What does it sound like?:
Katie Doherty and Mara Simpson have a lot more in common than just the rich, creamy texture of their voices. They both have their second album released today; gentle, intimate, personal, beautifully recorded albums in the ‘contemporary folk’ idiom. They both have been formally trained. Katie obtained a degree in Folk at Newcastle University back in 2006. Mara is classically trained in composition, piano and guitar. They both rely on a small number of musicians to embellish their songs with subtle sophistication and a dependable strength. Katie has her Navigators, Dave Gray and Shona Mooney, and Mara’s band consists of Fiddes Smith, Jools Owen and Jamie Patterson, plus Poppy Ackroyd provides orchestration to some songs. Finally, they both have a passion for story telling through music.
Katie comes across as more shy than Mara. Her first album was issued in 2007. In the interim, she’s lived the life of a farmer’s wife, bringing up family and keeping her musical muscles twitching as musical director for The Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It and in her native Gateshead Theatre. There is a purity about her singing and her songs, more authentically Folk than Mara. Nevertheless, more than a decade out of the recording studio will play tricks with your mind. Her lyrics are theatrical, full of character, but her music is muted, comforting, less dramatic, almost as though she is nervous to let go and allow the audience see into her soul. It makes And Then sound fragile and vulnerable.
Mara is from Hertfordshire and is based in Brighton. However, her family are from Kenya and she is a seasoned traveller used to encountering and getting on with people from different cultures. Her first album was in 2016 and she approaches the microphone with confidence, her voice more earthy and lived in. Her lyrics are simpler and lighter, more personal. Mara leans naturally towards Classical composition. As a result, her music is carefully weighted with portent, deeper and more detailed. She tries to make every moment count. There is a quiet undercurrent of tension beneath her songs giving them a sense of unease, drawing the listener in.
Playing the two albums back to back makes perfect sense. They sit together like siblings. They speak the same language with the same vocabulary, just with slightly different accents. They are both equally beautiful. Katie’s And Then is safer, more welcoming. Mara’s 285 Days has an edge and more variation in the music but the differences between the two are slight. It’ll be interesting to see which the public connects with most. The smart money will be on Mara Simpson and not simply because of the association with Poppy Ackroyd.
And Then and 285 Days are very thoughtful, very professionally put together albums. Both artists have invested their hearts and souls in them but they do induce a longing for a bit of spontaneity, the smell of the outdoors and the sound of children playing in fields.
What does it all *mean*?
These two albums do raise questions about the academicisation of Folk Music in higher education. Does the theoretical study of tradition, form, structure, styles and techniques help produce better songs and better performances, especially in a genre rooted in communities, based on people gathering together, laughing, crying and having fun? The answer is, of course, it’s neither better nor worse, just different, a sign of the times that applies to many other genres too. After all, Folk Music should reflect the world it is created in.
Goes well with…
An evening alone, warming by an open fire, sipping a smoky whisky, perhaps a Laphroaig, enjoying the moment. There are no real ear worms here.
Might suit people who like…
Contemporary Folk, a Classical-Folk hybrid, delicious female voices.