Interview: Harrogate musician on starring in finale of Northern Aldborough Festival

The finale of the Northern Aldborough Festival next month will feature Harrogate songwriter and singer Alex Denny. He talked to Ann Chadwick about teenage years, cheesy songs, and being lead singer of a covers band with a difference.

By Ann Chadwick
Friday, 6th May 2022, 3:37 pm
Hailed as a great party band, The Big Cheese featuring Harrogate's Alex Denny will headline the finale at this year's Northern Aldborough Festival.
Hailed as a great party band, The Big Cheese featuring Harrogate's Alex Denny will headline the finale at this year's Northern Aldborough Festival.

It all began, as things do, in a maternity ward.

Alex Denny was born in Harrogate, as was Emily Ogden.

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Their mums struck up a friendship on the ward. Growing up in Lower Dunsforth, Alex became fast friends with the Ogden siblings, bonding with Emily’s younger brother, Robert – thanks to their shared passion for music and strong coffee.

“Robert and I have always been close. He’s a very talented musician,” Alex says.

From the age of 14, they began writing songs, recording songs and playing in bands.

“My parents live on a farm and we were rehearsing in an attic there, playing Highway to Hell by ACDC. The neighbours called my mum and said they’d been down the highway to hell once too often that afternoon, and could we please just stop,” Alex laughs. “For most of our lives we’ve been in and out of bands. It’s a fun, shared interest.”

Robert Ogden grew up to be a professional Counter Tenor, performing across Europe, before taking on the family business, Ogden’s of Harrogate. Alex grew up to become a lawyer, but the pair continue their passion – Robert as Artistic Director of the Northern Aldborough Festival, and Alex as the frontman of the cover-band-with-a-difference, The Big Cheese.

It was inevitable then that The Big Cheese would one day play at the festival, and this year, they make their debut performance at Aldborough headlining the final night festival finale.

The final night is the culmination of the two-week festival, which this year features its most ambitious programme yet, including a semi-staged production of Handel’s Theodora, one of the foremost guitarists of his generation, Sean Shibe, and former Blur bassist, Alex James.

Up to a thousand people gather with picnics in the grounds of Aldborough Manor, where there’s an outdoor stage and a firework finale.

Opening for The Big Cheese is Cambridge’s So 80s, smashing out their 80s repertoire, complete with high energy dance moves. Described as one of the UK’s most dynamic party bands,

The Big Cheese, promise to bring the party with high voltage pop and rock covers.

The clue is in the name.

“We do quite cheesy songs like Hey Mickey, we do Brittney Spears’ Hit Me Baby, we do the Beatles. But it’s not meant to be an accurate reproduction of the source material, it’s with our own style,” Alex says.

They are, he says, a cross between Black Sabbath and The Beatles. The style – “turbo-charged rock”.

The tracks they’ll play will be big crowd pleasers.

“When we’re choosing songs, it’s got to be something people know, will dance to and get excited about. We’ve built up a set over the years based on crowd reaction, so the songs we have now we know they work, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Unlike the usual cover band though, The Big Cheese bring their own charisma to the stage, and a warmth that’s built over decades of friendship.

“This is a band that’s been together for 25 years as a cover band, and before that, me, the guitar player and the drummer were in a band when we were teenagers, writing our own stuff as well.”

Alex says they are a unique take on the traditional cover band.

“We’re not like those cover bands that are glorified DJs. When we play it’s a gig, the audience engage with us, it’s a proper rock show. A lot of cover bands are a jukebox, going through the material and it’s great, but there’s a distance there. When we play, there’s a connection.”

Out of the four, the drummer Ed is the only full-time musician.

“We’re an occasions band, we play weddings and celebrations. The audience will often join us up on stage. People leave with a smile on their face and a song in their hearts,” he laughs.

The band all live down south, and Alex is in London but Yorkshire is still his true home.

“London is great but I do go stir crazy sometimes. If I’m here for a few weekends on the trot, I get cabin fever and have to escape. My dad is still in Lower Dunsforth, just down the road from Aldborough, and my sister and brother and their families all live in the area.

"They’re well known in the community, and I know a lot of people there too, so there’s that personal attachment - you grew up there.

"There’s also something about the spirit of the place, the huge skies, which you obviously don’t get in London. To go up to Yorkshire on a glorious day and walk down the back fields to the River Ure, it’s good for the soul.”

Despite his professional career, Alex still writes his own songs. It’s a more creative side of music.

“For a few years I had a publishing deal for the songs I’d written and was going to write for other bands, it was indie pop stuff. Then, I just carried on writing. I’ve never had a time when I’ve not written.”

The pandemic has meant the Northern Aldborough Festival will be one of their first returning big gigs.

“Lockdown was hard for everyone, but having music, or art or some creative outlet, really helps, because it’s that internal life that’s going to continue regardless of what’s happening on the outside,” Alex says.

Performing live though is something they, and audiences, will appreciate more than ever after the last two years.

“It’s going to be absolutely massive. I think the Northern Aldborough Festival for us, and hopefully for the people that are there, will be a really joyful explosion of all that pent up, this-is-what-we’ve-missed-doing energy. We’re really honoured to have been invited."

He remembers the last gig they did before the pandemic.

“We played at a wedding in Yorkshire the weekend before the country went into lockdown, and it was on the horizon. It was a really surreal experience, you felt like you were on the verge of something major and grim that you couldn’t quite understand.

"It felt like a last hurrah, and it really gave that evening a special quality because we didn’t know when we’d next be able to do it again.

"So, this is going full circle two years later. There will be people from that wedding at the Aldborough gig, and they know what The Big Cheese bring to an occasion, so they’ll be excited, the band will be excited. It’s going to be Big Cheese on steroids.”

The Last Night Outdoor Concert featuring The Big Cheese, Saturday 25

June from 6pm, in the grounds of Aldborough Manor. For tickets:

Festival highlights include Britain’s greatest bass Sir John Tomlinson, jazz great Claire Martin, ex-Blur bassist Alex James, clarinettist Julian Bliss, guitarist Sean Shibe and pianist Clare Hammond.