Interview with Sharron Kraus

Photo Credit: Jamie Hudlestone

Hello Sharron!  It’s so lovely to have the chance to ask you some questions about your music career and your latest album The Woody Nightshade.  I reviewed your album for this site and I found the story-telling and poetic nature of your songs to be both richly enigmatic and elucidating.  Have you always written in this style?  Did you ever consider following the path of the poet or novelist?

Hi there – thanks for asking.  Well, I’m always writing – either notes, journal entries, stories, essays or things that turn into songs. I’d like to write a good children’s book before I die, and I’d also like to finish up a series of essays I’m writing on the nature of love, but mostly I find that writing songs is  richer, deeper, and more satisfying than writing poetry or prose. There’s something special about the way words work with music. Plus it’s easier to get your words out to people through the medium of music – novelists don’t get to perform; poets do, but I find performance poetry to be mostly contrived and passé.

 You described your work as “dark folk music for the new millennium”, but your songcraft, choice of musical instruments, and vocal inflection all seem to reflect an older style of music.  I want to call it “alt-Medieval-folk”, but I don’t know if that is accurate or does your songs justice. 

‘Dark folk for the new millennium’ was just a throwaway tagline I put on my website when I was building it – that was in 2000. I don’t think labels and genre types are ever more than just gestures in a vague direction, so I haven’t bothered to change it. I guess there are some medieval influences in the sounds I use, and sometimes in the way the words are phrased, but I shy away from any label that suggests I’m hankering after some idealised past – I’m not.

 From what I’ve read, you’re based in the U.K. but were born in the U.S. and have ties to the Philadelphia region.  Where were you located at the time that you decided to become a singer-songwriter?  Did the locale influence what type of music you wanted to play or were you always into folk music?

I was born in the Bronx, but my parents moved to England, where my mother’s from, when I was one. I think of England, or Britain in general – I live in Wales now – as home, but the US has always exerted a pull on me. I’ve lived in California, and more recently Philadelphia, which is where I’m writing this interview – back on a tour/visit.

I didn’t really make any decisions – music was something I’d always dreamed of doing, but because the discipline of music lessons turned me off music as a child, I didn’t actively pursue a musical career. Then as a student I found myself in bands, dipping into music here and there, writing some songs. I discovered traditional folk music in Oxford, where I was a grad student, started going to folk sessions and learning traditional folk songs (I was singing in a goth band at the time too, though!). I finished my studies and moved to the Bay Area for a couple of years, and being away from England made me really want to sing those songs as a way of feeling connected to all I’d left behind. That’s also when I really started writing songs and performing them – mostly just at open mics.

 You’ve been prolific over the past decade, with The Woody Nightshade being your fourth solo album and also having 6 collaborative albums under your belt, some with noted Philly artists like Meg Baird and Helena Espvall of the band Espers and Gillian Chadwick of Ex-Reverie.  This is kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did you move to the Philadelphia area to get involved musically with like-minded artists or were you in Philly for other reasons and ended up collaborating with the aforementioned artists?

I was drawn to Philly because of the musicians there – people I’d met when I’d been touring and who welcomed me into their community. I didn’t move there specifically to work with these people, but I knew I’d be inspired by being around them. The collaborations all happened spontaneously – one you didn’t mention is the Tau Emerald album I did with Tara Burke of Fursaxa – that one was even more so: she came to England after I’d moved back there, and the two of us were due to do some shows in Finland. We got stuck in traffic on the way to the airport and missed our flight. Rather than take the next flight out, which would’ve meant waiting for 24 hours, and then missing the first 2 shows anyway, we drove back to my place in Oxford and spent the week recording together.

 Do you prefer creating your solo albums as opposed to the collaborative ones, or does each hold its charm?

I love the back and forth of ideas in collaboration, but I also like mulling on things on my own. So I guess the answer to the question is that both are important to me. I like freedom and change, so probably being in a band would be less satisfying than being able to choose who to work with at any given time.

 What has your journey been like since the release of your debut album Beautiful Twisted?  Have been following the expected path (well, at least what you thought the path would or should be) or have you deviated from the trail? From what I’ve read, The Woody Nightshade is a different take on your dark folk sound.

 There is no path laid out –  I haven’t been planning things in advance. At no point do I have any real idea what’s going to happen next – that’s part of why doing this is exciting. Each project is free to go wherever it wants, and as long as I keep asking questions and trying to address them honestly, I feel that I’m on ‘the path’. For The Woody Nightshade I felt that the songs wanted layers of vocals, bass drums and fairly minimal strings – I wanted something darker-sounding than the palette I’d used for The Fox’s Wedding, which had had lots of violins, bowed bass, whistles and recorders. I have no clue yet what the new songs I’m writing will need when it comes to arrangements – we’ll see!

You’ve been on tours in both Europe and the U.S. over the years.  What has the experience been like?  When you play a gig, do you add extra instruments to your repertoire?

It’s been really wonderful – it’s really the best way to travel – you get to a place you’ve never been before and there’s someone to meet you and look after you, and show you the things you don’t get to see as a tourist. You get to hang out with local musicians and stay with kind and welcoming people. In some places you get to sample beer that’s too good to be true! Last year I was touring in Belgium and Holland together with Nancy Wallace. That was great fun, and the bonus was that we sang on each other’s sets for some songs – she’s one of the singers on The Woody Nightshade. I finished a small US tour with Glenn Jones and it was really good to hear him play, and also to reconnect with friends I’ve not seen for a few years.

Usually I’m playing gigs with my guitar or banjo but if I play somewhere where there’s a budget for taking a band I’ll take some of the musicians who record on my albums – people like Michael Tanner and Nick Palmer, who really add to the moodiness of the songs.

Photo Credit: Ross Connell

 Have you noticed any difference in reception between European and U.S. audiences or album-listeners?  I’m just curious if U.S. listeners are aware of the rich English background of the type of music you create and have moved forward.

I’m not sure how to answer that, as it’s hard to generalise – I haven’t really noticed any difference between US and European audiences. One of the things that amazes me is how much people who don’t speak English all that well seem to get what I’m doing. The first time I went on tour across Europe I was worried that my music would be too Anglo-centric for non-English-speaking audiences to relate to, but that wasn’t the case at all.

When I’m playing live I’m reaching out to the audience, and what works on any particular night is hard to predict, so I try to sense what the mood is and what would draw people in. Some audiences like to know about the stories behind the songs, so then I’d talk about that kind of thing. Sometimes I won’t say anything. It’s good to come to each gig fresh, without expectations about how the audience will react, and just see what happens.

 Going back to your album The Woody Nightshade, you’ve gathered several musicians around you to augment your sound and vocals.  Are they artists that have worked with before or do you identify new talent to take into the studio with you?  

I’d worked with some of the musicians on the album before – Michael and Nick – and the others I’d done some playing or singing with – the singers were all people I’d sang with in  informal contexts. It’s important for me to be recording with people I like and who I’ll enjoy hanging out with, so anyone who plays on any of my records is already a friend, and by the end of the recording process they’re a friend for life. I think friendship and musical compatibility is at least as important as talent.

 I want to ask you about the inspiration for your lyrics on “Two Brothers”.  To me, that is the highlight of the album; the one that really captures my imagination.  Is this a folklore story that you read about and distilled into the song or did it spring from you mind, about a maiden who is courted by two differing brothers, and who, for a while, cannot choose between the two?

There is a traditional murder ballad called ‘The Two Brothers’, but it’s a totally different story in which one brother kills the other, so this song is a story of my own.

What I’m trying to do in this song is explore the fact that it’s possible to fall in love with more than one person. I’m telling the story of a girl who falls in love with two brothers she’s spending time with and in doing so I’m thinking about how I’d deal with a situation like that, or how I’d feel if someone I loved loved me, but also someone else – would I understand that? Would I be able to accept it? Would it be harder to accept if it was my own sister, or would it in some ways be easier? What should we do if we find ourselves falling in love with someone whilst in a relationship with someone else? Eternal questions!

On the inside of the front album sleeve you’ve written a special note that begins with “Dear listener…” where you go on to emphasize the importance of the physical album/CD as a “cohesive artistic work” versus intangible, mix ‘n’ match digital files.  While I wholly agree with your statement, I’m wondering if there isn’t room for both formats.  The Woody Nightshade is on Strange Attractors Audio House and is available in all formats.  I hope I’m not prying too much, but I’m wondering if you’ve had more purchases of the CD or the mp3 files.

Yes, there’s room for both – I’ve my iPod with me when I’m travelling, and anyone who buys The Woody Nightshade on vinyl gets a coupon to download the mp3s. But I can’t overemphasize the difference in quality between the two. Digital is more convenient, but it doesn’t come close to the experience of putting on an LP, really listening and losing yourself in the music. Listening to mp3s is like eating fast food when you’re on tour and can’t get anything better – it serves its purpose. But it doesn’t compare to going out to eat really good food somewhere nice with friends – that’s so much better!

 I read an interview you did with It’s Psychedelic Magazine where you say you’ve moved to a different country and are working on your next solo album, as well as a new collaboration with Gillian Chadwick as Rusalnaia.   Any progress to report on that front?  Will you also be touring the U.S. soon?

I finished a northwest tour with Glenn Jones – some shows in the US and one in Montreal. That was great. Now I’m in Philly for a few weeks to do the work with Gillian, and I’ll be playing a couple of Philly shows – one with Fursaxa and one with Meg, Helena and Glenn.

I moved to Wales about a year ago and am out in the hills. I’m working on new songs for a solo album, and also recording some instrumental pieces that respond to the landscape around me. I’m not sure what’ll happen with those but they’ll come out at some point.

 Lastly, can you list your official site where we can find out more about you and your music?  Thanks so much Sharron!

My website is http://www.sharronkraus.com but I’m not always as diligent at keeping that up to date as I should be! People can find out what’s going on on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sharron-Kraus/118785641492276