Even in the diverse and frequently inventive world of contemporary folk music, fiddle player and composer Jon Boden is considered a polymath. After forming a duo with concertina player John Spiers in 1999, Boden found international success with a new concept in folk: a rousing and raucous eleven-strong big band. That group was Bellowhead, who over a 12-year run released five albums and played countless festivals with all the oomph of a stadium rock band.

Since the group parted in 2016, Boden has released three solo records and launched his own folk club at Dungworth, on the border between Sheffield and the Peak District. He’s also scored productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC, released a song for 365 days in a row in 2010, made keynote speeches at folk conferences and reworked folk song arrangements by Benjamin Britten for the composer’s centenary in 2013.

I talked to Jon about the stark themes on his new album, Afterglow, whose cover art features spectacular shots of Sheffield’s cityscape.

How’s life after Bellowhead?

Well, I’m definitely missing the Bellowhead tours. It was such a privilege to be a part of that side of it – massive venues (in folk terms anyway), tour busses, lots of laughter, lots of booze – the whole deal. I loved it. But creatively it’s been very liberating to not be defined by Bellowhead anymore. I’m really proud of all the music I wrote for Bellowhead, and arranging traditional music will always be a big part of what I do, but I was itching to get back to songwriting and that was not something that was ever going to work in Bellowhead.

Both your recent album Afterglow and Songs From The Floodplain from a few years back explore a world after the apocalypse. What made you return to this theme?

I’m not actually interested in ‘the apocalypse’ per se, and I’m not even sure the albums are post-apocalyptic in the conventional, Mad Max sense. What I’m completely absorbed by is the idea that the lifestyles of our great-grandchildren might end up being more like the lifestyles of our great grandparents, either because we sort ourselves out and work out how to live sustainably, or because climate change forces that upon us.

It’s not a purely dystopian idea, nor is it purely utopian, but I am really drawn to the idea that life might become more simple and more communal. That said, Afterglow is actually just a little love story that happens to take place in a regressed, ‘post-oil’ future setting.

To me, Afterglow sounds very optimistic and upbeat throughout. Does this reflect your particular world view?

Well, it varies! I certainly think that we could all be as happy, if not happier, with less convenience and more real human or communal relationships. That makes me think there is a chance we could work out a way of existing sustainably and peacefully as a species. I think we’re a very long way off that though, and there’s also a pretty strong chance we’ll blow it and bring about the implosion of civilisation before we manage to evolve a more sustainable paradigm.

What role does folk culture have in creating this better world?

I think if we can find ways of being happy without consuming so much – in terms of physical consumption, but also consuming entertainment rather than participating – then we will find it easier to accept the changes in lifestyle necessary to our survival as a species. Folk culture is by definition how people kept themselves happy and occupied in the days before we started relying on ‘media’ to do it for us, so I certainly think the types of folk culture that have survived can help us rediscover that cultural self-reliance. But it is also an historical art form, so I think new folk cultures will emerge too that reflect the present day more directly.

What’s your connection to Sheffield?

Fay [Hield] and I moved here in 2005, first to Greystones and then to just outside of Stannington, so I’ve lived here 12 years now and I can’t see myself living anywhere else, really. Songs From The Floodplain is very much inspired by walking around the Loxley Valley and looking down over the city. Afterglow is about one night in the city itself. I’m really into abandoned and decaying factories and Sheffield has its fair share of those, although less now than ten years ago.

How do you set about writing a song and how does that translate into a full band arrangement?

I’m very lyric-driven as a songwriter, so often a song idea will come to me whilst I’m walking or driving or washing up, rather than when I’m playing an instrument. That said, there are a few songs on Afterglow that started with a riff, rather than a lyrical hook. I tend to come up with instrumental ideas when I’m supposed to be practising something else.

In terms of arrangements, I have become very used to arranging in a written form and taking more or less complete arrangements to rehearsal. That’s how Bellowhead worked and it’s how I worked for Afterglow. The only slight difference was that I worked out the bass and drums first, recorded them with Sam and Ben, with some development and changes in rehearsal, and then used those recordings as a basis for writing the strings and brass parts.

With Bellowhead I tended to write all the parts at the same time, which meant it was often quite dense and contrapuntal. Working in stages this time meant I managed to keep the textures a little sparser than Bellowhead, which meant there was more space for guitar overdubs and backing vocals.

What keeps you returning to the work of Benjamin Britten?

The gig at Aldeburgh [30 August at the Snape Proms] this time isn’t specifically Britten related, but I am a big fan of his. I’m not much of an opera buff, but Peter Grimes and his Midsummer Night’s Dream are two of my favourite pieces of music. I quite like his folk song settings too, though I’m less keen on how they’re sung mostly.

You’re heading out on a lengthy tour this year with The Remnant Kings. What can people expect?

We’ll be playing the album Afterglow in its entirety with the full ten-piece line up. It’s a pretty rocky gig I guess, but there are also lots of quieter moments and a fair few traditional songs scattered about. I probably won’t be touring the full band for 18 months or so after this, so it’s the last chance for a while.

Tell us about the music that excites you at the moment.

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of Roy Orbison really. My grandmother died recently and she was a big Orbison fan, so that led me into listening to his stuff a bit more. Incredible singer. I’ve also been listening to the new Arcade Fire album a fair amount. I tend to have early music on around the house most of the time.

You run the Royal Traditions folk club out in Dungworth. What are you looking forward to this year?

We’ve got another eight gigs this year. Difficult to pick out one, but I guess the Christmas party with Oxford band, and old friends of mine, Magpie Lane. We’ve also got Sheffield band The Fates coming for the first time in October, which I’m really looking forward to.


Afterglow, Jon Boden’s new album, is out now via Hudson Records.

Photo by Chris Saunders

Sam Gregory