THE region’s music scene: Maximo Park, Frankie and the Heartstrings, Field Music, The Futureheads, Hyde & Beast, and so on has never been in such good shape.
But it was one girl band from Sunderland who really kicked it off.
Kenickie: aka Lauren Laverne (nee Gofton), Marie du Santiago (Marie Nixon) Emmy Kate Montrose (Emma Jackson) and Pete X (Pete Gofton) were the first band to kick off in a national way in the mid 1990s.
From John Peel’s show to a record contract it was a bit of a whirlwind for the teenagers from Wearside who found themselves gracing music magazine covers before they were legal to drink.
Marie Nixon, now 32, recalls: “It happened in the first place because we were a group of friends at school.
“We were going to different sixth form colleges so we started a band to maintain our really close friendships.
“Music was always something we were really passionate about.
“Really it was a complete snowballing accident.”
Lauren Laverne is the only one whose kept her Kenickie monicker and is the most visible member, a DJ on BBC 6 music and presenter of the BBC 2 Culture show – but the others in the band are far from low achievers.
Marie is now head of communications for the Northern region of the Arts Council. Emma has a PhD in sociology from Goldsmith’s University and Pete was a founding member of Frankie and the Heartstrings, currently making waves on the music scene, although he has since left the group.
The Marie sitting before me now isn’t a million miles away from the Marie I interviewed on Manchester University’s student newspaper when we were both 19 (we are the same school year, although I’m from Durham).
When I interviewed her then she said she wasn’t bothered if the band didn’t work out, “because I can always do something else – I might end up as a weather girl on GMTV.”
She laughs when I remind her of that now.
Marie suggests: “I probably had my head turned by Lorraine Kelly. I still love Lorraine.”
In fact when Kenickie split in the late 90s Marie instead went behind the scenes in the music industry.
There was lots of speculation about fallouts between Marie and Lauren, but Marie insists they were all exaggerated.
She recalls: “We never really properly fell out. And we chat now when we bump into each other at things.
“I think there’s a thing where whenever anything like that comes to an end, particularly if it’s women or young girls where people would’ve loved there to be a catfight.
“That was never the case, there was so much solidarity in that little unit.”
Marie went to work for Hall or Nothing, a prominent music management company.
She says: “I knew some people who worked there, mainly the manager of the Manic Street Preachers.
“I used to know them well and I thought ‘I’ll do that’ and I went into music industry management.
“It was brilliant, but a strange mix of real excitement and incredible boredom at the same time.
“I was working with artists I really admired, Manic Street Preachers, Groove Armada, Sophie Ellis Bextor, which was the only way I could put my heart and soul into it.
“Working with the Manics was lovely, they’re such sweet fellas but also fiercely clever which makes for very interesting company. And challenging at times as well because clearly they know their own minds.
“So it was brilliant, but then obviously it’s the cycle of album, single, tour and I got bored of it.”
It was after nine years, in 2005, Marie saw the Arts Council North East communications officer job come up – and decided to apply.
She remembers: “I came back because I was really keen to come back. I’ve always had a really tight association with the place and all my family are still here and I was never one of those folks who moved away saying I’ll never darken their doors again”.
Marie’s family is from Castletown on the north side of the river Wear.
She went to St Anthony’s Roman Catholic School with the other girls from Kenickie.
Her dad George is a former welder in the Pallion Shipyard, who retrained as a health and safety consultant. Mum Margaret is retired with ill health.
She has two sisters Sarah, 31, who is on maternity leave as a manager for The Ivy House pub in Sunderland with daughter Holly, and Elizabeth, 21, who has just graduated from Newcastle University with an English degree.
Marie adds: “Sunderland is a brilliant place in loads of ways and there’s nowhere else people make me laugh more.”
But it was the opportunities which she could see going on in the region which drew her back professionally.
Marie recalls: “As I was coming back the Angel of the North was coming up, the Baltic was happening and the Sage.
“I’m a creative person and you could really visibly see the place change.
“I thought this is something I really want to be a part of.”
Marie has been with the Arts Council ever since, moving up from communications officer to head of communications for the North East, North West and Yorkshire
She comments: “I went straight to the Arts Council and this is my third job there.
“I think it’s brilliant and I totally believe in what we do.”
Marie says her work has become particularly challenging following the government cuts last year.
She says: “Challenging is the word. The landscape for how arts are funded has changed dramatically as has how public services are funded in general.
“In our spending rounds we took knocking on 30% cuts which is very significant.”
Marie also adds she’s been impressed by how different arts organisations in the region have reacted to the cuts.
She adds: “The arts organisations campaigned so valiantly and made their case about how valuable arts are to this region particularly which has been excellent.
“There’s no going back for the arts. We’ve come so far that you can’t put that back in the box, and people who run different organisations, artists, are being so clever and entrepreneurial looking at how they can work within these reduced budgets.
“I think the way Northern Stage are working with new companies as well as doing their own thing is a really clear example of how an organisation who are funded by the Arts Council also works with new companies and new theatre makers – really supporting arts across the region.”
Marie has also within the past few years returned to music. She is now a fully paid-up member of folk group The Cornshed Sisters.
She comments: “The Cornshed Sisters are four women: Liz, Cath Jenny and me.
“I joined them when I saw them and I was desperately jealous.
“I hadn’t really been tempted before then to have another go and put my music hat back but I thought ‘I need to be a part of this’.
“I already knew Jenny because she’s married to my friend Peter Brewis [from Field Music] and Liz and Cath are her mates.
“Basically I went to lots of gigs and became their number one fan and inveigled my way into that group.”
And Marie is thoroughly enjoying a return to performing.
She laughs: “It’s one of my highest achievements. I enjoy it so much, and there’s nothing more cheering than a good loud long lovely sing with some great lasses who are good friends.
“It’s very social as well so we do quite a lot of gigs mainly in the North East, the Summer Tyne festival the other day and we’re doing the End of the Road Festival in September in Dorset. It’s amazing – it’s got Mogwai, Joanna Newsome and Beirut, everyone you’d want to see in a line-up.”
The Cornshed Sisters are in the process of finishing recording an album at Peter Brewis’s recording studio in Sunderland which they are hoping to release early next year.
It’s safe to say the Sunderland music scene is still a compact one. Everyone really does know each other.
Marie comments: “I think there’s always been a really interesting vibrant dedicated music scene in Sunderland.
“It’s quite self-contained and in loads of ways that’s useful because it means people have a chance to get good before anyone else sees them.
“It’s not a big place, Sunderland. Frankie and the Heartstrings are my good mates, they’re doing really well which is fantastic.”
Marie also used to go out with a Futurehead, David Craig. They remain firm friends. “We share a dog. We’re firm friends, he’s a lovely fella,” she adds.
Marie’s passion for the North and its arts scene is most definitely going to keep her up here.
She says: “I feel like I’m home. I love it here, Sunderland’s my home and my base and it’s a gateway to the entire North East.
“The longer I’m here the more convinced I am of what a brilliant place it is.
“Obviously my job now takes me all over. The might of the arts in the North is amazing. Manchester Festival, Yorkshire Sculpture Park They’re the equal of anything I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
“My job is a big part of me, but people do a lot of things. Creative folk can’t stop themselves really. Being a musician and working in the arts goes hand in hand with me.
“My ambitions now are more of the same. I absolutely want to remain in the North East, to work in arts and culture and see people really enjoy it. I hope I always have an influence in the cultural texture of the North East.”
For more information on The Cornshed Sisters, visit www.myspace.com/thecornshedsisters