In late 2018 The New York Times laid down a challenge. “If America’s independent booksellers can’t figure a way to get The Bookshop Band to tour America, they’re doing something wrong”. The following year the American Booksellers’ Association invited the band to the USA. Off the back of this tour came the band’s new album, Live in American Bookshops. Bethany Porter from the band spoke about the album as well as other ongoing projects that she is working on such as Spell Songs.
TF: You have a new album out. What has the reception been like to Live in American Bookshops?
It’s been interesting releasing an album during the pandemic and lockdown. Normally when we release an album, we would set up a tour to promote it. Our intention had been to tour it in America as well as the UK but obviously we have had to change our plans. The nice thing about releasing a live album at the moment is that it can bring that ‘live’ experience back to people who currently can’t get out to gigs. Ironically, our Lockdown gigs that we have been performing from our home have been reaching people in New Mexico, New Jersey, Florida, Colorado, California and many other places around the world. Some of these people we met on our American tour when we recorded the album in 2019 and some are a completely new audience who are appreciating getting book recommendations and hearing live music. We are also appreciating our growing audience. For us, it’s important to keep gigging because that is when we sell albums. Many musicians are struggling at this time and are looking to new ways of getting their music out in to the world.
We have released many studio albums before Live In American Bookshops but people who have been to our live gigs have often asked for recordings with us talking about the books as well as the songs because they feel like this is part of The Bookshop Band experience.
The songs on the album are recorded at a range of wonderful bookshops in America. You can hear the audiences, some of the bookshop owners and us talking about the books and the songs. It creates an atmosphere that you don’t get on a studio album and is a great reminder of what we can sometimes take for granted. We hope that it can bring the bookshops to people when they can’t access them and we hope that people enjoy not only the songs but the books that inspire the songs.
TF: What inspired you to tour the American bookshops?
We have toured the UK bookshops extensively over the last ten years. Everywhere we go we take a guestbook where we collect recommendations of books, bookshops and comments (as well as email addresses!). We lost count of the number of times people said ‘you would go down really well in the States’! It was a bit of a dream that finally came true when we were invited to play at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Albuquerque in January 2019. Nic Bottomly from Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath was also going and he connected us with the association who then contacted all the independent bookshops (Book Stores) in America and gave them the option of having The Bookshop Band to play in their shop. The response meant that we could build ourselves a tour that started in New Jersey and New York, went down to Albuquerque, back up to Colorado and finished in New York over a period of three weeks. The intention was to go back and cover a few more states but that will have to wait for now. In the meantime we are enjoying reaching these people from the comfort of our house and we enjoy having a drink after the Friday night Lockdown shows and reading through all the lovely comments. It’s always good to get a little ego boost!
TF: What is your plan for the remainder of the year, after this album release?
We are continuing our Friday night Lockdown Shows and may do a special Christmas show. We are writing some music for an Aardman animation which will be out by Christmas 2021, and we are writing an album inspired by Children’s Scottish Literature funded by a programme called Spot-Lit focusing on literary tourism which will be out in Spring 2021. I (Beth) am also releasing a music video and new single at the beginning of December and will be doing a special Lockdown show of my solo music under the name of Marshes on the 4th December. In early January I will also hopefully be writing a second album inspired by The Lost Words and Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris with Spell Songs, a group of musicians including Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Julie Fowlis, Jim Molyneux and Rachel Newton.
TF: Where is your favourite venue for playing live, where is the next place you most look forward to gigging, obviously a bookshop?
This question actually made me quite emotional. We are doing fine up here but we do really miss playing in bookshops with actual people in the room. We started our life as The Bookshop Band in Mr B’s in Bath and I think that is still one of our favourite places to play. Bookshop gigs are so intimate and the audience are very much a part of the gig. We have played in Shakespeare and Co in Paris and would love to go back there one day. I do think intimate and small gigs are much more rewarding. As an exception, I had an experience playing at The Albert Hall last year with Spell Songs which will also be in my list of top venues. It’s so big but somehow retains the intimacy that some large venues just can’t offer.
The American tour was exciting and nerve wracking as we had no idea if anyone would actually turn up. What we found is that the communities around the bookshops were really important, or more to the point, the bookshops had a loyal following and community that regularly came to events. When they found out that a duo from the UK who played songs inspired by books were playing in the bookshops, they were intrigued and came to see what we did. They talked to us, bought albums and tea-towels and were genuinely lovely people.
Live in American Bookshops is out now, via Letterpress Records