The Living Tradition
The Singing Kettle -
by Pete Heywood Issue 32 April/May '99
Over the years The Singing Kettle has grown from being a small show touring playgroups and schools to being the biggest box office draw in Scotland, selling more tickets at the SECC than Wet, Wet, Wet, Dire Straits and Take That. They have made five television series with BBC Scotland - each show was estimated to have been watched by around 200,00 families - and the first six of their Singing kettle videos have sold over 350,000 copies. Outside of Disney they are one of the fastest pre-school children's video products around.
There is no single reason for their success but like other performers who have become household names - Barbara Dickson and Billy Connolly to name but two - they owe a lot to their experience in the folk clubs. Another key element is their reliance on the strength of their material.
Cilla's first radio broadcast was when she was seven years old singing street rhymes for one of the Radio Ballads. This entailed her singing in Studio One of BBC Scotland whilst skipping using a piece of electrical flex - she hadn't brought her ropes in with her.
She met Norman and Janey Buchan, was invited to their home and at the age of seven got her first taste of pineapple fritters - a rare delicacy for a Glasgow wean at that time! Her mum helped to run the local folk club and the Fisher family house became a second home to many musicians. People like The Clancys, The Dubliners and Pete Seeger were regular visitors and she once served tea to Ravi Shankar. "I thought Bert Jansch was my brother." Cilla said only half joking. "Bert used to make me my dinner when I came home from school and he taught me the three chords I still use on the guitar!" Her first gig in Glasgow was a concert with Ray and Archie Fisher, Alex Campbell and The McPeakes. Archie put together "The Fisher Family" to compete with The McPeakes and after the concert Ben Lyons, a BBC producer gave Cilla a ten-shilling note. By now Cilla had had pineapple fritters, met an MP and was being given 10-shilling notes. She realised that music might be a good career!
Artie comes from a Cornish family and was born and brought up in Scotland. He was active in the Fife folk-scene and a member of the legendary Great Fife Road Show.
As Cilla Fisher & Artie Trezise, they worked on a professional basis around the folk clubs from the mid 70's. Initially their repertoire was broad and included a fair amount of American material alongside their Scottish traditional songs. Folk club organiser, Irvine McVeigh, offered them some advice. He said that although they were good at all their material, it was their treatment of Scottish songs that set them apart and advised them to concentrate on their strengths. This turned out to be good advice as their concentration on Scots songs has been one of the foundations of their success.
Their first album was for a German label. They were doing a tour of Germany with a fairly tight schedule but as the organiser pointed out, "You have Friday morning free, will you record an album?" They decided against doing it so quickly but agreed to do it when they got back home. Pete Shepheard, who now runs Springthyme Recordings, recorded it using a Revox and a pair of mikes. They then recorded for Bill Leader and did an album for their own "Kettle Records". They also recorded in America for Sandy Paton. "Sandy had a large room, part of what was an old music college. He had good mikes and a stage and it was just like doing a concert only without the audience. We had plenty of time - there was no pressure to record during this session - and the album was recorded over several days when we felt right. In between we were going for walks in the country."
At the time they treated making an album fairly lightly. "We made albums to sell on tours. We used to come back from tours to Australia and America with very little money, but what money we did get came largely from album sales. The more albums we had, the better." When they later did their Topic album they were much more calculating with it whereas the others just seemed to evolve.
Cilla and Artie were among the first folk musicians from this country to tour in America. It encouraged their creativity and led to various musical friendships. It also brought some new songs into their repertoire and was to have an impact on their album made for Topic in 1979 and subsequently their first children's album, The Singing Kettle. "The States was something we knew very little about. In those days there was not much on the television about it and our only experience of it was what we saw in the movies. Going to the States was all a big movie to us! A man who has since become a good friend, Rick Lee, was the MC for the very first concert that we did in the States. Rick appeared as this initially intimidating character - he is huge - but he gave us a great build up. We got a standing ovation for our very first song!"
Over the years they got to know Rick well. They used to sit up all night singing and talking. "Rick listened intently and if you sang a song that he liked, he didn't just say that was a good song, he would ask you to sing it again - and again and again." Artie ended up organising tours in Scotland for Rick and Lorraine Lee and Malcolm Dalglish & Grey Larsen. When talking about this Artie suddenly realised that he never took any money for doing it! "I wouldn't do this nowadays - I'd help them but I would charge for it. Money was never mentioned then but thinking about it, you didn't need to because it cut both ways."
By the time they were asked to do their LP for Topic, Artie was ready to put a lot more thought into it than previous albums. He was impressed by the concept of the Boys of the Lough's "Good Friends, Good Music" album. For this album the Boys took a multi-track recorder on the road with them and recorded people on their travels. Their experiences had taught them that if you have the energy to get various musicians together, something interesting results.
Artie and Cilla hit on the idea of putting together various sounds that they liked. On one track they combined piano and mandolin, on another layers of fiddles behind a solo voice and on "The Jeannie C", harmonium, synthesiser, accordion and Northumbrian Pipes. It was a remarkable album for 1979 and was awarded Melody Maker's "Folk album of the Year". Two of the musicians were Johnny and Phil Cunningham who were very interested in songs. They heard Cilla and Artie sing Norland Wind and the next day they were playing it - all day - and asked if they could record it with them. Robin Morton at Temple Studios recorded most of the album but parts of it were recorded in four different studios in Scotland and America. By the time it was finished the musicians included Alistair Anderson, Johnny and Phil Cunningham, Jim Houston, Brian McNeill, John Martin and Brian Miller along with Americans, Malcolm Dalglish & Grey Larsen, Rick Lee and Bob Zentz.
The idea for a Children's album came later. The first plan was to do the album cheaply - in a couple of days - but then it took a form of its own and they realised that it could be something really special. Artie was very enthusiastic and realised that there were fewer constraints than there would have been with a normal folk album. They could put zany sounds on it - even a bass!
They contacted Andy Spence who they had met in America. Andy and her husband Bill run Andy's Front Hall, a music store and mail-order business and Bill is the dulcimer player in Fennig's All Star String Band. (He plays on an album of Alistair Anderson's recorded on Front Hall.) Andy gathered together all the children's albums she could and sent them over. The one that impressed them was "One Elephant, Deux Elephants". It had children singing on it, not necessarily in tune, just real children's singing.
Wally Whyton advised them that the secret of a successful children's album was to put a lot of items on it, nothing long - two minutes maximum - but a lot of tracks. The inference here was that quantity mattered rather then quality! They took on board part of this advice although they didn't agree with the two-minute limit. "Kids will listen to a lot more as long as they are happy - but we did put a lot of things on the album - rhymes etc." The musicians included Brian McNeill, Alan Reid and Duncan MacGillivray from Battlefield Band, Stuart Anderson, Sandy Coghill, and Brian Miller John Martin and again some American friends who were on tour in Scotland at the time, Walt Michael, Tom McCreesh and Mark Murphy. "The Kettle Kids" which included their daughter Jane, provided the raw children's singing that had impressed them on "One Elephant. Deux Elephants".
Although the Singing Kettle album was not recognised by an album of the year award, it was at least as significant as their Topic album. Most children's albums are frankly dreadful, but The Singing Kettle album was exceptional. At that time they had no real plans to develop it as a show but because of family commitments they were looking for work that would involve less touring. At first they did the show on an occasional basis and turned a lot of work down and it was a long time before their folk club and festival work became secondary.
Cilla was the main driving force in building on the original idea of the Singing Kettle and making it more like a show. Cilla made things that could be used as props and wanted to make the show more visual. Edinburgh Theatre Workshop offered to help them to develop it but in the end Artie was disappointed with their ideas. They decided to do their own research and over a period of about a year they made a point of seeing every children's show that they could. Much of what they saw they thought was absolutely dire.
One dance show in particular had a big impact and Artie spoke to them about the use of costume. Their advice was to tell them that if they were going to use costume they should not do it by halves - just go for it. Another influence was Dave and Toni Arthur's show 'The Music Box'. They had clues inside a music box and that idea led to the clues inside the Kettles. Another thing that Dave and Toni taught them was the fact that you didn't need to stick just to Folk music. Cilla was impressed with Major Mustard's Travelling Show, particularly with the fact that he was clean - both in his immaculate costume and in his respect for his props. "He didn't throw things down - everything was placed. This was quite different from some of the performers who were trying to attract a family audience, and many of the street theatre acts looked a little grubby."
Looking back on it, Artie is now very aware that those who impressed them most tended to have a background of folk music and folk clubs. "A comment we always hear is people telling us that we are so natural. They expect a big difference between the people we are on stage and off stage." Artie is sure that this comes from their work in folk clubs where you have to perform very close to the audience and also be part of the audience throughout the night.
Artie was surprised just how badly children's entertainers were treated and it became a crusade to be taken seriously. At one time the Singing Kettle were the bad kids on the block. The idea of 'folk musicians' going into schools was too anarchic, but now they are very much part of the establishment.
At times people have suggested the idea of a Singing Kettle for adults. To date they have dismissed it for a few reasons including the fear that it might undermine what they do. They also consider what they do now to be for adults. "The Singing Kettle is not a children's show, it is a family show." They are often approached to do issue based work - "Be a friend to a Pinemartin" etc., - but have resisted it. "We did a road safety one but 'preaching' is really against what we believe in for the show. If there is a central message it is that the songs are fun and if we can teach them that then we have achieved a lot."
Their recent award of MBEs came as a surprise to them. "You never strive for a recognition like this. If twenty years ago somebody had suggested that we would get an award from the Queen we would have thought it a daft idea. Now we have become in effect bosses of what is quite a large organisation. We have to encourage and praise our staff but nobody praises us - except of course the audiences - and this recognition has been a real encouragement."
Their daughter Jane is now a driving force behind the show. She first joined at a time when Cilla was ill. She agreed to understudy Cilla but Cilla suggested that it would help her if she did more than just understudy, but came into the show to share the load. Jane agreed without any hesitation and has now become a core member of the show.
The other bedrock of the Singing Kettle is Garry Coupland. Garry gives the others a confidence about the music that allows them to get on with the show. "Garry is the kind of musician you would always dream of playing with when you were working in the folk clubs, but in the clubs we couldn't afford three wages."
"We met Garry through an advert - he was looking for work as a musician. We met him on the Thursday and our first gig was on the Saturday. He is an amazing musician." He was a musical genius as a child and learned his craft going around with his father who was a professional musician. Through this he was fully aware of all kinds of music from Al Jolson to The Beatles. For somebody in his twenties it was remarkable to have this breadth of musical knowledge. Like Artie, he still has a thirst for performing; he often does four gigs a day, three with Singing Kettle before popping off to another engagement.
Costs are still a problem even when you become as successful as the Singing Kettle. "The costs of doing what we do is such that it makes some things uneconomic. For a long time we have been asked to take the show to the Islands but the costs of taking all the people and gear over on ferries is huge. It might be cheaper to pay for all the audience to come over to the mainland!" An option would be to take a cut down show but they feel strongly that they would rather do it right and not short-change their audiences. The whole experience of children going to the theatre for a special event is important.
They are busy - they did 54 dates at Christmas and are currently working on a newly commissioned series for Scottish Television. They have ideas for a special recording for handicapped children and for a show based on folk tales.
We spoke for a while about how few stars there were in the folk scene, indeed even in the wider show-business sense, real stars are few and far between and tend to last for a long time. "The music is the Star. When we started the Singing Kettle, people didn't understand that. When you are on the television, people want to make you the star. We tried to resist that and make people understand that the songs are the star."
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