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KATE DENNY Closer to Home CD (Lapwing)

I've been a fan of Kate Denny's music for some time now; I first became aware of Kate through her debut solo album, Runa Megin, released under her maiden name Kate Waterfield. This was a highly innovative blend of experimental, electronic, folk, world, and medieval-inspired music based around the theme of the Nordic runes. This vastly original album still remains one of my favourites. Kate subsequently formed the sadly short-lived band The Kittiwakes, whose album Lofoten Calling continued the Scandinavian theme. This was a concept album based on the Lofoten islands north of Norway, its lyrics taking in elements of the islands' folklore and history. Weaver is told from the perspective of a Viking Age woman awaiting the return of her beloved from the sea; The Arethusa is based on the ship Kate's grandfather served on during World War II, which was involved in action at the Lofoten Islands; and Ole Petter is a jaunty song about a local shepherd described in the sleeve notes as "part man, part myth". The musical influences on this album were more obviously English, at times conjuring up scenes of Regency-era country dances, but the mixture of Norwegian and English elements is not as eclectic as it may initially seem. Some British folk traditions have been exchanging ideas with Norway for centuries, maybe even millennia. I once saw a documentary on Northumbrian folk music that highlighted the Norwegian influence on the folk dance traditions of that area. The same is also true of the Border Ballads from northern England and southern Scotland, whose melodies and lyrics are clearly from the same tradition as the medieval ballads of Norway. The Kittiwakes' blend of English music and Norwegian-inspired lyrics is therefore simply another stage in a very long musical tradition.

Following the split of The Kittiwakes, Kate has gone solo again. Her first solo album released under the name Kate Denny, Closer to Home, is out now on Lapwing Records. There is no obvious Nordic lyrical theme this time, but one thread that does run through the album is Kate's local and family history. Just as The Arethusa was inspired by Kate's grandfather, there are songs on her new album that tell the often tragic stories of other members of her family. Billy was Kate's great uncle who died in World War One, and Nellie Follett was Kate's great grandmother, who committed suicide due to giving birth outside of wedlock. Closer to Home is not a family history concept album however; it explores other topics important to Kate, ranging from songs inspired by personal experience to songs that draw their inspiration from Wordsworth and Scottish fairy tales.

William and the Boat is inspired by an incident from Wordsworth's youth, which he wrote about in The Prelude, which Kate studied at school. The words are set to a convincingly traditional-style melody and effectively sparse guitar and viola accompaniment. Getting By was written jointly with Rib Davis, a historical researcher and playwright. It is based on Davis' play Chuck Out Your Mouldies, about life on the Greenwich peninsula in the early 20th century. Lyrics about working hard to make ends meet are combined with a melody that is jaunty yet tinged with an appropriate level of sadness and seriousness as befitting the subject matter. The concertina gives the song rather a nautical feel. Billy is slow and stark, and no-one with a heart can escape being emotionally affected by the tragic story contained within the song. The same is true of Nellie Follett, which hits home just how different the morality system was in the early part of the last century, and how lucky women are today now that marriage is a choice not a necessity.

The mood lightens for Lapwing to Shore, a traditional-style folk instrumental co-written with Charlie Skelton. The Milk White Dove is based on a Scottish fairy tale, and is aptly described by Kate as "particularly gruesome". Murder, cannibalism, an evil stepmother, it's all here. The gory lyrics are juxtaposed with a rather jolly tune, a songwriting method that is not unknown in traditional folk music. Brittle Boned sets darkly evocative lyrics to a suitably bleak minimalistic bagpipe drone. The song ends with a Northumbrian smallpipe solo from Charlie Skelton, which is very much in the spirit of traditional Northumbrian folk music. The Sisters of Jacob's Hall comes from the history of Great Wyrley, the West Midlands village where Kate grew up. Two sisters travelled from London to Great Wyrley, building Jacob's Hall, which the locals speculated had been built from ill gotten gains acquired from tricking some highwaymen. The highwaymen tracked down the sisters and murdered them, and local legend has it that their ghosts still haunt the lane adjoining Jacob's Hall. The title track Closer to Home is a cheery folk number based around melodeon, guitar and violin. Its lyrics encapsulate the theme of the whole album, that is the intention of focusing on matters of personal importance to Kate. As Kate explains: "Having released an album about faraway islands above the arctic circle, I wanted to focus my writing on matters closer to heart and home".

Whilst still rooted within folk music, Closer to Home is in many ways different from Kate's previous musical projects. All three of her albums so far show Kate Denny to be a very versatile artist, each album exploring folk themes from a very different angle. Many of the songs on Closer to Home can be an uneasy listen indeed, with their emphasis on death, whether in the form of tragic tales of Kate's own ancestors or morbid stories drawn from the folk tradition. However, that does not detract from the fact that Kate is a hugely talented songwriter and musician whose work seamlessly blends contemporary, personal aspects with strong traditional influences. More information at www.katedenny.com


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Text Kim Harten, 2012.