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Newton’s Law

Feature

Scottish singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Newton curates this year’s Folk Weekend for Venus Unwrapped, Trad Reclaimed. Here she speaks to Amanda Holloway about the place of women in the folk scene.

No one was surprised when Rachel Newton won Musician of the Year in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017:

She’s quickly established a distinctive identity and is a powerfully direct presence in this musical arena, known for her haunting vocals and lightly worn virtuosity. She’s also a sought-after collaborator, as a member of The Furrow Collective, and in Boreas and the allwomen band The Shee, which she formed with friends at university.

Recently, she’s been speaking out about the gender imbalance in the folk world, but she’s been aware of the situation for years. ‘The Shee did consciously form as an all-female group because we felt there weren’t enough around. I’m sure we all remember comments like: “You guys, you’ve got balls” – comments that we were quite chuffed about at first, but as the years went on we thought, “Well why are people surprised?” And that ticked away in the background in my head.’

In 2016 Newton wrote a Facebook post about the lack of women in folk, and took it public by setting up a panel discussion at Celtic Connections. Did she have qualms about being the one to bring up the thorny subject? ‘When I first started talking about it, I did think about whether it might affect my career – was I going to lose gigs because of it? But I’m older now and I had to ask myself, “Do I want to be the kind of musician who speaks out about things I feel strongly about.” And I do.’

In the age of #MeToo, women were becoming more visible, but that wasn’t being reflected in the line-up at folk festivals. ‘I wanted people to be aware of it, like I was,’ says Newton. ‘To go to a festival with all men on the platform and think, “There’s something weird about this!”’ She’s pleased to be curating her own mini-festival Trad Reclaimed at Kings Place in March. ‘I like the idea of reclaiming something; it feels like we’re doing something powerful but not too aggressive. And although it’s a great chance to showcase the talented women in folk today, it’s not a women-only event. The point I’ve always been trying to make is that it’s not about taking anything away from anyone … it’s just trying to even out the playing field.’

‘It’s not about taking anything away from anyone, it’s just trying to even out the playing field.’

Newton appears with The Shee Big Band, preceded by musician and clog dancer Hannah James. ‘Hannah uses onstage technology to record herself singing, playing accordion and dancing. That idea of women having autonomy over what they’re doing really appealed to me. We also have clog dancer and accordion player Amy Thatcher on the bill with Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening.’ Newton has invited leading women instrumentalists to hammer home the point that women in folk don’t just sing. ‘Even women that do play, such as Nancy Kerr or Eliza Carthy, who are fantastic instrumentalists, are too often up for Folk Singer of the Year, not for their instrumental talent.’

Paying tribute to a woman who has inspired a generation, Newton has programmed a music theatre piece about the great Margaret Barry. ‘She had such an interesting life. I’d only heard her on records, but I’d learnt lots of her songs, so she’s had an influence on me personally and a lot of singers I know. And hearing traditional songs on stage introduces a different spectrum to the weekend.’

How does she think a new generation of female folk musicians can be encouraged to continue the tradition? ‘It’s best to lead by example,’ says Newton. ‘The more women that are visible on stage, not just singers but instrumentalists as well, the more young girls and women are likely to think that they can do it too. There’s nothing more powerful.’

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