How Huddersfield became home to one of folk music’s most exciting duos.

O'Hooley and Tidow.
O'Hooley and Tidow.
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Huddersfield station was once described as a stately home with trains in it. You can see why when you step between the august pillars and look back. Like the other grand buildings in St George’s Square, the station is smudged by time. Colne Valley Hearts, the opening track on O’Hooley & Tidow’s fifth album, Shadows, makes something of these dirtied stones: “Smog stained stone/Makes us know we’re home.”

Huddersfield station was once described as a stately home with trains in it. You can see why when you step between the august pillars and look back. Like the other grand buildings in St George’s Square, the station is smudged by time. Colne Valley Hearts, the opening track on O’Hooley & Tidow’s fifth album, Shadows, makes something of these dirtied stones: “Smog stained stone/Makes us know we’re home.”

The folk guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson says O’Hooley & Tidow are “brave, beautiful and full of love”, a quote the Huddersfield folk duo like so much they use it on their publicity material. Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are self-confessed music geeks, lovers of good beer and good walks, and tattoo fans into the colourful bargain, too.

The cover of Shadows shows them in sombre black and white alongside their shadows. When we arrange to meet outside that stately station, Belinda says dryly that they’ll be the ones with the shadows. Having met, shadows and all, we walk past the statue of Harold Wilson, which now sports a Coal Not Dole sticker, and head to The Sportsman. A pub seems fitting as the duo’s last album, Summat’s Brewin’, celebrated good beer and small breweries.

“We’ve played in here,” they say at the bar, pointing to a small corner. Then we take our pints to a curtained-off room.

Belinda and Heidi look rather serious on that cover, but in person they are funny, lively and warm, although serious about their music – folk that pushes boundaries, not least by being piano- based. You don’t often see pianos in folk clubs, especially not a digital keyboard.

Belinda transports the piano in their battered Ford Transit. The van also swallows the PA system, and they can sleep in there, too, if they have to. Do they share the driving? “No, Belinda likes driving the van,” says Heidi. Belinda retorts: “Heidi has her own cheeky little car that I’m not allowed to drive.”

O’Hooley & Tidow, partners in music and in life, recently converted their civil partnership to a marriage. The songwriter Kathryn Williams was invited to the party and brought along a present. “Kathryn wrote this absolutely beautiful song,” says Heidi. “We didn’t hear it until the day. There were a lot of tears, it was gorgeous. Then we thought we loved it so much we’d record it for our new album.”

Small, Big Love features alongside original compositions by the duo, and a delightful Yorkshire-tinged cover of Joni Mitchell’s River.

Heidi, 35, was born and bred in Huddersfield, to a German mother and father from an Irish background. Belinda, 45, is from a large Irish family in Leeds and was born in Horsforth, later moving to Guiseley, and went to school in Menston.

Belinda put Huddersfield on her university entrance form as a joke. “I had never been to Huddersfield. I thought: ‘Oh it’s probably a bit of a crappy place to live’. And then I didn’t do as well in my A-levels as I thought I was going to do.”

So she scraped through to study behavioural sciences in Huddersfield. “And I’ve come to love the place, which is what happens to a lot of people who come here. I love the combination of the architecture, the people, the sense of humour and the countryside.”

The pair met in 2005, when Belinda was playing with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Heidi saw Belinda performing at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. “She’d just brought out her solo album and she blew me away. She was incredible, very funny, very beautiful songs, then I contacted her and tried to encourage her to come and see me.” Which Belinda did: “I was blown away by her songs and her voice.”

After Belinda left Winterset in 2008, she started performing with Heidi. Their harmonies have been much commented on, with Belinda’s higher tones rising above Heidi’s deeper voice and Yorkshire-clipped vowels.

Belinda says Heidi has a breathy, husky voice – “Weird!” interjects Heidi, adding: “And Belinda’s got a shrill voice! No, a very pure voice.”

Belinda says that with many singers, if you harmonise they will try to sing what you are singing or pick a predictable harmony. “With Heidi, and I think myself as well, we both like to challenge ourselves with harmonies. Sometimes we’ll even go a semi-tone apart…”

“And sometimes it’s intentional,” quips Heidi.

They are in harmony too about having their skin illustrated, and both sport tattooed arms. Belinda leans over the table and shows me her new tattoo of a baby elephant with a colourful blanket. This was inspired by a song on Shadows called Blanket, about an elephant orphanage in Nairobi where motherless baby elephants are given blankets to recreate the weight and warmth of their mother’s trunk. “I had it done really because researching the song behind the orphaned elephants has been a real bitter-sweet endeavour.”

Shadows started as a collection of songs without a theme. “The songs happen but subconsciously we realise there is something going on under the surface of why we are picking certain topics or things we are interested in during that period,” says Heidi.

Shadows came in part through a mutual interest in psychology and Karl Jung, who was much taken with shadows and the subconscious. Other songs include that ode to home Colne Valley Hearts and Made in England, an ironic blast against xenophobia and nationalism. “We’ve had that running through all our albums, a little bit of political commentary, with a small ‘p’,” says Heidi.

O’Hooley & Tidow describe what they do as “modern folk”. “We’re writing about the times we’re living in and bringing to life people that may not have had as much visibility as they should have done, such as Beryl Burton,” says Belinda.

Their song Beryl was inspired by Maxine Peake’s play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse about the champion woman cyclist who struggled against the odds. “She had this spirit about her,” says Heidi. “As Mrs Peace our neighbour would say, she’s a doer. We love a doer.”

The title song on Shadows is an emotional solo piano work by Belinda. She improvised the piece at the Museum of Modern Art in Wales, where the piano parts were recorded, and was trying to express what cannot be said vocally. “Your own personal things that you go through, things that 
are difficult to put into words,” says Belinda. “Sitting down at that piano – a beautiful Steinway grand piano in Wales – and it just came, did that piece.”

While Belinda plays piano and sings, Heidi sticks to vocals. “I put my whole energy into the singing. It would be diluted if I tried to do anything else at the same time.”

Heidi is confident on stage, but private when it comes to recording, confessing to “a bit of studio phobia”, which is why the vocals are recorded at home.

“So what we do is, Belinda locks me in the cupboard underneath the stairs. We hang blankets and fairy lights so it’s very soft and private, and she shuts the door so I can just sing to my heart’s content.”

They write the songs together, sharing lyrics and melodies, then record them to learn later.

Sometimes a song starts in the weave of everyday life. Belinda likes to play the piano after breakfast, while Heidi works in another part of the house. Then, Belinda says, Heidi will “come running downstairs with a melody idea and she’ll sing it and that’s often how our songs work”.

Shadows is released on No Masters. O’Hooley & Tidow are on tour and play the Morley Arts Festival on October 8, All Hallows Church, Leeds, on October 28, and the National Centre for Early Music in York on November 1. For a fuller list of concerts visit ohooleyandtidow.com