Kathryn Williams plays Belladrum on Friday 8 August
'I HAVEN'T told you this before," says Neill MacColl to Kathryn Williams, "but when you sing on 'Innocent When You Dream' you sound like my mum did when she was in her twenties. It's very odd." Considering MacColl's mother is Peggy Seeger, the American folk singer for whom his father, Ewan MacColl, wrote the classic 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', I'm not surprised Williams is tickled pink at the comparison.
"That is weird," says the Mercury-nominated folk singer. "I think our voices fit together, like when you hear a brother and sister singing."
"I think we need therapy," MacColl quips. Both of them dissolve into giggles.
We're at Inverness's Eden Court theatre, where the duo will later perform songs from their upcoming album, Two, one of which is a whimsical cover of Tom Waits' 'Innocent When You Dream'. They're doing warm-up gigs in the Highlands because, according to Williams, their music goes with the mountains, and because MacColl, whose father was a Scot, takes every opportunity to head north.
Two is a sublime record of intimate folk songs, written and recorded by Williams and MacColl in less than a fortnight at her studio in Newcastle. Like all great collaborations, from June Carter and Johnny Cash to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, it's the frisson between them, in this case the marriage of Williams' sweet, hushed vocals with MacColl's high harmonies and fragile guitar pickings, that makes it so very good.
It's not surprising then to see how much affection they have for each other. "It's funny how people suddenly enter your life and shape it," says Williams. "I can't imagine not having Neill around now." In most of their sentences a full-stop is bumped out of the way by a hearty laugh, and, not unlike a brother and sister, they love teasing one another. "You're very quiet, Neill," Williams mocks. "I feel the same," he mumbles, looking pleased.
Arriving with Williams' husband, who is also her manager, all three of them sport woolly hats and order poached salmon salads. The night before, they played their first ever gig together in Fort William and, despite being seasoned performers – Williams has released six albums and MacColl has played with Eddi Reader, Steve Earle and KD Lang amongst others – they tell me they had never been so nervous. They made mistakes – it is a warm-up tour after all – and couldn't look at each other because they were terrified they would start laughing and be unable to stop. Sure enough, later that evening on stage, every time their eyes meet I'm convinced it's going to set them off.
They first met a couple of years ago at a folk concert in Cork where, aptly, they sang 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'. The song was Williams' choice. "It was funny when we rehearsed it because I kept saying 'don't play it like that, do it like this'," she laughs.
"I've done it loads of times, and with all due respect to the people I've played it with, I never felt it was to satisfaction," says MacColl. "Until this time."
They agreed on the spot that they wanted to work together, but Williams was about to have a baby and it took them more than a year to meet up. In the meantime, they sent each other "haiku jokes". "They weren't strict haikus, because they have to be 17 syllables, don't they?" asks MacColl. "I stuck to 17 syllables," boasts Williams. "No, you didn't. I counted every one of them," he bats back.
Eventually, MacColl went to stay with Williams and they headed into her studio, or rather a garage with some instruments in it. Everything happened unbelievably fast. "In six days we had 22 finished songs," says MacColl. They had never written together and had barely been in the same room, but somehow it worked. 'Come With Me', a breathtaking, romantic song about two friends deciding whether to take their relationship further, was completed in an hour and a half. And they were drunk. "It was late at night after dinner and we were like, let's just do one more hour," recalls Williams. "Then whoosh, it came out."
Similarly, Williams walked in one day on MacColl singing 'Innocent When You Dream' in the studio to warm up his voice. She insisted they record it, with her backing vocals, and did so in a single take. "Before we started making this album, Neill wasn't confident about singing at all," says Williams. "But it sounded so lovely."
"I have sung all my life but I've got out of the habit and if you don't exercise the muscle, you lose confidence," he says.
In the past Williams has been described as timid. "I've changed since having a baby," she says. "I used to get terrible stage fright. Doing this used to mean everything to me to the point where I wouldn't be able to sleep if I'd played a wrong note. I'd feel like everything was against me and I had terrible paranoia. But having a baby changed everything because now that's the most important thing. And once you've pushed a human body out of your arse, what is there to be nervous about?"
When it came to recording Two, Williams and MacColl wanted to capture the moment instead of tweaking each song endlessly to create something perfect, a process which produces what Williams calls "plastic surgery records, because they're the equivalent of sticking a needle of Botox in your face". They wanted it to be closer in spirit to the folk recordings of the early Seventies, like those of MacColl's parents. Which brings me to their families. Williams' father was a folk musician in Liverpool in the Sixties. After she tells me, with a deadpan expression, that her father is in fact Ewan MacColl, and we get the ensuing laughter out of the way, they tell me a lovely story about an old tape recorder and set of tapes Williams bought years ago at a flea market. She stored them under the bed where MacColl slept while they made Two and only recently rediscovered them. "The tapes were full of rare recordings of his mum and dad playing live at folk festivals in 1962," she says. They both shake their heads, bemused and delighted by the coincidence.
Both of them were passionate about music from a young age, though Williams was painfully shy and used to sing and play guitar in secret. This is why she sings so quietly, she reckons. MacColl was touring with his parents at six months old, started playing guitar at 10, and was in his parents' band as a teenager. When did he realise, though, that his was not a conventional childhood? "It was hammered home when they came to my junior school and played," he winces. "I thought I was going to die of embarrassment."
Williams' son may only be two years old, but he's already written his first song and is regularly taken on tour with his parents, just like MacColl was, while both of his teenage sons are in bands. For both of them, music really is a family affair. Did MacColl ever make music with his half-sister, Kirsty, the renowned singer-songwriter who tragically died in a boat accident? He falls quiet at her mention. "She was in one of my first bands when I was 15," he says. "We threw her out because we didn't need a girl singer. Her first proper band, The Drug Addicts, threw her out for the same reason. Maybe that's what gave her the strength that she needed to go, well, f**k you. There were only six months between us so it was a close bond."
Williams quickly steps in. "I had a band with my sister when I was 14," she says. "We wore pink tops and mini-skirts and were called Yak Attack." It works: MacColl starts laughing. "That's the perfect name for a band for you," he teases. She sticks two fingers up at him, and just like that they're off again. v
• Come With Me is released on February 25, with the album, Two, released March 3 (Caw).
Originally published: 17 February 2008