The Fisherman’s Friends are shanty singers from Port Isaac on Cornwall’s rugged, panoramic north coast, who have delighted visitors and locals there for more than 15 years, and whose new album is released on 19 April.
Down on the harbour front of the tiny fishing village of Port Isaac, the authentic sound of the shanty can be heard loud and clear via the mighty, brawny chorale of The Fisherman’s Friends. At around eight in the evening during the summer months, tourists and locals gather to hear this ten-man group mesh their voices in an incredibly rousing and joyful set of shanties and Cornish folk songs.
There’s no gang leader, no choir master and no holds barred in the singing of The Fisherman’s Friends. And fisherman’s friends they truly are – each and every member of this unique group are or have been fishermen, lifeboatmen and coastguards (as well as builders, artisans, hoteliers, and shop keepers) in Port Isaac. They’ve known each other since childhood and learnt their powerful brand of Cornish harmony singing at the local Methodist chapel – now the pottery of Fisherman’s Friend Billy Hawkwins (baritone), where the group get together with a crate of ale and a good deal of bonhomie to rehearse their repertoire and try out new songs.
Their regular portside concerts have become a much-loved local institution and visiting celebs such as Chris Evans, Gloria Hunniford, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, have fallen under the spell of their Shanty singing. Their new album, recorded in a 15th-century church in nearby St Kew, features a rich haul of 12 songs from their Port Isaac repertoire, including the classic South Australia, the haunting Cornish robber ballad The Cadgwith Anthem and the beautiful Brightly Beams, their mesh of Chapel-inspired harmonies rising out of a big-band folk setting.
“We have a very full sound,” says Jon Cleave (bass). “You’ve got the different grades of baritone in the middle, which all blend, and then there are the tenor harmonies at the top and I do the bass underneath – so it makes a fat sound, a full sound, a solid wall of sound. Like Phil Spector.”
At their regular Port Isaac summer sessions, they stand in a line and each leads a song, from one end of the line and back again, giving them a huge variety of sound and song, and drawing from a repertoire of songs and shanties not only from Cornwall but Liverpool, Ireland, Africa, the West Indian, and America.
That sound has graced not only the Port Isaac, but the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC Folk Awards, where their harmony singing greeted guests in the foyer. “David Attenborough came in,” recalls the group’s oldest member, 76-year-old Peter Rowe, “he stood there until someone said you’d better come in, and he said, ‘no, I’m enjoying myself here’. And he stayed there right until the end.”
English folk music has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade, especially in the west country, with the likes of Seth Lakeman, Jackie Oates and Show of Hands achieving widespread acclaim. Now, with their new album of favourite Shanties due for release on April 26, The Fisherman’s Friends have landed themselves quite a catch.