When 20-year-old Marcus Mumford decided to give up studying classics at Edinburgh University to pursue a career in music, it might have seemed a bold gamble. But the move paid off handsomely and within two years, on October 2, 2009, his band, Mumford & Sons, released their debut album, Sigh No More. It went multi-platinum and, at a stroke, established the band as the breakout success of the so-called “nu-folk scene.”
The title and rousing opening number was taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more”) and there are Bard references scattered throughout both the title song and album, from the line “Man is a giddy thing,” taken from the same 17th-century comic play, to quotations from King Lear and Macbeth.
Californian-born Mumford joked that studying Shakespeare had been “quite a big thing” for him and keyboardist Ben Lovett when they had attended King’s College School in Wimbledon. Mumford had known banjo and guitar player “Country” Winston Marshall as a teenager in London and then met him again in Edinburgh. He met double bass player Ted Dwane through his work with folk singer Laura Marling.
It was during his time as a session drummer with Marling, for her 2008 album Alas, I Cannot Swim, that he made his songwriting breakthrough. While Marling was doing press interviews, Mumford had some spare time in a London studio and decided to try writing a song. The result was “White Blank Page,” a potent number about romantic woe. The composition ended up being a key track on Sigh No More.
The songwriting on most of the album’s 12 tracks was collaborative. After cutting their teeth on cover songs, the band decided to write their own material and used to sit in a room together, putting songs together in fragmented stages, with one person working on a verse and matching it up to someone else’s chorus.
The quartet of musicians (they weren’t related; the band name was a joke) paid their dues doing lots of support slots in clubs in London. In that time, they worked out which tracks to cut loose on when it came to recording the album at Eastcote Studios. One such number was “Little Lion Man,” a caustic song about failing at a love affair (“I really f__ked it up this time/Didn’t I, my dear?”). When he talked about the song at the time, Mumford said, “I think these guys were aware that I had a certain amount of aggression that I was venting through that song.” “Little Lion Man” ended up being nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song of the year.
Behind the singing and vocal harmonies, the overarching sound on Sigh No More is bluegrass banjo underpinning acoustic guitars, strings, and horns. The sound reflected the influences that were shaping the Mumfords’ music at the time. All four were big fans of the harmonies of Old Crow Medicine Show and The Avett Brothers, and also the lyrical work of Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. They also adored the Coen brothers’ soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.
The song “Winter Winds” opens in the style of traditional folk, with banjo at the fore, and ends with rousing brass from Nick Etwell (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Pete Beachill (trombone) as the intensity rises. “Timshel” is full of energy, while “Thistle & Weeds” also has a potency that owes much to the production work of Markus Dravs, known for his albums with Arcade Fire, Björk, and The Maccabees.
As well as love lyrics, the album also features religious references, which is unsurprising given that Mumford’s parents were founders of the evangelical Vineyard Church in Britain. His minister father, Jon, later conducted the service when Mumford married actress Carrie Mulligan, who had been a pen pal of the singer as a child.
Sigh No More went on to sell more than four million copies and win a BRIT Award for Album Of The Year.