Wednesday, 30 December 2009

49. Come With Me, Kathryn Williams and Neill Maccoll (2008)

Nearly there. Forty-nine down, one to go.

Back on November 11, sitting in a hotel room in New York, getting ready to interview the xx for the NME, looking out of the window onto a rainy Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, I realised things had to change. I desperately wanted to write something about what the last decade meant to me genuinely, rather than putting songs into a list of statistics, and the idea for this blog started to crystallise quickly. But as it did, the next fifty days stretched ahead of me slyly, arching their eyebrows, telling me I wouldn't have enough stories to tell. Perhaps they were right too. The stories I've told are little slips of things after all, small glimpses into a life that I don't expect anyone to care about. But as they mean something to me, and we all have things that do, then perhaps that's why people have enjoyed dipping into them. Because when everything else disappears, all of us have songs that speak to us directly for some reason, however potent or pedestrian that reason might be.

Nevertheless, something strange has happened to me over Christmas. As this list has approached its final station, ringing its bell and preparing everyone to alight, more and more songs seem to be rearing their heads at me. Newly bold, lithe and lively, saying "Me, miss, me, miss", the memories they bring with them cresting a little too late, surging back like strong waves, knocking me clean over. I suppose I should have expected it. I hadn't plan this list of songs after all – and perhaps I should have, in retrospect. But I've liked like the way I've just let them come to me – at work, on the bus, on the way to see Grandma in hospital, behind a ranting old woman in the post office queue – asking me to add them to the electronic list on my sellotaped-together mobile phone, where I've looked at them regularly, wondering which one of them would blink at me at that particular moment, which one would seem right on that grey wintry day.

There are so many of them left, too. I wanted to write about the time I met Robert Plant in Nashville and what happened after that about the choir and my brother, but no single song from Raising Sand stuck in my head like a totem. I've also left out tons of fantastic pop songs that would easily make my top 50 of the decade (Kylie Minogue's Slow, Madonna's Hung Up, Destiny's Child's Survivor, Beyonce's Crazy In Love, Outkast's Hey Ya!, Kernkraft 400's Zombie Nation) and my list makes me sound much more sombre and weedy than I really am. I'm also surprised that some events in my life don't bring up many musical memories – the death of my much-loved grandfather, Con Jones, in January 2002, for example, in front of the TV, in his sleep, wearing fishing socks, or the weekend in 2003 when Grandma was gravely ill, Jon and I on our own in a coronary care ward in Swansea waiting for Mam and Dad's plane to bring them back from their holiday in Cyprus. But I've forgotten some songs that bring back huge memories too. Until today, for example, I'd forgotten about Midlake's Roscoe, and the heartbreaking loveliness of Low's California, a song that played in my head constantly when they tried to get back together, when he was thinking about heading back to "California, where it's warm".

But songs do this all the time. They creep up, they stretch an arm out, and wrap it lovingly around your shoulders when you're least expecting it. And although I've always known what my last song will be, I haven't been sure what to choose for the one that comes before it, as so many of them could sit here. So I'll go with my instincts. I wanted a song in this place to remind me of the whole decade gone by, and as her voice has carried me through the last ten years, Kathryn Williams stood out.

And this song takes me back to family. Jonathan – or Jon, as he prefers to known, just like me, the big sister who never enjoyed her "ith" – is the older of my two younger brothers, and the person introduced me to Kathryn's music. He was born nine pounds seven, red-faced, with a nose that stretched out all over his cheeks, on Guy Fawkes Day in 1982, the night that the fireworks shone their colours all over Ffordd Talfan, and Grandma put a hot dog in my coat pocket to keep it warm. Now he is 27, short and broad-bodied, his hair raven-black, his eyes doey and sleepy just like our late father's. We got on well enough, with the odd argument and fist-fight when we were growing up, but back in my early twenties and his late teens, I'd thought we were very different, especially when it came to our music tastes. I considered his much more Welsh than mine, all about choirs and great oratorios and his music degree, while me, an English-studying black sheep who had defected to the other country, skidaddled in bright pop and silly indie. I realised I was wrong when I went to his student digs in 2002 and saw three albums by Love – the '60s band I'd fallen in love with the previous summer – and realised I was being a snobby big sister. I asked him to lend me some stuff I might like, he lent me Old Low Light by Kathryn Williams, and that was that.

Kathryn's voice sang to me softly all through 2002, her delicate vocals showing how sharp someone could be when they were playing with subtlety. In 2004, her version of I Started A Joke swam through Dan's house in Bishop's Stortford when we were falling in love; in 2006, Leave To Remain sang through The Word office when times were tough, slowing my pulse and mopping my brow. In 2008, I went to Ullapool, the most north-western city in Scotland, to interview Kathryn as she toured the Highlands and islands with Neill Maccoll – Ewan's son and Kirsty's half-brother – about the wonderful album, Two, that they had made together. And as I watched Kathryn sing Come With Me in a tiny bar in the town, and I knew this was what all music was for – those special, cherished moments watching a musician win over a crowd, capture every heart, and raise all of them to their mouths.

That night, Kathryn and I stayed up 'til 3am, draining the honesty bar of gin and rum as mosquitos buzzed outside, putting the world to rights, setting a friendship alight. Later that year as I travelled through the north, trying to work out what to do about my fading relationship, she suggested I pop in if I passed through Newcastle, and so I did. We spent an afternoon in town, wandering through the Sage and drinking bitter in front of drunk cricket-lovers; making plasticine toys with her son, Louis, around the kitchen table; watching Arrested Development until Kath fell asleep, her husband Neil and I laughing as she snored along to the credits. It was one of those perfect days, when everything seemed right, and she begged me to take one of her paintings for Jon as I left. At his house just before Christmas, a few weeks after I saw Kathryn pregnant at Dingwalls, it was still there as well, next to the glossy wedding photos of Jon and his wife Kerry, as the tree lights blinked happily, and as the snow continued to fall. It sits there, blue and bright, there as a reminder of what music can do, and how it can make things come to life.

The music Kathryn makes, like the music of so many people, has taken me through the decade like a family friend. And whatever happens, I know it will stay there. As this decade ends, and as my last song starts to play, she will join the chorus in my head, helping to take me wherever I must go next.


  1. What a lovely way to pull all this together, gorgeous song, wonderful piece. Can't wait to see what's #50...

  2. A couple of years ago, Kathryn Williams was one of the performers at a concert I went to at the Barbican featuring a number of women folk singers. Kathryn was heavily pregnant that night too (I think a different occasion to the Dingwalls gig you mention).

    The most moving song in the whole evening was Kathryn's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". I remember that her voice was rather fragile at times--she joked about the possibility of her waters breaking during one of her songs!--but that just made it all the more poignant, almost as if she was singing it to her as yet unborn baby.