Nancy Kerr & James Fagan

Tue, 05/31/2011 - 13:16
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Nancy Kerr & James Fagan

James Fagan and Nancy Kerr are two of the brightest stars to have emerged from the nebula of talented young musicians that has swirled around the universe of the British folk scene over the past decade.

As a duo they combine the formidable instrumental skills we’ve come to expect from the younger generation with two strong voices, a welcome interest in songs both traditional and recent, and a pleasing lack of “attitude”. Unlike some of their peers, they still play folk clubs, alongside the more high-profile venues that have opened up to them in the wake of their capture in 2000 of the inaugural BBC Horizon Award for young traditional musicians. But in common with so many of those new and youthful faces, they both grew up steeped in the folk music scene, and their backgrounds, albeit in two different countries, have much in common.

Nancy is the daughter of Sandra Kerr, a singer with political and feminist commitment, a expert player of the English concertina, and a familiar face to a generation of children as presenter of the TV series “Bagpuss” (at the time of our interview, Fagan and Kerr are due out on the road with the stage version of the show; “I get to wear the woodpecker suit,” comments James ruefully). “Both my parents were musicians and singers,” begins Nancy. “I always think of Mum as the song background and Dad as the instrumental background, although Mum was developing the concertina when I was a kid. But the main influence for her was the Critics’ Group in the 1960s with Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, which has carried on into my own teaching - Ewan and Peggy were leading workshops long before it became the fashion. Mum’s song repertoire, and my Dad’s interest in English tunes – he was a Northumbrian piper – are things I carry with me from that time and those two sides knitted together. There was always music around: Irish sessions when I lived in London as a kid, then when I was ten we moved up to Northumberland, I met Alistair Anderson, and there were lots of hot sessions going on.” 

Even before that Nancy had been taken up to Northumberland to meet traditional musicians like Willy Taylor and Will Atkinson, and Taylor in particular, had a pivotal role in Nancy’s musical education. “I visited him when I was seven or eight; I was still fairly awful and needed some direction.  I’d started with classical lessons, and my parents said that if I really studied the classical stuff, it would help with the traditional music, but I never believed them until I went to see Willy Taylor and he said the same thing. He was my model for the way the music from my Dad’s home area was meant to sound.”  Interesting that a rural fiddler should have recommended formal lessons – it rather contradicts the ‘noble savage’ idea of the traditional musician as untutored scraper. “People forget that Willy Taylor wasn’t an accidental fiddler, he was a musician.  He played box and mandolin, and the fiddle was only his third or fourth instrument - he didn’t even like it!  But he was incredibly skilled; as close as Northumbrian music got to a virtuoso fiddle player. They were great, all those musicians up there, and the pipers were very cerebral musicians.”

James Fagan, too, grew up with folk music all around him.  “Mum and Dad were very much a part of the folk revival in Australia during the 70s, which was mostly based on what was happening in Britain.  I grew up hearing records by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Bert Lloyd, Martin Carthy, Leon Rosselson, and later, Jez Lowe.  Mum and Dad sang as a duo, then later the family developed as a four-part harmony group influenced by The Johnstones and the Watersons.  Our repertoire was drawn from all sorts of sources: English, Irish, American, Australian. I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t folk music in my house, and it was as legitimate a musical form to me as anything else that my friends were listening to.  People like Peggy Seeger, Roy Bailey and Judy Small used to stay with us, which was an insight for me. Kate and I started getting up with Mum and Dad quite early on, when we were eleven or twelve.  Our first performance at a big festival was at Woodford (the huge New Year bash in Queensland) when I was fifteen, and for the first few years we were riding a wave. People were encouraging us because it was a family group and there weren’t many young people doing that sort of thing with their parents. But after a while we really grew to love it and it’s pity that now I live over here we don’t get to do it very often.  Singing with Mum and Dad and my sister will always be the root from which I approach any music.”

Despite being a natural baritone, James took the bass lines in the Fagan Family: “I always got the most boring line to sing! (he gives me a sample; yes, it’s boring!) Before I met Nancy I’d never sung lead at all and didn’t have any confidence as a folk vocalist. As a young person it’s hard to find your voice in folk music; kids in school rock bands had so many influences that they could find a voice easily.  In folk we grew up listening to Vin Garbutt and Paul Brady, so the temptation was for Australians either to put on a cod English or Irish accent, or to go the other way, put on a thick Aussie bush accent and sing songs that didn’t really relate to them at all, about shearing and Bluey.”

“Pop music is all about artifice,” puts in Nancy, “and if you’ve been brought up with chart music it’s about pretending to be American.  That’s easy because you’re hiding - which is what you want to do when you’re an adolescent - but with traditional music there’s a fine line between artifice and being true.  If you’re copying someone else’s style it’s very easy to detect.”  “Definitely,” agrees James, “when Kate and I were kids we sang with Aussie accents, but later we started getting more mannered.  Since the first recording I did with Nancy, where I sound at times like I’m from Yorkshire rather than Sydney, I’ve gone back to singing in my own voice.”

Nancy suggests that James’ background was an advantage when they came to work together: “We had the same sort of repertoire and the same kind of harmonic approach, the same mixture of traditional music and contemporary writing, and our families were involved in the same kind political movements. My first experiences of Mum and Dad performing wasn’t in folk clubs, it was in benefit gigs and political rallies.”  “That was exactly the same in Sydney,” concurs James, “A lot of my childhood involved waking up on the floor after a gig raising money for the Nicaraguan people, CND, that kind of thing.”

One might have expected this political influence to have rubbed off in terms of the duo’s own material, but apart from Nancy’s Songbirds, which pays tribute to the Rosselsons and Baileys of this world, it hasn’t been prominent.  “So far we’ve erred on the traditional side,” says Nancy, “not that I’m saying that isn’t itself political.  But the contemporary, political side is a part of our music.  Mum was a songwriter, I was brought up with new songs about contemporary issues, and I never sing anything that doesn’t agree with those ideas.  I was taught that you show your ideology through your music.“  “We don’t do as many overtly political songs as our parents did,” adds James, “but I think it comes across that the songs I sing from Australia all have messages.  The Drover’s Boy isn’t just a pretty tune, it’s about the plight of the indigenous Australian people.  I’m not a crusader about that, but it fits with the views I was brought up with.”  

The Drover’s Boy is by Ted Egan, a larger-than-life Australian bush poet who accompanies himself on a beer crate and belies a somewhat redneck appearance by writing profoundly sensitive songs about his country’s history and multiracial make-up.  “He writes about indigenous matters from a white perspective, but because the language he uses is that of Anglo music, it’s easy for white people to relate to.  As a child of seven I loved Leon Rosselson, the way he used words and married them to music, and he’s still my favourite writer.   But I find the same thing in traditional songs, which have a political history not everyone admits to.  Singer-songwriters and traditionalists are always rubbing up against each other and you’re supposed to be in one camp or the other, but I don’t feel like that, I think it’s important to keep both influences.”

Nancy feels that political songwriters have been affected by a wave of apathy.  “Protest song is no longer trendy, and I know songwriters who felt very impotent in the late 90s.  It was trendy in the eighties, which was a ghastly time politically, but for us it was a galvanising time, you went out and you protested and you sang.”  Such days aren’t entirely past; James tells of the duo appearing at a benefit for striking dockworkers in Australia:  “I was thinking, this it was it must have been like to be a protest singer!”  Nancy: “It reminded me of being at Greenham when I was young!  But young writers are possibly more political in Australia; there are a lot of motivated young women writers like Kate Burke, Penelope Swales and Kate Fagan.”

One piece of the Kerr/Fagan jigsaw yet remains in the box.  James, coming from his background in acapella singing, managed at some point to develop his skills as a powerful one-man rhythm section on the bouzouki.  How did that happen?  “Dad gave me a bouzouki when I was eighteen, and I started listening to Planxty.  I’d never played a lead instrument like fiddle or flute, so I came to it from a rhythm point of view, and I totally lost myself in the bouzouki as a rhythm instrument.  By the time I met Nancy, I’d spent years accompanying Irish music and playing in Celtic bands like Alistair Hulett’s.  I was influenced by Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny - when I started playing with Nancy and Eliza (Carthy), I wasn’t sure whether there was a role for flat-backed bouzouki in English music….”

“I didn’t think there was a role for it anywhere, I didn’t like bouzoukis at all!” puts in Nancy.  But despite her suspicion of James’ chosen instrument, they did get together in 1995.  James, having completed a medical degree, came over to England for a holiday and joined Eliza Carthy and Nancy in the recently-formed Kings of Calicutt for a tour during which he and Nancy started featuring a few duo numbers.  “It was just recreational at that point,” she recalls, “we never thought at that stage we might be able to gig it.  But James’ backing was so chunky, it was perfect for accompanying melodic single-string fiddle-playing.”  James was excited by the sound too.  “The chance to use the skills I’d accumulated in Australia, and put them into another context, was a revelation for me.  I was getting tired of putting the same old chords to the same Irish tunes, so hearing North Eastern English music really opened my ears.  It needs to be quite free, that stuff: the rhythms are driving, the pace is quick, and it has that fluidity, so I immediately responded to it.”

James returned to Australia to take up a medical job in 1996, but it wasn’t long before the duo were
reunited for their first tour of Australia.  “Our first date as a duo was in Sydney that August; we had about three songs!” Nancy remembers.  But from those beginnings the duo took off to the extent
that James promising medical career was nipped in the bud.  The Australian folk scene still provides
regular work for Kerr and Fagan, who spend several months over there most years, particularly around the Spring when the festival season is at it’s height.  “The work’s not as intensive as in England,” says Nancy, “but we take our time and look at it partly as a time for inspiration and writing.”

Having experienced the Australian folk scene at first hand, your correspondent is aware of an old, Anglo-Celtic folk movement that is now gradually being superseded by a younger and more eclectic scene reflecting the country’s multi-ethnic composition.  “When I was a kid,” recalls James, “the place I used to go was the Bush Music Club, with people like Jacko Kevans, the great box player, playing Australian material.  But as the Australian folk movement began to explore its own tradition, they found that it only went back a hundred and fifty years, and was filled with things that they didn’t want to sing about.  The songs are often racist; they’re about the pride of the white man and how he tried to assert himself in that landscape. But some people were determined to look past the surface into the real stories that were there, to find the good songs from the Australian repertoire, and they started using stuff like the Henry Lawson poems. Others, though, acknowledged that real Australian music was the music of the aboriginal people, so they went back to their own ancestral heritage from England or Ireland, and abandoned that 150 years of Australian history.”

That history – of the struggle of working class people, Nancy points out, going to a harsh place and rebuilding their lives there – is something that interests James.  “I find the Henry Lawson stuff really fascinating, and Chris Kempster (source of many Lawson settings including Do You Think That I Do Not Know, sung by Roy Bailey) is fantastic.  He’s someone every young musician ought to know about, he’s got so many resources and he’s so generous.”  It’s Gerry Hallom, however, whose setting of the Lawson poem The Outside Track is one highlight of Kerr and Fagan’s new CD, Between The Dark And The Light.  James also speaks warmly of Martin Wyndham Read (“one of the leading exponents of Australian music, who could play four different concerts without repeating himself - and he’s an Englishman!”) of Margaret Walters, a fine singer of Australian traditional songs, and of John Warner, whose songs successfully chronicle the history of the white colonists in Australia without writing the aborigines out of the picture.  Warner’s Anderson’s Coast has become a favourite in the duo’s live set.

Those Aussie fesitvals, though, are a thing apart, truly multicultural, with a strong, youthful following.  “I’ve seen more varied types of music over there than I ever saw in all the great festivals I’ve been to back home,” enthuses Nancy.  “I really love Woodford, which is like WOMAD; they’ve a place for everything including indigenous music – the Murri aborigines – it’s just so exciting.  I felt overwhelmed the first time I went there, all this incredible stuff going on, and there we were on main stage playing English 3:2 hornpipes.”  “The key thing is, it’s not tokenistic,” says James, “it’s a representation of all the music that’s going on.  Playing there gave us a real sense of pride in our own culture”.

Talking to James and Nancy it’s clear that they have a great knowledge of, and passion for, both
English and Australian traditions.  But at the same time, original compositions are a key part of their music.  James explains: “Writing our own stuff is probably the most exciting thing we’re doing right now; Nancy is more of a songwriter than me, but we both write tunes.”  “Since we first started playing together we’ve been writing tunes that were inspired by the sound that we make,” agrees Nancy, “using a bit of everything we’ve got to give, like exploring the lower end of the bouzouki or mixing 3:2 rhythms with other influences.”  The 3:2 time signature is characteristic of the old Northern English hornpipes, full of rhythmic quirks and odd syncopations.  Since Nancy was first taught Rusty Gully by her father she’s had a fascination with the form, and it’s extended into other unconventional rhythms as well.  James:  “Listening to the Eastern European communities in Australia you hear various different rhythms, and Nancy’s written tunes in 7:8 and so on.  But when we play them in a folk club over here where they’re used to English tunes in 4:4, they don’t find them confrontational in the way you might expect, in fact I think those “strange” rhythms can be very natural when they’re put in the right context.”

“When you’re young and excited by music,” Nancy adds, “you go mad trying to write tunes with ridiculous time signatures, but at the end of the day it’s got to be music, it’s not about confusing the ear, so the ones we write that aren’t in straight timing tend to be quite simple and chunky.  As far as writing songs goes, I’m ambivalent about using current language; I’m more comfortable with a ballad style, but in a way that’s artificial as well.  I can’t be writing ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, or ‘as fast as go could she’, that kind of thing.”  In fact, a glance at the lyrics for Nancy’s song Tiburon on the new album demonstrates that she’s arrived at some kind of happy medium, achieving the timelessness of the ancient ballad texts without resorting to jarringly archaic language.  She’s modest about it, though:  “I’m not a great songwriter, and I don’t feel the need to do it, I prefer to dabble.  There are musicians who can play beautiful traditional music but who feel that they’re only expressing themselves properly through their songwriting, but for me it’s the reverse.”

Both Fagan and Kerr stress the importance of interpreting existing music as well as creating it, of finding an old song that says just what you wanted to say yourself.  A good example of this is James’s moving version of Sir Richard’s Song, one of Peter Bellamy’s Kipling settings, about a Norman invader finding love in England and ‘going native’.  “I related to that immediately, it just spoke for my life at that moment.  And it’s the only song I’ve ever sung that my Mum cried over!” 

“When we started we did have a slight agenda to revive ballads,” admits Nancy, maybe we’re not as evangelical about doing Lord Bateman in its full form as we used to be, but I still like them.  At the moment I’m really into Anglo-American ballads, that pared-down, pentatonic, Appalachian stuff, like False Young Man on the new CD.  But my voice has changed a lot physically in the last couple of years, from mostly head resonance to more chest resonance, so I can get lower and louder, and I think I’m a better singer for it.  At one time I got criticised for having a very high, feminine voice, and listening to old recordings I don’t like the way I sang then.  But when I listen to myself now I sound much more like the source singers I listen to – I probably look more like them as well!”

All this “we’re getting old” stuff  (“I’m rapidly approaching thirty!” moans James) is amusing when comparing the duo with the woolly and elderly folk scene, but the’ve been on the road ten years, and seen many still younger singers emerge.  Nancy, though, has little time for the cult of youth.  “One of the good things about the scene is that older singers are valued, and we have to be grateful for that – in most forms of entertainment you’re over the hill by the time you’re thirty.”  But surely, playing to folk club audiences twice their age must have felt strange?  Nancy: “I don’t have that feeling.  The clubs that are still going are generally pretty good, and anyway, we often see young people in clubs - maybe because we draw them in.  We feel in a middling position generationally: there’s the Folkworks generation, who are younger than me, then there’s an older generation of consumers and musicians, and I’m in the middle.”  James concurs: “When I was growing up, the musicians I learnt from were my parents and my parents’ friends, so the generational thing is something I feel totally comfortable with.”

Clearly these are not would-be pop idols, using folk music as some kind of route to stardom.  “There’s still a lot left that we’ve got to do; we’re not a whizz-bang thing, we’re quite slow-burning in a way,” explains Nancy, while James takes the last word:  “We’re not in a particular hurry and never have been.  We want this to be something that lasts for us, we want music to be part of our lives, and we’ve come to the point where folk music is something we’re going to do until we’re 90.”

Brian Peters
Photo by Candy Schwartz