Making music outside the mainstream

A world away from the manufactured personae of some performers, independent singer-songwriters Helen McCookerybook and Katy Carr have made their own distinct impact on British music.

As part of the explosive punk movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a surge of women guitarists, bass players, keyboard players and drummers playing in bands emerged and Helen McCookerybook was a pioneering part of this phenomenon. As the bass player and lead singer with Brighton-based punk rock band The Chefs and later as guitarist/singer with Helen and the Horns, McCookerybook was a favourite of BBC Radio One’s John Peel.

Returning to the stage ten years ago, she has just released her fourth album The Sea in which her pure vocals soar and glorious melodies in simple sparse arrangements are contrasted with subtly dissident, occasionally dark lyrics – a McCookerybook feature critically praised by David Sheppard in Art & Music: The Saatchi Magazine.

The multi-faceted McCookerybook took a sabbatical from performing, became Dr Helen Reddington and published a book The Lost Women Of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, described as “gritty and compelling” in its frank and critical analysis of women entering a male domain.

While lecturing at university McCookerybook encountered an exceptional student, British/Polish chanteuse Katy Carr, singer songwriter and sometimes aviator. They forged an enduring connection. Living in Poland until she was five, Carr moved to England, where her exceptional singing talent was discovered in the school choir.

Carr’s schooldays were restless; she joined the Air Cadets so that she could learn to fly, started writing her own songs in her teens and became a professional musician.

Carving a distinct musical niche, Carr has distinguished herself in the traditionally male territory of the concept album with her fourth album Paszport, a tribute to Polish resistance in the Second World War, winning a best concept album award. Today Carr lives and travels between Poland and England with a career in both languages and countries. Her 2015 album Polonia was described by The Independent as “a jaunty effort full of charm and verve with a melancholy undertow.” In 2016 Carr was awarded Poland’s Pro Patria Medal.

I think I’m an ‘emphavert?!’ Can you have an ‘empathy-vert’ person? How ‘extrovert’ I am probably depends on how safe I feel

Helen McCookerybook told me that “Katy Carr is a student with a rare talent” and Katy Carr’s approbation of her lecturer is similarly evident, “To be taught by a musician of Helen McCookerybook’s calibre was amazing. She is the real deal, a pioneering she-punk who continues to produce exquisite music. She’s inspirational.”

Helen McCookerybook and Katy Carr recently played a rare gig together at the Lexington in London and took some time out afterwards to talk about formative experiences, song-writing in their dreams and making music outside the mainstream. I was privileged to sit in on the conversation.

HMcC: What made you start writing songs?

KC: It all started with a wonderful teacher Mrs Illsley; although I was born in England I lived in Poland for the first five years of my life and when we returned to England and I started school my teacher Mrs. Illsley realised I hated sport and I couldn’t really speak English very well so she took me to the school choir which I loved and I started singing solo in public that same year.

Singing in the choir had a big impact on me as a young person and at first I thought I could never write songs but when I was 14 I started listening to the Beatles and I was so inspired I started putting words and music together and at 18 I won a competition to use a studio, so I started recording and performing my own songs.

HMcC: So you started performing at five – that’s so young! Do you think you are an extrovert or an introvert Katy?

KC: How do you define an extrovert?

HMcC: Somebody who feels a compulsive need to communicate everything that they feel all the time.

KC: I think I’m an ‘emphavert?!’ Can you have an ‘empathy-vert’ person? How ‘extrovert’ I am probably depends on how safe I feel. Are you an extrovert?

HMcC: I don’t know actually. Sometimes I think I must be otherwise I wouldn’t do the things I do but I think about extroverts as people who like being the centre of attention and in my mind there is always that link between narcissism and performance which bothers me. Today I was thinking that one of my favourite performances was to this black bird in the garden. I was really fed up last year and I just took my guitar out into the garden and I was playing and it was around six o’clock in the evening and I heard this kind of soft sound coming from the fence and it was this black bird. I wasn’t singing just playing my guitar and it seemed like the black bird was trying to work out how to sing along. It was making a kind of cooing noise and it was really strange because I didn’t want to stop playing because I didn’t want it to stop being there. So I’m thinking that with me it isn’t the wanting to be the centre of attention – it’s a communicating thing.

KC: Yes, I can see that. You’re not only a great song-writer but also an artist and a terrific lecturer too – basically you have amazing talents, not least for communication!

HMcC: But so have you Katy. I love your music, you’ve been given an award for highlighting Polish people’s war-time fight for independence and you fly planes in your spare time! Not only that but when you came and spoke to my students, on the course you had previously attended, you were talking about Polish slavery and all the Afro-Caribbean students really connected with you because they understood exactly what you were saying and you established an extraordinarily deep connection and I think the students were as surprised as you were. Sometimes I think that is the best thing about being involved in anything to do with the arts, because it just constantly throws up really really unexpected things. You can’t say oh I’m on a railway track and I’m going to start here and travel in a straight line to my destination. It can be absolutely completely wild, can’t it?

I think music or art can end up just something that looks nice on a calendar or something you hear in a lift, things that kind of soothe people and just keep them quiet. But for an artist or musician to actually do anything that shows a thought process or that breaks boundaries, it is much harder to get it out there

KC: Yes because sometimes you might just stare at the wall all day and you think I’ve done nothing today but you’ve actually come up with all the titles for your next album but then you’ve got nothing physical to show for it but it’s in your head and then people go where is it? And you go it’s in my head and I’ve got ten fingers and I’m going to make it and the process of creating an album has begun.

HMcC: I often think of artists and musicians as kinds of ‘processors’. I went to see an exhibition by the illustrator Eric Ravilious. He worked with a group of people that all knew each other and were influenced by each other and very interested in the world around them; they didn’t have their hands over their eyes and ears. Artists and musicians process things that have happened and it can be personal things or it can be political things or it can be just poetry for the sake of it and they show people a different way of looking at things. Say you are buying a loaf of bread – well, you are buying what it might be, like it might become toast or it might become sandwiches or it might be part of a bread and butter pudding. I mean there are loads of things that bread might become…

KC: Or it might become a duck’s meal..

HMcC: Yes – it might become a duck’s meal. But I always imagine that a lot of the time there are an enormous amount of people who just want to put the brakes on anything happening. They just want the loaf of bread to stay being a loaf of bread and not be anything else. I think music or art can end up just something that looks nice on a calendar or something you hear in a lift, things that kind of soothe people and just keep them quiet. But for an artist or musician to actually do anything that shows a thought process or that breaks boundaries, it is much harder to get it out there.

KC: Well if people hate you, you are probably doing something right. The arts have become kind of regimented because everything has to have an outcome and the outcome has to be successful, but if you are making art or music which is soul-driven you don’t know what the outcome will be. And when you are personally unhappy, that can be when your best work comes out or when you dream.

HMcC: It’s funny you mentioning dreams because I vividly remember one dream where I went to Butlin’s and it was deserted, completely dark and I could hear in the distance this woman’s voice singing and I found my way through this gloomy Butlin’s and there was a big big room and a spotlight and this little woman standing in the spotlight singing this song. She was kicking her legs up and moving around to this song called ‘Dreaming Of You’. Sometimes when I experience a song in my dream, when I wake up I sing it onto my phone and record it straight away but this time I didn’t even need to do that because I could remember the whole song and I just picked up my guitar and played…and it was like – it was so strange, to have an entire song turn up in a dream. Have you got a favourite song of yours that you really like singing?

KC: Does it have to be my own?

HMcC: No, not at all.

KC: At the moment it is one that I’m singing a lot – ‘The Polish Partisans’ Lullaby’ written by a Polish partisan and freedom fighter in 1943 during World War Two and the first song I learned in Polish. I didn’t like any of the recordings of it and in fact it’s not a song that is sung ‘by girls’! So my friend Kazik Piechowski who is 97 years old taught it to me and then I recorded it my way. When I sing it I think of him and all the partisans who didn’t make it, who were so young and gave up everything for us. When did you know you were going to be a songwriter?

HMcC: I didn’t.

KC: You didn’t?

HMcC: The whole fucking thing was completely by accident.

KC: You hadn’t any thoughts when you were like eight years old that you might want to be a musician?

HMcC: No because I was so hopeless I used to get zero out of ten in my sight reading tests. I did piano to grade three – til the piano teacher sacked me! She used to play something and I used to just copy her so she assumed I read music when I didn’t and then she got really cross when I failed my sight reading exams! Sometimes when I got home I’d repeat what I’d copied but then make little tweaks to it but at my next lesson she’d just tell me off for having made changes and eventually she told me not to come for lessons any more. I didn’t even think about writing songs until years later when punk exploded and I joined my first band, the notorious Joby and the Hooligans and when none of the guys were keen on playing the bass, I picked it up and taught myself to play it and the song writing came after that. When did you know you were going to be a songwriter?

I always have at least one moment on stage when I think ‘What the bloody hell am I doing here?’

KC: Well, I started song writing at 14 and discovered it was the most incredible feeling, to put voice, lyrics, music together and it suits me because I can’t draw like you!

HMcC: But your work has a distinct aesthetic – the artwork really fits in with the music and the way that you dress really fits in with the music and you have conceived a very very strong identity. I think when you found that identity – ‘woman’-made because you totally created it and own it; no management, stylist, record label influenced you – your career completely took off. It was like when people make a sculpture and it’s just like a big block of stone and then a sculptor chips the stone away and there is the person. It was a bit like that with you. All that stuff had to be chipped away and there you were with everything you know, the complete Katy Carr…

KC: …..had evolved.

HMcC: Yeah. And I remember that happening. I just remember thinking – you’ve got it. That is it. That is what this whole process has been about – all of these things that have happened where you’ve tried out different things and you’ve worked with different people, producers, you’ve experimented and made some great music – you know I still play your stuff when I’m DJ-ing – and your work is just so distinctive. There is nobody like you, your work is unique.

KC: Thank you! During that whole time I was trying things out I felt I was putting myself into a space of, well, nervousness, because when you are making this music you have no idea if anybody will listen to it or will care about the songs. Will you get good reviews? Will people actually like it, will you get gigs?

HMcC: Will anybody actually hear it?

KC: Yeah, will anybody hear it?! Will you be a failure? Because even though I get up on stage and perform these songs and must seem a very confident person occasionally it feels like the earth is shaking under me and on the most memorable occasion that I ‘blanked’ for a few seconds it felt catastrophic but I worked through it and it was OK.

HMcC: Yes. I always have at least one moment on stage when I think “What the bloody hell am I doing here?” It happened last week at a really lovely gig, one of those gigs where you remember it afterwards as having this glow but I’m just standing there thinking “What on earth am I doing here?” When you are actually performing you have to be really in the moment, you have to be completely there, don’t you? So I started singing and I didn’t want to be anywhere but right there, that second, singing my songs.

Helen McCookerybook regularly tours the UK, is currently making a documentary based on her book The Lost Women of Rock Music with Gina Birch of The Raincoats and is working on her second book Outside the Box; Inside the Studio about women engineers and producers in contemporary British pop.

Multi-instrumentalist Katy Carr (Carr sings, plays a vintage wurlitzer electronic piano, ukulele and banjolele with her group The Aviators) is currently touring Poland. In November Katy appeared on TVP Polonia in Warsaw talking about her Ribbon Of Memory – Wstega Pamieci Tour 2017, the venues, the music and how Poland and Polonia worldwide has supported the Second World War Resistance Memorial in Krakow for the Polish Home Army.

Both McCookerybook and Carr take advantage of the freedom of making music outside the mainstream not only by dictating their own aesthetics but also by providing exposure for female talent. Carr worked with illustrator Susan Burghart on the artwork for her Polonia album and McCookerybook made use of the textile work and graphic design of her hugely talented daughters Isobel and Florence Reddington for The Sea.

This support of other women extends to supporting the next generation of independent female singer-songwriters with McCookerybook and Carr’s recent gig at the Lexington in London featuring the seventeen year old Honey Birch, an emerging and very talented singer/songwriter, and daughter of The Raincoats’ Gina Birch. Presciently, McCookerybook gave Honey her first guitar.

Image one shows Helen McCookerybook (on the far left) in her first band Joby and the Hooligans. The photo is by Ray Renolds and shows the band standing outside a shop. ©Ray Renolds

Image two shows the seven year old Katy Carr holding the Chloe Wilson Cup ©Katy Carr

Image three is the artwork for Katy Carr’s Polonia album. The artwork and design is by Susan Burghart and the photography is by Ben Wright.© Ben Wright. The image shows Katy clad in a red mediaeval style dress on a white horse. The central image is of clouds/skyline and is decorated by red poppies. It is very much of the art deco tradition.

Image four is the artwork for Helen McCookerybook’s The Sea album. It was designed by Isobel Reddington and features embroidered art by Florence Reddington. ©Helen McCookerybook 2017 The image features an embroidered portrait of McCookerybook, playing guitar, set against a pencil drawn image of an open sea