Hallowing of Heirdom: An Interview with Winterfylleth

There has always been a silhouette of pastoral beauty peering out from the high lancet-window of the customarily aloof Winterfylleth keep. Like a maid-in-waiting, it’s served to offer morsels of light to guests who may have otherwise lost their bearings within Winterfylleth’s unmerrilly winding passageways. It’s functioned to draw the curiosity of the weary traveller to the sophistication and the cunning buried at the heart of the keep. It’s offered reassuring flickerings of respite. But prior to Winterfylleth’s most recent record, its service has been a closely chaperoned and carefully meted utility.

With the band’s newest release, this air is finally allowed to egress the remote tower and wander the rolling outer-grounds like the gleam of eerie foxfire. The Hallowing of Heirdom vibrates with the memory of ancient customs and deceptively elementary devices. It beguiles with both the wildness and the placidity of its nature. It is provincial and sovereign within the same breath. Succinctly put: it’s a hell of a work. Vocalist/guitarist Chris Naughton reconnoiters the breadcrumb trail that follows back to the genesis of Winterfylleth’s hallowing.

I’m sure many people presume that the idea for the new album’s approach was conceptualized or else catalyzed by the 2014 One and All Together for Home compilation Winterfylleth participated on. Personally speaking, I doubt that, given that you’ve been dabbling with elements of this style for years. There’s “Children of the Stones” for example. You can hear those inklings on a track like “Pariah’s Path,” as well. So clarify that for me, if you don’t mind. How did you guys determine to approach the album in this way?
As you’ve noted, we’ve always done things like this. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Doing One and All Together for Home was really good in that it helped us realize that we could [perform in this style] well. It gave us confidence that the band could express itself in that way. I think its always been in the back of our minds that a [fully] acoustic album could make sense as part of our discography. But it probably wasn’t until, say, 2015 that we started talking about doing it seriously. That would be before our previous album really, The Dark Hereafter. So Nick [Wallwork; bass/backing vocals] and I were writing material together at the time. We thought about recording it as an e.p., (just under our own names or something.) But the more time went on and the more we thought about it, it kind of made sense to us to include the rest of the guys and approach it as a fully fledged Winterfylleth project. I think that it just came at a really good time for everybody. Simon, [Lucas] our drummer had just recently moved a couple of hours away, while Dan, [Capp] our other guitarist had recently moved to the area. He was also quite far down the road of writing his Wolcensmen album [Songs from the Frygen] which is a kind of folky album that he was doing. So he was in the right headspace. Nick and I were in the right headspace. It just felt like…doing this could really make sense and it’s something we thought that fans would be interested in hearing from us. Maybe they don’t know that they want to hear it but…

It’s just one of those things, isn’t it? It feels in some ways that we’ve gone out on a limb a bit here but its something I’m fairly sure that our fan-base would like, even though it has the potential to be divisive. It feels like a natural step for us to take. Other bands have been able to step into that space credibly. I think we wanted to prove that we could do it, not just as a jokey experiment, but as a serious piece of music and something that makes sense for us. I guess that’s how we got here.

Compositionally speaking: did you find that in stripping away the textures that come part and parcel with distorted guitars and a full drum kit you were able to indulge phrasings in a manner that you generally can’t
It’s an interesting question. Going into this album, we knew we were stepping out of our comfort zone, as composers and as performers. We spent longer scrutinizing every element of the album; more so than we’ve ever done with our metal albums because it had to stand up to our metal albums. But also, because you can’t hide behind that wall of distortion and layers of extreme vocals. It challenges you. How do you create those same atmospheres and those same textures in an acoustic track? In a metal track, (as you said,) you can create it with layers of distorted guitars, layers of guitar harmonies… [Removing those] really allowed us to play between our three singing voices and to experiment with interesting harmonies and modes. Particularly now having Mark [Deeks; keyboards/backing vocals] who’s our usually non-performing fifth member, this [album] has given us an opportunity for him to come into the live environment and also for us to experiment a lot more with the vocal arrangements and to see how they fit with instruments like cello and violin. It was exciting to be working with instruments that we generally don’t and having to make something cohesive with only acoustic guitars and our voices… Equal parts exciting and scary. The tendency with these sorts of [ventures] is that they can get a little cheesy if you’re not careful. You can really wander to the wrong side of the line towards being sort of twee…

This would require a bit of prognostication on your part but do you imagine that this album serves as an exercise or maybe a proof of concept that you’ll be incorporating lessons from into your as-of-yet conceptualized albums in the future?
I think undoubtedly so, yeah.

I’m thinking in regards to how much Winterfylleth must have grown as vocalists alone. I imagine that may prove to be a very powerful further down the road.
Well, going into this album, we were fairly inexperienced in this area, other than being fans of [choral orchestration.] In terms of performing them, we really had to push ourselves; push the boundaries, so Dan and I were taking singing lessons to improve our range and our understanding of how harmonies interplay with one another… And also, just the classical guitar. Obviously, we know how to play guitar but classical guitar is quite a different medium and the way that you play it is quite different as well. We invested time and money in lessons on how to approach those instruments as well. It helped us to understand what we could do in that space rather than doing it flippantly, in a token gesture kind of way.

So speaking of the space you were in brings me to the idea of performing live in a physical space. Performing the music from this album specifically, it does allow you to perform within venues that, (I’m assuming,) you wouldn’t care to or be welcomed in otherwise. You’ve performed in Chetham’s Baronial Hall for example. You look at images of that estate and off the cuff it looks like the perfect environment to absorb this music. And by contrast, I imagine the acoustics in a place like that would run roughshod over any of your louder, more aggressive work. So I would think that another value to the acoustic approach—especially for a musician who’s tantalized by tradition and folklore—is that you’re afforded the opportunity to play in these venues that Winterfylleth generally would not be able to otherwise.
Oh, absolutely! I mean, as amazing as those buildings are, I couldn’t imagine loading out into a fifteenth century baronial hall, with walls of amplifiers and drums… It just wouldn’t be the right place. I think because this album is what it is, (a quiet, introspective, peaceful, sometimes grandiose, oftentimes reflective album,) it needs the right environment in terms of physical space as well as the mental space to be able to realize it properly. For a bit of tangential context, we’ve seen shows at certain festivals where bands have really lost their cool with the audience because they’re trying to do something more subtle, either rhythmic or interesting, or calm, or quiet and it’s a metal event and the audience isn’t allowing them the respect to be able to accomplish it. Not to name any names but we were at a festival in Norway and this happened to a kind of ritualistic band who were relying on traditional drums and instruments in this kind of Viking longship stage that they’d set up. The frontman just blew up at the crowd because it just wasn’t…translating. I think that if you preform this sort of thing in the right environment, (like St. Pancras Old Church or Chetham’s Library,) then I think there’s just a sort of ‘mindset shift’ that comes across the fans. When your sat in a baronial hall and the bar’s outside of the room and it’s quite obvious that you can’t behave in a rowdy, typical heavy metal gig fashion, it simply alters the mindset and it makes it a much more intimate and personal experience. If we were playing in a more traditional gig venue, they might not feel that restraint.

Sure! At an average music venue, you’re shooting pool, pounding crummy domestic beer and that’s just not the sort of experience that you’re in the frame of mind to absorb. As your playing shows to support The Hallowing of Heirdom, are you playing songs strictly from the album or are you incorporating any older material into it?
We incorporate some of the older material as well. I’d say it’s probably 70% new album and the remainder is drawn from older material. We knew that we had a lot of songs in our discography that would [suit the tone.] So we’ve decided on tracks from our albums The Mercian Sphere and The Divination of Antiquity particularly. I think that’s been nice for some people because even though the tracks we’re pulling may come from familiar albums, they’re often pieces that we’ve never performed [live] before simply because you can’t really integrate them into a normal heavy metal set. I mean, we can’t just all throw down our instruments and pick up acoustic ones in the middle of a show. So we’ve had fans approach us and say, “You totally got me! I never thought I’d see that song performed live and I’ve always really loved that song’s atmosphere.”

Well then to reverse that a bit, what’s the plan on how this current album will continue to live on alongside its brethren in the Winterfylleth discography after the band moves on to support another release? Have you guys experimented in your rehearsal space with ripping through a more typical Winterfylleth track like “The Green Cathedral” and seeing what would happen if you were to follow it with a piece from The Hallowing of Heirdom?

It’s probably not really a question we’ve asked ourselves. I think we’ve all been quite on the same page regarding the idea that there needs to be a delineation between the acoustic stuff and the metal stuff. The acoustic stuff allows us to do different kinds of festivals, different venues and different billings. I like to see it as ‘another string to our bow,’ rather than something that we simply integrate into a normal show because it’s quite hard to realize a lot of these songs without all the support people that contributed to them. We’ve got some really close friends who are string players—playing cello and violin—in the band. For a typical Winterfylleth show, it’d usually be just the four of us whereas for the acoustic shows there are seven of us on stage. It wouldn’t make sense to bring seven people along to one of our metal shows to contribute to one or two acoustic tracks. We’ll likely keep them [the acoustic and metal material] as two separate entities.

Well, I suppose that’s one way to neatly allow space for all your clean/quieter compositions from your previous albums as well as those that you’ll likely compose in the future to have a space to live and breathe in in a live setting. I would argue still that the cello and the other bells and whistles, while they’re a perfect accompaniment for those compositions, I’d still love to hear these songs stripped down to their most base essentials, you know? Something that could be performed by a campfire with solely guitar and voice.
We’ve actually talked about doing that.

Have you filmed any of these performances so far? It seems like a great opportunity to capture the band in these elaborate, baroque settings.
Yeah, we’ve filmed all of it actually! We haven’t reviewed the footage yet. We’re hoping that when we do, that it sounds good enough to release some or all of it for all the people who weren’t able to be there.

That’s the answer I wanted, man!
[laughing] Well, we’ll have to see how it turns out! We certainly didn’t pay for a twelve-camera, professional team to come in and dominate the space but we set up a few tactical cameras and hopefully it captured everything well enough to where we can use it.

Speaking of campfires, tell me about the “Hallowing of Heirdom” video shoot. When can we expect to see it?
So, it’s kind of available on Youtube now. There tends to be a strange crossover into the American market where there’s all sorts of permissions and rights that need to be sorted out so it’s not viewable to people in the States yet. Anyway, there’s essentially three veins to the video [conceptually.] One of them is to capture the beauty of the natural world. The second bit, the narrative of the video revolves around this hooded figure. It’s open to the interpretation of the viewer what the figure is but to me it kind of represents the spirit ancestry. He’s sort of walking the land and trying to find this grave of his ancestors so he can plant an acorn there and cultivate new life from the ‘old ways,’ if you like. And then around that, there’s essentially a performance video of us around a campfire playing instruments and singing. I think the three things tied together work really nicely. There’s this contrast between the day and nighttime and the performance aspect and also the narrative of this figure searching for the grave of his ancestor. I think it comes across in a really atmospheric way. We didn’t choose to do a three minute radio friendly song for the single…

No, you did not! It’s such a strong track though. [laughing] The first time that I heard it, I knew that I wanted everyone I know to be exposed to it, man! I’ve played it for all sorts of people; essentially anyone I can bully into a corner for ten minutes or so… What about the sequencing of the tracks on the album? Were there any new challenges or even new liberties that you found when it got down to the point of sequencing?
We did this record with our friend [engineer/producer] Chris Fielding, who we’ve done almost all of our albums with. He has a studio near Chester in England. Apart from our very first album, we’ve recorded everything there and Chris kind of helped us develop our sound. Going to him is always a really easy process; we’ve become friends outside of the normal band/producer relationship.

We talked with Chris well in advance about how we wanted to see the new album turning out. I think that was good for him in a sense in that it gave him a chance to think about how we’d capture the album and how you capture the energy of an acoustic guitar. We worked with Chris on close and distant miking. I think it’s a really interesting way of capturing the guitar. You’ve got that natural resonance, you’ve got that intimate, close-up sound rather than a direct feed from a pickup or whatever. The challenge came from trying to play the songs perfectly. Given the finger picking technique, you get six minutes into a seven minute song and you catch the wrong string, it’s not the easiest thing to try and drop back into. We were trying to get authenticity with the performances and not just splice together seventy takes to try make something that was passable, you know? We wanted to capture as much as we could in one go without it being too edited. And then obviously the unknown quantity of writing for other people’s instruments such as cello was really difficult. Fortunately, Mark is a choirmaster in ‘the real world,’ (if you like.) He works with lots of performing ensembles; choirs, quartets… He’s got a very good concept insofar as how to write and arrange around other instruments like our guitar tracks. So when it came to Jo Quail [Cello] and Victoria Bernath [Violin/Viola] coming in to perform their parts on the album, it was all laid out and they knew exactly what to play. But if not for Mark, it would have been very challenging. We had to write out our music this time, which I’m sure for a metal band is a pretty unusual thing to do. Generally [we’d] rely on memory so having to plot it all out on paper was actually quite challenging as well.

I imagine so, but again, what a valuable exercise, man! Alright, before we wrap up: we’ve already discussed the story behind the album’s title track. “The Shepherd” is such a beautiful and confident opener to the album. Can you tell me about the story that the song revolves around?

Yeah! What’s funny about “The Shepherd” actually is that it’s linked to [another album track] “The Nymph.”
(Speaking of Mark, the female vocals on “The Nymph” were actually done by Mark’s wife Angela, who’s quite a talented stage performer in her own right as well. [She] provided a nice contrast on the album from the primarily male voices.)

“The Shepherd’s” interesting. It’s based on British pastoral poetry rather than the usual Saxon poetry that we’ve used in quite a lot of the lyrics for the other albums. On The Hallowing of Heirdom, we’ve dealt with some farther reaching elements of British folklore. I think the press release alludes to ‘riddles, odes, rhymes and folktales.’ “The Shepherd” is based on a poem called The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe from 1593. It’s one of the earliest examples of English pastoral poetry and it’s quite a uniquely British type of verse. It references a pastoral idyll and a heartfelt love for the natural world which is a vein that’s long run through Winterfylleth. The words in [Marlowe’s] poem are used to create a sort of private, flawless vision of rural life within the context of personal emotion. I think that the piece sort of echoed our wider sentiments in regards to romanticism for the natural world. With Winterfylleth’s lyrics, there’s always been this vein of, I’m using the phrase loosely, but this kind of ‘political’ activism’ in the lyrics in the sense that they’re supposed to trigger [the listener] to go and research a topic or consider the fact that we’re exploiting the natural world to villainous levels. What’s interesting about “The Shepherd” is that its this lovely poem about a shepherd who falls in love with a field nymph and his desire to live with her in perfect harmony in nature but then, the flip side of that is “The Nymph” which is based on a companion poem to it called The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, written by Sir Walter Raleigh. What’s funny about that poem is that it’s a line-for-line rebuttal of the first poem from the nymph’s perspective. So that’s a slightly sarcastic take on the pastoral romanticism of the opening track. To me, it provides a deeper look into the somewhat jaded and sarcastic nature of British humor.