How we met: Kathryn Williams & Paul Smith
‘I liked meeting up with someone locally who knows that side of what I do – it’s like being one of the X-Men’
Kathyrn Williams, 39
The singer-songwriter self-released her debut album with a budget of £80 in 1999. Her second album, ‘Little Black Numbers’, gained widespread critical acclaim and a Mercury Prize nomination in 2000. She has since released eight more albums. She lives in Newcastle with her husband and two children
As the front man of Maximo Park, Paul is wild and energetic. He’s a bit like Jarvis Cocker, with his strange moves and his bowler hats and sharp suits. But in person, he’s quite different. My old cellist Laura Reid knew Maximo Park before Paul was the lead singer, as she’d done a few gigs with them, and when Paul joined [in 2003], all of a sudden it went really well for them.
We met about three years ago, in Newcastle, where we both live. He was DJing at this amazing volunteer-run venue Star and Shadow where I did a free gig and Paul was the volunteer DJ, and we started chatting after. Unlike on-stage Paul, he was quite shy. We chatted music and had a moan about the daily grind of the job and touring.
As a songwriter in Newcastle I’m not part of a scene or a gang. Most of my life is being a mum, doing the school run and daily chores. So being a songwriter is like my secret-hero job that no one at school knows, as I use my husband’s name for the kids. So I liked meeting up with someone locally who knows that side of what I do – it’s like being one of the X-Men.
My husband has a café and at the time Paul lived round the corner, so after that volunteer event we’d meet there and chat, and started writing some song ideas together. There’s a place opposite called Smokey Joe, this second-hand guitar shop, and I was interested in who buys them and the idea of a guitar in a shop that might never get played.
Though we’re poles apart as far as our musical output, we’re both big daydreamers and our lyrics deal with big questions on world philosophy through the domestic or banal, and we build stories around it. I really like his solo work, as it feels vulnerable and I can see the quieter side to Paul and his wry humour, away from Maximo Park.
On stage with the band, though, he builds up this larger-than-life character to help with nerves. I go the other way: I have had terrible stage fright and panic attacks when performing, but I get through it by making myself more vulnerable and open instead.
You can have a decent standard of living up here and a better perspective than in London; I don’t go to parties with other singer-songwriters. I sit in my garage and write and read. David Hockney said there’s a big difference between being an artist and being in the art world and it’s the same with music; I would rather be an artist and I think Paul feels the same – though it’s harder for him as he is a more recognisable figure. I don’t know if I’d be as nice as him if I was as famous.
Paul Smith, 34
After briefly working as an art teacher, Smith joined the rock band Maximo Park as its frontman in 2003, his powerful vocals and energetic stage antics brought the group widespread recognition and a Mercury Prize nomination. The band has released several top-10 albums. He lives in Newcastle
I was about to move to Newcastle as a student when I bought Kathryn’s first album, in the late 1990s. She was getting a lot of press as an artist who was doing things on her own terms and wasn’t being dominated by the music industry, which I loved. I loved her stripped-down folky style, too.
I first saw her when we were doing a benefit for asylum-seekers at this volunteer cinema in 2010, where some musicians had given their time for free. I was DJing and she was playing and someone introduced us. She’s such a warm person, she puts people at ease very quickly, so I felt comfortable talking to her
We started to meet up in the Settle Down Café, which her husband runs, which was close to where I lived at the time, and as we got to know one another, I told her I wanted to write a few songs with her. We’d sit in the café by the window observing people and coming up with songs off the back of it. I wrote one about this attractive girl who comes to the café, and she wrote one about the guitar shop opposite. A lot of our music is emotionally driven and quite personal and this gave us both a chance to cast a gaze at the wider world– I hope to make a record or at least an EP from it.
Neither of us feel comfortable with the business side of music. Rock’n’roll has many casualties – people being diddled out of money – though the last thing I want is to be checking in with an accountant or organising business deals: I just want to make music. So I think it’s great how she’s still doing things on her own terms. A lot of big success is only temporary so I feel it’s better to be as creative as possible; I would love the world to hear my music and it be number one, but that’s not realistic if you’re going to make music for yourself, as Kathyrn does: only a few people can make pure art and something everyone loves.
The other thing that connects us is that we’ve both been nominated for the Mercury Prize. I think we both agree, though, that an award like that is quite arbitrary in many ways. Music is not a competition, so it’s all kind of daft, but it’s brilliant to have one day where music is the main news, and hearing people discuss and debate the nominees. I’ve been lucky enough be on the radio recently for a few weeks covering Guy Garvey [as a DJ] on Radio 6 Music. I got to play one of her tracks that few have heard and it was wonderful to be able to do that and share it, as her voice is a real one-off. She has this big soulful voice but doesn’t feel the need to shout. 1
Kathryn Williams’ album, ‘Crown Electric’, is out now. Maximo Park’s next album, ‘Too Much Information’, is out on 3 February
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