“From a composition point of view, we need to think who we want to speak to… It’s not so much about hard and fast rules, but just having an understanding with others, a common language to speak.”

Kate Burke

Kate Burke , based in country NSW, has been singing and performing as a multi-instrumentalist for many years, and has won much acclaim as a member of Irish / Australian traditional band Trouble in the Kitchen, duo Kate and Ruth, and  currently with Luke Plumb  and the Circuit…  to name just a few.  Kate’s gorgeous singing voice and beautiful accompaniment style make her in demand as a musician, but her musical scope equally extends to song-writing and tune composition. Kate is  this year’s feature guest alongside Irish-American fiddler and composer Liz Carroll  at the QuasiTrad Tunes Camp.  Kate was recently in Melbourne so I caught up with her for a TradChat  interview.  Here she talks about her ideas on composition, both within the Irish framework and as inspired by the environment around her.  You can hear more from Kate herself on the recent Blarney Pilgrims podcast.

See Kate in concert soon with Liz Carroll (USA):

Sunday Nov 3, 2019, 2pm at Deans Marsh Hall, Victoria.  Tickets: quasitrad.com/events/

Thursday, Nov 7, 2019, 7pm, at The Oratory, Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne.  Tickets: theboite.com.au

Thanks for coming over today, Kate!  It’s great to catch up with you just before the QuasiTrad Tunes Camp to talk about your music and your approach to composition.  You’ve written many tunes that your bands, especially Trouble in the Kitchen, have played over the years.  What’s you approach to writing an Irish tune?

Irish music as I know it is about old tradition and stories, old and new, or about place. To be honest I don’t know the name to so many tunes, and I should, because that name is also a link back to where the tune came from.  And there are a lot of Irish tunes that have been composed recently, which are in the same mould.  They tend to sound traditional and  the name might be the only  indication it’s a more recent composition. The way that sessions work and the way that the  tradition plays out means that to compose tunes in the Irish tradition most people make them sound traditional.  Whereas Scottish tunes ..  I’ve heard lots of innovation. Aidan O’Rourke’s Waves of Rush for example is pretty kind-of crazy! It’s very much in the tradition in some ways – it’s a reel, but has more syncopation, added suspense, the way it changes key.  There seems to be more scope for innovation in the Scottish tradition.

If someone composed an Irish tune with an unusual element would people say “that’s not Irish”?

They might not say “it’s not Irish” but it might not fit into the session ethos. If you popped it in there it might just be too different. After being around sessions for a few decades, I can see that the ones that work best are the ones where everyone has an understanding, because a session is like a conversation.  If one person is doing something vastly different the dynamic can be thrown a bit.  It’s not so much about hard and fast rules, but just having an understanding with others, a common language to speak.  The reel format, the jig format, it’s friendlier if it’s familiar.

So to compose in the traditional Irish style means to write a tune that fits the session ethos?

It’s more diverse than that, because there’s also different regional styles, eg Donegal, Clare, then there’s tunes which are only played in competitions. And there’s tunes written especially for dances.  From a composition point of view, we need to think who we want to speak to.  I’ve written some jigs and reels that could fit into a session situation.

The next level to that is writers like Caoimhín O’Raghalliagh, from Ireland, who has been steeped in the tradition, so are fully literate in the tunes tradition.  He has projects at the moment that involve a lot of improvisation, based around a traditional tune.  He might slow it down, give it space, collaborate with another musician.  On a recent album he works with Thomas Bartlett,  a US piano player who plays with The Gloaming. One track is a trad tune but very spacious, very slow, and the piano adds to this sense of space too.  So there’s a side to composition where you can take the tradition and break it down, reinterpret it through improvisation.

Interestingly my friend, Jack Conrick and I took our fiddles to a space in the National Gallery in Canberra a few weeks ago  -it’s called Skyspace – and its got a beautiful acoustic.  It’s a lovely architect-designed dome.  We spent an hour and a half playing tunes, but they were slow and spacious and using the dome as an extra instrument to resonate in.  We improvised around voicings and speed that made use of the acoustics. 

More recently I’ve started writing tunes on the fiddle, which probably have an Irish inflexion to them, but they’re not “trad” tunes.  They  don’t fit a form – they’re not jigs or reels, they don’t fit  the dance tradition.

What is the catalyst for you to write a tune? What makes you sit down and create a tune?

Recently I was walking through  the city in Melbourne, looking at sky scrapers… I love skyscrapers, I think they’re amazing accomplishments!… and I was just looking up at them and remembering that years ago, outside the Dumpling house in Melbourne, a massive unit had fallen down and wedged itself between two buildings.  It had this sense of potential energy, while it was sitting there for ages, at least a year.  It had a sense that it could fall at any time, but it sat there for so long and didn’t fall.  I wanted to capture this sense, in a tune I wrote called Vertigo.  I wanted to capture the weird sense of falling you get when you look up at a skyscraper, even though it should be the opposite thing.  The tune has a reference point to an Irish jig, but it’s not actually a jig, it’s a lot freer. But  I like the idea of knowing what your building blocks are in composition.  It’s not to be restrained by them, but to lay them on the table and realise that’s the basis.  For me those blocks are trad tunes, but then there’s more to add; obviously if I wanted to write a trad tune, I’d write a trad tune, but looking at the skyscraper I was inspired to write something else. 

When I was writing for the band (Trouble in the Kitchen), I’d write in the trad style and sometimes I’d feel constrained by that. I think playing Irish music in Australia we do have a bit of cringe complex about it, maybe we don’t have licence to play with it because we’re still learning about it all the time. It’s liberating to be able to say:  this is what I hear, and this is where I’d like to take this composition.

That’s interesting.  There’s a podcast by Neil Pearlman, called TradCafe.  He’s in America and the underlying theme in the podcast is exploring what it means to be a traditional player in America.   American trad music is older by centuries than Australia’s and so there’s a lot of rich traditions, but so many artists playing Irish or Scottish music will still question themselves, “Do I have a right to play this music or be called an authority”.  In some ways the musicians there have moved past this now, but the question still actually comes up in the podcast interviews each week.  Are you comfortable with the title of Australian-Irish musician?

I think I am now. It took me a while to understand the tradition and how I fit into it and I still haven’t fully figured it out… I think it’s important to be able to respect it and see it as a life-time learning experience.  I’ve never been a very confident tunes player, I’m more comfortable with accompaniment.  But in the last few years I have put a lot more time into playing fiddle and concertina. 

So is  your approach to tune-writing  also as an accompanist?

I’m aware that I’ve always got the harmonic structure in my head when I write a melody, and that comes from being a backing player.  I can’t really separate the chord structure from the melody.  I hear chord relationships the whole time.  I think in solfa, do re mi, with chords as I, V for example.

What about your songs?  How do you come up with a song?

It usually starts with a strong emotional reaction to something.  I’ll put that into a visual context, and create… I used to write a lot of poetry and I think that’s what my song-writing is like, it’s more impressionistic than telling a story.

What sort of visual are you creating to go with the emotional reaction?

It’s usually a place. I recently  wrote a song about the Red Hill Hotel in Chewton (Victoria), that’s where we used to have Chewton Folk Festival back in the days.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time up there since Michael Grinter * passed away, trying to capture these little images of what it was like for me when I lived in Castlemaine, playing in the mid 2000s, and we’d have a festival on. 

Song-writing is usually when I get overwhelmed by an emotion, and need some way to process it.

How did you start writing the song.

First the words.  In that moment, in Chewton, I pulled out my phone and started writing on the notes app. It’s always words first. 

And when you were looking at the skyscraper in Melbourne, did you come up with lyrics about it?

No, not that one.  That’s definitely an instrumental composition. With songs, the words definitely come first, then the melody follows.

Are you a DADGAD guitar  player?

I play in several tunings, open G tuning, standard and I’ve recently started playing John Doyle’s tuning, which is similar to bouzouki tuning.

What projects are you currently working on?

I just finished recording an album with The New Graces which is a local NSW band with three women all singing original songs. It has a  country music flavour to it.  That will be a lot of next year’s touring.

My core performances at the moment are with the band Luke Plumb and the Circuit, also with Luke Plumb in duo, inspired by 70s revival folk.  That’s been a good challenge in instrumental arrangements.  Luke and I have been so obsessed with that 70s music, bands like Planxty,  that we’ve had it in our heads the entire time. Planxty fans often fall into the Christy Moore camp or the Donal Lunny camp. Luke and I both are mad Andy Irvine fans, and are so tapped into listening to his instrumental stuff. 

I still play a lot of festivals around the country. And I’m currently working on an album with Ciaran O’’Grady of his original tunes, with Aifric Boylan and Graeme Newell

I’ve just spent time putting serious hours into learning a Bach concerto on the violin.  Interestingly the process of learning Bach has made me look at composition in another way.  Bach uses chord progressions and  arpeggios in a way that shifts the mood all the way through the piece. It’s inspired me to write tunes with the idea of playing them in public spaces with a good acoustic like an underpass, somewhere that has its own specific resonance.  That’s an ideal way to  try out  exploring arpeggios and different ways of expressing chords…  a composition-improvisation project where you go and occupy a space and then you figure out what the harmonic resonance of that space is and find chords to work with it. Using the space as an instrument. Often I’ll write these tunes on the mandolin;  I’m  also relearning mandolin right now!

That’s an interesting side of music to move into, quite different to the context of playing trad music to a festival audience, or in a session. 

I feel like a lot of us musicians are struggling with the format as it is.  We play in sessions, or we play on stage to an audience who has an expectation from us.  Which is great, for sure, and very rewarding, but it’s financially tricky and you might not be reaching all the audiences you want to reach.  I’d like to find other ways to involve audiences.  Like Jack and I playing at the National Gallery the other week.  We had a handful of people come in and listen and we actually connected really well with all of them. We’ve even kept in touch with one of them on social media – she’s been covering the protests in Hong Kong.  That feels like a  worthwhile musical experience and is  different to  sitting on stage playing to an audience, a different conversation.  So I’m exploring those ideas.  When you put something creative into the public sphere, it becomes its full self. It’s not transactional.

After reading about all your projects, many people will assume you’re a full-time musician, but in fact you also have a family and a non-music related job.  Tell us about that side of you!

I work as innovation consultant, Australia-wide. I travel a lot for work  but  I can usually make it  fit in with music commitments. I’m also part way through a master’s degree  in science communication.  I have a degree in Geology. 

How do find time in your day to be creative? 

My kids are now 6 and 8, and both at school.  And the difference between that and having two kids who aren’t in school is exponential!  I’m busy but I don’t have them occupying my attention all the time, and even when they’re home they’re at the age where they want to do things by themselves. I can just sit there and play and they’ll actually quite enjoy it.  My husband plays too, piano, and he’s a great songwriter.  He’ll sit there and muck around with ideas and they enjoy that too. So creative space is possible in the family context. And if I’m writing lyrics, I can do that anywhere, at any time  on a plane for example.   I think my creativity is on tap, I can turn it on when I have time to!

Amazing!  I can’t wait to continue the conversation soon at camp! Thanks so much for your time, Kate.  You’ve definitely given us food for thought about composition and tune-writing. 

Thanks Judy.  I can’t wait!

*Michael Grinter was a flute maker  and musician of exceptional talent who was tragically killed last year in a road accident while cycling. Michael’s death sent shockwaves around the world, and has left the Australian trad community in mourning. 


To find out more about Kate Burke: https://www.facebook.com/kateburkemusic/

To hear Kate on the recent Blarney Pilgrims podcast: https://blarneypilgrims.fireside.fm/19

To find out about the QuasiTrad Tunes Camp, concerts and other events: quasitrad.com

To hear Tradcafe, Neil Pearlman’s weekly podcast: http://www.tradcafe.org

Listen to  Kate’s composition “Vertigo”,  played on solo fiddle, one of Kate’s many instruments! 

With Irish-Australian fiddle player, Rob Zielinski (Western Australia).