The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at

Songwriting in the North

From Ceilidh to the songs of the mining communities of the north of England, Scotland and the north have always been home to rich songwriting traditions. Elisa Bray looks at how these traditions have not just been kept alive, but have found a new outlet through contemporary artists.

For Kenny Anderson aka King Creosote, who performs his new album Astronaut Meets Appleman, at the Barbican on Sunday 22 January, it’s inevitable that his music would be steeped in his roots. Scottish Folk music is in his blood – his father was famous for his accordion playing in Fife and beyond, and Anderson took the instrument up at a young age.


King Creosote

If Scotland is fertile ground for songwriting, that could in part be thanks to the rural way of life beyond the cities, inspiring for its lack of distractions. It’s here that the tradition of families passing folk songs down the generations has flourished. In a village such as Crail in Fife, where Anderson lives, people have to seek their own self-employment to get by, which makes for an area rich in creativity.

‘The people who are living here are all trying to make their own way with their own ideas and that’s inspiring. I couldn’t thrive in a city environment. I wouldn’t feel like I had the freedom to write songs. At no point do I feel I’m part of a rat race; I exist in this idyllic, competition-free, inspiring environment with like-minded souls.’ Feeling more cut off also lends more space to the imagination and creativity. ‘There’s Zero G reception here. Maybe our lives afford us more hours in which to reflect.’

I couldn’t thrive in a city environment. I wouldn’t feel like I had the freedom to write songs

It’s this space that Fife-born singer songwriter Steve Mason (lead picture) – whose Barbican show (Fri 27 Jan) looks back at his career spanning The Beta Band, King Biscuit Time and subsequent solo work – finds inspiring. ‘The great thing about Fife where I am right now is it’s completely quiet’, Mason reflects. ‘You’re allowed that huge amount of space and lack of noise pollution, and that in itself allows your mind to unburden itself and free itself from any other interruptions and you become introspective and that’s when creativity can start.’

It’s not only nestled in the relative quiet of the countryside that Britain’s songwriting traditions have flourished. The cities of England’s industrial north have been an incubator for many of the country’s greatest songwriters, with Folk music acting as an important means of capturing the history and character of the region, and the human experiences at the heart of the huge changes that have shaped life in the north in the past century.

In February, Newcastle’s Warm Digits and Sunderland’s Field Music provide the soundtrack to Esther Johnson’s film Asunder, a project that uses archive footage to map out the impact of the First World War on Sunderland – not through grisly images of war on the fighting fronts, but through the real stories of people from the city.


Field Music

For Field Music’s Peter Brewis, who grew up with brother David in post-industrial Tyne and Wear, their music is very much steeped in their surroundings, but it also updates the themes of the songwriting culture of the north east: ‘I didn’t want the material to be derived from Folk songs and work songs for the north east. We always talk about a sense of place. The locality of the north east is really important to my songs and I absolutely love Folk music and it needs to be recycled so that people can actually hear it, but I think there’s a danger of it becoming a cliché’, he explains.

‘Me and my musical friends – The Futureheads, Maximo Park, Frankie and the Heartstrings – all had a sense that there was something wrong with the place that we lived in, in that it’s depicted as a former industrial heartland and that’s gone. That’s one of my problems with utilising those cultural songwriting norms from the north east like talking about ship building, fishing industry and the mines. While I do kind of yearn for an identity and particularly a north eastern one, I want to construct it myself out of my own lived experience rather than the things that were prevalent here 30 or 40 years ago.’

What permeates the lyrics of these contemporary artists is a sense of place and time, and thoughtful story-telling, in the true tradition of Folk. There’s a timelessness in the way Folk songs are revived, and elements of traditional Folk are continued, with lyrics telling of small local characters, love and heartache, often with whimsical imagery and wit.

Following in the tradition of Folk music specific to its location, these artists draw their surroundings into their songs. On From Scotland With Love, Anderson’s typical wit runs throughout his story-telling lyrics, as he conjures up the less than balmy summertime of Scottish towns in songs named after Saltcoats and Largs, the latter dryly describing ‘The water here doesn’t get any warmer’ in a sprightly folky number. Scottish sayings such as ‘haud yer wheesht’ are a humorously blatant nod to his roots. Likewise, a sense of place has influenced Mason’s music. His most upbeat solo album to date came with his latest, 2016-released, Meet the Humans, which followed a move from the isolating surroundings of Fife – where he lived in the woods – to buzzy Brighton.

What’s wonderful is that each part of the country has its own source of songs and its own repertoire


Shirley Collins

From the south, but another artist drawing on the British Folk tradition and for whom a sense of place is integral to her music, is Shirley Collins, who in February returns to the stage at the Barbican after releasing her first album in 38 years.

‘I used to walk a great deal on the South Downs, and when you listen to the traditional songs that have been collected in Sussex, they have this wonderful quality, long beautiful graceful lines much like the Downs’, she says. ‘What’s wonderful is that each part of the country has its own source of songs and its own repertoire; it keeps some of that difference alive which is so vital and colourful.’

For Collins, keeping the traditions of Folk music alive is essential. ‘It’s so much a part of our culture. There’s a great rise of interest in genealogy; people want to know where they’ve come from, and I think with music it’s much like that. Some of these songs have lasted a few hundred years and they’re still being sung by ordinary people in the countryside. They pass them on because they love them.’

Listen to more from Steve Mason as he joins us on the Contemporary podcast:

Originally published in the February 2017 Guide.