Rachael McShane was the only female member of folk phenomenon, Bellowhead. You probably knew that. If you never saw Bellowhead live or on the TV, you’d have been able to find that much out from the internet. It’s probably why you’re here, reading this article. “Rachael McShane”, you’ll have thought. “She was in Bellowhead. I’ll have a read of that.”
The thing is, though, it’s about the only thing you’ll find out from the internet when it comes to Rachael McShane. If you’re after info with any greater depth, you’ll have to dig pretty deep. For such a folk world heavyweight, she treads incredibly lightly, digital-footprint-wise.
So, with news of her latest album (When All Is Still) recently announced, we decided to rectify the “who is Rachael McShane?” conundrum with one of our typically long and rambling interviews. As usual, we’ve peppered it with videos and Spotify playlists, so strap on your ear goggles and settle in for the long-haul. And once you’ve done that, you can pre-order her album by clicking this link. How very decent of you.
I’ve been trying to research your background for this interview, Rachael, and apart from a few small biographies here and there, there’s not a huge amount out there on the internet explaining who Rachael McShane really is. Do you have any idea?
Aha! It’s a mystery!
Maybe you want to keep it that way? In which case, this interview’s over.
Can I go right back then? Where does traditional folk music start for you?
Erm, I suppose I was just brought up with it.
So, you were from a folkie family?
Yeah, my mum and dad have always been big into folk music. My dad did a lot of playing for ceilidhs, and he still does, so I always got taken to folk festivals as a child. I just grew up with it, really. I was just the weird folkie child at school [laughs].
It’s so funny: whenever anybody tells me about their upbringing with folk music, they always paint this picture of themselves having been a bit strange; “the weird folkie kid they put in the classroom corner and kept away from the cider…”
Hahaha! Yeah, I suppose ‘unique’ might be a better word. There was nobody at my school who knew anything about folk music, really, or even liked it. I remember when things came up in our GCSE music classes about folk music, the head of music would always turn and ask me, “Rachael, what can you tell us about a concertina?”
“Err… let me think.”
I played lots of stuff at school other than folk, though. I was in the orchestra and the string groups, and stuff like that.
So, you were generally just a musical child?
Who were you listening to when you were going to the folk festivals? Do you remember anyone in particular?
Oh, god! Let me think. I remember going to see Karen Tweed and Andy Cutting at Whitby Folk Festival. I was quite young at the time, and I was really excited. I was an Irish dancer when I was younger – wow, you’re really digging out the secrets now – and I had Karen Tweed’s Irish tunes book and tape. I wore that tape out! Oh god, this is terrible… I went to see her with Andy Cutting and I was expecting it to be like that. I was so excited, but sorely disappointed! They played a load of tunes that I’d absolutely love nowadays, but at the time I remember thinking, “Tsk! Can’t dance to this!” Haha!
Quite a snob, then?
I was only seven! I was just disappointed. “What’s all this?! I wanted Irish tunes!” I went to loads of ceilidhs as a kid. I just loved dancing.
Do you remember the point that you started picking it up on the fiddle or the cello?
I can remember the day, actually. My dad mostly plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukelele – that kind of thing – but he did have a fiddle that was knocking around the house that he used to play a little bit. I just picked it up one day and had a bit of a go. I think he may have taught me a quick tune on it. Then I discovered that I had all this music in my head that I’d had from going to ceilidhs and doing all that Irish and clog dancing. They were just there, and they felt very easy to play on the fiddle. Easier to play on the fiddle than on the cello, certainly.
You’re from up in the North East, is that right? Was there anything to do with where you’re from that connected you to the tradition?
I’m from Yorkshire, originally, but I do live up in the North East now. But, yeah, little things like folkie gatherings at Christmas where people would sing lots of Sheffield carols and stuff like that. Apart from that, probably not really. Moving up to Newcastle, there’s a vibrant traditional scene up here and I’ve kind of got into more of the local traditional music through doing that. I didn’t know a lot of that before I moved up here.
Did you move up to Newcastle in relation to the university folk degree?
I did. I was in the first ever intake of that course.
With Emily Portman and people like that?
I think Emily was actually in the year below me.
Oh, wow. So you were the original!
Ha! Well, there were a few others. Tom Oakes, Ian Stephenson, Shona Mooney, Fay Hield – there were quite a few of us from that year that went onto playing folk music as a career… somehow!
How did you move from uni to Bellowhead, then?
Well, as you might know, Fay Hield’s partner is Jon Boden, and they’d had this idea to put together that band, and they were looking for someone who could play the cello and sing. Fay suggested me, and I got the job! [Laughs] I was still a student when I was first in Bellowhead, actually. Back then it was a long degree – four years – so by the final year I was already doing a whole heap of festivals and already working. So by the time it came to an end, I was kind of ready for it.
When you say “it came to an end”, you’re talking about university rather than Bellowhead, presumably?
Yeah, the degree.
Do you miss Bellowhead?
Yeah, I really miss it. I miss them all so much. We spent such a long time in each other’s company on tour buses in all kinds of situations. Just not seeing them and not having any day in the diary where we’ll all be together again is very sad. I keep trying to meet up with people here and there, though.
It seems to me that it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Surely you’ll eventually get together and do an annual Cropredy kind of thing.
[Visibly wary] I don’t know. People keep saying that, and it would probably be a lovely thing, but I’d be very surprised if it happened. I’m very sad about that, as well! Never say never, but I can’t imagine that it will happen.
Yeah, well The Beatles said that, too, and even they came crawling back eventually (after a fashion).
Hahaha! True, but there were less of them.
Which brings us neatly on to your solo career. You’re about to release a solo album, but it’s not your first is it?
No. I brought one out in 2009 [No Man’s Fool], but this is quite a different thing. That album was all traditional material as well, but the guys in the band I used weren’t folkie in the slightest. For them, it was quite a steep learning curve. Y’know, “That verse has got an extra beat! What’s that about?” Whereas us folkies just go [shrugs], “Oh yeah… oh well.”
I loved what we did with that first album, but for this one, certainly after Bellowhead had finished, I just fancied doing something that was a bit more “folkie”. So, I got together with Matthew Ord, with whom I’d done a little bit before – a great guitarist and singer – and Julian Sutton, who is a fantastic squeezebox player and writes some amazing, mind-boggling tunes as well.
When you get together with people like that, are you sitting around with them for a year working the tunes up, or do you get together over a small period of time and try and work up a chemistry between you?
It probably was a year, actually. We were just meeting up and trying out ideas. There were probably quite a few things that we tried that we haven’t since done anything with. We all live up here in Newcastle, so it’s quite nice to have that luxury of all getting together for a couple of hours of an evening, and then just go home. I always record all the rehearsals, go home and listen back. You might get a take of something that’s not feeling quite right, but there might be something in it – a little sparkle there that you want to keep. It’s quite nice to do it that way – to come back and revisit things.
What was the process of picking the tunes? Were they things you’d known for years?
A bit of a mix, really. Some of them I’d known for ages, and I’d been singing them for a long time. Things like ‘Cropper Lads’ and ‘Sheath and Knife’, I’ve been singing for a long, long time, and I just fancied doing them with a band. Other things like ‘Lady Isabel’, I found in a lovely book called Folk Songs Of North America.
I’ve just got loads of random folk books that I’ve collected from charity shops and been given by people. Quite often I’ll think, “Yeah, I like that bit of the tune”, so I’ll keep part of it and put something new with it. Or I might find the words for something but no tune. Sometimes you’ll find something with 10 great versions and 10 great tunes, but it’s quite nice to just go, “Right! I’m going to start singing this song and just see what comes out!” So some of the tunes on this album have been written very specifically for it.
This interests me because, whenever I find words in the tradition that I’d like to sing but I can’t find the accompanying tune, I write the tune and it never sounds like a traditional folk song!
Maybe it’s because it’s taken me 40 years to arrive at traditional music, so I’m too firmly rooted in rock and indie and all that jazz.
Right, that makes sense.
Does it come out sounding like a traditional folk song when you do it? Do you consciously try to make it sound like it’s part of the tradition?
I think, even if I was trying not to, I would struggle not to make it sound like a traditional folk song [laughs]! I think it’s the problem you’ve got but in reverse. It’s too much in my blood, probably. I’ve grown up with that music. It’s a problem now and again – I play cello and sing in a more pop/rock outfit with a guy called RJ Thompson, and I have to try really hard to not sound like a folkie; I really have to try hard to stop sticking ornaments in places where they don’t belong! [Laughs] I need to sound more like a backing singer. But it’s just that the traditional structure is in there now. I can’t help it.
Can you give me some examples of songs on the new album that you’ve written new tunes for?
‘Green Broom’, ‘Sylvie’, ‘The Molecatcher’ and part of ‘Lady Isabel’. That one’s half-and-half. It’s quite a long song – about 16 verses, or something like that. What I ended up doing was keeping the first half of the verse that was in the book, and then for the second verse I’d write a new tune. So it almost became as though two verses were one verse. It felt like a shorter song for having given it a new bit of melody.
Is that allowed?!
Er, yeah! Who’s gonna stop me!?
The album is coming out on Topic Records, isn’t it?
It is, yeah!
You say that almost as if you’re surprised yourself!
No, it’s just it’s so exciting! They’ve got such an amazing back catalogue. Some of my favourite artists and albums were released on Topic. It’s so nice to be on that list.
How did that come about?
I got in touch with Proper Records, just to see if they might be interested when I was in the very early stages of putting the band together. They got back to me and said they were thinking of putting some new things out on Topic, and asked me if I was interested. It was so exciting!
I didn’t think Topic Records sought out new artists anymore. It’s a great thing to see.
It’s their 80th birthday next year, and I think they’ll be doing some interesting stuff around that.
So, watch this space! You’re taking the new album out on tour, right?
Yes, there’ll be some gigs over the summer, a few festivals, and then there’s going to be an official album tour in October.
Are you looking forward to doing that as a solo headliner?
It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a completely different bag to touring with Bellowhead – just the three of us in the car – but they’re lovely guys to play music with. I’m really looking forward to it.
There’s one question that I always try and sneak into these interviews, and that’s the inevitable one about the meaning of folk music. How do you define the term ‘folk music’?
Arrrgh! I don’t think you do! I think it means different things to different people. I think that word, ‘folk’, gets put on a lot of things that other people might not see as folk music. A prime example was when Mumford & Sons came along and a lot of people described it as folk music. In my eyes it’s not, but it’s got those little elements to it. Now, if that leads people down the path of exploring folk music at large – getting sucked down the rabbit hole of Spotify or Youtube – I think that can only be a good thing.