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fRoots Magazine (Issue No.265 - July 2005)

Andy Kershaw and Phil Cunningham are fans, finds Sara Barnard.

Seventeen year old Harriet Bartlett has an impressive CV. The winner of a coveted Danny Kyle Award at Celtic Connections in 2003, by the following year she was ready to lauch her debut album Eyes Wide Open at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with an audience of two thousand (“people asked me if I was nervous, but I just couldn’t wait to get out there!”)

In October 2004 Andy Kershaw, having decided her cd was “one of his favourite… of the year” invited her on to his Radio 3 show. Add to this performances at major folk festivals all over the country, various local radio appearances, awards and magazine features, invitations to play on stage with Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham and Flook, along with recent gigs in Spain with Ed Boyd and John Jo Kelly, and you’ll see why ‘high achiever’ doesn’t even come close to describing her musical life so far. How does she find time to get to school?

Well actually, she doesn’t; “I was going to go to the Sixth Form College, but they wouldn’t allow me to have time off for gigs and to record my cd – a bit short sighted really as I was going to study A-level music – so I’m performing as a full time career now. I love it and it’s always great to get out there and perform to an audience” But beware if you were thinking of commenting on how well she’s doing for her age; “I don’t really do the age thing. I don’t look at somebody and think ‘he’s old’ or ‘she’s young’. I’ve always mixed with musicians and singers that are in their forties and fifties, but they’ve always treated me as an equal. I’ve never felt out of place or been treated like a child.”

At least now she’s “old enough to legally go into a pub”, even if she’s not allowed to buy a drink in one until August, but she admits that with folk festivals featuring strongly throughout her childhood, she’s been hanging out in sessions in pubs since the age of nine! Harriet was born, grew up and still lives in Shopshire, in a house where “there was always music playing.” At seven she fell in love with a small 8 bass piano accordion in a music shop in Shrewsbury; “it had bluebirds on in and was really pretty, so being seven, that was reason enough for me to want play one.” Luckily her parents did the only decent thing and the said accordion turned up on her eighth birthday. She started off having classical lessons with “Mrs Price in Little Dawley, Telford”, but with the family’s interest in the folk scene ”it was a natural progression to play folk music. My friends at school used to say ‘Oh, you play one of those squeezy things don’t you?’ but when I played in the school Christmas concerts they always enjoyed the music.”

Though she was also learning violin and doing classical exams on it, the accordion has always been her “main love”. She likes the fact that “it isn’t a hugely popular instrument, and there are always people that don’t know how it works”, but is less keen on having to always wear jeans or trousers when playing it; “I really like to wear skirts, but because you have to sit with your legs apart when performing it would be a bit un-ladylike!” Like many accordionists she has found inspiration in the playing and teaching of Ian Lowthian (“his bass is amazing”) and Karen Tweed (who describes Harriet as “an amazing player who has gone from strength… and a lovely lass too!”), but it is her well documented friendship with Phil Cunningham, who produced her cd, which has been most important to her development. “Phil has been a really big help with my career. He’s really supported me and is one of my bestest friends! He’s always been there for me and not just with the music. I recently lost two dogs in the space of three months to cancer and was heartbroken – I love my animals. Phil and Ed Boyd helped me through it with their messages. Actually we text each other quite often; we are both huge fans of Eastenders and I have been known to fill him in with what’s going on in Albert Square if he’s away on tour! He calls me Hatty Bartelino.”

Her nickname for him (Philly Boy) is the title of one of the compositions she is most proud of while the lovely slow air, which she is equally proud of, Johnny Cunningham, was inspired by the sadness of hearing about his death in a text from Phil, knowing how close the two brothers were. As well as playing her own compostions, Harriet uses books or trawls the internet to seek out good repertoire finding that she knows “instantly whether (she) likes a tune” but that “finding songs is difficult.”

She started singing in gigs after Keith Donnelly told her at Alcester & Arden Folk Festival in 2002 that “as much as he liked what she did on stage, forty minutes of a solo accordionist was a bit much for anybody to bear” and could she not tell jokes or sing as well? The next month she was performing at Warwick and tried out the only song she knew, having first checked with the sound guy whether he thought it would be ok. “I’ve heard a lot worse” was his response “so there was just enough encouragement there for a 14 year old,” though she is quick to confess that she still has “a lot to learn with the singing.”

Not afraid of hard work, she’s happy to put in the effort to keep improving; “I hate it when people say they don’t practise. I play through songs and tunes daily as I think it’s good to keep your hand in otherwise you can lose the knack. I love working on new stuff, but when you get to the gigs the audience seems to want to hear what’s on your cd. When up in Scotland she was “amazed (to be) approached at the end of a gig because I’d missed one tune out that was on my cd”. But fans had better be prepared to keep up as she doesn’t plan to get complacent about her very competent playing; “I think my style will continue to develop. The more you play, the more you experiment, always finding a new approach to music and that’s when you get your own style.”

So what does the no doubt busy future hold? “I hope to keep performing for as long as possible. I get a real buzz out of it.” Having already met and played tunes with many of the people she looks up to, I worry that she might have been there and done it all by the time she’s twenty, but Harriet has no such qualms; “there is so much I would like to do. I know I am only seventeen but even I think how am I going to cram it all in? I would love to do more gigs abroad. I would like to get into composing music for films and would also love to have a folk show on the radio or on tv.” Self assured, heaps of natural talent and energetic commitment, and plenty of sparkle, I’d lay money on Harriet achieving whatever she sets her mind to, charming young and old, musicians and audiences along the way.

www.harrietbartlett.com