Back in the mid 1990’s, accompanied by fellow Yorkshire songstress Kate Rusby, Kathryn Roberts joined forces with the Lakeman brothers (Sam, Sean and Seth) to come together as the band Equation, recording four albums together. As various members came and went, Sean and Kathryn remained, not only marrying but also producing two albums as a duo. Sean cemented his reputation as a skilled producer as well as playing in the band accompanying his increasingly successful younger brother Seth. After a nine year gap - during which time Kathryn became a full time mum to their twin girls - their album Hidden People appeared to much acclaim in the summer of 2012. Following the subsequent tour, they were nominated in two categories in the BBC Folk Awards 2013 for best original song (The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs) and best duo, the latter of which they won in Glasgow in January.
In the aftermath of their success they took time out from “scrubbing the wall with bleach and applying anti-mould paint thereafter - the joys of living on a very damp Dartmoor” (honest!) – to take time to answer some questions. Having been a dedicated fan of ‘Team Lakeman’ since 2006, it was a pleasure to be able to talk to them.
KATHRYN: Hi Mike, Hopefully I can answer your questions satisfactorily. Firstly, thank you for your congratulations on the award, we're very pleased about it as you may imagine. We travelled back from Glasgow to Bristol by plane on Easyjet, and only with hand luggage, so the award was shoved at the bottom of Sean's bag. He got pulled over for carrying a suspiciously heavy, strangely shaped object. It was soon sorted when they emptied the bag and read the little plaque on the frontispiece and we were sent on our way with congratulations ringing loud across the terminal!
MIKE: Kathryn – it was quite a roller coaster ride of a setlist on the tour you competed recently. You had the likes of the jaunty ‘Lusty Smith’ and ‘Money Or Jewels’ up against some real heart string tuggers – in particular ‘Joe Peel’ and ‘The Ballad of Georgia Lee’ (when even Sean had to sit down to play) . Fabulous performances, but was it hard at times to keep some emotional control and after doing it for a whole tour did you have to take a moment to have a lie down?
KATHRYN: I've always been drawn to songs which engender an emotional response in me - I imagine it's quite hard to convincingly sing a song with which you feel no empathy at all. I wouldn't pretend to know what it's like to be a farmer or miner but I can always find some element that I can relate to .I found The Ballad of Georgia Lee especially hard in November, following as it did the disappearance of April Jones, the young welsh girl. Being a mother myself makes those situation all the harder and that song felt very relevant. Joe Peel was also a hard one as we lost a very close family friend whilst on tour who, just as in the song, was adored by everyone and desperately missed. Some nights I felt exhausted and slightly on the edge of tears but it also helps to channel those genuine feelings into the lyrics that you're conveying. Most nights ended with chatting to a member of the audience who had felt moved and able to come and tell me about their own situation that a song may have reminded them of - when that happens I feel as though I've done something right and made a connection somehow.
MIKE: Sean I wonder if you’re aware that you have a bit of a cult following? There is a social network group entitled the ‘Sean Lakeman (too cool for school) Appreciation Group, which encourages all sorts of happy (if slightly obsessive but harmless) chat, mainly about your shirts, shoes and hairstyles. And Kathryn, did you know you also won the (unofficial) ‘best frock’ award on the Spiral Earth website?
SEAN: I'm very flattered there's such interest in what I wear (and a little surprised) . I'm always on the lookout for interesting attire. The purple polka dot shirt I wore for the Folk Awards was actually what I got married in, we always like to add a bit of colour between us. I feel you owe it to an audience to make an effort in all aspects of performance and that includes not just turning up in what you've been painting the walls in all day! I know Kath was rather pleased to have won the Best Frock Award, she's a devotee of Vivien of Holloway, the dressmakers - now if we can just sort out some sponsorship....
MIKE: Can you see the Folk Award recognition having some impact on your standing? For a start, can you bump up your going rate?
KATHRYN: I've no idea whether the award will make much of a difference professionally. It's too soon to say whether gigs will come in as a result of having the recognition from the BBC. It won't change the way we approach things though. We've always been firm believers in working on a fair split between artist and promoter and believe no-one should lose money putting on a show, high guarantees are too much of a risk for a promoter so we almost always work on a door split - that way if it's a good night everyone does well and if not, no-one loses out .We'll continue trying to keep a good balance between duo work, Sean's work with Seth and home life. I also think it's important not to do too much; people can soon get fed up with seeing the same names at every festival or touring every week so we'll take it as it comes.
MIKE: Can we expect to see the ‘duo’ becoming more of a priority for you? ‘Hidden People’ was mainly self penned material although playing live you pick out more traditional songs. Would you look at putting together a set of traditional songs as a possible recording project?
KATHRYN: We have no particular plan of action with regard to a new record. Neither of us feel any great pressure to release something quickly so we'll do as before, take it steady, record s and when we have material that we think is strong enough and take our time. Whether that be trad or self-penned we have no agenda, only that there's no point in rushing out something substandard.
MIKE: There are quite a few duo gigs already booked for this year. Does that mean that you may take a few leave of absences from Seth’s live band (you were out promoting ‘Hidden People’ last Summer when we saw Seth at Bakewell and he’s been out supporting Clannad without you too!)
SEAN: We work quite closely with Seth's agent to cross check our diaries. Most of the time we work it so that I'm available for both duo and Seth work. occasionally we'll have something booked in as a duo (the folk world does tend to book a long way in advance ) and something will come in last minute for Seth, but most of the time I can do both.
MIKE: Do you get many offers for your production skills and is there anyone in particular who you’d be keen to work with?
SEAN: I do get a fair few enquiries for production work, but it has to be something that really takes my fancy musically to justify time way from the family. When I'm not touring, time with the kids is precious and it takes a lot to drag me away from that.
MIKE: Kathryn, would it be fair to say that your career was a little ‘on hold’ while your children were starting to grow up and you can now start to look at the even more difficult job of combining being both a mum and a jobbing musician?
KATHRYN: Having twins was harder than I expected, it's not as easy to ask someone to watch them for a start, with a single baby we probably could have carried on gigging, but it just wasn't practical. To be honest, I was lucky to be able to take time out to be a mummy and I was so tired I didn't have room in my brain for song lyrics!! It is easier now they're older but still takes some juggling and we often take them with us, which is amazing for them; they get to experience some fantastic music and dancing at festivals.
MIKE: In the future could you possibly see the Lakeman clan becoming the ‘new Royal family of folk’? You have the twins to bring into the equation (and then of course Seth may end up with some children, and there’s Sam and Cara....the reformation of Equation.....the possibilities are endless!). And in a few years time you could even be looking at ‘Lake-Fest’!!
KATHRYN: Trouble is, for all the Lakeman children, all the adults in the extended family, Lakemans, Roberts and Dillon , are musicians ( including grandparents and siblings ) so they think it's how everyone in the world makes a living. I keep trying to steer them towards something sensible like plumbing or dentistry - someone's got to keep us in our old age!
Thanks so much for your time in answering these questions and hope to see you out on the road this year. Good luck.www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com