The Askew Sisters

The following article was first published in the October 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Hazel Askew is half of a folk duo that played one of its first professional shows at the Lewes Arms around a decade ago. She and sibling Emily return to the town this month with a music workshop and gig.

When did you and your sister first play music together?
Probably towards the end of primary school. In our early teenage years we had a little band called Rubber Chicken, of all things! When we were a few years older and I started playing melodeon and Emily played the fiddle, it fell into place a bit more as a duo. That’s when we started performing more seriously.

A lot of early musical instruments seem less sophisticated than their modern counterparts. Why are they so appealing to you?
Early instruments are less technically sophisticated but we love the quality of their sound. For example, the vielle (medieval fiddle) is slightly larger than a modern fiddle but has gut strings and no sound post, meaning it is quieter and has a beautiful earthy resonance.

Where does ‘early music’ and ‘folk music’ overlap?
The distinction between folk/traditional music and ‘art music’ is much clearer now than it would have been in medieval times. If you look at the surviving music from that era, a lot of the melodies sound like folk tunes. Music would have been more improvised, much like folk music today. The idea of notating every expression, dynamic and ornament in music has only been around a few hundred years.

How do you choose songs for your albums?
We love how folk music connects people in different ways, including the way that narratives from the past can strike a chord hundreds of years later. Often we are drawn to songs like that. As I get older and I’m more in tune with the subtleties of the personal, political and social struggles I see around me and hear about in the world, I find that I’m much more picky about what traditional songs I want to sing. For example, I find the gender politics of some traditional songs interesting to navigate, and that’s much more nuanced than just wanting to sing songs about ‘strong women’, whatever that actually means. It’s not about never singing a song that has something potentially problematic in it, but whether the way you sing it and introduce it on stage highlights that or just lets it go as the status quo.

What will people learn in your Early Music for Folk Musicians workshop?
We will cover a range of different early tunes and songs from England, France, Spain and Italy. We’ll also bring lots of instruments to demonstrate and lots of material so we can tailor it a little to the needs to the participants. We really enjoy teaching folk and early music; it belongs to everyone, so we love encouraging people to play it.

The Askew Sisters play the Elephant and Castle at 8pm on Saturday 21st Oct. Tickets £8. Full details of the workshop from lewessaturdayfolkclub.org / 01273 476757