FFS Interview: Rachael McShane

You’re usually known for being part of ‘Bellowhead’ what inspired you to break away and become a solo artist?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never quite got round to it! It’s maybe a good thing I never got round to it though, I’m glad that I waited or I wouldn’t have met the musicians who are now a part of my band. I was away in Wales with Bellowhead in January 2008 and a few of the boys encouraged me to get on and do it, it was just the kick I needed. Being a part of an eleven-piece band like Bellowhead, it was refreshing to do my own project and put more of my own stamp on it.

What’s it like being the only girl in an 11 piece folk band?

That’s become a bit of a running joke actually because I get asked that question all the time. More often than not by female Bellowhead fans who are drooling over the lead singer and hoping for some inside info! In truth I don’t really think about it that much. There’s the odd little perk of being the only girl such as always getting my own hotel room but other than that it doesn’t really cross my mind. It’s a lot of fun being in Bellowhead, there are some strong personalities in the band. The crude jokes that you may have heard from Paul Sartin on stage don’t get any milder off stage…you get used to it! 

We find traditional folk musicians have very strong and usually interesting roots within the genre, including large parental or geographical influence, could you describe your experience?

I was brought up going to folk clubs, ceilidhs and festivals from being tiny. My Dad’s a musician, he plays mandolin, banjo and guitar and he played for ceilidhs and for the local Irish dancers in Barnsley. I was desperate to start Irish dancing when I was three and eventually took up playing the cello and later the fiddle. When you’ve grown up hearing folk songs and tunes they seem to stay with you, I found I knew a lot of tunes when I started playing the fiddle. There was always a varied selection of music played in our house too, lots of folk stuff such as Nic Jones and Frankie Gavin, but also things like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and a lot of classical music. 

How did your involvement in the Darwin song project come about, and how has the process been, of writing about the life and work of someone like Charles Darwin?

Neil Pearson who put the project together (and is involved with the running of Shrewsbury Folk Festival) contacted me. He wanted eight artists who hadn’t really worked together before for the project and a mixture of instrumentation and varied experience in song writing. I knew very little about Charles Darwin beforehand, and hadn’t been involved in a project like that before. It was quite a daunting task to write a whole evenings worth of material, which would be performed at a concert and recorded, for a live album in a week! It was a great success though. I really enjoyed working with the other musicians (Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, Emily Smith, Jez Lowe, Stu Hanna, Mark Erelli & Krista Detor) and it was an interesting process to be totally absorbed in a figure like Charles Darwin. There was quite a lot to get stuck into, not just his work and travels but also his family life and the way his work affected his wife Emma. 

Your solo band members aren’t folk musicians, they’re described as more soul, jazz and funk musicians, what made you want to experiment in this way?

No they’re certainly not from the folk scene but I wasn’t really aiming to do a fusion album or anything. I’d done a lot of playing with folk musicians up in Newcastle (where I’ve lived for the past eight years now) and had met quite a lot of musicians from other genres in Newcastle’s vibrant music scene who I fancied working with on this project. I chose my band members more for their openness to folk music and their musicianship. It’s been great fun bringing traditional material to a band that have played little, if any folk music in the past and finding out what we could do with it and how our styles could fit together.

Do you feel there’s any danger in alienating hardcore folk fans when modernising traditional material?

Absolutely! Of course there will be people who prefer unaccompanied ballads or sea shanties performed in a style they believe to be more traditional, but folk music is part of an aural tradition, it has been constantly evolving and will continue to do so. I think in general folk audiences are pretty open-minded and often welcoming to new concepts and ideas. Modernising folk material also makes it more accessible to listeners who perhaps may not have come into contact with much traditional music before. I think it’s important to respect the traditional songs though, and I’m conscious that the song and its story or sentiment should be the main focus of the arrangement.  

Many of the songs on your new album feature very strong female characters, was this a conscious choice?

Haha…honestly not! I realised that there was a theme emerging in my repertoire for this album; I had a lot of songs about men – a sailor, a fisherman, a highwayman etc. It dawned on me however that most of the strong characters in the songs were actually the women, which is where the title ‘No Man’s Fool’ came from. I think I must just be subconsciously drawn to songs of strong women! 

How did you choose the material for the album?

There are some songs on the album that I’ve been singing for a long time that I knew I wanted to include, such as The Fisherman and The Maid On The Shore. Other songs were brand new for the album, some were songs I’d always fancied singing, such as Miles Weatherhill (from the singing of Nic Jones) and others were songs I’d found in different books and liked the stories, such as The Highwayman Outwitted. Once the theme for the album was established, everything else seemed to fall into place pretty quickly.


Click here for a free download of Rachael’s track ‘The Gardener’ from No Man’s Fool.


Rachael McShane’s debut album ‘No Man’s Fool’ is out on 17th August ’09 on Navigator Records. For more information see www.rachaelmcshane.com.