David Hennessy spoke to Leanne Thorose and Tabitha Agnew of all-female bluegrass unit Midnight Skyracer whose debut album has been so lauded that now they are back with major label backing.
Since they formed in 2017, all-female bluegrass quintet Midnight Skyracer have been critically-lauded for their debut album Fire, nominated for massive industry awards and now they are back with their sophomore collection Shadows on the Moon.
With vocals from London-Irish performer Leanne Thorose and Armagh’s Tabitha Agnew, the band also boast the talents of the Carravick sisters Laura and Charlotte, who are known on the scene as a duo, on guitar and fiddle while Eleanor Wilkie completes the line-up on bass.
“We’re really chuffed with being a part of it,” banjo player Tabitha told The Irish World of the band signing with major label Island.
“It’s such a weird thing to have, a five piece all female bluegrass quintet in the UK let alone internationally but I think in the UK it’s definitely been a big plus for us to feel that we can try and stretch our audiences to bigger than just folk festivals, that’s what we’re really excited for just to try and get more people into our music.
“A lot of people like bluegrass music whether they come to it through Dolly Parton, Oh Brother Where Art Thou or Alison Krauss so it’s a lot of different ways into bluegrass but hopefully we can be one of those ways,” she laughs.
“We want to try and bring people who wouldn’t normally listen to this kind of music. We’ve met a lot of people who have said, ‘You guys made me realise that bluegrass isn’t actually just this strange country music thing’ because it’s so much bigger than that. Hopefully we can bring people to this.
“It’s really good to be releasing the album. We’re looking forward to being actually able to tour with it. We haven’t really played a lot of the new material because. We’re just waiting for the time that we can get back to it. Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later but who knows?”
The band released the second single from their forthcoming album Average Faces last month which has been well received.
Fiddle and mandolin player Leanne Thorse told The Irish World: “The song’s got a great response so far. It’s very different to what we would usually play. We’re not afraid to try a different approach to certain songs.”
Tabitha adds: “It seems that people have found that to be quite an uplifting song. The whole story behind it was Laura, our fiddle player, overheard a conversation at a pub. It’s something that relates to a lot of people. I think it was sort of a pick-up line from a guy, ‘Have I seen you before?’ She replies, ‘No, I’ve just got one of those average faces’.
“There was a tone in the voice to say, ‘Ah, here we go again, this always happens’. It was said with a bit of attitude as well like she’d heard it before.”
It seems amazing now that they have achieved so much but the plans were modest when the quintet first formed. Tabitha explains they formed just to have a bit of fun at festivals.
“It started as the brainchild of Laura and Charlotte. Laura and Charlotte had this idea to form a five piece band, not a novelty act but kind of a free ticket into festivals: You could play and then enjoy the festival. That was the idea.
“I knew of them before that. I was playing at a few festivals with them when I was quite young and I went up to them and said, ‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you.’ it was very formal.
“Then I kind of got to know them better. It’s quite a small scene, the bluegrass scene in Ireland. When I was 18, they reached out to Leanne and Eleanor for us to try and do this so we did.
“We recorded our album Fire which came out 2018. We actually recorded it at the twins’ home place in Devon so we recorded it in their parents’ living room which was a really fun but intense week in the house together. It’s been a whirlwind since then. We’ve done quite a lot of travelling.
“One of our first gigs was the Cambridge Folk Festival. That was one of the best gigs just because it was a really surreal experience. I think that’s one of the most enjoyable gigs we’ve had as a band. We definitely have done more than we thought we would.”
Leanne adds: “I knew the twins very briefly. I didn’t know Eleanor and I hadn’t met Tabitha but I had seen all of them around bluegrass stuff in the uK. We would jam from time to time but it wouldn’t be enough to actually get to know each other properly, jamming in passing was what it was.
“We properly got to know each other through the band.
“It’s been quite a surprise really. We didn’t have a lot of expectations for this band. We just decided to get together and hopefully play some festivals and have the craic.
“That’s really all we were thinking of doing. Then we got to the point where we launched the first video we filmed ourselves playing that Mountain Heart song I’m Just Here to Ride the Train, put it up on youtube and then it just went really mad after that. “The reaction was strange. I don’t know how many likes or views that video has gotten but it was crazy, we got such a reaction to that video. We started being contacted by organisers to play concerts and we were like, ‘Okay, didn’t think it would get that far’.
“It started off as just a bit of fun. We didn’t expect to do a lot with this band but it turned out differently because of that video.”
The band are also the first British act to be nominated in the International Bluegrass Music Association awards when they attended the ceremony in America and got to play for many of their heroes.
Leanne says: “We were nominated for the Momentum Award. It was great. I mean we didn’t win but we had a great time. It was a great experience to get on that stage and showcase our original material. Quite a few of our idols were actually in the room watching our performance. It was very, very nerve-racking but such a great experience. It’s actually opened a lot of doors for us. We met quite a few organisers from bluegrass festivals around world as a result of doing that.”
Tabitha adds: “It was a really great experience but also really exciting because we got to play a couple of songs for all these big stars, our heroes really in the bluegrass world. Folks we grew up listening to. We were all terrified. We’d love to get back there one day.”
The Irish World featured her Blue Stack Mountain Girl album in 2011. Born in London, Leanne’s mother is from Ardara in Donegal: “Every single year I’ve been going back there since I was 3. I still go every summer. There’s sessions everywhere, I have a load of family over there, a bunch of friends there who keep calling me back. I do feel a call to live there at some point if I can make it work. I love it there.”
Leanne grew up around Irish traditional sessions: “Funnily enough, it was actually Alison Krauss who inspired me to pick up the fiddle at the age of 14 but the irish trad has always been a strong influence in my family because my mother’s three brothers are all fiddle players. As a child I grew up listening to them playing seesions and stuff. I switched to mandolin and I’ve been combining the two ever since. I do take part in quite a few sessions around the London area, bluegrass sessions and the odd Irish trad session here and there.”
And the band have had the endorsement of Alison Krauss & Union Station’s banjo and guitar player Ron Block who said: “These varied aspects of their musical personalities contribute to the greater good of a band playing for the song, for the singer, for the music.”
Any plans of touring the album have to hold off due to the Covid-19 restrictions. “We had a whole tour planned across June/ July/ August. All that effort is on hold now,” Leanne laughs. “We’ll get there.”
Still only 21, Tabitha Agnew from Armagh was only 18 when the band formed. She is also known for performing with her two brothers as Cup O’ Joe.
The band recently did some mock mug shots for their publicity which made us want to ask, what crime would the girls be imprisoned for if they really were locked up? “That’s a really good question,” Tabitha reacts. “Being a banjo player, I always get abuse about it being the heaviest instrument. It would probably be hitting someone over the head with a deadly weapon. That would probably be mine. Maybe quarrelling for the twins. Leanne could be causing some trouble, causing some damage,” she laughs. “Eleanor could be anything.”
The album Shadows on the Moon is out on 5 June.
The single Average Faces is out now.
For more information, go to the website here.