear the strangled cat noises in the background of my Dad testing and tuning a set. These days I don’t know why I was so embarrassed (teenagers eh!) and have real admiration for the workmanship involved. I also saw how tough it was to build up a business (alongside other jobs for a number of years), but saw how much they appreciated being their own boss and following their interests, so that obviously rubbed off on me – and more than that, showed me that it was possible.

I’m not sure I can say when an interest in art began - as clich├ęd as it sounds it feels like I always was, and I was always happiest when making, drawing, painting, and so on. Through school it was art classes I looked forward to, and in earlier school years I couldn't wait to be working alongside people who wanted to be there as much as me ('doss' lesson for many!). I viewed any hard work I put into other subjects as 'back ups' and supporting roles to the main aim of doing art.

From the work of yours I know best – I have one canvas hanging in my living room! – you seem to favour paint and collage. Has this always been the case? Have you other artistic skills (i.e. ceramics, photograph, drawing) that you haven’t shown off to the world just yet?

I always struggled to pin down which element of art to focus on, and avoided making any decisions until the decisions were practically made for me. Degrees are usually designed for specialising, however I picked a degree course which allowed freedom to move between different arts practises, and used the time to try and work out what suited best. I experimented with film work with a friend but I wasn't a natural. I ended up focusing on children's book illustration, which I loved doing. After graduation I would have liked to pursue it further, but was determined to try to pay my rent and bills through creative activities, and book projects can take a long time, and may never come to anything financially. Nobody wants their creative activities to be ruled by money, but to me thinking about the money and business side was an enabler, to make sure I was doing something creative all week (eventually, hopefully). Painting fit the bill better than children's books in that sense, and I'd always loved doing it (just as much as the children's books) - so that's how I ended up focusing on it. At all costs I wanted to avoid going for a non-creative job to pay my bills then being too afraid to leave it.

I've been painting professionally for seven years now and feel I have a truer understanding of the term 'practising artist' - I'm constantly practising the painting and collage techniques I use, and so they slowly evolve and develop over time. It takes that practise time to become proficient in anything (as with your violin playing for example) so I'd never presume to be proficient in another discipline without those hours put into the practise.

Did you have a formal art education? If so, did it live up to expectations, challenging you to work in other mediums or inspiring you to try different techniques? 

On paper I very much had a formal art education, following the route of A-levels, Foundation diploma (in Cumbria), and BA degree course (in Manchester). 'Formal' to me seems misleading though! I found every stage of my art education very loosely structured to the point where work and briefs were almost never set, and I was never 'taught' materials, techniques or processes in a traditional sense, with the emphasis very much on experimentation and self-driven work. It would have been very easy to drift. At the time it did make me wonder what I was paying all that money for, but in hindsight I think it did benefit me greatly in the long run. By the end of my degree I was so used to getting on with my work and setting my own projects that the transition from degree level to 'real life' was relatively easy – I just carried on with what I was already working on. It probably also helped me to use materials however felt right to me rather than being taught what other people do.

As I mentioned earlier I purposefully selected a course which allowed freedom between artistic disciplines, so the subject matter and mediums of my coursemates were very eclectic. That probably did help me expand my ideas about what was or wasn't possible. I really appreciated that – again it was more like the 'real' world.

Who have been your artistic influences? Have you had a teacher that has been particularly inspiring?

I had a lovely teacher at school, Mrs Dodd. She was very encouraging and positive, along with a healthy amount of constructive criticism. Looking back at some of the things I did she must have seen it all before, but she was usually enthusiastic nonetheless. My tutors at foundation and degree level were generally very good too. One thing which stayed with me was a particular tutorial when I was stressing about feeling that I had too much to do and too little time - even though it was work I had imposed on myself. My tutor looked very thoughtful for a while and simply said to me 'you have all the hours in the day'. On the surface this is not new information, but somehow it made me feel better, and at busy times I sometimes find I'm saying the same sentence to myself in my head.

Much of your work seems to be influenced by the natural world. Why is this, do you think? Have you ever fancied tackling the human form, so to speak?

I grew up mainly in the countryside and my parents are both very interested in nature so again it has been somewhat passed on from them. My brother was also very interested in nature and I remember his bedroom when younger being full of bits of rock or fossils he'd found and wildlife posters on the walls. It seems quite logical to integrate personal interests as subject matter in artwork so in simple terms you could say that's all there was to it. Looking back it seems that I really focussed on the natural world as subject matter after moving to the bright lights of Manchester – so perhaps it was my way of bringing the countryside with me. Perhaps if I had remained in Cumbria I'd be doing paintings of the urban landscape and businessmen – who knows?!

Those who know my work often associate me particularly with butterflies, which have been consistent subject matter for me since graduation. Looking at the number of butterfly canvases in my studio at any one time, you might not believe me when I say I was never obsessed with butterflies, and weirdly I still don't feel like I am. Don't get me wrong, I do love them (and certainly wouldn't still be doing them if I didn't) – but to me they were originally chosen as subject matter as a vehicle for playing with colour. The butterfly world is so rich with colour, it gives me huge scope for playing with different palettes and combinations, and I'm still playing!

As I mentioned, the techniques and processes I use for my paintings have very gradually changed over a number of years as I have done more and more, and I think it helped me that the subject matter stayed pretty much constant in that time, a thread through the work. Now that I feel quite comfortable with the techniques and processes I use, I feel like I'm ready for that to stay more constant as I apply it to new subject matters – though I'll still be doing the butterfly work alongside any new experiments. Whereas once upon a time it might have been the butterflies which marked out a work as done by me, I feel like the technique/process I use is perhaps now recognisable and individual enough itself to mark out a piece as done by me, whatever subject matter I choose. (That remains to be put to the test!).

I think there is another aspect to leaning towards nature and particularly butterflies in my work, which is slightly more philosophical. I like the aims/purposes for my paintings to be simple, and that ultimately boils down to me wanting to create work which I enjoy making and which hopefully other people can take enjoyment from in viewing. There is something simple and honest in the butterflies which people seem to connect to and find happiness in. I always feel disappointed if people feel that they are somehow not qualified to enjoy or understand artwork, or have been put off by wordy explanations of pieces in galleries which in many cases can sound very intellectual but be fairly meaningless. Occasionally I get people who come to my studio to look at canvases and say 'they just make you happy' or 'they've put a smile on my face' – which really is all I want to achieve. (Cheesy but true!) I'm aware that nature in the raw is not all pretty butterflies and I'd never claim to be portraying the gritty reality of the natural world. I think of it more as picking out elements of beauty in nature and then running with it and seeing where I end up.

I saw a short video clip about Grayson Perry recently and what he said certainly resonated with me. “I think there is a desperation with people with art, they look at art and they find it very hard to just enjoy it, they have to interpret it, and understand it. They don't just ask themselves 'do I think it's beautiful?' - I think there should be more of that.”

You’re a full time artist. Is this something you’ve always aimed for? Was it a hard slog getting to this point or have you had luck on your side? Were there ever any moments when you were petrified about whether you could take the plunge?

I think I touched on this in an earlier question – I wasn't always sure I wanted to be an artist in the traditional sense but I knew pretty soon after graduating that I wanted to do something creative full time, preferably self-employed. As I was used to being fairly poor it seemed completely logical to try and make a living from painting, illustrating, or similar at that point – the only way is up! My reasoning was that if I didn't try then, when else would I. At that point I could have looked for some kind of full time non-creative job with a more comfortable wage than I was used to, but I knew I'd potentially get used to that income and be afraid to leave. In that sense I never 'took the plunge' – I was just used to having no money and ever so slightly made more of a living from my work as each year passed. I'm very thankful that the 'normal' job is still plan B and that plan A still seems to have legs!

Although I feel lucky to be able to paint for a living the luck has been fuelled by hard work – I've always been glad to work hard on something I enjoy so much. I never had handouts although my family would have tried to help if I had asked. I worked part time in the Whitworth Gallery alongside the painting for the first few years, which helped cover my rent while I was making next to nothing from my own work. Leaving that safety net was a little scary but it was a measured risk and fortunately I'm still painting!

How did you arrive at the name Lily Greenwood?

My real name is Liz Evans, however after graduation it became apparent that there was an author with the same name, who seemed prominent in google searches. My partner's mum suggested I choose a name based on my family history as a pseudonym – a bit of fun, and also intended to help people find my artwork online. Greenwood was my great-grandmother's family name, and Lily was my grandma, which is how I arrived at Lily Greenwood. It can be a little confusing at times as I'm not good at just being 'Lily' and explain it to people quite a lot – but I'm sure it has helped people find my work and I do like having that constant reminder of my grandma. Though I'm really Liz I don't mind being called Lily – both mine and my grandma's names are a derivative of Elizabeth.

It's had a secondary use which didn't occur to me at the outset – that of self-promotion. Most artists I know aren't particularly comfortable marketing themselves and bigging themselves up, and I'm no different. To make my living from painting I do have to think about promotion to some extent though, and somehow it's much easier to promote Lily Greenwood than it would be to promote Liz Evans – that slight removal from myself oddly does help a little!

How did you go about setting up your studio at Manchester’s Craft and Design Centre?

After graduating I continued working a couple of days a week at the Whitworth Art Gallery, alongside developing my artwork at home and looking around at what options were available to me. I’d never heard of Manchester Craft & Design Centre during my time at university, but I discovered a studio was available a year after graduation (in 2006) and was excited at the prospect of setting up shop. Sisters Ruqqia and Alia Ullah also worked at the Whitworth at that time and were keen to share the space to work on textiles and embroideries.

I can’t say we really knew what we were doing but we went for it and got started. Since then I’ve shared the space in different ways, and currently run the space myself but also stock the work of Kathryn Edwards and Rachel Saunders in exchange for their time manning the studio a day each a week.

It’s been quite a learning curve but a great place to get going as a maker. I’m surrounded by lots of talented creative people who can empathise with trials, tribulations and triumphs. The fact that the studio is open to the public to come in and out while I work means that I get invaluable and instant feedback on my work every day – whether I want it or not! I’m very lucky the opportunity to move in came up at that time, to have the chance to give it a go. Something about having premises made painting full time a much more realistic prospect.

Alongside your studio, you also exhibit. I can’t imagine how this even works! How did exhibitions become a possibility for you?

It’s great to get work out there when I can in exhibitions, and it has been a case of making it up as I go along really, and trying to build on it year on year. It’s a mixture of me approaching places, and sometimes them approaching me. Last year I had a great experience exhibiting overseas for the first time, with two exhibitions in Barcelona and Amsterdam. Exhibitions can be very hit and miss from a financial viewpoint, but are great for meeting interesting people and reaching new audiences, and usually fun, too. This year I’m holding back on exhibiting to invest the time in revamping my website, to have better provision for customers buying my work online. It’s a work in progress, but getting there. Next year I hope to look for new exhibition and gallery opportunities – who knows where!

When I saw you last, you mentioned you were spending more time on extending your repertoire and thinking about your next phase of work – your next collection. Can you give us a bit of a clue as to what this might be?

As I think I mentioned earlier the thread of using butterflies through my work has been a constant while gradually developing techniques, and I feel as though it would be nice now to experiment with subject matter a little more. I’ve made a start on some work featuring Koi Carp fish which is only in early stages. I’d also like to work more on larger scale canvases. Also I’d love to try applying my painting techniques to a children’s book! Basically the ‘want to do’ list is long and I have to try and accept that I can’t do everything at once!

Of late

Just a quick update: my feature on the gorgeously-voiced, Rioghnach Connolly, who I'm proud to say lives in Manchester, is in the latest (May) issue of fRoots magazine. The cover looks like this:

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And I'm just writing up a feature on Derby's very own Lucy Ward for EDS magazine. She's been taking part in a very interesting project... but you'll have to read the piece to find out more ;) Ah-ha! Cunning! (Don't you cheat and read her blog...)

This Saturday, I'm also heading over to the house of fantastic fiddler, Sam Sweeney, who you probably know best from Bellowhead, to interview him for a forthcoming piece in FiddleOn. I think this trip, being a Saturday afternoon and all, calls for me to get my bake on...

Finally, I've been doing some regular proofreading which I'm really enjoying. One of my closest friends, who you may see in a forthcoming installment of Inspirational Woman Wednesday (not that she knows this yet), is currently studying social work and one of her course colleagues - also a highly inspirational woman - is studying in English despite Arabic being her native tongue. Her English is absolutely fantastic, but I check through it just in case... and it's been absolutely fascinating for me. Not just to understand the difficulties and anomalies of the English language from someone who doesn't have it as their first language, but also to get a real insight into the practice of social work. I've had my eyes opened!

 

Ordinary people in ordinary places

I read stacks and stacks of books as a child and teenager. I only began to read adult fiction because I had reluctantly read the entire 8-12 and young adult section in my small town library. Much of what I read was horse-orientated, like The Saddle Club series which kept me going for years (I'm freaked out they look so young in this TV series - they used to seem so grown up to me!), and practically all of it was American. As it was ordinary people in ordinary places I wanted to read about, it was bildungsroman and so-called 'issues books' that I was drawn to.

My favourite was Judy Blume - I still have my hardback copy of Just As Long As We're Together which I bought from the library as it was too old and battered to be lent out any more - but I also lapped up The Babysitters Club and even a bit of Point Romance (though it all became a bit sappy for my liking). Then I discovered Melvin Burgess and suddenly it clicked: I could read about real teenagers doing real things - falling out with their friends, breaking up with boyfriends, taking drugs - and they could be British, too. And the best thing about Melvin Burgess? He took it further, he was edgy. Kids in his books seemed wildly different to The Babysitters Club's Claudia Kishi and her 'almond shaped eyes': they had guts and unpleasant situations to deal with, situations that could easily befall anyone. There was no talk of homeroom and cheerleading, and I was entranced. (Later, at university, our creative writing society invited Melvin, then a Manchester resident, in for a question and answer session which, as you can imagine, was wildly fascinating)

It was around the time of my Melvin Burgess discovery that I also became interested in subcultures. I had begun listening to music that few of my friends cared for, and I became politically aware. I wore my vegetarianism as a badge. I began to understand that you could live in a van, if you wanted to; that you didn't have to get an office job if you chose; that the clothes on the high street weren't the only option; that Radio 1 wasn't necessarily the place to find all your music choices. I was fascinated, but I couldn't find any novels to indulge my interest further - well, not stocked in the local library or bookshop, anyway. That was when Annie Asher first appeared in my mind, and I wrote the first draft of Kindred Spirit. Well, first draft is a misnomer: I strung 30,000 words together in longhand.

I imagine that many young emos, goths, punks, metallers, hippies, etc, are also speculative fiction fans. This is a massive presumption, I realise, and I'm only going on the slim evidence of the kinds of kids I used to serve back  in my days of bookselling at Ottakars and Waterstone's: sci-fi, fantasy; dark covers with exotic-named authors and shelves heaving with their sheer number; boys with jet black hair, lip piercings and hoodies; girls with purple lipstick, eyes engulfed in thick eyeliner, knee-high boots.

But there are also going to be a large proportion of these kids who aren't fantasy nuts, but for whom novels set in the mainstream - female characters burdened by their shopping habits, footballing boys in shades and fancy trainers - aren't going to cut it. They wouldn't dream of turning on X Factor, and their reading material should match.

I hope it is these readers who will be captivated by Annie Asher and her chance encounter with Chantrea. Annie's quite a driven character, motivated by her principles, her outlook, so I'm really enjoying writing my current novel where the central character is despondent, disillusioned and confused. I've also got two other subculture novels coming together in my head, one of which is particularly topical given the announcement that Greater Manchester police will now record attacks and assaults on people from subcultures in the same way that they do for race, religion, gender, etc. I'm hoping that this will give me the excuse to go and chat to the kids who hang out at Cathedral Gardens on a Saturday afternoon - though I know that as soon as I open my mouth, I'm just going to sound so old.

Writing about the same world but from a different angle

I've started work on my new novel which inhabits the same world, albeit at a slightly different time, as my last, Kindred Spirit.

This time I'm writing in third person because I think it'll suit the plot arc better - it'll give me more distance and time, as I anticipate this story will need a slower, more contemplative feel. My central character is completely different to Annie in Kindred Spirit - she might be female, at a similar point in her life, of a similar socioeconomic background, but she's quieter, more insular, at times a little sullen. Oh, and she suffers from epilepsy, too, so the research to get that right is underway.

This character had a minor role in Kindred Spirit, and I don't think we got to know her too well because she's more introverted than her compatriots (true to life, hey?) so I'm enjoying exploring her more. So far, so good.

But what I'm worrying about - before even getting to that point in the story, of course - is when she meets one of the more dynamic characters we already know from KS. Though they will be in a different country, a different climate, a completely different scenario, a similar pattern will emerge as in KS - after all this is Kim's story about her involvement with Chantrea. And I'm concerned that for a reader who has already digested KS, this will seem predictable, too similar.

I suppose the key is to ensure that Kim's voice remains different: that she never reverts to Annie's psychobabble but continues to calmly, almost cynically, weigh up the characters and the settings around her, even in third person, so it feels unique and gripping. After all, plenty of stories have the same action - so many YA stories encounter pregnancy, parental divorce, drugs, bullying, paranormal events, etc - but it's just the characters who tell them and the environs that carry them which make all the difference. Wish me luck!

Inspirational Woman Wednesday: Sonya Moorhead

I first met Sonya Moorhead when I volunteered at the much-missed social centre, The Basement, in Manchester. We instantly became friends through music, as she invited me round to have a jam with her and her lovely-half, Will Lenton. Over the years, she and Will have been like surrogate parents, ferrying me round to gigs and feeding me up before rehearsals. Now that they've become parents themselves, I just hope I can return the favours in the years to come.

Sonya (or Boo as she is known) has always remained an inspiration to me: she never lets worries about trivial things such as money and jobs get in the way of her ambitions to make theatre in unusual places. She started her theatre company, Canopy, a few years ago now and I thought I'd use the opportunity of Inspirational Woman Wednesday to find out more.

So how did you get into acting? Was it a child thing whereby you went to drama groups and started getting parts in cheesy musicals, dreaming of going to stage school? What made you want to take it seriously?
Not at all; I used to try out for school plays but I was useless, I was always third snowflake from the left. Never Mary!  I had a fantastic anarchic English teacher at secondary school though and she gave me a love of poetry and theatre literature and was very encouraging of my writing.  She entered my poems into competitions.  She also provided opportunities for me to read things out in class which was huge for me, because I’m dyslexic I’d loathed reading out prior to that. I guess that was the bug, a little bit of showing off and special attention. Plus I always loved dancing and movement.  I went to a lot of dance classes and workshops in my teens. Again, I was pretty bobbins at it but there was a real desire to get better and I just enjoyed it so much.

Why did you choose to study acting, and why cross the sea to MMU?
MMU was the only university out of the six I put on my UCAS form that would interview me. Everyone else looked at my predicted grades for A levels and said ‘no chance, love’. I knew I wanted to leave Northern Ireland, it just felt like I was ready to go and see how other people did things. Northern Ireland is beautiful but a bit rigid. People are very clear about who they are and what they do and I just didn’t know what I was or what I wanted to do so I left and went on a mission to find out.

What was the best thing about your course? Did you have any life-changing moments whilst studying, tips and lessons that will last with you forever?
If I could do it all again I’d wait until I was older to study at university. I didn’t really understand what was available to me at MMU. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing there or what I was trying to achieve so I asked all the wrong questions and used my time up doing all the wrong things. I could have got so much more out of that time. But you live and learn. It brought me to Manchester and that was the beginning of everything.

Your sisters have chosen theatrical paths in life, too. Was the theatre a big thing at home? Is your mum a theatre-goer?
My mum does like going out and seeing a good show, and we did see things when we were kids; we went to stuff at Belfast Arts Festival every year. My mum was very conscientious about supporting that. We are all attracted to creating whether it’s with words or making stuff.

So when did you decide that acting wasn't enough and you wanted to actively make theatre, too? Had you always written your own plays?
No, I never really wrote plays. I never thought, ‘I’m going to be a playwright’.  Truth being told, I get bored very easily and I didn’t get any acting work after I left university; I put my hands up to that, too, I’m rubbish at auditions as I get really nervous.

But I did get into street theatre and made more and more outdoor shows with bigger, more experienced companies and just loved it. I saw people making a living and having fun at the same time. I met really talented people with incredibly diverse skills. Most importantly, they weren’t precious; they were willing to share their knowledge and guided me into the wonderful world of outdoor arts. I do everything now: writing, singing, acting, fundraising, production management, arts admin. So no chance of getting bored at all.

You're not enamoured with the typical theatre space and you want to take your shows out into the wild. Why is this? Is the theatre boring and stuffy, in your opinion?
Indoor theatre has its purpose, but its very privileged. Theatre makers can completely control the environment and people pay to sit in the dark. Then the more you pay, the better the experience is for you because you get to sit closer to the action.

I love being outdoors because you can’t control the environment and often people who would never go to the theatre, who would never pay for a ticket, interact with performances, participate in performances and have a much more profound experience. I think celebrations and communality has faded away, out of our society. People aren’t religious and families are dispersed all over the world. I love it when people congress, come together outdoors for the pure pleasure of seeing something, being entertained. I particularly love the idea that people could do this in wild places and add to the experience with fresh air and food in a really beautiful location. What could be better for the soul?

Tell me about the orchard. You've been saving since you were small, haven't you? Why an orchard?
I love orchards. They are humans’ way of organising chaos. So silly looking: orderly queues of trees, but functional and beautiful at the same time. I have socked money away for the day I might buy a plot of land and plant some trees, but we are a long way off that, I think.

So when did you set up your company? What are your aims and what is your mission?
I set Canopy up in 2010.  I wanted to make really fun shows and community events and have somewhere to aim my creative output while my family is growing. The vision has got more and more ambitious. As well as sending out street theatre acts to festivals, I’m making landscape theatre in the area I live and taking on commissions from festivals further afield. The plan is to bring the fantastic artists I know from years of freelancing together to make brilliant theatrical experiences.

Obviously, it's a precarious time to find work and start companies - especially in the arts. Do you have 'oh god' moments? What keeps you strong?
Starting up as a new company, you can feel like you’re haemorrhaging money. I can’t work freelance a lot at the moment because I’ve got small children but I can spend my free time making my own shows, researching, making stuff, networking and getting Canopy’s profile up and out there. You don’t go in for a career in the arts to make money. But I am as savvy as I can be about cashflow and maximise opportunities. We’re lucky, we work very hard at something we love and just about make a living. And have a very happy life.

I do believe the arts as a whole needs to look at its financial viability and work on ways to be sustainable as an industry; one that isn’t wholly dependent upon funding and benefactors.  It provides huge revenue for this country in the form of recreation and tourism and has a role to play in health and education.  Now, during the dark days, is a brilliant time to think about restructuring and fighting our corner.

Your work is community focused and you've performed and written pieces directly for your neighbours in your village. Why is this important to you?
I live in an odd little village, an ‘in-between-places’ place, but I believe where there are people, there is an audience. The people in my village are as valid critics as any theatre-going city audience. I really don’t want to be the blow-in who goes out of the area for work and doesn’t add anything to the community.

From doing community events, I’ve met brilliant people and it’s so lovely knowing my neighbours. It’s very easy in modern life to become isolated and that’s not healthy, it’s not natural. I have huge support from the people around me which can makes all the difference when the chips are down. I want my village to be the best place for my family to live but to get that, you have to show willing and put in a bit of leg work.

I’d also like to be part of the revolution of bringing world-class theatre practitioners to unlikely audiences. Not everyone can go to the Big Smoke to get their culture fix. What would it mean to people in Yorkshire, the UK’s biggest county, to have the likes of Royale Delux turn up in Halifax, rather than London or Liverpool?

Tell me about 'walkabout' theatre, strolling performers and performances. Why is this medium appealing to you?
It’s a hoot. That’s why I like it. You go out on the street, or wherever, in character and play with an unsuspecting public. People don’t pay to see it but you can make someone’s day. I like to make detailed work, characters that have lots of dimensions to them and complex life stories; real humanity that people identify and sympathise with. I’ve had some of the best performance experience doing walk about.

What does 2013 look like for you and Canopy?
There’s a very exciting plan in the pipeline. We’re talking with City of London Festival (COLF) about a commissioned theatre piece to accompany COLF’s 2013 mobile orchard. The story will parody the banking crisis and is based on a myth about the Roman Goddess, Pomona; she’s the goddess of orchards.
I’m also working with a brilliant and passionate outdoor play facilitator. Between us we’re running a series of wild play workshops in and around our village for local children. The aim is guerrilla play, encouraging them to reclaim wild and public spaces for play. The strolling shows are also gigging out and about on the festival circuit this summer.  So, if it all goes off, we’ll be busy enough.

What are your ultimate ambitions? When will you realise them?
Oh my god, the vision is so clear but so far off I can’t even go there. A field full of fruit trees, glasshouses full of food, a team of brilliant, fun people, making joyful celebrations and beautiful uplifting art, touring the world and sharing our work abroad, a happy family, plenty of parties and music, time to eat good food, lots of silliness, a few guardian 5 star reviews… a life’s work in progress.

Check out one of Sonya's intrepid pieces of theatres, made for the residents of Cornholme, West Yorkshire:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/HvcA8MmODAg]

Inspirational Woman Wednesday: Elly Lucas

Elly Lucas' shots have been catching my attention a fair bit recently - OK, so her work features on the covers and inlays of most of my listening material of late so it's been hard to ignore, but I've been attracted to her style. I'm not a visual beast and I know very, very little about photography, but there's something about her shots which seem elegant and old-school without looking like they're trying too hard. Colours are muted and models are pale and interesting, locations are often wild or ageing. I was intrigued and I hoped that Elly wouldn't mind my visual ignorance when I asked her a few questions...

So, firstly, your photography – when did you start taking photos? Are you self-taught or did you study at an institution? What kind of photographers and photographs caught your eye when you were learning?

I suppose I first started taking photos with a more serious mind whilst studying GCSE art. I'd always quite enjoyed taking snaps prior to that, but it was the artistic focus that really sparked off an interest. I was always determined to create my own source material to work from but, as the course went on, it became apparent that there might perhaps have been a few more photos than actual physical artwork... After that, I started taking portraits of friends and local models and absorbed every magazine tutorial I could get my hands on. I guess I've just never stopped since then! I'm self-taught but endlessly inspired by the work of other photographers, especially those similar to my own age (e.g. Lara Jade, Joey L, Cat Lane, Kyle Thompson & Julia Trotti).

I know very little about photography, but your photography is certainly very striking and so obviously yours – whether it’s a fashion shot or a music promo, you can tell it’s captured by you. Is it a case of making a decision early on to emulate or find a particular style? Or is it the equipment you use, or your treatment of your shots afterwards?

Thank you very much! I think I'd say it's mostly down to the kit I use and the treatment given to the images in post-production. I'm always very keen to ensure that the styling is how I want it before photographing too, which I hope shows through.

I know that you’re a musician, too (more on that later), but you seem to have become folk’s first photographer. How did this happen? Were you a folk music fan prior to these commissions?

You know, I'm not really sure, but I'm delighted that it seems that way! I was definitely a folk fan prior to working on the scene, growing up on a musical diet of Wolfstone and Capercaillie (and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but we'll skate over that for now) before finding my own favourites later on. The lovely Lucy Ward was one of my early folk commissions and it's all spiralled on delightfully from there!

There was a time when folk musicians didn’t seem to take their album covers and promo shots very seriously. In fact, there was a time when folk music album covers were pretty awful full stop: awkward-looking people in awkward scenarios. Why do you think there’s been a change in recent years?

I think there's been a gentle but steady change in peoples' attitude towards music in all genres. More than ever, in an internet enabled world where musical competition is higher than it has ever been, you have to sell yourself as well as your music. Not only that, but in today's industry where physical media is at risk of becoming defunct, if you want someone to buy your CD then they're significantly more likely to if it actually looks good. I've previously been known to buy albums at stalls just because I like the artwork. Admittedly I am a magpie when it comes to aesthetics, but you get the idea!

Do the musicians who commission you usually have an idea in mind? Or do they come to you for artistic direction, too?

I get a bit of both. Some people have a rough idea of what they want, some people know almost exactly what they want but need some guidance on how to make it feasible, and some people just let me go totally AWOL. Happy days.

Do you have a favourite music promo shoot? An album cover you’re most proud of?

Ooh, difficult. I've been incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant range of people on a variety of bonkers shoots! I think my two favourite promo shoots would have to be the cake and party popper fuelled event that was Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray's tour promo (I got given jelly and everything!) and the powder paint/confetti/finger paint/streamers mess that constituted Cupola:Ward's session. I realise there's possibly a bit of a theme there... As for my favourite album cover, I was very pleased with how strikingly Blair Dunlop's Blight & Blossom image came out.

I must admit that I have no interest in fashion whatsoever. The idea of shopping horrifies me, and I always skip the fashion pages in a magazine or newspaper I’m reading. I’m guessing, however, that you are a fashion fan – not only are you always immaculately turned out, but you must regularly work with models, stylists, make-up artists. What excites you about fashion? Why am I wrong to lazily dismiss fashion?

You're far too kind. Immaculately turned out very definitely only applies to appearing in public, it's woolly jumpers and slippers all the way if I've got editing / admin to do! I guess I am fascinated by the fashion world, but I think that's down to being fascinated by all elements of aesthetics. So often people underestimate the importance of styling a photoshoot, of good hair and make-up (even if it's very subtle), of choosing outfits which work with your location, the props or the other subjects. The exciting part is watching your vision come together and working out how to tweak it to make the most instant visual impact. First impressions are important, particularly in the likes of printed media. What you shoot on the day is what you've got to work with (with a certain amount of leeway in the edit), so it's a good idea to know stylistically what you're doing and get it right!

On to your music… when did you start playing the fiddle? Did you take classical lessons and then discover other styles as you progressed? Or did they happen in hand in hand?

I started playing the fiddle when I was in Year 4 at primary school, so I would have been about eight years old. My Mum, who plays classically, used to play the Captain Pugwash theme tune to my sister and I. Henceforth I was absolutely determined that one day I'd be able to play it too. I was classically trained for five years but found myself totally disenchanted by the limitations of having play everything exactly as it was written, much preferring to learn tunes by ear off albums by the likes of Duncan Chisholm or Eileen Ivers. Thankfully my teacher at the time noticed this and handed me over to a fantastic local fiddle player, Sarah Matthews, who totally restored my love for the instrument and steered me towards the wonderful Folkworks Summer School. My adoration for the genre has continued to grow ever since!

Who are your violin heroes?

To name but a few: Nancy Kerr, Eliza Carthy, Jaime RT & Duncan Chisholm.

Have you always sung, too?

Always. I'm mildly concerned that my Dad still has a recording of me, aged two-ish, singing 'twinkle twinkle little bat' somewhere...

When and how did you meet David Gibb? Am I right in thinking you joined his band first, before the two of you became a duo?

I was part of David's touring band for about two and a bit years before we started doing the duo stuff. We met when I responded to a casting he put out for a fiddle player on (don't laugh) MySpace. You know, when it was actually still useful. Poor MySpace.

I know that David’s a songwriter – are you, too? How do you select and arrange the material you’ll work on?

I am, yes. We generally have quite different writing styles; David writes a killer pop song and I'm more a fan of arty alt lyrics – but every now and again we write something which suits both of us and that gets used for the duo. David's also very good at finding old rhymes and poems and putting them to music, and sometimes we'll sit down and adapt a story to make it our own.

Does your photography work nicely complement your music, or is there a bit of juggling to be done?

Generally, it works remarkably well. Chatting to the lovely people on the folk scene tends to result in useful contacts for both the photography and music, so that's always nice! The only time it becomes more problematic is during the time that it's simultaneously wedding and festival season, but there are ways round that (people don't usually get married on Friday / Sunday / Monday, thankfully!)

What does 2013 look like to you? What will you hope to achieve with both your photography and your music this year? Any new projects on the horizon?

This year I'm hoping to 1) Shoot more personal creative work with the aim of submitting to more magazines. 2) Continue to photograph lots of exciting musicians! 3) Actually remember to blog more often and 4) Release the second duo album with a big hurrah! (Theoretically in late August / early September.)

I've also been working on a project with the wonderful Jo Freya, entitled The Food & Folk Book, so hopefully we'll get a bit more done on that too. I might actually go on holiday this year as well. This feels like a pretty radical option.

 And two more general ones to finish off with…

If you could shoot any person (living or dead) or place anywhere in the world, with money no object, who or what would it be?

Argh, don't make me choose! Hmm, I'd really love to shoot some real 'characters', so that'd make my (photographic) hit-list something like: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Ian McKellen... There are plenty of impossibly beautiful people I'd love to photograph too, but listing them would take all day.

As for places, I'd love to explore New Zealand or the Amazon rainforest – the kind of places I dreamed about going to as a kid. I've always adored nature and the wild, so both of those options appeal to me hugely.

Who is your influential-woman-Wednesday? Who is your ultimate heroine?

I admire a lot of people, so there's no one particular individual I can pick out. I've grown up in a family of very strong women. My Grandma, for example, was a professor of chemistry; my Gran, a bit of an activist, spent endless hours helping at a refugee centre; my great Gran was a doctor in the war and my Mum – well – she probably deserves a medal.

On a star level, I've got a lot of time for Scarlett Johansson: another strong woman with brains, style and an apparently very level head. Oh, and did you see her avec catsuit and arse-kicking in Avengers Assemble? WHOA.

Introducing... Inspirational Woman Wednesday

Interviewing is one of my most favourite things in the world: getting to ask pertinent, nosy questions of people you might well admire (OK, totally adore...) and then writing it up afterwards is a pure joy. But I find myself wanting to ask questions of people I know very little about - perhaps they work in a field of which I know absolutely nothing - and this always makes me nervous, like the interviewee would laugh in my face for asking such desperately obvious questions.

So I thought in 2013, I'd set myself a bit of a task: to interview women who seem to have really exciting, fascinating lives or jobs or hobbies, and stick it up on my blog. The interviews needn't be life changing or asking the big questions to reveal all to the reader - I just want to ask people whatever comes in to my head just so I can learn a little more about them. So welcome to Inspirational Woman Wednesday, where I will sporadically put a question-and-answer type of interview (because I rarely do those) up on a Wednesday (just because of alliteration). It might be every Wednesday, it might be bi-monthly Wednesdays. It'll be whatever it will be.

Sadly, though, the first ever Inspirational Woman Wednesday is going to be a memorial, a tribute. I didn't think I'd be having to do that so early on. But I've just this week found out that my friend and correspondent died on Boxing Day. I always feared that I wouldn't find out if she had died because I didn't know her two nephews and she had no other family, and unfortunately, this was the case. As I didn't receive a Christmas card - most unusual for her - I tried to call. When the line went dead, I feared the worst and put her name into Google. An obituary came up both in the local newspaper and the organisation for which she was a trustee. I then spent the afternoon rereading the letters she'd sent me since I moved up here in 2003.

It's easy to call someone inspirational and legendary once they've died and you've had time to reflect on their past. But I found her inspirational when she was alive, too. I think I'd even told her that. I'd met her aged 17 when the war with Iraq had broken out. My sleepy old town where not a lot happened had even noticed it, and a pocket of people formed Banbury People for Peace. I was amazed, overjoyed, and went along to the first meeting. Liz was sat quietly in the corner, her short hair slicked back pragmatically. She was in her 70s then, but looked intensely older, the deep contours in her face insinuating a life time of travel and labour in the sun. We struck up a conversation and she knew who I was instantly - she'd been my family's health visitor when we were young - but she kept quiet as she didn't want to scare me off. It was only when I went home that my mum told me who she was.

After that, we saw each other semi-regularly at meetings and when I left for university, we kept in touch through letter writing, occasional phonecalls and visits. She even took me out for dinner once. She spoke in that very definite, old middle class way - much like Diana Athill - where lovely, posh old vowels clank together loudly and she said exactly what she felt. But she wasn't intimidating as a person, despite her fierce views, her knowledge and experience. In fact, she was eager to find out my political views whilst telling me hers - which were right on the money, as far as I was concerned. She was an ultimate defender of the people, as grand as that claim sounds. She'd gone to the controversial Dartington Hall, telling me tales of frequent nudity and her classmates were of note, like Lucian Freud, but she had then trained as a nurse before settling in Banbury as a health visitor.

Though I can't remember her skills as a health visitor, I can't imagine that she'd just turn up, write down her notes, recite her advice and leave. She would have shared experiences, made new parents feel at home and what they were doing was the right thing, signpost them to other professionals if needs be, a real lifeline to the nervous and sleep-deprived. I can also imagine her invincibly pragmatic, forthright.

Her caring and medical skills took her abroad, too, and she was a frequent, extensive traveller. I've got her typewritten notes from a time when she was in south Asia, she had a home in Spain that she aimed to share with families who couldn't afford holidays in the sun, she went backpacking round New Zealand and Africa when she was in her seventies and eighties. (No, not a typo - not the 1970s, 80s - when she was in her late seventies and early eighties!), she would regularly pepper her speech with 'when I was in China...', 'the weirdest fruit I ever encountered was in Jordan'... Oh, and when we're on the subject of amazing feats, she also went gliding and skydiving in her latter years, too, raising money for the scores of charities she supported. She was my only excited supporter when I decided to hitchhike to Morocco for charity - everyone else thought I'd be chopped into little pieces and left for the vultures. I should imagine the charities she supported will know her name well and will be saddened to learn of her death.

Then she was a governor at her local primary school. It wasn't because she had children and wanted to make sure the school was run well. She just wanted to be involved in providing the best for children and their families, she wanted to argue the ordinary person's corner. She probably did loads more things that I had no idea about, because she went about it discreetly. It wasn’t about her, it was about the doing. But she wasn't a saint, and she battled with depression. She was an extraordinary ordinary person herself.

I am unable to go to her funeral and I found out about her death two weeks after it happened. I hoped she had read the letter I had sent her in a Christmas card and I hope she won't mind me paying my respects this way. I think she will always be in my mind throughout my life, giving me courage to do the right thing even when it's more difficult or tiresome.