Tunstall musician Ciaran Algar lands BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards crown (videos)
By Zita Collinson
Rising star Ciaran Algar triumphed at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards last month. The 16-year-old St Joseph's College student from Tunstall talks about his stellar career to date, his hopes for the future and why young folk music isn't all about Mumford and Sons
WHILE insiders may have tipped Ciaran Algar and Greg Russell as ones to watch, it was still a surprise when the musical duo were named as winners in the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards – but the shock came only to the modest youngsters themselves.
For anyone paying close attention to their fledgling career, they were a safe bet.
After all, Ciaran has been entertaining music fans in North Staffordshire since he was eight years old.
He's also a former world champion fiddle player – a title he picked up in Ireland at the tender age of 11.
So when their names were announced at the star-studded ceremony in January, it seems that Ciaran and Greg were alone in being caught off-guard.
The prestigious ceremony was held in Glasgow's Royal Concert Gall and the talented duo, who play a mixture of English and Celtic songs, walked away with the trophy for Young Folk Act of the Year.
The event, which was presented by veteran broadcaster Mark Radcliffe (replacing long-running host Mike Harding) celebrated the achievements of folk's finest musicians over the past year and honoured names including Billy Bragg, Aly Bain, Roy Harper and Dougie MacLean.
"The night was a lot bigger than I was expecting," says 16-year-old Ciaran, of Tunstall. His mum and dad – Chris and May – came along for support.
Meanwhile, Ciaran's older brother and sister, Dominic and Katie, were keeping a close eye on proceedings from the family home in Stoke-on-Trent.
"When they read my name out, I was more worried about how I was going to get to the front," continues Ciaran. "Greg disappeared too. I thought he'd gone to the loo.
"But it was amazing. Dad has described it as one of the proudest moments of his life."
Chris is a former member of folk band The Staffordshire Rebels and encouraged Ciaran to listen to traditional folk and Irish songs when he was growing up.
The youngster showed promise from an early age, and learnt to play the violin when he was eight.
Soon he was joining his dad on stage, performing alongside groups such as The Arthur Docherty Band and at the Biddulph Folk Club.
"My grandad played music at his local church and that's where the family reckons I get the musical side of things from," says Ciaran.
"My dad performs quite a bit too.
"He plays guitar and bouzouki and when I was growing up, he would listen to music in the car. Instead of stuff that was in the charts, he always listened to folk and Irish music.
"Whatever your dad listens to, you're going to like and I loved it.
"I started going to folk festivals and it just went from there."
S uch was his rare talent that Ciaran, who can play incredibly complex songs by ear and without the aid of sheet music, entered the prestigious All-Ireland title in the Fiddle Slow Airs competition and won in his category for the under-12s.
As dad Chris says: "It was an incredible moment. It was like winning an Olympic gold medal."
As a world champion, Ciaran was in high demand. He set up Tri – a traditional Irish folk group that toured around the country and appeared at Biddulph Folk Festival.
Ciaran was joined by fellow performers Neal Pointon and Niamh Bodle.
When Tri disbanded in 2009, Ciaran was introduced to Greg through mutual musician friends and the two were soon booking gigs together.
Although Greg is from Chester, they mixed in the same tight-knit folk circles and had been to the same music festivals.
"We added each other on Facebook, started talking, met up for a practice and ended up with a gig a week later," says Ciaran.
"It turns out that his dad used to sing one of the songs that my dad wrote about 30 years ago.
"We've been at the same events and festivals but didn't know each other at the time. It's only when we got talking that we realised.
"It was obviously meant to be."
Shortly after forming in May 2011, they were signed to Fellside Records, and put together their first album, The Queen's Lover, in 2012.
The pair recorded it in Cumbria over June and July last year.
"It's mostly trad stuff although the title is taken from one of Greg's songs," says Ciaran.
"We're recording again this summer and hopefully our next album will be out in 2014."
Encouraged by the positive reception to their debut, they decided to go head-to-head with hundreds of other young hopefuls and apply for the folk awards.
The nominees are chosen by a panel of music industry representatives, including broadcasters, journalists, festival organisers, record company directors, agents and promoters.
After sending in a 10-minute recording to the judges, Ciaran and Greg were invited to a workshop before being whittled down to the final four.
"As part of the workshop we had to pick a song that we wouldn't normally play," says Ciaran. "I had to play Call Me Maybe (a pop song by Carly Rae Jepsen) but it was fine. I just had to 'folk it up'."
Following their success, it's looking like a busy 12 months ahead – and with the many gigs he's booked on the back of his awards success he's also attempting to juggle his schedule around his schoolwork.
Ciaran may be a Year 12 student at St Joseph's College in Trent Vale but he's also managing to fit in practice, gigs and promotion around musical partner Greg.
This year they've already scheduled concerts from Falkirk to Cambridge, and major festival appearances that will take in the Cropredy Convention.
The three-day music event, the brainchild of folk legends Fairport Convention, will see the pair perform in front of thousands of people – a slot they've secured as part of their Young Folk Award prize.
So it's fortunate that Chris will be on hand to drive him around.
"I'm not going to have any life this summer," Chris says, who restores musical instruments. "I'm going to be taking Ciaran all around the country, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Of course I'm proud of all my children but winning at the folk awards was incredible. I was walking around the after show party bumping into people I've looked up to all my life.
"The first time he ever picked up the violin, his teacher couldn't believe what he could do.
"I don't know where he gets it from. He feels music in a way that other people can't. He's very personable. When he was 13, he'd be happy to talk away on stage.
"In fact both he and Greg are two smashing kids and they really deserve their win."
"It's funny that I don't get nervous playing in front of lots of people," continues Ciaran.
"The only time I get a little bit nervous is when I'm playing in front of a small group of people I know. I was playing at a school concert this week and I get more nervous in that situation than if I was playing for 30,000 people.
"I don't know what it is, but I just feel comfortable on stage."
Greg, meanwhile, is full of praise for his young bandmate.
"He's horrendously talented," says Greg, aged 19 and currently at university in Exeter. Especially considering how old he is. I've always said that I'm very lucky he's working with me."
Folk has seen something of resurgence in recent years. And thanks to the popularity of acts such as folk rockers Mumford and Sons, it's starting to appeal to a younger audience too.
"We perform a mixture of songs," says Ciaran, "but we're definitely more in the traditional style of folk. We've tried a few Mumford and Sons covers but it's not really what we do or are about.
"I think people always have the wrong impression of folk. They see the stereotypical 80-year-old guy with a guitar singing songs about how bad his life's been.
"But the main artists in the folk scene as I know it are definitely getting younger and more easy to listen to. I wouldn't personally class Mumford and Sons as my sort of folk – but I really like them.
"I think they are leading the way towards folk music. At some point it will meet in the middle and that can only be a good thing.
"There's a band called Bellowhead who are attracting bigger and bigger audiences. Their live show is just brilliant.
"My friends might not always like folk, and I like different types of music too, but they've always been supportive."
Ciaran's success certainly hasn't come out of the blue for folk fans in North Staffordshire.
Eric Cox, Sentinel columnist and organiser of the Biddulph Folk Club, has been following Ciaran since his first performances, playing alongside father Chris at the age of eight.
When Eric broke the news of Ciaran's win to the weekly Biddulph Folk Club meeting, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
Eric says: "I have been involved in running Biddulph Folk Club for the past 26 years and we have booked all the big names on the national folk scene.
"However, we always have tried to encourage locals through our support spots and one of the most pleasing and rewarding parts has been to see how Ciaran has developed over the years.
"He started playing at the club when he was about eight years old with his father Chris and even at that age everyone was amazed at his talent.
"I think the whole of the North Staffordshire folk scene are so proud of his achievements.
"When I announced his success at the folk club, as the news broke, the whole of the audience just burst out in a spontaneous applause because they were so pleased for him.
"Most importantly though is the fact that he is one of the nicest young men that you would ever hope to meet and he has developed so much confidence in the way he can talk to an audience.
"He has certainly got a very bright future in the folk world if he wants it."
For more information on Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, and to buy a copy of their album, The Queen's Lover, go to www.russellalgar.co.uk