Nancy Kerr has played a major part in the acoustic music scene since she was a teen. She’s currently one half of a duo with husband James Fagan, a member of The Melrose Quartet (with James, and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith), and last year released her debut solo album, Sweet Visitor, which contributed to her Folk Singer Of The Year win at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2015.
Her latest release is Murmurs, a collaboration with guitarist and singer Martin Simpson, and accordion player Andy Cutting. A stunning collection of traditional songs and orginals (such as Nancy’s Dark Honey), it’s received a perfect run of four and five-star reviews.
How was the Simpson, Cutting and Kerr tour?
Fantastic! It’s the loveliest tour, a real treat. We’re doing 20 [gigs], so we’re kind of getting the hang of it now.
How did you three come together, as a trio?
It was really driven by Martin. I’d met him several years ago; we were previously in The Full English, Martin helped on my solo record and we did the Elizabethan Session, and recorded with James [Fagan]. After every project I’d done with Martin, he’d always say, ‘Let’s do it again!’ Andy? Andy was the soundtrack to me wanting to become a musician! He’s incredible. Kit, Martin’s wife, had a lot to do with it. She’s Roy [Bailey]’s daughter, and I think she essentially told Martin he had to work with Andy and me. He’s shrewd and didn’t argue. We all do what we do, but we also give each other the space to do it …
What do you think is the trio’s strength or strengths?
We have our own distinctive musical characters and at this point we’re interested in lending that to this. A true collaboration is never a compromise. I’ve always been a ‘collaborist’ … I’ve kept my individuality, but leant that to others. The content is also really important to us – we’re all really passionate about what we play, we care about the message of the songs, we care about the feel of the songs. This is a collaboration in the truest sense.
The response to the album, Murmurs, has been incredible!
It’s been really gratifying. Martin and Andy have a huge appreciative fan-base, but you really don’t know how people will feel about something like this. Will they think it’s been diluted? At a time when so much stuff has been watered down, dumbed down, we’re crafting something … and [the response] shows what musical ears people have as it’s quite challenging. People have reacted to the heart and honesty of the music. At festivals, you can have anything you want, musically, so it’s nice to present a challenging show and see people react so positively. It’s a testament to the variety of the folk scene at the moment.
You have a strong connection to Towersey Festival…
Yes, I bought my first fiddle at Towersey! If you buy the deluxe version of Murmurs, you get video interviews with us, and on there I talk about buying it. I use it on Murmurs for all the old timey American stuff and a few of my songs … it has a very smooth, unflattering, sound. I bought it in 1992 from Tim Phillips and was thrilled with it, and it’s stayed with me. I bought my viola from Towersey Festival too, and then 10 years ago, commissioned Tim to do another, so I have a long tradition with him as a maker, and that began at Towersey.
Towersey has been really really central to me. I first discovered it at 13 with my mum. I’d just discovered festivals that summer. August festivals were always important as they were the last chance to soak up inspiration before September, and everything returned to normal. Towersey was the last hurrah. Towersey was really important … you’d always see something new or revisit something; it’s always a treasure to visit.
What’s been some of the highlights?
I remember going with my Australian inlaws in the early 2000’s, and then I debuted The Sweet Visitor Band on the main stage on the Sunday at Towersey last year. It was a full tent, we’d never played those songs before live, and it was great, and Towersey was the place where that began!
You were pretty busy at Towersey 2014, appearing as a solo act, with James, and with The Melrose Quartet.
I was on stage every night at 8.15pm [laughs]. I remember saying, ‘I live here!’ that was such a privileged position to be in. I’ve been a musician for 25 years, and I’m still making things happen, and that [Sweet Visitor Band/ solo] festival appearance, people still remember. I’m still getting people coming up to me and saying ‘I saw you when you were at Towersey.’ Towersey has than specialness.
This year I’m just doing it with Andy and Martin. The first show we ever did was at Sidmouth, so now it’s great to do Towersey after a few gigs. We’re going to really enjoy it … and it’s such an amazing line-up this year!
Does the Simpson, Cutting, Kerr set-list keep to the album, or do you include other, perhaps solo, material?
The deluxe version of Murmurs has 17 tracks, and was recorded pretty much live in two, two-and-a-bit days, so we stick to that. But the set is quite different to the album, we play the songs in a different order, the set follows a narrative, as there are a lot of songs about nature – bees, birds – these ideas about new nature writing are a strong thread which live, we can expand a lot and chat a lot about. I think now is the right time to talk about these ‘radical’ ideas, about the environment, austerity. It’s the same music… but with an ideology. I talk, Martin talks, and Andy says so much with his instrument! For me, I’m really proud of Murmurs … but live music is where it’s at.
Some Old Salty ( A Song by Lal Waterson)
What’s next for Simpson, Cutting and Kerr?
We have dates in September, and some in June next year. All of us want to make it ‘a thing’, we like each other’s company and people respond to it. There’s been more short lived projects I’ve been involved in, and they’ve been inspiring, but this is not a project, we have relationships with each other. [Murmurs] is such a body of work and we have more to explore and want to do more music … it’s interesting.
Any plans for stuff outside of the trio?
When I finish this tour, there are several festivals over the summer. Once, me and James would go wherever the work was, but now we have small children, so have to work around that. But we can do things like The Melrose Quartet still, there’s a variety and that really works. I can do this tour, then the Sweet Visitor Band. Last year I did The Elizabethan Sessions, Full English, Sweet Visitor Band, the duo [with James], the trio … I had six projects! I was coming off stage and taking a deep breath and thinking, ‘right, what songs do I need to know next?’ Now, I feel settled in. No one can work on one project at a time in folk music, it’s just not commercially viable. Things feed into one another. With the Sweet Visitor Band there will be a new album soon, as this [trio] has inspired me to do it. There’s a double-A, It Was Red and Gingerbread, which you can get via Bandcamp, and a single from Murmurs, Dark Honey. And people keep asking if the Melrose Quartet will record again as that had a fab’ year when it was released, so we’ll hopefully do something as we’re such a family, there’s a real family dynamic there.
Interview by: Dave Freak
Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr appear at Towersey Festival on Sunday 30 August 2015. Tickets £40 (adult) for the day, or £135/£110 (adult) for the full 4-day festival (Friday 28 to Monday 31 August). www.towerseyfestival.com