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Mikey Kenney is wearing a broad-rimmed hat, a checked blue shirt and he is playing an old fiddle. He is sitting in a spotlight on a stage.
Phot credit: Simone Cecchetti

Mikey Kenney, Northwestern English Fiddler – the interview

As folk fettler, Mikey Kenney, releases a new album of traditional Northwestern fiddle tunes, we find out about a life in thrall to music.

Mikey Kenney is a rare gem. As I point out later in this interview, there are few people who seem to embody traditional music in quite the same way. He’s like a walking tune book, and his dedication to keeping the old music of his native Lancashire alive is something to be cherished. In person, he’s much as his press images suggest he might be. Surely born in the wrong era, there’s a wide-eyed wonder about him, and a sense that he was left on this planet to roam and soak up as many musical traditions as he possibly can.

For one still relatively young, he’s seen a lot and he’s played a lot and his music positively drips with the wisdom and experience he’s picked up along the way. If you’ve not come across him before, start with his 2019 album, The Reverie Road, a gorgeous collection of original songs inspired by his time spent living la dolce vita in Italy. For something more earthy and ancient, pick up the new album, Northwestern English Fiddle, which does exactly what it says on the tin and is simply wonderful for it.

We talk about musical traditions as though they have to pass through border control, but in reality, they’re freer than the birds in the sky.

Mikey Kenney

You’ve said that this is the first of two Mikey Kenney albums to come out this year, this one being a set of Northwestern fiddle tunes and the second a new collection of original songs on Penny Fiddle Records. Is the first a case of scratching an itch?

Most definitely. I’ve been playing traditional fiddle all of my life and yet, until now, I’ve never released a straight-up traditional fiddle album. For many years, I’ve struggled with my identity; it’s fine for me to go out to study and embrace all music as I see fit but, on paper, the industry (and therefore the average consumer, dictated to by the industry) wants a clear, simplistic definition of who you are as an artist. So, I’ve been asking myself, “which of these identities do I focus on most of all?” And the answer I’ve been leaning towards is the sum of all my learning; my own compositions and songs which are influenced by my wanderings through this world. That doesn’t mean that my other identities cease to exist though. This traditional fiddle music is my lifeblood and I can’t abandon it – it is omnipresent. I made a promise to myself that every year, from this point on, I will release two albums to satisfy these inner gremlins – one album of original music through the usual industry channels and one album of traditional music via independent means. At least, for now, the gremlins have ceased their bickering.

New album artwork by Lucie Arnoux

What is unique about Northwestern fiddle tunes? Do they stand out in any musical manner from fiddle tunes elsewhere in the British Isles?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Musicologists will never tire of arguing over this sort of thing. In my own opinion, it’s impossible to say where one influence ends and another begins. We talk about musical traditions as though they have to pass through border control, but in reality, they’re freer than the birds in the sky. It’s very easy to hear the influence of Scottish, Irish and Welsh traditions on this music. The popularity of 3/2 hornpipes in this tradition is also very strong. Each different region in these parts seems to claim it for their own. It’s certainly a staple.

I started out in Liverpool playing Irish traditional music, the traditional music form that reigns supreme there due to the city’s close relationship with Ireland. Liverpool is a historically important part of Lancashire’s identity and so I make no apology for elements of Irish fiddle style (particularly Ulster traditions) appearing in my playing of Northwestern English tunes. In fact, I believe it makes it a more accurate representation of the region’s musical identity.

People often envision morris traditions and maypoles when they think of English music. I inhabit a very different England.

Mikey Kenney

The landscape is unique in these parts, too. Lancashire has an abundance of moorland and heather; the Forest of Bowland might easily be mistaken for the Scottish Highlands, Cumbria is all mountains and lakeland. These images impress on the minds of a player and it informs the music, which is also wild with big peaks and troughs. People often envision morris traditions and maypoles when they think of English music. I inhabit a very different England. Though I love and appreciate the Morris tunes and dances, they’re not native to my world – they’re exotic and romantic to behold.

Are these tunes relatively unheard? Have other people done much with them?

I wouldn’t say “unheard” or even “untouched” (as some people often suggest), but they’re probably not recorded as much as they deserve. Plenty of other musicians have been playing these individual tunes into recent times, and even making recordings of them. Some of these tunes are popular across the whole of the English tradition. There are also recordings available by the likes of The Boat Band and Carolyn Francis and the Lakeland Fiddlers that focus on the music of the Lakeland region, for example. Those are particularly important to me because they focus on the region’s identity as a whole rather than simply isolating interesting tunes.

I guess what I’m trying to do myself is expand on that idea by recording as a soloist focusing on a specific instrument, style and region, and I’m not entirely sure how many other recording artists have narrowed it down to such a niche in this part of the world, particularly in contemporising the recordings, I guess. My work has been focused on learning as many of these tunes as I can, on recording them and encouraging others in the region to do the same. I’m passionately proactive in performing, recording and educating, and those things travel easily; perhaps that’s why I’m getting some credit for there being a revival of interest in it, but there are others who’ve contributed great work on the Northwestern English fiddle front too. Carolyn Francis, Owen Spafford, Julian Taylor, Gina Le Faux, Scott Hartley, Jamie Knowles to name just a few that I’m aware of. Then there are those in other places who are helping us all to access the music more freely. 

Were these tunes collected by notable collectors? Do they belong to particular collections that other people can go and explore?

Yes, through the centuries there have been a number of fiddlers across the region who kept transcriptions of their repertoires and that’s how we know these tunes today. The music on this record has come from the collections of H.S.I. Jackson, Edward Winder, James Winder, John Winder, James Nuttall, William Irwin, Joseph Barnes, The Browne Family, Senhouse, Henry Stables and Thomas Marsden. Some of these manuscripts are kept in private collections, so we have others who have done valuable work in making sure that these tunes can be easily accessed via other means. The two most-often referenced modern publications in my collection are The Winders of Wyresdale by Andy Hornby and Bonny Cumberland by John Offord. I’ve used these two for almost all of the tunes on this record and I did this knowing that it would make it more simple for anybody interested in learning the tunes to acquire transcriptions of them. The other great debt of gratitude we owe is to the team behind the Village Music Project, directed by Chris Partington and John Adams. Thanks to them, so many of these manuscripts have been transcribed and archived and are available on the web.

Mikey Kenney in action. Photo credit: Simone Cecchetti

My insatiable thirst for these tunes is inexplicably tied to my hunger for understanding my own identity

Mikey Kenney

On the couple of occasions we’ve met, it always strikes me that you’re one of the most musically-involved people I know. It’s like you embody folk tunes – they seem to tumble out of you. How much do these Northwestern tunes influence your daily life, and do you have time to get any washing done?

I take that as a great compliment, thank you. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realise that my insatiable thirst for these tunes is inexplicably tied to my hunger for understanding my own identity. It’s very difficult to explain but I have a compelling, innate belief that the music holds the solution to a deep existential question for me and so I’m always searching for the answer by learning, playing and teaching tunes. I started the search when I was six or seven; out of nowhere I asked my parents for a fiddle and that journey began. I’m looking for something and I know music is the guide. You might call it a spiritual motive.

And yes, I do find time to do the washing! Visiting friends often express their bewilderment when witnessing my knack for domesticity, though often I do these chores at unreasonable hours.

I’m interested in your approach to recording. We recorded some stuff together a few years ago and I remember you saying that you don’t like doing edits. You like to go for long, unbroken takes so that you “pick up the air in the room”, even in the moments when you’re not playing. Is that still the case? 

Yep. I’m old-fashioned in that respect. I cut my teeth playing in big ensembles – ceilidh bands, orchestras and the like. You’re trained to “know” the music before you perform or record, and then just get it right. I like this approach because I’m a spontaneous creator and if I’m allowed to use the studio as creative time, piecing together a recording like a jigsaw, I have a tendency to get carried away. Treating the recording the way I’d treat live performance gives me an excuse to draw a line in the sand that I mustn’t cross. Otherwise, I’d never get anything finished and I’d never let my recordings fly the nest. Also, sometimes an arrangement demands that you sit out for passages whilst others are playing, and I find that the passage you’re about to play blossoms inside of you during this time and then explodes out of you when it’s your turn. I feel as though I miss the magic that happens during anticipation when you just “drop into” a section.

Tell me a bit about the other work you’re doing. You’re a busy man.

Indeed, I live for collaboration! At the moment I’m working on a few ideas with fiddler Owen Spafford and bouzouki player Stuart Graham – both close friends of mine. We’ve been making music together for a while but we’ve also been talking about founding some sort of DIY recording collective and we’re hoping to get that going soon enough. I’ve been playing fiddle for Hannah Moule and the Moulettes of late, too, and that has been deeply nourishing for my soul. We’re embarking on a tour of Canada together in October and I can’t wait for that. I also play fairly often with my dear friend Gus Fairbairn, AKA Alabaster dePlume. Whenever we meet, we talk about music and life until the sun comes up. I believe we are on very similar personal quests aided by our music.

I’m also musical director for the Lancashire Youth Folk Ensemble, which allows me to practice what I preach; that to ensure the survival of a tradition, we must be hands-on with helping others to engage in it. It’s simply not enough to bombard people from afar with my own performances of these tunes. I’ve been plotting a sonic archive of traditional tunes with Heritage Learning Lancashire for some time, too. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get to work on this fairly soon. This musical life is bountiful!

It has been a while since your last album, The Reverie Road. Can you tell us much about the album coming out at the end of the year?

There’s no title just yet but I can tell you that it will be out in November on Penny Fiddle Records and I will be touring it through November and December. I don’t want to give too much away but I can reveal that the concept of the album is based around the harmony between fiddle and voice, mostly supported by percussion and drums with some other sparse instrumentation. All original compositions. One of my most consistent and supportive collaborators, not to mention one of my most treasured friends, is Michael Paul Metcalfe – one of the finest drummers around. He’s been involved in almost every musical project I’ve put together over the past 10 years. The tour in November will consist of us performing duet-fiddle and drums and we’re both very excited to be taking it out on the road.

For more on Mikey Kenney, head to mikeykenney.co.uk. You’ll also find him here on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. To order the new album, Northwestern English Fiddle, head to his Bandcamp page.