Rising folk musician Kelly Oliver discovered a deep connection with Ireland, the birthplace of her paternal grandmother, on her first trip to the Emerald Isle. And it seems the fabled luck of the Irish may have returned with her as she releases her new single on St Patrick's Day featuring none other than world renowned musician Will Pound.
"Because my grandmother was Irish my dad always played Irish music and stuff. So music from The Pogues and The Dubliners, that sort of thing was always played around the house.
"It wasn't until about three years ago when I went to Ireland for the first time that I became quite interested in folk music and it wasn't until then that I began listening to it. It was about two years ago that I started playing it, and focusing on learning covers and traditional songs. When I went to Ireland, it opened my eyes. My grandmother died when I was quite young, so although the influence was there it wasn’t until I actually went there that I felt this connection
"It was weird really. Once I was there I saw there was this culture that I am a part of but I hadn’t realised it. "I visited Donegal although my grandmother’s family are from Tralee.
"When over there I went to sessions and to pubs and everyone was playing the music then I thought wow this is really cool.
"I wasn't aware there was a big folk scene in England, before then. I was into a lot of acoustic music; Eva Cassidy, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, The Eagles, a lot of country music so it kind of progressed from country to Irish music to folk."
Music has been a part of Oliver's life from as long as she can remember.
"I have always liked music. When I was at school I sang in choirs and musicals so that was where I started I suppose. I have been singing for most of life, but it wasn't until I was 16 when I started to learn the guitar and that was when I started writing down bits and pieces in my bedroom and putting little snippets down.
"I look back on them now and they are obviously not great but that was the starting point. I knew I wanted to play an instrument so I could accompany myself, and a lot of my cousins played the guitar, so that's why I chose it."
"I had guitar lessons for about three months and that was good to get the basic stuff and I wish I’d had them for a bit longer because there were like little techniques I could have learned and I know I now have bad habits on the guitar that if I had lessons for a bit longer I perhaps wouldn’t have.
"I went to uni so when I was there I didn’t have a lot time to play the guitar so I didn’t improve that much, it was when I came back from studying when things started to improve.
"I studied drama and theatre, but when I finished I really didn’t want to go into a career in the theatre or acting or anything like that, it’s funny how it happened. I went through the stage of wanting to be a singer and then wanting to focus on drama, not necessarily wanting to be an actress but working backstage or direct or be a stage manager or something like that and then once I had finished uni I didn’t want anything to do with that."
Once deciding to go down the folk route Oliver made another decision that would not only make her stand out but would also pay dividends big time - she took up the harmonica, for some reason not an instrument associated with women musicians.
"Bob Dylan is an interest of mine and I heard it (harmonica) in his songs and thought that sounds cool, and hearing Alanis Morrisette play it too.
"When I was playing my songs I thought I could have something extra, if I am going to be playing solo I should try and see if there was anything I could do. I experimented with a little foot tambourine which actually worked quite well but I wanted something I could harmonise with; something to make things stand out a bit more.
"The only real instrument I could play while not holding it was the harmonica. I have always like the sound of it and because I didn’t know what it was going to be like, I thought I would just buy a £5 one. My mum then got me one for my birthday as well so I had a few in different keys. I started teaching myself and trying things out. You have to memorise the breathing, in breaths and out breaths but with practise it can be achieved by anyone who puts their mind to it.
"I now have harmonica sponsorship with Hohner and part of the reasoning of that is I was different to people you usually think of playing harmonicas.
|Oliver has become the face or
perhaps the mouth of Hohner harmonicas
"There are lots of instruments I would like to play that are a bit more “girly” like the violin or the piano but I can’t play them, so I thought I will work with what I can do. But another reason I wanted to keep working at it was to show that girls can play them.
"I think it’s not something you would normally pick up as a girl, sometimes playing you might think of that harsh Dylan-type sound or a sound that brings you to America sitting on a porch.
"One of the harmonicas I play is a tremolo, which I used on my EP and the sound is much more like an accordion, it’s much softer and lends itself to a more feminine type of sound.
"So I think maybe girls are put off because they think it’s a bit harsh or something. It depends on the kind of singer, if the girl is singing softly or with nice guitar parts then she might not want a big harmonica blasting in there. But it may be people don’t know enough about the different harmonicas available."
So there is the guitar and the harmonica but what about the voice and sound of Oliver?
"So many people have compared my voice to Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez which is interesting because neither of them are influences of mine.
"It is pure coincidence, obviously I am delighted that people would think that but it is accidentally. My sound is something that’s evolved it’s not something I have come across as 'this kind of sound'.
"However, I am working at the moment on a lot of new songs for an album and that’s a lot more focused on how I want to sound. I think with the songs on the EP it comes across as a lot more natural but now it’s been received well I am thinking a lot more about how I want to come across."
For someone who has been on the folk scene for such a short time Oliver comes across as focused and already getting into the flow of producing her own material not least for her first full album.
"Usually when I write a song, I know there are a lot people who start with their lyrics first or write a poem and put the music to it, but I have never written a song like that.
"I always put down the melody or the chords first, even if just mentally because I find when I write a song, and everyone is different, I need the melody.
"Once I know my choruses are, like four bars, and how many syllables I am able to fit into one phrase then I am able to write the lyric to that.
"Generally I get myself a chorus or a verse and then go from there and that helps me. In terms of inspiration for lyrics, when I was younger it was all based on personal experiences and I would try to romanticise things to make them a bit more interesting but I think with the songs I am writing now I am trying to get away from that, not because I don’t like it, just personally I want a different challenge and I am trying to write about different things."
So is the album progressing fairly well?
"The album still has a lot of work, there are some songs I feel are ready and some are not and I feel like there are some songs where I am not sure if they should go on it yet.
"That will depend on whether I get a brainwave and suddenly complete it or I might end up with another song that I write in a month or two's time where I think that should take its place so it’s still very much in its working stage."
|Before the album though comes the single, He Walked on the Side of the Sea, which is not only released on Paddy's Day but is inspired by and about her journey to Ireland. However, one thing certainly worthy of note is that featuring on the album is Shropshire lad Will Pound.
Pound, even though only 25, is regarded as one of the foremost exponents of the harmonica and has played alongside some of the greatest names on the folk circuit. This is all the more remarkable when you consider he took up the instrument as an aid to his breathing after undergoing open heart surgery as a child and even now, as an adult, he finds it difficult to go more than 10 minutes on one piece while gigging.
So how did the "young pretender" Oliver manage to wangle getting his services on board?
"It happened quite quick really, getting it all done. I had already recorded the song for my EP and Will put down his harmonica part over it.
"He was impressed and he liked putting down his harmonica part with another. He seems to think harmonica players are really rare and for him to duet with me playing the harmonica was really nice and part of me was thinking 'I am probably not going to get that chance again'. It was a fun experience.
"I obviously knew he had been nominated for an award and I had done my research on him but Will is a really down to earth guy and really lovely to work with. He wasn’t a diva at all. He didn’t make me feel like I was a lowly harmonica player in the presence of one of the world’s best. It was wicked that we have done that together.
"The song is based on my first trip to Ireland so it kind of champions Ireland and the culture and the Irish people and, even though it doesn’t say directly in there that it’s about Ireland, that is where it came from."
The Hertfordshire lass is at the start of her career but has already made a big impression and it's a pretty safe bet that her days as a support act are not going to last too long.
"Being a support act is a good way of getting used to being on stage and the more you gig the more confidence you get; the more you learn to talk to the audience and the more you learn to be a show-woman. You are eased into things.
"The first gig I ever played with just my guitar was in my last year at uni, that was absolutely terrifying. I had sung in choirs and had sung solos but I had never sung with just me and my guitar before.
"I haven’t had a lot of experience and because of that I have had to speed up my progress and get a lot better a lot quicker. I still do get nervous but not in the same way. Not in that OMG! I am absolutely terrified but more like I am scared but I am also quite excited."
KellyOliver's EP Far From Home is available now from Folkstock Records and the single He Walks by the Side of the Sea is released on March 17.
Oliver will be supporting The Joe Topping Trio at the Red Lion Folk Club, Vicarage Road, King's Heath, Birmingham on May 7.
The Will Pound Band will be playing The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire on March 21. Show start 8pm, admission is £12. Box office: 01952 728911.