“History, ecology, music, myth … the local and the universal. This is beautiful and important work.” (David Almond, author of Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness)
Of all the richly multifarious projects encompassed by Kathryn Tickell’s nearly 30-year career to date – including collaborations with Sting, The Chieftains, Penguin Café Orchestra, Evelyn Glennie and Andy Sheppard –Northumbrian Voices is perhaps the one she was born to create. Interweaving songs, tunes and spoken-word narrative, performed by a six-strong cast spanning three generations, it leads listeners on a magical, moving, humbling and often hilarious journey through the culture and lore of her family’s native North Tyne Valley: the very heartland of her world-renowned prowess on the Northumbrian pipes, and as a fiddler and singer.
While the genesis of Northumbrian Voices– originally premièred in September 2011, and now captured live on CD – arguably dates back to Kathryn’s early childhood, as she grew up absorbing the district’s traditions first-hand from family and neighbours, it grew to fruition after she began transcribing dozens of conversations and musical exchanges with those same local denizens, lovingly if scratchily preserved on cassette as she’d learned her craft.
“As I wrote down the words,” Kathryn recalls, “sometimes rewinding the tape many, many times to decipher a particularly difficult or uproarious bit, I found myself laughing out loud, crying, and, most of all – remembering. Several of the people were no longer alive, and it was simultaneously wonderful and devastating to hear their voices again. Others are very much part of the modern world, and I knew I wanted to continue working with these words until I had something I could share.”
As her conception took shape, “somewhere between a concert and a play”, she teamed up with award-winning Newcastle-based director Annie Rigby, assembled her hand-picked line-up – past and present Kathryn Tickell Band members Julian Sutton (melodeon) and Kit Haigh (guitar/voice); rising folk stars Patsy Reid (fiddle) and Hannah Rickard (voice/fiddle), and Kathryn’s septuagenarian Dad Mike Tickell (voice) – and crafted the words into a multi-dimensional dialogue with the music woven through them.
In the words of one Scottish reviewer, following a sellout performance at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, Northumbrian Voices encapsulates the experience and self-expression of “people who live on the land, and who earn their living from it. People who know their surroundings as they know the back of their hand … And people who, within living memory, would walk miles to play for five bob at a Saturday night dance.” Just as the featured music combines traditional, contemporary and original material, these voices both enshrine the past and speak to the future, eloquently transcending their particular locale to evoke the timeless cycles, necessities, hardships and consolations that still shape human existence everywhere.
It’s the latest creative homecoming in Tickell’s increasingly illustrious and globe-trotting career, which has seen her performing from New York to Kampala, traversing genres from jazz and world music to large-scale orchestral works, and in 2009 receiving the Queen’s Medal for Music. Live and studio projects exploring and cultivating her bountiful native heritage have been a constant throughout, however, and in Northumbrian Voices, that soil remains as fertile as ever.