There are several bands called Firefly, but only one called Firefly Burning. And there is only one that sounds like this north east London quintet. Some have been brave enough to have a go at defining their sound. “Folk chamber pop” is one description hurled their way; “barbershop krautrock” and “neo-classical Javanese Gamelan” are two others. Reference points for their mix of vocal purity (lead singer Bea Hankey is largely responsible for the air-clear tones, although it’s worth noting that they all sing) and instrumental complexity have ranged from Sufjan Stevens to Steve Reich, Fleet Foxes to Gentle Giant. Firefly Burning themselves welcome the delighted befuddlement of onlookers and fans.
“We get called all sorts,” says John Barber, who handles several instruments for this eclectic outfit including piano and gongs. “We’ve played at prog festivals, been on the fringes of the folk circuit, done gigs in classical venues and more straightforward indie venues. We don’t fit in anywhere, which is good, I think, although it can make things a little tricky…”
To make up for the shortfall in money lost because concert bookers don’t know where to place them, the five members of Firefly Burning all hold down day jobs – mostly as jobbing musicians, composing music for choirs, theatres or orchestras, or playing with other bands – although lucre is mainly regarded as a necessary evil. “Car ads? No, none of us are interested in commercial music at all,” says Barber emphatically.
No, Firefly Burning are about art for art’s sake, and the audience’s response. They especially enjoy the reactions they get from prog crowds.
“A prog audience is a listening audience and we go down well in places where people really listen,” he decides. “There’s a lot going on instrumentally in our music, a lot harmonically, and some of the structures of the songs are quite unconventional, and that appeals to a prog audience.”
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There have been two Firefly Burning albums: the first (2012’s Lightships) self-produced, the second a more accomplished affair (2015’s Skeleton Hill) produced by Tim Friese-Green, much-loved by the band for his work with Talk Talk and for his own project Heligoland. The feeling’s mutual: after catching them supporting North Sea Radio Orchestra in a church behind Denmark Street, Friese-Green was “sufficiently captivated to want to go into the studio with them”. Oh, and Bea Hankey, the producer adds, “Sings like an angel on crystal meth.”
Firefly Burning are busy working on their third album and doing covers – reworkings, radical overhauls – of some of their favourite tracks, plus attendant videos: Portishead’s Wandering Star, PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? and Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. These have allowed the band to explore the ideas and viewpoints of other artists. But for their own music they have their own agenda, often using pre-existing texts – by illustrious poets and authors past, including Sufi poet Rumi, EE Cummings and Thomas Hardy – and their own takes on “the big themes”.
Are they likely to write a song about the state of the world and the parlous state in which it finds itself?
“No,” Barber replies, virtually reaching down the phone line to throttle Prog’s writer. “And there’s absolutely no way we would. We did try writing a song about how fucked up the economy is and it didn’t make it onto our album. We’re essentially five romantics, writing about the big themes: love, life, death. We want to escape the world of Donald Trump when we make music. I can’t think of anything worse than having his name connected in any way with any of the music we make or things that we do.”
Bea Hankey (vocals), Jack Ross (guitars, percussion), James Redwood (violin, mandolin), John Barber (piano, gamelan, synths), Sam Glazer (cello)
A bunch of olde worlde folkies left seduced and abandoned by a Krautrock band as a chamber pop quartet look on askance
Skeleton Hill is out now on Fathom