It was only in September that Kitty Macfarlane released her debut album, Namer of Clouds, but don’t be surprised to find it ending up in a few best of 2018 lists in coming weeks.
Just this week it has been nominated in the influential fRoots Critics Poll For Albums Of The Year.
And it will all be deserved, the stunning album wears its intelligence and research lightly – wrapped in beguiling poetic lyrics and Kitty’s easy way with a melody.
Produced by fellow musicians Sam Kelly and Jacob Stoney, the album was only recorded in April.
‘A lot of the songs I’ve been playing live for a long time,’ she tells The Guide, ‘so structurally they were already there, and it was a case of arranging them and putting them together. I wanted it to feel not laboured, not contrived.
‘I’m not going to say it wasn’t a challenge – we spent quite an intensive period of time in a couple of studios layering things up, and I had a team of really great people who threw themselves into the songs. I think you get something from completely immersing yourself in a song until it’s finished.’
As part of that immersive approach Kitty researches her material thoroughly.
‘What I’ve realised I’ve been writing more and more songs is that I love treating each song like a project in itself. Whether it’s a simple or complicated song. I love diving into it and finding a back-story.
‘There’s a couple of songs on there that did entail quite a bit of background research, especially one song I went to Sardinia for.’
Ah yes, Sea Silk, the album’s centrepiece. How did she come across the story of Chiara Vigo, the last of the sea silk seamstresses?
‘It was an internet find, really. I’m quite interested in textiles and knitting, and a friend sent me the story saying this sounds like it’s up your street. So I read it and started going down the internet rabbit warren. I was so amazed by the whole thing that I couldn’t help putting something together.
‘Just out of interest, I thought I’d look to see how much flights were to Sardinia as I saw she had this little sort of studio and museum, and I found off-peak flights for ridiculous money. I found a contact name for her and an email, and using Google translate, because she doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Italian, I wrote to her, and she wrote back saying I’d love you to come. She was amazing and showed me the whole process. I had no idea what was going to happen, or if a song was necessarily going to come out of it, but she was so inspiring that I ended up finishing the song.’
And Chiara is said to be the last of her line?
‘Supposedly, it’s all very mysterious. She’s the last person to do it in the authentic way. The whole point is that this sea silk can’t be sold for profit, it has to be given away as a gift, inevitably, the lack of commercial goal has driven out a lot of the younger generation. Her own daughter doesn’t want to do it, but she’s teaching it to others and wants to keep the story alive.’
Kitty uses the sounds of them talking and of her weaving as backing for the track, and it’s not the only time on the album she uses field recordings.
‘That was something I definitely wanted to do from the very beginning. We set off about the place doing these recordings with a portable microphone – I really wanted to feature some of the places and people that inspired the songs, to make it more of a collaborative process between me and them, and to play tribute to those people and places in the songs.
‘We did it on several songs - there’s one a traditional song from [her native] Somerset called Morgan’s Pantry, the eerie one. It’s about these sea creatures which are part of Somerset folklore and live in the Bristol Channel and lure sailors in to the mud and rocks. Allegedly they come to shore at this massive waterfall from the Quantock Hills into the Bristol Channel, and you can only find the waterfall at low tide. We found it on an Ordnance Survey map so we set off to record that.
‘And there’s also chaotic waterfowl in the background of a song called Starling Song, to set the scene of the Somerset Levels. I got up early to record that one, I went down there at 5am and sat in a bird hide in the cold in March.
‘I really loved doing it because I have always been interested in radio and podcasts, and things with soundscapes.
‘I used to have a folk music radio show when I was at uni, and I’d do interviews and then spend hours cutting them up and putting things behind and make the music come and go. I love that element of it and I’d love to do more of it.’
She studied English at French at Warwick University, and aside from the radio show, her studies also helped shape her songwriting.
‘I’ve always had a great interest in language and communication. I did this module in my last year called the practice of life-writing and it was a real game-changer for me. It was non-fictional writing, biographies, journals, letters, travel-writing – kind of non-academic non-fiction writing.
‘I love that whole element of social history and looking into trying to tell that history in different way, which I guess feeds into the songwriting.’
The album’s title, Namer of Clouds, comes from another real-life figure – Luke Howard.
‘He’s the man who came up with the names of all the cloud formations back in 1802, and that was definitely me doing a bit of nerding out and doing some research!
‘I came across his history a few years ago. Whenever I start a new songwriting notebook, I go back through the old one and see if there’s anything I didn’t work on that I should do, and I’d kept on putting his name in the margins – it kept popping up, so I thought I really should do something about him.
‘He revolutionised the way we look at clouds. Before he came up with the names, they were untamed and unscientific – they were kind of a divine force that no-one understood and people would come up with these wild theories why it rained and why they changed.
‘He was only an amateur but he put together this lecture and went to London at a time when science was really cool, so everyone would go to these lectures. People like Coleridge would go along with a notebook, and he would grip their imaginations.’
The Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Wednesday, November 21