Folk Singer Kathryn Roberts On Wedded Bliss, Barnsley And Yorkshire’s Arts


As award-winning folk duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman prepare to make a return to the former’s home county, Bethan Andrews sits down with the former to talk all things Barnsley, folk music and Yorkshire

It’s not surprising that Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have won multiple awards for their storytelling and musical ways, as Kathryn’s passion for her craft shines through from the minute we start talking. Originally from Barnsley, a place known for nurturing and supporting the low-key folk scene, it’s obvious that music has been a part of her life from a very young age. Some might say it was only inevitable that she would go into a career in the sector, but what is clear is that it runs passionately through her veins. “I grew up in a very musical family, both parents are music teachers and are also heavily involved in the folk scene in Barnsley,” she tells me. “I went to a lot of festivals and folk clubs as a little girl and I just grew up surrounded by music.”
Despite this early start, it was a happy accident that Kathryn pursued music in a professional capacity. In fact, she once thought she’d study medicine at university. “I kind of fell into performing with my childhood friend Kate Rusby, who is also very local, and we worked as a duo and made an album together when we were 18,” she says. “I always intended to go back to university, but I enjoyed making music so much that I’m now 48 and I’ve never gone back.”

Kathryn does, however, credit her childhood with the path her life has taken her. “As I look back, my early childhood was probably a huge influence. I grew up absorbing music around the house and at festivals, so it was natural for me to always sing,” she tells me. “The old traditional folk songs that my mum used to sing have informed a large part of our repertoire and the way in which I write songs. I always seem to come back to that storytelling aspect of folk music.” 
She also talks fondly of Barnsley itself, and how the strong folk and arts scene in the Yorkshire town has impacted her throughout her life. “Barnsley has always had a really strong folk fraternity,” she says. “The Barnsley Folk Club was always incredibly well attended and it was really welcoming. My mum would always take me along and it’s my first memory of singing in front of other people. There’s loads of great musicians who have come out of the town, like Kate, Dave Burland, and more recently, The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican. Barnsley has really helped people to feel comfortable with their music and really supported.”
As Kathryn talks me through the story of meeting her husband, and now lifetime music partner, Sean Lakeman, it feels only fitting that we’re sat interviewing on Valentine’s Day. It’s clear that they were a match made in heaven from the moment they met, and it’s no surprise that they’ve had such a successful and joy-filled career. “Kate and I met the Lakeman brothers, who are from Dartmoor, and I ended up falling in love with Sean,” she smiles. “We started playing music together, working in a band together, and we settled down in Dartmoor. We make music as a duo, and it’s a really nice shared experience, we get to do everything together, and although that doesn’t work for every husband and wife, it really does for us. We get to travel the country and have all sorts of marvellous experiences and adventures, and make music together – it’s lovely.”
Speaking of their career together, they’ve had a pretty amazing one, and have twice been recognised as the Best Duo by the BBC Folk Awards. Looking at her highlights, Kathryn says:. “I have vivid and very fond memories of touring in America with the band Sean and I used to be in. I specifically remember playing in downtown Los Angeles, and for a girl from Barnsley, it felt incredibly glamorous and I loved it. A few years ago we got to play at The Royal Albert Hall, which was awesome to get to play at such a wonderful, iconic venue, so that was really special for me.”

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman

Kathryn loves that the winning of awards helps to keep folk music on the musical map both nationally and internationally, and feels proud to be part of keeping it alive. “I love playing gigs to people who are not particularly folk fans. We sometimes do these rural touring schemes, which take you out to villages in the middle of nowhere and the whole village comes out to support, but not necessarily because they like folk music,” explains Kathryn. “We get so many people coming to us at the end saying that they didn’t know they liked folk music and realising that actually they do. That’s really satisfying. Folk music always comes in waves and I think we are heading towards another peak of interest from people. It used to be thought of as an old person’s genre, but I think that’s changing. Music is really accessible now and it’s easy to explore new genres.”
In true, friendly Yorkshire style, the most important element of making music for Kathryn is about creating connections with other people. “We always feel that we’ve done a good job at the end of the night if people come and say that a particular song has triggered a memory or a shared emotion,” she says. “It’s a lovely shared experience, music.”
As spring arrives, Kathryn is visibly bursting with excitement about the upcoming 30-date tour and festival season that arrives with the turn of the weather. So, what’s she looking forward to for the rest of 2023? It’s immediately clear that she’s excited for her homecoming Yorkshire dates at Selby Town Hall, Live at Sams in Sheffield and Carriageworks in Leeds, and tells me that people can expect an intimate environment. “We always play a mix of traditional songs and songs that we’ve written, and we’ve just released a new album so there will be songs from that,” she says.
As Kathryn is sat in her mum and dads house in Dodworth, she tells me how much she loves Yorkshire and coming home. “I love the variety,” she smiles. “There’s so many fields and woodlands with wonderful walks to be had. Yorkshire’s got a bit of everything and everyone is so friendly. Every summer, we used to go to Whitby Folk Festival and I still feel such a pull there, it’s a special place. I have such fond memories of growing up in Yorkshire and some of my best times were playing in the Barnsley Town Concert Band! Barnsley has always been really excellent in its music provision for young people and that had a massive impact on my life.”

See Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman at Carriageworks on 19 April, Live at Sams on 20 April, Victoria Hall in Settle on 23 April, Selby Town Hall on 28 April, and Reeth Memorial Hall on 19 October; kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com

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