Growing up, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes were into an eclectic mix of music. ‘We had no idea that there was this whole culture of people singing their own songs in a North East accent about people and places that we knew,’ says Sean. Completely by chance, the trio stumbled across Stockton Folk Club at a local pub, and were completely blown away by the room of ordinary people singing songs about real events. ‘Ever since, we’ve devoted all our spare time to learning these songs and writing our own,’ says Sean, ‘and there’s a great sense of community and fellowship.’
Getting into folk music was natural for Sean, who has always had an interest in storytelling and studied History at Durham University. ‘When I graduated, I tried busking and was hopeless,’ he laughs, ‘but I eventually moved to Hartlepool and became immersed in local history.’ Sean would meet fishermen in pubs with amazing stories, which prompted a revelation: ‘There weren’t many songs about Hartlepool and its history, so I started writing them.’
In recent years, Sean has gained the confidence to write songs about current events and inspirational people who are still achieving great things today. More often than not, The Young’uns' songs are performed with minimal instrumentation or completely unaccompanied so the audience can focus on the lyrics and story. One particularly poignant example is Be The Man, nominated for Best Original Track at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards on 4 April.
It tells the heartbreaking story of Matthew Ogston, who set up a foundation after losing his partner of 13 years, Naz Mahmood, in tragic circumstances due to religious bigotry and Naz’s family’s reaction to his sexuality. ‘That was an incredibly difficult song to write,’ says Sean. ‘It’s a heartbreaking story, but Matt has dedicated his whole life to campaigning against homophobia triggered by religion, so I thought a song can only help that.’ Matt was completely overwhelmed by the track and he’ll be attending the Folk Awards, which is a great honour for the band.
The running theme of the band’s fourth album, Strangers (nominated for Best Album), is celebrating those who have overcome obstacles and barriers. The album includes a track about Gharfoor Hussain from Teesside, who has spent most of the last two and a half years feeding migrants and refugees across Europe from the back of a bus, and one about Sybil Phoenix – the first black woman in the UK to be awarded an MBE for her work fostering children in the 70s and 80s. ‘We deal with big issues, but we want to share them in an uplifting way,’ says Sean.
The band have really taken their time with this album, rehearsing and performing many of the songs live before recording and releasing them. ‘It feels more unified than our past records, and there’s no song on there which feels out of place,’ Sean explains. He’s looking forward to taking the album on the road with their audio-visual tour, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff, which kicks off in March. Born into poverty in Teesside in 1919, Johnny dedicated his life to fighting fascism and recorded stories about his experiences which will narrate The Young’uns’ upcoming gigs. ‘Thanks to the Imperial War Museum, our songs will weave in and out of Johnny’s narrative with striking visuals,’ Sean explains.
The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards fall mid-tour, and the band are excited, hoping they can add to the two awards they won for Best Group in 2015 and 2016. ‘It really does feel like a big annual family party,’ says Sean, ‘and it’s the only time of year when folk music trends on Twitter.’ Further down the line, The Young’uns are performing at a handful of festivals this summer, and will be holding one of their regular residential singing weekends in November – around 50 people join them in a youth hostel, and they ask a friend to cook while they provide the entertainment. ‘It’s what the folk scene is all about,’ says Sean.