Those lucky enough to have been in the audience at last year’s gala concert for the Festival of the North East will have seen the very first performance of Kathryn Tickell & The Side.
It was one of those exhilarating nights in Sage Gateshead’s Hall One and this was something new – a line-up melding folk and classical with a Royal Northern Sinfonia cellist alongside a clog dancing accordion player.
Now comes the first album, also called Kathryn Tickell & The Side, and a tour which begins in Bristol and ends with gigs at Arc, Stockton, on November 4 and Sage Gateshead (Hall Two this time) on November 5.
The album, with 11 original pieces by Kathryn, one by Amy Thatcher (the accordion player), two classical pieces and two traditional folk tunes, is a thing of beauty, full of intricate melodies and with an infusion of gravitas from Louisa Tuck’s cello.
Its haunting, sometimes wistful, tone whisked me briefly from my chaotic kitchen to a better place, for which I was grateful.
But looking back at that performance last summer, Kathryn says: “We were petrified.”
That’s hard to believe coming from our esteemed first lady of the Northumbrian pipes whose accomplishments reach beyond those of a mere brilliant musician.
But it’s a reflection of the unconventional nature of the line-up.
Kathryn says she had been involved for a long time in the Northumbrian Voices project (an evening of music, stories and songs) but didn’t see it going on endlessly.
“Also, the project wasn’t suitable for festivals because it was so much based on language. I knew I needed a band that was more about the music but I’d been putting it off.
“It always feels funny actively looking for musicians. I resort to fate sometimes, hoping the right people will become apparent.”
Louise is a case in point. As an orchestral player, you would imagine her schedule to be tight. Also, it would seem clear to most that classical music is her calling.
Kathryn says: “Obviously I’d seen Louisa with the orchestra and invariably she’s the one you end up looking at.”
She recalls a bass player friend remarking: “Have you seen the lass on the cello? She’s playing that thing like Jimi Hendrix.”
Says Kathryn: “We were laughing but it was at that point I thought: I wonder if that could work, putting her in a line-up with us?”
Louisa proved not averse to “hanging out with the folkies”, as Kathryn puts it. A few exploratory jamming sesssions led all to believe something could come of this.
Recalls Kathryn: “We loved the sound we were making but it needed something else. The pipes have the drone going on and the accordion and cello can both do long, sustained notes, but something was missing – a more percussive or tinkling sound. I suddenly thought: harp!”
Shortly after thinking ‘harp!’ Kathryn decided not to approach any of the northern folk harpists she and Amy knew.
“We already had Louisa, who works full-time with the orchestra, so we knew this was not going to be an easy band. So I started thinking of who would be the perfect person rather than who would be the easiest.
“Also, Amy was saying, ‘If we have a harp player from the folk world, we’ll be a folk band with a cellist which might be a little strange’.
“So we decided to go for somebody who wasn’t folk and to really make the core idea of the band the fact that we are from different traditions.
“Musically, I love that idea but as soon as I try to describe it I come up with ‘crossover’ and ‘fusion’ and it sounds like the kind of band I wouldn’t want to go and see.”
At which point I should say that this is very much the kind of band you should go and see. It is folk with a touch of the epic.
But where to find the harpist? Kathryn recalled meeting Ruth Wall in Durham when the National Youth Orchestra was in residence. Kathryn had written a piece for them and Ruth was tutoring the young harp players.
“I remembered that just before the rehearsal she had made a few suggestions about my piece, which is a difficult thing to do.
“The suggestions were valid and I came away thinking: I like her. She’s interested in the music and is proactive.
“I’d never even heard her play but I thought if she was good enough for the National Youth Orchestra, she must be good.”
Kathryn found Ruth had a wonderful musical pedigree, having toured widely (notably with Goldfrapp), made recordings and worked in various genres.
She was based in Cornwall but agreed to travel to Gateshead for a meeting and some rehearsals.
And so a band – taking the name of another that Kathryn toured with when she was 17 – was born.
Kathryn says much use has been made of iPhones in the composing and rehearsal process. Little recordings and photos of scribbled sheet music have flown back and forth leading up to both album and tour and all are getting used to each other’s way of working.
Kathryn and Amy (respectively teacher and ex-student on Newcastle University’s traditional music degree course) soon disabused Louisa of the notion that folk musicians “just make it up”.
If there are creases to be ironed out, they aren’t apparent on the album (out now on Resilient Records).
The tour, offering the first live performances of pieces such as Dark Skies Waltz, Sideslip and Stonehaugh, promises nights of beautiful music. Check www.kathryntickell.com for ticket details.