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Interview: Mercury Music Prize-nominated singer Kathryn Williams

Singer songwriter Kathryn Williams will play The Journal Culture Awards in April. We're just pleased she managed to fit us in

Singer Kathryn Williams who is set to perform at The Journal Culture Awards
Singer Kathryn Williams who is set to perform at The Journal Culture Awards

Kathryn Williams is chopping carrots in her Newcastle kitchen when she answers the phone.

“Sorry about this. I’m making soup and I’ve got one of those days where I have to spin about 100 plates. Tell me if it gets on your nerves.”

By the end of our conversation, I feel like I should suggest a recount on the plate front - I think the soon-to-be 40-year-old may have missed a few.

The prime reason for our chat came about when The Journal approached the Mercury Music Prize-nominated singer-songwriter to perform at The Journal Culture Awards in April... and she said yes.

“I was so chuffed. I’ve never really done much awards work apart from the Mercury,” she adds, speaking of the prestigious awards ceremony which saw her album, Little Black Numbers gain a nomination - together with the national profile and record sales which comes with it - in 2000.

“It just feels really nice to be a part of it - especially because it’s in the region. It’s great that what we have here and the people who work here are being celebrated, to show people that the North East is such a rich, cultural place.

“The other thing is that often creative people work a lot on their own, so it’s nice for there to be somewhere and something for them to come to which is going to celebrate what they’re doing. I’m really looking forward to performing.”

As our chat goes on, it quickly becomes clear that Kathryn’s Culture Awards performance on April 16 in Hall One at Sage Gateshead would represent but a saucer amid the dinner service she currently has spinning.

As her followers will know, the Liverpool-born, but longtime Newcastle resident released her 10th album in the autumn of last year.

Crown Electric, which took its name from the company which employed a young Elvis Presley as a truck driver, spawned the biggest tour she’d ever undertaken and it went swimmingly.

“Even though it was down to me to book all the hotels and travel!” she laughs. “I’m thinking I could do that for a living if everything else disappeared tomorrow.”

It seems unlikely.

The combined success of the tour and the album towards the end of last year - Radio Two playlisted the first single, Heart Shaped Stone and a special live and orchestral performance at the Union Chapel in London went down a storm - has prompted another raft of dates in 2014.

“We really had a good time on the tour,” says Kathryn, who has tackled and beaten her chronic stage fright since becoming a mother to Louis, seven, and Ted, three.

“It went really well and it was lovely to see so many people coming to see me for the first time after all this time.

“The single got some great support. It was on the Radio Two playlist for five weeks, which is unheard of unless you’re someone really big. So a big thanks has to go to my manager Sharon, and the song too I suppose. That was great.”

And there’s reliable talk of the next single, Monday Morning, getting playlisted as well.

“I wanted to book some dates, going to places that I didn’t get to, like Liverpool and York,” she says. “We’re also doing a show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on February 21 which will be great.

“I’m very happy with the way the album has been received. It’s got a lot of critical acclaim which has been nice. A bit more commercial acclaim would be good so I could earn some money, but apart from that, things are good,” she smiles.

And did I mention busy?

While touring in the autumn, Kathryn was simultaneously putting the finishing touches to a commission from New Writing North for the Durham Book Festival 2013.

Celebrating Sylvia Plath involved the writing and performing of songs, relating to characters from Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which had been published 50 years before.

“When Claire Malcolm at New Writing North contacted me, it was a really open commission,” says Kathryn, who came to Newcastle for university and never left.

“I realised very quickly that it was almost impossible to write songs about her poems without plagiarising them, so I re-read The Bell Jar and it all started to make sense.”

The performance, which saw Kathryn take to the Book Festival stage at Durham Town Hall with journalist Andrew Wilson, who wrote a biography of the writer’s early life, went as well, if not better, than she had hoped. “We were thrilled with it. People really seemed to like it,” she says.

So much so in fact that the project has continued further.

“New Writing North have commissioned me to make an album of the songs, which my label, One Little Indian, are going to put out. I wrote six songs for the festival performance, so I’ll be writing another couple to make it into an album. I think I’ll be playing one of those at the Culture Awards.”

Another project in line to come to fruition in the not too distant is Nobody Knew She Was There - taken from the name of a Ewan MacColl song - which will see songs being written for women whose achievements have been overlooked throughout history, and then performed by a still-to-be-selected ensemble of notable female singers.

“I’m working on that with Kate St John and Catherine Steinmann on this. Me and Kate are writing the songs and Catherine is like the grown up... working out how it’s going to happen,” laughs Kathryn. “It’s been brilliant because we’ve already had lots of interest from venues all over the world, including the Sydney Opera House who say they want to have it performed there. The hope is that we do the shows and also record an album of the songs to release.

“It feels like there are lots of different ways this project could go at the moment. But I like that stage of things. Full of possibilities.”

It seems like that’s the current stage of Kathryn’s career in general. “I know. It’s all really exciting,” she says.

“I was saying to my husband Neil [who runs the Settle Down Cafe and Sugar Down Bakery in Newcastle] last night, it’s so great to have been able to do this for 14 years - and through grabbing onto this career by my teeth like a terrier, I’m now starting to get all these other opportunities to do things I would never have thought of.

“Every new year, my resolution is to be braver. I think I’m getting there.”

  • For information on live dates and releases, visit www.kathrynwilliams.co.uk . To buy tickets for The Journal Culture Awards 2013, call Sage Gateshead on 0191 443 4661.

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