There are few greater pleasures in life than sitting down with a cup of coffee (an Americano with milk if you’re offering) and having a chat with somebody who shares your interest in all things musical. And that, in a nutshell, is what I did with Kathryn Williams one morning last week.
I started by asking Kathryn (a Cappuccino, if you’re wondering) to explain the background to her new album Hypoxia, which started life as a commissioned work about Sylvia Plath’s legendary book, ‘The Bell Jar’.
“I got a call from New Writing North asking me if I wanted to write some songs for the anniversary of 50 years of ‘The Bell Jar’ and to perform the songs at Durham Book Festival, which I did, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I spoke to the record label, One little Indian and said could I turn that into my next record and they said that I could. So I spent a long time just working the rest of the songs while I was on tour doing the last album. I’d written five or six songs originally, then I did more and the whole record came around.”
I wondered whether all of the original songs made it onto the album.
“Yes, but I wrote three or four songs before I got good” At this point Kathryn laughs, as she continues to do at regular points throughout. “They just said write anything about Sylvia Plath. They sent me all of the books, all of the biographies, spoken word CDs and it was really overwhelming.”
When I ask if Kathryn was faced with a strict deadline for completion of the project, she replies, “I was. I’m always kind of faced with a deadline. I don’t think I can work without that. I mean I’ve got three projects that I’ve been doing for the last three years that have had no deadline, and I think that unless someone gives me a deadline they’re never going to come to an end . The Durham Book Festival was right in the middle of my tour so I had to write on the road. On days off, like at the side of the A1 in a really scuzzy Travel lodge with only a Little Chef for company.”
I ask whether Kathryn normally has a nice, quiet relaxing place where she writes.
“Strangely ‘Cuckoo’ on this record and ‘Sequins’ which was on the last album were both written in Ed Harcourt’s bath. He wasn’t in the bath” she explains swiftly “He wasn’t even in the room. That’s become kind of a thing now; I’ve said to Ed for every album I do now I’ll have to write a song in his bath. I take a pen and paper with me everywhere. I mean it gets harder to write only when inspiration strikes because when you’ve got kids and job and tour and record, so it becomes, well, I make those times. It’s all about the process and loving the process and respecting the process, being delicate with it. Stephen King has got a book called ‘On Writing’, and it’s absolutely brilliant; it’s part memoir and it’s part talking about how to write and I’ve learnt so much from that book. He says get down to the slog of it, write, and always edit by 20%. It seems to work."
Then I comment that we’re very close to the album’s release date.
“I know, fucking hell!” she says, as if she doesn’t really want to be reminded of it. “Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking, but I used to be really disabled by my nerves, like 15 years ago for The Mercury, (The music prize, for which Kathryn’s album Little Black Numbers was nominated) I had stage fright. I had to sit down to perform because I would black out with nerves, I missed out doing loads of TV and interviews and stuff because I’d just be too scared and not turn up. It’s nothing like that now; I think the perspective of having kids and knowing that you’re not the be all and end all of everything, I’ve kind of got over myself.”
We discuss Kathryn’s ability to write songs that stir the emotions, and I wonder whether there are particular artists who have the same effect on her.
“Yeah, I absolutely love Ron Sexsmith and I think Steve Nieve has that kind of thing as well, that sort of vulnerability. Even the John Lennon and Yoko Ono album with the track ‘Mother’ on, which was a big reference for ‘Cuckoo’. Just to try and have that braveness to be vulnerable. I feel like that when I write lyrics as well, I used to always think it was a negativity to be raw….. I mean the Sylvia Plath thing is quite interesting because I’ve written character stories and character songs before, and I’ve written songs for other artists, for pop artists, but this is kind of a weird amalgamation of the two where I was writing delving through the characters of ‘The Bell Jar’ and the themes and get further into what it all meant and why she’d chosen these people and how it reflected back on her. She has an unblinking and muscular way of writing.”
Then we turn to the subject of the musicians that Kathryn likes to listen to and to work with.
“Well Chris Difford, he’s a dear friend of mine. When I write songs I’ll often send him something like this sort of recording (referring to the mp3 recorder with which I’m recording the interview). I did one the other day and realised that on the recording it had the washing machine on spin. And Neill MacColl, and Boo Hewerdine, and Michelle Stodart, and Steve Nieve, Georgia Ruth. Ed Harcourt, he’s been a massive, massive support. He helped me with this record; he produced it with me, and let me write in his bath! I’m really lucky to have a real core of musicians and artists who I respect and they respect me and I can call up and say “I don’t know what I’m doing, will you help me?” It’s funny I don’t sell a lot of records, but I think that I do sell records to people that make music. Maybe I just say this to myself so that when I can’t pay the bills it feels better. I don’t have mass appeal but I often get championed by people that make music, like Guy Garvey, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps me going and makes me think that maybe I’m on the right lines. “
I ask whether Kathryn has a record collection.
“Yeah. I’ve got four big things of vinyl and then we’ve got two walls of CDs and then about 40 foot of floor space of CDs and we’ve still got tapes. I’ve got an iPod, but I haven’t really got down into all of that, I just like the physical things, I find it hard. I haven’t done Spotify either just because…” at this point Kathryn pauses as if reluctant to continue with this particular subject “I know that it’s a fantastic tool for the other person but it’s just something that I can’t swallow as an artist.”
When I confess to succumbing to Spotify recently, Kathryn asks me if it’s any good, and do I love it? At this point it’s my turn to pause. I explain that I do like it, in spite of my better instincts, further explaining that it allows me to discover previously unexplored musical avenues, prompting Kathryn to ask if I then go out and actually buy the music that I like. I tell her that I invariably do, but comment that, rather obviously, not everyone does.
“If it was used just like that it would be OK” Kathryn continues “I’ve got to just accept it and move on because it is the right thing in order to find new music. In some ways it would be more honest if it wasn’t paid for. It is difficult when people get into that mind-set that things are free, that music is a free commodity.”
“I do like the idea of something earning a wage almost for each time that it’s played. But you wouldn’t be able to get a day in a studio to record four songs for probably ten years earning on Spotify of all of my 12 albums, and when you put that in context it’s just crazy. There’s been this thing recently of a backlash against that, a “just get over it and move with the times” and I kind of feel like I’m torn between the two, because I know that Spotify is good and I know that I will go on it soon because there’s less and less avenues to get to good new music.”
“I like my iPod, but I don’t use it that much. I’ve started to do a thing where once I’ve dropped the kids off art school I come home and I have a coffee and I put on a vinyl album, and spend like half an hour or an hour with a coffee listening to an album. It’s just a slowing down. It’s like fast food, there’s nothing better than spending a couple of hours with friends on a good meal, that European way, and I don’t know how my music will fit into this fast paced world. But this is not a record that you can just switch on; you need to spend time with it, like sitting down with a book, giving yourself the respect to delve deeper.”
I tell Kathryn that I heard ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ recently when in a branch of a well-known coffee shop, and wonder if hearing her music while out and about still surprises her.
“Yeah, it’s fucking brilliant! I love that. It’s not like it happens all the time. I’ll get texts from someone saying “switch your radio on now!” and I’ll get the end of a song, it’s a fantastic feeling. 6Music’s been great like that.”
Then we briefly discuss Kathryn’s recent appearance as featured artist on Guy Garvey’s 6 Music show.
“Someone texted to tell me I was going to be on and I was doing the washing up. So I called the boys in and told them “Mum’s going to be on the radio” and then we had a dance around the kitchen to all the songs; it was really sweet. It’s a good feeling; I mean I’m not cool like that but it’s good, it’s what you want, you want people to hear it. The problem for me, and my career and my music is that people have an idea of what I do without ever hearing it. I’ve had people say to other friends “I want to go to that gig because she’s really folk isn’t she?” and I’m like “I’m not folk”. Only people who aren’t into folk call me folk and everyone in folk calls me pop so I don’t belong anywhere. But I like it if there’s a song on the radio because people are actually making an assumption based on fact. I have this, maybe it’s like an innocence, but I do think that maybe if people hear the music then they’ll like it, but it’s just trying to get music heard.”
Kathryn has a well-known history of covering songs imaginatively, and when I start to ask whether she has one lined up to play at her forthcoming gigs she quickly interrupts,
“I’ve got one!”
So I ask if it’s a secret and, while she’s good enough to share its identity with me, she would prefer it to remain a surprise, although she is happy to reveal that it’s a Neil Young song with lyrics that fit in sensitively with the new tracks from Hypoxia.
“It’s funny because when I did the covers album (Relations, released in 2004) I thought it would be a way to show people what my record collection is and who I loved, and it just didn’t work out that way at all. It was strange; the songs sort of choose you, in the same way that Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ chose me. When you do a cover version you’re stepping into something else and there’s certain ones that you know you can pull apart and re-interpret to better effect. I never want to do it when cover versions to me sound like a ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ version of the original and I’m never interested in doing that; I always want to bring something different to it. The ‘Dancing in the Dark’ one was great. I never have a big plan. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
I wonder if there are any songs that don’t make the cut.
"Yeah, tons and tons. I write all the time. The last retreat I did I wrote 11 songs, and some of them would be co-writes, and I’ve just come back from Sweden and I’ve written 13 songs with a guy called Peter Jöback and I started writing with another massive artist over there called Loreen and I do lots of co-writes with people like Josh Kumra. And then I’ve got about 70 or 80 songs recently that haven’t been recorded and I’m writing towards the next album already. I’ve been writing for Tim Lott, the writer, I’m writing a musical for him and writing a project at the moment for ‘Nobody knew she was there’ about women in history who were overlooked or overshadowed; that’s three quarters of the way done and that’s coming out next year. I’m in a band with Michelle Stodart and Georgia Ruth, we’re calling ourselves ‘Rum Tits’ but that’s not going to be the final name! I’m in a band with a bloke called Tobias Fröberg and Ed Harcourt called ‘Jumping Elephants’, so I’m writing songs all the time, that’s why the house is in such a bad state! “
I ask if any songs that were previously rejected are ever given a second chance.
Originally published by NEMM.org.uk
Read more in 'Writing About Music' available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books,
or you can meander with me through 130 classic (and not so classic) albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in 'The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy of Cassettes', also available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books