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Shire Folk Album of 2019

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Kitty Macfarlane: Cloud Formations

Music and nature run as close companions with Kitty Macfarlane. A childhood growing up in rural Somerset proved an idyllic natural setting, rich in subject matter, for this aspiring singer, one she only left when moving to university in Warwick. She first came to prominence in 2010, when BBC Radio 4’s travel programme Excess Baggage played one of her early compositions, ‘Bus Song’, and then in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Radio 2 Young Folk Award, releasing an EP, Tide & Time, the following year. This was followed by her first album, Namer of Clouds, released in 2018, an album steeped in dramatic imagery.

Whilst it often takes an artist several albums to truly find their own voice, she has quickly established herself as part of a folk scene burgeoning with original talent, and Namer of Clouds has been acclaimed as something of a classic; a set of highly original songs augmented by field recordings from the natural world and one which featured among the Guardian’s folk albums of 2018.

Nicholas John (NJ) talked to Kitty Macfarlane (KM) ahead of a gig at Warwick University and she began by telling us about her childhood and when she began playing guitar and writing songs.

KittyMacfarlane

Kitty Macfarlane

KM: I was surrounded by nature as a child and spent most of my time out in the garden. The best present I ever got was a tarpaulin! I was so excited because it meant I could make a camp or a den in the fields behind our house. It makes it sound like I was born in the 1920s or something! All very Swallows and Amazons! But I learned a lot about nature as a child and my parents encouraged me. My godfather was a biology teacher and he had tanks of interesting creatures everywhere. It was actually a very wild upbringing. I started playing guitar when I was eleven and the first time I went on stage was two weeks after I first started playing. It made me realise that an instrument is a tool for expression and I started writing songs soon afterwards. And writing about nature was there from the beginning: one of the first songs I ever wrote, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, was called ‘Dandelion Clocks’ and it was about blowing the head off a dandelion and telling the time.

NJ: You say that you gave your first performance just two weeks after you started playing: that must have been nerve-racking?

KM: My guitar teacher was so enthusiastic and so passionate and he was great at quelling my nerves. He said I should just learn the theory by learning songs. And then I played open mic when I was about twelve, at the local music club in our village which operated like a folk club, a floor-spot club. I always wanted to play the guitar and sing but I wanted to study English Literature and French as well, so I ended up coming here to Warwick University. So tonight’s gig is something of a homecoming!

NJ: A lot of performers on the folk scene, at whatever level, start out by learning lots of songs by other artists and only then gradually make the step of composing their own material; you seem to have found you own voice quite quickly, bearing in mind Namer of Clouds is your first full album?

KM: I wouldn’t disagree with that. I don’t rattle songs off like some people do, though I’m quite envious of that! I take a lot of time with my songs, not just the songwriting itself, but the build-up. I keep a lot of songwriting notebooks with different ideas and lyrics in. I keep them just for triggering words or phrases really, but it might take me two years to finish a song. I tend to start lyrically and then find the melodies but I always have an idea of how all the songs will fit together, where the common threads lie. That was definitely the case with the album.

NJ: One of the most striking songs on Namer of Clouds is the title track, which pays homage to amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, who in 1802 gave names to the different types and formations of clouds. How did that song come about?

KM: I’d had a bit jotted down about him in a notebook for ages. He had come up with all the names for cloud formations, like cirrus, stratus and cumulus, and he completely changed the way we talk about the skies. I thought it was an interesting metaphor for humanity’s efforts to try and draw boxes around everything, even in the face of something that is boundless. There is a bizarre futility in how we try to control everything.

Macfarlane’s relationship with the world around her is clearly evidenced by her lyrics, which are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. She gathers inspiration from everything in the natural world around her, from starling murmuration to eel migration, cloud formation to flooding. She’s unafraid to look at the bigger picture, whilst remaining true to the personal. In ‘Man, Friendship’ she sings, ‘we’re told the seas are rising, this stretch of land I will defend’ and ‘Glass Eel’ compares the migratory journey of the European eel with the desperate migration of peoples.

I’m increasingly aware of everything that’s happening in the world today, especially with the attention that’s been given to the climate emergency and Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. I think there is a real momentum now about everyone changing the way they live. I have to admit that I feel a bit useless in the face of all this, but the little thing I can do is write about things I feel passionate about and hopefully people will share my views and it will have a butterfly effect. My songs can’t help but be influenced by the changes I see around me.

NJ: Were you aware when you were writing the songs that it was coming together as a cohesive whole? There are a lot of sound effects and field recordings on the album too.

KM: I didn’t really set out with any particular preconceived notion about the album but adding field recordings and what I call ‘found sound’ was something I really wanted to do from the beginning. Me and Sam website went out with a sound recorder and he was very tolerant with me! We’d gone out onto the Quantocks on a recording trip, and I would see a raven and shout, ‘we need to record it!’ or point at a hedgerow and say ‘there’s something in there’ – and then we’d get out and try to record it and a jet would fly overhead!

NJ: Do you use these sound effects at your gigs?

KM: Yes, I’ve just started using a sampler onstage to add the nature sounds into the set. As an artist, I perform solo a lot of the time and it’s sometimes difficult to conjure up the atmosphere of the songs in a live setting with just me and my guitar. It’s amazing how many people who come to see me are nature lovers and I have wonderful conversations with people in the interval and after my shows.

Namer of Clouds is out now on Navigator Records

Nicholas John