INTERVIEW: Rachael McShane & The Cartographers | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“Songs about getting so drunk you take your trousers off, serial killers, female highwaymen, murder, incest, men who aren’t sure if they’re in love with a woman or a horse…” Just another day in the world of traditional folk music then. Rachael McShane’s new record – her first solo release since the split of her folk big-band Bellowhead – is positively brimming with dastardly characters. “There’s a bit of a theme of mischief in these songs, the aspects of human life that happen in the quiet moments when nobody is looking.”

Rachael’s new album, When All Is Still, is a collection of traditional folk songs which have been given an innovative sparkle by her new band The Cartographers. Full of humour, wit and performed by some of the folk world’s best musicians (fellow Bellowhead-ers included), it makes for a surprising and utterly beguiling listen.

“Some of the songs I’ve been singing for years but never really performed them, others I’ve learnt from great singers and some of them have been found in various old song books,” she says. Rachael explains how she chose which songs to include on the record. “Sometimes it’s the melody of a song that draws me in, other times the meaning or story of the song. I spend hours just flicking through song books in the garden, waiting for something to catch my eye!”

The songs that make up When All Is Still are typical of the folk genre’s storytelling roots. The delightful Molecatcher tells of adultery and naughtiness; there’s joyful romance in the catchy Ploughman Lads; a melancholic tale of incest and murder on Sheath & Knife; while thievery abounds in Sylvie, a tale of a female highwayman; and the rebellion of Cropper Lads showcases Julian Sutton’s melodeon-filled melodies. The age old tale of sibling rivalry in Two Sisters has been found in many versions across the British Isles and further afield, Rachael’s dark and deliciously menacing treatment of the song is one of the stand-outs of the record. “In many versions the drowned sister’s body is found by a passing luthier who turns it into a fiddle or a harp which then plays itself and sings of the injustice that has been done. I used to love that magical element to the song but the cynic in me decided that life’s not like that, sometimes things are just a bit rubbish, so I decided to give her a more grizzly ending.”

There’s a bit of a theme of mischief in these songs, the aspects of human life that happen in the quiet moments when nobody is looking

Rachael’s voice is the ultimate hero of these tales; clear and sweet, with a gorgeous tone and an addictive quality that makes you want to return to each song again and again. The accompanying musicians play much more than supporting roles though, and whether it’s Andy Mellon’s triumphant flugelhorn, Paul Sartin’s melancholic oboe or the brassy class of Justin Thurgur’s trombone and Ed Neuhauser’s tuba (to name but a few), the cast of musicians involved in this record are truly world class.

The Cartographers themselves, Matthew Ord (guitar, vocals) and Julian Sutton (melodeon) join Rachael’s fiddle and viola, and have provided her with the support she needed to embrace the challenge of her new incarnation. “The gigs have been great fun so far, when you play with great musicians you feel quite at ease. It’s also been great to find all the material for the album and have a sense of freedom with it.”

Matthew and Julian’s input on structure and arrangements has been an invaluable part of the songwriting process, as Rachael explains. “I usually find a song and work on it on my own for a while, reworking it. On some of the songs I’ve taken the words and written new melodies to them. After that I bring the song to Matt and Julian and we throw ideas around and work on the structure and chords. The joy of working collaboratively with other musicians is that everyone brings something to an arrangement that you’d never have come up with on your own and that’s what gives bands their unique sound.”

Rachael explains that it’s the folk genre’s ability to keep traditions and songs alive through reinterpretation which stimulates her creativity. “It’s pretty common to find lots of different versions of the same song in different books, from different countries or from field recordings. It’s an ever evolving tradition and I think that’s great and doing something new with a song or putting your own stamp on it is what makes it such an exciting genre to work in. There isn’t a set of rules of what you can and can’t do, it’s all open to interpretation and that’s what keeps these songs (which are sometimes hundreds of years old) alive.”

Launching the album at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle on Friday 10th August, Rachael’s effortless voice, passionate performance and her band’s skilful playing should entice fans of any genre, not just traditional folk, but where else could you find such a rich seam of characters? “There’s adultery, murder, sibling rivalry, rebellion, love and humour in the songs, that’s what I love about folk music!”


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