Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman go back a long way, to 1995, where they were part of the “unsung supergroup”, Equation, alongside Seth Lakeman and Kate Rusby. In the early noughties, the couple toured a series of British folk clubs. By 2003 they had released two albums. In 2012, after a nine-year hiatus, Kathryn and Sean would call upon The Levellers frontman (Mark Chadwick) to make a guest appearance on their third album, Hidden People in 2012. How would the folk world react to the couple’s sudden comeback (after all a nine-year absence is almost lifetime in the music industry)?
The couple went from strength to strength; being twice voted Best Duo at the BBC Folk awards (2013, 2016). The Ballad of Andy Jacobs, taken from the comeback album would be nominated for Best Original Song. Kathryn would join the 2015 line up of Fotheringay (formed by the late Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention). Two more albums would follow including the most recent 2018 release, Personae. XS Noize were given privileged access to Kathryn and Sean and see how the folk world’s equivalent to Beyonce and Jay Z, with just an acoustic guitar, an electric piano and flute captivated the intimate Cecil Sharp House London venue.
A key element of a folk song is that it tells a story (regardless of the plot or if it has a credible beginning, middle and end). From the outset, Kathryn and Sean proved themselves as articulate, captivating and engaging raconteurs. Opening with a new song, Tribute of Hands, about a giant-killing legend of the founding Flemish city of Antwerp. Katherine displayed exceptional professionalism and talent as she reached the crescendo of the longest and highest note of Tribute of Hands before immediately switching to the flute without pause; showing no signs of any struggle.
The story of the following song, 52 Hertz is equally educational and interesting. Roberts shared her fascination with whales and how like humans, whales were a species who also miscommunicate with each other. The mystery remains as to whether this male whale when singing his mating call was out of tune or if he was too deaf to hear any responses to his call. There was no mystery or uncertainty about the delivery of 52 Hertz; which had an elating, melancholy effect. This is not the first time Kathryn and Sean have provoked emotional reactions; a retired blacksmith upon seeing the duo sing a song about a blacksmith made swift arrangements for that song to be played at his funeral.
The majority of the set would consist of the duos most recent new material, six songs from new album Personae (including the Sandy Denny cover Solo, commemorating forty years since her death) and five songs from the 2015 album, Tomorrow Will Follow Today. Included in this set were a traditional bloodthirsty murder ballad and a song about an evil Russian mermaid; both delivered palpitating excitement. What was most heart-rending and showed true folk spirit (the connection between musicians and the audience), was when the couple laid bare their vulnerability, sensitivity, warmth and humanity; whilst keeping their dignity, strength and composure intact.
“Discussing about how you understand words and language when reading them to yourself is different to speaking about them aloud in company”. Kathryn confessed her faux pas when first spoke about "the “paradigm” shift" as well as the couple’s excitement of learning an Appalachian folk song; only to find out the song came from Devon! The song, Independence, shows exceptional vulnerability. The song stems from when Kathryn damaged her Achilles heel when she restarted Irish dancing last year and became temporarily incapacitated. This made her think of her mother and seek out her care; whilst observing and reflecting on her own family life.
The influence of the couple’s rural life in Dartmoor, Devon was reflected in the couple’s music. There were songs that reflected upon the experiences their twin ten-year-old girls (who were at home whilst they were on tour) had and how “wonderful” they were “when not vomiting”. Playout song, 20 Million Things, reflected the slower pace of rural life. Sean discussed how an old closed down local pub near his hometown was being beautifully resurrected; albeit “very, very slowly”. Furthermore, The Knights Ghost (the opening track on Personae) where the couple rearranged the traditional lyrics arose following a project they had both done together in local rural primary schools in Wiltshire (where there is an abundance of folk songs).
Whether it is the strength of the pact between this husband and wife duo (with one partner not asking for the chords of a song with the other doesn’t asking for the meaning of the lyrics); Kathryn and Sean delivered an outstanding united performance, bringing the best that folk tradition has to offer with exceptional, appropriate and relevant emotional interpretations; both vocally and musically. Roberts and Lakeman sowed the fruits of their rural life setting into an urban London audience; keeping folk music alive and inspiring much potential for further growth in both rural and urban England and beyond.