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

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For Record Store Day (Saturday 23rd April), Mercury Music prize nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams will be releasing a definitive best of collection, Introduction, on limited edition vinyl via One Little Independent Records.  This 12 track compilation features a track from each of her records spanning 23 years, with each song handpicked by Kathryn to walk-through a specific and interesting writing arc and career summary so far.

We talk to Kathryn to find out more…

What made you decide to release a compilation album?
As is always with my career, things just seem to happen. The label and I thought it would be great to have a condensed best of. The boxset that was released a couple of years ago was a massive, extensive collection of 20 CDs and two books and we thought it would be a great thing to have 1 track off each solo album to date as an introduction to my work on vinyl, orange vinyl no less! Before the box set I was never one to look back on my work or think about the past, I just kept on moving forward. It felt strange at the time of the boxset like it was an ending, but I know now it was just a gathering of the past in order to start moving forward again. 

How did you go about picking 12 songs to reflect your substantial back catalogue? Which songs just missed the cut and why? 
It was really tough, just one song to represent that album in some way. Really hard, but ultimately you just go with your gut. So many songs missed the cut, ones I’ve been playing live, felt so harsh, but that’s what I had to do. Otherwise I’d have another boxset on my hands. ‘Fade’ is one of the first songs recorded on ‘Dog Leap Stairs’ at the now gone Sam’s Studio that was in the basement behind the cathedral in Newcastle. I still have the song in the set and it reminds me of those early years, making the record with producer head and recording through the night in down times for cheap. At that time I was living in Sidney Grove in Fenham in a shared house, working in the Red Herring vegetarian cafe and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life after my art degree.

Flicker off Little Black Numbers, the Mercury Music Prize nominated album, was the track that really connected me to my audience. People would come up after shows saying how much the song meant to them. I had written that working at the Rising Sun Country Park Cafe, the whole song came like a radio had switched on in my head and I had to sing it over and over until I had a break and then wrote it down on some tissue. Somewhere I think I still have that piece of tissue.

Mirrorball from Old Low Light, is a love song to my husband. When I was over performing in Japan, the whole audience knew every word of this song. There’s a compilation that is just a Japanese release with a very different set of songs for that audience. It was quite moving seeing that my music had travelled further than I ever had.

Spit On A Stranger is a Pavement song from Relations the covers album. This was my last album with the major label Warner. Cool fact, my version of this song is played in the ‘Duckie Tie’ episode of How I Met Your Mother, the American sitcom.

Indifference from Over Fly Over, was recorded in Hoxton square and when I was pregnant, this was my more electric album. It was when I was still managed by Alan McGee, he said I was Nirvana unplugged rather than a folk artist. I really loved that. 

Hollow from Leave To Remain was the sister album to Over Fly Over but more pastoral with string and woodwind arrangements by Kate St John. Neil and I made a video for this song at home that ended up getting played on MTV, which felt like a win for my little label and being independent.

6am Corner was the title track to the album I made with Neill MacColl. We met at a Barbican show for the BBC when I sang his Dad’s song, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, we wrote the album in a week and then recorded it In a week. 

Just A Feeling from the album The Quickening. This was my first release on OLI, the album was recorded all live with a stellar band in the now gone Bryn Derwen studios. It was engineered by David Wrench who is now the go-to mixer/producer and band member of Audiobooks. I toured this album 8 months pregnant with my youngest, Ted. We needed a step to get me on and off the tour bus. 

Sequins from Crown Electric. The lyrics for this were written in Ed Harcourt’s bath. And then Ed and I wrote it in about an hour. Crown Electric was produced by Neill MacColl, who co-wrote Heart Shaped Stone which was a big single from the album. I felt this song didn’t get to shine as much as it should of on the release of the record, which is why I chose it for the introduction. 

Electric from Hypoxia. This was the album that came from a commission for New Writing North project about Sylvia Plath. This track talks us through the mental state of Esther in the book and how things happening in the news are affecting her more than she thinks is normal. This album was produced by Ed Harcourt. 

Common Ground from Songs From The Novel Greatest Hits. Well, this is an odd one because people thought this was my greatest hits, but it was project with the author Laura Barnett to have an imaginary greatest hits to go with the novel she wrote of the same name for an imaginary artist Case Wheeler looking back on her life. Laura and I wrote the lyrics for a song that started each chapter of her book and then Romeo Stodart produced the album and co-wrote a couple of the songs.

I’m A Fool To Want You, is from the album Resonator made with the vibraphone player Anthony Kerr. It’s a selection of American songbook classic jazz tracks that we interpreted in a lullaby kind of way, mixed by Dave Izumi Lynch. 

The tracks span almost 20 years but there is a beautiful thread that ties them together in the collection.

Which songs did you enjoy listening back to the most when going through the original test pressings?
What was really lovely was hearing how the record hung together as a group of songs in their own right. It works that way, I suppose the songs have been mixed up that in a live setting, on set lists and radio shows. For me it’s all tangled up in memories of different studios, band members and what was going on in my life back then, but I like the idea that this could be an introduction into my catalogue for the first time for someone. I remember that’s how I got into John Martyn and Nick Drake… their introduction albums were a seminal thing for me. I fell in love with the songs, feeling like I had discovered them for myself and then worked backwards piecing things together in a new puzzle of albums and timelines. Some people can be a bit sniffy about Best Of or compilations of artists, but I do think it’s such a good way in and I would take a chance on an artist that way. Also, with the streaming platforms now I guess a lot of albums and track orders go out the window as people chose the songs they want to listen to.

How did it feel listening back to older work and how do you think you have evolved as an artist over time?
As I said the songs are a mix of internal and external memories. What was going on in my head and life to write the song, then the physical recording and touring memories of playing the songs and living with them. Often my songs reveal deeper meanings to me throughout the years. I’ll hear them and think, “oh that’s what that song is about!” The beauty of creating is only knowing some of what you’re doing, but the instincts carry you to the conclusion without black and white answers. If I knew exactly what I was going to do and how it would turn out, there would be no point. So much has changed in music over the years, not just in my journey through my own label releases to major label release to independent record deal, but going from CD and tape to vinyl to streaming and back to vinyl, the difference now in the connections directly with fans through socials to things like promotions of a record and journalism. It used to be that you would meet a journalist face to face or a phone call and you would chat, talk about things in between questions, but increasingly now you get sent a few questions in an email and you type in your own answers like it’s some sort of homework assignment! I suppose so much has changed, and I have weathered so many ups and downs. It can be hard being in music because the work you produce and yourself as a person is the product and riding through the ups and downs of being flavour of the month or being important or not important or relevant or irrelevant, has to be navigate mentally and emotionally. But ultimately, I have to take a deep breath and remember how lucky I am to be writing and making music 20 years on. I have seen massive disparities being a woman in music, but you just have to be the best you can be. 

Once selected how did you arrange the tracklist?
We went chronologically. It seemed the right thing to do for the listener, it shows the journey subtly. We got lucky that it fell well. It is strange hearing my voice age through the record, but I think you can see the development as a songwriter as well. It was through these years that I started writing songs for and with other artists and also started tutoring songwriting at Arvon foundation. 

Tell us more about the vinyl release for Record Store Day.
Well it’s exciting to be releasing on RSD. I did a tour of independent record stores for the boxset and got to see and meet the people working in them and I feel really connected to independent shops (husband has Pink Lane Bakery in Newcastle and I really value local businesses). I know from the support I got from local bookshops (The Bound/Forum Books) with my debut novel ‘The Ordering Tide’ what a difference it can make. The cover photo was taken by Tom Sheehan who has photographed so many of my heroes in music. I have a one-off silver print he gave me of a picture of Leonard Cohen hanging in my hallway. It’s on orange vinyl and the inner sleeve has photos of me taken by friends and lyrics on the back so you can sing along.

Do you have anything else in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
Yes!!! It’s been a long time in the making but my new album ‘Night Drives’ (produced by Ed Harcourt, who also produced album Hypoxia) is out in the summer with four singles from it to be released over the year, it’s coming out in 3x different vinyl colours and I’m ridiculously excited about it. It’s got a bigger feel, quite filmic, Ed played a lot of the instruments on the record. In fact it feels like a total collaboration with him for how the record sounds. He also did the string arrangements for the record. I knew I had to come back with new material that was the best I’ve done after the Best Of and boxset and I am feeling that this is very much a new beginning for me. There is a lot of excitement at the label and elsewhere for this record. I can’t wait for you to hear it. On top of that I have a record with Withered Hand that we are planning to record in Iceland later this year or early next, and a record with Michele Stodart from The Magic Numbers. I’ve also co-written two albums for international artists and will be releasing my podcast in around a month’s time. So busy! Keeps me out of trouble. I’ll also be doing a few select gigs at Christmas for the record I made last year with Carol Ann Duffy.  

Artwork by Tom Sheehan and Pete Manely

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