Kathryn Williams is freaked out. The ‘little album’ she thought would be a tough sell can’t seem to stop picking up rave reviews. “It’s like someone’s pulling my leg,” laughs the Liverpudlian – but longtime Newcastle-based – singer songwriter as she takes me through the increasingly colourful calendar on her phone.
Radio sessions, extra tour dates, trips to Paris, songwriting in Sweden and a writing retreat she’s hosting in November are among the entries – alongside the school runs and all the other stuff which comes with being a mum of two primary school lads.
“Every day something else is added in another shade, it’s crazy and amazing,” she says, ordering herself a cuppa at the Settle Down Café in the city centre – one of three catering outfits run by her husband, Neil. “Before the single and the record were even out, it’d had more radio play than any of my albums pre-release. It’s had really good and big reviews – one from Paris said I was the most under-rated and under-valued artist from the last century.”
She opens her mouth and eyes wide. “I never expected this at all.”
‘Beautifully crafted’, ‘ravishing chilling champer pop’ and ‘hypnotic and unsettling’ are just some of the plaudits garnered by the album - alongside a galaxy of multi-star ratings - for Hypoxia, the Mercury Music Prize nominee’s 12th album, which was conceived at the Durham Book Festival in 2013.
Having taken on an open commission to write some songs as part of the festival’s celebration of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, Kathryn opted to find her inspiration in the characters from the writer’s only novel, The Bell Jar.
“It took a while to get there, though,” she remembers. “It was an open commission which sounded great. I could do whatever I wanted... but after two weeks of nothing, and reading and wondering how I could get in, I was terrified and thinking how I was going to tell them I couldn’t do it.”
Revisiting the book she’d last read as a teenager turned things around. “I re-read The Bell Jar and started writing a few ideas around the characters in the book. I realised that was how I’d get to Sylvia. Why she chose those characters, who they were, what she was trying to say... suddenly there was so much possibility.
“I had to narrow it right down to get that space.”
During this time, Kathryn was touring her 11th album, Crown Electric. “So I was writing the songs in Travelodges and on the side of the A1 in between gigs. Those were some dark days with only the sound of the motorway and a Little Chef to drown my sorrows in,” she laughs.
After performing five songs at the book festival, Kathryn had fulfilled her commission, but she knew she wasn’t finished.
“I couldn’t get them out of my head. I just kept writing and making notes,” she says. “Me and Sylvia are not alike in so many ways, but one thing we have in common is that people have a preconception of what her work is like and what my work is like – without reading it or hearing it.
“So people might say they’re not into what I do because ‘she’s folk’. I’m so not folk. And with Sylvia, they’re like ‘slit your wrists, it’s really depressing’. It’s so not that.
“The whole OK! magazine idea of her and Ted Hughes and all of that myth has under-rated what she should be known for her, which is her writing.
“I had initial concerns about people thinking I was jumping on the back of Sylvia’s reputation. But what I’ve done with the record is try to stick up for her and reintroduce her in a way which dispels the myths.”
Having decided there was an album in the project, Kathryn had to convince her record label, One Little Indian.
She laughs. “They said, ‘So you want us to try and sell an album based on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and get it on the radio?’ “All I could tell them was I had to make it, and it’d be good.”
She used the same line with fellow singer songwriter Ed Harcourt, and it worked. “Ed had three days off and said he’d ask his wife if he could use them to do this, instead of having them off. And that’s what we did.”
Thankfully this kind of turn around isn’t unusual for Kathryn.
“Most of my records are recorded in under four days because of time and money constraints. But it works really well,” she says. “I don’t understand artists who take an age to do it. I was talking to a band who are going to LA for a month to make their record. How can that make it better? If you’re a band, get a vibe going and press record,” she says simply. “It’s done well for The Stones, The Beatles...
“Really, how can you capture energy if you’re recording for a month? Mind you,” she laughs, “if I get rich, maybe I’ll give it a go. I’ll make a really dull album, but have a really good month.”
I wouldn’t bet on that gap opening up in her calendar.
Kathryn Williams plays Cluny 2 on July 7. Visit www.kathrynwilliams.co.uk or call 0191 230 4474 for tickets.