Kate Young on new album Swimmings of the Head, crowdfunding and the power of listening

Swimmings of the Head, as Kate Young reveals in our interview, below, is a phrase taken from herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, which describes an attack of the vapours of some kind. It is, as she suggests, an appropriate title for the Scottish fiddle-singer’s dreamy-dizzy new album. The record, which Kate recorded with an additional four musicians as Kate in the Kettle, was funded via Indiegogo and is digitally released on Friday. (CDs are available too.)

Kate Young launches Swimmings of the Head at the Union Chapel
Kate Young launches Swimmings of the Head at the Union Chapel

“I am the fairy fiddler”, she boldly announces on the opening track, which is based in part on a Nora Hopper poem. And so it proves – she’s an intense, imaginative and percussive player. The tune, which morphs into Sab Jon’s Polska, also features tabla, mandola and some frankly stunning singing – not just in Kate’s native tongue, but also in Swedish (apparently it’s called ‘cow-calling). It’s a lot to take in – and we’re still on track one…

Kate came to the attention of many (of us folkies, at least) through her work with fiddle-singing quartet Carthy Hardy Farrell Young (she stars on their kickass calling card Greasy Coat), and this album certainly reflects her strong influence there. As we already know, she’s a smart collaborator as well as a strong musician, here working out varied and inventive string, percussion and clarinet arrangements with her four fellow players.

Highlights include the swaggering Green and Gold, (inspired by Slovenian figs) the cool, mysterious Paper Rose, the gentle Lullaby for an Infant Chief, and the dramatic finale Grow Down. It’s a well-travelled and lovingly assembled album, still capable of conjuring surprises after a dozen listens.

We talked to Kate this week about Swimmings in the Head, crowdfunding and – obviously – sandwiches.

FW: How did you find the crowdfunding experience?

Kate Young: I found it a great tool for connecting with people who were interested in supporting my music, and although it was a lot of work, it felt more rewarding to be able to share the whole experience with people rather then if I had slaved over a funding application for months on end with no certain result at the end of it! The campaign has an element of urgency ­– it has a time limit, which I think is a good thing, so it was stressful and although I didn’t actually reach the goal, I still raised just enough to make the album and tour happen. And without this there would be no album, so I’m am eternally grateful to all those who pledged!

Why are you called Kate in the Kettle? What’s your favourite kettle-related refreshment? Tea? Coffee? Pot Noodle?

I brew my musical ideas in a pot, let it stew for a bit. There’s quite a range of different teas that get poured out from day-to-day. Actually today [we did the interview on October 7] I’m looking forward to playing in Glasgow’s Tchai-Ovna (Chai House) – they have an amazing selection of teas from all over the world!

Similarly, where did ‘Swimmings of the Head’ come from?

It’s a quote from the 17th century British herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper. His ‘Complete Herbal’ has a lot of crazy remedies and potions for things, many of which I find hilarious. One plant he was talking about cured the ‘swimmings of the head’ and I thought this felt quite fitting to the music on this album.

How has working with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Lucy Farrell affected your music?

We have different styles, but I think it is interesting and fun for us to play within that dynamic of what works together and what is distinct about each of us. I have always thought of this music as quite separate to the Kate in the Kettle/solo work that I do, and that ‘folk’s finest firm of solicitors’ Carthy, Hardy, Farrell & Young is all about the live performance.

Your singing style and range is very broad – tell us where you learned to sing like you do in Fairy Fiddler, for example! 

As a singer, I am constantly exploring different techniques and forever have been fascinated by the different traditions of singing from all over the world, which therefore feeds into the music I create. In Fairy Fiddler I was perhaps more focusing on the exploration of connecting voice with fiddle as a second, or sometimes third instrument in harmony, as well as some Swedish ‘cow-calling’ at the end of the track.

Lullaby for an Infant Chief is just as stunning, but it feels different – softer. Where did you come across the poem and what made you decide to set it to music?

This text is by Sir Walter Scott – I found this song in a book of lullabies. It already had the Gaelic refrain in the song – whether Scott added that in himself or not, I don’t know. I’m not sure if he was a Gaelic speaker! I actually composed the melody for it because there was none to be found in the book! The tune following it is a slängpolska of Swedish origin.

Who are your fiddle-playing influences? There is sometimes quite an attacking, percussive feel…

When I was studying in Newcastle years ago, the lovely Laura Cortese visited from the States and brought with her this amazing concept to me of singing and playing the fiddle together! She taught us the ‘chop technique’ ­– that’s the percussive thing you are talking about, which allows you to accompany yourself with rhythm on the fiddle. Since then, I spent my days practicing, composing, experimenting with many of the different ways of combining the voice with the fiddle. I have taught classes in fiddle-singing and performed in UK and across Europe, including Estonia and Austria, where later emerged the likes of fiddle-singers Maarja Nuut and Claudia Schwab. Claudia and I now play in a duo together combining Austrian yodelling, Indian violin, Bulgarian songs and more!

Kate Young snow
Frozen fiddling: Kate warms up

Tell us about your collaborators and the instruments they play – the låt-mandola is a new one on us… And there’s lots of tabla, too

Marit Fält and I met whilst studying folk music in Newcastle and she plays the Ale Möller-designed låt-mandola. It is a bass-drone mandola (or kind of octave mandolin so to speak) with frets which enables her to play some of the micro-tone intervals that are used in Swedish traditional music. Victor Solana was also studying music in Newcastle at the time and is a great percussionist, and I knew he had been studying Indian tabla. When we were putting the material together, sometimes it was just fiddle and tabla and we have a great time actually playing the tunes together on both instruments as tabla is tuned percussion and very sensitive to melody.

How easy is it to combine your ‘world’ influences with the Scottish ones? Do you find they just work together – I’m thinking of the two tunes in Salmon, as an example…

Hmm, good question! I guess that’s a question with a never-ending or multi-faceted answer because in traditional music and in our current climate of endless possibilities of accessing all kinds of musical influences and communication brings us to the question of balance, or equilibrium between what should stay preserved as pure tradition and history, and what we can play with now. I have always been more of the experimental type, fascinated by the multitude of sounds there are in the world. However, studying on the folk degree brought me closer in my understanding of how our own tradition across Britain has come about, and how rich it is, without anything added on, of course. What is really interesting is along all our differences, there are so many similarities between traditions ­– you can always find incredible parallels between one country’s tradition and another, and sometimes its not about thinking but just listening.

The Salmon track was a bit of coincidence because these were two tunes that Marit and I enjoyed playing at the time, and decided that they perhaps fitted quite well in a set together. Turned out later, that the first one, written by Taklax (Finnish/Swedish) – the composer’s name directly translates as ‘roof salmon’; the following tune is sourced from a salmon fishing pool in Spey, Scotland. It was only right to call the set by the fish common to all involved!

Finally – the traditional FW final question – what’s your favourite sandwich?

If it weren’t for the mercury content in tuna, I’d say tuna mayo, so I’d go for halloumi with olives and avocado and pine nuts. Oh my god I’m hungry now!

Swimmings in the Head is released digitally on October 10, and you can probably get hold of a CD too – either through Kate’s website, here, or by catching her on tour – the dates of which are here. Thanks to Debbie Hill for her help with this blog – and don’t forget to check out FW on Facebook or Twitter!

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