INTERVIEW: Kathryn Williams | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The very epitome of the hardworking musician, Kathryn Williams’ output never ceases to amaze me. Her latest album, Hypoxia (her twelfth), grew from a commission via New Writing North in 2013 to produce songs about Sylvia Plath for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of her life and work. What started as a brief commission turned into a labour of love, two years of writing and rewriting and, ultimately, a real challenge to produce a body of work that dealt sensitively with some pretty knotty subjects. “You can’t just put her words to music, I wanted to involve portraits [of Plath] but without being autobiographical.” Kathryn explains. After rereading Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, Kathryn found inspiration. Following protagonist Esther Greenwood as she embarks on a writing career, the book deals with themes of gender roles in the 60s, sex, depression and suicide. “She’s really marginalised as a writer because of this iconography and the attitude of suicide and angsty teenagers.” Kathryn says of Plath’s work. “I hadn’t realised how muscular her writing was. It’s really stark, visceral and shocking. It was really boundary pushing at the time.”

It makes sense then, that listening to Hypoxia isn’t always a comfortable experience. Kathryn’s always had a knack of writing material which gets under your skin and stays there, and on songs like album highlight Tango With Marco – which makes reference to Esther’s potentially ruinous and violent encounter with a prospective partner – the lyrics are practically spat at the listener, a pulsing drum beat echoes the rhythm of a dance; it’s passionate and frightening.

“It’s not meant to be a pretty song,” Kathryn says. “A lot of the songs and their imagery are dark, it’s not a pretty record.” What it is though, is an album of subtle, and sometimes harsh, beauty. Songs like the hushed, almost ethereal tones of opener Electric, the deliciously dark Battleships and deceptively simple yet utterly heartbreaking Beating Heart, are almost hypnotic. Album opener Mirrors, with its looped, glitchy backing and abrasive bursts of overdriven guitar and echoey vocals is at times unsettling; while the pretty melody of Cuckoo belies an eerie and tortured middle eight while also showing off Kathryn’s sublime vocals, with backing from regular writing partner Ed Harcourt.

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“I do stealth writing, when I give myself the time lovely things bubble up…You can’t be an arsehole about it, songs don’t like arseholes”

Kathryn admits that a lot of the book’s themes resonated with her. “Mental illness is still a massively taboo subject, and I don’t want to take it lightly or romanticise it in any way. There’s a massive amount of re-education that needs to happen. I haven’t made the album for that reason, but I’m not taking those subjects in the book lightly.”

It’s a testament to Kathryn’s talent that she deals with these difficult subjects in a sensitive and didactic manner. In fact, her flair for songwriting hasn’t gone unnoticed outside the North East, as she’s become increasingly in demand as a co-songwriter, lecturer and host of songwriting workshops. “It came from necessity really. I love writing and I like to perform my own stuff but I’ve never been someone who’s loved the stage.” She lists a multitude of ongoing projects, including co-writing entire albums with Swedish artists and penning pop hits for American Idol contestants. “It brings two parts of my life together – being a mum and a songwriter, I get to bring the best out in someone.”

She admits that the processes of writing her own material and working with others can be wildly different experiences. “When you write for and with other people you have to be on the same page, it’s more like a screenplay where you both know where you’re going.” She’s also discovered more about her own processes by working with others. “You can’t stomp in the forest with a song, you have to creep around and enjoy it. You can’t be an arsehole about it, songs don’t like arseholes, they never come out from the bushes! I do stealth writing, when I give myself the time lovely things bubble up. I find it really hard when you’re working with someone who’s like [raises voice] ‘ISN’T THIS A LOVELY FOREST, I THINK THIS IS GOING TO BE A NUMBER ONE FOREST!’ When I’m teaching I get asked how to write a number one; one of them could be, but I don’t play that game, and I would never write in a formulaic way, I don’t work like that. No monetary value is ever going to make me change my mind about music.”

In between co-writing challenges, her personal projects also include continuing work with Ed Harcourt and a new project with The Magic Numbers’ Michele Stoddart and Welsh harpist Georgia Ruth. “I’ve got a jazz album that needs to come out,” she adds, “and I’ve got the idea for the next record, I’d like it to be a sunshiny African thing. Mainly I’ve got a massive backlog of people who want to write and also I have got to tackle the house.”

Kathryn Williams releases Hypoxia via One Little Indian on 15th June. She plays Old Cinema Launderette, Durham on Thursday 12th June and The Cluny 2, Newcastle on Tuesday 7th July.

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