Talking to folk star Belinda O'Hooley on why she won't be leaving West
Yorkshire any time soon
Words and pictures by Hazel Davis
When you’ve been bigged up by Lauren Laverne, booked to play Glastonbury and your album’s described by the Guardian as “one of the albums of the year”, then you might expect to be putting a downpayment on a swanky pad in That London anytime soon.
Ok, so I don’t really know how the music industry works (they still buy brand new artists apartments in Manhattan and give them a clothes allowance, right?) but my point is that you might think that a certain amount of fame might bring a desire to head to the shiny lights of the city. Not so, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, or O’Hooley and Tidow, as they are imaginatively known. They are Yorkshire born and bred and have no plans to leave, thank you very much.
The duo, who are life partners as well as singing partners, started playing and singing together in 2009. O’Hooley had been the vaudevillian element of beloved folk band Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (now the Unthanks). Their music is has been described as “defiant, robust, political, Northern, poetical”. They sing of historical lesbians (the fantastically catchy Gentleman Jack, based on the story of Halifax’s Anne Lister), real ale (Summat’s Brewin’, inspired by Huddersfield’s real ale revolution) and child migration (Two Mothers), all with stark harmonies and hypnotic piano playing.
O’Hooley and I meet in the Handmade Bakery, in Slaithwaite, a small town close to where we both live in West Yorkshire’s Colne Valley (more on that later). She’s all glowing from a morning’s exercise at the local leisure centre. I am stressed and on deadline. But what we share is a love of a valley which, over a flat white and a tea, we both agree is pretty special.
O’Hooley was born in Leeds and moved to Huddersfield when she was 18. She’s lived all around the valley including Slaithwaite, which locals pronounce “Slawit”, but, she tells me, laughing, “Apparently you have to live here 50 years to be allowed to call it that.” The rest of us call it “Slath-waite”, never “Slaith-waite”. And where she lives now, Golcar, is pronounced Go-car to the initiated.
There’s nothing pretty about the Colne Valley, with its sparse moorland and bleak Pennine gritstone. “It’s rugged,” says O’Hooley, in her beguilingly melodic and slightly laconic Leeds drawl, “and I think the people are too.” Yet Huddersfield and its surrounding areas are regularly voted among the happiest places in the UK to live. “It’s sometimes like a different world,” O’Hooley agrees, “It has such a community. We know all our neighbours.”
In fact one of their neighbours, Mrs Peace, was the inspiration for the latest album, The Hum (No Masters), whose title track talks of the humming noise of the local factory. Says O’Hooley, “Mrs Peace says it’s the hum of the factory that gives her comfort because it’s the sound of people working.”
Mrs Peace (who attends all the duo’s gigs) also says people here are “doers”, says O’Hooley. She’s right. There are things happening all over this quirky place. From the coops springing up (the Handmade Bakery, the Green Valley Grocer), to the artisan food festivals, via concerts in cowsheds and a world-renowned jazz festival, the Colne Valley just gets on and does it.
Despite this, there’s still pressure on artists to move where the gigs are, says O’Hooley. Their album launch was in Marsden (the local brewery made a special beer for the occasion called Hummingbird) but they still had to schlep to London for a second “proper” one to please the press. “People won’t come all this way,” sighs O’Hooley, and at times they have considered moving but, she says, “It’s not our home and anywhere we moved would take years to become our home.”
And when they have been away for days and weeks at a time, “I feel this desperation to get back home. The air is different.”
The drive home is like no other: “We come up the M62 and as soon as we see the Pennines our heart rates drop a bit,” O’Hooley laughs, “then we turn the corner into the Colne Valley, see the weavers’ cottages and the curve of the beautiful cobbled street and there is this enormous sense of being home.”