National Folk Festival Interview: Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton

Kate and Ruth
Image Courtesy of Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton

Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton are one of the reasons I got back into folk music in a big way as an adult – their albums from the late 90s and early 2000s proved to me that folk music could be for young people as well. After taking a break to start families and explore other musical projects Kate & Ruth return in 2015 with a brand new album – Declaration – and an appearance at this year’s National Folk Festival. I sat down with Ruth Hazleton to chat about the album and get her take on how her festival experience has changed over the years.

Gareth Hugh Evans: So congratulations on the new album Declaration. I’ve been listening non-stop since I got it and I absolutely love it. I think it’s up there with everything else you’ve produced. Congratulations!

Ruth Hazleton: Thank you!

GHE: For Declaration you’ve collaborated again with Luke Plumb as producer. What was it like working with him?

RH: We all met in the early early days, in the late 90s. He was playing music in Tasmania. We’ve always gotten along and always been aware of each other and then of course Shooglenifty stole hime for a long time. I think Kate and I decided about 18 months ago that we would like to do another album as it’s been such a long time in between. And we immediately thought of Luke because we knew that he was starting to do some production work. From the word go he had input – we’d narrowed down a list from about 60 songs to 15 and got it to where it was. He’s been a bit of a silent third member of the band actually. I don’t think the album would have been anywhere near as successful without his input. It’s been an absolute joy actually, not just from a production level but his playing on it is fabulous and also he engineered it as well. He’s just a really lovely person to work with in the actual recording studio situation. Kate and I both with kids and being mums we needed somebody who was level headed to keep us all together.

GHE: I love his production work. And the fact that he’s such an amazing musician as well adds to the production that he does.

RH: I think one of the specialties of Luke is even though he doesn’t sing he’s intensely good with song and finding the meaning in a song and finding the lyrics. He’s a bit of a super-head and we’re a bit proud to have been working with him.

GHE: You said you had to whittle the song choices down from about 60 songs, most of which I assume were traditional. Where do you source your trad songs from? Are you just flicking through the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and pulling songs out?

RH: We’ve done it that way in the past. All of us have houses full of Australian Folklore Volume 1 and 2 and the Cecil Sharpe Collections and all of that sort of stuff. We’re also very influenced by contemporary singers. Like “The Queen of Hearts” on the album for example, there’s been a lot of versions of that done very recently. When you play traditional songs you kind of go “does the world need another version of that?”. I think ultimately we just listen really widely and a good part of that process is the three of us all put in 20 odd songs each from all over the place. We basically did this from recordings as opposed to sheet music and books this time around. And it was good because we were challenged by Luke particularly from the word go with what it was about that song – was it the feel, was it the lyrics, was it the story. It made us really think about what we were trying to say. Sometimes you stumble into doing an album and it’s all about enthusiasm and you lose site of what the bigger picture is. And also quite often at festivals you’re sitting down listening to other people singing and you go “I want that song!”. A good song is a good song, however you find it.

GHE: I feel like when you’ve talked about your song choices on stage before you very rarely talk about getting the songs directly from “the source”. More often than not your story behind where you found the song involves you hearing someone’s version first.

RH: Yeah but also I studied post graduate folklore – we’ll start at that point but I always make a point, and so does Kate, of going back and finding the source. So even if we’ve fallen in love with say Linda Thompson’s version of “Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”, I’ll get back in there and do as much research to try and find exactly where that came from. And sometimes that takes an awful amount of time but sometimes it informs the way you sing it, knowing its history.

GHE: Do you ever then find the original version is so different that you’re torn by how to interpret it?

RH: Actually more so on this album. Kate and I took a very different approach to traditional music. When we were younger and we were being called “bearers of the tradition” there was a weight with that. We felt like we couldn’t touch the traditional song much. With this album we’ve really rearranged the songs to suit our purposes. Not to the point of not being recognisable of course! I probably call it the Andy Irvine approach – a song is a song that needs to be sung in its context. To put your own musical input into it you’ve got to be more and more prepared to muck around with the lyrics and muck around with the tune so it suits your purposes better. As I said I think that’s all fine as long as it comes with the respect and the knowledge of the source. I think songs don’t exist if you sing them the same way over and over again for ever.

GHE: I really like it when artists take traditional music and make it their own. The songs are not unrecognisable but you’re singing them from your own context.

RH: Absolutely. I think when you’re young you get so excited by the music that you do tend to cover it as opposed to interpret it. I agree with you, interpretation is the key to singing traditional songs. I’m not a great songwriter – Kate writes more songs than I do – but there’s a similar craft to that reinterpretation as exists to songwriting.

GHE: I’m glad that you’ve got a couple of your own songs on here as well. You’ve got one each on the album. The song you wrote is “Hearts Of Sorrow” which is beautiful, it has lots of contemporary themes running through it. Why that song in particular?

RH: I think it fitted topically. The album is a bit darker in terms of topic. Certainly one of the things that comes through [the album] is women’s stories – domestic abuse and that sort of stuff. I don’t write that many songs so it was a terrifying thing to actually include one on a Kate and Ruth Album. I’ve sung them live but I’ve very rarely released a song of my own. I think both of us are politically charged and politically aware and politically extremely disappointed at the moment. I think we felt like we wanted to make that statement and it just so happens that I had that song sitting on the sideline and it kind of works within the context of the album as a whole. I’m pleased it got on there!

GHE: Do you guys have a rule that you have to have a Bob Dylan song on every single album?

RH: No, but we always come to an album wanting to put a Dylan one on there. It turned out the way that it has.

GHE: I don’t think there’s a Dylan song on every album, that was a bit cheeky of me.

RH: But there pretty much is! I think we do actually go “is there a Dylan song that will fit?”. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” – Bob Dylan wrote it as is departure from wanting to be a political singer but it’s also got that kind of sentiment that anyone who’s into politics has at the moment, a kind of resignation for the status of bad things that are going on. It’s a reflection of that sort of thing.

GHE: And again it’s the way that you interpret those songs as well. I came to Dylan quite late so I heard your version of “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” before I heard his version, and when I sort his out I thought “this isn’t anywhere near as good as Kate & Ruth’s“.

RH: What a compliment! But if you wanted to compliment the real taker there that would be a musician named Tim Scalan who we pinched that particular feel from. But there you go, there’s the folk process in action.

GHE: You guys are going to be at The National Folk Festival this year which is very exciting. I first saw you guys at The National way back in the late 90s. Does it feel like a bit of a homecoming for you guys?

RH: Absolutely. We met when we were in Canberra, I went to university in Canberra and Kate did her later schooling in Canberra. We learnt and met a lot of people in our folk family in Canberra. So it’s exciting and also slightly nerve wracking after such a long break, going back to it. But it’s definitely home territory and I think it’s the festival we’re the most fond of given our history and how long we’ve been going.

GHE: Has The National changed for you now that you have kids? Does the way you experience the festival differ now that you’ve started a family.

RH: Yeah, it’s a totally different cup of tea. You kind of still think you’re 21 in your head half the time. I’d love to be in the session bar until five o’clock every morning but I’ve got a child who gets up at five thirty [laughs]. It’s a lot harder traveling and being able to get out there, as well because Kate and I live in different states. It’s different at the festival but it’s nice because more people our age are having kids now so there’s an assemblage all of us who were once young now dragging around little kids and changing nappies in odd spots. It’s lovely to expose your kids to the same stuff that you grew up with in a way – it’s really funny watching them pick out instruments and dancing along and knowing all these kooky songs that are very not mainsteam.

GHE: So after The National are you guys taking Declaration out on tour or to any other festivals?

RH: We’re only just getting around to sorting that out. We’re doing the St Albans Folk Festival. It’s been really lovely, people have been inviting us to play a fair bit which is wonderful, but logistically it’s really different to organise all of that stuff. But I think we’re going to sit down after Easter and do some Melbourne launches, try and get up to the Sydney/Newcastle region for a weekend. Kate’s just started post-graduate studies so a lot that revolves around her at the moment. We will launch it but I think we’ll launch it slowly and I think that’s part of what happens realistically when you have kids and you try to get back into the game. We’ll be flogging it for a long time!

GHE: I’m really happy that you’ve chosen to launch it at The National. It will be great to see you guys live. I hope I can actually get into one of your gigs because I imagine they’ll be very popular!

RH: You never know! We’re really looking forward to it.

1 Comment

  1. April 3, 2015 at 06:01

    […] “When we were younger and we were being called “bearers of the tradition” there was a weight with that. We felt like we couldn’t touch the traditional song much. With this album we’ve really rearranged the songs to suit our purposes” – Ruth Hazleton from Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]

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