Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Ben Please and Beth Porter perform across the UK, Europe, and now the United States as The Bookshop Band, with a repertoire of songs inspired by the duo's voracious reading list. They launch a three-week US tour of bookstores and libraries at Hoboken's Little City Books on Wednesday, January 16. In addition, the American Booksellers’ Association (ABA) invited the band to perform for its members at its Winter Institute this month in Albuquerque. Based in Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, Porter and Please have collaborated with celebrated and best-selling authors on their tours. They started their musical adventure at a bookstore called Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights, which remains their home base. Please and Porter write new songs about the books they read, and judging from their eclectic (and copious) repertoire, they read quite a bit. We corresponded with Ben Please prior to the group's arrival in the United States.

Q: I appears your discography starts in 2012, so is that when you started performing together? I also see that the band is intrinsically linked to Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights. So shall we start there? How did this all happen? What was the inspiration, what was your link to the store. Did you begin as a performance group or was the idea always to write and then record these songs?

Ben: It all started in 2010 when Nic Bottomley, the owner of an independent bookshop in Bath, UK called Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights asked me if I would put together a group to play some music at the shop's author evenings. Nic knew me through my previous band Urusen, as he stocked our albums and we had performed in the shop. I had recently met two amazing songwriters - Beth Porter at a local open mic night, singing her songs and playing cello, and also Poppy Pitt during a musical lock-in at my local pub. They both agreed to join me for this season of five events at the bookshop, and we all just saw it as an interesting songwriting challenge. It hadn't actually crossed our minds to write songs inspired by the books themselves at this point, but rather we chose folk tales. Each event at the bookshop was themed around a different country and so we picked folk stories from that country to write songs inspired by. After three months we found ourselves in December with 10 new songs so we quickly recorded them and got the album into Mr B's to sell before Christmas. We had to think of a name and it was obvious to all that we should be called The Bookshop Band, as that is exactly what we were.

Beth: When Mr B's asked us if we wanted to carry on after the first season, we upped our fee to 2x glasses of wine and parking and said 'absolutely.' The second season of author events were themed around dystopian novels, with the first being an American author called Paula McLain who was coming in to discuss her new fiction biography of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, called The Paris Wife. The theme of the night was "Adultery Night", so we were of course a little stumped as to where we should draw our inspiration from this time, so we turned to the book. The experience of writing a song after you have immersed yourself in the writing of the lives and stories of others was wonderful - you could write with a voice that you never could had you not just read the book. The songs are personal, as they are our own responses to the books, rather than adaptations, but as a songwriter you have been given a new perspective, which is amazing. The response from the bookshop, the audience and the author was so positive that we felt this was the only way to go forward and the band's collaboration with the bookshop and the books they curate took on a whole new level.

Q: You must be voracious readers! What's interesting to me is that you're not writing about David Copperfield or Harry Potter, I've never heard of most of the books that inspired the songs on your Bandcamp page. How would you describe your taste in reading material? Do you try to write a song about every book you read, or does a book have to speak to you and inspire a song? How does that process work exactly?

Beth: I think we'd be a lot more successful if we did just pick famous books and best sellers, but it wouldn't be the same thing. All the books we write songs inspired by have been curated for us, mostly by Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights who are huge champions of contemporary new literature, so there are lots of debut authors in our repertoire, alongside some of the more well known ones. We would not have picked up these books if left to our own devices, but are so grateful that through The Bookshop Band, we have. Our reading horizons become broader. When people come to one of our concerts, in a sense they are also receiving the same curation of new books that we have had. That's not to say they are not some very well known authors in there - Mr B's lands some fantastic authors, and as word got out that there was a band that was going to write a song inspired by the book, authors such as Kate Moss, Louis de Bernières and Man Booker prizewinner Yann Martel were approaching the bookshop.

Ben: We're actually really slow readers - I can't really read a book any faster than my parents would read it to me as a child, so we normally don't finish the book until the morning of the event. You don't often get given deadlines as a songwriter, but the prospect of the author sitting a few feet away from you at 7 pm that evening really focuses the mind, gets rid of all procrastination, stops us second guessing whether we're writing the "right" song or not, and we just go with our gut - it's actually a very liberating process. We try to read the book not thinking about the fact we're going to write a song about it - we just try to read it for what it is. Once we finish there is no set process, just a deadline. Personally I feel as if I have never written a song in my life and so we very much make it up as we go along. But something always does come. There's so much inspiration in a book. If a hundred people or a hundred thousand people wrote a song inspired by the same book, they would all be different as our responses to books and stories is so entwined with our own personal stories and perspectives. It's liberating to know there is no right song.

Q: I love that on this American tour, you're playing what we in the States called "mom and pop" bookstores, not big chain stores. While it looked like Amazon might make the brick-and-mortar bookstore extinct, it seems as though these small privately owned and operated stores are experiencing a revival. I'm sure this is a trend that matters a great deal to you, what are your feelings? What is the special joy of browsing and buying in a real book store?

Ben: There is strength in diversity. Every bookshop is different - they don't have unlimited warehouse space to stock all the titles, just a crammed bunch of shelves that they can squeeze a selection of books on to - so they are only going to put books on that they love - each bookshop is a curation whether they realise it or not, representing in one way or another the character of the bookseller and the space. I think there is always a place for this type of shop, bastions of culture and art on the high street and they are to be cherished. Ultimately it is curation that drives how and where new authors are discovered and nurtured, and when you see industries where the curation of new talent increasingly comes from a monoculture of corporate companies who hold the monopolies on what is to be the next big thing, the pubic inevitably receives a far lower quality and diversity of talent. You see this in music, you see it in publishing and no doubt you see it everywhere if you look. But bookshops are the antithesis of this, in the same way that little indie record stores, or small live music venues are the cure to this problem in the music world.

Q: The Bookshop Band's music is clearly inspired by British folks music and you've been notably compared to Fairport Convention. What is the appeal of that sound to you? Is this your only musical project or do you play in other bands and make other kinds of music as well?

Ben: For sure our music is heavily influenced by the music we grew up with and love, but I think that the diversity of subjects and emotions that get thrown our way from the huge range of books we read mean the songs we write don't necessarily have to fit with a particular genre, aside from them all sharing a common inspiration from a book. We certainly have our own styles however; Beth has played cello for a huge number of artists, from alternative rock bands like Royal Blood, to pop artists like Mel C and Peter Gabriel, to English folk artists like Eliza Carthy. This year she is releasing her second solo album, under the band name MARSHES, due out in early summer, which is a big sounding dark pop record. As soon as she gets back from the tour she'll be touring with a collective of songwriters from all over the UK who have responded musically to poems in a book called The Lost Words, by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane which celebrates all the worlds that have been taken out of the Oxford Children's English Dictionary: words like conker, otter, daffodil, replaced by new words like tweet, lol and hashtag.

Beth: Ben works a lot with his animator brother Mikey Please, composing and recording music for his short films. They actually won a BAFTA in 2011 for a short animation called "The Eagleman Stag" which was long listed for an Oscar the following year. We've since set up a little music production studio where we live and recently got asked to pitch for a Super Bowl advert. We'll find out on the last date of the tour, Feb 3rd if we got that one! Come celebrate / commiserate with us then.

Q: It looks like this project has enabled you to do quite a bit of international touring. Do you find distinct differences between, say, U.K. and American audiences? Or do people who come to see music in a bookstore all act pretty much the same way?

Ben: Yes, it has certainly taken us out of a standard music touring circuit and into one very new for both of us, into venues that often have never had live music in there before, and also pulling people who haven't been into their local bookstore before either. Different countries do seem to have different live-music gig-attending cultures or relationships to music, and I have to say that both Beth and I relish every time we get to go to Ireland - the audiences are just overwhelming with enthusiasm and encouragement.

Beth: This will be our first visit to the US, playing to American audiences so we've no idea what the response will be like. One thing we've been doing since we started is to bring out a guestbook at the end of each concert for people to write their book recommendations in. It'll be fascinating to see what the differences are, what books US audiences will recommend - some great American classics no doubt, but also wonderful new contemporary literature that I'm sure we won't have come across before, and no doubt capturing some of the social and political moods of the moment.

And we’re so grateful to Gardner’s and AMS All Media Supply - wholesalers of music
and books, who are super passionate about both and who came forward to make this
whole tour a reality, because they just really wanted to see it happen.

For more information, visit

The Bookshop Band – tour dates

Jan 16th: Little City Books - 100 Bloomfield St, Hoboken, NJ 07030 7-9pm Price: $20

Jan 17th: Short Stories & Community Hub - 23 Main St, Madison, NJ 07940 7-9pm;
Ticket link Price: $15 ($10 with college ID)

Jan 18th: Turn of the Corkscrew Books - 110 N Park Ave, Rockville Centre, NY 11570 7-9pm; Ticket link Price: $20 (includes one complementary beverage from the café)

Jan 19th: New York Public Library - 18 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 2-3pm Details Price: FREE (donations)

Jan 19th: Book Culture - 26-09 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY 11101 5-6pm; Details: Price: FREE (donations)

Feb 3rd: WORD Bookstore - 126 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222 4pm
Ticket link Price: $10


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