Skinny Lister are not your average, modern day, gentrified English folk group. Fronted by Dan Heptinstall and Lorna Thomas; a vocalist with a lusty cackle and flirtatious presence, the London based five-piece hail from across England. Borrowing the nickname from the Lister family, pioneers in the use of anesthetic, the band have grown naturally and organically over the past two years. Yorkshire born songwriter Heptinstall, Lorna’s older brother Max, and long-time shanty singer Sam ‘Mule’ Brace, met some time ago at a folk club in London’s Greenwich area. The arrival of Tyneside bassist Dan Gray and the naturally exuberant Lorna lifted them into another realm.
Up on their stomping feet and clicking their heels, the Skinny Lister sound took hold as Dan’s perceptive ballads and folkie idylls were boosted by an eruption of a rambunctious free spirited rum fueled party music. Soon the Skinny Lister sound was charging down the nation’s canals and waterways, bursting into spontaneous song in pubs and clubs, kicking up a summer frenzy at numerous festivals. Over 30 festivals in fact, a nonstop work rate that saw them acknowledged and awarded by PRS as the ‘Hardest Working Band’ of summer 2011. “We travelled hundreds of miles together in a Land Rover with a double bass strapped to the roof, sharing the driving, playing gigs every night and going out to party afterwards. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves but it does bond you as family.” Dan recollects.
Their allure is immediate – at a time when modern homegrown folk music often spells designer bearded, theme park Americanisation, Skinny Lister are a welcome throwback to earthier bands. Their musical blend has something of The Pogues’ infectious camaraderie and jovial recklessness combined with the bucolic English landscape of Alfred Wainwright’s fell walking guides.
Now, captured by producer David Wrench (Bat for Lashes, James Yorkston) on debut album Forge & Flagon, the band’s distinctive qualities make their mark. Titled after a homemade pub ran by Lorna and Max’s family friends, Forge & Flagon marks Skinny Lister as an outfit who are decidedly more than the sum of their parts. Galvanised by months of road action they transform traditional and contemporary influence into a singular sound. See them live and the impression is fortified. Not least as Lorna’s outgoing crowd connecting personality is replicated by the rum dispensing, skirt hiking, leg shaking, five strong, all female, party starting troupe the Skinny Sisters.
The group’s folk roots go back to Leicester where Lorna and melodeon playing Max spent much of their youth at local folk clubs, hanging out under the stairs as the traditional sound filled the air. When Lorna reconnected with Max and Dan in London she found their interest in the local Thameside folk scene had blossomed to provide an exciting outlet for her newly finessed singing and ukulele skills.
“As soon as they put the diddles, polkas and jigs in there, there was no holding me back,” she laughs.
“We never sat down again,” explains Dan logically.
The folk fever proved infectious and irresistible; “For years on the first weekend after Plough Monday every year, my dad has gone to sing songs and get legless with the local Molly Dancers. I disowned him at the time but now, of course, I join him!” notes Lorna.
“We all do.” Chimes Dan.
“The idea of a whole pub belting out a good tune, it’s what pubs are for,” sighs Lorna.
In an era when singing a song in a pub can get you thrown out for rowdiness, Skinny Lister – not to mention the Skinny Sisters – are a joyful reassertion of community principles.
“If you can capture something like that in a gig, people are going to go away feeling part of something bigger rather than just standing around with a beer,” Lorna reasons.
“We aren’t taking the piss, it’s a serious primal thing. You don’t need to have been a sailor to appreciate a sea shanty.” insists Dan.
The debut album unfurls Skinny Lister’s charms in detail. Up tempo carouser John Kanaka, a trade sea shanty dating from Mule’s early Greenwich days, and stomping celebrations Trawler Man and Forty Pound Wedding; (a song written by Party George – Lorna and Max’s father – which they reinvent with characteristic verve) are winningly contrasted with the reflective coming of age waltz Seventeen Summers, the lovely nature appreciating Peregrine Fly and the skinny-dipping frolics of Colours.
Skinny Lister the stand-apart folk band – not afraid to match sensitivity with a high kicking free for all. Time to open the floodgates and get the deck party started. (But beware the Skinny Sisters, folks – those ladies take no prisoners!)