Katie Spencer & Henry Parker:
The Shire Folk interview by Nicholas John

Katie Spencer and Henry Parker are two of the new, young leading lights on the folk scene. Released this year, their debut releases, Katie’s Weather Beaten and Henry’s Silent Spring, tap-in to yesteryear’s traditions, whilst remaining vibrant examples of how young, upcoming performers are exploring and expanding the country’s folk scene.

SF/NJ: You’ve both recorded and released excellent debut albums, critically acclaimed and well received: tell us a bit about your individual journeys up to this point.

HENRY: I’ve been an obsessive guitar player from a really young age but about five or six years ago I swerved in the direction of folk music while studying at Leeds College of Music. I’d always been playing heavy music on the guitar and then I discovered a whole new love for a different kind of music and style of playing the guitar. I still love heavy bands like Black Sabbath but I’ve been releasing folk stuff since 2015: bedroom EPs, a live album and now Silent Spring.

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Katie Spencer

KATIE: Music has always been a big part of my family life. I can remember being at Beverley Folk Festival as a child, sitting on the hay bales at the front and watching the musicians on stage. I was sixteen when I first picked up a guitar: I loved it straightaway and quickly realised it was taking over my life – in the best possible way!

SF/NJ: Who were your primary influences – you both share a mutual love of John Martyn as well I think?

KATIE: John Martyn has been a huge influence from the start for me. I discovered his music watching a documentary about folk music in general. I think there was a clip of him playing ‘May You Never’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test. This set me on a path of exploration into the late sixties/early seventies folk revival scene. Since then my influences have broadened from the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Joni Mitchell and Roy Harper to more contemporary guitarists and songwriters such as Ryley Walker and Laura Marling.

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Henry Parker

HENRY: Bert Jansch, Ryley Walker, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, amongst countless others. Katie got me in to John Martyn! I’d been compared to him a few times before I’d listened to him and I remember being given a copy of Bless the Weather and it washed over me completely but I’ve gradually fallen more and more in love with his music. At Leeds College of Music, I really opened myself up to a lot of different sounds, being surrounded by musicians of all backgrounds. I vividly remember another student fumbling his way through a traditional jig on acoustic guitar and I asked my guitar tutor (Stuart McCallum) who to check out and he gave me names like Martin Simpson, Arty McGlynn, John Renbourn and Pierre Bensusan.

SF/NJ: There are similarities in your styles of playing: you both position yourselves in what we’ll loosely call ‘progressive folk’ territory and there is a maturity to your playing that is redolent of past masters such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Dick Gaughan. Was that intended or just where reviewers placed you?

KATIE: The term ‘progressive folk’ is one I’ve always loved. It’s almost like two worlds meeting. I’ve always played and written in response to what I’m listening to at that moment, so I suppose the connection with the ‘progressive folk’ label was always going to be inevitable, even if it wasn’t intentional, because I love many artists who shelter under that umbrella.

HENRY: Yeah, I think we both fit being described as ‘progressive folk’ and also manage to occupy different spaces within that generic tag. We’re both influenced by folk music but not straight-down-the-line stuff.

SF/NJ: Another similarity between Silent Spring and Weather Beaten is that you’ve both reworked very well-known traditional songs (‘Sylvie’, ‘Spencer the Rover’ and Willie O Winsbury’) in amongst your own songs: why? Is it a nod to those traditional songs that have led you here?

HENRY: I got into the folk side of things through traditional music so starting out I played traditional songs alongside my own instrumentals. My take on ‘Willie O Winsbury’ is the oldest track that I still have in my set list. I remember being so struck by the tune; I think it was the version Anais Mitchell sang that really grabbed me. The spacey, modal tune really worked with ambient-sounding electric guitar. I’ve always wanted to add a vibe to the traditional music I play, so that’s what I go for on my folk song arrangements.

KATIE: ‘Spencer the Rover’ was one of the songs I learned to play the guitar with and it has followed me around ever since. The symbolism within the song is beautiful too and the sentiment still stands strong, although I’m still to find the mountains near Rotherham – ha!

SF/NJ: How did you find the recording sessions for the album and how did working with a producer (Spencer Cozens and David Crickmore) influence how the songs ended up?

KATIE: Spencer Cozens is a musician who I have respected for many years. I came across his work through his collaborations with John Martyn, so it was a real treat when I discovered he was at a gig of mine last year. I ended up recording at Spencer’s studio, which is huddled in the Lincolnshire countryside. There are so many windows in the studio and we held long sessions – as the light passed through the day and into the evening, the connection with the outdoors was incredible. A deer even came to visit and watched us recording for a little while!

HENRY: It was a joy to work with David: I would drive over once a week for a year and spend a few hours tucked away in his basement, recording the album piece by piece. He lives in a lovely little terrace not far from Haworth in the middle of Brontë country and I’ve always loved the atmosphere of that area: bleak moors, with old industrial villages and towns set deep in the valleys. David has spent all his life with the BBC so we recorded all on salvaged kit – old mics from the 70s going into a giant desk that used to be part of a mobile recording van for news reporting!

SF/NJ: Tell us how you approach the art of songwriting: do you find it an easy process?

HENRY: The songs on Silent Spring were all built up through very different processes. The instrumentals, ‘Marbled Wren’ and ‘Willie O Winsbury’, were meticulously put together over weeks and months, whereas a few of the songs came together in a couple of hours. I tend to come up with a guitar riff that I like and then sing nonsense words over the top, or perhaps just a phrase or word that I’ve got from somewhere: to see how the sound of the words fits with the rhythm and cadences of the song and then try and build up a lyrical idea from there.

KATIE: It’s important to allow yourself the space and time to focus on writing. For me, it isn’t something that comes easily, so I try to enable the right environment to create naturally. Generally, like Henry, I start with a guitar part first and play it over and over while singing gibberish, until I hook onto something. Then I sit down and write the lyrics – though sometimes I will be walking or driving and a lyric will arrive in my head. Then I’ll write the lyrics first, with the guitar part coming afterwards. There really is no rule to how I go about writing songs!

SF/NJ: It’s been regularly stated over the past ten years or so that we’re enjoying a folk revival; how does this reflect your experiences of finding gigs and being able to promote your music?

HENRY: It’s hard for me to say whether we’re in any kind of a folk revival as I’ve only been in the scene for the past five years or so. It’s good to see bands like Lankum and Lau in mainstream folk circles, as those groups are really making some exciting music. Conversely, there seems to be a lot of folk stuff that seems to be written with a very specific audience in mind and it tends to feel a little staid and safe. I think it’s great when folk music doesn’t feel like it’s on a little island, set apart from other genres. Cropredy Festival is perfect: you can have Martin Simpson following Jethro Tull – not everyone will like every band on but it has diversity and separation there.

KATIE: The rise of labels such as Earth Recordings and Paradise of Bachelors has made folk more accessible to younger generations. There are an amazing number of folk clubs in the UK and lots of acoustic music fans generally, who realise the importance of preserving and supporting the growth of folk music.

SF/NJ: Artists with proven appeal and back catalogues will always be able to attract an audience but how does it fare when you’re starting out?

HENRY: I’m quite happy slowly working away at it and taking every opportunity that comes. It’s very easy to be always trying to see around the next corner but it’s important to look at the present moment and think, ‘hey I supported Soft Machine last week and I’m going to be guest at a few folk clubs next month’. I could only have dreamt about being in that situation a few years back.

KATIE: If you have the opportunity and the hunger to pursue it then the rewards for making creative music and playing will build and build because you’re doing what you love.

SF/NJ: Finally – one album each to take onto that desert island?

KATIE: John Martyn’s Solid Air.

HENRY: Perhaps A Yorkshire Garland by The Watersons, to make me feel at home while I dream of wet weather, sheep and real ale...

Nicholas John

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