Tony Cummings reports on Britain's favourite folk rockers EDEN BURNING.
Eden Burning's rise in Christian music popularity has been nothing short of meteoric. Two years ago they were fresh-faced young hopefuls, playing for expenses around their Cheltenham base. Today Eden Burning are Britain's leading rock-gospel band. And with a brand spanking-new album, 'Vinegar And Brown Paper', certain to sell by the caseload from every Christian bookstore in Britain, the group seem destined for international Christian music success. Yet Eden Burning's headlong stampede to Greenbelt Mainstage prominence hasn't been achieved by any Christian record company throwing money at the evangelical market. (In fact 'Vinegar And Brown Paper' is the band's first release on a 'proper' record label.)
Sheer, hard-gigging slog has been the means by which the band have won the support of thousands of loyal devotees, that and stumbling on a style which, with its artful blend of folk roots and tough rock recalls the better moments of the Levellers, REM, Waterboys and Wonderstuff, while aping none of them. And though Eden Burning may share roots music influences with various acoustic-rockers the mindset behind Cheltenham's finest is light years away from the New Age musings so often associated with folk-tinged musicians. Paul Northup, lead singer and guitarist with Eden Burning has thought long and hard as to why acoustic music often has a New Age tinge. "Acoustic based music is, I believe, more spiritual. Predominantly, the listeners of such music aren't atheists but worshippers of unknown gods. It's part of the vision of our band to play to audiences like this and say to them 'we come to tell you about the God you do not know'."
Until recently such evangelistic, good intentions have been largely thwarted by an engagement book which, though crammed to overflowing, has been for gigs almost exclusively in church halls and the fests of the Christian sub-culture. But that will change in November/December when Eden Burning undertake a tour of polytechnics and universities. Explained the band's flying-fingered mandolin player Neill Forrest, "we're very grateful to the Church for the way it's supported us - they've literally put food on our table. But many of the gigs we've been playing are reactive, simply responding to invitations to come and play. It's been great in many ways. We've seen Britain - if only from the back of a Ford Transit. We've seen enough church halls and eaten enough quiche to last a lifetime! Seriously though, part of our vision is to play mainstream rock gigs as well as church organised concerts. We don't want to do exclusively one or the other, just mix it up a bit. It's just starting to happen. We're doing a summer ball at Leeds University with Jules Holland."
The story of Eden Burning begins at Charlton Keynes, a village on the Oxford side of Cheltenham where a ramshackle praise band called Out Of The Wilderness took their first faltering steps. "We were as bad as our name," chuckles the band's Charlotte Ayrton. "But once we became Eden Burning and Neill joined in 1990 a style kind of gelled with us." The band weren't in fact classic hey-noddy-no folkies despite being in the heartland of England's traditional musical scene. Rather, Eden Burning had come together with musical backgrounds taking in everything from reggae to indie rock. As Paul Northup commented, "folk was something we just grew into. We just all came to realise the part that traditional music had to play in British music."
Eden Burning were fortunate enough to hail from the Cheltenham area where Dave Pickering Pick's studio was establishing itself as one of Britain's leading Christian recording studios. In 1990 a hastily produced custom tape 'Thin Walls' showed a band clearly in a transitional stage but with some excellent songs and enough folk rock fire to invoke a rave review from Cross Rhythms. The gigs began to come in and in 1991 the fests began, the 1991 Cross Rhythms being one of the first for the team. Another tape, this one an EP 'Much More Than Near', was made with producer/engineer extraordinaire David Pickering Pick. By the time the band went full time at the 4 beginning of 1992, Eden Burning were clearly on a roll. They'd taken the previous year's Greenbelt by storm; the sales of their album and EP were way above any other privately produced (and many commercially released!) recordings coming out of Christendom and every week Eden Burning were making new fans All that was needed was a top grade album to go alongside their live concert popularity.
For a while the band were courted by a secular company (who've subsequently gone bust!). But finally Eden Burning settled for recording again with Dave Pickering Pick. Dave had negotiated a distribution deal for FFG with Kingsway. Recording the album 'Vinegar And Brown Paper' was very much a labour of love for the band. But what was with the nursery-rhyme title? "The title just popped into my head" admitted Neill Forrest a mite sheepishly, "and when I ran it past Paul it tied up with the theme of a song he was writing."
The subject matter of the songs on 'Vinegar And Brown Paper' are wide ranging. "Feel The Rain" asks some uncomfortable questions about the things we're doing with the environment; "Speak Easy" touches on the power of our words to build or destroy while "The Weaver" is based on a Celtic prayer by author David Adams. One of the outstanding tracks is in fact an instrumental, "The Reel Of Pickering Pick". Neill Forrest explained its origins. "I wrote it at the 1991 Cross Rhythms Festival, though there's actually a bit of a traditional number, 'St. Anne's Reel', in there. It was raining and I was sat in this rather nasty, wet tent fooling around on the mandolin and suddenly this number started to come. We eventually titled it The Reel Of Pickering Pick' as a tribute to our friend and producer, to whom we're eternally gratefully and who's been no end of help to us. And anyway, any chap with a name like Pickering Pick deserves to have it immortalised! Dave actually had an ancestor called Pickering Pickering Pick!"
Three of the strongest songs on the album came from the emotive pen of Paul Northup. Paul recounts their origins: "The song 'My Senses Fly' came out of a night when I was really racked with doubt. I was looking out at the garden. Suddenly I had a thought that God came to earth, he walked in a garden, not dissimilar to the one I was staring at. He walked the earth as a real man. The song 'Jubilee' was inspired by a message I heard Tony Campolo give at Spring Harvest, about how we all need to come to a place when we know all debts are cancelled rather than feeling the guilt we so often carry around even after we've met Jesus. There's also a very strange track on the album called 'Different Drum' which echoes one of the Psalms of Ascent. It was largely written in the studio."
"In the past we've always taken completed songs into the studio," comments Kevin Hall, otherwise known as Nive, the band's bassman. "But with 'Vinegar And Brown Paper' one or two things were half completed and others were put together then and there in the studio. There was a lot of quite gruelling work in recording but we're delighted with the results. I think it's the album our fans have been waiting for."
I asked Nive whether there were any studio squabbles in making the album. "We never had a single musical disagreement. Maybe that's been our secret so far. X hundred gigs together and we've never had a serious row. It's tough being on the road so much. But it's amazing really, we're still friends."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.