Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman – Almost A Sunset: Q&A

Following on from our review of Almost A Sunset by Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman, we fire over a few questions for the duo. Kathryn & Sean fire back….

lakeman roberts

ATB: My first thought after the very first play-through was – Is there more piano on this album than usual?

Kathryn: Yes I suppose there is. It’s not particularly by design though. Many of the initial song ideas were written on piano and the parts have stayed the course of the recording process.

ATB: While it’s nice to hear some music that doesn’t harp on about wars, disasters and pandemics, the first track Eavesdropper, gets a bit of politics in…is it Tomorrow Will Follow Today pt 2!? Nothing overtly contentious but a gentle nudge!​

K: Eavesdropper is inspired partly by a snippet of an old traditional song called ‘What Will Become Of England’ (I think it was sung by Harry Cox), and its socially political lyrics still felt quite relevant to today. It felt like a good opportunity for the song to be sung from the perspective of the ‘Eavesdroppers’, a 16th Century nickname given to gargoyles who supposedly listened in to conversations and plottings below outside buildings of power.

Sean: In typical K+S style you can take this song on a far deeper political level if you choose to engage past its jaunty little tune. We have never been too preachy or ‘Hearts on sleeves’ but our outlook on the world can definitely be identified in our music if you’re looking.

ATB: Your daughters are part of the process this time on singing/photo duties. Are they showing some indication of their own future paths at all?

S: Our twin daughters both have a multitude of talents and are especially enjoying their musical journeys at the moment. It’s lovely for Kathryn and I to watch from the sidelines as some of the seeds that we planted much earlier in their lives are really starting to flourish now. They write songs, paint, love to travel and we have some great conversations with them about all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

ATB: And Seth appears briefly on Red Rose…but the wider family are generally conspicuous by their absence on the various work by Seth, Sam/Cara, yourselves. Is there a deliberate attempt or unwritten arrangement to keep your own identity and avoid the obvious…

K: There is no conscious effort to avoid playing on each other’s albums. In fact, if you look through our back catalogues everyone crops up from time to time all over the place. Geoffrey’s (Sean’s father) album was the last example of everyone consciously clubbing together musically on a record.

S: I remember that we happened to be working on Red Rose White Lily Part II when Seth called in on the off chance for a cuppa. He had a fiddle in his car and we went down to our studio and he laid down his part in the space of 2 Hob Nobs. Done !

Generally we only call in family assets when they are the right tool for a job that we can’t achieve ourselves. That goes for all of us I think.

ATB: Throwing out a few thoughts on some of the songs, can we start with Night Visiting Song (a trad. one) – I’ve heard Jim Moray do a song called Night Visitor (similar ideas, true love at the window thing going on) which I think was used on some TV show…is your version related/from the same source?

K: There are many ‘Night-Visiting ‘ songs out there, often stemming from different sources. My version comes straight from the old EFDS songbook ‘ The Wanton Seed ‘( published in 1968) and is a pretty straight reading of a song that was collected in Titchfield , Hants. It is reckoned to be related to a Child Ballad called The Grey Cock. It’s the old notion of a lover returning , whether they are parted by distance or death is a matter of interpretation. I’ve known the song for decades but it just felt like the right time to record it!

ATB: Call My Name – is that the equivalent of A Song To Live By – similar sentiment type of thing??  And what’s your connection with Jake Rowlinson? (I googled him and found out a bit about him…)

K: I wrote the lyrics sitting on the village green after listening to the woes of one of our daughters, so yes, similar to A Song To Live By in that respect. It also became an ode to a friend who was struggling at the time. Music is powerful and sometimes we can say via a lyric what is much harder to say in day-to-day conversation.

S: Jake sings lead vocals with a ‘Dream Folk’ band from Devon called Windjammer. They asked me to produce their debut album which I loved doing and I got to really explore Jake’s excellent singing style. They are a band well worth checking out. Jake is a real under the radar talent with a very versatile voice and a real passion for traditional songs. Kathryn loved singing with him as his vocals are so warm and expressive.

ATB: Pew Tor – is that a field recording at the start and end with the birds? And is that the sort of song (like maybe Night Visiting Song) where, when you record it, you try to do in one take…ie, sing and play at the same time?

K: Yes, that one was recorded in one go. We did it a few times but I remember that this one evening we just felt the right emotional connection and it flowed right out. It’s such an intimate and personal song that it had to feel right to us both.

S: The birds at the start were recorded whilst I was working with another band in a very remote rural studio in Devon. It was just after Russia had invaded Ukraine and I was awake at dawn feeling pretty glum. The dawn chorus was incredible and lifted my spirits so I recorded it without thinking. The studio was miles from any rivers or main roads so I thought that I would just capture it through some top-notch mics. I don’t think I would have gotten such good results on the top of Dartmoor what with its famous weather and having to carry equipment all the way up. It worked quite well I thought.

ATB: It also seems like quite a spiritual air and I wondered what makes that particular location so special?

K: Pew Tor is my favourite place on Dartmoor, it’s where I go when I need to feel close to loved ones who are no longer with us. I firmly subscribe to the ‘Physics” constant that “energy cannot be created or destroyed” and therefore although people may not be with us in body, the energy that made them is still out there somewhere, powering the world. Pew Tor feels like a conduit for that energy, in every breath of air, every root, branch and stone and I love being there.………

ATB: Fear Not The Mountain has an amazing vocal presence (and some of the overlaid voices) that sounds like it’s been recorded in a vast space or is that all a part of the digital trickery from Round The Bend Studio?

S: One evening Kathryn had one of her famous moments where she gets me to set her up a microphone and leave her be with a bottle of red wine to try an ‘idea’. The results are always unexpected and usually fantastic – hear ‘Huldra’ from our 2012 album ‘Hidden People’.

K: At the time the war in Ukraine was heavily in the news and I had heard some heartbreaking choral music coming out of Kiev. I tried to channel this sound alongside some Appalachian shape note style singing which was where the song was coming from and ended up with the big sounding ethno choir on the record.

S: I re-broadcast Kathryn’s choir into a big old Norman church where I was recording a track for another band. It sounded great!

ATB: Bound To Stone is intensely touching – my first thought on reading the title was that it would be about statues or immortalised in stone, but being way off and reading deeper, it’s one of three interesting characters (along with Mary Shelley and Blondin) who’ve provided inspiration. Can you tell us a bit about ‘why Blondin, Shelley and Sarah Winchester?’

K: I read A LOT and when I find a character that interests me I tend to do a deep dive into their story. I can’t always find a way in at first and sometimes it can take years before I settle on the right angle for telling the story . I loved Blondin for his sheer audacity and bravery, Shelley for her wonderful writing skills and Sarah Winchester’s story fascinated me – the idea of never quite being able to move past her husband’s dangerous invention and wanting to atone in some way.

ATB: Probably a daft question but what’s behind Red Rose And White Lily being in two parts? Different styles of arrangement was my untutored guess…

K – During lockdown we watched an awful lot of Netflix and it occurred to me that we are increasingly shown stories in episodes (less feature-length films , more 30 minute segments ). We had the idea of tackling one of the old Robin Hood ballads that rarely get sung anymore because they are so long ( it’s hard to hold an audiences attention for 60/70 verse ballads ) so we tried a ‘pilot episode’ on tour last year, which was the first half of the song only. It seemed to go down well so we proceeded to write a tune for Chapter 2. If you listen closely you will hear themes and musical motifs from Part 1 echoed and revisited in Part 2.

ATB: Playing with a ‘band’ – I was wondering who was in the band on The Fall Of The Lion Queen, but realise (I think) that it’s Sean multitasking. However, the thought occurred of what a Roberts/Lakeman band would be/sound like and wondered if you’d ever given thought to expanding the line up, even if just for a studio project.

S: Ah!!! Remember that we played in a band for over 10 years with Equation. We know full well how great that can feel and also the problems it can present. Basically it seems to us that if you want to pay the gas bill as a professional folk musician in 2023 then DON’T play in a band. Hahaha! Seriously though it would be great fun to do.

ATB: …and if so, can you think of any songs of yours in particular that might lend themselves to a bigger/band arrangement? (one of my face tracks and choices would be the Banishing Book – an extended workout!, or The Knight’s Ghost could be a banger!… or the new version of Oxford NY….)

K: I’d quite like to try The White Hind from Hidden People, in a laid back 70’s folk-rock style

ATB: It also sounds like it must be quite a breathless one to sing – a set with a few of those of those would be a tester!

K: Ha, yes it takes a lot of careful breathing to get it all in but it is fun to sing. I have to follow it with a gentle ballad to recover!

ATB: And finally, where has the title of the album come from? Possibly the ‘title’ of one of Lily’s photos like the cover shot? A bit of chicken/egg which came first!

S – Lily’s photography was a major influence. That came first. We love the light just before a sunset on Dartmoor. It’s so golden. She was snapping us whilst out walking the dog one evening during lockdown. Also, not to sound to fatalistic but it’s our first album post-Covid and it did feel for a while there that we may have had to hang up our gigging boots for good. That was a strange headspace to be in but I think most musicians went there.

ATB: Final, final question…You’ve just been awarded a lucrative record contract (….yeah, I know…) for Saved For A Rainy Day pt 2. You have six covers to choose and record, plus one cover where you can duet/play with one more musician of your choice (record company will pay all their fees, expense no object…).  What would the songs be?

K&S: Off the top of our heads…

Taylor Swift – Last Great American Dynasty

ATB: Check out the great version by one of our heroes, Steven Wilson.

Tom Waits – Take It With Me

Crash Test Dummies – Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm

Paul McCartney – Pipes Of Peace (we actually did this one at one time)

Gabe Dixon – All will be well

Richard Thompson – Persuasion we’d like to play this with David Lindley on slide guitar.

And don’t forget to look out for K&S coming soon to a town near you….

Kathryn & Sean online: Website. /Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Youtube

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