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Modern Fairies: Exploring the mythical in the everyday

by Now Then Sheffield
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Fay Hield

Dr Fay Hield is a folk singer, music promoter and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

In 2018 she founded Modern Fairies to prompt the development of new artistic work about folklore and its relationship to today's world. The project is a collaboration between researchers, songwriters, poets, artists, musicians and filmmakers, all providing fresh perspectives on the relationship between the mythical and the modern.

How did you become involved in Modern Fairies?

Modern Fairies is a research project that I set up with a professor at Oxford [Carolyne Larrington]. We got together because I read her book about the Green Man, which is about myths and legends in Britain. I'm a folk singer, so I also work with traditional material. What we're both interested in is why we like these things and why we still find them important.

What do you hope your audience takes from Modern Fairies?

When you say we're doing a project about fairies to people it's a really horrible, slightly awkward moment, but if you give it five minutes, everyone's got an opinion or an experience.

I'm not saying that everybody has met a fairy, but everybody remembers the tooth fairy when they were little, or has some kind of opinion on the supernatural and why we find it important.

People have linked fairies to environmental issues, how we relate to other people, how we relate to babies, new mothers, post-natal depression, autism and childhood. It opens up loads of cultural questions in a really magical way.

How do you and the team view the supernatural?

On the project we had 12 artists. It ranged from one woman who had ridden with [ghost from English folklore] Herne the Hunter, so was a big fairy believer, to a guy at the other end who, when she was telling these stories, was just white.

People like me are a bit more in the middle. I can see that the stories have an effect on us, but maybe it's more about our brains. At the moment I'm working on an album which is about ghosts and fairies and talking animals and stuff we can't reach.

On the other side of that, doing the project actually opened my mind up to the arrogance of the idea that humans are the only ones here. Dogs can see in different ranges to us, so maybe there is stuff that we just can't see and experience.

You recently worked with a 'hare spell'. How's that been received?

I love that song. It comes from a spell that was written down in the 1600s by a woman called Isobel Gowdie, who was arrested and tried as a witch. She says this spell is about how to turn from a woman into a hare, or a cat, or a crow. The actual words from her are there in the book and I wanted to write a song from it, but I didn't want to just put a tune to the words. I wanted the song to come out of the spell in a slightly artsy way.

What I did was I wrote out the words and then all the letters in the words that have a corresponding note name, put those on the stave, and that's the tune. For me that feels quite magical.

Are you working on anything currently?

That project was 12 people and we did loads together, so my album doesn't really represent that whole project, but lots of ideas that I had from that project are in the album.

What I'm doing is I'm looking at traditional repertoire, so each theme has got two songs in it. So, for example, the Isobel Gowdie song, which is a source material, and then another one as a response to that.

Eve Thomas

Fay Hield's new album will be released later this year.

by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 143

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