Singer, songwriter and professional folk music champion Kellie While has been ensconced in the acoustic scene from birth.
Daughter to singer songwriter Chris While and pianist songwriter Joe While, Kellie’s childhood revolved around music, finally leading her to accompany her mother on stage and tentatively begin writing her own songs on acoustic guitar.
In 1997, Ashley Hutchings invited her to join the The Albion Band, and she still performs in the annual Christmas Band incarnation to this day. She’s also worked with Thea Gilmore and released both solo albums and one with her mother Chris.
Alongside her musical career, Kellie has worked in folk music programming for nearly 15 years.
Starting out at Smooth Operations (which now sits under the 7digital group of companies), her radio production credits include the Cambridge Folk Festival, Celtic Connections and the BBC Electric Proms.
Kellie is now head of 7digital Creative, leading the company’s suite of production and original content businesses.
The team creates music, entertainment and factual programmes including the flagship BBC Radio 2 Folk Show plus the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
We recently spent some time with Kellie to learn more about her musical career and pick her brains on the future of folk across the UK.
What’s your personal relationship with music?
My mum and dad met in a folk club in Barrow-in-Furness, so I suppose you could say I’m kind of authentic! My dad was trained as a pianist and my mum would play guitar and sing with him. So really, for as long as I can remember, me and my brother were sitting on top of my dad’s keyboard on the back seat of the car travelling around, doing gigs, hanging around the kids’ areas at folk festivals while my mum and dad played.
When did you first dabble yourself?
I picked up a guitar when I was young, started performing on stage with my mum and it just evolved naturally into being what I wanted to do.
You’ve been working in folk music programming for nearly 15 years. How have things changed in that time?
When I first started, I hate to say this but it was still a bit uncool to call yourself a folk musician. Not uncool to people who know it and people who love it, but to a more mainstream audience.
We’ve worked really hard with BBC Radio 2 particularly over the years to ensure that we portray it in the best way possible. I think even going back to when I started, there was still this image of folk music as being a bit stuffy and a bit finger in the ear and inaccessible.
Now it’s cool to be a folk performer, everybody wants to do it. You see a lot of people with perhaps more of a heritage in pop and mainstream music becoming really happy to be associated with their folk roots and the more acoustic side of performing. So I think that’s really made a difference.
How did the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards come about?
It was an idea that was first conceived by Smooth Operations back in 1999. In April 2017, it’s going to be our 18th year. It was very much inspired by the Country Music Awards (CMAs) in Nashville.
We produced the live coverage of the CMAs and thought it would be fantastic to have something like this, which really brought a focus to folk music and shouted about it -and talked about how fantastic it is. It was agreed with Radio 2 and it’s been on every year ever since.
Is the national folk community strong in the UK or is it fragmented into cottage industries and regions all working by themselves?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I think the folk world has got a lot savvier over the past decade. There are more tools available to us now to publicise ourselves and to keep networks thriving. One thing the folk scene does really well is use social media to keep connected and to let everybody know what’s going on. So I think that’s really changed.
Scottish folk music seems really rooted in the national psyche, as does Welsh folk music. Do you think that’s the same with English folk music?
English folk music has definitely enjoyed a revival recently. But I think it taps into a wider discussion about the English perhaps not being as comfortable with saying, ‘We’re proud of being English,’ as our other nations are. And there are probably 100 reasons why that may be so.
Also, perhaps to an untrained ear, it’s possibly easier to identify the music of the Celtic nations than it is to identify what is English.
What do you think defines folk music in 2016?
Well, if you look at the line-up for any folk festival, you’ll see such a diverse range of music on offer. It’s astounding really. There will be Americana and bluegrass, which Americans might call folk music and some British people might call country music. Then there’s everything from that, through to singer songwriters, traditional, instrumental, music from Sweden and Finland and Eastern Europe. It just includes everything.
I think that’s a big part of what keeps folk music so alive. And certainly from a 7digital Creative perspective, it makes our job easier!
Which new artists are you most excited about?
Megan Henwood. She’s a fantastic singer songwriter who came through the Young Folk Awards. Also Blair Dunlop. I do particularly get excited about seeing how those artists progress.
There’s also a trio who were finalists in the Young Folk Award two years ago, and they’ve just been on the Radio 2 Playlist. They’re called Wildwood Kin, they’re from Devon and they’re really fantastic.
Is it hard for young folk artists now?
I think it’s hard to see a path to a career. On the one hand there are far more opportunities to perform and be heard than there were. But I also think that those opportunities perhaps don’t pay very well. So I think it’s really difficult.
When I started off, we’re talking 20 to 25 years ago, there would be a lot more folk clubs that I could play at. I talk to my mum about the seventies, and she says the club scene was thriving: there’d be two or three in every town every week, and as a musician you could always earn a living.
Now we might have two or three Open Mic nights every week but it’s not necessarily a way to earn a living. So I think it is hard for young people.
Where do you see the opportunities?
Well, these days you can do a degree in folk music at Newcastle University. That’s something that’s happened in the last 10 years and is enabling people to have a side career in teaching.
There are so many festivals and places you can perform and be heard – but I think it’s probably harder to earn a living now than it has been.
Also, a big part of an artist’s income, especially throughout the eighties and nineties, would have been selling CDs. You just can’t earn the same kind of money as you could, although as streaming becomes part of daily life for more consumers and access to music is simplified, I hope that improves the situation for many artists.
We work with Proper Music Distribution for the Folk Awards – we curate a double CD featuring all the nominees. It’s another way for us to get the message out there that, ‘Look, this is the best for folk music in the last 12 months that’s been released’. It’s a way of us engaging directly with the industry and with the artists.
Do you ever commission new songs?
Yes, we sometimes do projects where we commission new and original songwriting. For example, there’s a project called The Radio Ballads, which goes back to the late fifties. They were a series of documentaries about ordinary people with original music, produced by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger with Charles Parker.
We revived that idea in 2006 for Radio 2. That enabled us to commission around 60 original songs – so it was another way for us to work directly with songwriters.
The BBC Radio 2 Young Folks Awards 2017 is now open for entries. Learn more