I first heard Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne when I was working at Sidmouth Folk Week, back in 2018. In his early twenties at that point, Cohen was already something of a veteran and I was clearly late to the party. What struck me, aside from his instrumental virtuosity and that strident voice, was his passion for traditional music. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing I’d been bitten by the tradfolk bug at an earlier age. On the occasions I’ve met and chatted with Cohen since (I interviewed him last year for The Old Songs Podcast – you can listen to his episode by clicking here), I’ve been moved by the love and delight that this music stirs within him.
For those that don’t know, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne is a singer and performer of English traditional songs and tunes. He performs as a solo artist, and with Granny’s Attic – a trio that met at school in the Midlands. Last year he was involved in editing the Southern Songster Songbook, a new collection of songs from the collections of George Gardiner and the Hammond Brothers – and he also found time to record a new album – Rakes & Misfits – which will be released officially in the Spring. In the first weeks of 2021, that album was all that I found myself listening to.
I suppose I like to see that idea of standing up for your convictions. In a very small way, I’m standing up for my convictions – my love of English traditional music.Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne
Thank you for soundtracking the early days of 2021 for me.
You’re very welcome.
I’ve really enjoyed the new album. It’s just a proper, no holds barred, traditional album.
I suppose it is, yeah.
There’s a theme to it, isn’t there? It’s there in the title: Rakes & Misfits. What’s the attraction to these people? Aren’t these people that would fall foul of cancel culture these days?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. It’s not something I’d thought about. The theme was almost backward, in that I found the songs and then noticed that there was a commonality, rather than selecting a theme and then looking for songs that fitted in with that. I suppose part of it is that I’ve always been attracted to songs that are about outsiders and misfits. I suppose I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit myself. You know, I’m not a highwayman but being a teenager in Birmingham and Worcester that played concertinas and melodeons and went to folk clubs, I always felt a bit like that.
So you see yourself as a rake or a misfit?
[Laughs] I think so!
Which one are you? A rake or a misfit?
[Laughs] I’d say I’m more of a misfit than a rake. I’ve not committed too many crimes.
Anything you’d like to admit to?
Not on record, no [laughs].
That’s a really good starting point – the idea of being a young person in what might be perceived as an older person’s world, playing squeezeboxes and therefore feeling like a misfit. At the time of this interview, there’s obviously a lot on social media about this bizarre resurgence of the sea shanty on Tiktok. What do you make of that? I’m obviously asking you that because you’re relatively young compared to me…
You weren’t supposed to agree with me quite so quickly on that.
I suppose you’re roughly the same age as some of those guys doing those Tiktok videos. I’m fascinated about where traditional songs and traditional tunes fit with a young audience in 2021.
Hmmm. I’m not on Tiktok – I’m not cool enough [laughs]. I became aware of it when my sister sent it to me on Facebook and said, “This is Granny’s Attic on steroids!” [Laughs] I think it’s a fun thing that people in their 20s and 30s are enjoying singing shanties and old songs. Whether it has any lasting impact remains to be seen. But, yeah, I like the idea of it. I don’t have any problem with it.
No, of course not. I’ve had friends messaging me and saying I should get on Tiktok and sing folk songs. It’s like, whaaat?! I feel ancient enough as it is. I can’t think of anything that would make me feel more like a rake or a misfit.
If you take a song like ‘The New Deserter’ on the new album, I’m interested in what might grab you and make you want to sing it. You come at it with such a passion, and you maintain that passion over what is quite a long period – it’s a long ballad. Clearly, you’ve never been a deserting soldier, so what is it about a song like that that drives a passion in you?
It’s a good question. Yes, you’re right – I think it’s the longest one on the album. I would say, actually, the thing that attracted me to that song was probably the tune more than the words. Although, I’m very fond of the words as well. Again, I think it’s that thing of being a bit of an outsider and standing up for what you believe in. I suppose that’s what the chap in that song is doing. He’s perhaps deserting because of some objection to his treatment in the military… I don’t really know because it’s not properly revealed. I suppose I like to see that idea of standing up for your convictions. In a very small way, I’m standing up for my convictions – my love of English traditional music. That gives me something I can relate to in that song.
I know it’s a very hard thing to put your finger on. For me, it’s to do with things like old turns of phrase. Many words and phrases have fallen out of our vocabulary, and yet there’s something so charming about the way they sound and the way they roll off the tongue.
You’ve done something with that yourself because you’re actually writing songs on this album, too, which you didn’t do on the first album. I’m thinking of the song, ‘Countryman in Birmingham’. You’ve managed that trick of writing something that most people would assume is from the traditional cannon but they might be quite surprised to find that you wrote it. What’s the knack there? How did you go about doing that?
It’s slightly awkward talking about it, in the sense that I wouldn’t call myself a songwriter. I’ve written three songs now, and the last one I wrote was that one, about three years ago. I was very consciously trying to go for the pastiche folk song, I suppose. I was very much imitating that style. The tune is based on a traditional one, so I had that as a framework to start with.
What’s the tune?
The tune is called ‘The Farmer and the Cow’. That’s a brilliant song. It’s about two farmers that are fighting over a cow, and then they get a lawyer involved and the lawyer steels the cow.
Hahaha! Love that.
It’s a great song. It was collected by my friend Nick Dow in Fleetwood near Blackpool. So, I used that as my framework and that gave me a grounding in the tradition. Also, one of the verses is almost a direct quote from a single verse that Frank Kidson published in Traditional Tunes. So, one of the verses – about two thirds of the way through – is essentially a verse from a traditional song. And, actually, that verse was my starting point.
Were you ever told that old tale at primary school, that if you’re in Birmingham you’re legally allowed to rob someone that isn’t from Birmingham? Was that a thing you heard?
I don’t know that one, but I remember hearing something similar about Chester. It was something like, “Between the hours of midnight and 4am, you’re legally allowed to shoot a Welshman through the neck with a crossbow if he’s inside the city walls.” One of those ridiculous supposed bylaws that clearly can’t be true.
Yeah, it’s a similar kind of idea. So, I was starting with a traditional tune and a traditional verse, and that kind of old wives tale story. It was very much grounded in “old things”. I suppose the language side of it just comes from the fact that I sing folk songs – I’m used to the turns of phrase that we use. It comes fairly naturally.
Yes, you’ve been doing it for so long now, with Granny’s Attic and your solo stuff. You must be kind of steeped in it, really.
I suppose so, yes.
What else do you listen to?
My main thing other than folk music is baroque and renaissance music.
Wow! You’re quite an anomaly, aren’t you!?
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve never really “got” modern pop music beyond the Beach Boys! [Laughs] Yeah, so that’s my main thing really: early music and traditional songs.
No wonder you’re feeling like a rake and a misfit.
I’m loving the sound of the album. I guess that’s as much to do with your mastery of the instrument and the songs as it is to do with your producer, Tom A Wright, and the sound of that lovely room. Something like ‘Strawberry Lane’, for example, sounds to me like I’m wandering down a leafy country lane at the height of summer, hearing steam organ music in the distance. I’m suddenly in the mood for a country fair. But country fairs and steam organs… they’re quite a distant memory for me. They’re all about nostalgia and my childhood. And there’s something there that makes me feel like I’ve always known this music. Does that make sense? Does that sound trigger something similar in you?
Yeah, I think you could be right. There is certainly something about melodeons and concertinas that does sound indescribably old, even though – in the grand scheme of things – they’re comparatively modern instruments. They do have that kind of vintage sound. As you say, there’s something of the country fair, piratey, nautical (going back to Tiktok)… it does conjure that up. I came to melodeons and concertinas not from a folkie household, so my immediate reaction to them was thinking of them as sounding very old and, yeah, very nautical.
Can you remember your first interaction with a melodeon or concertina? How did you react to it? Was it something you simply had to have a go on, or was it a gradual attraction?
The first time I saw one would’ve been when I’d just started getting excited by folk tunes. I’d joined a young person’s folk band in Herefordshire. I was playing the fiddle at that point. The band leader played just about everything. He had a concertina, which he got out and sang a song with. I thought, “that’s an amazing sound”. I think in particular it was the sound of the concertina along with the voice, which isn’t something I did for a while myself. I’d heard other free-reed instruments – I’d seen buskers with accordions, or maybe people playing them at folk clubs. But the concertina in particular… it’s quite a harsh sound; quite strident. I absolutely loved it. You know, some people compare it to the electric guitar? I can kind of see that. It’s quite a cutting sound.
I did some recording for Belshazzar’s Feast just before Christmas. They were recording some online gigs and they needed someone to run the sound desk. When I got the recordings home for mixing, I was astounded to find that the squeezebox had invaded everything. It was almost the only frequency you could hear.
But I find the melodeon and concertina to be like the musical equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. To me, they’re such a brain-teaser – a real brain workout. Was the concertina something you took to straight away, or was playing it something you really had to work at?
I got my first squeezebox for Christmas when I was 11. I treated it like a toy, but I could actually play tunes on it. What I did was I took it, played each button, and then compared each note to where it was on the violin. I sort of mapped out the notes like that. It was almost like a musical exercise rather than following my instincts.
And that’s something that, at 11, you took upon yourself to do?
[Laughs] Absolutely! Looking back, I did take to it quite quickly.
That’s quite an analytical thing for an 11 year old to be sitting and doing at Christmas.
[Laughs] Er, yeah…
Your story is an interesting one, in that your parents weren’t folkies and you weren’t really exposed to folk music, but something seem to have just flicked a switch in your head.
Yes, I was a young violin player learning in the conventional, classical way. We were learning very simple folk tunes and I was just taken with them.
Did your parents come around to it? Did they learn to love these songs and tunes, too?
Yeah, they’re both engaged in the scene in their own way. They were sort of on the edge of it anyway, really. They were into The Pogues, The Levellers, Billy Bragg… there was that kind of punky-edge stuff in the house. They were certainly receptive to it.
I was really interested to hear you speak on the BBC radio programme, My Albion, when you were talking about going over to Barbados and hearing tunes that you could name as so-called English traditional pieces, but clearly they had travelled and taken on new guises elsewhere.
In this particular case it was the tune, ‘The Keel Row’, which is a very well-known North East folk song or lullaby. I heard it played by a steel pan band in Barbados, and actually, since I did that show, Andy Turner of Magpie Lane (a great concertina player) sent me a very scrape-y recording of a fiddle band playing what I know as ‘The Keel Row’ in the Seychelles. It must’ve travelled with British colonialism.
That idea of songs travelling, and their sense of place, ties into my next few questions. Let’s go back to ‘Strawberry Lane’, because I love that song. I guess a lot of people who are new to folk music would hear that song and think they already know it from Simon & Garfunkel’s recording of ‘Scarborough Fair’ (if not Martin Carthy’s version). That’s something that I really fell in love with when it came to traditional songs: the long history, the twists and turns, the way that one song apparently becomes another. What do you know of the history of ‘Strawberry Lane’? Like ‘Scarborough Fair’, it obviously descends from ‘The Elfin Knight’, doesn’t it?
The particular variant I sing was collected by Cecil Sharp in Taunton, Somerset. The title, ‘Strawberry Lane’… I added that, along with the first verse from another version, because I quite liked the sound of those words. It has a folkie-wokey, old fair kind of sound to it. But the tune and the rest of the verses were collected by Sharp from a singer called Mr William Huxtable of Rowbarton, which is now a suburb of Taunton.
And that’s one of the interesting things about a song like this one. It has been all over the place. You’ll pick up strains of that song, and variants on the lyrics, under loads of different titles. And the other magical part of this, for me, is that sense of place and location that these songs have. Someone once explained it to me as, “these are songs with a postcode”, which I find so compelling. I’m particularly taken with ‘The Worcester Farewell’ tune on your new album. It has a lovely sentimentality to it. It’s obviously Midlands-based, as are you. Does it mean anything to you, as a lad from that neck of the woods, to be playing this tune?
‘The Worcester Farewell’ is a funny one. Of everything I’ve been playing on the album, that’s the tune I’ve been playing the longest. I’ve been playing it since before I made my first album. It was almost a throwaway tune for a while. I learnt it as a sentimental thing, yeah. I’d lived in Worcester for about 15 years and then we moved away. I learnt it around that time, and yes, there was a certain sentimentality to learning a tune called ‘The Worcester Farewell’ as I’m literally saying farewell to Worcester. It took a while to enter my repertoire properly, and for it to be a regular fixture of gigs. I like it a lot. It’s one of my favourites to play live.
How are you separating the tunes that you keep for yourself and the songs you do with Granny’s Attic? Do you have a pile that the others guys just aren’t allowed to hear?
[Laughs] There’s an almost indescribable quality that a song needs to have to work with a three-piece, I think. If it’s a really long and complex ballad, that’s just not going to work with three people. I think doing something like that solo brings a more personal approach. It’s almost more honest. I’ll give you an example. The song that kickstarted me wanting to do solo stuff was ‘Fireman’s Growl’, which is the last song on my first album. I became sort of obsessed with it for a while. I’m a mild railway anorak…
Hahaha! Misfits, Rakes & Railway Anoraks. You’ve missed a trick there!
[Laughs] Anyway… I wanted to do that song for ages with Granny’s Attic and it just didn’t feel right because that song is very much about the life of one person telling his story. It just felt a bit artificial doing it as a three-piece. I felt the only way to do it is to have it as one person performing solo. So, I’m essentially inhabiting the role of that character, and the only way I was going to be able to sing that song was if I did it on my own. That was kind of why I started doing solo stuff.
Going back a little bit to ‘The Worcester Farewell’, you said in the sleevenotes that it came from a book containing 128 pieces. Were they all good? Presumably you come across a lot of dross in a book like that, so how does one tune leap off the page at you while others don’t?
I enjoy raking through those books. I enjoy it a lot. I’ve got a knack of reading through tunes really quite quickly and knowing if I’m going to like them. This book of 128 tunes, or whatever it was, I could probably sift through in about eight minutes and pick out 10 that I’d want to learn, and then maybe two will enter my repertoire. That’s the standard process.
So, have you followed that classic folkie tradition of heading down to Cecil Sharp House and spending hours digging around in the library there?
I’ve never done it at Cecil Sharp House, or at least not in person. The University of Leeds has a fantastic library, and when I was there I used to do it quite a lot. Birmingham Library has a very, very good folk archive.
Somewhere to go digging around once lockdown is over. My last question has to do with introducing newbies to traditional music. Say you’re chatting to someone who has discovered sea shanties on Tiktok, what would you recommend them to go and listen to as a kind of gateway to the world of tradfolk? Other than Rakes & Misfits, of course.
[Laughs] Well, bearing in mind that I also came from outside the folk scene originally, too, the musicians that really got me excited were Faustus and Spiers & Boden. They’re quite authentic – acoustic instruments, voices, harmonies, and all that kind of stuff – but there’s so much power, energy and vitality there. The albums that got me really excited were the first Faustus album and Bellow by Spiers & Boden.
Is it no coincidence, then, that Granny’s Attic ended up with a similar sort of lineup?
[Laughs] It’s no coincidence at all.