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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Nancy Kerr: never underestimate Towersey's sweetest visitor

Not enough women hear themselves called geniuses. A lot would be embarrassed: as a group we're most often brought up to believe that modesty is the way forward, to having our triumphs mitigated and our disasters emphasised while, for the most part, being rewarded less fully than our brothers, underestimated at the outset and frequently discounted in the final reckoning. This is not something I would have written twenty years ago or something I was brought up to believe: it's something I've learnt.

Part of me wishes I could un-know it.

But Nancy Kerr brings the discomfort of this under-acknowledged truth into sharp focus. If the definition of a genius involves exceptional creativity resulting in a leap of insight, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a contender: no blushing, if it's all the same to you.

One of the UK's finest original folk albums of recent years has been Twice Reflected Sun by Kerr and her husband, James Fagan, for the explosive impact of the songwriting and its strong sense of two places - England and Australia. Kerr is English while Fagan, of course, is an Aussie. It was rightly honoured by the Radio 2 folk awards and has several songs on it that feel as if they will outlive us all. Kerr and Fagan each have a voice you would be able to tell from anyone else's, which multiplies their distinctiveness as a duo by several powers of magnitude. Couple this with Kerr's ability to play both ends of a fiddle simultaneously - drawing the bow with one hand while plucking with the other - and they're a proposition of unique and powerful singularity.

I came to the album - and Queen of Waters, above, about a canal boat - about three years ago at the Warwick festival, and loved it a lot, immediately. At the time Kerr could herself have been the Queen of Waters, so heavily pregnant was she, and Fagan left an indelible impression as a result of an overwrought and highly memorable conversation (for me, anyway) after the gig during which I was buying a copy of their CD and he was giving off static, jangling with nerves and anticipating the imminent arrival of their second child. He might be medically trained but when it's your own family I guess all bets are off. 

I saw Kerr play again this year at Folk by the Oak, as a part of The Elizabethan Session, and received a copy of her wonderful first solo album, Sweet Visitor, soon afterwards through the post, which I absorbed walking to and from work for several days. One particular thought jostled to the front, sat up and begged for attention though: while this was Kerr's solo debut it was not a departure from Twice Reflected Sun; the brilliant continuities and lyrical consistencies were far greater than the differences. Why was that?

"I also wrote all the songs on Twice Reflected Sun," Kerr nodded. We were perched on a sofa in a green room behind the CD tent at the Towersey festival and I was not-very-discreetly delighted by the significance of what she had just said.

Not that it had been a secret. Had I paid greater attention, the information was out there. But because several of the songs on Twice Reflected Sun were written in a male - even martial - voice, I had made sexist assumptions about the division of labour between the two of them - she and Fagan  - that were, quite simply, wrong. And that, I suppose, is how it all starts...

"That album really uncorked me as far as song-writing goes," said Kerr. "It was the first one I ever wrote and I was consciously doing some songs for me to sing and some for James. Sweet Visitor came about because James told me to sing them all, like other singer-songwriters. For Twice Reflected Sun I was trying to write in the way that the tradition behaves: it was quite abstract. And I think that's the case because folk songs trickle down through so many filters. The old ballads might tell a personal story but the proponent has often been lost, so the singer-songwriter becomes a very powerful agency."

It should be more widely known that you're the writer, I suggested, with all the leaps of imagination implied by that. She smiled wryly.

"A good friend said to me after he'd listened to Twice Reflected Sun 'Is that all going on in your head?' And it tickled me because it was just an inch away from 'your pretty little head'. But my mum is a songwriter and I grew up listening to Peggy Seeger's songs about being female. This gender thing can be quite subtle. You often get a man telling women's stories and it's an interesting perspective: the messages get altered when you give them a different context."

Sweet Visitor has a lot on it about London 2012?

"Yes. Radio Two commissioned me to write three songs about the Olympics, though the theme was a bit bothersome to me. I wasn't sure how to find my part in it. I'm not sporty and my writing is all about mood. Also a lot of folk relies on jeopardy, adversity and hard times, which is kind of the opposite to what the Olympics was about. But in the end I thought of my grandparents, who were from the East End, and I thought about the cost of this incredible event in their lives, then wrote about the Greek gods coming to the East End, all golden."

I love the folk rock track on there called The Bunting and the Crown: it pounds along a little bit like an early Steeleye Span track.

"It's about competition and how a lot of things come down to nationalism: I dwell a lot on music and identity, and nationalism is about power and a sense of power. But if someone's personal sense of power is derived from their country being better than someone else's I'm not interested. The Bunting and the Crown is about that not being important... I do like bunting though."

She giggled. It was infectious.

"But the main thing about these songs was that someone asked me to write them. It was a very big deal and the deadlines helped."

I hear you.

"I need deadlines. Your brain gets refreshed by them. I love a deadline and I have learned to make my own: if I say to James 'can you take the kids out for two hours?' I have to have a song by the end of it. After the Olympics, I wrote Sweet Visitor as if someone had commissioned it and then you could say that I was match-fit for The Elizabethan Session.

"There is a slight subtext to Sweet Visitor, which is that we are all visitors. At a time when there are a lot of questions about nations, heritage and where you are from - people fleeing terrible countries, trying to escape risk - if we realise that we are all where we are by the grace of coincidence or fate, that should make us behave better to each other."

When I'd told a friend I was hoping to catch you for an interview here, he said he thought you were Australian.

"I've spent a lot of my life in Australia," she said, her often deliciously flat vowels getting a twang for the occasion. "I get that whole emigrant experience. Where The Jacarandas Grow (from Sweet Visitor) is about asylum seekers in Australia and how a pretty wealthy country has closed itself off to humanitarian concerns."

Interesting. I saw a thing on TV recently about the British "orphans" who were sent there in the 50s and 60s, around 180,000 of them – and lots hadn't actually lost their parents: they were taken away from poor families, exported and then horribly brutalised in corrupt institutions, lots of them run by nuns and priests. Australia's got a small population and perhaps to have so many people to whom that happened so recently - a substantial portion of a generation - I was wondering whether it would have an effect on a country's public discourse as well as its family life?

"Maybe. We played a folk festival at a place called Fairbridge on one of those old sites – the institutions - south of Perth. It had a very peculiar atmosphere.

"James and I met in the UK, though, back in 1995. He was a medical doctor at the time and when he went back for his first year of being fully qualified I went with him. We split our time between Britain and Australia for several years: it was a constant round of festival summers on two sides of the world. So I do feel quite Australian and I got to really love the music scene there.

"It's not as easy for us to go back now that we have heaps and heaps of work, but we will at some point, when it fits in with schooling. We sing in a five-piece when we're there, with James's sister and his mum and dad, Bob and Margaret."

I wondered about the vast distance between England and Australia and the people whose lives are shaped by both places.

"It was really cool meeting James and realising how much we had in common, our backgrounds and references. I sometimes wonder how people make connections without music as an opener: there's a certain amount that's understood, that doesn't need to be said. I mean, I've been playing the fiddle since I was five. And I don't really know how to hold my bow properly, but it works for me. I'm really interested in the texture and the colour of the sound it makes: I like the little scrapes and growls and even if you are just playing one note, I love how you can change the tone. I'm an accompanist as much as anything."

once had a chat with Kathryn Roberts in which she'd said something about her husband and musical partner, Sean, that I'd misunderstood at the time. She'd said that he was at his best as an accompanist and, in my ignorance, it had crossed my mind this might have been a slight. Later I realised the opposite was true. Without collaboration music amounts to very little.

Kerr nodded.

"I like accompanying but it's hard then being a leader. When you're accompanying you have to put any ego away for a bit and play differently... but there is a lot of power in supporting something properly. That's why I love working with James: he knows where to pitch what he is doing. He doesn't just think about the notes, he thinks about the rhythm and the notes and about telling a story all at the same time. That's what I love in his music: with the right accompanist we can do anything."

I really wanted to ask this next thing because the song sets my imagination ablaze: I Am The Fox, from Twice Reflected Sun, was written for James's voice (though it was also served up convincingly as hard rock at a dreamlike late-night Towersey ceilidh by Fagan's excellent "metalcore dance band" The Glorystrokes). What alchemy could possibly have produced that slice of lyrical subversion?

"It was the cusp of the financial crash and for about ten minutes I thought maybe it was payback for capitalism... That was before I realised that the crap always trickles down and there were difficult times ahead. I thought that for once in my life, being a folk musician was not a ridiculous choice. The character in that song was partly Fantastic Mr Fox, Robin Hood and Reynardine. I thought that if you can't make money on the stock market then you might as well write songs about it."

I asked whether Now is the Time, from the new album, was a reference to John Ball, whose rallying cry those words were: I thought she might know this because the song about him by Sydney Carter is a part of The Melrose Quartet's set - the group being Kerr and Fagan's collaboration with fellow Sheffielders Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. In fact, Kerr said it was coincidence, that the song had been written about someone else. But she seemed very taken by what was evidently new information to her (about the rallying cry). I probably glowed a little when she mentioned my question while introducing the song at her album launch later.

Sophie Parkes' biography of Eliza Carthy, Wayward Daughter, is partly about how the two of you played music together as teenagers. Will there be a reunion?

"I don't think Eliza and I will work together in the future," she said, somewhat to my surprise. "There's something about identity in music: we were two women of exactly the same age. We don't sound similar, but we both sing and play fiddle, and people compared us with each other. It's very hard to be compared: I don't want to be compared to anyone. I found it hard back then: she was so successful so quickly."

That has an irrefutable emotional logic to it. In any case, I cannot resist the thought that, for Kerr at least, the time is now.

* Also from Towersey 2014 there is this, about Blair Dunlop believing that he invented determinism, this about Dunlop's dad, Ashley Hutchings, and the forthcoming film about his former wife, the folk singer Shirley Collins, and this short thing about Lau.

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  1. Possible typo:The Bunting and the Crown/Flag
    Terrific article about a marvelous performer- last time I saw her, she blew the audience away while performing childcare miracles in the background. Backwards and in heels or what?!


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