Craig Harris, All Music Guide
Hilary James has achieved one of those rare things, a successful career in music spanning over thirty years. She was one of the first musicians to set up her own label back in 1979, which has since released a total of twenty five albums, including five of her own highly acclaimed solo CDs and a catalogue of best selling CDs, music books and videos by long-time partner, mandolin virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist, Simon Mayor.
Possessed of ‘one of Britain’s finest voices’ (BBC Radio 4) she is also a fine songwriter and instrumentalist. Self-taught on double bass and guitar, she rarely appears these days without her trademark bass mandolin. She also nurtures a keen interest in music for children and presented music education programmes for BBC Schools Radio for six years. She was one of the last presenters of the iconic BBC Children’s Television programme Play School and together with Simon Mayor recorded six CDs for children. She has illustrated and co-written two picture books for Top That! Publishing PLC and The Musical Mystery Tour children’s song book, which was originally published by Faber Music.
A lively wit (and at times side-splitting humour) has been a signature part of all the Mayor/James collaborations. Together they have founded several bands including most recently the Mandolinquents, (Britain’s first modern mandolin quartet), Slim Panatella and the Mellow Virginians, and, going right back to their first student days, Spredthick, with fellow student Andrew Mathewson. This trio gained early national acclaim with headlines in the Melody Maker, an appearance on the main stage at the Cambridge Festival and first place in a national music competition with Hilary taking the award for ‘most outstanding artist’.
While the majority of Hilary’s recent repertoire is comprised of traditional English, Irish and Scottish ballads, she is equally at home singing Irving Berlin, country blues, Vivaldi or Bizet. She first attracted attention during the four years that she studied Fine Art at Reading University. In addition to running the student folk club she sang with the University Big Band and occasionally disappeared to the music department to practice a bit of Handel. After university she took a postgraduate course in education and became concerned about the lack of quality children’s music in England. Together with Mayor, she formed The Musical Mystery Tour children’s show visiting theatres, arts centres and schools with a specially written show.
In 2008 she discovered her old student home, St Andrews Hall had undergone major renovations and reopened as The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Seeing this as the perfect setting for traditional music she proposed a series of spring concerts. “Songs, Stories and Traditions” begins it’s fourth season in March 2012 and was the catalyst for Hilary’s latest CD, English Sketches.
With the last track (Bredon Hill) in the bag, I decided to take a trip to Bredon, camera and sketch book in hand, to record the hill on what turned out to be the last warm day of a beautiful Indian Summer. The greens of trees and hedges were just starting to give way to a peppering of ambers and reds. I’ve had it in mind for some while to combine my love of traditional song and visual art: the printed parts for this album presented an opportunity to dip my toe in the water. I’m now pondering ways to develop the project further.
English Sketches isn’t, in fact, the first time I’ve illustrated a CD cover. Some years ago Simon Mayor and I recorded five CDs of original songs for children: the Musical Mystery Tour series.
These featured my first cartoon style illustrations. I had so much fun doing them that I sharpened my pencils and set about illustrating two entire songs as rhyming picture books. This turned into a much bigger commitment than I’d anticipated. I’ve since spoken to seasoned children’s book illustrators who always put aside six months to illustrate a 32 page book. Well…I calculate that I’ll be in my one hundred and thirtieth year before I complete all the projects I have in mind!