Folk singer-songwriter and poet Jonah Corren releases his new single ‘Borderlines’ today – framed by the names of train stations on the journey from his rural West Dorset home to his university residence in Birmingham, it’s an interrogation of the dissonance between urban and countryside life, the nostalgia of home and the spotlight shone on its faults once you experience a new place and community.
The track came about with funding from the BBC’s New Creatives initiative and sees Corren team up with rapper and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Sawday, aka Dizraeli, who added the sparse arrangements and well-chosen field recordings that bring out the sense of limbo as Corren tries to make sense of his two worlds.
We caught up with Jonah to speak about the importance of place in his music and he shared his playlist of West Dorset artists.
What makes West Dorset a special place for music?
Growing up in West Dorset, it feels impossible for people of an artistic bent not to create work inspired by the landscape. Perhaps most famously, Thomas Hardy fictionalised an entire slice of the South West that included the whole of Dorset in the ‘Wessex’ of his novels, and I think the urge to contribute to this collective mythology is something that many who grow up in the area feel. Music is no exception, and I think it’s a testament to this that so many incredible artists have emerged from an area that is so sparsely populated.
Is there a scene or a sound that you’d describe as being specific or special to the area?
It’s difficult to describe West Dorset as having a particular ‘scene’ per-say, as the communities that make it up are so disparate. Many artists who grew up in the area later moved on to cities such as Bristol and London to establish their career, taking the energy of the place with them. I think there’s a sense of pervasive melancholy which comes with growing up in a rural community, and that’s really damn useful for writing songs. There are no cities in West Dorset: it’s all smaller towns and villages, coastlines and farmland. That creates this trance-like sensibility which ties the music of the area together; it’s not anything definite, but I think it’s there if you know what you’re looking for.
Give us a quick history lesson – who are some of your favourite bands and artists from West Dorset?
Casting a slightly wider net, Coldplay’s Chris Martin grew up in Sherborne (North Dorset), a landscape not dissimilar to its westerly neighbour. Zeroing in on West Dorset however, protest folk icon Billy Bragg famously lives in a house overlooking the cliffs at Burton Bradstock, and folk-rock trailblazer PJ Harvey grew up in Beaminster, and attended the same sixth form as myself… coincidence? Folk legends Show of Hands too, while not Dorset natives, did record their album ‘Live 92’ at the Bull Hotel in Bridport, and have been staples on the local scene ever since.
And who should we be looking out for right now?
Fenne Lily, who made waves in the Bristol scene before shooting to stardom in the US (supporting the likes of Lucy Dacus and SOAK), also attended the same school as PJ Harvey and myself. In fact, she rather publicly denounced her old music teacher (who I won’t name) on Instagram Live during an interview with Lucy Dacus, saying that he told her she would never succeed as a musician. Whoops. Her latest album, ‘BREACH’ was released by Dead Oceans last year, and is phenomenal.
West Dorset is also home to a myriad of emerging artists, including Eve Appleton, and Ruby Dew, Aidan Simpson, Abi Rich and Ella Squirrell, who are all worth keeping an eye out for. Eve’s debut EP ‘Garden’, was released in 2019, and is an excellent addition to the softer edges of the trad-folk scene. Ruby Dew, meanwhile, released a single ‘Rehashtag the World’ as part of Chris Difford’s Song Club last year, and there’s undoubtedly more to come. You can also spot her as a partygoer in the music video for my single ‘Dreaming and Petty Crime’.
Where are your favourite local places to play or see live music?
In Bridport, the Electric Palace and The Arts Centre are both well-established venues, regularly pulling in larger touring acts. In Dorchester, the Corn Exchange is your best bet, and the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis has some excellent music passing through as well. Much of the good stuff happens on the downlow though; every other country pub is an intimate music venue a few nights a month.
There are a smattering of festivals around the West Dorset area. Larmertree Gardens is on Cranbourne Chase in Northeast Dorset, but it famously hosts both Larmertree Festival and End of The Road, each major events on the indie-festival calendar. Bridport meanwhile hosts Jurassic Fields festival, and Burton Bradstock has seen Fuelled by Cider come and go. Lyme Regis too has had its fare share of festivals, including Big Mix and the busking festival. The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, whilst largely a trade union and political event, hosts a variety of left-wing musical acts- Billy Bragg is a regular performer. As a fellow leftie, watch out for my name on the programme next year.
Aside from the bands, who are some of the local heroes working to keep music thriving in the area?
Dorset Music Service plays a key part in getting young people engaged in music from school-age, and there’s no doubt some of the talent emerging from the area wouldn’t have picked up their instruments without them. West Dorset is an area lots of young people grow up in and subsequently move away from (myself included), so it’s vital that the resources and people are there to instil a love of music for them to take forward into their adult lives.
I had extremely formative musical experiences as teenager with B Sharp, a youth music organisation who operate out of Lyme Regis. They put on regular short courses to get young people engaged with music, as well as offering development programmes for youth music leaders. They are also the organisers of the aforementioned Lyme Regis Busking Festival, and have a regular presence on Lyme Bay Radio.
What influence has living in West Dorset had on you as a songwriter?
My debut EP Dreaming and Petty Crime, released last year, is all about growing up in West Dorset. There are descriptions of the majesty of the surroundings, the boredom and suffocation of growing up in a rural area, and exploration of issues such as animal agriculture and urbanisation. I have been, and continue to be, constantly inspired by the area in which I grew up, and I don’t think I will ever fully stop writing about it. The nostalgia I feel for my upbringing there is not entirely logical, and the whole area is masked for me in the fuzzy glow of childhood, even if much of that time was far less idyllic than I’ll allow myself to admit. These things all combine honestly though, and form that same pervasive melancholy that I mentioned earlier. It’s a frustrating thing to live with when you’re trying to look forward, but it is an excellent creative tool.
Your new single contrasts your life in the South West with living in Birmingham whilst at university – how would you sum up the differences in the music scene in these two contrasting locations?
My perspective of the music scene in Birmingham was shaped by the university. I was part of the live music society at UoB, and we spent our time and resources putting on live gigs, open mics, jam nights, band mixers and songwriters’ sessions, trying to create as wide a variety of opportunities as we could for aspiring musicians. Also a large part of the university’s music culture is New Street Records, an independent, student-run record label that gives student artists the resources to make, well, records, as well as booking their own shows and collaborating with other promoters to put on their artists.
Birmingham is home to a variety of independent music collectives and groups, meeting in cafes, pubs and community spaces all across the city, exchanging ideas and hosting shows, pushing each other to create and collaborate. There are a huge variety too of exciting indie venues in Birmingham, including The Sunflower Lounge, The Actress and Bishop and (my personal fave) The Hare and Hounds.
Essentially, the two locations are about as different as they can be for opportunities for emerging artists. This is the reason many musicians who grow up in West Dorset move away, often to Bristol or London, to establish themselves. As far as I see it, the two places have served different purposes in my own journey as a songwriter; my upbringing West Dorset gave me the tools to write music, and living in Birmingham gave me opportunities to develop, and share my work.
Have you noticed any differences in your own approach to music as a result of living in different surroundings during that time?
My approach to making music certainly became more collaborative at university. The EP I released last year has my name on it, but it was created with the help of three-piece garage rock band Ponderosa Sun Club (Chris White, Christopher Williams and Sam Naylor), all of whom were involved with the live music society, and attended songwriters’ sessions. Giving and receiving feedback with a community of artists certainly pushed me to create more interesting, well-thought-out songs, and I’m extremely grateful for everyone who was a part of that.
Moving away from West Dorset was also entirely necessary, as it helped me access the homesickness melancholy that I then used to write. My EP, and my new release ‘Borderlines’ are defined by this, and they reckon with the intricacies and details of its foundation. ‘Borderlines’ in particular is all about the destructive power of nostalgia.
Check out Jonah Corren’s West Dorset playlist:
Eve Appleton – Garden
A gorgeously aesthetic folk song, effortlessly catchy and poetic. The video was directed and produced by George and Hetty Earwicker, who also did the video for my track ‘Dreaming and Petty Crime’.
Ruby Dew – Rehashtag the World
Ruby’s song from Chris Difford’s Song Club; a blueprint for young people on how to navigate this treacherous time in our lives. This live video was filmed at The Lyric Theatre in Bridport.
Show of Hands – Country Life
A defining, iconic folk-rock tune from the Westcountry’s foremost folk duo- bonus point if you can guess the Dorset town mentioned in the parable.
Billy Bragg – New England
The voice of a generation, who has long since adopted West Dorset as his home.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
An anthem of discontent, rich with Dorset-bred melancholy.
Fenne Lily – I Used to Hate My Body, But Now I Just Hate You
The lyrically rich standout track from her 2020 album, with some serious content warnings for self-harm and depression.
Aidan Simpson – The Garden
An understated, powerful acoustic performance from an emerging West Dorset talent.
Mandy for Girls – Leaving
Measured grunge-rock with a distinctly Dorset edge.
Ólafur Arnalds – Broadchurch Main Theme
Making excellent use of the towering cliffs of West Bay, ITV’s Broadchurch, created by West Dorset native Chris Chibnall, put the area back on the map. Ólafur Arnalds’ brooding, swelling theme captures the tone of the show, and the landscape upon which it hinged.
Interview by Paul Maps
Header image used under Creative Commons licence from Gilmark Gallery