Music, Activism, and Little Acts of Kindness: An interview with Beth Prior

Beth Prior is an exciting new songwriting talent whose music has been described as ‘what happens when Reggae, Folk, Dub and Ska meet’. Along with her 7-piece ‘Collective’ she will be performing in Oxford on 22 September. Before the gig I caught up with Beth to ask her about her unique sound, and the responsibilities of being a musician today.

Tell us a bit about your musical journey so far. How did you start out?

When I was sixteen, I was singing and a friend handed me a guitar and showed me a few chords. I fell in love instantly and bought my first guitar with my entire savings and studied furiously to learn. Since then I’ve been pretty much self-taught. My first song was written within days from first contact and using only two chords! My first performance was in a local variety show in Kington, as a guitar/vocal trio with a good friend Kate and, funnily enough, with Ellie Goulding, a friend I’d been acquainted with since primary school. I’d caught the bug!

I’ve always loved rhythm, I played in a samba band for many years, which I’m sure is reflected in my guitar playing. My songwriting developed further while in a duo (The Daughters) in 2005 and I started to find my feet. I performed as a vocalist with The Jangle Band (the lovechild of electro EDM producer ‘Jangle’) and BC All Skas whilst still honing my songwriting skills. The singles ‘Leader’s’ and ‘East to West’ were born of this time.

After moving to Shrewsbury from Bishops Castle in 2011, I started performing as a solo artist. The end of 2011 saw the release of my self-titled debut EP, Beth Prior. The single ‘Leaders’ received generous play on local and national radio. Later in 2013 ‘Autumn Song’ was pulled from the archives and made song of the month on BBC Introducing Shropshire. Summer 2013 witnessed the birth of the Nomad EP, which was independently released in January 2014. That year I then toured the UK and Norway. The title track, ‘Nomad’, received radio play, reaching audiences as far as Canada, Australia and the USA!

Tell us some more about your sound. What influences are you drawing on?

The godfather of reggae, Bob Marley has to be my first answer. What an incredible songwriter! He’s so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I just had to make a reggae album – I’ve even been told that I tap my foot to the reggae off-beat when I’m asleep! However, he is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of my inspiration. A huge variety of music has conspired to create Little Acts of Kindness: from The Smiths to Lauren Hill; Gypsy-Swing; acoustic artists like John Martyn and Nick Drake; trip-hop legends like Massive Attack and Portishead; and of course the swag of early work from the late, great Amy Winehouse.

Today’s reggae/dub scene is a massive influence as well; Fat Freddy’s Drop, Natty, and The Cat Empire for instance are bands who quite honestly drive me crazy (in the best way possible). Their fusion of reggae with pop, soul, hip-hop, and Latino vibes just sends me to one hell of a blissful place. What can I say, there’s just so much good music out there just waiting to be discovered!

This album is not just about the music. Could you tell us about the charity aspect?

Although the music is what gets me out of bed every day, I’d be lying to say I’ve not been deeply moved by the hardship and tragedies we see happening in the world every day. I’m lucky – I’ve had a loving upbringing in a world that’s not ravaged by war or poverty. When I see refugees fleeing their homes, risking their lives to find a safer world to live in, and when I see decent human beings having to beg for food and sleep on the streets, it moves me to do something. Seeing good friends pulling people out of boats in Lesbos last year drove a stake through my heart and I decided to do what I do best – use my music to help. So I pulled my own little act of kindness out of the bag and am donating all proceeds from the sale of the digital single ‘Little Acts of Kindness’ to my local homelessness charity, The Ark, and to the Hope Project in Lesbos.

From Bob Geldof campaigning against Brexit to some members of UB40 fighting to keep Jeremy Corbyn in a job, there are many current examples of musicians using their fame to support political ends. Given your involvement with charity what are your thoughts on music as a form of activism?

I think, as an artist, there’s no better way to get your voice heard. If I didn’t put into my music what influences my heart and thoughts, I’d be a fraud. I write about what I see and what I feel; be that political, emotional, or anecdotal. It’s what minstrels did many years ago, and as songwriters, we’re simply a derivative of that right? However I also firmly believe that although we as artists and writers have been writing songs of protest, it’s time to start writing and promoting the solutions.

What are you most looking forward to about this tour?

I’m looking forward to raising the roof; to feeling the band expand and diversify as we play together; to feeling the crowd swell and ebb to the musical nuances and the phat bass; and to the joy of playing what’s been in my head for so long to the people who’ve supported my career so far. I’m looking forward to finding new friends and gathering more material for the next album!

Credit: Giselle Louis Ryan

Where do you see your music heading next, will you experiment with new fusions or combinations of instruments?

Funny you should ask that – last year on my birthday I received a most wonderful present of a marxophone. I looked for somewhere to place it in this album and it didn’t fit organically, so I’m hoping a place for it will emerge soon. I’ve got some exciting collaborations waiting to happen over the next year or so, and although I’m bursting to say, I can’t talk about it yet! I’m also making an exciting announcement on tour about what’s happening next and how my fans and patrons can get involved! Come along and find out…

Ben Horton

Beth Prior is performing at The Cellar, Oxford, on Thursday 22 September. For more information about the forthcoming concert and tour, please visit her website.

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