Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell calls the tune. She talks about her music, family and Sting
Posted: 16 Nov 2009
Celebrated Northumbrian composer Kathryn Tickell - who picked up Musician of the Year at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for the second time in ten years - talks about her music, her family and Sting. Read the archive interview and listen to her online talking about My Favourite Place - the song inspired by her mum.
By Michael Hamilton
Picture copyright Graham Oliver
Kathryn steps off stage at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York after playing a sell-out show with Geordie heroes Sting and Jimmy Nail.
Their heart-rending performance of the haunting North East ballad Waters of Tyne means there is not a dry eye in the house.
It’s May 1997. Elton John and a host of glittering stars are wandering around backstage. Then suddenly it sinks in.
‘I just felt completely out of my depth,’ she confesses. ‘I was a fan of The Police when I was a girl and here I was on stage with Sting. There were celebrities everywhere. It seemed totally unreal.
‘I had heard stories of Jimmy being a bit of a hard lad and having a temper. But he was a complete gentleman. His only concern was for me. He wanted to make sure I was OK and not being left out.
‘He was in New York with his family but he rang me the next day concerned that I might be lonely and wondered whether I’d like to go out for a meal with them. As it happened I already had something arranged but it was the sentiment that mattered. I thought that was great.’
She has also contributed to five of Sting’s albums. And visited the Wiltshire and London homes he shares with wife Trudie Styler.
‘It’s easy for somebody with that level of fame to get used to that unreal world but he and Trudie very much try to be normal people.
‘If I’m in London with them and the conversation is about things I couldn’t possibly join in with they seem to steer the conversation around – without it being obvious – to something I would feel more comfortable with.
‘It may be something about Newcastle, what’s being built or knocked down. It’s thoughtful and touching. They are just nice, normal people in spite of all the celebrity.’
In many people’s eyes down-to-earth Kathryn is an even bigger star for the way she has championed the cause of Northumbrian music in a colossal 30-year career since releasing her first album On Kielderside at the tender age of 16.
She took up the Northumbrian smallpipes at the age of nine and by 13 had won just about all the prizes possible.
But she only took up the instrument because her father told her not to play a set of pipes he had brought for a friend.
‘It was a pure accident. It’s a fantastic instrument for a child to make the most ridiculous, awful noises on and I was squeaking and squawking and having a great time,’ she recalls.
‘Dad came in and told me to stick to the piano. I’m afraid there’s no beautiful story about how wonderful they were. I was told not to play them, so I did. I was always a bit stubborn.’
In 1986, aged 18, she turned professional. Her second album Borderlands was the first to include her own material. In 1987 a Channel 4 documentary The Long Tradition chronicled her musical development.
Since then she has recorded 11 more albums, toured extensively throughout the world both solo and with the Kathryn Tickell band, presented a series of programmes for BBC Radio 2, and recorded with a host of other musical luminaries including The Chieftains, Boys of the Lough, Linda Thompson, Alan Parsons, Andy Sheppard and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
In 2001 her band performed as part of the Last Night of the Proms – the first time the event had included traditional folk music. In 2005 she was awarded Musician of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 folk awards.
The BBC Proms commissioned her to compose Confluence at the Royal Albert Hall in July. It was the first time the event had dedicated a whole day to the folk genre.
Her shows are always emotional nights with personal interpretations of the landscape, culture, people and traditions of her beloved Tyne Valley home.
Her band includes younger brother Peter – the 22-year-old has been dubbed the Paul Gascoigne of the fiddle because of his precocious musical talent. To take the sporting metaphor further, he even played on the wing for Blyth Spartans and could have made a career in football. The other band members are Julian Sotton on melodeon and Joss Clapp on guitar.
Proud mum Kathleen is one of her biggest fans and is always in the audience for her North East performances.
Favourite Place – a track on her 2006 album called The Sky Didn’t Fall and featured in her latest compilation with 31 tracks – is about her mum’s childhood growing up on Willow Bog Farm in the Warksburn area of Northumberland in the 1940s and 1950s.
Kathryn secretly taped conversations with her mum as they chatted over a few glasses of wine and Kathleen (maiden name Robson) reminisced about the old days.
‘As soon as she started talking I thought: “I wish I had been recording this.” Fortunately I had had a band rehearsal that day so my mini disc was sitting on the table. While my mum went to get the bottle of wine out of the fridge I switched it on.
‘Over the next few glasses of wine she just opened up and started recalling amazing memories as a young girl growing up.
‘If she had known she was being recorded she would never have opened up like that. She remembered the dances in a little place called Crook Bank. It’s a house now but in those days it was a school and my grandad was on the committee that organised the dances there.
‘All the farmers and shepherds from the area would come along. It was a big social occasion and they took it all very seriously with tickets, and the women would put the supper out and serve tea from those big old fashioned kettles.
‘The first time I played the song to her was so strange. She started smiling, then looked more and more confused as it dawned on her that these were her words. Then she said: “It’s me.”
‘She was completely bewildered because she didn’t know anything about the recording and here she was hearing the story of her dad winning the waltzing competition at the annual ball. I started crying. It was very emotional.’
Kathryn worships her new Tyne Valley home – an old mill house – and keeps her legion of fans up to date with frequent postings on her web site blog about her domestic situation.
‘We’ve been doing it up for the past couple of years, but I think it will be a lifetime project. It’s fantastic because it’s exactly where my mum’s family have been for hundreds of years and my dad’s family have been here for a couple of generations.
‘My uncle Bill is just down the road and my dad is only about six miles away. When we first came to look at this house I suddenly recognised all the place names from the songs that my dad sings.
‘I quoted all the songs to the people who lived here before us and they thought yes she should be living here.
‘Its always great to come back home. Even before I moved back to the countryside it always felt great to come back to the North East. From the ages of 18 to 23 I lived in Gateshead.
‘If I had been away on tour for a few weeks I used to love that feeling when you come back on the train and cross the Tyne. I still get that kick when I see the bridges.’
Clog dancer and accordion player Amy, who joins her on stage, has just graduated from the Northumbria University folk and traditional music degree course that Kathryn teaches.
She’s a part-time lecturer and tutor there and is also artistic director of Folkestra, the North East’s acclaimed young folk ensemble. In 1997 she also founded the Young Musicians Fund which aims to help youngsters in the region realise their musical potential.
‘I don’t have any regrets about going to university myself. There wasn’t a course that suited me then anyway.
‘I actually did have interviews at a couple of places but they wouldn’t even let me play my pipes.
‘They said: “That’s not a proper instrument. Do you play anything else?” Then I played them some folky stuff on the violin and they didn’t like that.
‘The only way you could do it when I was starting out twenty years ago was to get out and just do it.
‘Now there are a lot more opportunities and different ways of getting into a career in traditional music but at that time there weren’t. You had to just give it a shot.
‘To be honest I wasn’t a very good pupil anyway. I was quiet at school and that meant I could probably get away with a lot more than the noisy ones and troublemakers.
‘My dad’s only discovered that I should have spent a lot more time at school than I did rather than going backward and forward on the ferry between North and South Shields.
‘I used to go to Tom Haddaway’s fish and chip shop in North Shields and he never told my dad. Fortunately it’s far too late for him to do anything about it now!’
Kathryn believes the deep resonances that the landscape and people of Northumbria sound within her may be ironically because some of her childhood was spent away from the region.
‘I actually grew up all over the place. We spent some of my childhood years in Lincolnshire and I remember my parents were always desperate to get back.
‘I think if people live away from home they tend to go on about getting back home much more than they would if they were actually there.
‘My dad was always singing Northumberland songs and Border ballads. When I first started playing the piano all he wanted my to do was play the Waters of Tyne.
‘It meant an awful lot to them, where they were from and that has had a big effect on me.
‘I’m sure things have changed a lot since my mother’s day living in the Tyne Valley but there is still an amazing sense of community here.
‘Someone came to the house the other day to deliver some wood and he knew all the Robson clan on my mother’s side. He went through the entire family. Then I found I could remember bits about his family.
‘My grandparents would be constantly talking about who was related to who. It was part of growing up and who you were. Some people might find it a bit intrusive. I love it. It makes you feel you belong.
‘When we moved here I asked the people for the front door key and they looked completely blank. They hadn’t locked the door for 18 years and couldn’t actually find the key.
‘So for the first year we lived here every time we went out the house was completely open! It’s all secure now because we have just had a new front door put on. But that’s a mark of how safe it is around here.’
Talking of her own musical heroes the conversation inevitably turns to folk legend Alistair Anderson who was in the original line-up of the High Level Ranters from 1968-1979.
‘It was very unusual to actually make a living out of traditional folk music at that time. He was out there doing it.
‘Alistair’s incredibly generous of spirit. A lot of people might have seen me as competition coming up, but it never appeared to cross his mind.
‘I’m still finding out things that he did for me that I didn’t know at the time. People say I remember when we first booked you in 1986 and we did because Alistair said we should. He was singing my praises and helping me like he helped so many others.
‘He’s a visionary. Without him we wouldn’t have Folkworks (the Sage’s acclaimed folk music development agency for the North East) and we wouldn’t have the folk music degree at Newcastle University.’