Kate Arnold, musician & composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

There was never a moment when I thought “I shall now embark upon a musical career”, and in a way I’m surprised that I might have one! I think I wanted to be an archaeologist or a historian, or something to do with languages. I got plenty of encouragement from parents and teachers in my musical activities, but I think the feeling was that it wasn’t something you did as an actual job. I have tried having proper jobs, but I could never stop doing music on the side and now it just seems to have taken over. Looking back, I suppose it was inevitable, as music is the only way I can make any kind of sense of the world.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

All of my violin teachers, in particular Petronella Dittmer and Devora Solomon, and my school music teachers Miss Peskett, Mr Heartfield and Mr Hayton. All very different people, but one thing they all had in common was the infectious delight they took in music. Not to mention their patient perseverance with someone who must at times have been a difficult and infuriating student.

Punk and post-punk music of the late 1970s to mid 1980s, although I was too young to go to any of the gigs at the time; I had precocious tastes in pop music!

My parents’ folk records and, later on, the whole world of folk and traditional music.

Hearing Dead Can Dance for the first time, and my friend Stu; it was their combined influence that made me take up the hammered dulcimer.

The London Antifolk scene, c.2000-2015

Studying Middle Eastern music at SOAS, 2006-8.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I failed my singing performance diploma! And rightly so; I was dreadful (think Florence Foster Jenkins). It took me a while to understand that this didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t sing; it just meant I couldn’t sing that particular type of music, in that particular context. In fact, failing was a good thing, as the message was clear: “this path is not for you.” It forced me to think really hard about why I’d wanted to do it in the first place. I realised my heart wasn’t actually in it, or at least not to the extent it should have been.

Shortly after the diploma disaster, I did a Master’s in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, specialising in Middle Eastern Music and Performance, and things started making a lot more sense. I began to think of music and its purposes a bit differently, and to ask myself what it meant to me personally; what it was that I loved about it.

I think that to be successful as a classical performer, I would have had to dedicate myself to it completely, to the exclusion of all else, and I have always been interested in too many other things to be able to do that! So the challenge was – and is – how to combine all those interests into something that works.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

With recordings, usually the most recent one! At the moment I’m particularly fond of ‘For Barely One in a Thousand (The Practice of Lights)’ and ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ from my Rota Fortunae I EP.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure! I feel that’s a question for the listeners really. Quite often when I think I’ve performed a piece particularly well (or badly!) I’ll find that the audience seems to think the opposite. So my criteria for what makes a good performance may be completely different from theirs. Performance is about connecting, so I try to communicate every piece as well as I can every time, whether it’s a brand new one or a more familiar piece. There are some pieces that I know are often audience favourites and maybe I shift gears a bit for those. But you can never know how things will go. Sometimes a piece will unexpectedly connect with an audience – or fail to do so –  in ways I can’t explain; ways that seem to be independent of the individual performance.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

There are no such seasons in the world of electro-medieval loopery, so I plan from gig to gig. How I prepare my set depends on a lot of things: the type of venue, how long I’ve been asked to play for, whether I’m the main act or the support, the context of the show and what kind of audience it might attract, whether it’s a ‘home’ crowd or a new audience, whether I’ve just released a new record… and so on.

My main concern is always whether it will be plugged or unplugged (i.e. amplified or acoustic). If it’s amplified, I want to be sure that the sound system will be able to cope with all the loop layers and the slight crankiness of the dulcimer or things won’t work as well as I want them to. Of course, the looping and electronic stuff won’t happen at all if it’s an acoustic show, so then I’ll perform a rawer kind of set involving medieval/Renaissance material, folk songs and my own solo compositions.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I loved playing at Kings Place because of the superior sound quality. It’s a much ‘quieter’ atmosphere there from what you get in smaller venues more used to dealing with rock bands, but it pretty much guarantees the attentiveness of the audience!

My ideal venue would be a medieval church that somehow had a perfect plugged-in sound system, but this is a BIG ask.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Supporting Hazel Iris at St Bart’s the Great, October 2018 – an event put on by the ever-brilliant Chaos Theory. An unusual one for me as I had to do the whole thing unplugged, and I set up the dulcimer in the central part of the nave, facing the altar, with the audience seated on either side. In keeping with the surroundings, I did a processional performance of ‘A Chantar’ by the twelfth-century trobairitz Beatriz de Dia. It really felt as if the stones of the church itself were listening! There were also some incredible giant puppets as part of the show. Normally I am terrified of puppets but I thought these were wonderful; they had no facial features, which I think made all the difference. I became quite emotionally involved with them. It was a magical evening, and a few special things have come about as a result of it.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As long as I’m in a position to be able to create the music I want to make, and there’s one person out there who enjoys it and understands what I’m trying to do, that’s success for me. Of course I have dreams and ambitions and so much work still to do, but I’m so lucky and privileged just to have been able to do what I’ve done so far.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

There’s a Miles Davis quote that just about covers it: “Sometimes it takes you a long time to play like yourself.” This is true. Find your own sound. Be yourself. As I’ve said in one of my own songs: “Why don’t you sing with your own voice?” I meant that figuratively when I wrote it, but I also mean it literally.

Of course you put in the practice. Of course you aim for technical virtuosity as far as you can. Of course you emulate your teachers and your favourite musicians. But don’t try to BE them. Work out what you can do that is totally unique to you; there will be something that no one but you can do. It may take many years to find it, and it’s an ongoing, unfinishable task – but it’s meant to be!

Of course you should learn stagecraft and develop your performance persona, but in the end it will be your true personality that audiences respond to on a deep level, whether they are conscious of that or not, so use that and don’t be afraid to let it flow –  with perhaps one, overarching proviso: does it serve the music? The music is more important than you and your ego, and has an existence of its own. You cannot control completely how a listener will respond to it or interpret it.

That’s not very practical advice, is it?

How about: make sure you have the right shoes for the job, and ALWAYS be nice to the sound engineer.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’d like to be in the year 2030. If I’m not, something will have gone terribly wrong.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Renaissance polyphony.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have to say the dulcimer and the violin, really, don’t I? After those, quite a few things, but for example:

A photo of my dad holding the European Cup in 1982 (the year Aston Villa won it).

A ring made of Birmingham silver, given to me by my nan.

An electrical resistor from an electrochemical laboratory in St Etienne, France in 1996 (no, I’m not going to explain that one).

What is your present state of mind?

I’m answering these questions during the Covid-19 lockdown so perhaps a bit more introspective than usual – which may have helped! I suspect that normally, my state of mind is almost always like that of Father Dougal from Father Ted; continual, confused surprise.

The first episode of Kate Arnold’s two-part recording project, ROTA FORTUNAE I, was released in February 2020, with the second part to follow later in the year.

Now performing as a solo artist, Kate previously fronted ‘punk baroque’ band Fear of the Forest. In 2019 to 2020 she has supported Lindy-Fay Hella (Wardruna) in London and contributed to albums by Jim Bob (Carter USM), The Monochrome Set and Paul Morricone. She has worked with Lisa KnappDaemonia Nymphe, Rose McDowall, Doudou Cissoko, Steve Albini and Tony Visconti, among others. She is also a composer and is based in London, UK.

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