Sunday, 25 October 2015

Kim Lowings: the tricky path twixt traditional and brand new

Traditional music and powerhouse songwriting. Delivered digitally, of course. 

Photo: Laura Whittington
It turned out to be a busy day. I needed a rare vinyl 7" for a show I'm producing. There's only a few hundred copies. But, lo! a dusty copy is unearthed from a King's Heath attic.

Just as well I was in the neighborhood. Long before questions of exotic vinyl, I'd set up a chat not remotely to do with vinyl nostalgia.This was to be all about right now, with a storming folk talent: Kim Lowings.

Kim Lowings heads up Kim Lowing and the Greenwood: a powerful, articulate, highly intelligent folk-oriented local outfit. The new album swings between Kim's own songs, which are resolutely modern, and traditional material. And Kim just happens to have a fantastic voice. Comfortably settled in over coffee, it looks like things are starting to kick off for her and the band. But we did, actually, touch on vinyl. In the end.. 

Kim, there's songs on your new album about a bonny labouring boy, a blacksmith, a dark-eyed sailor. Traditional songs: they always seem to leave the fair maiden abandoned, bereft or pregnant, or at best, ready to fight her dad for the right to elope... On the other hand you've also got Maggie rescuing a ship-full of drunkards.

Kim Lowings: Typical folk characters, aren't they? It's a snapshot of a moment. That's what I like. When I'm looking at material, I've got lots of books, and CDs, and I go into archives online, and have a search through. There's a vast quantity of material – I rally like the broadsheets and the posters as well. I tend to rifle through hundreds and hundreds, and then I stick with one that really grabs my attention. It's usually the story. Of the character... Or the melody. I try to keep it as close the original as I can. I really like the stories.
It's interesting to compare what you're doing now, with what the 70s folk revival came up with. Steeleye and Fairport, even outfits like Horslips were thunderously noisy in comparison with what you're doing. Almost heavy metal folk, with solo artists operating much more delicately. There was a huge huge gulf . So you do The Blacksmith, which I heard first from Steeleye Span.
It's a funny one – there's lots of versions of that song. I love the song. I first heard it from Anne Adams, who played it at the Tower Of Song. Nothing in the way of the story. So we stripped it right back.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Chris Cleverley had approached his first album, and compared him with Ruby Turner, who was in the studio laying down songs she had polished to a high shine on the road. Chris talked about keeping a close focus on his original concept, which is always a challenge when you first go in the studio. It feels like you've got that down.
Maybe I've got that control-freak thing... I just enjoy working the songs out, and getting everyone's input, including my producer Dave. He has great ideas. I'm not as right as it might seem. But our songs are worked out on tour. We find out which songs work best. Which ones people are sing along to? That's important to me. We've done that with this album. But the songs keep evolving anyway. It's important to keep it moving.
With all that said, it's your band, it's your name on the front.
I guess I do have final say, and that's important in one way – for the business side of it. We have to do all the booking, and all the chat. That goes along with the music. It has to happen.
Well, let's talk about the business side, along with the issue of having to do it all yourselves... There's a nice little groundswell about you, and that has to be almost entirely down to your efforts.
It's lovely! And it's a complete blessing, I think it's due to hard work. We all talk about it all the time, to everyone. Perseverance!  'Hey, we're here, friend us, listen to us, see what we do...' We're learning all the time. And I talk to everyone when we support people, trying to glean information, to learn from people who have been doing it an awful lot longer than me. But this time last year, we only had a few gigs in the book up until Christmas; now we're planning well into next year.

I'm interested in how you straddle two areas of music – your own material is distinctive. Your use of language makes that very clear. And some of the arrangements are quite rocky/contemporary, although not to the extent of the 70s folk rock guys we mentioned. How does that sit with Folk clubs, which I assume have been your most welcoming live venues so far?
It's difficult. It's really difficult. You have this balance to strike at all times. You've got Folk clubs, you've got venues and you've got festivals. They're all different, and different people have different views on what Folk should be. It's always evolving, and there's a lot of people pushing forward. And there's a lot of people who want it to be really traditional. That's important. You've got to keep hold of traditions, by also accept that thing do change. We're trying to create a balance.
But we could reel off a huge list of fantastic bands who work in this broad area, who have all emerged in the past five or ten years. It spans folk, Americana, singer-songwriters, experimentation. We're very lucky.
And they're all local! It's brilliant. It's nice that it's a community of like-minded people. It is a worry - in my immediate area, which is Stourbridge, it's all cover bands. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't embrace people who are pushing forward.
Cover bands are reassuring. They put the audience in familiar territory. But you know what? You could say that's the same kind of process that operates in Folk clubs that stick too rigidly to what they know and love.
it's the hardest question. I've been heavily involved in the discussion on the Folk 21 site, talking about how clubs can keep and attract younger audiences. No fast answers. I think it's about broadening a perspective.
What happens if that takes you out of the Folk circuit altogether? Let's say your own songs get picked up by more than the Folk Shows on Radio 2, and cross over to other areas of output?
Firstly, I'd love that. But I really want to be friends with everybody!
What about distribution?
We're completely self-released. No support. I'm hoping that this will get us some validation. It's harder to sell and to get it out there that way... but it is getting easier.
We've gone for a company called Ditto to support us in online distribution. They handle all that, and for people like us – independent musicians – the are a godsend, really. It's a fair deal. I think they started in Birmingham, and they're musicians themselves. And we're using Bandcamp too. We did look at vinyl... But it's just too expensive.

Yeah - you'd probably have to sell it at £20 a pop!

And with that, Kim headed back to Stourbridge to do more work bigging up the second album (above), which is available, typically, in CD and on download.

I went off to grab more chats with interesting musicbiz peeps, with, no doubt, more sourcing of exotic vinyl that echoes down the years. But Kim Lowings is the one resonating right now:
 traditional music in the digital domain.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood website and Facebook

More music posts on Radio To Go


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