Alfie Hudson-Taylor is sitting on the Southbank beneath the London Eye when he answers my call. He and brother Harry, who together make up Hudson Taylor, have come a long way from busking on the streets of Dublin. The latest in a string of talented acoustic acts to climb through the ranks and cross the Irish Sea armed with a bounty of heartfelt tunes and some well-strummed guitars, Hudson Taylor are a band that trust their instincts, musically and artistically. And their instincts are taking them places.
“We spent a long time busking and uploading videos,” says Alfie, who is possibly the friendliest person on the planet – two minutes in and I feel like we’ve been chatting for hours, in a good way. “It was just a bit of fun, and to make a bit of money along the way. A friend of ours put up a Facebook page, and our now manager saw it. At the time we’d just done a few gigs and written a couple of songs, and suddenly we had a few label people come down to hear us play. And it was so early on for us. It made us realise that we could actually live off music.
“So then, long story short, we came to London and learnt about how labels and stuff works. Then we wrote a load of songs, did a load of gigs and tried to make it over here.”
And made it they have. The band’s knack for combining emotive song-writing with just the right levels of production and acoustic texture on a recording has seen a string of EPs and a debut album, Singing For Strangers, met with entirely surprising levels of adoration for a band with very little marketing or commercial exposure. Getting Radio 1 onside always helps of course, but their passage to acclaim was forged the old fashioned way – through relentless, determined gigging, a little bit of charm, and a lot of organically crafted music that the duo has consistently prioritised over image.
“The whole album is really a kind of autobiographical account of the last three years; about living in London, being away from family and gigging around the country,” Alfie tells me. He has a tendency to fill any immediate silence, and I’m reminded of how quickly two relatively young guys have been catapulted from an Irish suburb to the periphery of mainstream appraisal. “The good times, but also the hard times – relationships that we’ve had, family stuff, whatever – [Singing for Strangers] kind of sums up the last couple of years for us.”
This sense of having learned on the job is perhaps a part of what makes their debut album so effortlessly endearing. Early songs ‘Second Best’ and ‘Called On’ exhibit the artistic vulnerability and rawness of tracks written without an immediate consideration for any kind of audience. Likewise, ‘Battles’, the band’s game-changing track and the one that caught ears at Radio 1, was recorded and released on three different occasions, with an acoustic version, a rougher recording and finally a ‘2014 Version’ emerging over time. That listeners have been able to watch a band openly growing into its sound and refining its music has given Hudson Taylor a rare intimacy with their fans; there’s something collaborative about the way their songs have responded to their audience.
Alfie explains that this had much to do with the lengths he and Harry wanted to go to preserve the live ambience of their music on a record. Their aims in rerecording their music so fastidiously had, he says, more to do with “wanting to keep up with the sounds that people were hearing on the road”.
“Our live show has been one of the main references for us for our album, because we’ve done so much gigging in the process of putting it together. We started playing to a crowd of two people in Ireland, and that’s what we wanted to get across on the record. Ideas just came from listening to music and going to gigs, and I suppose that’s what helps you with production. On the bonus version of the album, most of the additional tracks were produced and recorded by me and Harry – just us, alone in our flat.”
I think acts like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and Ben Howard helped normalise music again
The band of brothers share a clear personal affinity, evident in their approach to music and their reciprocal charisma in a live setting. There’s no threat of a Gallagher rift to be found here – the band is quite literally bound together by their sublime harmonies.
“I love working with Harry – it’d just be weird to be without him,” says Alfie. “I’ve played a bit in other bands, but having him is so great for writing because we do have the same shared experiences and stuff having grown up together. But at the same time, we’re very different people. Harry went to a boarding school and came back on weekends for much of his secondary school, and it was then that we’d go busking.
“And I think that difference is good, because we both bring stuff to the table and we can both talk about stuff personally. Harry’s always been a very talented musician, and he did all his grades on piano before getting a scholarship to play the organ. He’s got that sort of background, whereas I started getting into music by playing around with lyrics. Harry’s very good at taking it to the next level musically. He’s got a great musical ear.”
Alfie’s own modesty reinforces again that this is a band without any kind of agenda. Hudson Taylor were not commissioned, nor scooped up in the talons of an international label to invigorate the fading applause directed at Mumford and Sons. In such conflicted times of band marketing, fandoms and label investments, their commitment to stick to their musical ideals and forge a way to resolutely do their own thing isn’t just admirable – it’s impressive.
I raise the 2000s folk revival, and pose to Alfie that Hudson Taylor have perhaps caught the tail end of a fad that saw Laura Marling, Ben Howard and Jake Bugg thrust into an often disagreeably harsh spotlight that has since dimmed.
“We were big fans of that theme that happened,” he says slightly cautiously. “A lot of cyclical music seems to be prevailing – each new wave seems a lot like the last. And that’s been dominating for a while, and I think acts like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and Ben Howard helped normalise music again I suppose, for people who play instruments and stuff like that. It’d be nice if there was an even spread, because I think people like real music.
“Me and Harry are inspired by a lot of stuff, folk in particular, but then also rock as well, and I suppose it’s just the music we like playing. It’d be nice to catch the tail end of something as big as that I suppose. Hopefully we can catch a bit of that and start something ourselves as well.”
One movement they are indisputably a part of is the resurgence of the popular Irish band. Hozier, SOAK and Little Green Cars are just some of the born and bred Irish musicians that have subtly been infiltrating UK and global charts alike in recent years with immaculately crafted music, as rich in feeling as heritage. This revolution of the ‘serious artist’ in the mainstream has been bolstered by the lingering strains of the folk revival, as the refined acoustic talents of bands like Hudson Taylor find a new, broad resonance in increasingly factionalised musical times. But why the surge in attention towards an expanding circle of Irish singer-songwriters and acoustic troubadours?
“I think there’s probably deep rooted stuff to do with Ireland, and to do with the recession, which might’ve inspired people to do something for themselves,” Alife observes. “But with the likes of Hozier, Gavin Jane, Kodaline, SOAK, Little Green Cars and Walking on Cars, I think it’s just that it’s great music. Irish music has always been popular, right through from Damien Rice and U2, but now there’s a real resurgence of it and it’s great to see. I like the way that Irish artists are really supporting each other as well. Our album came out in Ireland first and a lot of Irish bands came out to help us and share in it, and we did the same for others. So that’s one thing I think is really positive about it, and is a great help – it’s a really strongly knit community.”
I think there’s probably deep rooted stuff to do with Ireland, and to do with the recession, which might’ve inspired people to do something for themselves
Singing For Strangers, in this sense, is very much an album of home, as well as one of growth and of a life on the move. Alfie and Harry chose to release their debut back in Ireland prior to it dropping elsewhere, no doubt in recognition of the synchronicity of the Emerald Isle to their music. For an album born on the streets of Dublin and in the small town of Blackrock, it seems only right to christen it there. Yet whilst this record found its feet in the bars and small venues of Ireland, it now has legs all around the world; the band has a host of tour dates lined up throughout Europe and over 100,000 likes on Facebook, with more album sales still.
Yet a genuine humility still skirts the speech of Alfie Hudson-Taylor. “Going home to release the record early was really nice. People just seemed to really get behind it. We got to do a load of radio stations over there, as well as some TV – we did the Late Night Show which we grew up listening to and watching. At the time we were over there we found out that our show in Dublin at the Olympia Theatre had been sold out, and that’s a dream venue to play in, so we’re on an absolute high at the moment. But we’ve spent the last three years in England, so we’re just really excited to really push it over here and get gigging again.”
Alfie and Harry played a near entirely sold-out UK tour this February, hitting 22 dates in a month. And there’s plenty more to come, with festival season on the horizon and a load more strangers to sing for. “Our songs have been knocking around for a while, so people might know the words,” Alfie says, oddly plaintively. You know, they might just.