Not only vocalist, composer, dancer, choreographer, but also producer for her new album 'The Dreaming', Kate talks about her approach to composition and her newly acquired Fairlight CMI.
A unique vocal style, piano and Fairlight instrumental playing, and new role as producer as well as manager, designer, choreographer, composer and arranger, inspired this interview about Kate's music and her new album 'The Dreaming'.
There appear to be two major steps that influenced you as a singer: that your family's interest in music inspired you to teach yourself the piano, and that after securing your first recording contract you started mime and dance lessons.
Kate: Yes, that's right. My father played the piano and we also had an old harmonium in a barn next to our house, where I'd spend a lot of time just pedalling away hymns. I really loved their melodies and harmonies and worked out myself that a chord was made from a minimum of three notes and by changing one of these notes you could get completely different chords to work with the new note. In a way, that started my interest in the way things could sound and feel very different just by putting different chords to a tune. As the harmonium got eaten up by mice, less and less of the stops that selected the sounds worked, so naturally I turned my attention to playing the piano.
I couldn't read music at all, it was really a question of having a logical approach once I knew where middle C was. Even though I wasn't much good at maths at school, I could see the logic of how the piano was working and got on with it myself very well. I've now been playing the piano for many years and I really did start off in the most basic way. After a couple of years I'd got a slight style and since then I've simply developed it more, just by writing and then practising playing the songs. Often, I'd be writing songs beyond my technique which would stretch my playing even further.
In the early days, did you write the lyrics first?
I usually started off with the tunes and used library books for a source of lyrics, but I couldn't get on too well with the restriction of always fitting the music to the words. So I started making my own lyrics up alongside the music.
And then you became involved with dance?
Yes, but that didn't happen until I was 17 because I didn't really get on with the dance teacher at school. Once I'd left school I tried to get into a dance school full-time but no-one would accept me as I had no qualifications in ballet. I had almost given up the idea of using dance as an extension of my music, until I met Lyndsay Kemp and that really did change so many of my ideas. He was the first person to actually give me some lessons in movement. I realised there was so much potential with using movement in songs, and I wanted to get a basic technique in order to be able to express myself fully.
Lyndsay has his own style — it's more like mime — and although he studied in many ballet schools and is technically qualified as a dancer, his classes and style are much more to do with letting go what's inside and expressing that. It doesn't matter if you haven't perfect technique.
Was the dance/movement approach just a novel visual image for you or did it actually help in the composing of songs?
The thing is, when I'm actually writing something, I can't conceive the dance at the same time. But when I'm listening and watching dance performances I can conceive musical ideas.
There are several avenues of composing procedures open to you: through the lyrics, the dance, the melodies, rhythms or harmonies, or even the computer. Do you follow any particular one?
Since I've first started writing, the styles and attitudes have changed. Initially, it was just 'me and the piano' and I would write the song until it was completely finished — the lyrics, the tune of one song would take me a couple of weeks. For the last two albums it's been much looser and I've been working with rhythm machines as well as the keyboard and using subject matter already in my head. I'd then make up the music almost on the spot for the subject matter.
How did you get on with rhythm machines?
It took me quite a while to get used to working with them because they seemed very limiting. I like rhythms to 'move', especially in the ballad songs where the tempo would ebb and flow with the words, stopping and slowing down as necessary. Suddenly, having to work with a very strict rhythm, I found it almost impossible at first to tie myself down to the rigid beat. Once I had got used to this, I found that I could work 'in between' the beats.
One other aspect of your dance intrigues me, since you have created a style that visually complements modern music, and that is your own preferences and influences for dance styles in this country and abroad.
I don't really avidly follow contemporary dance styles — Lyndsay Kemp definitely was the starting point for me although I like to think that I don't visually copy.
"The Fairlight in a way is what I've been waiting for."
What I try to do is work in front of mirrors and then without whilst the music is playing and seeing what happens. This helps me to create my own choreography best. Obviously, a lot of my movements come from my training — during that time Robin Kovak certainly had a big influence on me at the Dance Centre. She certainly gave me the strength to develop my own style.
I now do my dance rehearsing in a small studio room near my home and have a set group of dancers that I can call upon to work with. My musicians haven't changed much either that work with me.
Even from your 'Lionheart' album days there's been a noticeable interest in unusual instruments: panpipes, mandocello, strumento da porco, sitar, koto, balalaika, harmonica, recorders and musical saw.
Yes, that's because Paddy Bush, who has played on my albums, has made a lot of instruments since he studied at the London College of Furniture, specialising in medieval instruments. Whenever he finds an instrument that doesn't appear to exist that he likes, he'll make one and learn to play it. Consequently, it ends up on one of my tracks!
Sounds are very important to me and I think there are a lot of standard instruments that don't actually sound that emotional or that interesting, which is why it's really nice to have the flavours of these other instruments. In so many cases they are not used any more and that means people don't recognise them, giving an air of mystery to the music.
Duncan MacKay introduced the synthesiser, Fender Rhodes, Prophet and the harpsichord in my songs. I've used the synthesiser in particular because it was part of the new music at that time. I must admit I'm now much less interested in synthesisers, especially since the Fairlight CMI. I just find a lot of the sounds that perhaps before were interesting a little too machine-like. What attracts me to the Fairlight is its ability to create very human, animal emotional sounds that don't actually sound like a machine. I think in a way that's what I've been waiting for.
Richard Burgess of Landscape introduced me to the CMI at Syco Systems in London and Steve Payne who works there has helped me a great deal with it. I've now got my own Fairlight which I use — the problem was, having met the Fairlight on my last album 'Never For Ever' (played by Duncan Mackay) I'd realised that it was invaluable for my music.
Do you regard the CMI now as your most important instrument?
In many ways it is, although I think piano still holds above it because for me it's more versatile than any kind of synthesiser. It's like an old friend in a way. Often a certain sound that you want on a synthesiser for a particular piece can be distracting when I'm composing and it's nice to use the piano instead because it doesn't conjure up anything particular — then later translate those ideas to a synthesised sound.
Occasionally you've used the Yamaha CS80 polyphonic synthesiser instead of the piano for your keyboard playing. Do you get yourself involved in the technical intricacies of the instrument?
I would never say that I'm really that knowledgeable about the CS80, I've mainly used it with the preset sounds. What I like about it is its velocity/pressure keyboard sensitivity — it makes it much more 'human'. A lot of its sounds have more emotion too, perhaps from its dual sound layering although mainly the touch sensitivity.
Can you read music now?
No I can't — I read chords but not the actual music.
So how do you arrange all the instrumental and vocal parts in your songs?
"In the past my voice has never sounded the way I wanted it to."
For most of them I literally just run the tape and learn them in my head and then translate them. I multitrack my own voice parts, having worked them out first at home. Sometimes I can tell that they're going to work in harmony without having to put one down and then work to that, but it depends really.
Do you work up from the root and then add the third and the fifth?
No, I never work that way — I just go for what sounds right, and never think technically about thirds and fifths, because very often I think fourths and sixths could be better. I like to use parallel movement for a more medieval feel and I also sing unrelated notes against the harmony, say dropping semitones, which help to create a lot of tension. But I do try to avoid thinking about the technical things when I'm working — it's afterwards that I like to think about those aspects.
For the male voice parts, I just sing to them what I want them to do and I tell them the particular phraseology and timing, then they go out and do it, while I oversee it in the mixing room. I'm lucky in that they're not really session singers but more friends with good voices.
There's a lot of counterpoint in your compositions. Do you find this comes naturally?
Yes, it's something that I find works in layers as well. For example, normally the song with its basic tune and chords would be down and then, as things start to go on more to the track, I can just hear holes that need to be filled in a certain way.
Sometimes I would be doing this with tapes at home or during a meal break at the studio. I'd go round and round parts of the tape and sing with it.
So your procedure is to compose the piece on the piano with the lyrics and have some definite ideas for performing it at home.
For the actual tune, whilst any additional harmonies would be added afterwards using a tape with the basic piece on it. I use a Revox ½-track machine to sing along with — I never put it down though at this stage — I just sing with it to see if it works. Really, it's for playback to help me, and I would use an 8-track studio for demos. I've also been using the Teac Portastudio 144 which I find useful.
Do you have any set of composing your harmonies?
None at all, it depends completely on the song. Whatever the song's saying then that little hole in there that's waiting for a harmony needs something special. For example, in the 'Hammer Horror' song I thought out the clashing harmonies carefully and the 'Violin' piece came about because that was the only instrument I was ever taught.
Your vocal melodies are very original and there's a recognisable style of swooping pitch glissandos, acciaccatura vocal decoration plus a preference for 3rd/root jumps. Then of course you have an extremely wide pitch range.
In fact, I've stretched the pitch range over the years. What I used to do in my earlier performing was to go for notes higher than I could reach easily in the song, so by the time I'd written the song and played it for a good few days I could actually reach those notes. By making my writing more acrobatic than I was, I was stretching myself to it — it's something that's grown over the years. Definitely my voice has got stronger in the last two years, because on 'The Dreaming' I was so aware of the difference in my voice. Not only is it much stronger, but it is also more controlled.
"The space in between is as important as the words."
It has been frustrating for me in the past because my voice has never sounded the way I wanted it to and so whenever I was listening to the albums it was unbearable for me. It was not just the weakness but the style of it. I've always tried to get my voice the way it's starting to be now. Because the songs always controlled me, they were always tending to be in a higher range — it sounds strange but I think that when you write songs, very often you don't have control of them. You can guide them, but they have their own life force really.
My use of decorative notes probably comes from Irish music — my mother's Irish — and in my childhood my brothers were very into traditional music and we could hear it in the house all the time. The airs and inflections are beautiful and I love Irish singing. On the 'Night of the Swallows' Liam O'Flynn plays the Uillean pipes and the penny whistle, to give this track an Irish flavour.
I think my use of thirds is because in a lot of songs there are times when I want it to sound like someone actually talking rather than singing. There are things that you say that often people don't put into songs and I quite like to use those lines. Quite often when people speak they naturally use the 'third to root' pitch change in their voices — little tension marks that take it up a couple of tones.
Another interesting aspect of your singing style is the way you change your voice tone.
I purposely try to do that because I do feel that every song comes from a different person really, so this is one way of making something different about it. I like to 'create' voices — I've been trying this over the years. I often find that I do 'word painting' without realising and my singing/speech style probably comes from the Irish influence again.
Sometimes I don't think the words are important and I'll just use sound shapes, which establish the mood. The lyrics of the lead vocal are awfully important to me while the backing vocals are very often just trying to create a picture (as in 'The Dreaming', with "na na - cha chan cha cha -") I hardly ever use the Vocoder — only once for a tiny effect on 'Babooshka' (Never For Ever LP) to make the drum sound like the title.
We've been experimenting a lot with effects units — particularly the flanger, to get different textures with the voices. In several of the songs there are at least four or five layers of voices. In order to have them not sounding like one clump, we've had to try and separate them by treating them and playing them carefully in the stereo field. Some have more reverb or more echo than others too.
Listening to your past albums you seem to like running verses into choruses, without the more usual 'here comes the chorus' feeling.
Yes, I suppose so, but you see, for me, I know where all the choruses are because they're so obvious to me, although it's interesting you say that. It's quite likely, too, that people say they can't dance to my music at parties or discos, but of course, I can dance to it, so it doesn't bother me.
The only person I've met who is really into the same kind of approach to playing as I do is Peter Gabriel. He seems to be working 'behind the scenes' in a similar way — he's going for the emotional content of the music and lyrics and he changes his voice. As for my use of local vibrato, if there's a song that needs it, I'll put it in. I have used a choirboy's voice (it was Richard Thornton) to get a different feeling on 'All The Love'.
During mixing do you consider spatial placement of sounds in relation to your obviously spatial dance movements?
No, I don't think that far really, but that's a nice idea. I really do just listen to the music just as an audio thing when I'm working out the dance. I do place the sounds — certainly more so on this new album, since it's the first one I have produced myself and anyway it's the first time I've known enough to do that.
Do you 'chorus'your voice a lot?
We have used delay machines for this on a couple of tracks, and added a very slight harmoniser effect as well as sometimes very tight double tracking. It really does depend on the song and how strong the lead vocal needs to be. For a more delicate song it would be wrong to put a heavy harmoniser on it — it would sound so affected. We've also been using an awful lot of compression on the new album, with nearly everything in fact. It's interesting the kind of dynamics you can actually created, which is what I really never understood before. Especially with voices, as you start compressing them more and more, so many different levels start coming through on it — the breath particularly, and for me that's as important as the words: it's the space in between.
"I like to create voices and sound shapes."
In 'All The Love' the 'sighs' seem to be important in this way.
Yes, it's the idea of using the breath as a voice. There was another backing vocal sung by our engineer and it's fantastic because in the gaps there are these huge passages of him going "haah-uuh" where you can feel the breath moving past.
Which studios have you recorded in?
Normally I've recorded between Air and Abbey Road Studios, but this time I seemed to make the album at studios where I had to grab time between other major artists because I wanted particular facilities. We worked at the Townhouse, Abbey Road, Oddysey Studios, and did the digital mix at Advision Studios with Paul Hardiman using the Sony machine. The final recording wasn't digital even though I would prefer to do it that way. Editing with the digital recorder did seem to be difficult — some things were quicker but others were easily three times as long.
Does your music require a lot of editing?
It really did this time, especially when you've got mixes that are very complicated and demanding. We'd get the whole mix and there'd be one little bit that wasn't quite right or an echo plate would distort on us, then we'd just have to edit that in.
Having got the whole field right it seems crazy to do a whole track again, so we prefer to do spot edits.
What's your procedure for recording?
First we do all the backing tracks in one go and then we'd work on it in layers until we'd got all the other musicians out of the way, so then I can really concentrate on my own stuff. It took weeks to do the vocals, especially because we were having to find the right effects and ambience for each voice. Then on top of that came the Fairlight.
Did you work on the Fairlight at home?
Yes. I did as much work at home as I could, but it got very difficult because I was usually in the studio all day and when I got back at night there were tapes of that day's stuff that I would listen to in order to decide what to go on to the next day. So in fact I wasn't really getting much time and when I could I'd tend to do the Fairlight in studio meal breaks in the control room.
I suppose I could have done tracks like 'The Dreaming' with a large amount of Fairlight, but it does lack a little top for some sounds and there are some things, like loops, that can be tricky to do. I ended up using three or four of the presets available on the Fairlight's menu, while most of the others were sampled. What we tended to do was try samples at home although they would often be too noisy to use, so we'd then do them again in the studio. I have to be honest about the instrument — I really only have a working knowledge and everything I want to do I can. I love the sampling facility, it's one of the best things — being able to put your own sounds in and then play around with them. Features like the reverse play are useful too. There's loads I can't do yet I'm sure, but I'm taking it step by step.
I would have thought the Fairlight was almost a 'trade mark' for you because it can conjure up aural images while you're making the visual dance movements.
Absolutely, it does work so well for me. As an educational instrument, too, it's fantastic. Initially, I thought a lot about buying one because it was so much money. When I started this album I did try hiring one in but it was costing me so much and I knew that to do everything I wanted I'd need it more or less all the time. So I decided to buy it and haven't regretted it once. I'm also interested in the new rhythm facilities now available.
Coming back to 'The Dreaming' album, we certainly enjoyed using real sounds as well. The title track in particular has Rolf Harris on the Digeridu, Percy Edwards mimicking animal noises, bullroaring from Paddy Bush and crowd noises by Gosfield Goers!
Which drum machine do you use?
"The Dreaming — emotionally demanding."
I've got a Linn drum machine which is very good for demos, but I don't like it to be used in the finished thing. I think you can tell it's the Linn — it's got a very specific sound — and I can often recognise it on the radio.
Some particular sounds that might stand out are the 'car crash', which was a 'screech' on the Fairlight plus several recorded 'bangs' mixed together. It was in fact the engineer's car door miked up! There's also fluttering birds and an orchestra chord sampled on 'The Dreaming' track and plenty of others elsewhere.
I like to be involved with everything that's going on the album and I do have a lot of interest in the technical problems that crop up as well — that's really happened over the last couple of years. In a way, the technical side of what is happening is as inspirational as what you get out of it.
The new album has a stronger voice feel to it and plenty of variety in the percussion.
There has always been plenty of vocal activity at heart before, it's just that it's never actually manifested as such. As for drums, it's basically a drum kit and for a couple of songs other things like Chinese drums, military bass drum and African drums are used. The other interesting instrument used on 'The Dreaming' is the digeridu played by Rolf Harris. He is such a good player and real honour to work with.
I like the use of silence and space in your music.
I've begun to value silence much more because I think even from the start I realised silence is as important as the notes. But actually getting your songs to realise that is so much harder, and also knowing where to put the silence. Again, this album is probably the first one that has actually let silence into it. The bass lines are kept fairly 'dry' which helps too, and my piano playing is never over-busy — it probably couldn't be though, my technique holds me back quite a lot there! I use the synthesiser for things that I definitely want to hear, so I will specifically ask for that, but again in a lot of cases, maybe I've asked them to do something and while they're mucking around I'll pick on another sound that's so good we'll go with that.
The LP for me has been quite fulfilling. I feel I have made a step forward which is always great for one artistically obviously. And I suppose one of the things that I do feel pleased about is perhaps that I feel we've got a sense of the emotional value from each song to have come across in some way. It was very emotionally demanding, especially some of the tracks, because of the subject matter. It's taken a year to put together, with a lot of studio time taken up. It was actually finished in May, but we felt it was better to release it in the autumn — but it's really such a long time to wait.
While working on the album I can't possibly work on the dance as well and I've got very unfit over the last year. A few weeks ago I started again in complete agony! But I'm not so stiff now and we're getting the dances done. We've not planned any concerts yet — I wanted another two albums before I could tour them again. Now I've got that with 'Never For Ever' and 'The Dreaming', so it'll be nice to do another tour. The big problem is the dance as well as the singing when performing, as this does put a lot of extra pressure on me personally — but the determination alone to do the show always keeps me going.
I would like to mention that it's interesting to do this interview, because the music for me is, of course, the most important thing. I feel it's what I know most about and although I'm into dancing it's much more a matter of using my ideas for that. With the music, it's been part of me for a long time and I'm really looking forward to the music that instruments like the Fairlight will bring in the next few years.
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