This month Kathryn Joseph will perform on the Isle of Lewis for the first time, and it’s a show loaded with personal significance. Firstly, her grandmother’s family were from the island. “She would secretly speak Gaelic to her sister but never to us,” says Joseph. “It wasn’t something that was embraced, it was something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Such a sad thing.”
Secondly, her dad now lives there, although apparently this is unrelated to the singer-songwriter’s other family history. “He just decided out of the blue that he would go to Lewis and has never come back,” she laughs. “He loves it. I don’t think he’ll ever move.”
The connection runs even deeper than this, however. Over a decade ago, while pregnant with her first child, Joseph began writing what would become The Weary. The song is about the 1919 Iolaire disaster, in which over 200 Lewis men drowned when the yacht bringing them home from the First World War hit rocks just a mile from Stornoway. The sheer cruelty of the tragedy, in a storm in the early hours of New Year’s Day, scarred the island for generations.
“I’d read When I Heard The Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire,” recalls Joseph, “and it was the same time as I was writing the song. It was a really odd grief connection for me that it ended up being the only song I wrote while I was pregnant.” The connection is that, tragically, her son died just a few days after he was born. The song, once completed, became about both the Iolaire and Joseph’s own dreadful loss. “My birthday is on 31 December and it’s just one of those things where everything feels the same,” she explains. “It’s partly about him and partly about that disaster, that strange thing of all of the griefs making sense together.”
The Weary, the closing track on Joseph’s extraordinary, Scottish Album of the Year award winning debut album, is an empathetic and heart-wrenching ode to the complexity of grief. Joseph once told me it was the loss of her son that spurred her to focus on a music career, as a way of coping. Today she tells me that, a few years later, she visited the Iolaire memorial near Stornoway with her three-year-old daughter. “I remember her being really affected by it, feeling sad for all these people,” she recalls, “and it wasn’t something we’d ever talked about.” Then she breaks into a smile. “She’s unfortunately grown out of it,” she says with a cackle (her daughter is now ten). “I watched Dumbo with her before going away to tour in America, the longest I’d ever been away from her, and even then, nothing. And I’m, like, bawling. There came a point where she decided a stone heart is the way to go and perhaps for survival that is best.”
This last part is a typical Joseph anecdote, heart-on-sleeve candid and wickedly funny in delivery. In conversation, she is almost nothing like her sombre and intense music, laughing easily and never far from a self-deprecating remark. Chatting via Zoom from Glasgow, she seems to be in a good place in her life. When lockdown began, she says, “I was one of the weirdly lucky ones. I just started writing again. I hadn’t for about two years, there’d not been anything coming since the last record.” She recorded what will be her third album in a single week earlier this year, at the studio of friend and “brilliant human” Lomond Campbell, “one of those weeks where you just cry with laughter and then quickly get all your shit done and then cry with laughter again.” She describes the album as a collection of songs about “human beings’ ability to cope with their situation no matter what”, drawing on stories of friends enduring abusive relationships, a subject that preoccupied her as lockdown trapped many people in domestic abuse situations.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve not been treated badly all of my life,” she clarifies. “I’m just fascinated by the beautiful humans who break the cycle of being treated badly and don’t give it out again. It’s a very rare thing.” This album, she says, “definitely feels different. I’m more protective of it. The songs feel like they matter more to me because they’re about other people.”
It won’t be out until next year, but meanwhile Joseph has been expanding her creative horizons. Lockdown, she says, “has definitely made me braver”. Often plagued by a lack of confidence in her talent, she is grateful that not being able to perform live made her push herself to try other things. She’s written the score for a new National Theatre of Scotland show, The Enemy (see right), even though “my immediate feeling was, er, no I don’t know how to do that”, and has been thrilled to see the word ‘composer’ printed next to her name. And some of her distinctive, elegantly composed Instagram photography was recently exhibited as part of FLOW Photofest in the Highlands.
The Lewis show also embraces the art world. It’s a collaboration with the astronomy-inspired artist collective Lumen as part of the annual Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, which came about because both parties – an international group of like-minded visual artists and a singer-songwriter who takes lots of photos on her phone as a substitute for a daily diary – have a strikingly similar aesthetic.
Joseph is modest about her talents as a photographer. “All of it feels like weird flukes. Usually the best ones are where I’m on a train and like…” She pulls a face and mimics waving a phone in the air randomly. “It’s become a really comforting obsession. I feel it’s quite similar to writing songs in that it’s like, all of the mess of real life, and how much wrong I say, and too much…. and I can whittle it down and make these small things that make me feel better. It was really weird for me to have people suddenly say they really liked them.”
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