Rowan Rheingans: ‘All the projects feed a different bit of me’

Award-winning fiddle player, banjoist, songwriter and, now, theatre-maker, Rowan Rheingans has established herself as one of the great polymaths on the folk scene. As well as recording and touring with Lady Maisery and as one half of the Rheingans Sisters, Rowan has created one of the most compelling pieces of theatre in recent times, Dispatches on the Red Dress, and released one of the best folk albums of last year, The Lines We Draw Together. Shire Folk caught up with her before she headed out on tour.

SF: Your album The Lines We Draw Together has been very well received; in fact, it was number 5 on our top 10 of the best albums of last year. I gather it was dedicated to your grandmothers – what’s the story behind that?

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Rowan Rheingans – Ron Milsom

RR: For me the album is one part of a wider life project really: something I was always going to do. The fact that it’s connected so well with other people and become a live show that people have loved as well is brilliant. The central theme, I suppose, where it all began a lot of years ago was, I wanted to draw on my ancestry really. Particularly my grandmothers as people I feel very connected to and also distant from in different ways. My German grandmother is still around but a long way away geographically. We’ve always been close, but always separated by language and physical space. My English grandmother died over ten years ago so in a way has never really known me as a musician. I suppose it’s a little bit of paying tribute, but also drawing from some of the lessons … particularly my German grandmother’s life in Germany in the 30s and 40s, that I found most urgent to explore for myself and my own identity and my own political education in a way. Also at this point as she’s in her late eighties, I feel it’s quite visceral, the political world now: sitting there watching the news about Brexit, the rise of the Far Right in elections and glancing over and wondering what it’s like for her – a late eighty-year-old woman having been through fascism and seen the horror of that and survived it, and lost friends and had such trauma from it.

SF: A concern about history repeating itself then?

RR: It is that, but it’s also not as simple as that. Yes, history repeats but in a new version. It’s always in a new guise. There are definitely repeated fears and I think they thought those fears were over. I wanted to make something of their lives really. They became my collaborators: both distantly and for different reasons.

SF: How does this fit with the Dispatches on the Red Dress project?

RR: The red dress refers to a dancing dress worn by my German grandmother in the 40s. She loved dancing when she was younger and that’s something that I love doing too, so it’s kind of a moment of understanding. Our lives are obviously very different, but when she talks about going to the village hall and dancing to live bands and dancing the waltzes and the new swing dances of that time, I absolutely relate. So the dress is one point of connection for us, but the theatre piece – there’s something about the origins of this dress that I can’t actually tell you because it’s a spoiler for the show, but this dress is very symbolic of how often horror and beauty sit together in life. For other reasons the dress is quite a symbol of some horrifying events and trying to find some relief or some way forward.

SF: Politics with a big and small ‘p’ loom large in both projects and prior to last year’s election you were campaigning hard on behalf of the Labour Party. What’s your take on the final result?

RR: This is such a long, long fight. This is generations and hundreds of years of slow, slow fighting and one election … although obviously I’m devastated and heartbroken and fearful for the most vulnerable in society who are going to have a very harsh few years, but because of my attachment to my ancestors in a way, I don’t see history as a slow march of progress: it’s some steps forwards and lots of steps back. I think these defeats are part of that. My show and the album are all about finding in those moments of despair tiny reasons to carry on fighting.

SF: At the risk of mansplaining, the majority of our Top 10 albums were by female performers. Is there anything about folk music that enables that to happen?

RR: I don’t think there’s anything about folk music, in the essence of the tunes or songs. There are a lot of folk songs that are incredibly difficult to sing as a woman. With the industry it’s an interesting question. The folk industry obviously has lots of areas for improvement, but in comparison to the pop industry or the jazz industry and lots of other places, the folk industry is a lot more gender balanced. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a smaller scale operation often. You can have a lot more face-to-face interactions with the people in power, I suppose – the people who are booking you. There has been a bit of pressure put on festivals, for example, in the last few years to check their line-ups and check what they’re presenting as the folk scene: what are they celebrating? I have seen some improvement, so I don’t think, again, that it’s to do with folk music, but I do think it’s to do with the nature of our industry. It just works a bit differently and maybe there’s a bit more room for putting a bit of pressure on festivals. I remember at the end of one festival a few summers ago I did a tweet complaining about being introduced on stage as ‘a girl’ a lot: more than half the time probably. The festival director emailed me and asked me to get involved in making that better. In general, there are some pretty good eggs in the folk scene, but there’s still room for improvement.

SF: Given the political antecedents of the folk movement and given that much folk music is politically conscious, perhaps equality is more embedded. You do have to check your complacency, however.

RR: Absolutely. Folk music does have a fantastic political canon of songs and music and that can be really inspiring, and the industry reflects that, but it makes it all the more jarring when it doesn’t! Like paying female artists much less! It’s about opening up those conversations really.

SF: You’re about to go out on tour with the album. What are you looking forward to most about that?

RR: What I’m looking forward to is that’s quite a different way of performing. When I made this album, I knew that myself, as an artist, I wanted to go out and perform these songs in a different way. I didn’t want to just to go out and do two sets of forty-five minutes, sing my songs and chat a bit about myself. I do that all the time with my other bands and I love that informal, let’s-see-what-happens improvisation, but I wanted to challenge myself and see what the boundaries of a gig really are and whether I could frame it as a different experience for the audience. So, the way I play the album is within a narrative piece, so it’s completely scripted. It’s a theatre piece essentially, although it’s still a gig with me singing ten or twelve songs, but in between I don’t break the magic spell at any point. I stay in it and I think that’s a different way of performing. I love it. It’s very liberating for me to almost enter a different state. I begin the show and that’s it: for an hour and a quarter I’m in it and follow the narrative of it. Because the narrative is a completely true story based on my grandparents, and me reliving it in a way, in order to be authentic for the audience I have to relive that every night. Like actors who do this all the time, but it’s new to me to embody my space in a different way. So, I love it and I get a lot out of it.

SF: In that sense it’s very different to what you do with Lady Maisery and your sister, isn’t it?

RR: It’s very different, but in a way, I’ve got inspired through that because of the small instances of that sort of thing when it happens in those gigs. Even with Anna, my sister, we still, even though it’s not scripted and there’s a lot of improvisation, but there are a few moments where we think, where do we want the audience to be before we sing this song? What kind of scene do we want to set for them? Those tiny mini ‘plays’ are ways of creating a bit of atmosphere and they inspired me to think that I could do that in a bigger way. There is an element of that being aware of the narrative of a whole evening; even if it’s a Lady Maisery show we still think about the arc: where are we starting and where are we trying to get to? I find all the projects feed a different bit of me. I really need all of that – the Lady Maisery shows where I can be part of a powerful sound and I need my chance to go into a completely solo dream state and see what the impact is afterwards. It’s very interesting!

Rowan’s album The Lines We Draw Together is out now on Hudson Records and you can catch her tour during March and April, starting at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford on 13 March

Jonathan Roscoe

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Rowan Rheingans – Ron Milsom