Singers who carve their reputation as interpreters of other people's songs face many challenges. Finding the right songs is the first hurdle, but figuring out how to make those songs their own can be an even tougher nut to crack. American country and bluegrass music is rich with singers who know how to inhabit a song from the inside out. From the Carter Family and Johnny Cash to George Jones, Alison Krauss and Shelby Lynne, they mine their songs to depths that render them anew.
West Virginian native, Kathy Mattea has carved her reputation as an ace interpreter of other people's songs over the course of three and a half decades now, and her instincts for a good song are as keen as ever. The songs on her latest album, her first in six years, Pretty Bird, include some fearless choices from the back catalogues of Mary Gauthier, Bobbie Gentry and Dougie MacLean. But lurking behind that long hiatus between albums is what she calls her "long dark night of the soul" – a period where she feared she would never sing in public again, as her voice began to morph in ways she never anticipated.
Having had vocal surgery in the 1990s, Mattea forged a very successful career, winning two Grammys, four Country Music Awards and seeing five of her albums go gold. But losing both her parents in the noughties, and a close friend to cancer in 2016 had a profound impact that manifested itself in her voice. Not all that surprising really, considering how entwined our voices are with our emotional states. But now, as she nears 60, Kathy Mattea is back on form, with a voice that she reckons was once a sturdy Volvo and is now more akin to a Ferrari. It’s been a long and winding road, but there’s much she’s learned in the process.
A voice rose up inside of me and said, 'well, you can quit Kathy, but you can't quit 'til you find out. You can't just quit because you're scared you can't sing'
"You know, the truth is that Pretty Bird didn't really show up as an album, " she recounts, on a call from her Nashville home. "I was just trying to get through something and these are the songs that got me through it. If you can let go enough, the creative process will show you what to do."
Mattea talks animatedly about learning to sing “into the nooks and crannies” of this new swathe of songs she’s chosen. Mining everything from the great American songbook (October Song) to down home tales from the Louisiana bayou (Gauthier’s Mercy Now), she let the music pave the way through what felt like a morass – at the time.
“It was excruciating while I was in it,”,she admits. “It’s joyful now. Here’s the way I approached it. I thought, there are some people in my generation and the generation before me, who kept singing when their voice started to go downhill. I thought, I can’t do that. If I don’t feel like I can inhabit those songs in a way that’s still living, I don’t think I can do it. My first thought was, well, I’ll just quit. But then a voice rose up inside of me and said, ‘well, you can quit Kathy, but you can’t quit ‘til you find out. You can’t just quit because you’re scared you can’t sing. You have got to walk through the process of knowing and if you find out after that that you can’t sing well enough to enjoy it any more, then you can walk away, but you’ve got to walk through the fire first.’”
That tenaciousness is what has defined Mattea throughout her career.
“Once I’d given it my best shot,” she continues, “I could walk away in peace. I might have to grieve, but I will have peace knowing that I served that gift as long as it was viable. And instead I resurrected into a new way of being with my voice and it’s just been wonderful.”
How different is the experience of singing for her now?
“I feel like I’m getting twice the results from half of the effort,” she offers. “I’m not trying as hard, but instead I’m letting the songs come through me, rather than thinking that I have to do something. I’m about to turn 60, and it’s the lesson across the board in my life right now. Letting go, and trusting.”
There are days I look in the mirror and I see the cracks on my face, but this is the heart of the human experience and I don't want to cut myself off from that
The lessons she’s learned on this journey serve as a recipe for life, and not just for making music.
“I decided a long time ago that I would drink in the experience of each season of my life”, Mattea offers with the clarity of someone who’s completely comfortable in her own skin, “so no botox, no plastic surgery, none of that. Of course, there are days I look in the mirror and I see the cracks on my face, but this is the heart of the human experience and I don’t want to cut myself off from that.”
Kathy Mattea’s decision to cover Mary Gauthier’s searing Mercy Now was a brave one, considering the iconic status of the songwriter’s original take on it. But the times we live in called for it, she figured. And Mattea’s reading of it threw into sharp relief some of the songs chillingly apposite lyrics, in particular: “As they sink into a poison pit/It’s going to take forever to climb out.”
“After the [presidential] election, this country just went crazy and identity politics just took over, and you hear the word polarisation over and over again”, she says. “So I started listening to that song, because it was really comforting to me. It took me months to get under the skin of it, but I think it’s the mark of a truly great song that it gets written in one time and it keeps having life in different seasons because the words are so universal.”
Mattea’s clearly a politically informed and astute observer, but she navigates a fine course so that she can tap into the universal, rather than the particular, when it comes to responding to the political realities she’s living through in the US right now.
I don't want to be angry every night, or just sing for the people who think like me. The music is for everybody.
“I think as an artist, you have to decide whether you want to bring that [politics] into your work and you have to ask yourself what you want to say. And if we sing together, we’re raising our voices on the same notes in the same song, affirming the same thoughts with a song that touches us all, albeit maybe in different ways. And in that moment, I don’t know who you voted for, and I don’t really care. And that’s part of what’s beautiful about music, and that’s something I can live with every night. I don’t want to be angry every night, or just sing for the people who think like me. The music is for everybody.”
And her advice to young musicians setting out on the road?
“You have the right answer inside of you but you have to cultivate your ability to hear it”, she says. “There are so many outside voices telling you what to do to ‘make it’, but if you give up your centre, it’s hard to sustain, because you’re not aligned with your own truth. Listen to your inner voice and you’ll feel what’s right for you.”
Kathy Mattea performs on Friday, January 25th in St Patrick's Cathedral, as part of Temple Bar Tradfest. tradfest.ie
The session continues for Tradfest
Now entering its thirteenth year, Temple Bar Tradfest is a teenager with attitude. No longer content to limit its programme to trad and folk, it’s quietly extended its reach to embrace rock ‘n’ roll (albeit with amps turned not quite to 11). As well as headline concerts and front row sessions in a raft of venues not usually associated with live music – many of them churches – there is the tradfringe where festival goers can savour a taste trail, enjoy film screenings and sign up for masterclasses in everything from sean nós singing to songwriting and genealogy. Of course, Temple Bar will be heaving with the expected trad sessions in most every pub, and there’s a kids’ programme too.
Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span will alight on the hallowed space of St Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday, January 25th with a lightness belying their staggering 50 years on the road. On the same evening, the sublime Arty McGlynn, fresh from the release of his recent superb solo album Botera joins fiddler, Bríd Harper along with harp/accordion duo, Seána Davey and Stephen Doherty for a double header in City Hall.
Phelim Drew will celebrate the legacy of his father, Ronnie and The Dubliners in the Pepper Canister Church, and elsewhere there are magical opportunities to catch emerging artists such as Loah, Ailbhe Reddy and Sive, not to mention Sibéal Ní Chasaide. Jim Page makes a welcome return, as does Teddy Thompson, Jerry Douglas and Kate Rusby.
It’s a feast for music lovers, promising to cast a shaft of light into the dark and (hopefully dying) days of winter. One reservation though: the proliferation of concerts in church venues can lend an overly reverential air to proceedings, dulling the audience’s response to the music. And then there’s the pelvic girdle-crunching discomfort of those church pews . . .