Kelly Oliver: ‘My passion is definitely folk music’
Hertfordshire songstress, Kelly Oliver, has been building something of a reputation following the release of her debut album, This Land, in October 2014. Shire Folk caught up with her on the eve of the release of second album, Bedlam.
SF: You may be a new name to some of our readers, so tell us a bit about yourself.
KO: I’ve been playing on the folk scene for about two and a half years now, so I still feel quite new to it all! I come from a working-class family and I’m based in Hertfordshire. I graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, and moved back home to work in a local bar for a year. I then went travelling around Europe, Argentina and Brazil, and while I was in Rio I decided that when I came home, I wanted to try to pursue something in music. I write my own songs as well as covering traditional folk songs, and I play the guitar and the harmonica. I’ve released an EP called Far From Home, and my debut album, This Land, received four stars from The Telegraph and BBC Radio 2 airplay from Mark Radcliffe’s Folk Show and Bob Harris’s Sunday Show. My second album, Bedlam, is being released on 6 March and has had three songs released as singles, all of them played on the BBC Radio 2 shows I mentioned, and I will be going on tour around the UK to promote the album.
SF: Who or what were your influences when you were starting out?
KO: Around five years ago, before I knew anything about the folk scene, I visited Ireland for the first time. It was after this trip that I found the music of Cara Dillon, Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, and I started learning songs that I enjoyed of theirs. It was thanks to these singers that I started playing folk music! Paul Brady and Andy Irvine’s ‘Mary and the Soldier’ was my favourite; so much so that I ended up recording my own version of it for This Land. I’ve always been a big fan of Bob Dylan, and would say he is my biggest musical influence to this date. Listening to Bob Dylan and Alanis Morrisette was the main reason I picked up the harmonica, and I’m now lucky enough to be sponsored by the harmonica brand Hohner. I was also listening to Country and Western music from a young age, and have been influenced by Dolly Parton’s vocal style and songwriting.
SF: You’ll be categorised as a folk singer, but your new album, Bedlam, shows other influences, such as Country and American folk, as well as a general singer-songwriter style. How would you categorise yourself?
KO: It’s great that you think Bedlam shows different styles – I’m influenced by so much music around me so maybe it’s natural that these influences would seep into my songwriting. I’m influenced a lot by my peers; other musicians and songwriters on the scene, as well as more commercial music. I’d also say that my different instruments are influenced by different styles of music. I love Americana like Old Crow Medicine Show, so the harmonica lines in ‘Bedlam’ were influenced using techniques I’d learnt from their music. I would like to think that I was contemporary folk, with my foundations in the tradition. I supported Cara Dillon in January 2015, and The Times included me in their review of the gig, as ‘blend(ing) traditional with bold, indie-pop sensibility’.
SF: Congratulations on your new album. It builds very nicely on your previous album, This Land. On the face of it Bedlam isn’t an autobiographical album, but rather it’s full of stories and vignettes. Do you ever envisage doing a more ‘personal’ album?
KO: Thank you very much! I found myself exploring various stories and bringing in songs with different subject matter for Bedlam. I did the same with This Land, and it’s encouraging working in the folk scene because you feel able to write about whatever subject you like. I would never rule out a more personal album, but I think the key is finding a way to portray personal emotions so that they are relatable to any listener. I’m working on that. I take inspiration from people around me, and I like to write songs based on the lives of family members and friends, and their individual experiences too. I do actually have some songs that are inspired loosely by my own personal experiences, and then I use poetic licence and fiction to romanticise them a bit. I won’t tell you which ones though!
SF: The final track on Bedlam, ‘Rio’, shows a real pop sensibility. Can you see that as a route you might pursue in the future?
KO: I co-wrote ‘Rio’ with my producer, Nigel Stonier, and we weren’t even trying to write a pop song! The production process has a lot to do with the final sound of the songs, so it might depend on which producers I work with in the future. I think for me, it’s a question of what route your music takes you, rather than what route you will take your music. If you create music that you yourself really enjoy playing, and if other people subsequently enjoy listening to it, then while you can’t predict where you will end up, you and your followers can always guarantee the authenticity of the music, regardless of whether the original style has evolved or not. Saying that, my passion is definitely folk music. I also have so many goals that I would like to achieve within the folk scene, so I’m currently very set on working to achieve them.
SF: Folk has always struck me as a pretty egalitarian genre, where women performers are at least as highly regarded as the men (perhaps more so). Is that how you’ve found it and do you see yourself within any ‘feminist folk’ movement?
I think you’re right, and I’ve been very happy to see that the folk scene champions women performers just as much as the boys. I’ve seen that it’s not about an artists’ image either, it’s quite rightly all to do with the music. This is so encouraging as an up-and-coming artist on the scene. You’re surrounded by a scene of world-class musicians, so you’re challenged to keep improving, evolving and delivering the very best music that you can. I love that! I’ve learnt all my stagecraft from watching other performers on the scene; it’s been invaluable. I wouldn’t say I’m intentionally within a feminist folk movement, but I wouldn’t be unhappy if I learnt that my songs were being considered as such. I write a lot about women and this includes writing about their struggles from the past and present. I also often take a certain subject and write about it from a female perspective. The title track, ‘Bedlam’, is based on Bethlem Royal Hospital in the 1600s, but Stu Hanna (Megson) and I decided to co-write the song specifically about a young woman’s experience there. As a woman, I guess I feel more naturally equipped to write about women!
SF: On tracks like ‘Mr Officer’ and ‘Die This Way’ there’s quite a lot of anger on both This Land and Bedlam. What makes you angry?
KO: I don’t know if it’s a personal anger, although I was affected enough by the subject matter in those songs to have written about them. I strive to be positive in my day-to-day life, and I am always appreciative of and grateful for the things that I have. After travelling around South America, my eyes were opened to the fact that living in the Western world offers a lot of opportunities and privileges. Perhaps that is where the emotion derives from. I’m intrigued with the idea of fate as well, that you never know what’s coming. And the debate of who suffers more; the boy who is murdered suddenly in ‘Mr Officer’, or the individual long-term suffering in ‘Die This Way’. The anger of the lyrics and vocals is also heavily dependent on the music that I compose for the song. Again, that comes from enjoying performing the music that you write, in a transformative way. It’s a necessity and I think I have more songs like that to come.
Kelly Oliver’s second album, Bedlam, is released on 6 March on Folkstock Records.