Virginia Kettle : No Place Like Tomorrow : Interview13 July 2020 : Merry Hell - Mondo Tunes (dist.)
No Place Like Tomorrow is a triumphant return by Virginia Kettle to her original solo stomping ground.
It is her third single-handed album - and the first since she joined full pelt folk-rock rollercoaster Merry Hell a decade ago.
Virginia has been one of Merry Hell's leading lights and key songwriters since the band's formation - noted for exhilarating songs such as Bury Me Naked and The Baker's Daughter - both live favourites, the former guaranteed to move an audience in unison to its swaying rhythm, the latter to generate reckless dancing that is often one part Morris man glee, one part mid-eighties Alexei Sayle exuberance.
No Place Like Tomorrow comes from a quieter place, rooted in her singer-songwriter past, providing an outlet for the softer side of her character.
Written over a number of years, the twelve tracks leave a coherent impression of intelligent reflections around the theme of love.
When I spoke to Virginia on the eve of the No Place Like Tomorrow's launch she first explained the album's timing, then sketched the difference in writing just for her own voice rather than an ensemble,
"The main reason for the release is a build of songs - I have always been a prolific writer - not all of it masterpiece level (laughing), but I certainly churn loads of songs out. I have also started playing more solo gigs, so it felt like a natural next step."
"It has been weird though! A lot of the songs I write for Merry Hell are from the male perspective - it's not just they aren't my own intimate songs, they are for Andrew's voice - so I usually have to often think to myself 'there's no way he'd say that, as a Wigan welder' "
"There's quite a feminine wave that goes through this album - it's about love in all its forms. It maybe a reaction - I wanted to let loose, but I didn't want a flowery love album, I wanted it in some of its stark reality - abandonment, love that comes to an end."
The sound is different too - and that is deliberate intent. The songs are often sparely framed - John Kettle, Nick Davies and Neil McCartney from Merry Hell lent their instrumental talents in the studio, but there is a contrasting feel to the denser, multi-part, layered music the band usually record, as Virginia spelt out,
"I really knew what I wanted - a pared back feel. So I really liked the control, yet I was glad to have John on board as a producer - he let me have that control, but was there when I needed him to help me express myself."
Which could lead to a sense of the new album being an attempt to articulate something more of herself through the music, but as we talked through the album's songs, their observational nature became evident - Virginia's inspiration is very much in what she sees, and the ideas imagery sparks. She paused a moment, then illustrated an example to explain her songwriting process,
"I don't think of any of my songs as personal - I get them from observations. But there are some blunt lyrics on there - perhaps most pointedly with 'Made in the Stars' (one of the album's highlights). I got a bit obsessed with Nighthawks, a painting by Edward Hopper."
"It is a work you could pass over, but if you start to look into it - you go into it, and there's a couple on the end, they seem so silent to me, like they hadn't spoken in years."
"So I was thinking about the painting and I was out in Chester and there was a couple behind our table, in front of a mirror, and they didn't speak one word."
"Now I don't know why, there could be all sorts of reasons, but it seemed very stiff, and tied into the couple in the painting. That is where the track’s perspective comes from. So that songs comes from observation, as they all do."
Edward Hopper : Nighthawks
Like Merry Hell there is a strong thread of moral values without overt political expression running through the lyrics - although Union Jack House could be taken as a simple comment on the stratification of society, listen closely and it offers a more complex, nuanced take on reality, a distinction Virginia extemporised on,
"Merry Hell often get labelled as a political band, but there’s more to it."
"Merry Hell - we see world issues and we want to express how everyone is feeling, without blame and preaching - because if you do that you lose the people who could do with hearing the message in your song."
"Preaching to the converted is not our interest, and we are musicians not politicians, we want to be more colourful than that."
"I have always been a huge fan of Bob Marley for exactly the same reason. Even when he is speaking a very strong message the music comes first - the rhythm, the choruses - then you are in, hear the words and you think, 'that is a powerful message'."
"Personally as a writer I see the commonalities in us all - even the wealthiest person on earth has their own set of human problems. 'Union Jack House' expresses that."
The conversation tracked back to the theme of love. If No Place Like Tomorrow has a keystone it is The Butter Song, its purest (if metaphorically tangential) expression of ardour.
The Butter Song's arrangement, as live, is strikingly percussive and ever evolving - for this recording the combination of Virginia's voice and rhythms beaten out on instruments has reached the level of arresting, and may still be taken further,
"I heard it in my head as an a capella song - absolutely without instrumentation. But it has a striking rhythm to it - I could hear the off beat pulse too."
"Neil (McCartney) - he was a drummer first - he found those pulses. From there, they all put their instruments on their knees to beat the rhythm as I sang."
"We plan to develop it further on stage - we have a broken down drum kit now - to make it even more percussive."
There is always humour edging her work - Virginia is sometimes found in the seldom explored space between the Joni Mitchell and Philomena Cunk - but we finished talking about No Place Like Tomorrow by discussing deeper inspiration, with Virginia skimming like a flat stone over a still sea through a new and profound cultural connection,
"I am on an absolute journey through Kate Tempest's music at the moment."
"She is a poet, a playwright, a writer - but perhaps a musician first. She almost slapped me awake with her art."
"I first heard her on BBC Radio 6 - the song Firesmoke (below) - it's incredible. From there I have sought out everything she has done."
"She is still only 34 - she is young - to have such a body of work - she is amazing. What she can do with words. I want to see what she does next, how she grows; she is a bridge between folk and hip hop - and she speaks of the human condition, all the things folk music has done in the past."
The interview ended with that typical honest, upbeat, heartfelt expression of enthusiasm, and the enduring conviction that Virginia Kettle may be an eighth of a high profile folk phenomena, but No Place Like Tomorrow is no sideshow - instead it fully reaffirms her claim to be taken seriously as an artist in her own right: buy a copy here.