Box On to be a hit

Fame Academy beneficiary Shona Kipling is boxing clever after the launch of a new CD, as David Whetstone discovers.

Fame Academy beneficiary Shona Kipling is boxing clever after the launch of a new CD, as David Whetstone discovers.

In 2004 Shona Kipling was one of the first five winners of a Fame Academy bursary.

The £37,500 grants, aimed at helping promising musicians develop their careers over three years, were funded by viewers' telephone votes during the BBC TV talent show.

The piano accordion player, who was 18 when she received this considerable financial boost, was the only female recipient and the only folk musician.

How has she fared since? Well, at the end of last week she and musical partner Damien O'Kane, an Irish banjo player, launched their first album, Box On, at Northern Stage.

It was an emotional night. For Shona, a former Durham High School pupil who lives in Fenham, Newcastle, it was a chance to show people that their money had been well spent. But it was also an opportunity to remember her father, Dr David Kipling, who died of cancer last year.

Judging from the obituaries, Dr Kipling was a well-liked and charismatic Hartlepool GP for many years. Among his various roles were that of honorary medical officer for Hartlepool lifeboat and, over a 20-year period, deputy and then chief medical officer for the British Boxing Board of Control for the north.

Box On, says Shona, recalls the referee's instruction to fighters in the ring but it is also now a tribute to her late father, boxing on through his daughter's burgeoning reputation.

Shona recalls: "He went all over the country to attend at boxing matches and he would sometimes bring boxers home. I remember being in my pyjamas once when he brought Billy Hardy home to be stitched up."

It is clear Shona owes a great deal to her dad who, though not especially musical, offered all the encouragement a child needs. Mum Joan, a nurse from County Kerry, must also take much credit for her daughter's success.

"I broke my arm roller skating when I was 10 and my dad got me a little accordion," recalls Shona who is now 20. "He said it was for physiotherapy but I knew secretly it was a ploy to get me into traditional Irish music. But I really took to it. It's a very interesting instrument but nobody else seemed to play it.

"My dad fixed me up with lessons with an ex-miner from Horden who used to play with the Salvation Army. He taught me When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Shona then attended sessions at the Tyneside Irish Centre run by Comhaltas, the organisation which promotes Irish music and culture through competitions. Shona was UK champion twice and played in three all-Ireland finals.

But she says she found the competitiveness stressful and the insistence on traditional Irish music limiting. "I didn't want to be entirely traditional," she explains.

Branching out, in 2002 she made it to the final of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award competition.

Shona says her dad helped to get her gigs when she was younger, playing heavily on the "cuteness factor" of a girl with an accordion. As she grew older and cuteness or the promise of a solo piano accordion could no longer be guaranteed to open doors, her dad suggested she think about becoming a duo.

It was in Sweden, at Ethno camp, an international gathering of young folk musicians, that she first met Damien, a young Irishman who specialised in tenor banjo, guitar and vocals and who, coincidentally, was based in Newcastle as one of the first students on the new folk and traditional music degree course at the university.

Shona remembers: "We played together in a ceilidh and he was really encouraging so I plucked up the courage when I got home to ask him to be in the Young Folk Awards with me.

"He was too old to enter but he said he'd like to do some stuff in the future." Their first album together, Pure Chance, was put together on a wing, a prayer and a £1,000 grant from the George Loggie Foundation, established in memory of the late Northern Arts chairman.

The enthusiastic reviews spurred them on to release Box On, a blend of Irish traditional music and original material, largely composed by Damien. With the Fame Academy money they were able to produce the second album to a very high standard.

Both are now heavily involved in the North-East music scene.

Damien also plays with the band CrossCurrent and helps to run Focal Music, an agency he set up with fellow music graduates.

Shona, whose boyfriend is fiddle player Peter Tickell, brother of Kathryn and a fellow CrossCurrent member, helped to keep her father's name alive by investing some of her Fame Academy bursary in the David Kipling Music Summer School in her mother's home parish in County Kerry, offering specialist musical tuition to local children.

The Fame Academy money is running out but then same can't be said of Shona's ambition. "We are hoping to be at the top of every festival billing.

"With this album, hopefully people will see that we are a force to be reckoned with."

To keep track of Shona Kipling and Damien O'Kane, visit or For details about Box On, email


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer