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Kitchen Songs, Family Ties and other Knots - a conversation with Maggie Boyle

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Last year, I had the pleasure of adding a new album to the Maggie Boyle section of my CD collection. Won’t You Come Away now sits alongside 1987’s Reaching Out and Gweebarra from 1998. This may seem like a limited output for a career that stretches over four decades. However, Maggie’s discography requires extensive cross-referencing. Among many others, to put together Maggie’s recorded output, I’d need to pull out albums by Steve Tilston, Grace Notes and Incantation, as well as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, John Conolly, Les Barker, Damien Barber, Martha Tilston and Peter Bellamy, not to mention a couple of major film soundtracks.

We met up, appropriately, in my kitchen, to discuss her latest solo album and to unravel the complex multiple strands of her career. We start, naturally enough, with the wait between solo albums.

“Yes,” says Maggie, “it was a long gap and I don’t intend to leave it such a long time to the next one. I really don’t like to do the sums: I think of it as 10 years between the two albums but it’s actually more like 12, which is far too long. In fact, I’m already thinking about the next album which I hope will be out in a couple of years.”

One reason for the seeming hiatus is the startling number of other projects and collaborations in which she is always involved. I put it to her that she is probably the least solo ‘solo’ artist I have ever met.

“I hardly ever do solo gigs. I am lucky enough to work with a lot of people whose music I really admire. It is hard to fill up a whole year with one thing. Every year there’d be a couple of weeks of this and a couple of weeks of that. There are gigs with jazz guitarist Gary Boyle (with whom I was also in a trio called Sketch). There’s a trio with Gary and Gordon Tyrrall; though we haven’t played together for a while - we will if someone asks. The same is true of The Expatriate Game (me, Duck Baker and Ben Paley). It takes a bit of organising, of course, but I tend to plan things in blocks. This year, for example, I have tours with Paul Downes; there are more performances of The Paupers’ Path; there are three or four weeks of The Magic Christmas Tree with Pete Morton and Chris Parkinson and there are tours with Grace Notes.”

The list of artists Maggie has performed with certainly begins to sound like a Who’s Who of acoustic music. With the long wait for her solo album, it seemed natural to ask whether all her other commitments got in the way of her solo career. Certainly Maggie’s discography includes an impressive array of other albums between Gweebarra and Won’t You Come Away. Conveniently, her new album provides a springboard for delving into her musical past.

“I have known some of the songs since long before I ever thought about a career in music: others are much more recent acquisitions. A lot of that is to do with how long there is between this album and my last. Obviously, if I was bringing out an album every couple of years, I’d have to be looking out for things. As it was, by the time we got round to recording, there were a lot of things that I really wanted to do, for all kinds of different reasons. Making an album is a different kind of exercise in those circumstances. Literally, there are things you want to document. There are songs that are sort of ‘sitting on you’, almost demanding to be recorded.”

“If you’d asked beforehand, I would have said Gweebarra was my family album. I didn’t expect this one to be, but it turned out that it is. Molly (my daughter and herself a singer) did the sleeve; there’s a tune that I dedicated to Betty Sue, my new grand-daughter; there’s a song by my son, Joe. I loved Joe’s song as soon as I heard it and had to record it. In fact, Joe now says I do it wrong...must be the folk process! So the version on my album and the version on his are quite different.”

With a new album, Embers, receiving well-deserved critical acclaim, Joe joins his half-sister Martha in the list of second Tilston generation acoustic artists.

“It was lovely to see Joe as a recording artist – on Fellside, no less. It was not a label that he ever expected to see himself on – neither did I or his dad, for that matter. That’s no reflection on the music he’s making now; it’s about his musical background - in his teenage years Joe was very into punk. I’m really delighted that he’s turned into such a good acoustic artist.”

And the pride was obvious standing beside her as he launched his debut album with a sell-out concert in Keighley. “Not just Joe, of course,” adds Maggie, “but the fact that my daughter Molly was the support act. It was lovely to see the kids up on stage, taking it all on, doing so well.”

Maggie’s roots are in the London-Irish community. “It was a very strong musical community, partly because it was something that happened every day. Not necessarily anything formal, just people playing together, learning from each other. Every evening and Sunday lunchtime you could go and hear fantastic top class Irish traditional music. There were people from all over Ireland who had moved to London and there were particular musical hotspots in each part of London – Fulham, Camden Town and so on. People would travel a long way, right across town, both to play and to listen to the music. There would be visiting musicians too – people over here to work for a while and celebrity musicians who would stop off because they’d heard about the music that was going on.”

Maggie’s earliest recording still exists in the BBC archives and is from a documentary programme made about that thriving music scene. It was part of the community-based series Open Door. Maggie explains: “They came to Fulham Broadway where the London Irish community held their regular musical meetings. We all tidied ourselves up for the evening and we were on our best behaviour. I was playing flute. I’d have been about 19, I think. It was going to be me and my brothers but in the end it was just two of us, as Paul was in hospital. I was very nervous and it showed. The programme as a whole was great though.”

However, it was not as a flautist that Maggie found fame. How did she become a singer? “My first love was Irish fiddle, because that’s what my dad loved and he was very good at passing on his enthusiasms. My brothers were musicians and for some reason, it was decided that I would sing. I probably shouldn’t say it, but I suspect it was a bit of a sexist thing back then. Oliver Mulligan used to come down from Muswell Hill to give me more expert tuition on songs and singing than my Dad was able to give me.”

Won’t You Come Away takes us back specifically to those roots. “The album includes old songs that I got from Oliver and it was important to get them down. They were Donal Og and The Green Linnet. He gave me On Yonder Hill as well: that was on a tape by Geordie Hanna of County Tyrone. So they all go way back to the time when I was first learning to sing.”

“In 1984 I got a call from some friends who were in the band Incantation. They contacted me to ask if I would consider joining the band for a Rambert Dance Company production, Sergeant Early’s Dream. It was the perfect job. It was theatre work which meant I could take Joe, who was three months old, with me. There were plenty of stage hands who were happy to look after him and keep him amused while I was on stage.”

“That was my first professional job, but I still hadn’t decided whether it would be what I would do as a career. Of course, I was married to Steve Tilston who was a full time musician, already well-established, but I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing for me. It was when the first block of theatre performances came to an end that Steve and I decided to give it a go at being a duo.”

Hoping not to bring about some kind of feline/pigeon interface, I point out that, unlike her various collaborative releases; Maggie’s album doesn’t include a Steve Tilston song. “Yes, I know – though I didn’t realise till someone pointed it out. It wasn’t deliberate. And there is one of Joe’s, which sort of makes up for it. And, of course, Gweebarra didn’t have one either.”

So when Maggie is in total charge of the album – no Steve Tilston song? It’s a cheeky suggestion because her first album not only began and ended with a Tilston song, but actually took its title (Reaching Out) from one of them. “Yes, well, Steve was quite hands on with that one! It’s odd, because I do Steve’s songs with everyone I perform with – including Steve (not as odd as it sounds, because some people think he did his stuff and I just sang traditional things, which wasn’t the way it worked.) There are a couple of things I do when I perform totally solo. I am very attached to his songs. In fact, there is one I used to sing with Steve that I am currently working up to do with Paul Downes next time we’re gigging.”

At the start of the nineties, Steve and Maggie were arguably the biggest male/female duo on the folk scene. Together, they recorded two excellent albums, Of Moor And Mesa and All Under The Sun. The latter album took its title from Fair Annie, learned from Peter Bellamy and recorded as a tribute to him after his death. Peter is another name to add to the growing list of Boyle collaborations.

“I sang with Peter on a couple of tracks for his Soldiers Three collection. Peter was partly responsible for Steve and me moving up to Yorkshire. That made a big difference, of course, not least because it led to Grace Notes. Peter didn’t directly suggest that I get together with Lynda and Helen, but certainly sowed the seeds of the idea. The first Grace Notes album was named after a song which Steve wrote in tribute to him.”

I am starting to realise that not only does Maggie’s career consist of many parallel strands, but those strands are often intertwined into knots of Gordian complexity. For example, I knew that Steve had also played with the Rambert Company on Sgt. Early, but, once more, the connection was not straightforward and was about to become even more complex.

“Steve wasn’t part of the Company originally. Simon Rogers was the guitarist when I first joined. Steve became part of it when Simon left. We met through Steve coming along to those Irish sessions because he had got word of the great music that was going on. When I first got to know him, he was still into a kind of soft-rock which didn’t suit me at all. Then he changed direction somewhat and so, with no immediate Rambert commitments, we decided to give it a go. As it happened, at almost the same time, John Renbourn asked about us joining Ship Of Fools. That was 1986.”

The Ship Of Fools on which Maggie featured heavily appeared in 1988, the year after her solo debut and four years ahead of her first album with Steve. In a nutshell, that demonstrates how the demands of one project cut across other things that are going on.

“The fact we were involved with Run River Records allowed all those things to happen. But it was all about live work – tours, here and in the States; playing for Rambert; Steve and I were running a folk club before we moved up to Keighley. There was always a lot going on.”

This brings us back to Maggie’s latest release. “I have rather a bad habit of waiting to be asked, which is what happened with Won’t You Come Away. Doug Bailey asked if I would like to make an album for WildGoose. So at that point I began to look through the things that I wanted to record.”

Paul Downes, with whom Maggie is currently gigging, features throughout the album. “A couple of reviewers actually suggested it should be referred to as a Maggie Boyle / Paul Downes album. Certainly, there are lots of things on there that would have sounded very different without his involvement. It was Mick Ryan who suggested that Paul and I should collaborate. He’s good at spotting things which will work. We were both working on his production The Pauper’s Path. One day, he got us together and quite publicly put forward the idea of us working as a duo outside of the context of that show.”

The songs on Won’t You Come Away reflect a vast spectrum of Maggie’s professional career - some come directly from another recent venture. “Some of the songs came out of the Kitchen Songs Project - Old Man’s Retreat, for example. I’ve become so enamoured of Nick Burbridge’s song writing and that was certainly one of his songs that I really wanted to record. It’s a song that needs to be heard.”

We digress briefly to discuss Maggie’s Kitchen Songs - an album concept that became an online and then later an on air radio project. “It’s a fairly simple idea, really. I would visit songwriters I knew, and who had inspired me, and interview them in their kitchen. That’s not just being obtuse. I’ve discovered over the years that it’s a place where a lot of music is made. Families and friends gather around the table and music happens inevitably.”

Eliza Carthy has often spoken about that happening in her family home. When she went to school, she was actually shocked to discover this isn’t what most ‘normal families’ did. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying some great music in Maggie’s kitchen. Her informal birthday get-together on Christmas Eve will usually have English singer songwriters, American blues, pop, old time, country music, jazz, Irish songs and French folksongs included. Maggie’s son, Joe, has occasionally had a song coaxed out of him too.

“Joe was my first Kitchen Songs project. It was a chance to try it out and he very kindly agreed. Because of the situation – he’s family; he’s just starting his career in folk music; at the time we spoke he hadn’t even released an album; he was local – it made things easier, a bit looser, a bit less formal and I was able to experiment a bit. I suppose what I am saying really is that it gave me the chance to try it and if for some reason it didn’t work out, I could always go back and ask to do it again.’”

“The original concept – a CD on which I collaborated with various songwriters in their homes – simply didn’t work in the way I wanted it to. Some of that was to do with the technicalities of recording; some of it was to do with the fact that as soon as you start recording something to release on CD, you lose the informality I was aiming for. I’d put a lot of time and effort into the project, as had other people, and it wasn’t something that I just wanted to let go. So it was a matter of finding another way of doing it that would work. A website with audio and video recordings seemed the obvious approach and that has worked. It gave me the chance for in depth interviews, live performances from the people I am interviewing and the opportunity to record a song written by whoever I am interviewing as a duet or collaboration.”

The Kitchen Songs website currently features 14 interviews with music from the likes of Pete Coe, Ralph McTell, Pete Morton, Ray Hearne and Jez Lowe. More interviews are ready to be uploaded and Maggie has plans for another round of recordings later this year.

Kitchen Songs transferred from the web to the wireless when BBC Radio Leeds decided to create a radio version of the site. “David Crickmore of Radio Leeds (and the Durbevilles) was kind enough to help me a lot with the technical side of the recordings. He also suggested that it would make a good radio programme to pull out excerpts from the interviews and a song from each songwriter. We did that. I hope there will be more radio edits from the Kitchen Songs recordings in future.”

Thus far we have barely mentioned the most consistent collaboration in Maggie’s career - Grace Notes - the harmony trio in which she has sung with Lynda Hardcastle and Helen Hockenhull for the past 21 years. I wondered whether knowing she was about to make a solo album made Maggie decide to keep things back from her Grace Notes repertoire?

“That’s an interesting point. Over the first 20 years of Grace Notes we have been very careful to keep our repertoires separate. So if you turn out to see me perform with anyone but Grace Notes, you wouldn’t hear any Grace Notes songs. And vice versa. But in the last year we all seem to have become less protective of both our own material and the things that we once said should have been done ‘just by Grace Notes’.”

20 is Grace Notes’ 20th anniversary album recorded on the Fellside label (they beat Kate Rusby to the title by several months!). It features three tracks from each of their four previous albums, a new live recording of one of their best known songs, and seven new recordings.

Given the recent appearance of Grace Notes’ anniversary anthology, I ponder the idea of a Maggie Boyle retrospective.

“It’s certainly not something I have ever considered. Definitely no-one has asked about the idea. It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, with so many different things to draw on. There’s the obvious stuff, my mainstream career if you like, but then there are one-off projects – things for films, or the track for the Bert Jansch tribute, or session work. There’s a lot that has never seen the light of day: some things I am quite happy should remain that way, but others I would love people to be able to hear. I sang on some classical arrangements of traditional songs: I loved the way they turned out but then the project as a whole ground to a halt and nothing was released. I tried to get a couple of tracks for the last album, but they said no. I suppose they would have sounded very different from the last album.”

I point out that Gweebarra ended with a very different track – a song recorded originally as the soundtrack for a car commercial, with rock production values and a full band. “It did stick out like a sore thumb, but it was at the end of the album – it was meant to feel like, ‘that was the album; now here’s a little something extra.’ I have to say my own appreciation of it is to do with the circumstances of the recording – how great it was to get together with such musicians and record in a way that being a folk musician would not normally allow. The same is true of the things like the theme to Patriot Games that I did with James Horner or the songs for Legends Of The Fall: the whole going to America / Hollywood thing colours how you feel about the recording that results. Listening back to If You Walk Away (Gweebarra’s final track), I have to say that I still love it, despite the fact that it’s nothing like a record I would normally make. Very un-me, not Maggie Boyle, very (if I dare say it) Celtic!”

Visit Maggie's website
Visit Kitchen Songs website

By Nigel Schofield - published in LT97