Dr Kathleen Turner says she sang her way through school, and today she’s an academic who uses singing as a social good, and sees her mission as empowering the creativity in everyone. Kathleen is Helen Shaw’s guest in this episode of The Family of Things, a podcast about life, and how we choose to live it. Kathleen is a Co.Tyrone native but she has long made Limerick City her home and she leads the Masters in Community Music programme there, at the World Academy for Music and Dance, in the University of Limerick.
Kathleen’s own singing brings together jazz, folk, gospel, blues and pop. Her album ‘Like a Lion’ celebrates the stories of women, and draws inspiration from the empowerment of women in Ireland. In the podcast she shares her journey from growing up on a dairy farm in Tummery, to becoming a global leader in community music. Equity and equality defines her approach to work and life, and she credits her happy childhood and parents for giving her that sense of fair play and justice.
Music you hear in this podcast includes ‘Broken Pieces’ by Kathleen’s sister Juliet Turner (say Juliette! Helen gets it slightly wrong), a song that become well know at the time of the Omagh bombing in 1998. From Kathleen own work you hear ”Alright by Me’, ‘Like a Lion’, ‘Some Stories’, “Let It All Fall’, and a short clip of Aretha Franklin, an influence on Kathleen, singing ‘You Send Me’ as well as sound clips of her work with “Sing Out with Strings’ from an Athena Media 2011 audio documentary, and from her PhD, which explores the role of a community musician, and was partly presented in audio and video.
Every person is a creative citizen. Everybody has an innate creativity, and my job as a community musician is to create opportunities to try and support that and to bring it out.
Hello and welcome to The Family of Things. I’m Helen Shaw, and in this podcast, I get to meet with people who are often living life with passion and conviction and who are following perhaps the beat of their own drum. So today I am with Dr. Kathleen Turner, a County Tyrone native, who’s now made Limerick City her home, and she uses song and music as a social good. I mean, Kathleen is director of the MA in Community Music at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick.
So welcome, Kathleen, how are you this morning?
Thanks so much for having me on. I’m delighted to be chatting to you.
Now Kathleen, I know from your Twitter bio, which is obviously my source of information for everything, that you describe yourself as a singer, a songwriter, community musician and researcher. And it now sounds like you have this happy balance of your own creative work, like your album and your song, Like a Lion, came out last year.
But your day job is researching, exploring how music and song can support and enable, I guess, people at the grassroots, at community level. But I’m curious about where it all started because I have Omagh in my head about your roots, but I think it’s much more specific than that. So tell me a little bit about where you grew up and, I guess, how much music was part of that.
Yeah, well, I went to school in Omagh, which is probably why that comes to mind. But I grew up in a very rural area and West Tyrone on a dairy farm.
A dairy farm?
And where you out there with the cows then?
Well, my parents retired when I was 10, so I have limited experience out with the cattle. I did, I did as a child go out and get the cows. But my older sisters had the harder work of helping out with milking and things like that. But yeah, very rural and rural primary school went to school in Lack in County Fermanagh where my mum was a teacher.
Now I think that’s a beautiful part of the world Fermanagh is such an incredible county, the lakes and that juxtaposition of so much water and rich agricultural land. But I heard you talking once about your primary school and this idea that you sang your way through school and it sounded a bit magical, almost like a fairy tale idea of school. What do you mean when you say you sang your way through school?
I think just singing was very much a part of school life. You know, it wasn’t it wasn’t something to comment on, it was just something that we did. So it was involved in lots of different activities. So there was the specific activity of singing, you know, we learnt folk songs. We would sing those. Our teacher would write up the words on the blackboard and we would all sing them together.
But then singing was present in lots of other activities. So you might have a song and, you know, when we were learning maths or science or religion. You know, a huge part of the school year in our primary school was the nativity play, which was entirely done through music. It wasn’t a musical, but it was the Christmas story told, punctuated throughout with all of these songs. And I just thought that was the way everybody went to school.
And I don’t think actually it was until I came to Limerick and started working in schools that I realised quite how lucky I was to have that kind of exposure where music was just present.
Because you talk about a particular teacher, I think, was it Mrs. McGrath.
Ms McQuaid to tell me about that? Because you had the sense in which maybe you had the fortune to be surrounded by people who are a bit like you now, where you’re using music with people in their everyday world and life as a positive good. But you did in school have that sense of connecting and being exposed to people who saw singing and music as part of the everyday.
Yeah, Ms McQuaid was our principal, a fabulous lady, but it was hilarious because that by the time I was 11, I was the same height as her, we’re a very tall family. She was just a really fantastic presence. You know, she just made singing, just included that as part of the many things that we did. And I think our awareness of music and our awareness of nature were two things that were very important there. And it wasn’t so much about music being a social good. It was just music as part of your everyday. That was the thing.
Because, you know, we’ve done an episode with Iarla Ó Lionáird, the Sean-Nós singer, and Iarla equally grew up on a dairy farm and had that rural life, speaking Irish until he went to school.
And that was the first time he heard English. But as he said, you know, for him, music was, they were singing with the cows and they would literally sing the cows home in the evening. And it was just seen as part of the conversation.
Well, I’m not sure that, I mean, I think it’d be pretty special to hear Iarla Ó Lionáird singing the cows home. I don’t know if there was much singing going on in our farm when we were out gapping cows, there was a lot more yelling. But yeah, I mean, there is something very beautiful about the rhythms, I think, of agricultural life and rural life. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I love Seamus Heaney so much, because he captures that so beautifully in his words and the texture of his language, the rhythm of land and soil and working people. And there’s something very ordinary in that beauty.
The magic of the ordinary.
Yeah, very much so, and I think that’s something that we have all grown up with, is a deep appreciation of nature and green space and land. And being able to go outside freely is something that we’ve all really valued all of our lives because that was really important to our parents as well.
Now, in some ways, I know a little bit about you through your sister because, for many of us, we recall the horror of what happened in the Omagh bombing, but also this incredible moment of healing that came through Juliet Turner, your sister, singing that song, Broken Things, at the time became a visceral moment, a turning point that people, in a sense found some solace in music and song.
Broken Things by Juliet Turner plays
Can you give me a sense of growing up at that time as well, because while the Omagh bomb happened after a period where we had experienced peace and ceasefire, so in some ways it was a turning back and horrific turning back.
But growing up in County Tyrone and in Northern Ireland, you were, I think, growing up as a Methodist, singing in the Methodist church in that beautiful community. Have you, when you look back at it now, a sense of what that was to experience Northern Ireland, the so-called troubles as a child and as a teenager?
I think my experience of it, I think maybe the best way of describing it would be a low buzz in the background, because I was growing up in a rural community, there was very little exposure for me in terms of things, you know, that I saw or encountered.
There was the, the things that you just took for granted. So the presence of soldiers, for example. Yeah. The army. The visible presence, I guess, of them and checkpoints and things like that. And then the news, which we didn’t pass, comment on the content of the news, you know, the I guess the frequency of things like bomb scares or explosions or shootings or things like that.
Broken Things by Juliet Turner plays
It was just the normal backdrop for many of us at that period, I guess. What year were you born Kathleen?
1982. So in some ways, thankfully, you’d missed growing up in the horrors of the 70s. But, you know, we remain in a very turbulent period right through the 80s as well.
I mean, the ways in which, I suppose, we kind of look back on it and what can seem normal at the time and then afterwards think, that was a very different world we lived in. How old were you when the Omagh bomb happened?
I was 17. Yeah, that was probably, that was my first lived experience as a young adult of, fear, actual real fear. And I wasn’t there and I wasn’t around. I was away with my sisters at the time. And then we got the call that it had happened and came home.
But yeah, I mean, hugely frightening, incredibly sad. The sadness of that, you know, to happen at the time that it happened, when people felt so hopeful, was just devastating. And the loss of those people, you know, just the loss.
The brutality of ordinary people out for an ordinary day and children, families, a pregnant women, horrific. And in some ways, I mean, I went to Belfast as a reporter for the Irish Times from 1986. I think I’d been up and down from 84 once I went into journalism, but I was there for a few years, then went back with the BBC in the 90s.
So I have windows of obviously covering some of those events. I suppose for me the seminal one was actually Enniskillen, that kind of the end of my period in the Northern Ireland office in 1987. And Enniskillen, again, was just that moment of just utter bleak horror because, again, ordinary people out for Remembrance Day after church services. And in some ways, you know, I was back in Enniskillen in September, I think, when we briefly opened from our lockdowns our various lockdowns.
And it still always feels, you know, that moment of that scar of seeing all the places that relate to that event. Was Enniskillen also something that resonated with you, given it was so close to home?
Only in that
You were small then.
I was, I was. Yeah, I was. I was very young. So I grew up with the awareness that it had happened, but not with any kind of lived memory of anything. I think probably people of my age group, you know, who were teenagers when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and things like that, depending on where we were or where we lived, you know, it would be very different for me if I was a teenager in Belfast, for example. I’m sure I would have very, very different experiences of this. But really, my experience was much more subtle things, being aware of where not to go, for example, or what not to say.
But other than that, I think, you know, I had a very quiet experience of growing up in Northern Ireland. And, you know, that rural safety, I guess.
Which is fantastic. And in some ways for you, it still has that, I would say then, that idyl of being home, that it still is where heart and home is.
Yes and no, because my heart is very much in Limerick. I mean, a huge part of my heart will always be there as well, because I, I love that place and it was very formative, that appreciation of land, that love of green, which my mum still continues to, to build in us. She’s a devoted gardener. But Limerick very much. I love Limerick and I am home here, you know, this is my, this is my home for sure.
What’s interesting about Limerick and what you present now as both your singing, your songwriting and your research work in music, is that actually Limerick was part of liberating you as a singer and songwriter, because while we’re talking about those roots in music and singing through school and your sister, Julia Turner, becoming a really focal point for public emotion at that point of the bombing and had and has huge success with her career. But you’ve kind of said that you were a late starter in realising your voice as a singer and songwriter.
Yeah, I mean, I think probably late exploring in terms of performance. I performed a lot growing up, but not very much in the same context as my sister. I did not feel comfortable getting up on a stage on my own. That wasn’t where I felt most at home. Where I felt most at home was singing with a group of people, with facilitating that really communal experience. But at the same time, I would have been writing songs and I did love to sing and I loved to sing with a small group of people or for a small group of people.
And I would have been doing that quite regularly just for friends and stuff, you know. And little bits of performance, but never in a way that I thought, I really want to pursue this. And then I turned 30 and I started thinking, actually, you know, if I’m writing these songs, what am I doing with them? Where are they going?
And in many ways, as you say, Limerick became that vehicle. But at 30, before that light bulb was switched on, what were you doing and what was your path?
I had already moved to Limerick. I came here to study, to do the MA in Community Music. And I just found my tribe, you know. There’s something very special at the Irish World Academy. And when I graduated the Irish Chamber Orchestra were looking for someone to run a pilot for a community music project. And thankfully, I got the job. I was the community engagement manager for the Irish Chamber Orchestra for seven years. Yeah.
With Sing Out, which is the wonderful project where they work with children. Again, community, you’re moving into community music and awareness. You’ve spoken very strongly about not just the impact of Limerick and the World Academy, but of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and in some ways his impact on you and your own ability perhaps to discover or awaken that sense of curiosity and confidence as a performer. He was a big influence on your life.
Absolutely, like so many of us, you know. I think one of Mícheál’s greatest gifts was his capacity to make people believe what was possible for them. And when I went to audition for the MA in Community Music, it was himself and a wonderful lady called Jean Downey who auditioned me. And I really walked into that audition thinking, this is ridiculous, you know. I have no classical music training. I don’t read music. All of my musical experience is through choirs or through singing on my own.
And yet he valued that. He valued music made in the family, music made in the home, music made in school, in community. And he and Jean recognised that immediately as something that I was passionate about and gave me the opportunity to pursue it. And that’s quite exceptional, I think. To see potential in people. To open doors of possibility for people. And I think that’s what the academy does so beautifully. And that’s the legacy that he left of being open to lots of different kinds of musicing, of dancing, of approaches to being an artist. There’s no singular one right way. And I was the beneficiary of that kind of approach. And it completely changed my trajectory, completely.
Because in many ways it liberated you, it would feel from the outside, to become a public performer and to have that confidence in your voice and your songs and to present them rather than your private circle of friends, but also to see the value of maybe what your instincts were about music and the community as well.
I think it was my first experience in academia as well, and kind of formal settings of education where artistry was really explored. It felt like the academy is a space and remains to be a space where you can explore the visceral, and that is valued, you know. That’s, as much as the intellectual is important, what happens in your body when you create music, when you create dance, when you play a piece, when you listen to a piece. What happens in all of you, the somatic experience of that is important. It’s a site of knowledge. It’s something you can interrogate and think about and discuss and sometimes not discuss in fact, sometimes it’s not about the words, sometimes it’s about the communal and the sacred and the space.
And I had just never, I had encountered it before, I’d never had it put into words and valued in that kind of way.
Because I guess you’d encountered it in your growing up in the Methodist Church, singing in choirs or singing in choirs outside of the church as well. That idea of the experience of singing together and how it made you feel. But here you’re in an environment where it’s taken to the level of studying it, but also seeing it as valuable as the concert hall experience. And I mean, I was looking at some of your research work and I mean, obviously it’s striking from the outside how, I think it’s your Ph.D. is actually a song and a video experience of that in terms of your research. That the kind of work that you’re engaged in as an academic or as a researcher is not just text based, right?
Yeah. So there’s a written thesis, but it was a Ph.D. in Arts Practice, which means that some of it was captured in the written text and some of it was captured in another way. So we have performance. I wrote original music. I had a performance with the children that I worked with in Sing Out With Strings. And then I also had a solo performance of song and story.
Sing Out With Strings plays
And one of the reasons why I wanted to do that, and particularly the second performance where I looked at my own practice as a community musician, that was a weaving of stories and key moments where I zoomed in and zoomed out as a lens.
Alright by Me by Kathleen Turner plays
And that was a really extraordinary experience for me personally, because when I did that, I actually started to notice all of these moments all the way back, which connected me to the point I was at right at that moment just sitting in that chair.
Alright by Me by Kathleen Turner plays
Like, for example, completely wild thing I discovered in the process of making that performance was that, you know, in my job with the Irish Chamber Orchestra every year we would do these gala concerts in the university concert hall and I would be standing on that stage leading the 300 kids.
That stage is the same stage that I sang on when I was 13 in my first experience of a community choir and many of the members of the orchestra, my mum found the program when I was preparing for that research performance. And in the program were listed, Mícheál played the piano and loads of the members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra were in that orchestra when I sang there as a child, you know, as a young person. So it just felt like there were all these extraordinary connecting points.
That led you to where you were.
Led me exactly to that moment.
And just for us, describe what the focus was of that PhD work. I mean, what were you getting at?
It was called Singing Our Way: Interrogating the Role of the Community Musician in a Process of Social Regeneration, which is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?
But I was, I was looking at what the role of the community musician is when we are engaging in social regeneration in enlivening and building up and supporting community building through music. What’s my role in that.
‘Singing’ (Singing Our Way’) , “lovely. So I’m going to sing.”
And can you give us a sense now, having moved on from there and in the very elevated position you’re in and so many other projects that you’re doing, and I see things like, you know, the impact of lullabies with pregnant women and prenatal care and the experience for both the baby and the mother and all these ways that you’re looking at music in this experiential concept in the community and the person. So fascinating. But can you give us an idea, for those outside, what you mean when you talk about community musician and how you might see that manifested in society, in communities, in places, in projects around us?
Sure. The way I always explain it is it’s based on the fundamental belief that every person is a creative citizen. Everybody has an innate creativity. And my job as a community musician is to create opportunities to try and support that, to bring it out.
Sing out with Strings
That’s wonderful, because you see that with the children in Sing Out with Strings.
Probably the biggest project I was ever involved in was Sing Out with Strings, which I was with for seven years.
Sing out with Strings
And I’m so delighted they’re still ongoing, so they, we started off as a singing and songwriting project with three classes and then that grew and grew and grew and now they’re in several schools. And they have singing songwriting, orchestra, ensembles, trad song club. And that’s under the leadership of Katherine Barnicutt and The Irish Chamber Orchestra. They’re doing phenomenal work.
It’s fantastic. We had a brief encounter with them some years ago when we made a radio and podcast project around grassroots and community initiatives, and one of them was Sing Out with Strings. And I guess I’ve seen that in Ballymun as well in another project we did in Ballymun Lullaby. And we worked with them on the project around the demolition of the towers where the children and the teenagers of the community wrote a suite of music that became the Ballymun Lullaby
Ballymun Lullaby plays
And again, you see that with Ron Cooney in the primary school there in Ballymun where he’s, over many years now, bringing instruments and teaching music. They now have a teacher who was one of his pupils in primary school who is now gone back to after training to teach. So there’s a full cycle, but, you know, exposing them to, as you say, discover their creative self, but also to have access to participate in music in an environment where they would not have had.
Well, yeah, access is a fundamental part of community music, equality of access, equity, I should say. I found his teaching tool, which I find really helpful, last year and I shared it with my students and I wish I knew who wrote it. But it’s just a simple phrase, it says, Who writes the stories? Who benefits from the stories? Who’s missing from the stories? So what I try and encourage students in community music to do is to look at who is in the room and who isn’t in the room.
And if not, why not? Thinking about who has access to creative participation, who is able to go to concerts, who is able to access music education, to be part of a choir, to write a song if they feel like that. And to create those opportunities and to be cognisant of the things that might be excluding them and to try and get those out of the way.
And it’s interesting when I look at your work and then at your own work in the music you’re writing and presenting and producing, there is those echoes and harmonies quite naturally, because it’s driven by your own heart and head. But that concept of equity and equality, and it’s really important for all of us, I guess, to see them in tandem equity and equality.
But when you bring that into your own work, like maybe talk to us a little bit about that, because Like a Lion, again, beautifully produced, because you do have access to all these incredible musicians around you.
But Like a Lion in a sense, is very much about the empowerment of women and that, you know, you’re tapping into stories which are particularly, it seems to me, resonating with being an Irish woman in this time in Ireland.
Like a Lion by Kathleen Turner plays.
Yeah, I wrote Like a Lion over, I mean, some of them are older songs, but worked on it for two years as part of my time on a Fellowship, The Clore Fellowship programme.
And then we recorded it and released it at the end of 2019. It was produced by a brilliant musician, Sean Og Graham of Beoga fame. He’s just phenomenal. I made that album because I would lay awake at night thinking about it if I didn’t. And it felt really important to me to say something about women’s experiences and particularly the title track, because I was writing that around the time and the build up to the referendum on the 8th.
Like a Lion by Kathleen Turner plays
And just the feelings around that of, of women being listened to, of women’s experiences being listened to and valued. And here we are again, you know. Just you know, in the week that we’re talking.
Because yeah. I mean, we should frame that the week we’re talking in, because this will go out a little bit later. But that we’re in a week of phenomenal upheaval in the hearts of all women in Britain and Ireland, particularly after the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard and the women’s vigil then at the weekend in London, which ended up with police clashing with women and arresting women.
We have an ongoing sense that women are saying very clearly that this is not just about one murder or one abduction or one horrific crime, that women do feel that the public spaces are not safe for women and that there is an outpouring of stories from people saying, you know, this is kind of every day for us, a bit like when we talk about your Northern Ireland background, it was going on on the TV screen and it’s maybe not impacting you, but all women have known of so many near misses or incidents or things, and we’re so used to maybe talking about it ourselves.
But what was really interesting this week is that was quite clear a lot of men had not understood the daily experience of a lot of women in walking, in, not just at night, but, you know, even during the day on my road here, I left facing the Phoenix Park, and we just had the conclusion of a case in the courts the other day, that of an older woman, an elderly woman who was walking at 7:30 a.m. and an attempted abduction and assault. And the guy was just convicted.
But that poor woman was out there at the dawn walk beside a beautiful park. So there’s been this outpouring from everywhere of women saying this is not an isolated event. In many ways it’s felt a bit like the Black Lives Matter movement of last year in that one event in terms of one horrific murder started to provoke a reaction. So what has it meant to you, this moment that we’re in, as somebody who’s been thinking about the silencing of women’s voices or that ways in which, maybe that spaces have not included women in the past?
To be honest, it weighs really heavy on the heart, you know, it really does. And I’ve talked to loads of friends who feel the same, men and women, you know. It’s that thing of people being silenced and people not being heard. And it’s not only in terms of Sarah Everard and the just the horrific circumstances around that. It’s the wider picture of, I’m looking at what’s happened in the north in terms of the vote trying to put back the decision around access to abortion. I’m looking at the protests happening in Australia. I’m looking at what has been happening across Europe in terms of moves towards the far right. What’s happening in Arkansas with the rolling back of almost complete removal of access to abortion care for women, even in cases of incest and rape.
And I’m just wondering, I saw a panel discussion the other day where a woman said, at what point do we stop asking politely? And it is basic dignity and respect to value people’s experiences, and I say that, I’m very conscious I say that as a white woman, and so I have my own experience of navigating the world as a woman. But how much more complex is that as a woman of colour, as a traveller, woman, as a disabled woman?
And again, that question of who is missing from the room, who’s missing from the stories. So I’m thinking about it a lot. I don’t know what conclusions I’m drawing, I’m just asking more questions, I guess. And also at the same time as well, being very conscious of the winds of the progress. Kerstin Mey, our current president of the university, was the first woman president of a university in Ireland’s history. Like that’s significant. It’s extraordinary it took this long to happen, but it is significant.
I’m looking around for the successes. I’m looking around for the wins. But I’m also trying to navigate my, like all women I think right now, trying to navigate my responses to the things that are going on right now, the conversations that are going on right now. And the anger, I think that everybody feels.
And do you think, you know, because as you say, Like a Lion, they were voices and stories that were keeping you awake and which comes into the words and music and the songs. Do you think this experience of what we’re going through, again, is firing creative threats which will come into the music you’re currently writing or working on?
Well, it’s funny, actually, because I’ve been thinking about that and I’ve been trying to write and failing and I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. And I think it’s because I wrote Like a Lion and I recorded it and we put it out into the world. And then the pandemic happened. And so we had all these plans. There’s a lot of vocal layering in the album.
Like a Lion by Kathleen Turner plays
We’d started to look at, we also were collaborating with aerial dancers. We made two videos with.
The video is beautiful folks. I’ll put a link in the the podcast notes because it is beautifully done. And also that whole spirit of such strength in women physically which is there in the video.
Yeah. Oh the aerial artists that you’ll see in that video are extraordinary. And one of the reasons why we made the video in the way it is, when people see it, is a lot of their training work that goes on in the background. So often when you see aerial dance, that looks very beautiful and effortless. But when you zoom in, you can see those women are covered in bruises, you know, it takes hard work to get to the athleticism that they’re at.
When I wrote Like a Lion, we recorded it and then we had all these plans and they didn’t happen. And I thought about, you know, how to translate that digitally. But actually it didn’t feel like that was what it was meant to be. It was meant to be a very vocal experience, multiple singers. And I don’t think I’ll probably get very far with writing anything else until we’ve had the chance to do a lot more with that album and to perform it and to get people’s responses.
And I’ve had some really lovely messages from people in various parts of the world who’ve been sitting down and listening to that song in particular with their daughters or with their families and really listening to the words and appreciating the intention of it, which I love. So that’s been nice.
It kind of brings us to the painful point for all of us, because we’re still in the unending Lockdown 3 in 2021. I mean, how has it been for you? Because you’re describing an environment where the album came out. You had so many plans to perform, to take it forward, and they were put on pause. And you haven’t been able to perform in public in that way. I mean, how have you found the last year?
It’s been a kind of two things. And I’m trying to write that actually for an academic paper at the moment, which is called The Grief and the Possibility, because that’s how I feel about it. There’s two sides, you know. I feel on one hand very sad for the messing of people singing together in a room or being together in a room. I do miss that deeply, like everybody. But then on the other hand, all of my energy has gone into making the MA run online.
And I’m really inspired, actually, by the capacity of students and what they’ve made possible this year, and we’ve done some really great work online, and I did not think that would be possible to the extent that they have done. They’ve done really fantastic projects. You know, they’re making a lot of really great stuff happen in communities remotely. And that’s been hugely inspiring. So that’s really where all my energy has been going. And then, in terms of my own personal music, it’s just on pause. It’s just waiting.
And is that a point of pain, Kathleen? Because in some ways there is a sense in which, as you said at the beginning, you were the shy at home performer and then you discovered this whole sphere of opening up and putting your music out there, performing on stages.
And in this year, in a sense, you’ve gone back to that inner world, that interior world again.
Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I mean, I think you were saying that Iarla had mentioned he sings all the time. He sings all the time. And actually, I’ve had the total opposite experience. I am maybe singing a little bit around the house, but I kind of missed that drive to sing, you know.
So there is that sense that it’s hard and perhaps at the moment a lot of people will find that they’re not being creative because we’re in this weird pause button. But for you it’s also meant, even at home, you’re not experiencing that joy of singing so much.
It’s, I think it’s starting to come back for sure. I think I’m just probably doing a lot more listening. I’m listening to the glorious Denise Chaila, who won the Choice Music Prize. Just listening to some great music. But I, I think I’m probably starting to reach the point where I will start making more now.
I want to talk to you about Limerick and people like Denise and that whole energy that’s in Limerick and has been for a long time, it’s such a great source in all forms and all genre of music.
And it’s really been like that for a couple of decades there’s been great bands coming out of Limerick. And in this series who were just talking to Robert Hope, who’s in Berlin now, but his band, Senakah, came out of UL, when, you know, three of them got together at college and in some ways toured for about eight years. For you, as you say, Limerick has become not just home, but a place you love. Why? Give us a sense of why Limerick has won your heart?
I find it a really deeply welcoming place. There’s a really strong, vibrant artistic community here in terms of, I mean, there’s just so much happening in terms of music being made, of dance happening, of pieces being created, and people want to chat about it and people want to collaborate and people want to invite you in. And I find that very exciting.
It’s open to outsiders.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve definitely felt like, Oh I’ve migrated here from somewhere else, but I’ve never felt an outsider, which has been very special.
And then also as well, you know, there’s just great craic here and great energy, you know, from people. One of the things I loved about working in schools is the craic from kids in Limerick. You know, just really funny and welcoming and kind. The kindness here is present. And it’s something I really appreciate about this city, you know, whether it’s from, you know, people like Mick and Valerie Dolan giving young artists a platform, to a school teacher making me lunch for my PhD day because they were worried that I wouldn’t have time to eat.
You know, it’s small gestures, it’s everyday kindnesses. It’s welcoming you in in a very unassuming, quiet way. And I love that. And I know that you don’t get that everywhere. And so I just feel very, very grateful for it. I love it here.
That’s gorgeous. Because in some ways, you know, Limerick does get a bad rap. And you know my own experience was, we set up Lyric FM in Limerick. So there was a period of my life when I was in the head of radio role that I was back and forth all the time. And I got to know Limerick quite well.
But it’s great to hear you say that because sometimes there can be this sense of, and in Ireland were often very good at that, is labelling things, putting badges and stickers and stereotypes on places, on people. And in that sense, what you’re describing is such a beautiful community and the sense of that kindness that that word that came out so spontaneously when you think about what has won you in that place, it’s a lovely tribute.
There’s a sense in which you come from a part of the world that we would obviously think as having that rural and openness in terms of country life. And you mentioned Heaney and his poems. I mean, I was also struck by a song, an older song from you called Some Stories, which struck me as having beautiful storytelling. And that idea of the way you bring story into your music and song.
And there’s a line within it, which I think struck me, which is I think, we’re all just learning to be OK. And there’s a sense in which when I listened to that for the podcast, it really resonated with now and where we are now.
Some Stories by Kathleen Turner plays
Though I think that’s a 2014 release. Talk to me a little bit about that song, because Some Stories seems to also connect with those ideas and those ways in which we all, as people come to find peace with ourselves and with our flaws and our imperfections and that we become aware of feeling some form of self-love or contentment with our own role in the world. You know, where did some stories as a song come from?
I think it came from conversations with a couple of friends at the time who, for various reasons, were feeling a bit low and maybe a bit lonely.
Some Stories by Kathleen Turner plays
Which, as you say, is very apt for right now actually too. And I guess just a response to that and a response to that for myself as well, you know, because I think a lot of the things that we write are for ourselves too or in some way something that we need to articulate.
Yeah. So that feeling of there’s a line in it, don’t let your head down, don’t let your head hang down, I find great release in singing that actually, you know. It feels like something uplifting. So as much as I’m trying to uplift other people, there’s a feeling when you’re singing that of uplifting myself as well.
So yeah, that song was intended to be an uplift, a comfort. And I haven’t sung that in ages actually but I do love singing it. Physically I love singing. I love where it takes my voice.
And your body.
Yeah, exactly. Particularly reaching that bridge, of really letting go in terms of my voice and then bringing it back down to a very quiet space.
Definitely. I think it’s a song that could be released now and give us that sense of release as well.
Some Stories by Kathleen Turner plays
What’s interesting, when I listen to, Like a Lion and the variety of music within it is that it often seems to me that your influences and your love in music brings you into so many different genres from folk or traditional or classical or in a sense, more even sometimes contemporary pop or jazzy feels.
There’s quite a mix and a range of tone within it or style. Is that something that for you has always been there?
Yeah, I love all different kinds of music and all different kinds of singers. And so then I think when I’m writing, I’m not really thinking about genre so much as the way I need the song to come out or what I want it to articulate and what I need it to express.
And what you want the audience to feel.
Exactly. And what I want to feel when I sing it. So does this feel right? Does it not? I think when I try to write to a genre or to a particular style, it kind of gets in my way.
Let It All Fall by Kathleen Turner plays
I think there’s something interesting in watching a lot of artists who release a song at a time. You know, the song is in and of itself a standalone song. And I think there’s something very interesting about that about just letting a song live on its own.
And sit. And it’s become much more the way now because of digital that even if somebody has crafted an album that they start to thread the songs across the year rather than put them all out. Because we’re in this world in a digital environment, we’re often our attention span becomes captured by something else and perhaps less of us are downloading or buying full albums in that very pure way. But people are interacting and taken by a song.
Let It All Fall by Kathleen Turner plays
For you, when you think about influences, you’re mentioning obviously Denise in Limerick there and this incredibly exciting hip hop and rap movement that’s coming out from the region. But when you think about the people and the voices you love, who are they? Who’s influenced you?
You know, particularly early on, the people who would have influenced me have been voices that felt very, very honest. I remember vividly my older sister giving me the Aretha Gold album.
Yeah. And listening to that, I mean, maybe she gave it to me, maybe I nicked it out of her bedroom. Who knows? But I remember listening to that just on repeat and repeat. I could probably still mime those songs into my hairbrush, but something about the way she had an extraordinary instrument, the way that she moved with her voice. But it was not contained.
You Send Me by Aretha Franklin plays
It was coming from the absolute base of her body.
Yes, and I’m very interested in people who can express something very raw with the instrument that they have in their bodies. So people like that, I think in terms of the folks space and as a songwriter. Chris Wood, who produced my second EP, The Lines Between Us, he crafts things, he’s a wordsmith, you know. And that’s probably something that I learned to appreciate very early from Juliet, one of my sisters, because the way that she, she I always thought wrote songs as a poet.
Her lyrics are very detailed and thoughtful and precise. There’s no lazy word.
And is that how you work in terms of the lyrics or the sound, music coming first. I mean, how close are you you’ve mentioned Heaney and his influence on you as a poet coming from a similar part of the world, but that in your own creativity and the way you work are the words and that poetic experience first or second to the music.
It depends what’s happening. Sometimes I’ll have a melody that’s zipping around there and I can’t get rid of it and then the words come to attach themselves.
So take the song like Like a Lion itself. What came first? Because it’s a great beat. I mean, we’ve got something in that song which, you know, in the music business, it’s very radio friendly. It has that sense where regardless of the lyrics or the narrative or the meaning, that’s a song that fits within in a sense, sometimes that narrow spectrum of radio friendly. It’s so upbeat, it invites you to move.
Like a Lion by Kathleen Turner plays
Did the beat or or the words come first? How did that happen?
I had this little refrain that kept going around, which was which ended up being the undercurrent of the whole song, which is the little doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo travelling underneath. And then the chorus, which was really trying to very much articulate something.
And so then that’s a good example of a moment where the music, where the melody and the words came at the same time, because that’s where my voice could take it to express it. So, Our teeth and our claws, yes. We tear it apart with the might have our jaws, yes.
There’s something about the, the yes there might feel a bit inconsequential, but I guess I was singing it like I would say it’s because I was punctuating the intention of what I was saying.
And I remember I wrote a lot of that song wandering around Edinburgh one day, going to a conference, and I’m sure people thought I was completely, there was something wrong, because it kept having to take myself off into a corner in a crowded room and sing little bits of it into my phone before I forgot it, because it just kept coming all at once.
Like a Lion by Kathleen Turner plays
Because was that happening when you were on the Clore Fellowship? The Clore Fellowship is this amazing gathering of artists and practitioners in both Britain and Ireland. Like there’s a few that come from Ireland every so often.
There’s one from Ireland every two years, I think through the Jerome Hines Fellowship.
From the Arts Council
The Arts Council of Ireland supported that. Yeah, I’m hugely grateful for that opportunity because it really was an extraordinary year and quite transformative for me
Because it’s a real eye opener. Anybody I’ve ever met who’ve done that, like Grainne Hope who’s a classical musician and runs the Kids Classics NGO with children and music in hospital. It was, in a sense, a community music project in many ways. She did it and I met her a few times through it and she was just on fire with the doors and the windows because you met people and as she said, she just really began to think differently about her work, her practise. She began to think bigger.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what it does. You know, it’s a fellowship in cultural leadership and they bring together 25, 26 fellows, usually from around the world, majority from the UK. And then in my year, we had a fellow from India, Brazil, Hong Kong, an incredible gathering of like minded people and great friends, you know. We made great friendships during that year. And we just had these incredible opportunities to meet people that we would normally not have the chance to.
So, meet people in leadership positions find out how they got there, find out what motivated them, what skills they felt they needed. And then we got to do just incredible opportunities. I got to go to New Zealand for a month to explore international perspectives in community music.
I was there for the opening of the New Zealand Festival in Wellington Harbour, where a Haka of a thousand people performed. And there is this extraordinary presentation of Maori culture and Pacific culture and the arrival of Waka, which are these boats, these traditional boats who came into the harbour as this 200 person choir sang and a thousand person, Haka presented. And people on the boats were Hakaing back in response. I got to be there in person to witness that, you know, and to talk to people about what their experiences of community music were and how they define that in that part of the world. Clore was just like this big map of experiences that really impacted me.
Brillant. How do you think it changed your work?
Because that was really the period just taking your album, like a line comes out and you’ve been in this very creative process before we hit the aforementioned pandemic. But if you were to think about, as I say, that idea that it made you think differently and bigger, leaving Ireland, whatever part of Ireland were from often is that refreshing sense of us connecting with a wider global story as well? Yeah.
From your perspective, do you have a sense about what were the keys that had turned within you?
I mean, a lot that’s why the big pause, I think I had the opportunity to meet a lot of women in leadership, and I guess really looking at women in powerful positions, looking at how they got there, looking at what values they carried into that space really informed me in thinking about my own capacity, you know, what I want to do, what values and motivations I have and how they carry into my work. I think it changed greatly the way that I teach as well.
I think I try to leave a lot more space now and really encourage a lot more dialogue and collaboration and leave space to find out what students intentions are. I definitely took that from Clore as well.
And, I think, bringing it all back home where we are now, we started growing up, as you did in Northern Ireland and in that rural dairy farm and singing in school and in church and to your home now in Limerick and creating music both for yourself and working with community projects where it’s having such a dramatic impact. I mean, one of the things that I’m curious about is that sense of justice and equity that you’ve talked about, even in relation to women and violence and women’s voices in Ireland.
Where do you think it comes from? Because I suppose I wonder, is it rooted in that experience in Northern Ireland? What do you think switched that light on about equity and equality being what is the driving force of your life?
I think I’ve very kind parents and I’m aware of the privilege that gave me and afforded me in my start in life. I think I was deeply lucky that I had an expectation that I would have access to a brilliant education and that that would be absolutely right for me as a girl. You know, might remember my dad being really excited about school for us, you know, and what it could do for us and the doors it could open.
And I had a really powerful mum as well. I think when you have a lot of love in your life, that is a real privilege and it opens up the space for you to think about what is possible for yourself in a way that you might not otherwise. And I’m very aware of my privilege and the doors that has opened for me. And I think as well, I’ve just been very, very fortunate of the people that I have encountered and learnt from and continue to learn from.
I have amazing colleagues. And as well in my role, I think too I’ve had the chance to encounter people’s work that is constantly making me think and grow. You know, people like Dr. Sindy Joyce who is really raising the conversation in terms of traveller experiences and has made me think so much more about what can be done and what isn’t done.
And who’s at the table.
Who’s at the table and who’s not at the table, you know, so I guess that comes back to having a very solid foundation that I could think for myself. I was allowed to think for myself and I would be loved regardless. And I’m very, very grateful for that. Very grateful for that.
Beautiful way to end, Kathleen Turner, Dr. Kathleen Turner, thank you so much for giving us your time and your music and your songs today in The Family of Things and wishing you a lot of luck and good fortune in your work, but also in that release that we’ll all feel when lockdown ends and you can get back out performing and singing again. Thank you, Kathleen.
Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. It was lovely to talk to you.
And that’s all for this episode of The Family of Things, I’m Helen Shaw. So thanks for listening. And if you’d like to find out more, do check out our website, TheFamilyofThings.com. And if you like what we do, do support us on our patreon there and share our podcasts with your mates on social media and give us a review. Thanks for listening.
Follow Kathleen on Twitter – twitter.com/kturnersong And you can buy Kathleen’s music on bandcamp: kathleenturner.bandcamp.com You can watch the video of ‘Like a Lion’ that Helen and Kathleen talk about :
The Family of Things is an independent podcast production by Athena Media, produced by Helen Shaw. The digital editor is John Howard. The theme music is ‘The Old Haunt’ by Ana Gog, composed by Michael Gallen.