Interview: The Portraits

Jeremy and Lorraine Millington, The Portraits | Photo: Titus Powell, 2011

I catch up with Lorraine and Jeremy of The Portraits, a pair who work tirelessly to get their brand of home-grown folk heard by audiences in London, La Rochelle and beyond. We talk travelling with music, the dying art of the album and striving to keep it real in the networked age...

The beginning seems like a good place to start. So, when was The Portraits born?

Jeremy: We’ve been working together as a song-writing and performing duo since 1995, but we reinvented ourselves as The Portraits in 2005. For us, it was a point in time that marked a shift to more honest song writing. It was a return to simple acoustics in our own sound as opposed to a load of electronics and production, much as we still enjoy electronic-tinged music by others!

How best can we describe your style of music?

Jeremy: We tend to settle on 'Alternative Folk' although we have an ongoing debate within the ranks about just how folk-y or alternative-y we are. But previous attempts to shoe-horn the words 'pop', 'rock' and 'classical' in there just never sat right. To us we’re two singer-songwriters who create a relatively accessible brand of song that takes in classical, folk, pop and music theatre.

What came before life as The Portraits?

Lorraine: We started out adult life as school teachers, and it was at a secondary school on the Isle of Wight where we originally met. We discovered a mutual interest in music, and started performing terrible covers in pubs.

Jeremy: Then within a few months I started taking some of Lorraine’s own melodies (they were handed to me on scrappy old cassettes) and converting them into these giant electronic production numbers on a four-track cassette recorder and running Cubase from an Atari. We created about 3 or 4 albums-worth of material that we sold at gigs around between around 1997 and 2001 under the name of our earlier dance-pop outfit Sensorypulse, based for a lot of its short lifespan in Bristol.

When did you decide to make the move out to La Rochelle?

Jeremy: It was in 2002, in a flash of inspiration or desperation – not quite sure which now, looking back! We’d had enough of teaching and so set ourselves the task of building a new life in France within a time-frame of about 3 months. Lorraine got online and searched for dirt cheap property, originally with some idea of setting up a music venue. We found an old house with a massive attic with great acoustics for next to nothing in the middle of the French countryside, and we could have set up a really cool venue there, but one which would probably have featured Lorraine and I playing each night to tables and chairs, and a couple of local farmers.

Lorraine: There was certainly not much in the way of community there, but we soon discovered La Rochelle an hour down the road. We moved down at the start of 2003 and – the rest is history.

And what is it like dividing time between there and London?

Jeremy: Manic, but brilliant in many ways. Our two bases are total extremes from each other, in just about every way imaginable, so it makes for a really varied life. We have children in school in London now so we do have to work around school terms, otherwise we’d probably do more of a 50/50 split.

Do you identify differences in gigging and the culture there?

Lorraine: The great irony in our lives as musicians is that in La Rochelle, a place with essentially no official music venues for up and coming artists, we have found a really strong and ever-increasing base of followers who seem to really take to what we do, and have supported us after hearing us at a series of essentially self-made events – performances in parks, house concerts in our own home, and of course gigs in the best Irish pub anywhere, Corrigans Arms. Meanwhile in London, a place where there is a music venue on every street corner, it is much harder to secure a devoted crowd, partly because peoples’ brains are constantly buzzing with the noise of the city and the massive choice of entertainment available.

Jeremy: Yeah, we love each place in its own way, but both have their shortcomings when it comes to being able to play to new audiences. There is so much pressure on, and abuse of, musicians by promoters in London and this goes largely unchallenged by the likes of the Musicians’ Union and the press. And the French authorities, it has to be said, are in danger of doing huge damage to their music industry by allowing the SACEM – the equivalent of the PRS – to fleece musicians working extremely hard to gain an audience. Last year, the SACEM actually tried to charge us over 50 euros for playing a concert entirely of our own songs. It was a concert in La Rochelle where the audience had paid nothing to get in and were offered free drinks and snacks… all of it on us! We wrote back and asked for an explanation but never received one. They simply sent us the same bill again. We sent the request for answers a second time, and still have yet to hear from them. Others we meet in France call them 'des voleurs' (thieves).

You wonderfully balance a family, the studio in La Rochelle and promoting you music in both the UK and France... How do you do it?!

Lorraine: It is a pretty manic life at times, in all honesty, and we do have a tendency to pack something into every minute of every day! We do our best to get the work/life balance right, but sometimes it does teeter a little in the direction of working or obsessing about getting our music out there… and then we have to give ourselves a stern talking to!

The internet is a huge influence on how music is heard today, described in equal measures as a curse and a blessing. For a band working in two cities it has obvious benefits... Overall, the internet for The Portraits – a curse or a blessing?

Jeremy: Yes, that is a good description. I keep wondering what would happen in life if somebody suddenly said to us all, "that’s it, you’ve had your fun – the web is now turned off for good". I’m old enough to remember life before it, and we did somehow all survive. But we didn’t know it existed of course, and now the genie is out of the bottle, it would be one serious adjustment to be without it again. To be honest, I’m a total web addict and I love the fact that we are all so connected and able to communicate what we want to around the planet in micro-seconds. It brings so much to a musician, and I have to admit a real sense of satisfaction that it has taken such a large bite out of the massive excesses that record label bosses and the lucky few artists and associates they saw fit to share their very large piece of the pie with.

But you must have spent some time dreaming of The Portraits in a pre-internet age...

Jeremy: Well yes. Of course, the other side to the above is that every artist is forced to share airspace, webspace, stagespace etc with so many millions of people trying to get heard. You only need to ask around to feel as if everyone everywhere has got a CD out! I guess the obvious difference on a practical level for musicians of all statures is that there is so little cash left for recorded work. I think that is a massive shame, for a reason far greater than the loss of income to the musician him/herself. It will almost certainly, in the longer term, represent the death of the album as an art-form and it is an art-form I am pretty attached to. The whole idea of a collection of songs and its unique cover art being of greater value than the sum of the songs that make up its parts is one that I’ve grown up with and will miss. Think of Sgt Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon... and Thriller and beyond. But we are embracing the change all the same and are just about to release a new way of working in The Portraits. It very much encompasses the new way – that is, a move towards regular releases of individual tracks and a move away from the album format altogether. More news on this soon!

Tell me about your favourite gig to date.

Lorraine: Well, we’re on a bit of a roll at the moment. They just seem to be getting better and better! This year alone we’ve had three crackers. A support slot for jazz legend Courtney Pine was followed by a gig with 60s/70s band Stackridge. And finally 2013’s Glastonbury Festival. Yeah, all of those were just great! But I think the Stackridge support just tips the balance... We found the audience totally 'got' what we did and contrary to everything we’ve said already about CD sales declining, that night they were flying off our Merch stand at a rate we haven't experienced for a long time!. And added to that was the fact that the Stackridge lads and girl were lovely – really supportive of us and our material.

Jeremy: Absolutely. Yes. But I should throw in at this point that Courtney Pine was one of the loveliest successful musicians we have ever come across – not a hint of big-headedness or airs and graces. A gentle giant. And we hope to play with him again before too long.

Top tip – Lorraine?

Lorraine: Don’t try to be like anyone else – be you. That’s all!

And yours Jeremy?

Jeremy: Yes, I agree… be honest about who you are when you write and perform, and don’t give in to the temptation to try to fit into another mould, or to be what you think you should be. Whoever you are you’ll have something about you that someone somewhere will take to, and the key is to let those people find the real you. That rather than adjusting yourself to appeal to a crowd who aren’t your natural followers.

Lorraine: Exactly. The last thing the world needs is 10,000 Rhiannas or Mumfords, even though the major labels will tell you otherwise. They are looking for sure-fire sales and the only way they can think of to do that is to clone what already sells.

Jeremy: In the words of Sting (Englishman In New York), 'be yourself, no matter what they say'.

The Portraits play at their home in La Rochelle, August 2013 | Photo: Rosie Pentreath

The Portraits latest album, Counterpoint is available to buy HERE.


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