Mike and Ruth Aicken, the husband and wife duo responsible for Belfast folk darlings The Jepettos have moved on from their folk roots into something a little bit different. With their folk stylings still finding new listeners online, mostly through their Spotify successes, the couple relaunched themselves as New Portals. Gone are the acoustic guitars and gentle percussion, replaced by electronic beats and synth sounds while one of their strongest assets, the vocal interplay remained.
With nearly 4 million listens on ‘Something in the Air’ on Spotify, it was surely a leap of faith to move on from The Jepettos however the band felt it was time for a change. “All in all we were in the folk scene for about eight years. We like change and it just felt right. We had started to listen to electronic music so we were producing all this folk stuff but our intake was more electronic so it didn’t feel right any more.”
For Mike, it was clear that folk had perhaps had its time in the sun and a different direction could introduce new challenges and opportunities for the band. “I got bored of being at gigs where unless everyone’s completely silent, they can’t appreciate your music.”
Although the band clearly enjoy playing to quieter, appreciative crowds, an experience at Forfey festival cemented their new thinking. “I remember being at a Not Squares show at Forfey. I remember thinking they’ve got something that I’d like to have on stage, people getting into it. And if you create a beat that people can dance to it’s even better and especially if you can dance to it yourself and get into it on stage. That’s really something I wanted to do.” This move to poppier, dancier music chimed with their desire to get away from their “groove” of writing sadder songs and a change to a happier feel.
These poppier, electronic tracks may bring a different experience to sad folk but the transformative power of music has not been forgotten, with their name a clear sign. “There was a Bon Iver song I fell in love with a few years back called ‘re: stacks’. It would totally chill me out for no reason. It’s just the song, the vibe, transported me to another place. I really liked that idea and we talked about that and the magical doorway to another world. Then we thought every song can be already like that.”
Many songwriting duos encounter problems along the way, and while a husband and wife certainly have their arguments the couple feel with New Portals they are more productive than ever. “With New Portals it has been a different kettle of fish. We’ve actually gone more full time than we’ve ever gone with music. You get better at stuff the more you do it, and we’ve been writing together for a long time.”
Ruth is keen to stress their focus has largely remained the same, “With both projects, our aim was to find a catchy melody. No matter what genre we do that’s always the aim. We sit and work on that solidly, and they come faster now. We grab the catchy tunes faster.”
The introduction of a drum machine, suggested by producer Peter McCauley has helped the band “think electronic”.
“We were writing on guitar for The Jepettos, now we write on piano and a little drum machine. We’re so aware how inspirational it is to have a beat when we’re writing, it has transformed our writing.”
And while arguments do happen during writing sessions, they rely on each other for honest feedback, “Whenever you do a creative project you go down an avenue with it and there’s endless possibilities so you need to quickly recognise that where you’re going is going to be a waste of time. You can’t always see it yourself, so if you’re in a duo you need to trust the other person so that they can tell you to move on.”
New Portals marks the first time the pair have worked with producers, with another duo, Peter McCauley (rams’ pocket radio) and Matt Weir aiding the band in unfamiliar territory. Their third single, ‘Skyline’ may have benefited from their producers’ talents but the original demo was already well formed. The demo, with piano and Ruth’s vocals includes some percussion courtesy of Mike’s feet. “It’s quite refreshing to see that we did come up with the melody and the chords then. The original beat is very similar to the beat in the final version, even though it was just a little drum machine.” From here the band and their producers moulded that beat into military snare heard on the single, taking inspiration from Lana Del Rey in the process. Working with McCauley and Weir feels no different to working within a band according to Mike and for Ruth, they’re onto a good thing. “We’ve been with them for a year and it’s still really fun. In fact our collaboration is probably getting even tighter.”
As if the video, created by the band themselves, wasn’t suggestive enough, Ruth was clear on the vision for the song. “We wrote the lyrics before we’d been to New York so they’re a bit like walking around East Belfast on a summer’s day while walking around New York in our mind’s eye.”
As The Jepettos Mike and Ruth have been around the block, playing many Northern Irish shows along with numerous radio sessions and interviews. Now more than ever, it seems that success can be measured online as much as locally. Artists like Ciaran Lavery are reaping the benefits of Spotify success, something The Jepettos were no strangers to. “Around three years ago folk was definitely the biggest genre in the world. We were lucky that we had that sound that really worked at the time.” Their online success opened the door to new things for The Jepettos and New Portals with their music being used in adverts and in store for the likes of HMV and MAC make-up. While closer to home, ‘Groove Boy’ has soundtracked the Belfast Bikes campaign. Looking further afield, their online prescence has led to collaborations with American musicians.
With just four tracks to their name, New Portals have already received Radio 1 airplay, been named new band of the week on The Guardian and played shows and festivals in Belfast, London and the East Midlands. The band say their focus will be on singles, with a forthcoming collaboration with Leah McFall being one to keep an eye out for. They may be relatively fresh-faced newcomers to the electronic genre but there is certainly a lot more to come from this duo.