A Conversation with Spiro's Jane Harbour

English instrumentalist quartet Spiro has been creating music together for an incredible 25 years. The group is known for defying genres and creating a unique sound, complete with complex string arrangements featuring the viola, violin, mandolin, and guitar. Spiro’s latest album Repeater, released in 2016, is a compilation of greatest hits from their previous four studio albums, and shows just how far the group has come in their time together. We talked with Jane Harbour of Spiro ahead of her show with LOTT at The Cedar about her inspirations, the evolution of Spiro, and what you can expect from the group’s set at The Cedar.

Read the full interview below and get tickets for the Sunday, September 23rd show.

What has been inspiring you lately?

To me, something inspiring is anything that provokes in me a feeling of true emotion, which can then express itself as music. A really bad day, overhearing an affecting snippet of conversation, a really good day, an event, idea or piece of fiction, connection or disconnection with people, eating something dodgy for lunch...the origin might even be unknown.  But having a bit of space, playing with notes and rhythms in my head, and walking in nature are all gold dust in lessening the potentially hostile environment of the logical brain, to let that seed take hold and the dark unpredictable art of creative gestation happen.

Jane Harbour of Spiro

Jane Harbour of Spiro

Musically, I love listening to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3, discovering artists who are defying genre.  I love repetitive music - electronica and minimalist classical music; the more you listen to a phrase the more you hear in it, and that can send you into a kind of trance. I'm sometimes inspired by things that happen accidentally, musically.  It always inspires me to work with fantastic musicians, like my Spiro bandmates, and to have a project on and someone breathing down my neck (not literally, that would be quite distracting...)

What challenges do you face when composing for Spiro?

The challenges definitely are part of the creative fun.  Making an entirely instrumental set that will captivate audiences who may be used to there being a vocalist is one - it makes you never sit on your laurels compositionally, always seeking to make the music moving and exciting in itself, without words or voice.   There being only 4 instruments is another - I'm always trying to fit as many parts on each instrument as possible, because I don't want to leave any out! Last year I had my first orchestral commission and it felt like Christmas, I think maybe I've been trying to get an orchestra out of Spiro all this time, and fleet-fingered Jason (accordion) gets the brunt of this.  

Other challenges include self-imposed stuff such as wanting to make music that doesn't sit in a particular genre, making a sound that's like one unified machine, plus trying to write techno on acoustic instruments (getting just the right level of impossibility without everyone walking off).

However; I think the biggest challenge of all is to weave it all together to make something as a group. I'm the main writer in Spiro but Alex and Jon contribute, and this makes Spiro a pretty unusual blend of intricate composition, and raw, band, all-in-it-together energy.  This is an exciting way to work but the challenge is guiding the ensuing chaos into something architecturally sound, and navigating the blood sweat and tears in the practice room juxtaposed with the hours of solitude (and, admittedly, comparative ease and calm) of composing alone in the studio.

You've been active as a band for many years, how has your music evolved over time?

We met in a folk session, all coming from different musical backgrounds and influences (punk, modern classical, techno) but found we shared a fascination with the dark 'Wicker Man' side of folk coupled with a desire to have a really good laugh and play everything as fast as humanly possible. Very quickly though our other musical influences started to drive the music, and I got more and more into composition; loving writing riffs, tunes and multilayered interacting systems, writing on sequencer and attempting to replicate electronica, and weaving in Jon and Alex's writing too.  Traditional tunes (particularly northern English ones) have always provided a strong backbone to some of the tracks, but have been used less and less for each album. For our next album I'm writing for 4 modern classical singers, so the sound will be leaping forward once again.

How does your relationship as a group affect your music and stage performance?

Like a family, we've had so many ups and downs and many blatant (and comical) rows.  We've been through many hedges backwards together and are very close, but when we play together we let the music lead, no matter how we're feeling. The musical parts are constructed so that they fight, interact, enmesh, and to perform those moments we might take our line and play it in the opposing line's face, so to speak! - partly to show the audience what's going on musically but also because the music kind of demands we do that. So yes, we are interacting as band members, but driven by the musical lines.  We all throw huge amounts of energy into our playing, and we're (mostly) on the same page musically, but we never let last night's row or enthusiastic drunken-scaffold-climbing session get the better of us.

What can people expect from your performance at The Cedar?

Our live performance is an arresting and unusual combination of intricate playing, dense multilayered riffing, and out-and-out raw energy. For us to play something it has to move us, and we believe that instrumental music can speak volumes emotionally - it's not tied down to specific meaning like words are, and so can communicate on a deeper level.  There's loads of interaction on stage, and we want the audience to feel that energy build communally in the room, which can be very exciting and moving. People often go into a bit of trance state, some grin broadly, some cry, sometimes the band do too... Some of the tracks have traditional tunes weaving through them, usually unrecognisable as such and fighting for their lives amongst layers of riffs.  We'll be playing our favourite tracks from our four Real World albums, with the track 'Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow' summing up our mission statement!