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18th December 2009
METAL DISCOVERY: It’s a fantastic new album.
KATHARINE BLAKE: Oh, thank you, glad you like it.
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(Katharine Blake on performing in cathedrals)
"It’s just really inspiring because not only does it sound great but they look great as well. When you’re singing you look around at the architecture, and it makes it a more transcendental experience for the audience and for us."
Katharine Blake and Sarah Kayte Foster in The Chapter House at Sheffield Cathedral, UK, 18th December 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview and Photography by Mark Holmes
Formed in the mid to late nineties by former Miranda Sex Garden vocalist, Katharine Blake, Mediaeval Baebes released their predominantly a cappella based debut album, 'Salva Nos', in 1997 to wide critical acclaim and notable success in the classical music charts. Utilising texts from the Middle Ages, they arranged songs and poems from that era into sixteen refined cuts of melodically exquisite vocal-led music, with each composition based in the idioms characteristic of mediaeval tonality. Over the years, and through several lineup changes, the Baebes have progressed their music to create more complex and richly layered sonic tapestries combining innovative instrumentations with alluring vocal leads and harmonies. Aurally seductive and visually enchanting, there is no other band like Mediaeval Baebes and they've always managed to sustain wide ranging, cross-generic appeal that attracts fans of classical, rock, metal, goth, and folk to name but a few, as well as the more casual music listener. Performing in Sheffield Cathedral as part of a December UK tour, I arranged to meet up with the Baebes a couple of hours before showtime - both Katharine and newest recruit Sarah Kayte Foster answer my questions...
MD: [To Sarah] Obviously you’re not on the album…
SARAH KAYTE FOSTER: I’m not on the album, sadly, no.
KB: We’ll have to make another album as soon as possible so you can be on it!
SF: Absolutely!
MD: How have the reviews generally been because I understand fan and media reactions have been a bit mixed?
KB: I think a lot of our fans when they heard us from the beginning, they were maybe missing some of the a cappella, more traditional side of it, but we’ve done a lot of stuff like that so we thought it would be a good idea to just do something different; something a bit more lush in its instrumentation. You know, just a bit more commercial for want of a better word.
MD: There’s been a four year gap between ‘Mirabilis’ and ‘Illumination’…
KB: I think we put out ‘Illumination’ as merch in 2008 and then we actually officially released it quite a while later so I think it’s kind of a three year gap really.
MD: Why was there such a long gap between albums?
KB: Don’t know. Just writing it, you know! [laughs]
MD: The media often label Mediaeval Baebes as a ‘vocal group’ but the new album has more of a band vibe to it. Is that something you were aiming for?
KB: Yeah, I think there was definitely…like I said earlier, we went away from the more a cappella side of things for that album, but it’s something I’m sure we’ll be returning to again at a later date. It’s just exploring different dimensions of the band now. As we’ve gone on, we’ve got more and more instrumentation in our music and we’ve surrounded ourselves with some amazing musicians. We’ve got so many different instruments so it just seemed the logical thing to do, to experiment with different sounds. It adds to the choir with constantly augmenting the variety of musicians.
MD: [To Sarah] How did you feel about the new album as a listener, originally…were you a fan of the Baebes before?
SF: Yeah, I’ve actually been following the Baebes because I knew Esther. I’ve know Esther since I was sixteen so I saw her journey, and she became a Mediaeval Baebe, and was very familiar with it all already before I joined. I love the new album. I hear what the fans are saying - it is a progression, and I think that’s really important for any band, to be growing and experimenting with different sounds. It’s not like we’ve left behind the sounds we’ve had before, it’s just sort of adding to the mix really.
KB: Yeah, I think the rawness that made us popular in the first place and made us quite unique is definitely still there, particularly if you come and see us at a concert. We open the set with an a cappella piece going into ‘Desert Rose’ which is the first track on ‘Illumination’, so it’s a really good dynamic at the beginning from totally just a cappella to full on instrumentation. We like to experiment going from one to the other which is great because not many bands do that….I think it’s a great selling point because there aren’t many bands who go up there and do a cappella and then do something with a whole band, so that makes us quite unique.
MD: Yeah, and it’s like a good contrast as to where you were and where you are now.
KB: Exactly, yeah.
MD: There’s a greater fusion of modern, experimental, and traditional elements on the new album more than any of the other releases - did you always intend to make a more musically diverse album or did it more naturally evolve in that way?
KB: I think it just happened naturally. Also, a lot of it is there are a lot of writers on board now. Bev, Pom and Esther had never written a Baebes song before as they hadn’t been in the band previously, so they brought their writing styles into the pot which has made things a lot more diverse.
MD: You bill yourself as ‘musical director’ on the credits of the album - what constitutes that role?
KB: Oh, you know, just kicking everyone’s arse! [laughs] Trying to get everyone to shut up in rehearsal when we start playing a song and everyone’s whipping each other up into a frenzy, you know…estrogen! [laughs] Trying to keep everyone in line…
SF: And conducting us onstage is quite a biggie, isn’t it.
KB: Yeah, I conduct. Someone has to be in charge otherwise it would be chaos with so many people. I’m in charge of the music, if you like, but that doesn’t mean that no-one else contributes or has any ideas about where to take things.
MD: You’ve been signed to major and independent labels during your career - has there been a noticeable disparity in your experiences between the two?
KB: Virgin was the first label we were signed to and they were really good at marketing us. Maybe the way they did it was quite crude…you know, they got these publicists in who went for “the Mediaeval Spice Girls” thing, “Ye Olde Spice”, and it was…
MD: Tacky!
KB: It was tacky but it worked! Our first album went silver, so…
MD: ...you can’t grumble too much!
KB: No, I can’t grumble too much! Since then, we’ve been signed to EMI, BMG, and Nettwerk, a Canadian record company, so we’ve been through quite a lot of record labels. Our latest album is self-released.
MD: I was going to ask that, if Queens of Sheba is your own label.
KB: Yeah, that’s our own label.
MD: Did you have as much autonomy with the major labels?
KB: You mean artistic freedom sort of thing?
MD: Yeah.
KB: Yeah, no-one’s ever really told me what to do. There was a bit of a weird experience happened with Mediaeval Baebes’ third album, ‘Undrentide’. John Cale produced it and, to be honest, we weren’t very happy with what he did because he was very much doing what the record company told him to do, which was to try and make it sound all modern but I just thought it sounded a bit naff. But, in terms of my writing, I’ve never been told what sort of thing to write, which is great.
MD: Was last year the first cathedral tour you did?
KB: No, we’ve done about three now I think….three or four…this might be the fourth one actually.
MD: Was it always an aim for the band to come and play this kind of venue because it must be perfect for what you do, acoustics-wise?
KB: Oh yeah, it’s great. It’s just really inspiring because not only does it sound great but they look great as well. When you’re singing you look around at the architecture, and it makes it a more transcendental experience for the audience and for us.
SF: It makes a lot of sense in these venues. You get a sense of the history.
MD: I think this one is quite new as a cathedral, like twentieth century.
SF: It’s certainly a lot warmer than the other ones! I was absolutely delighted with the under-floor heating!
KB: I was amazed!
SF: That’s made my year! [laughs]
MD: Are you usually quite freezing then?
SF: Yeah, definitely! You get used to having icy-cold feet!
KB: We’re lucky as they’re often serving up mulled wine at these sort of events which warms you up without…I think they boil off all the alcohol so you don’t actually get too drunk; it just warms you up! [laughs]
MD: Out of sheer interest, have you ever performed ‘Summerisle - The Maypole Song’ in a cathedral because I think that would be an interesting irony with the Pagan/Christian paradox?!
KB: No, we haven’t, but I’ve actually got a compilation, a playlist we play as the background music when people walk in, and a lot of the songs are from ‘The Wicker Man’. I don’t think anyone’s realised…! [laughs] I do actually sing a song in Welsh in a lot of cathedrals which has got the Welsh word for cunt in it. It’s a fourteenth century poem written by a woman that I set to music and it’s in praise of the female genitalia. I sing that but no-one knows how rude it is because it’s in Welsh! Basically, I’m just going “cuuuunt” at the top of my voice! It works! [laughs]
SF: Little do they know!
MD: Marvellous! What’s the actual word so I can listen out for this later?!
KB: I could recite the whole poem to you but I’m not sure of the actual word.
MD: Ah right, but you are saying "cunt" at some point?
KB: The line which has got the word "cunt" in it is “Hair on a fine bright cunt”.