Kirsty Merryn arrives with a woozily gorgeous second album tucked under her arm, a steadily growing reputation for creating atmospheric and meaningful songs as well as totally refitting traditional material with contemporary relevance. She’s earning plaudits from those in the know and fast making friends with roots music high flyers. Discussing overlooked histories, fascination with stories, dodgy lyrics, stage nerves and why liking the Corrs might be a healthy thing. Interview by Simon Jones.
Mention the New Forest and you immediately think of heathland, trees and ponies, don’t you? Not perhaps a well-known hot bed for folk singers. That could change with the arrival of Miss Kirsty Merryn, we’re chatting as she’s just issued her second album, ‘Our Bright Night,’ which is a dreamy soundscape mixing her own compositions and heavily retooled trad items not afraid to take chances or liberties yet keeps the essential spirit of Brit roots intact and displaying a thrilling potency. With support both tangible and verbal from the likes of Show Of Hands she’s going places at quite a pace. Bubbly and a willing interviewee I wondered if the place she grew up had influenced her music at all.
“I’m not sure it did particularly…my family are a very outdoorsy sporty family, I was the sort of quiet, bookish, musical one who wanted to just sit inside reading! Music came a bit later reading was my first love really. I think when I first started having piano lessons was when I really first started becoming interested in music.”
What was the formative music your younger self clung to?
“I was absolutely obsessed with the Corrs when I was a kid, they were really my first introduction to folk music! Their early albums had some traditional songs in amongst the pop numbers and I really loved them. When I got a bit older and started A levels, I started branching out my musical taste from the main stream. I got really into jazz and folk at about the same time and started to listen to all the same music that I love today – Nina Simone is a huge influence, as is Kate Bush.”
Perhaps unusually Kirsty Merryn doesn’t come with a regular folksy instrument, guitar or fiddle, she can play guitar and there might even be one hanging around the stage should you ever venture out to see her live, (something we here at Spiral Earth recommend heavily.) No, her weapon of choice is a keyboard. How does playing that shape your growth as a singer ? I’m thinking it’s not quite as easy to cart around as an acoustic guitar but is capable of delivering far grander arrangements.
“You’re quite right, on both counts! The piano can do things that the guitar can’t and vice versa. I can’t get rhythmic strumming going for example, on a more dancey number. I have played the piano since I was about 10 and just fell in love with it. When I first started gigging I used to play the guitar but I never enjoyed it enough to really work at it and was really a very sub-par player! I decided that although I didn’t see any pianists on the folk scene, I had to stick with what I know and love and so went back to piano. It was difficult and not everyone is on board with it as a folk instrument.”
At what point did you have the confidence to get up and sing in front of an audience?
“I was a very shy child, if you can believe that! I loved to sing (to myself) and danced everywhere though. When I was about 13 my school had a talent competition, and my mum persuaded me to enter it. I stood on stage in front of the school and sang a song, unaccompanied. I was absolutely terrified. I clung to the mic and didn’t move at all. When I finished I ran off stage and burst into tears. That was my first experience in performing! But luckily, I had an amazing music teacher at school who saw some potential in me during that performance, and did her best to nurture my skills.”
Do you look back at your first efforts writing with pride or a shiver?
“I don’t think there’s any shame to be had in early song writing efforts, it’s a learning journey just like any other skill and though my earlier efforts were simpler, I look at them and remember how much fun it was having a go at it. I wouldn’t perform any of them now though!”
Is there a magic formula for you when you write?
“Honestly, I do think that song writing is sort of magic! I always think of it as something that happens to me, rather than something I do. I sit at the piano and see what happens – some songs write themselves really quickly, like ‘Constantine’ and some take a long time to come together, like ‘Forfarshire’ (from the new album and She & I respectively). Every song is different really!”.
In times when most modern music seems to be vacuous words set against a repetitive beat is lyric writing a lost or reviving art?
“What an interesting question…I think now is an amazing time for folk and roots music in particular, it gives people a voice, always has, there are loads of musicians writing interesting and varied songs. I think that with how much madness there is in the world at the moment, we’re going to see more and more people turning to song writing to express some of their concerns and fears.”
With that in mind would it be fair to say your material chiefly will focus on feminine concerns?
“No, I don’t think so – certainly my first album (She & I) was about women from history, it was a sort of challenge I set myself to some extent and also I wanted a strong introduction to people. I wanted to show people a clear story, a theme that was instantly recognisable, that people knew what to listen out for, before they even pressed play. In general, I write about a huge variety of things, but that album means a great deal to me, it was a joy to research and create.”
It was a brave move to fill her debut album with songs about fascinating women from history. The research alone must have been time consuming never mind writing all the songs. I wondered if there more of a push from within her to feature lesser known stories or personalities ahead of the better recognised?
“It was a time consuming project in many ways, yes. In general I love to read historical non-fiction, especially biographies, which is where the idea sprang from. I was reading a biography about Emma Hamilton, her life story was just so fascinating and I really wanted to write a song about her. I decided I wanted to write a broadsheet and tried to think about what I imagined a broadsheet at the time would have said about her and Nelson. I decided it should be very bawdy, but I ended up toning it down a bit for the record! It was really fun writing that song and I started thinking about other women who would make interesting subjects. It was very difficult to narrow down, but I wanted to try and get a mix of very well- known women (like Grace Darling) and lesser known but no less fascinating women (like Georgiana Houghton).”
Any particular favourites you care to spotlight?
“I really loved the story of Georgiana Houghton, a woman who made such incredible and visionary artwork very quietly, who lived her life in a house of spirits. The story of Henrietta Lacks is a very powerful and moving one – as a white woman I didn’t feel that I could tell her story in a narrative way, as I had a lot of the others. It isn’t my story to tell in that regard but I wanted to include her on the album and so dedicated a story to her, about women’s ownership over their own bodies.”
Most people north of Watford might only have got to hear our heroine when she supported Show Of Hands on tour though gradually word was spreading ever further from her London base. Where does Steve Knightly fit into the chronology?
“I met Steve at an EFDSS song writing retreat for up and coming folk songwriters. Steve was one of the teachers and mentors at the retreat. It was an amazing experience, I met a lot of incredible and very talented musicians there, including Sam Kelly who sings on my new album and Luke Jackson who sang on ‘She & I.’”
Was it a case of deep breath and go for it supporting the likes of Show Of Hands on tour and in festivals?
“Steve asked me to open for Show of Hands at Sidmouth folk week in 2016. It was by far the biggest audience I had ever performed to and I was incredibly nervous! It was amazing though, being on stage is the most incredible feeling – When I sit down at the piano and look out at the audience it just feels like I’m in the right place. I don’t know how else to explain it! After that, Show of Hands invited me to be their opening act for their tour of cathedrals around the UK. I loved every single minute of it, I can’t tell you. It is one of the best experiences of my life.”
Tour memorabilia of the cathedral kind.
What do you feel you learned from such gigs?
“A great deal! Show of Hands have an amazing team that they work with and the work that goes on behind the scenes is phenomenal. I really learned about how much work goes into creating a world-class show like SoH put on. Steve taught me a lot about performance and stage craft. It was the longest run of shows I’ve done and I was very careful to look after my voice on the duration, so I instilled some good habits into myself which I continue using on my own tours.”
I’ve mentioned Kirsty’s own writing a lot but let it be known that she’s got a love for source material as well as tracks from ‘Our Bright Night,’ prove. She’s not above turning them inside out, upside down and sewing them back together again after all folk music doesn’t wear well as a museum piece.
What then is the approach to traditional music?
“Traditional music in the UK is fascinating. I think there are a few different elements which make up a traditional song. I’m a songwriter, and my writing is based in the folk tradition – I personally mean from that, that I use typical structures and recurring themes which occur in folk to create new songs – for example, my song “Mary” is based on the traditional courting song – a young couple go out a-courting, taking in nature as they do so. But I wanted to write a song based in our current understanding of nature, where ecosystems are collapsing, where we’re pulling the world down around us – what does it mean to go out courting in a landscape where the birds are no longer singing, where trees are replaced by telephone masts? I think folk should be challenging, and I like to play with these motifs and ideas. What we can’t do, as “folk songwriters”, is reproduce the idea of a population-led song construction; of songs that are created organically and over time by a group of people, usually in a working environment. For some people, quite understandably, new songs that we write can’t therefore be technically classed as true folk songs.”
Does it present you with a greater challenge reshaping trad stereotypes? Is there a limit to the liberties you can take with the material?
“Everyone of course has a different answer to this, but to me the story is really the kernel. Everything else can be played with. When I perform traditional songs, like ‘Outlandish Knight’ on the new record, I completely rewrote the melody, and edited and changed the verses, but the story is the same.”
Did you set out to make ‘Our Bright Night,’ as distinct from ‘She & I’ as you could?
“In some ways, yes. When I perform it is usually me and a piano, which I don’t think you would guess if you listened to ‘She & I’ without seeing me live. I wanted to go back to that, and put the piano front and centre of things. It was also entirely recorded at home, myself and Alex Alex produced it together, so the sound is different just purely from having total control over all the arrangements and instrumentations. To me, it sounds like a Kirsty Merryn show, which is what I wanted.”
The album’s arranged around a journey, personal or otherwise through the darker hours of the 24 from dusk to dawn. Where did the idea spring from?
“It’s a broad and sweeping theme. In a lot of ways, I didn’t want anything as structured and rigid as ‘She & I.’ I don’t want people to think I make purely conceptual records. That being said, a theme sort of emerged as I wrote the songs.”
You throw a lot into the opening tracks did you make them that powerful and complex intentionally? I suppose this implies that you’d sequenced everything in your head before recording.
“Exactly, I had a very strong vision for how I wanted the album to open – I really wanted this opening piano solo to draw you into the record, and to take you out again. The running order of the songs was edited and tweaked as we recorded, but those opening tracks and the closing were decided from the beginning. It’s sort of daft and geeky, but I wanted the opening and closing chords to be the same, it just has a really pleasing sort of symmetry to me!”
Were the people she’d worked with key in shaping certain tracks, Alex Alex in particular as producer?
“Alex Alex has become a real collaborator, we worked together very closely on this record. He is a beautiful singer, guitarist and he has a very different musical background to me – he grew up performing in a punk band (Marvel), he now performs solo music which is much more low-fi pop music, in the sort of guise of Bon Iver. He creates these big, gorgeous soundscapes in his songs. So, he brings a lot of different and contrasting skills to the table. I loved working with him on ‘Our Bright Night,’ he really understood my vision and helped to bring it to life. I worked on this album, with Phil Beer with an amazing fiddle solo on ‘Banks Of The Sweet Primroses.’ I’ll be working with Show Of Hands soon on a show we have created, which looks at the history of protest song in England. We performed a pilot for the show last summer at the Globe in London, and it was a brilliant launch. Hopefully we will be able to get it back on the road with it again soon.”
Did it take long to record or are you fairly economical with studio time? Time they say is money.
“As it was recorded entirely at home, we didn’t have to worry so much about studio time. What that did mean though, is it is very hard to stop yourself from building and building and adding to tracks, when you can just sit down at the recording desk whenever you want! I set myself a strict deadline of when I wanted the album to be released though, which helped limit drawing things out for too long.”
‘Our Bright Night,’ arrives with some heavy duty packaging, fascinating cover shot and a booklet which gives background information in detail for each track, motivation, inspiration and delivery.
“I think I remember the time when buying a new album was an event – taking apart the CD and reading through the material was a big part of getting new music, and I spent so long with albums that I really loved. So, I suppose I like giving that info that I enjoyed reading and I think because so many of my songs are stories, I want to give people a bit more info about what is happening.”
The cover shot depicts your bare back at either sunset or sunrise which is very effective and somewhat evocative but it must have been freezing! Is the visual impact of what you see as important as what you hear?
“It was very cold yes! But I just had a really clear picture of what I wanted the cover image to be, and I’m so happy with how it turned out. I think it really ties in with the theme and the mood that I wanted the music to convey.”
Chat falls to the future and what she’s hoping to achieve.
“I’ll be taking the album out on tour so I need to reschedule and arrange dates and I was involved in organising an on line folk festival at the beginning of April with lots of brilliant musicians, it was great fun so depending on what happens another of those might be on the cards, we’ll see.”
Expect Miss Merryn to be in your neck of the woods soon, great music from an artist with drive and determination guaranteed.