Kathryn Joseph on tragedy behind her triumph

Kathryn Joseph' with producer and musical partner Marcus Mackay. Picture: Jannica Honey
Kathryn Joseph' with producer and musical partner Marcus Mackay. Picture: Jannica Honey
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An overnight sensation after 17 years, Scottish Album of the Year winner Kathryn Joseph reveals the tragedy behind her triumph, writes Andrew Eaton-Lewis

Kathryn Joseph is reflecting on the “strange little week” she had last month. It began on a Tuesday with Fleetwood Mac at Glasgow Hydro, “my 40th birthday present from my best friend”. On the Wednesday, much to her surprise, she won the 2015 Scottish Album of the Year Award, was hugged by new fan Paolo Nutini, and consumed “the most alcohol I’d ever drunk – and no hangover!”

On Friday, after driving through the Lake District in a daze, she played her first ever London show, “the most beautiful gig in the most beautiful church”. By Sunday she was back in Glasgow as part of an all-day gig at Oran Mor. By this point, she says, “I was crying, hysterical laughter. I had stuff spilled on me and I didn’t even mind, I was so happy, dancing to the Phantom Band.”

The Fleetwood Mac gig, she says, was a “weirdly pivotal” moment. “That was me going, ‘Look these people are older than me and no one in this room gives a f***.’ In the lead up to all this I’ve been very aware of my age, of not looking how you’re supposed to look as a female in this industry. That’s put me off because I’m so uncomfortable with it.”

Much has been made of Joseph’s age, and the fact that a “40-year-old mum” won a prestigious album prize. The media missed a trick, she jokes, in not photographing her with the band considered to be front-runners. “It could have been ‘Young Fathers and Old Mum’.”

Although it is difficult to resist focusing on Joseph’s age – not many people release their debut album at 40 – the fact that, until a few months ago, almost nobody outside Aberdeen had heard of this singer-songwriter makes it an even better story. Joseph’s debut album, Bones You Have Thrown Me And Blood I’ve Spilled, is an overnight success 17 years in the making. Since it invites favourable comparisons with the likes of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk Eyed Mender, it prompts the question – why wasn’t Joseph a star years ago?

The answer is complicated. Joseph was first offered a record deal aged 23, after a friend wrote dozens of letters on her behalf – unprompted – to labels. She didn’t even have a demo recorded, but the letter was so persuasive that 20, including EMI, Virgin and 4AD, replied asking to hear some music. “He’s never let me see it and I’ve no idea what he wrote,” recalls Joseph. “I was working behind the bar in the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen and getting these phone calls saying, ‘Can you send us some stuff?’” It was Sanctuary Records who made the offer. “They phoned me up when I was in the bath, totally jetlagged from a holiday in Canada, to say, ‘We’re going to come up this weekend and we want to speak to you’.” The label flew Joseph to London and recorded some sessions – and then she turned them down. “I was very aware that I was a very young female with no one to help me, no manager, no advice, and it just felt a bit weird.”

For the next 12 years, Joseph made no significant attempt to further her musical career. “I was basically a waitress. I played gigs but only when I was asked, and only in Aberdeen.” Lack of confidence was clearly a factor – in her songs, her voice and her looks. “Other people would get upset with me because I wasn’t letting people hear it, but all those things you have to do I knew I wasn’t able to. I hate every photo I see of me and so it was just… it made me not want to. I loved playing but not enough to make me think I could do any of it.”

Even now, she says, “playing is the oddest thing because that’s the only time I don’t care what I look like.”

The unlikely turning point was a tragic event – the loss of a child. It is not widely known, this, but Kathryn Joseph was born Kathryn Sawers; Joseph is the name of her baby son, who was born three months premature and died after a week. The album, she says, would not have existed had he lived.

Born in September five years ago, Joseph appeared to be doing well and was expected to be home by Christmas – then his bowel ruptured. “On the way to the hospital I was told he probably wouldn’t last. It was four o’clock in the morning, and in my head I was like, ‘All right, if he doesn’t then I have to do music’. That was how it felt to me. If I don’t get this baby I have to do this other thing I’ve said I want to do but I’ve not been able to. Is that a weird thing to say? I don’t know. But it was a very, very strong feeling. It was like my way of coping.” And, she adds: “I didn’t want to be thought of as the woman who lost the baby – the sadness of that for everyone else.” For the sake of those she loved she needed to tell a new story about herself.

And then two things happened which allowed her to do just that. Firstly, within two months she was pregnant again, and this time the baby – a girl called Eve – survived and thrived. “Other people who go through that never get pregnant again or it’s years. I was so lucky.” Secondly, she struck up a friendship with Marcus and Claire Mackay of Hits the Fan, the tiny independent record label that released Frightened Rabbit’s first album. Within a few weeks Marcus was her producer and musical partner, Hits the Fan her label; Bones You Have Thrown Me was finished three days before Eve was born. The album, written over ten years, is not about Joseph – apart from its closing song, The Weary, and even that song isn’t just about him, but also about the Iolaire disaster in 1919, when 205 sailors who had survived the First World War died after the boat taking them home to their families capsized a few metres from the Isle of Lewis. It’s a clever, poignant conceit; each story is a powerful metaphor for the other.

But parenthood, she says, has “made me less worried about things that don’t matter, like what you look like”. And playing with Marcus seems to have given her a way to be less critical of her music. She is proud of Bones You Have Thrown Me, but talks up his contributions rather than hers. “The bits I want to hear are the bits that he’s done,” she says. “He’s made it how I wanted it to be without even knowing it.”

It’s tempting to imagine that if Joseph was less hard on herself she might have made a dozen albums by now. But would they have been as special as this one? She thinks not and has no regrets. “I’m more aware that I’m running out of time to do things. We all are. But I don’t feel I’ve wasted any of my life because I’ve made sure that I’m happy. I’ve always loved my job, I’ve loved the people I worked with, I’ve made best friends from that. I knew I needed all that so I could go home and write music and not freak out about anything else.” n

• Kathryn Joseph’s new single The Bird/The Worm is released on 27 July on Hits the Fan. She plays the Wickerman Festival on 24 July and Belladrum on 6 August. www.kathrynjoseph.co.uk