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Detta Kenzie | St George's Bristol

Rising Folk Singer Detta Kenzie on Her Approach to Story-Telling, Her Beloved Dartmoor and Reigniting the Spark

Detta Kenzie’s sumptuous adaptations of traditional folk songs, poetry and the myths and legends of her native Devon demonstrate a deep dedication to story-telling in its truest form. Presenting themes of womanhood, love and loss, interwoven with a deep reverence for the natural world, her music has a depth and honesty that is both exciting and unique. Ahead of her upcoming concert at St George’s later this month, we caught up with Detta to find out more.

To start at the beginning, what first sparked your interest in folk music and how did your love for folk song and stories develop?

My mum is Irish and my dad is Scottish so I grew up knowing about traditional music and hearing traditional music. Then I went to university to study Literature and I was studying Celtic poems and old English poems and I remember studying ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ by Robert Browning. Through studying this poetry, I then found myself uncovering old ballads and realising this was traditional music and listening to it consciously for the first time. I was just so overwhelmed by the human-ness of it, even though it was written centuries ago. It was so real to me with such universal themes that keep traditional music alive—as well as there being such a deep-rootedness in time and place and landscape. I also had a scholarship to be a part of a choral choir there so I took some of these old ballads that I’d found to my conductor to ask if we could sing them and he said ‘absolutely not’.

Detta Kenzie

I was disappointed but I also wasn’t satisfied so I started busking for the first time because I felt this need—this desire—to sing them out loud more than I’d felt that need and desire from any other genre of music. I wanted these songs to have a second wind—another chance to be heard by an audience. It was a real test in confidence, to be honest, but it felt really exciting and I didn’t take it too seriously—it felt really joyous to be a part of this folk revival that I was uncovering at the time. There are a lot of people trying to do this and it’s really exciting! So that’s my rather unconventional entry into the folk world.

As you began to write and absorb influence from ancient Celtic music and the world around you, how did you discover the sound you wanted to create?

I’m so driven by stories and that’s how I see the world. I majored in literature and words are so important to me. And therefore, characters are so important to me. So I actually found my sound through the character and the narrative in these traditional ballads. For instance, I’m working with this old English song called Reynardine and it’s absolutely terrifying. This song has three points of view—the point of view of the Reynardine who’s the villain and a werefox, the point of view of the young woman who is being coerced into following him up a mountainside and then there’s also the point of view of his previous victim who is a female ghost looking on at this narrative unfolding and is unable to do anything about it.

When it comes to the sound I’m trying to create, I see my job first and fore-most as a story-teller and so it’s really important to me that when I’m performing and singing, the sound is really taking on the tonal variation that allows the audience to know I’ve switched into a character. So, there has to be colour in that and a status change in the voice. I guess my job as a singer is to find a nuance in that sound to be able to deliver these characters in the way the original writer wanted them to be presented. But at the same time, taking on my interpretation of the song as well. I think it would be a shame to fall into the trap of being a female folk singer who sings the song sweetly—I think these songs deserve more vocal nuance than that.

Your deep connection to the natural world is ever-present in your music. How does nature and your connection with nature influence your sound and songwriting?

I think the life cycles of nature deeply reflect human experience which makes total sense because we’re a part of nature. But these unavoidable experiences of loss, birth, death, moments of abundance and moments of scarcity in our lives—we see that in the state of nature all the time. We see it in the changes of season and even in twenty-four hours in our gardens we can see change happening all around us. I suppose I’ve come to think of nature as a wise teacher in the sense that nature constantly attempts to thrive and survive no matter what the circumstances are. Nature doesn’t self-sabotage or give up—it’s just constantly trying to make the best of things and there’s a sense of hope in that as well. That’s what influences my music and ultimately influences the sound I want to create.

How does the beauty and rich heritage of the Southwest play a fundamental part in your music?

I’m a very kinesthetic learner and I need to be moving a lot. I go walking on Dartmoor specifically but also a lot of other parts of the Southwest. There was a kind of lightbulb moment for me when I realised how important the Southwest was to me—it was after I’d been working in London for a couple of years in a very hectic job as an English teacher and I finally confessed to myself that I wasn’t thriving. I moved to the Southwest—back to Devon—and I found my joy again on the land. It reignited this spark that I had as a child on this land and opened my eyes to the mysteries of Devon. I was so excited

by that and thought I would delve a little deeper into some of the myths and legends about these places that I love and all of these things combined have pushed my story writing and storytelling.

Can you tell us a little more about the way in which ancient Celtic music influences you and your approach to reworking these ancient stories?

My aim is to understand the purpose of the narrative and what it’s meant to be portraying and really get to grips with who the characters are in the story and who I am as a singer. Am I acting as a character in a first-person narrative or am I some kind of omniscient narrator looking down on an event and telling a story. So, I’m always conscious of staying true to the ambitions of the original writing and my hope with that the sound will come if you’re being honest with the intention—that the right sound will join that and the aims will meet.

Themes of womanhood, mental health, love and loss underpin your work. How do these themes present themselves and guide the narrative of your music?

I do draw on nature a lot to explore these themes and specifically the places I know well in Devon. I think a good example is in my song Whistman’s Woods. Whistman’s Woods is a temperate rain forest in the heart of Dartmoor and it’s absolutely unreal and otherworldly. It feels magical. So it felt right to write a song about the passing of a loved one that centred around the imagery of that place because creating a visual is really important to me in my work. I really hope that the writing and the story creates imagery for the audience. I think telling the story through those images allows me to access some of those darker themes but within that you have to be a little bit brave and vulnerable and not work solely in metaphors—sometimes a literal approach is actually really powerful.

We can’t wait to welcome you to St George’s at the end of April. What can our audiences expect?

I’m going to be performing a combination of traditional folk songs alongside my original work. When it comes to the traditional songs, I’ve decided to do some more obscure folk songs. I’ll be performing Reynardine which I’m really excited about because I’ve thought a lot about those perspectives and am looking forward to translating that on stage.

As we dive into Spring, what are you looking forward to this year?

I’m having my firsts at a lot of really cool folk festivals, like Sidmouth Folk Festival and Cornwall Folk Festival. I’ve also got some really exciting gigs lined up that’ll be on my website. I’m really looking forward to seeing what spring and summer bring.

If you could choose one desert island track, what would it be?

I think I would choose Black Is The Colour. I know it’s well-known but I think it’s so honest. Someone must have been really, really in love to write a song like that! It’s quite magic, really.

Words: Louise Goodger