“You’ll find people who aren’t comfortable with folk music having a political narrative” observes Nancy Kerr, “but the old anonymous rural traditional songs, the big political current stuff and everything between…to me, they’re a continuum. They’re very intertwined just because of who’s traditionally sung them and written them. It’s about ordinary people.”
At the point I meet up with Nancy, just two weeks have passed since the release of her second solo album ‘Instar’ and already reviews have been gushing with praise for its lyrical depth and fresh musical relevance. “Vital, visceral and urgent…an essential companion for these turbulent times” was how Claire Simmons summarised Instar in her review for fruk…
The new record builds on the momentum created by Nancy’s 2014 debut solo album ‘Sweet Visitor’. As we sit chatting ahead of Nancy’s performance alongside her band in Birmingham as part of the UK tour to launch Instar, it’s clear that she’s really happy with her latest recorded work;
“I made quite a splash of Sweet Visitor because, even though I’ve been a folk musician for years, I had never done a solo album” she explains, “but from the minute I started making Instar…for me, it’s got more cohesion. I think it’s better; it’s more polished. It’s more ‘me’”.
Performing live has already given Nancy a fresh perspective on the new material. In particular, she’s enjoying the opportunity to share with audiences some of the layered ideas underpinning Instar;
“I’m loving playing it live” she smiles, “It is different. Some of the songs we hadn’t played at all since recording them, so it was interesting to see what those things are like in the live setting because they’re always different…and that’s the folk thing; it does actually exist in the moment.”
“There’s one song called ‘Sisterhood’” she continues, “It’s a song about female power and sexuality. It’s also about the hijab and the burka…different ways that women show their identity and how that’s received by different parts of society. It’s quite a big complex song, but actually, when I sing it with the band I can just really relax into it, and I get a chance to talk about what I was aiming for when I wrote it. I’ve been quite surprised by that song…by how people have reacted really positively to it, even though it’s open ended and maybe quite complex.”
Even though Nancy’s work has always featured social commentary in various guises, she admits that people often don’t think of her as a political artist. Instar is, however, her most political work to date and it’s clear that for Nancy, the association between folk music and politics runs deeply;
“My father, an instrumental musician, was a working class man from the North of England who learned his regional instrument, the Northumbrian pipes, because he thought it was an important statement. It was like a class statement…it was part of his identity and for him, even just playing traditional music was a political act because of the way it defies ownership. Although we’re all doing it for a living, it does also defy that commercial pigeon-hole. It’s about doing it as much as it is about listening.”
The strength of purpose in relation to the messages Nancy wanted to convey in the new album far exceeded any need to satisfy other people’s expectations of her as a traditional folk artist;
“There’s part of me that doesn’t care” she reflects, “I have to put out these stories and the way that I’m writing at the moment, that was always going to be what I presented. I’m actually quite surprised at how positive a lot of the reactions have been in the folk press. I’m not a crossover artist; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool folkie…but it’s not a very pure folk album. It’s got quite a lot of electric sounds, quite a standard rock’n’roll kind of backline and a pop sensibility, so I wondered if people from the folk area would find that a bit unsettling or might not like it. What I’m really pleased about is how people have connected with the content, because that’s the whole point to me. It could turn people off; people don’t necessarily want to have someone shouting at them about the Human Rights Act when they go out for a bit of nice music, but people have communicated to me in a way that says they’ve connected with it, so it’s really gratifying.”
The approach Nancy took to making Instar was very different to her first solo album. Somehow fitting in the recording of an album while being a mum to two small children, Sweet Visitor was literally recorded in the gaps between changing nappies! While the result was satisfying, the process took a long time. This time around, Nancy and drummer / producer / manager Tom Wright found that by working to self-imposed time boundaries, a stronger consistency and theme to the record emerged;
“We suddenly looked at the songs that I’d done and the way that we were going, and we realised there was this really strong thread of environment and nature” Nancy explains. “It’s not that the songs are about nature…it’s that the characters in the songs are from the natural world even though they’re telling stories about something completely different. We just spotted that happening. Then we were able to control it and decide that was actually our purpose and our theme.”
The other key difference between the new album and Sweet Visitor was that by the time work had started on Instar; Nancy had been performing with her new band for over a year (they first performed at Towersey Festival in 2014) which meant this time she could write with the band’s sound in mind.
“It’s different” Nancy acknowledges as we discuss the process of recording with a band, “it has to be the right kind of group, it has to be the right producer. Tom did a lot; he really made the sounds support the songs. It’s also more about collaboration than being about me and my ego; I can play guitar, I can play fiddle, I can do harmony vocals…I could have done a lot more, but I didn’t, I stepped back and let the band fill those spaces and that’s way more human. You get a way more organic feel…it feels like people playing music together, which is easy to avoid in a studio situation.”
Nancy Kerr as a solo artist is a relatively recent development in a musical career spanning twenty-five years, the vast majority of which was spent performing as a highly successful duo with husband James Fagan. The roots of Nancy’s solo career started to form in 2010 when, while pregnant with her first baby, she wrote the ‘Twice Reflected Sun’ album for the duo;
“It was the first album that I’d written completely” she explains, “but I was very conscious that I was writing half for me to sing and half for James to sing, and I think that muddied the waters a bit. It didn’t feel like a writing debut to a lot of people; it felt like another duo album…but it whetted my pen a bit. Then after we’d had Hamish, our eldest son, I started to write another record, and it was James who said ‘this sounds like your record…’”
Nancy describes how her solo career also emerged from the pure practicality of having to balance the demands of family life with careers as touring musicians;
“I actually think family life is quite compatible with a certain type of playing music…festivals work really well, some gig models work…we took people on tour with us to look after the babies while I was singing. So we did that for a while, but it became really obvious that actually, we needed some independence in a totally agreeable, nice, sustainable way. The duo isn’t finished, but it really had to be not the main thing we did.”
“The two things collided in a good way” she continues, “because I was ready to say things as a songwriter and also just to sing. Whatever you say, however lovely it is to play with your spouse…which it is, I love playing with James…I also think it’s good for women, in particular, to step out of the shadows sometimes because it’s important, it’s crucial for people to see women spearheading their own thing and topping bills and talking about their experiences.”
“My Mum is a musician; she’s been a freelance performer, a musician and teacher her whole life and that means she brought me up while being a musician, mostly as a single parent as well. I’ve seen it done, and so I have no desire to not do music because I’m a mum. A lot of our model, the way that we tour, the way that we record and write, the way the we do the collaborations we sign up for…a lot of that is about keeping the heart and soul together at home so that neither of us is away lots, but we can still do what we love…”
Having been a part of so many fantastic musical collaborations over recent years, Nancy’s mention of such projects prompts me to ask about how importantly they feature in her artistic make-up;
“The reason I even began to play music” she explains, “or I even got good at it was so that other people would collaborate with me. I’m not a soloist…I’ve written these songs so I’m obliged to sing them in front of a band, but the way I really feel is that I like being part of a collaboration. I like that compromise and those relationships you get, sometimes things working. I have heard people be a little mistrusting and disparaging about how many of those projects there are now that draw different people together with a theme, but I think it’s absolutely the life and soul of quite a lot of our creative identities. Writing and music can be quite solitary if you’re not careful, so sparking off other people is totally crucial for me. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but other times it works so blissfully…we did a project called The Elizabethan Session two years ago. There were seven or eight of us who’d never played together before, thrown into a house and had to make a show out of literally nothing…it was brilliant.
“There’s a fantasy” Nancy continues, “about the authenticity of folk music and if you create projects like that, somehow it’s not authentic. The reality is it’s an art form and it has to begin and end somewhere…you have to get your inspiration from somewhere. The crucial thing that marks out this genre is our shared musical and lyrical repertoire…tunes or just ways of doing things…there’s this language that we share. There’s no point in having that unless you’re going to use it to build bridges and spark off other people…it doesn’t really work on your own. So that’s why I love all of those things like The Full English. I’ve got a couple of things coming up in the new year which are along those same lines.”
Reflecting on Nancy’s distinguished career as folk artist, I’m keen to find out what her biggest learning point about the music industry has been over the years;
“It’s not a competition” is her immediate reply, “but you wouldn’t know it the way people sometimes phrase stuff and observe each other doing things. Peggy Seeger said that to me twenty years ago and I do say it to myself a lot. I’m not competitive and I’m not looking at other people and thinking they’re doing better than me, but I just think there’s a constant desire to cover all the bases and I don’t think you can really approach music like that. It’s like making an album so that you win an award…you can’t do it like that, but I think certain ways that the industry as a whole sets itself up makes it look like there are these benchmarks to hit every time. It can be quite hard to remember…that’s not actually real. You rise and fall on the content of what you do and that means treating every single gig like it really, really matters…whatever it is. That’s the target you should hit I think…that at every gig you’re happy with the content of what you present, not whether you’re on the telly…or even record sales really.”
As is to be expected, Nancy’s immediate future looks filled with more musical collaborations. She’s involved with the reinvigoration of Peter Bellamy’s ‘The Transports’ folk ballad opera, a protest song project with Greg Russell called ‘Shake The Chains’ starting in late winter/early spring and the curation of a season of shows at Kings Place in London where Nancy will be inviting a number of literary and musical artists to explore the interaction between nature and writing…prose, nature memoirs, ecological literature and folk music.
Despite being involved in so many collaborative projects, it’s being recognised as a songwriter that gives Nancy the most personal pride;
“I always wanted to be a songwriter. I love the trad songs, I really do…but I reached a point where politically I wasn’t able to say overtly enough what I wanted to say using a traditional canon. There’s a political narrative in traditional songs and tunes, but I wanted it to be less opaque so I started to write. My Mum’s a songwriter, all my heroes and heroines are songwriters…so I guess I’m really proud of people calling me a songwriter and accepting the songs. That’s really huge for me.”
“I think just being happy with your content is a lovely thing. Whatever the other niggles and problems and worries are about the job, I think it would so much worse if I went to bed at night after a gig and worried that what I was presenting wasn’t what I wanted to say. The thing about Instar…the one really comforting thing about where we are right now…is that it’s what I want to say and how I want to say it.”
Instar is Out Now
For details of Nancy’s upcoming tour dates visit: http://nancykerr.co.uk/gigs/