Interview with Somerset's own singer-songwriter, Kitty Macfarlane
PUBLISHED: 15:59 07 May 2019
Richard Mitchell Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.
Using recordings from the landscape, Kitty Macfarlane creates a unique and evocative sound, as music journalist Stu Lambert discovers
There's a new sound from Somerset. It has an unaffected, clear female voice, in the folk idiom but in no way rustic. The voice is underpinned by drones, found sounds of water, wildlife and ancient crafts, with sparse, sensitive instrumentation. We are hearing Namer of Clouds, released in September 2018, the debut album by 22-year-old Kitty Macfarlane from Milverton. Many sounds are from Somerset's wild lands, as Kitty made field recordings in secret places and spectacular scenes in her county.
Kitty's involvement with music began in a rush at the age of 11, with guitar lessons. She praises her guitar teacher, John Small for throwing her in at the deep end. "He said in the first lesson that in two weeks' time I would be on stage performing. He got me doing a Norah Jones song," she recalls.
Finding musical performance to be so accessible led Kitty to begin expressing herself and her observations of life through music. She was able to develop her craft in Milverton from a young age. "There is an amazing music night, called Milverton Music, on the first Friday of the month in the Victoria Rooms," Kitty says. She first performed there at 12 or 13. "It's a great way of meeting other musicians, learning and sharing. The session still happens, most of the people I knew are still there. It's lovely to go back and meet them."
Kitty's Bus Song was featured on Radio 4 in 2010 and shows an adolescent writer already anchoring her stories in her locale; its subject is the 25B bus route that, in her childhood, took her from Milverton, where she grew up, to Taunton. Success at the Beeb continued in 2015, when she was a semi-finalist in the BBC Young Folk Award and with a live session on Radio 2's The Folk Show in January this year.
Namer of Clouds (the title track is about Luke Howard, a London pharmacist and eminent meteorologist, who gave clouds their cirrus, cumulus, stratus and other classifications in 1803), opens with birdsong from the Somerset Levels in Starling Song. Inspired by starling murmurations at RSPB Ham Wall in Shapwick Heath - "this incredible choreography in the sky" - Kitty recorded the sounds at dawn in the Avalon Marshes. She recalls this as the day she saw her first bittern. "I was the nature nerd in my family," she chuckles. "I had a very rural upbringing. I grew up on an old farm and was surrounded by nature from the start. I spent my whole childhood outside."
While the first attractions of the album are the qualities of the voice and the played instruments, it is the evocations of the Somerset countryside, both narratively and sonically, that grow over time.
Morgan's Pantry is a traditional song gathered by Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue. Sea Morgans are "a Somerset variant of your common mermaid that live in the Bristol channel and lure sailors on to the rocks and mud," Kitty explains. This eerie tune includes the sound of a waterfall at St Audries Bay. "Apparently that's where sea morgans come to shore," she says. "This amazing waterfall cascades from the cliff but is often hidden, as it can only be reached at low tide."
The standout song on Namer of Clouds is not set in Somerset but in Sardinia. Sea Silk tells the story of Chiara Vigo, the last of the sea silk seamstresses on an island off Sardinia. Chiara spins the filaments or 'byssus' of rare giant Mediterranean clams to make a rare and valuable fabric, very fine and burnished gold in colour. The found sounds work beautifully with the lush vocals and contemporary folk instrumentation. Kitty says: "I wanted to make a percussive track from textile sounds: snipping of cloth, the clicking of knitting needles, the whizzing of sewing machines." She credits her two "incredible producers", Sam Kelly and Jacob J Stoney, for their imaginative work.
Kitty now lives in Bristol and loves the city's creative atmosphere. "There are venues like the Wardrobe Theatre, The Salt House and St George's and Bristol always brings in world class musicians," she enthuses. She gigs a lot herself, perhaps in the wandering spirit that infuses Namer of Clouds. In 2018 she was recording her album, yet clocked up 58 shows throughout mainland Britain.
Many of the venues and festivals have 'folk' in their title and are in a national network of mainly small and low-key venues, featuring solo artists or small groups. Rather than forming permanent bands, musicians collaborate and guest at each other's shows and so can call up a band from mates for a big gig or festival. Alternatively, laptops on stage to add an experimental edge are no surprise. The folk scene is just a bit different from the old days. However, it is more like the mainstream pop scene, which has moved towards solo artists such as George Ezra, feature vocalists like Jess Glynn and to electronic music first, full band later.
Kitty always played solo until her two album launch shows in Bristol and London in November 2018, which were with a full band. "It was a creative eye-opener for me about what could happen creatively to my songs," she reflects. She was able to add the found sounds from the album to the live show, which is important because "a lot of the songs are about specific places and people; their sounds are a collaboration between me and them."
After setting aside some time for songwriting, Kitty is collaborating on Ben Walker's album and with Ian Stephenson, then hits the road again in March. This year she goes international with a concert in Bremen and a festival in Belgium.
For more information, and to see upcoming gigs, visit kittymacfarlane.com.