Agent Starling emerge from isolation

Yorkshire-based duo emerge from isolation of remote recording sessions to launch second hurdy-gurdy album

A lockdown music collaboration made in Yorkshire is catching the ears of aficionados from international specialist magazines and bloggers to pop superstar and BBC Radio 6 presenter Tom Robinson with audiences doubly impressed by the fact that the pair behind the project didn’t meet at all during the recording process.

Agent Starling – which comprises bass player and singer Lou Duffy-Howard and hurdy-gurdy player Quentin Budworth – have just released their second album in a year with all the tracks recorded remotely.

Add in a few numbers issued on a winter EP and you have a total of 27 songs which were pinged back and forth between Quentin’s home in Bridlington and Lou’s house – and home studio – in Hull prior to being polished and packaged ready for release.

The first album, European Howl, came out in May 2021 as the result of a lockdown project hatched when the pair couldn’t do their usual summer of festival gigs.

As the pandemic dragged on and the material mounted, a second album became inevitable, and the pair have now released Constellation of Birds. Yet the first time they got together in more than two years was for the photoshoot to promote the new record.

Both are well known internationally for their music and have worked together on various projects, including performing live shows at green gatherings and pagan festivals as part of world fusion medieval rave band Celtarabia.

Quentin Budworth and Lou Duffy-Howard at the Northern Green Gathering

Lou is a founder member of psychedelic rock band Loudhailer Electric Company and is currently working towards a reunion tour of England in April with the Red Guitars, the Hull-based band which became a John Peel favourite and topped the Indie charts in the 1980s.

Originally part of Suns of Arqa, Quentin tours the continent as part of a unique musical culture, exploring and developing his playing of the hurdy-gurdy and studying style, technique and repertoire with leading players of the rare and historic instrument from many different folk traditions.

Lou said: “During the pandemic it’s been really important for me to remain creative so I upgraded my home recording system and we used it to record the Agent Starling music. We have had some great results and we had a fantastic time doing it.

“Typically, for each song we started with a conversation about the framework of the song – the general feel, tempo, key, time signature. Then Quentin would record a hurdy-gurdy part in his home studio and send it to me.”

Lou developed the songs in her studio, adding rhythm tracks, playing bass and working in the lyrics, vocals and harmonies. Found sounds from around the house added some texture as did violin and cello parts contributed by Lou’s teenage son Dexter.

Lou and Dexter Duffy-Howard photo by Richard Duffy-Howard

The fact that the tracks could be sent for professional mastering to Kevin Carafa in Oregon is less surprising than the revelation that his main area of work is hip-hop and electronic dance music.

Agent Starling are preparing to tour in 2023 and anticipation is building as a result of a strong of encouraging early reviews.

In his review in Songlines, Tony Gillam wrote: “Experimental hurdy-gurdy on duo’s impressive debut. European Howl is a complex, immersive and at times disorienting listening experience.”

Neil March wrote in the Trust the Doc blog: “…an album that both respects and goes far beyond the traditions of hurdy-gurdy and European folk, embracing genres and creating lovely textures. You will not hear another album like this in 2022.”

Mike Davies, writing on the UK folk and Americana website Folking, described  “… the disparate textures and threads they weave coalesce into a mesmerising tapestry of sound that is uniquely theirs.” 

Tom Robinson told listeners on BBC Radio 6 Music: “In all the years since this podcast started I don’t think we’ve ever knowingly featured a hurdy-gurdy – but there’s a first time for everything thanks to Agent Starling.”

In Fatea Magazine, John Reed found Agent Starling “compelling, demanding, progressive” and said their music “fuses a range of cross-cultural folk-based sounds and moods. The album challenges and stretches boundaries, and occasionally – in a good way – feels slightly unhinged, but I absolutely love it when musicians dare to tread forth where many would turn on their heels and run…” 

Quentin said: “I’ve played the hurdy-gurdy professionally for most of my adult life. Its drone, chanters and buzzing trompette create a unique musical world encompassing the ancient, modern and modal.

“When played as a solo instrument the hurdy-gurdy creates a delightful universe of sound in its own right needing no accompaniment. I bring the knowledge from my travels to my playing when recording for Agent Starling whether writing new compositions or interpreting traditional ones.

“I often spend several days researching, rehearsing and recording my parts to ensure that I am happy with my playing on the record before I send them to Lou.

Lou added: “There are not many people who play the hurdy-gurdy and Quentin is at the top of his game. He spent the first year of lockdown doing sessions and workshops with other hurdy-gurdy players throughout Europe.

“With lockdown I was free to just be creative and that’s how the Agent Starling tracks have come about. We have a third album partially recorded and we have made enough money to have some CDs made, building up what we can offer to the public, and enabling us to continue our musical adventure.”

By Phil Ascough

Constellation of Birds on Bandcamp: 

https://loudhaileruk.bandcamp.com/album/constellation-of-birds

Visit the Agent Starling website: agentstarlinguk.wordpress.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/AgentStarlingUK/
Twitter: twitter.com/AgentStarlingUK
Agent Starling Video Playlist tinyurl.com/yvmr2r3v  

Fatea Magazine Review – Constellation of Birds

We are absolutely made up to read this excellent, intelligent and well considered review of our new Agent Starling album. Big thanks to Fatea Magazine and reviewer John Reed.

Read the full review and more here: https://www.fatea-records.co.uk/magazine/reviews/AgentStarling/

Artist: Agent Starling
Album: Constellation of Birds
Label: DHM
Tracks: 9
Website: https://agentstarlinguk.wordpress.com/

Agent Starling is a new(ish) project for accomplished musicians Lou Duffy-Howard and Quentin Budworth, supported on violin and cello by Lou’s son, Dexter. Bassist and “occasional acoustic guitarist” Lou had indie chart success with Red Guitars (hugely successful back in the day, with their single “Good `Technology” being championed by the late great John Peel, appearances on The Tube, OGWT and others), and fronts Hull based Loudhailer Electric Company with partner Rich. Quentin is an award winning, Bridlington based film maker, photographer, and digital artist, who specialises on hurdy-gurdy, performing as a soloist and lead musician with world music band Celtarabia, historical musicians the Grinnigogs and the deeply traditional Hessle Ceilidh Band. I could add much, much more.

Lou and Quentin have known each other for some years. Agent Starling was borne out of a love of music experimentation and paying a kind of futuristic homage to folk traditions. Loudhailer released a work in 2017 called The Auricula Suite, which tells “a re-imagined story of a historical journey to a new land, inspired by folk tales of the alpine flower – the Primula Auricula – and its 16th century journey to England with the Huguenot refugees”. Quentin played hurdy-gurdy on that album.

The Agent Starling project has allowed the two to experiment with new sounds and to fuse elements of music from around the world specifically from Quentin’s recent travels: “just prior to lockdown travelling widely throughout Europe to study style, technique and repertory with leading players from many different folk traditions”. The result is compelling, demanding, progressive, and fuses a range of cross-cultural folk-based sounds and moods. The album challenges and stretches boundaries, and occasionally – in a good way – feels slightly unhinged, but I absolutely love it when musicians dare to tread forth where many would turn on their heels and run.

“Constellation of Birds” is their second product from the last two pandemic years. Unable to gig, the duo decided to record a song together remotely, and that quickly metamorphosed into two albums worth of music, with the first “European Howl” being released in July 2021. Lou expands: “Typically for each song we started with a conversation about the framework of the song – the general feel, tempo, key, time signature. Then Quentin would record a hurdy-gurdy part in his home studio and send it to me. I would use it as inspiration to shape up the song in my home studio, adding rhythm tracks, playing bass.” And so, to their new album…

On first hearing the opening song “Valley to Mountainside” I felt it created a pan-European hybrid, fusing Pentangle-esque sounds with those from Eastern reaches of Europe, similar to Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha – and how sadly topical is that? I still feel the same after several listens. Lyrically very simple and evoking birds in flight, the song celebrates the beauty of nature.

We’ve all had a taste of the meaning of “Leave No Trace”, that feeling of being an alien stranded on Earth during the pandemic. With its wonderful hurdy-gurdy drone and driving percussion, the song again continues a European mood, which carries into “Scandiland (Hälleforsnäsar)” with its a beautifully bleak instrumental mood. It’s reminiscent of a cold, rock-strewn Icelandic landscape, yet a place we still inhabit in some peripheral way.

“Pagaratz” finds me politically very much on the same page, and is an observation of the band’s dissent with the British government. It’s a progressive rock infused folk rap that nails its colours firmly to the mast:

“There’s a sage in the gallery takin’ in the view
And the Doc’s in the science lab cookin’ up a brew
And the rats in the cabinet are jumpin’ at each other
Gonna pick ’em up and pack ’em off and bring in another”

The lyrics for “Midsommer” are delivered Patti Smith fashion, and showcases Lou’s intuitive bass playing. It’s a joyful celebration of the summer solstice. At times punk folk with a percussive reggae rhythm, this is a real earworm of a tune, with the hurdy-gurdy and violin drifting in and out of the song like a gypsy dance around a stone circle. “Princess Julia” presents in mantra form a fairy tale of a royal pretender and her secret, with its folk tale seeming to take a more general aim at dishonesty, of which there is much in the highest levels of our society.

“Shadowland” opens with a dub reggae rhythm that sits beneath the song, which according to the album notes “depicts a mysterious chance meeting by the dark sea”. There’s a ’60s sound to the vocal, with a whispered section seeming to carry messages on the sea breeze:

“So raise a glass as the night comes in
And steal a kiss in the shadowland”

“Bridget Cruise” provides an oriental instrumental interlude, with another earworm created this time by a repeating melody weaving together violin, cello, and guitar – a delightful tune has the atmosphere of a Japanese ritual.

The sound of a hammer hitting an anvil introduces the album’s final song, the poetic “The Stonemason’s Dream”. The song is “a call for cathedral-thinking in the modern world to preserve it”, which very much speaks to the heart of a man who has been banging on for decades about the dangers of short term thinking in politics, business, and life in general and specifically in connection with our treatment of the planet we live on.

Thought-provoking and courageous are two words that seem so lacking in today’s dysfunctional world, and in providing this innovative album of truly original music, Agent Starling remind us we are so much better than this. Well worth spending proper money on.

John Reed

Get the album here: https://loudhaileruk.bandcamp.com/album/constellation-of-birds

Scandiland (Hälleforsnäsar)

Scandiland (Hälleforsnäsar) by Agent Starling.

From album ‘Constellation of Birds’ released February 25 2022 Available from Bandcamp: https://loudhaileruk.bandcamp.com/album/constellation-of-birds

Agent Starling: Quentin Budworth hurdy-gurdy, other instruments/voice Lou Loudhailer. Violin by special guest Dexter Duffy-Howard.

Website: https://agentstarlinguk.wordpress.com/

Agent Starling release The Northern Lights

DHM PRESS RELEASE                                                                                           

Welcome to our winter festival trilogy of songs

Agent Starling release their winter EP, The Northern Lights Trilogy on November 19th 2021. The EP features three brand new festive singles. Agent Starling’s composition Northern Lights is accompanied by the band’s new arrangements of traditional tunes Stockport Polka and The Cordwainer’s Lament.

This is Agent Starling’s first release since their debut album European Howl was internationally well received and made number one in the EthnoCloud Mediterranean music chart. The band have subsequently been on a recording spree and an album of original songs and an EP of their arrangements of instrumental tunes by contemporary hurdy-gurdy players will follow early next year.


“Experimental hurdy-gurdy on duo’s impressive debut. European Howl is a complex, immersive and at times disorienting listening experience.” (SONGLINES July 2021)

“In all the years since this podcast started I don’t think we’ve ever knowingly featured a hurdy-gurdy – but there’s a first time for everything thanks to Agent Starling.” (Tom Robinson, BBC Radio 6 Music)

Agent Starling are Quentin Budworth hurdy-gurdy and Louise Duffy-Howard aka Lou Loudhailer voices & other instruments. The Northern Lights Trilogy also features Dexter Duffy-Howard on violin and cello. Recorded in Yorkshire UK by Agent Starling, the EP was mastered in Oregon by Kevin Carafa. Quentin and Lou both have strong musical provenance. Lou was originally in the recently reformed prophetic UK Indie band Red Guitars and has gigged and recorded ever since, currently heading up psychedelic rock band Loudhailer Electric Company. Originally part of Suns of Arqa, hurdy-gurdy specialist Quentin is the force behind world fusion medieval rave band Celtarabia.

The Northern Lights Trilogy by Agent Starling

1. Northern Lights

2. Stockport Polka

3. The Cordwainer’s Lament 


The Northern Lights Trilogy is self-released on the DHM record label, catalogue number DHM031. Available from Bandcamp from 19th November:  https://loudhaileruk.bandcamp.com/album/the-northern-lights-trilogy


Agent Starling links:

Website: https://agentstarlinguk.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AgentStarlingUK/

Twitter: @AgentStarlingUK

The Parting Glass

One for the road – The Parting Glass is the closing track on Agent Starling’s debut album, European Howl.


Available from all the usual outlets and Bandcamp now: https://loudhaileruk.bandcamp.com/alb…​


Agent Starling: Quentin Budworth hurdy-gurdy, other instruments/voice Lou Loudhailer. Also featuring guest Dexter Duffy-Howard on violin and cello. Video by Quentin Budworth. Audio: mastered by Kevin Carafa