Thanks to Jonny Jobson for this article in The National Newspaper!
VARIETY is much more than the spice of life for traditional artists. It is often a necessity as musicians battle to maximise their income. And with the folk scene revolving around sessions across the country it is unsurprising that artists brought together for tunes in pubs should then make a connection and decide to work together in a more formal setting. Which is why you will find Scotland’s folk musicians popping up in myriad different projects.
Few, however, can match the output of guitarist and singer Jenn Butterworth. As well as being one half of the Jenn and Laura-Beth duo with mandolin player Laura-Beth Salter, Butterworth plays regularly with Ross (Ainslie) and Ali (Hutton), Ryan Young, Claire Hastings and the recently formed Kinnaris Quintet. Add to that a residency with the Blas Collective at Bar Bloc in Glasgow and teaching at the Conservatoire and it is fair to say she is one of Scotland’s busiest musicians.
“It’s been a wee bit bonkers,” Butterworth admits. “When you actually start adding up all the stuff I’ve been doing it does seem a bit crazy.
Is this chameleon-like ability to fit in with different bands and styles something she finds difficult or is it more a labour of love?
“It depends on how much memorising has to be done,” Butterworth says. “I think the more you jump between projects the easier it is. You just put certain things in a box and try and not think about how crazy it is. There’s been a few gigs I’ve done where it’s my responsibility to hold down the rhythm and if you actually started thinking about what you’re having to do then you could easily psych yourself out and give yourself the fear. So I’ve become used to ignoring that and carrying on.”
There must, however, be huge differences in approach between the artists?
“Everyone’s different. Like Ryan won’t actually tell me what he’s playing so I’m much more reliant on improvising chords and stuff. We have a basic structure but really I’m able to turn up to those gigs having not really had to do any preparation as there isn’t any to do.
“With Ross and Ali it’s very different as it has to be more structured, especially with the big band stuff. But you get to know how people work and you slot into their way of working.”
Despite the wide range of artists Butterworth gets to collaborate with, she always feels most at home with her Jenn and Laura-Beth partner, Salter. It was a musical meeting of minds and the pair have managed to form a partnership which Butterworth says she knows will last a lifetime.
Putting out a follow-up to their outstanding debut album Bound doesn’t, therefore, have to be a priority.
“Me and Laura-Beth are definitely a first love. That’s the music I really love playing. But we’re both relatively busy in our own right which makes things difficult. But I get to spend time with her anyway with us both being part of Kinnaris Quintet.
“We know that what we do together is going to be a lifetime thing so we’re always going to do it and if it has to sometimes take a back seat then that’s fine. I see her most days anyway.”
The pair met through the session scene in Glasgow when Salter moved to Glasgow after completing her degree in traditional music at Newcastle University.
BY then Butterworth was a regular at sessions in Glasgow pubs and had moved from her Strathclyde University music course to being part of Anna Massie’s band.
“I used to do sessions at the Ben Nevis and the Lismore and Laura-Beth turned up and we quickly realised we liked the same songs and the same artists. We started playing a lot together and hanging out and then the Blas Collective evolved and we were heavily involved in that. Then we did a few gigs as a duo and it just grew from that.”
Butterworth, herself from Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, had began her journey in traditional music as a fiddle player. She had by then taught herself guitar by playing Oasis songs but that background in the fiddle meant that folk music was always going to be her ultimate destination.
“All my musical theory is on my fiddle which is why I think I have developed my own kind of style. I’ve been trying to catch up with myself ever since – learning to apply my theory to the guitar.”
Butterworth’s style is what makes her one of the most in-demand musicians in Scotland. There are few guitarists in this country able to so intricately guide a set with melody and rhythm.
She has been a key part of several musical projects since first starting out with Massie and Mairearad Green – including appearing on Songs of Separation, which saw seven female traditional musicians from across the British Isles, including Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy, collaborate for seven days on a remote Hebridean island to produce an award-winning album. It was a special experience.
“To create an album and release it in seven days was extraordinary. I came away from that thinking these things are actually possible. To connect with those people and learn from what they were doing and yet all feel equal was special.”
For now, though, Butterworth will be spending a lot of her time concentrating on Kinnaris Quintet – Butterworth, Salter, Fiona MacAskill, Laura Wilkie and Aileen Gobbi – whose debut album will be out later in the summer.
THE all-female line-up may seem to be a reaction to long-held prejudices against female bands that have been highlighted in recent years but Butterworth believes that while that remains an issue, the real reason was more about simply music.
“There was an element of us thinking there were a lot of our partners at the time out and about playing with Treacherous Orchestra and that there were few women who weren’t being given that sort of platform,” she says.
“So it kind of came about through that but also just the idea of five women who play really brilliantly and who are interesting players to put together.
“I like to think that if you heard the band and couldn’t see them then you wouldn’t be able to tell who was playing.”
Butterworth shows no signs of easing her hectic schedule over the summer with performances planned for HebCelt and Skye Live as well as Cambridge Folk Festival and Sidmouth Folk Festival.
For Jenn Butterworth, guitarist, singer, fiddler and teacher, it’s all part of getting on with the day job.