Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell has long been one of my favourite musicians.
I can't exactly put my finger on why; whether it's the sublime playing, the always eclectic choice of songs and tunes, or even something as frivolous as knowing she was the inspiration for the lead character in one of my most-loved books, The Little Country by Charles de Lint. A lot of it has a great deal to do with the wonderful instrument she plays, the Northumbrian smallpipes, which are neither as harsh as the Scottish bagpipes nor as low and mournful as the Uilleann pipes. Like their Irish cousins, they're bellows blown, and unlike their Scottish kin more regarded as an indoor parlour instrument. They have a wonderfully mellow, staccato bee-buzz tone unlike that of many other pipes. Tickell is also a very nice fiddler, and as most people here at the Green Man will tell you, I have a soft spot for the devil's own instrument.
The thing with a new Tickell album is you're always assured of a treat, a sometimes surprising and tangential treat, but a treat nonetheless. If you've not actually heard of the name Kathryn Tickell, then I can almost guarantee you've heard her play, probably as a session musician on the likes of 'Fields of Gold' by Sting.
If my counting is up to scratch, Strange but True is her fourteenth album, but I might be a little out with that number. And it's one of those tangential albums I spoke of earlier. It's a mixture of studio and live recordings (some of them very live indeed!). To quote from the sleeve notes "There may be some strange moments ... but it's from the heart, and as true as it gets."
That about sums it up perfectly, really. It's an album put together with friends; musicians she's played with over the years, students (Tickell teaches Folk and Traditional Music at Newcastle University in England). In all of the fourteen tracks, Tickell is accompanied by a wonderful variety of other musicians, from the Poozies's Karen Tweed on the beautifully sedate 'Brafferton Village/Walsh's Hornpipe' to two tracks with The Brazz Brothers, a brass ensemble from Norway, the Vaughan Williams-esque 'Side Echoes' with the haunting saxophones of Andy Sheppard. There are some very traditional-sounding tunes in there, such as the twin fiddle 'Unst Bridal March/Da Bride's a Boannie Ting' from the Shetland island of Unst and the usual number of great Tickell original tunes, which sit flawlessly alongside them.
It really is a varied collection (and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get my head around the last track, which melds...well, I'm not sure what (imagine a wildly chaotic junkband) with pipes). But it really is a beautiful piece of work, with a wonderful sleeve filled with personal tune notes and memories from the various collaborators and Kathryn herself. This probably isn't the best album to introduce yourself to Tickell with. Stick, perhaps, to an album like Debateable Lands if you're after a less adventurous road.
But I loved it. Like the lady said, 'strange moments...'