Having just released their debut album Singing For Strangers, Irish sibling duo Hudson Taylor has spent the last five years honing their infectious brand of music – and, in doing so, going from busking the streets of their native Dublin to playing huge festivals across the UK and abroad, and signing with a major label.
The brothers, Alfie and Harry (Hudson Taylor is their surname) have become favourites on the live scene for their energetic shows, impeccable Simon & Garfunkel-like harmonies, and songwriting prowess with delicately picked guitar lines and anthemic choruses. Prior to being signed, they released their first EP Battles in 2012, followed by Cinematic Lifestyle in the same year, and then with Osea in October 2013. ‘Chasing Rubies’ is the first single to be taken from Singing For Strangers, although many fans will have heard this from their YouTube page, live shows – and at the London Acoustic Guitar Show in 2013.
We can’t get enough of Hudson Taylor, so we caught up with Alfie and Harry at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the summer to talk about their busking days, supporting Jake Bugg, and the anticipation of releasing a debut album.
It’s hard not to be charmed by Hudson Taylor’s infectious enthusiasm – something the packed out tent at Cambridge Folk Festival were subject to.
‘There were quite a lot of young people here at Cambridge, and I think that is where our main audience is right now,’ Harry says in his lilting Irish accent. ‘The last time we played Cambridge was in a tent called The Dome which was too small for the crowd – they had to open the tent right up so people up the hill could see and hear us as well, it was magic! This year we moved up to the second stage!’
‘I think it feels like things are taking off for us with every show we play,’ adds younger brother Alfie. ‘I think it always feels like that with every gig we play. We feel that we learn something new every time we go out on stage.’
‘It does feel fantastic to be playing the major festivals,’ Harry continues, ‘because we know that the competition to get onto these stages is just massive, so we are so proud to be able to be included. Even when we went to festivals as fans just a few years ago, we always loved the atmosphere. We used to say to ourselves: “That must just be so much fun, if only it could be us up there doing that” – and now it is. And we absolutely don’t take anything for granted, and I think the people can see that.’
Cutting their teeth as buskers in Dublin, honing their skills in such a tough environment, paved the way for the enthralling showmanship you see at a Hudson Taylor concert – grabbing people’s attention, singing for strangers, and turning everyone they meet into fans along the way.
‘It’s always about grabbing the attention of the audience. You have to make then want to stop and have a look and a listen to what you are doing. Harry would jump up on bins, swing around lampposts – anything to get the attention, make us stand out, and get us noticed. We would stand out on Grafton Street in Dublin and I would be playing the guitar standing on one leg, and people would wonder what was gong on. Why is that guy swinging of a lamp post, and why is that other guy standing on one leg? Anything to be different and stand out from the rest of the street musicians and entertainers around us,’ Alfie reflects. ‘It quickly did occur to us that we could do this for a living because we were quite savvy with social media, and people began to connect seeing us on the streets with seeing us on YouTube. That got us some interest, and that led to some gigs, and things just grew from there. Some nights it would all turn into a huge street party.’
‘I started playing before Alfie,’ Harry says. ‘We got this Aria guitar given to us by a friend, and it had a really rusty set of strings on it, and we didn’t change those strings for about 18 months. I have no idea why we never did change those strings, but it made learning to play a real baptism of fire because the action was so hard, and the strings were almost impossible to get any movement from; it was a real struggle. We got pretty proficient at hammering chords out on these really ropy strings so when we did get some new strings it just felt like heaven, it was so much easier.’
‘We were looking for a company who could help us out, obviously we were not in any position to go buying anything really expensive – or even a little bit expensive,’ Alfie adds. ‘We contacted Martin and Gibson – and all the other big companies – and asked if they could help us out. They were really kind and offered us models, but even then, the cost was way out of our reach. We then heard about Freshman Guitars after finding them online. We did some research and found that they used some of the same woods and manufacturing processes as some of the bigger companies, but they were more within our range, so we hooked up with them, and now we have around 18 Freshman guitars between us.’
‘We have some other guitars that we’ve picked up on our travels, too,’ Harry continues. ‘Alfie has a Gibson J45 from the 1930s which is a wonderful guitar. We went in Norm’s Vintage Guitar shop in Los Angeles the first time we got out there, and it is just packed with fabulous old guitars. In exchange for us playing a few songs in the shop for his YouTube page, he did us some really good discounts on some guitars.’
‘We’re always sitting down together, jamming with guitars,’ Harry says of the brothers’ songwriting. ‘Nine times out of 10, an idea will pop up out of it and become something we can work with. Alfie will start scatting, just throwing out odd words and phrases and, almost instinctively, I will start harmonising with him. When the harmonies make us feel little tingles up the back of the necks, we know we are on to something and we can start to pursue that and work it into something.’
‘There is intuition between us as brothers,’ Alfie adds, ‘and that can be quite strange at times, but it works well for us. We can be jamming away together and I know which chord I am going to go to, and I can feel that Harry knows as well, and he will follow me, and then he does. It can be something totally unlike anything we have done before, but that instinct just kicks in. It’s always good having an iPhone around because I always have so many ideas kicking around in my head for lyrics and for tunes as well, it’s great to be able to get them down before they all disappear.’
Part of Hudson Taylor’s career trajectory saw the duo chosen as support for Jake Bugg; a tour that meant the brothers would be playing to arenas every night. ‘We got to go out for four weeks with Jake, he had heard about us because we share an agent, and that was great. And then he invited us as his main tour support for his autumn tour in October. We learned a lot from watching him; he is a really great songwriter and guitar player, so we enjoyed watching him from that point of view – and also how he worked a crowd each night, that was interesting to see as well,’ Alfie says.
With such a lively stage sound – and show – how would the brothers go about capturing the sprit and charm of Hudson Taylor on Singing For Strangers? ‘We got there in the end, but it was something of a struggle. We found it quite hard to capture what we do on record; to get the feel and the atmosphere of how we want to sound. The best recordings we have done have been the ones we did of ourselves when we were at home, but that’s probably because it’s familiar, and we feel comfortable and relaxed,’ says Harry.
‘We find it can feel artificial working in a studio,’ Alfie adds. ‘If things are cut up too much, we lose that feeling of excitement and spontaneity that we always want to have. One of the best people we have worked with is Iain Archer, who produced Jake Bugg’s first album. He’s Irish, so we felt an empathy with him as a person that helped us a lot when we worked with him.’
‘Sometimes we have had to do three or four takes of one song and by take four, you are starting to lose some of the enthusiasm, and you’re trying to work out what was wrong the first three times – and maybe its hard to leave out a bit of an earlier take that you liked and you felt it worked okay. So, I guess it has been hard work, but again, we are learning as we go.’
With talent and appeal in abundance, there is little doubt that Hudson Taylor’s Singing For Strangers will meet the anticipation that it so deserves. They’re no overnight sensations, they’ve worked hard for years and 2015 will be their year.
‘We have been signed to a major label for two years and we are just ready to put out an album,’ says Alfie. ‘We have been very lucky to get touring experience with Jake, and be able to go out and gig on our own. If we had gone on the Jake Bugg tour without the experience we have had playing live, we would never have survived it.’
Hearing everyone sing our songs back to us is such an inspiration for me. We have got the album done now, it’ll be out in February next year, and then it’s all about the live dates to go with it.’
Hudson Taylor’s ‘Chasing Rubies’ is out now. Their debut album Singing For Strangers is out on March 23.