VRÏ BIOGRAPHY 2022

 

BY ANDY MORGAN

 

"The chapel tradition sits on Welsh culture like the Berlin Wall," says Jordan Williams. "And it's still there." On one side of the wall, the old Celtic joys of fiddling, dancing and carousing, together with a trove of traditional songs and stories every bit as lavish as those of Scotland and Ireland; on the other side, dark chapels built like power stations, formerly vibrant and warm with song, but now increasingly empty and strewn across the land like the gravestones of a faith that seemed so unshakeable.

 

It's a bittersweet divide. During the 200 years and more that Methodism held Welsh hearts in its grasp, it did much to foster a sense of hope, of pride, of community in a land shaken to its roots by the industrial revolution. It helped to promote left-wing politics, literacy, the Welsh language and hymn-singing, arguably creating the 'musical nation' that The Reverend Eli Jenkins invokes so reverentially in Under Milk Wood.

But the price of all those hymns and male voice choirs were the older folk songs that Methodism felt obliged to obliterate in their bonfire of spiritual purification, along with the 'devilish' ways it associated with them. Some of the old melodies survive only because they were repurposed by Welsh hymn writers. Others are preserved in the archives, waiting like the inmates of a dog home to be picked, taken away and given a new life by new carers…like VRï.

So to create this land of song, Methodism had to destroy many songs. The three members of VRï grew up with that irony; it shaped who they are and it now motivates their musical journey. Patrick Rimes was born and raised in the northern slate town of Bethseda in the Ogwen Valley, where Welsh was spoken everywhere, except in the Rimes home. Hymns resounded in the town's chapels and wafted out into the streets and into smoky pubs and front rooms, losing their connection with religion along the way. At home mum played the flute, and music was dished up via Radio 3 and 4. Dad, over the water in Ireland, played in a country and western covers band.

Patrick went to a local school where everyone, regardless of vocal ability, was in the choir, and a few old pianos and cheap violins catered for any dreams of musical greatness. Patrick began to attend fiddle workshops run by COTC (Cymdeithas Offerynnau Traddodiadol Cymru, now 'Clera') monthly tune sessions at the legendary Nelson pub in Bangor at the age of 9, returning to school the next day with his clothes reeking of fags. "I've never really looked back from playing traditional music since then," says the man who was later was crowned junior fiddle champion of Wales twice and became the only musician (ever?) to win the very prestigious 'Blue Ribbon' at the Anglesey Eisteddfod for a traditional rather than a classical performance.

In Jordan Price Williams' hometown of Cwmafan, north of Port Talbot, there were as many pubs as there were chapels. Hymns were sung in the latter as part of the service, and in the former for the simple joy of being alive and surrounded by friends and family. When he was sent to boarding school in Brecon aged 13 by his army dad, he experienced a visceral disconnection from his Welsh identity and culture. "It's still the main driving force behind the importance of this [Welsh folk] music to me really," he says. But his musical journey started at that school: piano lessons, cello, a mix of Welsh and English hymns in the school chapel and Bach cantatas for relaxation.

Aneirin Jones's parents used to take the family to the folk festival in their hometown of Pontardawe with his sister and older brother. All the children played instruments and held regular folk music sessions at home, often singing around the piano, and occasionally giving public appearances locally as a family ensemble. Violin lessons at school were "just a fun thing"; away from school, music was more about loud guitars and The Clash. He began to attend regular jam sessions at Ty Tawe, a Welsh language cultural centre in Swansea with his sister, where some of the great names of the Welsh traditional music ("tradition bearers" as Aneirin calls them), were regulars. The Welsh Folk Sessions were his first steps into the folk world, and the generous spirit of that scene and the absence of sheet music or classical constrictions were very seductive. Aged 14, Aneirin went to Sorefingers, a bluegrass camp in Oxford. The sight of people his own age playing traditional music, sharing that excitement with them (alongside the odd sneaky pint) kickstarted an enduring passion for trad folk.

After college (Patrick and Jordan both attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff where they met for the first time, and Aneirin went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow) all three began to make their mark in Wales' small but flowering trad music scene. Patrick was a founder member of Calan, a kind of Welsh trad supergroup who, with the support of Sain Records, blazed trails down which many a young trad musician later followed. He remembers recording Calan's debut album Bling in 2008 while sitting his GCSEs. Tours of Europe and the USA followed. Patrick later played in the Cerys Matthews Band, riding the cusp where Welshness and Americana meet.

Jordan variously played double bass, whistle, Welsh bagpipes and harmonium, and sung in Welsh and English, in Elfen and No Good Boyo. Aneirin is also a member of No Good Boyo. All three are members of the 20-strong super Welsh supergroup Pendevig, known for their G-force mash-ups of Welsh folk and rock, funk, rap, electro.  

So why VRï? It's not as if their musical diaries weren't full enough already. The trio first came together at Bryn Terfel's Xmas Show' Nadolig Bryn Terfel', which was broadcast on S4C in December 2014. Patrick was musical director, and both Aneirin and Jordan were in the house band for the week. They discovered in each other a common desire for a new approach to traditional music, the need for a finer caen or 'veneer', a subtler though not necessarily more convoluted touch that might go beyond the common trad folk building blocks of melody on top, chords in the middle, groove at the bottom.

This was a true reflection of who they were: accomplished instrumentalists and proud Welshmen, in love with their language, their culture, their music, but with minds wide open, especially to classical music and its challenging intricacies. Patrick was conducting the Leeds University Symphony Orchestra at the time, touring with them in France, Germany and Spain. He'd also helped form the North Wales Camerata, with an aim to pushing chamber music to new heights of skill and touch. The obvious next step was to try and apply the subtlety of chamber music to those old hymns that all three had sung and played since they were children, or to the melodies they had begun to discover in the sheet music section of the National Library of Wales, or CLERA, aka the Welsh Traditional Instrument Society.

Jordan also yearned to move away from the double bass, with its enforced melodic simplicity, and back to the cello. And though still in love with the woosh-bosh freedom of folk and trad, Aneirin was always conscious of a muscle that was being underused, one whose potential strength wasn't dazzling virtuosity but a deeper intricacy and musical daring.

"For traditional music to be available to everybody, it has to be accessible," Patrick explains. "If it was complex, it would be pointless because it would be exclusive. And the fact that it's simple doesn't diminish it artistically. In some ways, it's a purer mainlining of emotion, of feeling, because it carries hundreds of years of memory with it as well. But it's a very human thing to want to, or even need to develop and challenge everything at some point...not because we think we're improving anything, just trying to understand it a bit better".

According to Patrick, VRï's first album, Ty Ein Tadau ('House Of Our Fathers), released in 2018, "felt like a ramraid", "a supermarket dash", or "a search for sonic identity." In other words, a statement of intent. Or even, as Jordan suggests, a retaliation: against the doubters, the cynics, the killjoys, past and present.

The punters and the critics had their own views about the Ty Ein Tadau: Adam Walton from BBC Radio Wales called it 'f**king brilliant.' Folk Wales talked about 'a magic chemistry that is absolutely bewildering, mesmerising and thoroughly addictive.' The album won the Best Album and the Best Traditional Welsh Language Track at the Welsh Folk Awards, a nomination at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and a nomination for the Welsh Music Prize. VRï were invited to represent Wales at The Last Night of the Proms, alongside singer, writer and poet Beth Celyn, one of the band's closest collaborators, whose brilliantly adapted renditions of old traditional tunes, especially about women, have done much to expand VRï thematic and narrative scope. 

But if the album was a ramraid, an opening salvo, a retaliation, those words don't apply to the new album: islais a genir ('a sung whisper'). "It feels more like an acceptance," he says. "The chapel tradition is no longer a threat. Not many go to chapel anymore, so the main purpose is trying to find what was there before. How it all started."

Patrick corroborates: "This album is more about the soul of the music, how it fits with our identity as a people." It's the trio's love song for the old, because the old is "ours," (Jordan). "If Welsh people don't engage with it, there's not necessarily any reason for other people to engage with it either." And because the old teaches us who we are. "We need the old because no tradition ever truly goes away," Jordan continues. "It constantly trickles down into the now. People are informed, opinions are made, and more intrinsic instincts are developed from what came before us."

But their love isn't blind. They know that not everything old is worth saving. Many of the tunes gathering dust in the archives aren't really that special, and certain 'traditions', like homophobia or the dominance of the patriarchy can and should be quietly dumped.

In any case, a love song for the old, if it's sung with wisdom, skill and passion, will always be a love song for the new. For the present. For life. The characters that people VRï's songs–plough boys, pit ponies, new recruits, milkmaids, ox-drivers–come alive in the imagination when we realise that they're the equivalent of today's zero-hours contract worker, single mum or stay at home carer. The people who struggle at the bottom of the heap. In essence, their song remains the same. Only the style, the sonic clothing changes.

Some of the tunes in VRï's repertoire may be two hundred years old and more, but their mission is to make them feel intensely alive. "The way we make our music is fraught with danger," says Patrick. "I guess if you were in a band with a drummer or a bass player, it's an anchor, keeping you grounded. Whereas we're like three helium balloons just revolving around each other…[and] when that chamber music energy happens, it happens for real…it can feel a bit like you're flying [or] floating off the ground."

Jordan compares it to a tightrope. On either side of the rope, the music is fine, quaffable. "But the really magic moment is such a thin little strip down the middle and it's really hard to stay on that. Sometimes, if you think about it,  you fall off it. But if you don't think about it, just let it happen…I dunno…"

That's what name VRï means in old Welsh: 'lifting', 'levitating'. "Sort of a catch-all phrase for upness" (Patrick). Up and over that Berlin Wall, or maybe sat on it, waving your shirt in the air, singing for pure joy, playing your fiddle like yesterday's chains have melted away, and tomorrow never knows.