In the first of our two part interview exclusive with Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman (they are our Artist/s of the Month for April), we head back in time to their early days together in Equation and even before that to their musical roots. We’ll save their Folk Award Winning duo act and the new album for part two. But to get us started Sean offers some fascinating insight into the strange world of being an English folk super-group at the time (1994), when the world was more or less completely indifferent to such an idea. None the less good times were had and two long term musical and personal relationships rose from the ashes of Equation, who in their individual ways lived up to the lofty expectations, even if the band had long since fragmented before real success took hold.
While the new album, Tomorrow Will Follow Today has been hotly anticipated and critically acclaimed, it was with the release of Hidden People in 2012 that cemented Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman’s comeback after nine years between records, winning a Folk Award for Best Duo to boot. The gap in their recording career can be explained largely by Sean’s heavy involvement in the success of brother Seth, producing four albums including the Mercury Prize nominated breakthrough Kitty Jay. Released in 2004 and nominated the following year, it set up an intense touring and recording schedule, with Sean taking the stage as Seth’s guitarist of choice, as well as overseeing the making of the records including the following, gold selling Freedom Fields and Top 10 album, Poor Man’s Heaven. For Sean there was other production work too, but it also coincided with the couple celebrating the arrival of twin girls, born to Kathryn in 2007.
Naturally, all of that combined to keep them more than busy, they still managed, however, to slip in a tour here and there, taking in a good run of folk clubs at a stretch. It was on one such tour that I saw them for the first time, but then I’ve already written about that in my review of their new album. Whilst this was a relatively low key giging circuit, it was also a grass roots approach that they had chosen a few years earlier. Arguably it kept them out of the limelight, but in the face of everything else that was occurring, it proved both a sensible and sustainable strategy.
It hadn’t always been so of course and it’s interesting to take Sean and Kathryn back to the Equation days and a folk super-group at a time when such a concept stood out like a sore thumb in the prevailing music scene. Sean recollects, “Well, in ’95 the British folk music climate seemed to have a pretty heavy Celtic bias. Irish bands in particular seemed to be everywhere. But also there seemed to be many more folk bands in general than there are these days, Oyster band, Barely Works, La Cucina, Blowzabella for example. More broadly though it was the Britpop era. We spent lots of time in London around the music industry and it was an incredibly exciting time. You could definitely feel that something special and important was going on.”
Equation brought together Sean and Kathryn, with the other Lakeman brothers, Sam and Seth and also Kate Rusby. Sean remembers their first meeting telling me, “We first met at Sidmouth Folk Festival in the early 90’s when Kathryn and Kate Rusby tried to sell the Lakeman Brothers raffle tickets. Back then people in their late teens were a rare sight at folk festivals it was a natural gravitation for us all. We ended up meeting up at all sorts of Festivals. We were just breaking through onto the scene at the same time and got on really well.”
Kathryn picks up the timeline remembering, “We formed Equation after Kate and I asked the Lakeman boys to accompany us on a tour of Portugal that we had set up. We had such a good time and really bonded, especially in the face of culinary adversity – lots of cabbage and eggs. The music really clicked very naturally and we came back to England with a tight repertoire so we were all keen to continue things and get a band name. We came up with an equation based on our initials KR2 + SL3 = 42 (the meaning of life the universe and everything of course), hence the name.”
In many ways it was a dream line up of five raw but talented future stars and they quickly landed a big deal. It wasn’t all plain sailing however as Sean explains, “Before we signed a major record deal with Warner Brothers it seemed like we were this ‘great white hope of the new roots movement’ or whatever you want to call it, however I think there was certainly a perception by the Folk establishment that we had sold out after we signed. Even though we hadn’t really done anything at all at that point! The turmoil surrounding Kate not wanting to sign a record deal was pretty stressful too as it obviously ended the Kate and Kathryn partnership, but the rest of us saw an amazing opportunity to do things that were just not possible without making a major label record. Seth was 16 for goodness sake, there is no way we were going to pass up the glitz.”
And glitz there was it seems as Sean admits, “We were courted good and proper and made to feel great and special. Flashy world class studios, Video shoots, MTV. The works.” If that all sounds, “Oh so music business,” and also kind of everyday pop star, then Sean also considers, “What was priceless in retrospect, however, was the musical education that was going on with us. I’ll always be eternally grateful for the mentoring that we were given. Some really heavyweight music biz guys had taken us all very much under their wing and were exposing us to all this great new music and different ideas.”
It wasn’t all just business, as Sean conjures up, “I remember phoning up Geoff Travis from Rough Trade from a phone box in Plymouth asking him which Tim Buckley album to buy? We were just eating this stuff up. We joke amongst ourselves that we went to the University of Warner Brothers for a few years. It was a huge learning curve. Also for me personally the opportunity to sit alongside some A-list producers and mix engineers and strike a relationship, watching and learning, asking questions all the time. You know, my first proper mix experience was sitting in Trevor Horn’s mix room at Sarm Studios in West Studios with Julian Mendelssohn – He mixed Kate Bush’s ‘The Hound’s Of Love’ you know. I learnt a lot that day.”
There were more obstacles in the road and Sean confesses, “Our first Equation album got shelved. The Corrs happened big time at Warners and they didn’t need another folk act muddying that gravy train. So that was a tough time to get through. Anyhow, when we finally got some music out there I think we had soaked up so much that we were a completely different sounding thing that had been plucked from the folk scene a couple of years before. I guess we were quite immersed in the record making process and ended up sounding a bit more Fleetwood Mac as opposed to this raw fresh young folk band, but that was just the journey we were on. Sean also admits, “I think it took us until our third album The Lucky Few to really hit our stride with songwriting and confidence. Feeling like a real band. Then of course we went to the USA and got the opportunity to do what every band should do… gig your arse off.”
I push Sean about the gigging and the fun that they must have had and he confirms, “Many adventures. So many stories thinking back. We have played to cowboys with bulls tied up outside the gig, proper mesh across the stage vibe. We have played to yuppies in downtown LA in the middle of a fountain at the bottom of a skyscraper. Once we had to escape from a Koresh type commune in the desert – that was a weird night, we thought we were going to be eaten by Coyotes! Touring the USA coast to coast via Amtrack train was a great adventure, meeting hobos and native Americans, all of them with a sorry tale and a can of beer. Libya with Seth was interesting too (image below). It was whilst Gadaffi was still about – we had an armoured cavalcade out of one tribal town after a gig ! Many incredible experiences and privileges.”
Whilst Sean is shrewd about his musical education within the band, you could say that Kathryn and he were born to it. As Kathryn tells me, “Both my parents were involved in music as instrument teachers and also heavily into the dance side of the folk scene. I grew up like many a folkie kid, going from festival to festival and falling asleep under the pool table in a pub full of singing morris men! A great start! My parents were my number one influence early on, Mum for singing to me and my Dad for teaching me to play woodwind and understand theory. I remember learning to understand how to harmonise by singing along with Mama to the Silly Sisters first album whilst we drove to our clog dance practise every Tuesday in Sheffield.” That obviously made a lasting mark as she confesses, “Later on, I became quite heavily obsessed with June Tabor and Maddy Prior as icons of the folk style of singing.”
For Sean too, his early life was filled with music and musicians and he explains, “Music was always around growing up, as were musicians. My parents helped run a folk club. So me, Sam and Seth would wake up on a Thursday to find all sorts of notable scruff-bag musicians at the breakfast table. We were probably more interested in their footballing abilities rather than musical chops back in those days but instruments were always out and I guess we were just sponges in that environment. I can absolutely say the reason I wanted to play guitar because my dad’s mate Graham Lobb played a Martin guitar and he drove a Porsche. He had a glider too. That was a role model right there.”
Unsurprisingly Sean also started early and admits, “I guess something clicked when I was about 11. I had played guitar for six years already but it became something of an obsession for me around senior school age. It made you stand out I guess. It was a good identity. Also, I remember having holidays in France where we would all go busking as a family band in town markets. This proved to be quite a lucrative thing and our pockets were soon bulging with Francs and it meant we could buy the latest trainers, football kits and stuff. That was a big motivator. In retrospect it was quite a shrewd life lesson from our parents there. Do something fun – entertain people – earn money from that. Wow!”
He continues, “Really Early on I had two main guitar influences. Firstly there was Steve ‘scats’ Redman – a good mate of the family who was coming from Skiffle and Jazz. He was well versed in Dylan, J.J. Cale, Paul Simon etc. He had a great chord knowledge and taught me about different voicings and most importantly taught me the power of solid rhythm. Then there was Chris Newman, who is just a total acoustic guitar virtuoso. I think it’s down to Chris that I made a pledge to master the flatpack style. His power and tone were just a fabulous example to me. However I reckon the most important influence was definitely the family record player. I was lucky enough to have parents who had pretty cool eclectic tastes for folkies. The record cabinet would be a pretty random mix of Bach, Randy Newman, De Dannan, Beatles, Nic Jones, Buddy Holly.”
Given the environment Kathryn was growing into you might have expected something similar for her to, but interestingly she Confess, “I always played music from an early age, doing grades on clarinet and playing sax and flute in school bands but I was adamant I would NOT be a working musician, my parents were sure I would be, so my teenage rebellion was to declare I wanted to be a doctor instead. Of course, by the time I had played a few gigs and festivals I fell in love with the whole thing and realised I should just go with the flow.” In that sense medicine’s loss has been our gain and we should naturally be grateful that both families put Kathry and Sean on the right track.
As I write they have just embarked on another UK tour and will be playing throughout April into early May. I’m also grateful for some delving into their archives for material to help illustrate this part of their story. In part two to follow shortly, we’ll bring things up to date.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Tour Dates with Support from Hattie Briggs*
*except 27th March & 1st May
Full gig list here: www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/gigs
Photos courtesy of Kathryn and Sean