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Swallow and the Wolf talk residencies, inspirations and nurturing new talent.

Swallow and the Wolf

Swallow and the Wolf are are a particularly innovative type of band. For one, they manage to create a surprising depth of sound for a duo. But beyond this they're set not only on their own success but on building a platform for new artists in London. 

Four years ago Russell Swallow started a folk band with no less than nine people. For a while they kept everyone on board with the promise of gigs and big Sunday lunches, but it wasn't to last.

The band dropped down to five people, then three. Somewhere along the line they changed their name and re-emerged as Swallow and the Wolf. Russell and Jess started writing together and from then on at it was just the two of them.

Their songs are soulful and poetic. Russell is the lyricist and singer and most of the songs begin in his own head, as stories. Jess adds delicate harmonies and the rhythm. The two make a striking pair with Russell's – dare we say it – wolfish appearance and Jess's elfin style. Their sound has been compared to Fleet Foxes and the brooding styles of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley (For Folk's Sake).

Ten months ago they revamped a central London open mic night, took on a residency and Playtime was born. This is where I first met them, squashed into the tiniest bar on the second floor of the Centre Point tower, the place stacked with fans and newcomers and friends of bands.

“It's about building a certain kind of night and the feeling of it”, says Russell, “everything is stripped back and pretty much accoustic based, it's just about an intimacy”.

And it definitely is intimate. The bar at Apartment58 has the feeling of a suburban living room. You can find yourself close enough contribute some backing vocals (whether intentionally or not). Understandably, the audience is asked to stay quiet during the sets.

“As musicians ourselves we certainly appreciate when there's a quiet audience so we try to create the same environment.”, says Jess.

“We know how acts want to be treated, because it's how we want to be treated.”, adds Russell. “You turn up to a venue quite cold, you might never have been there, all you've done is had a couple of emails from someone saying, 'hey, we'd like to have you play, here's a couple of details...' - so it's really nice to arrive and it to be warm and friendly and to know that you're going to be listened to. That's why people come back.”

Swallow and the Wolf have embraced the role of curators, chipping in just a song or two at each night and giving the multiple other acts chance to be heard. But that's not to say their career is stalling. The two have been busy writing and recording new songs, including a session at Union Chapel. Tours are planned and their new EP is coming out this spring.

Like all good songs theirs tell a story, so I asked Russell and Jess what their inspirations were. For Russell it begins with the words. “Often a song is a really condensed version of a story I'd like to write, and each line is just a snapshot... I really want people to connect with the words and with the story and of course the music is a huge part of reinforcing that world and making that clear...”, he pauses, “...or maybe ambiguous, because sometimes feelings or stories are that way”.

Jess mentions Thomas Newman, composer of soundracks for The Shawshank Redeption, Revoluntionary Road and others as an inspiration.“I write more instrumental stuff, so it's never about the topic or an idea. It usually comes after a time of change, or something significant has happened – that's generally when I write best... we're influenced by instumental soundtracks, so there's that movement and emotion all the time.”

It's clear that their songs are affecting. “We've had a few people, well, quite a few people, cry”, says Jess. "There was a time when every gig we played someone would cry, for about 6-12 months. It was like... 'so who do you reckon is gonna cry tonight?'", adds Russell. The pair are happy for their songs to be left open to interpretation, and they recount the people who've found their own meanings in their songs and have come back to tell them so.

The band are evidently passionate about nurturing new talent. Russell is keen on the idea of bands supporting each other, building musical communities, particularly in that time before being signed. “Playtime really wants to be a home for people like that, so we're looking for new associates”, he adds. “One of them described it the other day as being the quiet storm, or the quiet revolution – the idea that people can go to a show, but the only noise is the music itself. We really liked that.”

Swallow and the Wolf release their new Fire EP on 6th May - details and tickets here. Playtime is on pause while they tour the new EP, but Russell will be curating a monthly event at The Old Queen's Head on Essex Road.