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Alison O'Donnell and Sharron Kraus - Interview

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published: 29 / 10 / 2020

Alison O'Donnell and Sharron Kraus - Interview


In a double interview acclaimed folk artists Alison O'Donnell and Sharron Kraus talk about poets, witches and muses and interview each other about their influences and ways of making music.

We've known each other for a number of years, shared bills at gigs and festivals and liked the idea of interviewing each other. We started out with a conventional interview format but quickly rejected that in favour of a looser structure in which each of us came up with five questions which were then pooled together and answered by each of us. What follows is those ten questions addressed to Alison and then the same questions addressed to Sharron. In responding to the questions we found ourselves losing track of who originated each question (perhaps you might want to guess which of us generated which questions?!) Alison O'Donnell Alison O'Donnell's music career started in the 70s, as a member of cult psych-folk band Mellow Candle and then traditional folk band Flibbertigibbet. After an absence of ten years, she returned to music in the late 90s, as a solo folk artist and collaborator with The Owl Service, Firefay and Head South By Weaving. She is also a long-time student of the folk-rooted experimental and improvisational collective United Bible Studies, and a singer of traditional songs. Is your work inherently 'feminine' or female-centred? Is it feminist? Alison O'Donnell: Frequently I write about social issues but the need to behave as a strong female is always at the heart of my writing. It stems from my mother’s influence. She was a steadfast woman who worked for forty years for unequal pay as well as bringing up three children mostly on her own. As a result, it never occurred to me to be anything other than my own person. I usually engage with themes which resonate personally, although I occasionally write about topics of which I know only a little but which hold interest for me; historical events for instance. However, I undertake a lot of meticulous research. I often search for a female-centred story. In the past I have written songs about a feisty queen and Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, the jailing of whom I consider to be a gross injustice. In many countries the treatment of woman as second-class citizens makes my blood boil. Do aspects of folk horror or fantasy inform and influence you? If so, give some examples from your back catalogue or current projects. AO'D: Folk horror creeps into my work from time to time. It is never far from the edge of reason. I was seventeen when I made the album ‘Swaddling Songs’ with Mellow Candle. Band members were investigating matters of magic, fantasy and the occult. In the years around that time I was reading the ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, watching ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and a slew of Hammer horror films. In social meetings amongst friends Aleister Crowley’s mysterious exploits were garnering attention and creating much discussion. Mellow Candle songs such as ‘Dan The Wing’ and ‘The Poet and The Witch’ reflect the impact of a lifestyle infused with anything ‘wyrd’. I often wear masks when performing with my various collectives (United Bible Studies/Head South By Weaving/Firefay). They are capable of creating a frisson between me and the audience. I recently recorded an album with the central theme on the mythology of Irish and Scottish birds of with insect and bird lover, Gayle Brogan, ‘A Colloquy of Birds’, and a second album with Graeme Lockett of Head South By Weaving entitled Five Forests. In the first half of 2020 a raft of albums and EPs were released by United Bible Studies. Currently I am working on a project of songs in the traditional idiom with Anthony Bools, a cousin, who is a musician and songwriter based in Dublin. How important is poetry in your lyric writing and which poets or styles of poetry may have left an impression? AO'D: Lyrics are of paramount importance to me and I always aim to have them included in the artwork for vinyl and CD. Back in the day there was nothing better than listening to a vinyl recording on headphones, whilst reading the lyrics. It was a totally immersive experience in which one could shut out the world. I tend to write in rhyme with a strong element of poetry. If a song is set in days of yore, I try to emulate the language of the period in question. My mother’s cousin Peter O’Donnell was a teacher and published poet. I have drawn on his work a number of times. For instance, he wrote a poem published in the early 1960s about the bombing of a shopping centre. In turn I wrote a song for my record with Firefay, ‘Anointed Queen’ about people being caught up in the aftermath of a WWII air raid entitled ‘The Day The Winged Fury Came’. For my solo album of 2017, ‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’, I took the title from the last line of his poem ‘Memorial’. I also wrote a song with David Colohan using the entirety of that poem. It was about Peter travelling frantically through the night to reach his mother before she died. It had a powerful effect on me as I lost both my parents between 2015 and 2017. They were ill for some time beforehand. I am always aware of the enduring pull of my roots running through most of my work. How has your creative practice changed over time, as you've aged? And is age something you think about and address in your creative work? AO'D: When I first started performing over fifty years ago my stagecraft consisted of standing mostly stock-still with my hands on my hips. Ted Carroll, our manager, told me I looked like a fishwife. I was a very late developer on that front. It wasn’t until the early '80s and again in the late '90s that I did some musical theatre and revue acting. I also started training my voice properly. By the time 2008 arrived, I felt I could use all that I had learned to better inform my stage performance. The improvement was also down to repetition and confidence. I dropped out of music entirely, working hard in London between 1986 and 1996, so when I returned to making music I had to start over. It all came together in my 50s and I am constantly growing in ways to present what I do. I find that although I have a small regret that I was unable to be more outgoing on stage in the earlier part of my performing life. Now I can inspire younger women who catch me in concert or at gigs and sessions and think to themselves, well if she is doing that at her age, then there is hope for us all. My voice dropped about a tone as I aged but I do scales and breathing exercises to expand my range as much as possible and keep it reasonably flexible. I can write about difficult personal issues perhaps with a wee bit more wisdom due to the fact that I am now in my sixties. How does the past affect and influence your work? AO'D: My childhood was spent playing and musing in the most idyllic scenic setting of South County Dublin. One of my first songs, ‘The Blackcap’, in this instance a wee warbling bird, was inspired by tunnelling through gorse bushes in Sorrento Park behind our house and always seeing beautiful Dalkey Island beyond Dillon’s Park whenever I exited the hall door. My bedroom at one stage was at the front of the house, where I could gaze out in the dead of night and imagine myself as a sea bird flying over the island and the bays beyond it. ‘Episodes’ on the Flibbertigibbet album, ‘Whistling Jigs To The Moon’ is also about wandering through the pastoral scenes of my youth. For my more recent work, I have drawn on the stories of my ancestors, especially those of my grandmother Nina, who was a singer (‘Mother of Pearl’ on the album ‘Mise agus Ise ‘with Isabel Ní Chuireáin) and of my maternal grandfather P.S.G. O’Donnell, his two brothers and their father who were all military musicians, conductors and composers (‘An Empire In Its Glory’ on the 2017 solo album). Emotions of passion and compassion run through a lot of my songs and this is partly due to the fact that I enjoy honouring family, friends and ancestors (and a few foes). Are there any places that are particularly important or inspiring for you? AO’D: I spent 28 years away from Ireland and then returned to the land of my birth, therefore Dublin, and in particular the village of Dalkey where I spent most of my childhood, loom large in my writing. In the past I have written songs that spring from the playgrounds of my early teens and continue to do so. Songs about places, even ones I haven’t visited, fill me with affection when I listen to them in the singers’ clubs and venues I frequent. Whilst singing or hearing a traditional song handed down through the ages one can be transported to those very streets and rivers. How is psychedelia incorporated into the creation of your music as opposed to sheer reality and how do they work together whether biographically or not? AO'D: Long ago experimentation with mind-altering substances and the cultural influences of psychedelia in films, TV and books is present in my work down the years with Mellow Candle right up to recent work with United Bible Studies, for example a few songs from the United Bible Studies album ‘Rosary Bleeds’, particularly ‘The Devil’s Trumpet Is A Witch’s Weed’. This is a bit of a rant about the dangers of long-term smoking but with a strong element of fantasy. ‘Apartment 6’ talks of a caped murderer and is drenched in ritual and horror. ‘Pointed Thinking Cap’, from ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’ is outwardly a rather hippyish song about outlandish hats, but the accessory masks different faces and is steeped in the reality of the extremes of feeling low or alternatively buoyant. ‘Tea With The Sun’, the B-Side of my first Mellow Candle single back in 1968, written by Clodagh Simonds; well one can only imagine! When you play around with ideas on various instruments, do you gravitate towards writing a song that suits the instrument or do you let it take you wherever? AO'D: Back in the 1970s I played a bit of guitar, autoharp and percussion. Then there was a very long gap to the late 1990s when I took up playing bodhrán in sessions, as I didn’t want to sit around doing nothing while waiting to sing a song. From 2008 onwards I graduated to other percussion instruments and then revisited my two old autoharps, psaltery, shruti box, omnichord and dulcimer. Working with David Colohan of United Bible Studies gave rise to the idea that perhaps I could incorporate these instruments into my work, and that became easier when I acquired a home recording set-up and can noodle away for as long as I wish. If I start a song on any of the above, it occasionally leads to a certain style of song, especially if I have a theme already in mind, but sometimes I let myself drift away on an instrument and a song appears out of improvisation. My work with United Bible Studies is frequently improv-based so I don’t have much fear now in reaching out for something challenging and different. How important is collaboration for you? What do you gain from collaborating with other artists? AO'D: I have been collaborating in all the years of involvement with music even though I also perform as a solo artist, singer-songwriter. I have been in many bands across a number of genres and continue to add to that list. I get a strong sense of satisfaction, fulfilment and pleasure through writing and performing with others. I was delighted to discover many like-minded, younger musicians like Steven Collins of The Owl Service and Graeme Lockett of Head South By Weaving over ten years ago via My Space, which led to wonderful projects in my back and current catalogue. Has adversity enhanced your work and are there times when you have used it as an inspiration? AO'D: Adversity is a good friend to me in terms of writing. Drawing on difficult times can be a cathartic process. My mother passed away at the end of 2017 after a dreadful five years of dementia, a period with which I was entirely involved. The opening track on ‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’ is an ode to her (‘Sylvia’s Deadbolt’). There were days when I sank into that sadness and wondered how I would cope. I cried a lot writing that song but the sad time passed gradually and I can listen to it now and be reminded of the inspirational person she was to me. There are flashes and hints of colourful and adverse parts of my past which pop up in songs through the decades, for instance ‘The Pull And Drag Blues’, ‘Brave Face’ and ‘In The Web’, to name but a few. I strive to use calamity and misfortune in a positive way, to give hope and closure. Sharron Kraus Sharron Kraus released her first album in 2002 and has released numerous solo and collaborative albums since, including 'Leaves From Off the Tree', an album of traditional folk songs with Meg Baird and Helena Espvall of Espers, 'Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails', an album of soundscapes inspired by the landscape of Mid Wales and 'Right Wantonly A-Mumming', an album of songs written to celebrate the seasons and recorded with an ensemble of folk musicians including Jon Boden, Fay Hield, John Spiers and Ian Woods. Her most recent release is 'Chanctonbury Rings', a collaboration with writer Justin Hopper released by Ghost Box Records, and her new project is a podcast called 'Preternatural Investigations', exploring things weird and wonderful. Is your work inherently 'feminine' or female-centred? Is it feminist? Sharron Kraus: I'm not a particularly feminine woman, and my ideal is androgyny. I think the main problem with the gendered world we live in is the way women are generally expected to be feminine and men masculine. The people I find the most interesting are those who combine aspects of femininity and masculinity and the same is probably true of music too and I definitely don't feel that the things I choose to write about and the way I make music is particularly feminine – if it is, it's a twisted kind of femininity! My psych duo Rusalnaia is probably more 'female-centred': Gillian and I work musically together in a way that's akin to spellcasting and enjoy channeling our witchy selves. When we first started writing songs together Mellow Candle was one of our inspirations, in particular the way Alison's and Clodagh's vocals intertwined in intuitive but unexpected ways. Some of the themes I write about relate to gender and sexual dynamics and have feminist underpinnings. I'm interested in writing about characters who find themselves in unusual scenarios or relationships, or who refuse to be defined by their relationships. I have a song called ‘Ruthless and Alone’ which is a kind of anti-blues song, about someone who's all alone in the world but relishes the freedom that gives her. Another song, ‘Traveller Between the Worlds’, is about the tension between love/responsibility and freedom. In it a mother leaves her partner and children to go travelling 'between the worlds' and hopes they'll be able to trust her, carry on loving her as she loves them, and embrace her on her return. Some of what's going on in songs like these is me deconstructing the bullshit fairytale version of romantic love so many women still fall for. I guess this is something the first wave of feminists thought they'd change, but that has clung on tenaciously. For me relationships should serve our needs, not ensnare or define us, and that's something I'm exploring in my songs, as in my life: what kind of relationships can work for me and the people I love and how can we create them? Do aspects of folk horror or fantasy inform and influence you? If so, give some examples from your back catalogue or current projects. SK: Folk horror ran through my work before I heard the term – my first album was called ‘Beautiful Twisted’, which probably says it all! I've drawn on murder ballads, folklore and the magic of the land and I've always aimed to create atmospheres that are a little unsettling or eerie or that trigger some kind of altered state. One example is ‘The Woody Nightshade’ on the album of the same name. It's a song inspired by a spooky murder ballad called ‘The Wild, Wild Berry’ in which a woman poisons her lover with woody nightshade berries. She is found out and punished by hanging, with nightshade leaves and berries entwined in her hair. The song I wrote takes the theme of lovers' betrayal and a murder is planned in a glade where woody nightshade grows. It's one of the most discordant songs I've ever written: the vocal harmonies are a semitone apart in places, which is jarring in a wonderful way! There are various songs of mine that are basically magical invocations: ‘Brigid’ on ‘The Fox's Wedding,’ which was inspired by an amazing ritual I did on Port Meadow in Oxford, ‘Wild Summer’ on the first Rusalnaia album and ‘Cast A Spell’ on ‘Time Takes Away’, the second one, and others in which weird folklore (either real or invented) finds its way in ’Harvest Moon’ (also on ‘The Fox's Wedding’) being an example. How important is poetry in your lyric writing and which poets or styles of poetry may have left an impression? SK: I'm not often moved by poetry and don't really 'get' most poetry (exceptions being R.S. Thomas whose bleak but stunning visions of Welsh rural life cut through and Thomas Traherne's wonder-filled poems). I collaborated with poet Helen Tookey on a book/CD called’ If You Put Out Your Hand’, and for that project I created a soundtrack for some of her poems. This was quite a strange thing to do, as I don't really understand her work – she writes in quite an abstract way and a lot of the time I just don't get what she's writing about. That in no way made it difficult to respond musically to the poems, though: I listened to her words without consciously trying to make sense of them, just going with the sounds they made and the natural rhythms. Helen was amazed at the music I created and felt it worked just right with the poems. Then through performing together I started to feel that on some level I did 'understand' her poems, but it's a very strange kind of understanding and if you asked me what any of them are about, I wouldn't necessarily have an answer! In my songwriting I think the way the lyrics work with the music is more important to me than that the lyrics are poetic in themselves. How has your creative practice changed over time, as you've aged? And is age something you think about and address in your creative work? SK: Age is something I've started thinking about, and I'm definitely aware of how women start to notice their status lessening as they age and their beauty fades. I'm bloody-mindedly against taking that kind of thing seriously, though, and intend to grow old doing what the hell I please! My creative practice has changed in many ways over time and some of these changes relate to age: the pace of touring I used to enjoy, staying up late drinking after each gig, has had to give way to a more gentle routine, as I end up feeling like a zombie the next day if I overdo the drink nowadays! I think there's also an urgency that's developed as I get older and mortality looms a little closer. I took a month out to write a children's book a few years ago, because that was something I'd been wanting to do for a while. Part of what motivated me to do it was this kind of urgency: do it now, don't keep putting it off. (Perhaps when I'm too old and decrepit to drag myself out on the road I'll become a full-time children's writer – I'd quite like that!) Age isn't a topic I've addressed head-on all that much, but it is one of the themes Gillian and I threw into the mix in writing the songs we recorded on ‘Time Takes Away’, especially the title track. Gill wrote the lyrics to that song and it's about the idea that time will eventually take everything away: "I can see the lines, friends, show beside your eyes/And you can see the same lines starting next to mine/Nothing's ever certain, except that all will change/We can't hold time tightly but we still celebrate." An age-related shift in the kind of love songs I've been writing since around ‘The Fox's Wedding’ is that instead of being either about the first flush of new love or the trauma of break-up, they explore what goes on within a relationship. ‘In the Middle of Summer’ describes a romantic scene in which two lovers are lying together in a rose arbour. The song's protagonist reflects on the mix of honesty and dishonesty contained within the relationship, and her view of it is realistic yet still idealistic. ‘Once’ on ‘The Woody Nightshade’ is about a relationship in which the spark has been extinguished and only a loving friendship remains. ‘The Woody Nightshade’, as mentioned above, is about betrayal and the acceptance and forgiveness that can follow. How does the past affect and influence your work? SK: The past finds its way into my work in a number of ways. Apart from the normal way in which past experiences and memories inform our creative work in general, I draw on folk traditions, tales and places in which the past is tangible. It's important to me to find ways of connecting with the past but not in a backwards-looking or nostalgic way. The past endures and persists into the present and if we're looking in the right way we can find ways to see traces of the past in the present, and we realise that the past is on a continuum with the present, not something that's closed off to us. When I sing a folk song that's been sung for hundreds of years and a room full of people joins in, we're repeating something that's been done by other people at other times and will hopefully carry on being done in the future. This creates a sense of being a link in a temporal chain, connected to a community that endures. When I wrote the songs on ‘Friends and Enemies; Lovers and Strangers’, my source material was ‘The Mabinogi’, a collection of Welsh stories first told over 1,000 years ago. That these stories are still vibrant, magical and relevant to life in the 21st century is amazing. That I can find insight and make connections between the life I was living in rural Mid Wales and the things that happened to the characters in these stories is a wonderful thing. Are there any places that are particularly important or inspiring for you? SK: Since spending a year at Aberystwyth University as a student, Mid Wales has been a place I've dreamed about and longed for. I moved back there for three years in 2009, because I wanted to write music inspired by the landscape there and ‘Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails’ was the result. ‘Friends & Enemies; Lovers & Strangers’, which was the album I recorded after that one, though primarily inspired by the stories in ‘The Mabinogi’, was also in part inspired by Mid Wales and my experiences there. In general I find the landscapes of England and Wales rich and magical and often find myself walking or driving in places that stir my imagination. Recently, I've been working in collaboration with writer Justin Hopper on a piece about Chanctonbury Ring in the South Downs. Justin's writing about Chanctonbury was my starting point for the soundtrack I created to work with his words and I knew nothing about Chanctonbury itself. On May Day last year, we went there at dawn and performed an acoustic version of our work after the local morris men danced. It was a very special, magical introduction to the place and it was interesting for me to discover that my imagined Chanctonbury and the real place meshed well. I have a feeling that this could be the start of a new love affair with the South Downs! How is psychedelia incorporated into the creation of your music as opposed to sheer reality and how do they work together whether biographically or not? SK: For me, reality is psychedelic, so this contrast isn't really one I identify with. My experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and with ritual work have pointed clearly to the fact that reality is many-layered, vibrant, psychedelic and magical. One of the main things I'm trying to do with my music is get that across. When you play around with ideas on various instruments, do you gravitate towards writing a song that suits the instrument or do you let it take you wherever? SK: I like messing around with instruments without any specific goal in mind and just seeing what chords, riffs and melodic ideas emerge. Sometimes that happens immediately and other times I start with something very simple, make a sketch recording of it, and then come back to the idea later and develop it. That way of working is quite relaxing, just opening up to what ideas an instrument offers up. Other times I want to take a more experimental or even perverse approach to composition, deliberately trying things that aren't natural things to do with a particular instrument, pushing its boundaries. I remember when I first started recording music as a student, using a 4-track and a crappy Casio keyboard, I found some really good spooky sounds by octave shifting the voices on the Casio as low as they'd go and then putting them through a delay pedal. What I've done a lot of is put stringed instruments into tunings that slacken the strings to an almost unplayable degree, or ones in which the open strings are discordant. On my most recent album, though, what I mostly did was force myself to write using standard tuning on my guitar, which was difficult but very satisfying. How important is collaboration for you? What do you gain from collaborating with other artists? SK: Collaboration is very important to me and also very natural. Because it seems to just happen without me really needing to do anything to make it happen, it's hard to know exactly what I gain from it – it's just the way I work a lot of the time. One of the things that seems wonderful about music, compared to a lot of other artforms, is its social element: even music that starts off in solitude soon becomes social, either because it becomes necessary to draw in other musicians, or because music needs to be performed to an audience. I love the solitary aspects of writing and enjoy spending time on my own, losing myself in a creative bubble, but the fact that music forces me to be sociable at least some of the time is a good thing and has probably made me a more well-balanced human being! Working in collaboration from the start with another person, as I've done with Gillian in Rusalnaia, is more challenging than writing on my own and then introducing other musicians once the songs are written. Allowing someone else into the creative bubble is a little scary: you're letting them see the formless mess that precedes the structured work. When there's trust, though, creating in collaboration is a powerful and exciting thing. Has adversity enhanced your work and are there times when you have used it as an inspiration? SK: Adversity, pain, loss, darkness all go into the pot, and I'm fascinated by the way in creating we have the capacity for making something beautiful out of the less positive aspects of life. I've written about the idea of the artist as alchemist; transmuting the base metal of suffering into the gold of art and think creative work is what keeps me sane and happy.

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Alison O'Donnell and Sharron Kraus - Interview

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