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Shire Folk Album of 2019
Josienne Clarke album
RUTH NOTMAN & SAM KELLY:
Eight years after her last album, Ruth Notman has returned with a new recording with fellow award winner, Sam Kelly. On the eve of the release of Changeable Heart, Shire Folk caught up with them both to find out how the collaboration had come about.
SF: Ruth, your first two albums, Threads and The Life Of Lilly, were well received, but then you stopped. What brought that about?
Ruth Notman: When I was at school I really enjoyed music, but I’d also really enjoyed other subjects as well, especially science and biology. When I did the Young Folk Awards I was doing my A levels and I’d completely chosen music. When I saw all my friends graduating from university I started to feel like I was missing out a little bit. Then I wanted to go and explore other interests really and go and get a bit of actual life experience. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand, I didn’t really have any political knowledge and things that were going on the country, and I felt a bit naïve. I think I needed to go away and get a bit more of an education. Then I sort of fell down a warren of medical science.
SF: You could have decided to go down a musical route, but instead you decided to go down a medical one?
RN: I had initially gone to Newcastle to do the folk music degree, straight out of college, but I was already working as a musician essentially. I think it was just a case of exploring other interests as well in life. It wasn’t really a decision to drop off the ends of the earth – I didn’t actually mean for it to go on this long! My attention was drawn to the medical side of things: it was just a vast amount to learn and it was endlessly fascinating, and I think that’s what drew my attention away. I’ve always wanted this balance between the two, which is what I’m still striving for.
SF: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about?
Sam Kelly: It basically came about from me being a fan of Ruth’s really. I was about 15 or 16 when her first album came out – Threads in 2007 – and it was one of my seminal albums as I was progressing as a singer. I was a huge fan of hers as a singer and copied and emulated a lot of the stuff that she did with her voice. I was getting more into the folk scene and she wasn’t really around musically. I reached out to her back in 2016, I think, to see if she would be interested in featuring on a song of mine, which we were thinking of doing for the Pretty Peggy album, but ended up not doing because we decided to go ahead and do a full duo album. I met up with her in Yorkshire when I was on the way up to Celtic Connections and we had a bit of a sing-song and a chat, came up with a few ideas and enjoying our voices together, and decided to try and make a bit of a project of it. At the time I had an offer on the table from Damien O’Kane to do an album for Pure Records and it all coincided timewise to fit in with that project. I knew that Damien and Kate Rusby were fans of Ruth’s as well, so it seemed serendipitous to me and it all worked out.
RN: I’d heard Sam when he’d won the Horizon award and I followed him on Twitter, and then I got a lovely message back from him the next day. We did a bit of mutual gushing and then a month later he sent me another message to say do you fancy having a bit of a sing and maybe doing a song with me? When we met we just had a great time and we just wanted to do a bit more than just the one song, so we decided to make a thing of it!
SF: It’s a lovely album. Your voices work well together and there’s a great choice of songs. There is a mixture of songs on there, how did you decide on what to include?
RN: Fortunately, Sam’s approach to choosing material is very similar to mine. In terms of traditional songs both of us are singers of traditional material anyway and both of us like more of the contemporary music as well, and both of us write, so it wasn’t an especially difficult thing to try and navigate around. When we were looking for the folk songs, Sam and I usually learn by rote from other singers, so what we decided to do was go down and spend an afternoon in the Cecil Sharp library, which was really interesting, and we got a couple of songs down there. Then we worked on those and they’re on the album. For the others, we had spent some time playing each other songs that we thought would work and them messing round with them. There were other songs that we didn’t put on the album, but it was trying to pick the ones that worked and make them into a cohesive piece.
SK: It was an organic process to be honest. We put a few song ideas on the table that we wanted to do and songs that we liked. On the trip to Cecil Sharp House before the Folk Awards we found a few songs there and played around with a few ideas. It was mainly just songs that we liked. We wanted to write some stuff as well – we ended up writing the title track of the album, ‘Changeable Heart’, which is one of my favourites on the album.
SF: The album ends fittingly with Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’, which feels politically and socially contemporary.
RN: My mum’s from Belfast, so I grew up with that song, never really understanding the meaning of it until I was much older. The beauty of that song is that it’s very clever and because it does transcend to the times we have now, I thought it was an important song.
SK: It’s natural when you meet up with another musician for the first time you share your favourite songs and we were both massive fans of Paul Brady. We both absolutely loved that song, and we really wanted to do a Paul Brady song because that was one of the first things we bonded over really, and both of us loved that one. That was the whole reasoning behind it. There were quite a few songs on the longlist and that was one of them. I guess largely because of the subject matter of the song. Damien was a huge fan of our version of it as well, so we decided to go with it.
SF: The album sounds marvellous. You went to Pure Records for this album and it was produced by Damien O’Kane. What do you think he brought to the album?
SK: Me and Ruth are both busy with other things – me with my own stuff and Ruth was right in the middle of her final year of her biomedical science degree – so it was difficult to find the necessary time to be able to meet up and work on songs. We got some stuff together, but I’d met Damien at a festival when we were playing just before Kate, and they’d been round and heard me singing. Damien reached out and we’d been chatting. He’d been really good and given me bits of advice. He tied a lot of the songs we’d brought to the table, which were in their infancy, and a lot of them were just ideas. Damien was brilliant at tying things together and added a lot of expertise to arrangements. It was great for me to work with a producer to be honest, because I’ve always produced my own stuff and that’s not always the healthiest way of doing things. It’s nice to have a fresh pair of ears sometimes and Damien was great for that. He was a collator of ideas between us as well, I suppose.
RN: His distinctive style, that tied in the whole theme that runs through the whole album. He’s an incredible man to work with and he helped us shape … even some of the songs that we’d arranged, when we sat down with Damien, his ideas were things that Sam and I just wouldn’t have done. He really pushed our comfort zones in terms of musicianship as well, to try new things, which were just absolutely beautiful. We’re just so in love with how he works and his production style. He’s great and he made it all tie together.
SF: It can be as much about what you leave out as what you put in and a good producer knows that.
RN: His ability to not overwhelm songs and to just add slight touches where it needs to go. He’s very attentive in that way.
SK: All of the best producers I know are fantastic musicians as well. You need to have those skills in instrumentation to be a good producer. It was inspiring to watch how Damien and the engineer, Josh Clarke, worked, but then also for Damien to put all these different hats on to slip into actually playing on the songs as well, which is something that I find quite difficult to do – getting out of engineer and producer mode and into musician mode, I suppose.
SF: You’ve done a mini tour in early April, but are you taking the album back on the road later in the year?
RN: We’re doing a couple of festivals in the summer – Gate to Southwell and Underneath the Stars – plus a couple of other things throughout the year, but again it’s trying to find that balance. Sam is incredibly busy as well, we’ll just have to wait and see, but we do have some more things in store for later in the year. I also have a solo mini tour in November time. We’re just doing things at weekends, so that’s how I’m managing to get by at the moment.
SK: Yes, we’re just playing it by ear at the moment. The nature of the project is that we can’t really plan too far ahead. We’ve got the couple of summer festivals and then we’re going to see how it goes really. Both of us would like to continue, but we’ll see.
The new album by Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly, Changeable Heart, is out now on Pure Records