Ahead of the release of his second album 'Needle and Thread', we took time to talk to up-and-coming folk artist Dom Prag about the new record, recording during a pandemic, and life on England's waterways.
FT: You are about to release your second full-length album which features a mix of traditional songs and your own compositions. Is it daunting writing songs to go on an album alongside classics such as ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, ‘Foster’s Mill’, and ‘The Brisk Lad’?
DM: Yes, it is daunting. When I was writing these songs, I thought a lot about what message I wanted to get across with the whole album. I wanted my songs to reflect the traditional songs I had chosen, and complement them to pay homage. I also wanted to draw parallels between the subject matter of the trad songs and some present-day issues that we’re all facing now so that the original songs are a continuation of the tradition. Hopefully that all comes across.
FT: Speaking of your original compositions, I’m particularly drawn towards ‘The Shoemender’. Did you base the character on anyone you know or is it a fictional character you used to highlight the plight of small independent traders?
DM: It is a fictional character. Initially, it was a shoemaker but a cobbler seemed much more appropriate, tying in with the title track, ‘Needle and Thread’, with the idea of fixing broken things. When we were making the music video for ‘The Shoemender’, we filmed the street scenes in a few different towns. We also got in touch with Adrian – a skilled cobbler at a little shop called Star Cobblers, up in Barnard Castle – and those are Adrian’s hands you see working on the machine in the video. His shop is amazing and it’s lovely to watch him work.
FT: You follow it up with an original instrumental, ‘The Shoemender’s Tune’. Was this always the plan?
DM: It was always a plan to have one instrumental track on the album somewhere. It would have been a bit of a waste not to with Phil Beer’s fiddle and Joely Koos’ cello to work with. I’ve wanted to compose and arrange tunes for ensembles for ages, and it was so much fun. I love the way instruments can weave in and out and around each other. I will definitely be doing it more in the future.
FT: The songs on the album reflect the plight of the underdog. Is that a direction you deliberately chose to take on the record?
DM: Absolutely. It’s a theme in a lot of my work, I think, going back to my first EP with ‘Brighton Song’ and ‘Unemployment Song’. I guess it’s a reflection of my own experiences and struggles, and those of the people around me. Sometimes I think of it as a feeling of being crushed beneath the wheel of a machine bigger than you can see. I think it’s what I feel the strongest need to put into song.
FT: You began playing classical guitar at an early age and despite discovering other genres of music, you have never switched away from nylon strings. What are the advantages of using those strings within the traditional music genre and how does it suit your playing style?
DM: My dad is a classical guitar teacher so the house was always full of classical guitars. I’m often tempted to shell out for a nice steel string but I haven’t done yet. In the meantime, I’m happy sticking to nylon. I suppose there aren’t that many folk classical guitarists, so it’s a pretty good niche. The classical’s big body also means you can get an incredible dynamic range, and a lot of different tones by changing up your technique with the right hand. It’s good for doing both very quiet and very loud, so I try and play around with dynamics a lot to get the most out of the instrument.
FT: The recording process for ‘Needle and Thread’ was affected by the pandemic. How did you manage that situation and finish the album?
DM: I had to be very patient. I first went to Phil’s studio to get some initial demos recorded in February 2020, and so for the next few months, we just sat on it and watched all the gigs get cancelled. But Phil said he was still game if I was, and we eventually managed to piece it together. There was lots of remote recording by Rowan Piggott, Rosie Hodgson, Tom Evans, and my brother Richard; a pop-up studio in Rickmansworth where Joely and Odette Michell laid down some socially distanced cello and vocals, respectively; and finally some remote mixing sessions with Mark Tucker at The Green Room, where he live-streamed me the mix as he was doing it (what a world we live in!) and eventually it was done. So it was a group effort, and I’m grateful to everyone for making it happen.
FT: In July 2020 you moved onto a narrowboat and began cruising some of England’s waterways. How has that been and, given the working class related nature of ‘Needle and Thread’, do you find it somewhat ironic that what was once a network of industrial highways are now predominantly used for pleasure by the chosen few?
DM: I’d have to disagree with the ‘predominantly’ part. While during the summer and the holidays there are lots of hire boats and pleasure cruising, it’s a different story for those of us who live all year round on our boats. With the state of the housing market, more and more people are living on boats, because it’s more affordable and economical. It has its hardships – that first winter in lockdown was particularly hard. The live-aboard community is incredibly friendly though, and everyone helps each other because living on the cut isn’t always easy. I did some work with Banbury Canal CIC last year composing music for their podcast, which documented the history of the canal through interviews with locals who remembered it in its industrial heyday. It was a great project, and it was lovely to be a part of something preserving the history of our waterways. The canals may have evolved into something else now, but in my experience, it’s a hybrid. They are used by people cruising for pleasure, but also they are still a place where a lot of people live and form communities to support each other and preserve the old ways.
FT: Thanks for your time and good luck with the album.
DM: Thank you very much and all the best.
‘Needle and Thread’ is released on 25th February 2022.