Siobhán Kane talks folk music with Jonny Kearney, ahead of his gig with Lucy Farrellin Whelan’s on Sunday.
Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell met at Newcastle University in 2005, when both were studying on the Folk and Traditional Music course, and they soon started collaborating, resulting in their beautiful 2010 EP The North Farm Sessions and last year’s more expansive-sounding full-length Kite.
Both records contain an intimacy; a clear-sighted, warm take on folk music, from their own compositions such as the bright, delicate ‘Song for a Sweetheart‘, to older traditional songs such as ‘Peggy Gordon‘. Making great use of ukelele, fiddle, viola, piano, guitar and sometimes saw – their harmonies are really their anchor, providing another kind of lyricism that has already been established, from songs that painfully recall regret, or restore hope for future comfort.
A few years ago they fell into the path of The Unthanks, who took them under their nurturing wing, and supported them, not only in terms of helping to produce both of their records, but by bringing them out on tour, exposing them to an appreciative (and wider) audience.
What makes Kearney and Farrell so special is their combined spirit, and a thoughtful, reflective approach to the songs they are inspired to write, and reinterpret, all with poetry at their core; which can sometimes be pretty, sometimes haunting, but always told with a raw, simple truth. Siobhán Kane talks to Jonny Kearney.
How influential do you think your time spent on the Folk and Traditional Music course in Newcastle was? It was where me and Lucy met, so very influential in terms of us playing together, but I wouldn’t say it had much influence on us artistically.
What kind of things did the course comprise? Performance, composition, one-on-one tutorials with guest tutors. People like Martin Carthy, Chis Wood, and Shirley Collins would come in and give a guitar lesson or singing lesson. Those people were inspiring.
Newcastle and the North East in general has a really interesting history with folk music, can you try and explain why? I think a lot of it has to do with industry- mining, shipbuilding and work songs, a lot of history. There is also a certain north-east pride, but that doesn’t really apply to what we do.
You are very linked with the wonderful Unthanks, from recording some of your work in North Farm, to supporting them and collaborating with them – how did you all meet, and would you describe their support and kinship? They saw us play in a little folk club in Newcastle called The Bridge. They asked us to support them at a couple of concerts, I think it was in Newcastle and York… we seemed to go down well, so they asked us to support them on a five week tour. That was exciting for us. We get on well with them and they’ve been good to us. We went on a European tour with them, it was like a family holiday!
You are influenced heavily by folk, but how would you describe how it presents itself in your own compositions, in terms of the process and subject? I think folk songs often have a point or a purpose, everyones definition of folk music is different, so it’s hard to say for certain. I like to think of folk music as typically anonymous, with one eye on the universal. I’ve usually tried to write like that, although recently I’ve been trying to write less with my head.
How did your own relationship to music evolve? We always listened and played music since we were quite small. One of my earliest memories was hearing The Beatles song ‘Baby You Can Drive My Car’ on holiday, I knew I wanted to play music then.
Do you think in some way that Irish traditional music has greatly influenced your work? The Irish tradition is obviously extremely powerful and it would be hard not to be influenced by it in some way or another, it’s almost omnipresent.
One of my favourite songs of yours is ‘Song For a Sweetheart’, it breaks my heart almost every time I listen to it, what is the story behind that song? It was written for a friend, she would be hard on herself and become disheartened. I wrote it to try and make her feel better, to console her.
One of the reasons I love that song, is that the melody is sad but hopeful, and the message is promising, yet I have always been drawn to a lot of the tragic tales in folk music, lives lived in regret, perhaps because it is quite true. I know what you mean. Folk music is usually honest, sometimes brutally so. It’s not airbrushed. That’s what makes it so refreshing. It’s not fitted to demographics. To listen to or write about unhappy things can have healing properties, a sort of exorcism.
Who are some of your favourite songwriters that you continue to go back to? Brian Wilson, The Beatles, Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Shane McGowan, Elliot Smith, Frank Black, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Randy Newman, Cole Porter. In terms of newer songwriters, I would say Conor J. O’Brien is a special songwriter, you probably know him already though.
Kite retained the intimate sound you hold so dear, but was slightly fleshed out on the record, was that intentional? It happened organically really. Some of the songs on the record were quite old, so it was hard to bring those back to life. Adrian McNally [arranger, writer, producer, pianist with The Unthanks] played a big part in terms of producing, he got in some of The Unthanks band to play on the record.
What are some of your favourite places to play in, and can you think of your best and worst live musical experiences and why? I don’t know, we had a great time in Ireland last time. We’ve had a few great ‘homecoming’ shows in Newcastle. I think one of our worst gigs was in a small pub in a small coastal town a couple of years ago, the football was on the TV, I think it was England playing- everyone was chanting.
Are you constantly trying to push each other in terms of harmonies and composition? It seems that part of folk music’s power is its power to renew, and to challenge what has gone before rather than repeating it. In terms of composition – probably. I think always trying to learn is important, and to remember that you don’t know. It’s easy to become resistant to change. I think self-doubt and feeling stupid are a natural part of being creative. I think to discover new things is necessary to grow and to keep excited- it’s a kind of fuel. I respect craft, to learn from other songwriters is important. I think it’s usually what makes for great and consistent songwriters and is why I like a lot of the older songwriters. It’s much easier to hide behind something experimental and complex. I think how effective one can be with simplicity is the real test. Not to disregard experimental music at all, so long as someone isn’t hiding behind it. For someone to understand craft and then be brave enough and able enough to tear it apart is something I admire, but it’s extremely rare. Somewhere inbetween the crafted and the cathartic is what I strive for.The idea must be visceral but it is craft that frames it. Otherwise it’s inertia and stagnant ponds. Saying that I think unless you have boundaries of sorts you might become nothing but a shell… I don’t know, maybe it’s good to be a shell.
The strength of a song can be evident in the way it is passed down over generations, communities, places, people – what are some of the most beautiful songs you have been passed down in the last while? Thats a tricky one.There’s a beautiful song called ‘Handsome Molly’ we heard recently. I think it’s Irish actually, we heard it from the singing of Cath and Phil Tyler.
Do you ever take songs from books? Not song books, but literature? I don’t know really. Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman had a big impact on me, and ‘Letters to Lenore’ was kind of based on it [from their 2010 EP]. Recently I’ve been reading Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire and Roald Dahl.
I often feel that there is something workmanlike about folk music, perhaps bound up in the tradition of traveling, disseminating these songs, from pubs to folk clubs to festivals, there is something honest, nourishing, and educational – real connection – it is like you are building something each time you play – does it feel like that? Yes, in a way. That reminds me of something Bob Dylan said, about how it’s like there’s a piece of wood covered in nails from people that have been before and you’re trying to find a space or place to hammer your nail in.
Have you found melancholy the most inspiring muse? Perhaps, happiness is certainly something we aspire to. It’s just the other parts seem more interesting.
What other projects are you working on? We are taking part in a thing called The Boat Project [Conor J. O’ Brien is one of the contributors, also] – people donate old pieces of wood, anything from a toothpick to a coathanger, and someone’s making a boat out of them. Each piece of wood has a story behind it- there’s a bunch of songwriters that have been asked to write and record a song about one of the stories that appeals to them. Also, Lucy’s just recorded an album with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy, and Kate Young- four fiddle singers. So that should be good. We’re both going to be working on solo projects as well in addition to the duo.
Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell play Whelan’s on Sunday March 25th. Tickets are €12.