From sea shanties in a Cornish pub to a recording contract and big screen stardom, tradesman John McDonnell has found fame with Fisherman’s Friends.
Just as the music he now sings is part of a shared folk past, John McDonnell spent many of his formative years in the traditional role of itinerant tradesmen. It was the rugged and poetic north Cornwall coast that would entice the now 68-year-old roofer to put down roots, and he is now inextricably linked to its unique culture.
“When you’re an outsider and a pub spontaneously breaks into song it can be slightly surreal at first, but it’s a great experience and makes you feel part of a living community,” he explains. “I’ve always sung at work, and I gradually got more and more involved, until a few of us decided to form a group to raise money for the RNLI.”
That was as far back as the 1990s, where John and the fellow members of Fisherman’s Friends would sing on the beach every Friday evening, passing a bucket around their audience for donations, whilst the group would go on to perform their traditional sea shanties in concerts locally.
“The music we play has existed with the people here for generations and is a part of Cornwall’s heritage, especially in a fishing village like Port Isaac, and four of our original members were fishermen, but it was another of the county’s seafaring traditions that helped us develop. The Cornish pilot gig is a six-oared rowing boat with clubs up and down the coast that compete against each other. Racing weekends generate a real festival atmosphere, with everyone in the pubs singing, and it would be these events that convinced us to come together and properly learn some numbers.”
“We’ve been touring ever since we signed the recording contract, and the film will no doubt fill a few more seats. Although there’s always a certain amount of artistic licence, it’s a strange experience seeing your own story told on a big screen, but I guess it’s no more unexpected than the journey we’ve all been on together. I was 60 when we were first signed up and there’s was always a certain amount of disbelief that it happened to us at all.” That journey would take John and his fellow Fisherman’s Friends from singing in the relative safety and intimacy of a fishing village to performances in front of some considerable crowds, including four appearances at the acoustic stage at Glastonbury, but it was one fateful encounter with sound engineer and producer, Rupert Christie, that would dramatically change the tune of their lives forever.
“It’s a story that the movie tells a version of but everyone seems to have their own recollection of exactly how it transpired,” admits John. “Rupert would come to Cornwall quite regularly to surf and, after hearing us perform in Port Isaac, asked if he could record a couple of tracks and shoot a little video. About a week later he came back to us with offers of a contract from three different labels. Shortly after that, the DJ, Johnny Walker was staying in the village on his way back from St Ives music festival. When he heard that we’d been offered a record deal he put us in touch with our manager, and we’ve never looked back.”
Since then, in fact, the debut album, Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, went gold and enjoys the distinction of being the first work by a traditional folk act to achieve a top ten chart place. An ITV documentary would follow and, with the release of three further albums, their fan base now extends far beyond their Cornish homeland. The group have since been widely credited with inspiring a revival of interest in choral singing and would receive the considerable accolade of a Good Tradition Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011.
“Ultimately it’s just been a huge amount of fun, but at the same time it’s certainly been a difficult transition at times. It wasn’t just the increase in the size of the crowds, but the fact that people were actually now paying good money to see us that added considerable pressure. When you’re singing in front of 50,000 people at Proms in the Park, or the half time interval of an international rugby fixture at Twickenham – where there’s over 80,000 in attendance – then it’s a long way from a pub in Port Isaac, but it’s an incredible buzz.” The group would also find royal seal of approval with a gig at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, whilst they also sang in front of Charles and Camilla on their 2016 tour of this most Celtic of English counties.
Despite their new-found fame, however, Fisherman’s Friends still find time to provide free renditions of their musical repertoire in the venue where it all began, and on the Port Isaac beach, and have become one of the village’s tourist attractions in their own right. Remarkably, John is also still active as a roofer, but at 68 years of age, and after nearly two decades of musical adventures, he and his fellow band members show no sign of making their swan song, either behind the microphone or on a building site. “Our fans, many of whom we’ve come to know personally, have been paying to see us perform for years, and that’s what drives us to carry on – because people enjoy it. We get a good reception wherever we go, and if we can support a good cause in the process then that will be enough for us.”
The soundtrack from the Fisherman’s Friends film is available on the recently released album ‘Keep Hauling – Music from the Movie’.