Kathryn first took up the Northumbrian smallpipes at the age of nine, inspired by her family and by the music of an older generation of traditional musicians such as Willie Taylor, Will Atkinson, Joe Hutton, Richard Moscrop, Billy Pigg and Tom Hunter.
Landscape, weather and the stories of the people that lived and worked in rural Northumberland were part of her childhood. Kathryn’s personal evocation of this is heard through the traditional tunes and songs that she brings to audiences all over the world. She has released 16 of her own albums to date and has also recorded and performed with Sting, Jacob Collier, The Chieftains, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Evelyn Glennie, Andy Sheppard and many others.
Her first album, “On Kielder Side”, was released at the age of sixteen, in 1984. In the same year she was named the official piper for the Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Kathryn turned professional in 1986, immediately entering a busy touring schedule throughout Britain and abroad, as well as recording her second album, “Borderlands”, which was the first recording to include her own compositions.
In 1987 a TV documentary, “The Long Tradition” (Channel 4), chronicled her musical development and background. This was broadcast in December 1987 and released on video in 1989.
Kathryn continued touring throughout the world both solo and with The Kathryn Tickell Band, which she formed in 1990. As of 2009, the band consisted of Peter Tickell (fiddle), Julian Sutton (melodeon), and Joss Clapp (guitar, acoustic bass guitar). She composed music for two productions by Newcastle’s Live Theatre, presented a series of programmes for BBC Radio 2 and TV programmes on music composition for Channel 4 Schools. Kathryn also contributed to four Sting albums, as well as joining him to play live at Newcastle City Hall, Carnegie Hall and also on TV.
1996: Kathryn founded The Young Young Musicians Fund at the Community Foundation, which has raised over £100,000 for young people in the North East. The fund is intended to develop the musical skills of children and young people in Tyne & Wear, Northumberland and Durham under the age of 18 who are struggling to pay for tuition fees or want help to purchase an instrument. The fund has built an endowment which will make grants to young musicians in the North East in perpetuity.
She recorded with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra when it was led by Simon Jeffes. She met Jeffes while she was in her teens, and he wrote the song “Organum” for her. After Jeffes’s death, she played with the Orchestra again over a decade later when it was run by his son, Arthur.
In 1999 Kathryn was awarded a bursary from the Britten-Pears Foundation to study composition with Judith Weir at Dartington International Summer School. The following year “Lordenshaws”, Kathryn’s piece for pipes and small ensemble, was premiered, toured and broadcast. The other major project of the year was “Ensemble Mystical” — an exciting new group set up by Kathryn and including musicians from classical, jazz and folk backgrounds. The album “Kathryn Tickell and Ensemble Mystical” was released in the autumn and was followed by a sell out tour.
2001 saw Kathryn touring Uganda, Canada, Italy, France and the UK. She performed as part of The Last Night of The Proms celebrations, the first time the event had included traditional folk music. That year she also wrote a piece with Jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard, which premiered at the opening of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
In 2002 Tickell released her tenth album “Back To The Hills” and founded Folkestra, a project to develop young talented musicians aged between 14 and 19.
September 2004 saw the release of “Air Dancing” by the Kathryn Tickell Band, followed by another sell-out tour, and Kathryn was awarded “Musician of the Year” at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards.
In March 2006 the TV documentary “Kathryn Tickell’s Northumbria” was broadcast on Channel 5, attracting an audience of 750,000. October 2006 saw the world premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Kettletoft Inn”. This work was written for and dedicated to Kathryn “in admiration and respect for her work in making her home county come alive with a reawakened awareness of its own musical heritage, and of inexhaustible developments and transformations of its traditions.” Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
2006 also saw the release of two more albums: “the sky didn’t fall” — with Scottish harper/singer Corrina Hewat, and “Strange but True”, an album featuring collaborations with many other artists throughout Kathryn’s career.
2008: the fruition of spnm’s ‘Folk From Here’ project, led by Kathryn and Kuljit Bhamra, featured work from new composers. The BBC Proms commissioned Kathryn to compose a new work for London Sinfonietta, Muzsikas (Hungary) and Folkestra, premiered in July at The Proms.
2009: Kathryn became Artistic Director of Folkworks, the folk development agency of the north east, a role she fulfilled until 2013. The Nash Ensemble invited her to perform with them to celebrate the 75th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Her continued work with Sting led to the release of “If On A Winter’s Night”, followed by performances in Europe and New York. Also in 2009 she was presented with The Queen’s Medal for Music, awarded to those deemed to have made an outstanding contribution to British music.
2010: Kathryn was granted two commissions, one for Alex Wilson’s “Compass Suite”, the first Summer Solstice festival at Canary Wharf in June, and also to compose for pipes and piano, for Joanna MacGregor. This led to a further commission in 2011: to compose new work and curate a programme for Bath International Festival with Joanna. Later that year, Kathryn went on to curate, present and perform in a BBC Proms Percy Grainger night, to great critical acclaim.
2010: Kathryn developed her music-theatre show “Northumbrian Voices”, with an award from Arts Council England. Following UK touring she went on to release the double album “Northumbrian Voices” in 2012 which won “Best Traditional Album” in the Spiral Earth Awards, voted for by the public. Richard Morrison, writing for The Times: “I can’t remember feeling so exhilarated by such a match of music and landscape.” Writer David Almond: “This is beautiful and important work.”
2011: Kathryn was invited to curate a “Percy Grainger Night” at the BBC Proms. She performed with Royal Northern Sinfonia, the BBC Singers and her own band.
New compositions by Kathryn in 2012 included “Northumbrian Fantasia” for the National Youth Orchestra. She also produced “Jig Hop”, composing for and performing with Folkestra and other artists for BT River of Music, part of the Cultural Olympiad.
2013: Kathryn was awarded “Musician of the Year” in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Kathryn initiated and directed “The Festival of the North East”, a celebration of arts across the region. Included in the programme was “One Night in Gateshead” where Kathryn’s new pieces for Royal Northern Sinfonia were premiered; this night also saw the premiere performance by “The Side”, Kathryn’s folk-classical quartet. This year she also worked with Live Theatre as Musical Director for a new play “Tyne”, performed in 2013 and 2014. Ongoing collaboration with Sting resulted in her performing in the music-theatre show “The Last Ship” at The Public Theatre, New York in autumn 2013.
Kathryn’s folk-classical ensemble “The Side” enjoyed several UK and European tours. Comprising of Kathryn, Louisa Tuck (cello), Ruth Wall (harp) and Amy Thatcher (accordion, clog dancing) The Side first toured the UK in autumn 2013. An award from the PRS for Music Foundation enabled Kathryn to write and commission new work. The quartet’s debut album was released in September 2014 and they went on to play concert hall dates at the Berliner Philharmoniker and Luxembourg Philharmonie and extensive UK touring until 2017.
2015: Kathryn was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Honours list, for services to folk music. Kathryn was also made Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Northumberland.
2016: Kathryn set up Magnetic North East, a community interest company born out of a love for the region: its music, arts, culture, heritage, places and people; its long history of creativity; its strong sense of identity coupled with its adaptability and receptiveness to change. Among MNE’s work was the mentoring project that produced the north-east’s young folk ensemble “Superfolkus”.
2017: With writer David Almond and accordionist Amy Thatcher, Kathryn devised a new touring show of music and spoken word: “Tales & Tunes’, which toured extensively throughout the UK.
2018: Kathryn formed a new band “The Darkening”, named after the old Northumbrian word for twilight. The band’s first incarnation comprised Kathryn, Amy Thatcher (accordion, synth, clogs, vocals), Kieran Szifris (octave mandolin), Joe Truswell (drums, percussion, programming), Cormac Byrne (bodhran, percussion), and Kate Young (vocals, fiddle, charango). Their debut performance was at Norfolk & Norwich Festival, then live-streamed at the BBC’s Great Northern Soundtrack. Reviews for the debut album “Hollowbone” included four star reviews in The Observer and the Financial Times. The Darkening has since morphed into a core group of four north-east England-based members: Kathryn, Amy Thatcher (accordion, synth, clogs, vocals), Kieran Szifris (octave mandolin), Joe Truswell (drums, percussion, programming), plus Stef Conner from Cambridge (vocals, lyres, sistrum) and Josie Duncan from the Isle of Lewis (vocals, clarsach).
2023: Recognising the need for a collection of tunes by female folk composers, Kathryn curated ‘Folk Tunes From The Women’, a compendium of tunes by 100 contemporary female composers from Britain and Ireland, published by Faber Music.
2023 sees the release of The Darkening’s second album “Cloud Horizons”, with festivals and national touring.
Kathryn is a regular presenter for BBC Radio 3’s “Music Planet”, broadcasting live and recorded sessions from the biggest international names in roots-based music.
Awards and Honours
- Official Piper for the Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1984
- Musician of the Year, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, 2004, 2013
- The Queen’s Medal for Music, 2009
- Best Traditional Album, Spiral Earth Awards, Northumbrian Voices
- Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) Civil Division, 2015
- Honorary Degree, Open University, 2015
- Deputy Lieutenant (DL) for the County of Northumberland, 2015
- Honorary Degree (M.Mus), Durham University, 2017
- Honorary Degree (D.Mus), Newcastle University, 2019
“To say that Kathryn plays pipes is like saying that Shakespeare was a bit of a writer… one of the true stars of our music.” Living Tradition
“…the best living advertisement for English folk music.” The Daily Telegraph