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How two sisters combined spoken word and music to develop new work

Anna and Isobel Hughes on boxes and baskets

Meet Anna and Isobel Hughes

Anna and Isobel Hughes are sisters with a creative bond. Anna is a musician and Isobel an actor, but the pair shared a desire to combine their crafts to tell a story. With the support of Sage Gateshead, they produced ‘A Place to Fall to Pieces’.

The art presents memories expressed through spoken word, music and projections.

“A Place to Fall to Pieces focuses on the places we’ve lived,” Isobel says, “We always played music, we always read. We created long intricate games that we would spend days outside playing. We were in a different world.”

Anna admires singer-songwriters like KT Tunstall, whose words stay with you.

“At the moment, I’m inspired by instrumental, traditional music. I spent a year in Finland, which influenced ‘A Place to Fall to Pieces’ with Nordic and Eastern European singing styles.”

Coming from a literature-based background, Isobel enjoys theatre and plays. Poets who explored music are a strong influence in her own work.

“I realised that there are a lot of musicians who hadn’t been musicians: people like Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, who are poets that created an accessible musical form,” she says.

Sibling relationships in art take advantage of a deep, sometimes unspoken, understanding of each other. There’s a freedom to express ideas and try new techniques without fear of judgement. Occasions from the past, momentous, or minuscule, stimulate creativity.

“You can’t really escape our big things that happened and relationships from slipping into the process,” says Anna “We’re writing about what we’ve experienced in parallel.”

Isobel adds,” The work we wanted to make is a blend of music and text. Did we find a shared language from it? I suspect we always had references that only we knew.”

Anna Hughes playing a violin

Anna studied for a Folk and Traditional music degree at Newcastle University with modules hosted at The Glasshouse. A recital led to support slots and then residencies with her sister on Summer Studios [a week-long residency using The Glasshouse rehearsal space] and Foundry [four days in Sage Two finalising projects before touring].

“I find Sage is an inspiring place to work,” Isobel says. “Summer Studios offered space to get together and start writing. It was wonderful to be given permission to indulge in that artistic process.”

Opportunities to grow as a musician are available in the North East through networks, communities and organisations like Generator. Anna says she did not always know where to look, or how to find affordable options.

“I work at The Glasshouse in community music, and I am in awe of the opportunities. When I was a young teenager, I had violin and oboe lessons,” she says. “I was disconnected from everyone making music because I did private lessons.”

Among the community of emerging artists there is a sense of togetherness and championing each other’s projects. This was always the case, but the harsh realities of lockdown have given fresh impetus to this trend.

“You feel like you’ve been let loose, but you can’t quite go,” Isobel says, “There are remnants; the industry is still suffering.”

Anna agrees. “People are stepping up. They’re noticing the value of emerging artists; support is increasing,” she says. Local promoters are willing to have real conversations with you and take risks.”

Support networks offers welcoming spaces for like-minded, emerging artists going through similar experiences.

“Forward NE is a group of women, trans and non-binary musicians who get together and talk about making the industry better.” says Anna. “Emerging artists can bloom here because they might not feel comfortable in other places.”

Isobel Hughes sitting against boxes

‘A Place to Fall to Pieces’ featured in Summer Studios in 2019 and Foundry in 2022. COVID brought complexities, but the project stood strong and never lost touch.

“Space is crucial as rehearsal space is expensive, but it’s so much more than that. We’ve borrowed equipment and received help with applications. Foundry gave us a budget,” says Anna.” We booked a photographer and a lighting designer who made it look amazing.”

Isobel adds,

“The Glasshouse is the opposite of not being taken seriously. It’s important to have someone else in your corner,” she says. “You realise how people get to where they are: yes, it’s absolutely talent, but it’s who you’ve got around you and resources.”

“I don’t think we would have our show the way we wanted if it were not for the support.”

Anna and Isobel toured ‘A Place to Fall to Pieces’ following their time at Foundry, visiting Manchester, York and London, ending back at Newcastle’s Cumberland Arms.

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