When Kate Rusby and Katherine Roberts joined forces with the Lakeman brothers (Sean, Seth & Sam) in 1995 it was the beginning of a musical dynasty that has produced award winning music ever since and has included more big names from the folk world than you could shake several sticks at. As a husband and wife duo, Sean and Kathryn recorded a brace of albums in 2001 and 2003 (with the minimalist titles of 1 and 2) to much acclaim, before the joyous arrival of twin daughters heralded a change in professional priorities. At last, though, following a return to live performance as a duo last year, Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts have released a new studio album, Hidden People. With contributions from Lakeman brothers Sam and Seth, Cara Dillon, Mark Chadwick, Dave Burland, Stu Hanna and Jim Moray; Hidden People expands on the success of those early albums; delivers new songs and a much wider musical frame of reference.
Despite an album launch and a number of live dates to prepare for, Sean & Kathryn agreed to take some time to answer a few questions on music, family life and getting back to the very important business of playing live…
The web site declares the album was ‘a year in the making’, but the duo also made a very well received return to live performance last year.
FRUK – Was the planning of the album was even more protracted that its recording?
SL – There were no real planning stages, or forethought as such. We just found ourselves with a few rare weeks of calm last year and re-discovered a number of half written songs that had just been sat gathering dust. On realizing that many of them were much better than we had remembered, it proved to be the launch pad for a year long period of re-working, finishing up and writing new duo songs.
It’s difficult to imagine songs of this quality sitting around gathering dust, just waiting to be reborn. Stories, both ancient and modern, are clearly an important aspect of the writing process, and being from opposite ends of England the subject matter can’t help but be varied…
FRUK – The opening Scandinavian influence came as a surprise. Was Huldra a tale you’ve been waiting to tell for some time?
KR– After having read a great many traditional English stories to our two young daughters, I moved on to a book of Scandinavian folklore. I found I was intrigued by the legend of the ‘Huldra’ (- literal translation meaning ‘Hidden People’), who are mystical forest dwelling women who lure men to their downfall. The many versions of the tale allowed my imagination to get creative with their modus operandi and gave us the idea to introduce an international chorus of female voices -Cara Dillon-(Ire.) Greta Bondesson-(Swe.) Caroline Herring -(USA) + Sadie Lobb (Dartmoor), giving warning to their men not to stray too far.
The, largely unaccompanied, multi-track vocals of Huldra provide an opening that suggests there are more delights to come. As listeners would expect, the eight songs on this album that were written by Sean and Kathryn should leave no-one in any doubt about their expertise…
FRUK – This seems a higher proportion of self-penned songs than you’re used to recording, did personal ownership of so much of the material have an effect on your approach to recording?
SL– In short – no. We approached each song as a blank canvas and painted as we went along. A bit like Rolf Harris – ‘Can you tell what it is yet????
The Rolf Harris question could never be applied to the album as a whole. Is it Rock? Is it Folk? Is it Celtic Folk Rock? Hidden people is none of these, all of these, and so much more. Whether it’s the rock chords of Oxford, N.Y or the gentle harmonies of Money Or Jewels, variations in pace and approach are clear from the outset, and it’s a trend that continues throughout the album. The common theme, however, is storytelling…
FRUK – The album blends so many styles with such apparent ease. Were there any difficulties in combining the need to tell stories with such a varied approach to the music?
KR- There was no conscious effort on our part to differ the style of each track. Some just felt better to us with a stripped back approach, whilst others cried out for a more expansive sound.
Sean has a wealth of experience in the studio with a lot of different musical styles so he’s quite comfortable in a variety of situations and keeps having great ideas of what to add or dump from an arrangement. It’s great to watch him work and take a song from A to B.
These contrasts abound in the album, and feel just as natural as Kathryn’s response suggests. As the upbeat drums and vocals of Hang The Rowan, deftly dressing ancient fear of the fairy folk in modern clothes, give way to the homely piano introduction to The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs, clearly a very personal song for Kathryn, there’s also the contrast between legend and real life to consider…
FRUK – Kathryn, singing about legends and love is one thing, but did you feel any flutter of fear coming back to the limelight with a song as personal as The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs?
KR– I debuted that song at Barnsley Festival – on my home turf, and the heartland of the miners strike. It’s no understatement to say I was shaking with nerves to sing about something so personal to me and the area. Added to that, to most of the audience that evening I was also debuting myself as a songwriter. Thankfully they gave it a rapturous reception and therefore I took it as their seal of approval. It’s a song that always moves people to come and talk after a show which is another sign of it’s potency.
Hidden People is a potent performance all round, and testament to their commitment to music. Sean’s contribution to music has been constant while the family grows…
FRUK – Sean – after diligently plying your trades as producer and collaborator while Kathryn gets all the credit for giving the girls their start in life, can words express how good it feels to be working together on music again?
SL- Essentially on stage I am an accompanist and arranger, those are my strengths. So to go on stage and provide backing to such a great vocalist like Kathryn, knowing that her delivery and commitment to the songs is rock solid, is a real pleasure and something I did miss for many years.
Those in ‘the know’, know just how good a singer Kath is and it makes me really proud that so many of her peers hold her in such high regard. I am in awe of her on a regular basis. She makes amazing things seem effortless!
That strength, talent and commitment goes well beyond the family, and the extended Lakeman / Roberts family. The wealth of contributions to this album is never more clear than in the album’s only traditional ballad – The White Hind. A host of voices make their presence felt in this wonderful rendition, including Jim Moray and a memorable performance from Dave Burland.
FRUK – The White Hind brings so many strong voices to the album in a single song. Keeping collaboration at a sensible level, to avoid losing sight of your own goals, must have been a challenge…
SL-Well, the narrative of ‘The White Hind’ demanded characters, almost like a mini folk-operetta or something. Therefore we have as many voices as there were necessary to fulfill the story.
It also gave a little bit of light relief to the album as a whole to have a different voice (Caroline Herring), starting the song. On the first listen through to Hidden People it must come as a bit of a surprise, and we like surprises.
Once we started to think about who could fill the roles, it became pretty obvious to us who we were going to ask. We were especially thrilled to get Dave Burland to say yes to singing, as he has such a special place in both of our extended families.
Ballads and ancient stories alike always enjoy a good raunchy tale, and Lusty Smith is no exception, with a beat that matches the earthy nature of the song and as fine a collection of double entendres as you’ll find anywhere. Soon, though, we’re returned to a more sedate pace and an important lesson on The Wisdom Of Standing Still. Sean and Kathryn, however, have no intention of letting the grass grow under their feet…
FRUK – A very busy touring schedule is looming towards the end of the year, is it a daunting prospect, especially for Kathryn?
KR- Playing live is something that is essential to us both. Sean has never really gotten off that merry-go-round of tour-studio-tour-studio-, but I really missed it for a while. You have to remember that I was used to packing a case and spending 6 months on the road in America, for years..! To swap that for rural village life and swamped in nappies was an adjustment, but one that was wholly worth it’s weight in gold.
Anyhow, we look forward to touring together a lot more now that our kids are a little more grown up. They are festival addicts already.
It’s easy to imagine Standing At My Window going down a storm live. An irresistible rhythm, an American twang to Sean’s guitar and brother Seth’s fiddle combine in a darkly supernatural tale before the album closes on a strong but gentle note, with Sean’s guitar and Kathryn’s voice in Jackie’s Song. This track reminds us just how well this couple work together as a duo, and how eagerly anticipated their return to the studio and stage will be. Which leaves one more important question…
FRUK – Was the chance to work together again, on music, everything you hoped for?
SL– I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we have a very instinctive way of working that can only come from so much shared experience and shared love of music and performance. It is simply what we feel we are here to do, and have always been doing. Whether in the spotlight or out of it.
That instinct, experience and love of music shines through in Hidden People. Combining their considerable talents as song writers and musicians, Kathryn’s impressive vocal skill and a supremely talented network of collaborators, Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts have produced an album that should catapult them right back into the spotlight.
Review & Interview by Neil McFadyen
Hidden People is released on 9th July 2012 via Navigator Records
For a list of gig dates visit: www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/gigs