Kelly Oliver on new album Botany Bay, Hertfordshire songs and organic arrangements

Singer-songwriter Kelly Oliver’s connection with the trad folk world goes right back to her debut album, 2014’s This Land, which featured the late Dave Swarbrick as a guest musician. But her third record, Botany Bay, is her first made up of traditional songs – all of which have been collected at some point in her native Hertfordshire (many by influential researcher Lucy Broadwood) – and it reflects the many varying tones and themes available in the traditional canon.

Oliver’s bright, sweet voice takes the listener through ten tales of love, loss, murder, ghosts, sex and death – a multiplicity of themes reflected in an equally diverse set of arrangements. The title track, for example, has something of a seabound swagger. Trees They Do Grow High is solemn and understated, Lady Margaret is given an unusual (and dramatic) vocoder treatment, and never more is the album’s variety underlined than when it is followed by Cuckoo’s Nest, the bawdiness of which is sensitively counteracted by some lyrical tweaks and a lovely, gentle guitar backing. Botany Bay is confident, accomplished… and full of surprises.

Folk Witness talked to Kelly about ‘going trad’, the art of arrangement, and working with producer Stu Hanna of Megson.

Folk Witness: You’re on your third album, but this is the first that’s made up of traditional material. What made you decide to make an album more focused on the traditional?

Kelly Oliver: Botany Bay is entirely comprised of traditional songs, so to make it has been a completely new experience for me. Two years ago, I knew I wanted to work on and release a third album, but while I was writing original material, I didn’t have enough songs for a full album and really didn’t want to rush the writing process.

Folk music is a passion of mine and while my music has been influenced by listening to traditional Irish folk music, it is only in the last few years that I have been exposed to English folk music, and I enjoy it more every time I hear different arrangements of traditional English songs. After I posted a version of The Lakes of Pontchartrain, Mike Harding said he would be interested to hear a full album of traditional songs that I had arranged, and Phil Beer agreed when I asked him what he thought. And that was the beginning of the whole thing!

At what point did you have the idea to record songs collected in Hertfordshire?

It was my producer Stu Hanna’s idea to choose a theme for the album, and he suggested songs from Hertfordshire, as this is where I’m from. I thought it was a brilliant idea, especially for my first trad album. It’s nice to think that the songs were sung in Hertfordshire at some point in the past, and it creates a special link to the present day for me.

The songs on the album are all ones which I read the lyrics for and immediately enjoyed the story, or immediately had a musical idea come to mind.

How does the way you approach the arrangement of traditional songs differ from those you’ve written?

The only difference is the lyrics – with the traditional songs, I had the lyrics to work with but with my original songs, the lyrics come as I’m writing. I began by reading the traditional lyrics and familiarising myself with the story, and that’s when the musical idea would come. Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold has a happy ending, which made me imagine a major key, whereas The Bramble Briar is a murder ballad, so an eerie minor key immediately came to mind. Even though they are traditional songs, I put the same thought into the musical arrangements as I would with my own songs, so they do still feel very personal to me.

Of all the songs you’ve recorded, Botany Bay gets the honour of being the album’s title track. Why did you choose it? I’m also curious about your choice to highlight the ‘Oh son, oh son what have you done…’ line in the album’s sleeve…

It was really because the arrangement stuck out to me as one of the biggest on the album, and as it’s all traditional music, even though the theme was Hertfordshire songs, the songs aren’t all related in terms of their stories, so there wasn’t one title which encompassed the whole theme of the album. Botany Bay just seemed to roll of the tongue a little nicer, plus the alliteration seemed to make it more memorable. I picked ‘Oh son, oh son, what have you done, that you’re going to Botany Bay…’ for the sleeve notes because I think it’s quite a poignant line in the song and asks the question of what could have been such a crime that a convict would have been sent to Australia never to return.

What was it like working with Stu Hanna? David Eagle and Lucy Ward have told us some interesting stories about his directing style…

It was an absolute pleasure working with Stu – I’d already worked with him on some songs from my previous album Bedlam, and I knew the traditional songs would really benefit from his style. Stu was always very welcoming of new ideas and I never felt intimidated to put forward an idea, which is so important when you’re collaborating. Stu had loads of ideas for the arrangements and I often asked his advice when I was singing for how he thought particular lines should sound. On the more upbeat songs with all the instrumentation on, he’d say ‘okay now just imagine you’re playing live and you’ve got Jamie and Toby and Evan there with you’, which really helped! He’d also suggest looking up and focusing on a point near the ceiling, which meant I wasn’t distracted by concentrating on the words and I was just focusing on the singing. He was very encouraging as well. He’d always do what he could to get the best out of me and make me feel good about what I was producing.

You’ve a strong line-up of guest musicians. How do you decide what songs you want additional players on – and who?

I’ve known all the guest musicians on the album for quite a few years, so I already knew their individual styles of playing and composing. Some of the songs just immediately leant themselves to certain instruments. As it’s a full trad folk album, I knew I wanted those banjo, fiddle and whistle sounds, as well as driving percussion throughout, so Toby Shaer, Jamie Francis and Evan Carson were always the obvious choices for me. I’d worked with Lukas Drinkwater before on my last album, so I knew his bass parts would always be very tasteful and complimentary. Luke Jackson also featured on my first album and his vocals were my first choice for a duet on Died of Love. Having Phil Beer’s distinctive fiddle on the otherwise sparse arrangement of Trees They Do Grow High was such a pleasure.

Once Stu and I had arranged the songs for just guitar, mandola, harmonica and vocals, I spent some time with Toby and Jamie going over the arrangements and some songs just stood out for them to be involved with – I wanted a melody instrument on Cuckoo’s Nest and thought flutes and whistles would be a very gentle accompaniment, whilst Died of Love ended up with an Americana feel, so I thought and banjo and harmonica duet would work well with that one. The decisions were all quite organic.

Where did the idea to use a vocoder on Lady Margaret come from?

I was just in my kitchen one day when a melody for the lyrics of Lady Margaret popped into my head. I quickly recorded them on my phone and came up with a melody for all the lyrics, but without any guitar part to go with it. I suggested to Stu that Lady Margaret could be produced without any instrumentation, but I was keen not to have a completely a capella track on the album. Stu then had the idea to use the vocoder to create the chords underneath the words and make the track sound quite eerie and atmospheric. I’d never recorded anything in that way before so it was a lot of fun!

What’s next? Will you continue to write and explore trad material?

I’d definitely like to continue exploring traditional material and arranging trad songs that I come across and enjoy, but I think my next release would focus on my own original material, with songs that I’ve been writing these last few years and songs that I’m working on right now.

Finally, what is your favourite sandwich?

Chicken and chorizo with rocket and mayonnaise!

Botany Bay is out on September 28. Check out Kelly’s live dates here

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