But – when they get some time together – their work as a duo seemingly enables a particular focus and understanding, as showcased on new album The Innocent Left – a refreshing, interesting and strongly arranged record.
The pair have a knack for presenting fascinating stories in an original way. Shimmying opener Scarecrow seems lyrically simple, but it’s a deceptively sinister song, accented with driving fiddle work. Jangly mandolin lights up the surprising tale of Doctor James, while Louis Was a Boxer shows a lyrical deft touch with its dignified examination of a “crazy drunk” who frequented a café Roberts once worked in.
The stories continue – Letters inhabits the mind of a worried mother during World War Two, while Shuffle & Deal and Silver Screen are more lyrical highlights. Bright and breezy instrumentals and a dark take on a traditional track (False Knight) complete an involving and surprising album.
Katriona and Jamie spoke to Folk Witness about their inspirations, their scarecrow-building skills, and possessed limbs…
FW: You met at college and started making music together quickly. Since then you’ve been pretty prolific. How did your collaboration start?
Jamie: After meeting at college we very quickly realised we had similar tastes in music. We did Music Production and songwriting was quite a big part of it. We’d often play on each other’s songs, so we ended up putting bits of arrangements together between us and thought it might be fun to go out and play them. We started doing a few open mics and floor spots and it just developed from there.
You’ve amassed a lot of experience outside of working as a duo. How does that inform the way you work together?
Jamie: I think the experience you get from working with different people does have a big impact on how you approach things. You see other people’s ways of doing things and bring elements of it to your own approach. When collaborating, you always have to be willing to compromise in order get things to a stage where everyone is happy with it, which is sometimes quite hard. But it needs to be done.
Where do you find the inspiration for the songs on the album? You don’t stumble across a story like that of Doctor James very often.
Katriona: All kinds of places – my cousin told me the story of Doctor James: he’d done some work in the cemetery where Doctor James Barry is buried and got talking to one of the cemetery guides. As soon as I heard it, I knew that would be the next song I wrote. Family stories are also a source of inspiration – I think stories that are closer to you have more drama.
Were you always going to be folk musicians? Listening to the album, I thought I picked up on some country and soul influences too…
Katriona: I listen to a lot of American music – folk, country and bluegrass mostly – and it’s definitely started to show in how I play and write. Over Snake Pass has more than a twist of bluegrass to it! Perhaps Larkin Poe are responsible for the soul… But I think that folk is such a broad genre and it’s great to be in a scene where people are very receptive to the different strains.
Most of the songs are credited separately. At what point do you come together to arrange them? Do you write each other’s parts or is it more instinctive?
Katriona: It depends on the song – mostly we write our own parts but often whoever has written the song will have an idea (at least) about what they want the other to contribute. On Scarecrow, for example, Jamie wrote the fiddle riff for the intro and between the verses before he brought it to the table to be arranged.
Jamie: The Innocent Left is taken from the song The Stealing Arm, which tells a story based on a 19th century broadside ballad about someone losing an arm in battle and having a new arm spliced on in its place. But the new arm turns out to have been taken from the body of a thief and then goes on to continue stealing things. The line where it appears is: “The arm upon my right had fingers light and it taught all it knew to the innocent left”. We thought that, in isolation, The Innocent Left could be interpreted in a number of different ways, some of which could be applied to tracks on the album.
Intriguingly, there’s just the one traditional track. How does that fit in?
Jamie: A lot of the things we write are heavily influenced by the tradition and I tend to listen to quite a lot of traditional material. I’d heard various people do a version of The False Knight On The Road, most notably Steeleye Span, but when I heard some of my parents’ friends singing this version I was instantly struck by the dark melody and interesting phrasing and thought it would work well with our sound.
Do you have a favourite track on the album? Why?
Katriona: I’ve had several favourites – I love Scarecrow as the punchy opener, I’m delighted with how Shuffle & Deal turned out and it’s a thrill to have Larkin Poe playing on it.
Jamie: I’ve also gone through a few different favourites but I think my current favourite is Silver Screen. It has a great lyric/concept with a nice pretty arrangement.
Tell us about the video for Scarecrow. It looks intense! And did you make the scarecrows in the video yourselves?
Katriona: It was a lot of fun, especially the smoke machine! We filmed it over two days on two locations, and it was great to work with Andy Little who directed and shot it all – he knew exactly what he wanted. And we did make the scarecrows – couple of broom handles, some old clothes and the job’s done. Except they weren’t very good at standing up, let alone scaring crows!
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