Catherine Howe won an Ivor Novello award for her song “Harry”. She has a fine and varied body of work which is worth seeking out. Here we discuss her recent collaboration with Vo Fletcher; English Tale.
I began by asking Catherine if getting the Novello award was an encouragement as a singer and writer.
CH: It is a form of affirmation, but also, finding that fine musicians want to work with you and that also is a very strong affirmation.
WW: What were your early musical influences?
CH: I was very impressed with what Randy Newman was doing and with what James Taylor was doing and Stevie Wonder – all those performing songwriters. The Beach Boys. I loved the Beach Boys. I have the first edition of Pet Sounds which I sometimes gently put on to my turntable and listen to. All those lovely harmonies. Some folk but not much; I was very keen on Peter, Paul and Mary, I remember. Buddy Holly was my hero, even when I was very little. One of my brothers was crazy about Fats Domino, so I was brought up on Fats Domino. They are all fairly mainstream influences and I think that has carried on all through my song writing.
I was very impressed with Kate Bush and still am.
WW: What do you like about Kate Bush?
CH: Her song writing is entirely hers and she can do things that nobody else could pull off. She makes the strangest ideas work.
WW: When you got your recording deal with RCA, how did you find the people around you? Were they supportive or were they dick heads?
CH: There were people who were supportive and honourable and knew what they were doing and then there were the dick heads. Both types were strongly represented. There were some great and wonderful people; I remember Alan Sizer, the A&R man who signed me to RCA and my old manager, Laurie Jay, who is still a friend and also Pip Williams, the producer. There were many others.
When you are a young woman in the music business, (I was in my early twenties) you meet some pretty funny characters. I was very vulnerable. It was very hard because then you couldn’t network so much and share experiences.
WW: So what advice would you give to a young woman in her early twenties, who was about to launch her career?
CH: Learn the actual working of the business. Don’t be naïve. Learn about publishing. Acquire business acumen. That’s the most important thing.
WW: When you first became “successful” did it hit you as a shock?
CH: It didn’t come as a great shock but it was great fun. Going back to being affirmed – it’s a great affirmation. I wasn’t terribly keen on performing. I just saw myself as a songwriter really. Perhaps it would have been better for me if I had just stayed quietly as an obscure songwriter. I have grown to enjoy it and I love performing now.
WW: We talked about harmonies earlier on in connection with “Pet Sounds”. I like the harmonies on “Nothing Love Does Surprises Me”.
CH: They are very simple and natural on that song. They are sort of folk harmonies, the kind that might come about if you were sitting in a pub jamming and people were lending a harmony to the song. That is the way they were formed.
WW: We have moved on to the album, English Tale, which seems to reference everything from Thomas Hardy to Puff the Magic Dragon, the latter being a song you associated with “Going Home”.
CH: Well, “Going Home” was written by Vo for children originally and yet, it can be read on so many different levels. Chris Martin did a great job on the video. I think he worked his socks off to do that. I could tell, when we were working, that he had flair.
WW: English Tale is quite stripped down and unplugged.
CH: Yes, very. The vocals and the guitar were recorded together. To all intents and purposes it is a live album. I always wanted to do something very simple. We did lay some instruments over it, like Ric Sanders’ fiddle playing, for instance and of course, the harmonies.
WW: I suppose it is a testimony to the strength of the songs, because the songs stand out.
CH: Very often the songs can get lost if they are over-treated.
WW: Was that a possible reason why you wanted to record “Harry” again?
CH: Vo could not bear the thought of not recording “Harry” again, and I was happy to do that because we were doing a re-working of it. And of course, when we perform live we pretty much play it every time.
WW: Of course, Vo Fletcher is your collaborator and co-contributor. I like his voice. How did you meet?
CH: The thing about Vo is that he is wonderful to work with and great to stand on stage with. He is so intuitive. We live in the same town, and I was aware of Vo because he is a troubadour; constantly performing, unlike me. I was offered a tour to support Joan Armatrading, but I eventually turned it down because I felt I wasn’t ready to go touring. But I contacted Vo and told him I had been offered this tour and did he want to go with me and he said yes, but in the end we didn’t do it, though we did start working together.
WW: Asking the impossible, do you have a favourite track on English Tale?
CH: “Thoughts on Thomas Hardy” might still be the track I am most pleased with. Hardy seemed to me to be a total romantic and quite susceptible to the charms of young women. I just imagined him, so enjoying the company of a woman, in his quiet, non-pressing way. It was inspired by Hardy's poem "The Dear"
I plodded to Fairmile Hill-top, where
A maiden one fain would guard
From every hazard and every care
Advanced on the roadside sward.
I wondered how succeeding suns
Would shape her wayfarings,
And wished some Power might take such ones
Under Its warding wings.
The busy breeze came up the hill
And smartened her cheek to red,
And frizzled her hair to a haze. With a will
'Good-morning, my Dear!' I said.
She glanced from me to the far-off gray,
And, with proud severity,
'Good-morning to you - though I may say
I am not your Dear,' quoth she:
'For I am the Dear of one not here -
One far from his native land!'-
And she passed me by; and I did not try
To make her understand.
WW: I suppose it encapsulates the English pastoral scene, hence the title.
CH: I consider my song writing to be very English. I tend to stay true to my Englishness. Most of the songs were inspired by people I have known or read about and English Tale seemed to be an appropriate title.
English Tale – a contemporary pastoral
What struck me about English Tale was initially a contrast of folk influences and what is essentially modern. The album has narrative song writing that uses pastoral imagery and personal anecdote, side by side. It manages to reference Thomas Hardy and Puff the Magic Dragon (according to CH), and Vienna and Bradford (in the same song). It is romantic and redolent of another time, of quiet highways and byways, but also captures, lyrically, themes which are quite resistant to time. The way Catherine sings is unaffected and quintessentially English; no phoney folk noises, no trans-atlantic twang. There is a purity in her voice and veracity in the song that recollects, for me, Laura Nyro, but there the similarity ends, for Catherine’s voice is her very much her own and an example of someone who is comfortable in her skin. Occasionally she indulges in a little vocal overdubbing and when that happens the harmonies are sublime.
This is an unplugged album. Most of it was recorded as live. She is joined by Vo Fletcher and Ric Sanders on violin. Fletcher shares a joint credit, and so he should. His own voice puts me in mind of Leonard Cohen, but less depressing. The guitar work is a perfect accompaniment. Together they have gathered a collection of work that needs no bells and whistles or compression or boxes of tricks to disguise any flaws, for. English Tale is a silk purse of songs. You might discover that purse among the daffodils and and wild roses in the field or perhaps, draped over a dry stone wall or stile..
Alternatively, you can find it at Amazon, priced £11.99.