Interview with Kate Fagan

News of a bunch of Fagans performance dates gives me an excellent excuse to post the interview I did with musician and poet Kate Fagan earlier this year. The Fagans are about the most famous Australian folk family. They began as a duo consisting of Bob and Margaret, but expanded to a trio pretty much as soon as daughter Kate could carry a tune. Son James brought them to a quartet. James's partner Nancy Kerr, with whom James performs regularly in the UK as Kerr & Fagan - regularly enough for the pair to be voted Best Folk Duo in the 2003 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards - brings the combo to a quintet. However, the erstwhile activities of the various family members means that being able to see the complete line-up is a treat that doesn't present itself often enough.

I don't remember the exact date of broadcast of this interview, but it was the Saturday before a Sunday evening fundraiser for Indonesian women factory workers, held at Newtown's Sandringham Hotel (the 'Sando') at which Kate was headlining. The support acts consisted of my buddy Emma Driver, as well as another woman guitar balladeer called Bridie O'Brien, whose work I liked enough to buy the EP she had on sale. I already owned a copy of Emma's disc, and of Kate's book of poetry, so when I found myself in possession of the winning raffle ticket that entitled the holder to both discs and the book, I chose to step up and request that the raffle be drawn again. This may have looked like altruism, but it was shameless self-promotion: there was now a whole room of people who knew exactly who I was. ("Oh look, it's Dom, that shameless self-promoter.") Which was good - I didn't have time to stick around and network - I'd been invited by Peter Koppes of The Church to check out his daughters' band at the Annandale Hotel. Consisting of three twenty-something girlies in skimpy tops and miniskirts with guitars strapped onto them, plus a tank-topped heavy metal boy behind the drums, Peter Koppes' daughters' band was known as 'Menage a Trois' and they played a loud, fuzzy, gloriously noisy brand of guitar-based pop, and, particularly following the political/folk gig I'd just been at, were fun and sexy if not for all the right reasons, then certainly for some of the wrong ones.

Keep whatever mental image you've made somewhere handy for easy reference: a chat with ern or der of the Menage a Trois will appear here some time. For now, here's Kate Fagan. And, in case you've forgotten where we began before I took you meandering through these various freely associated reminiscinces, the Fagans' performance dates are listed below the interview.

Demetrius Romeo: Although the Fagans have been together for thirty years, we only have three CDs from them. Are the Fagans primarily a performing unit rather than a recording unit?

KATE FAGAN: In a sense, performing with your family goes with the territory of this kind of music, what would now be seen as 'roots-based acoustic music'. It's not unusual for people to perform with their families, and the idea of that being directed towards performing out in public is not really what it's about. You start with your family, you're playing around the table, it's just going on as something that's happening in the background. And performing with your family has got all those... you can imagine the overtones in terms of how it is for your kids to be jumping up on stage beside you. There are plenty of bands in Australia who do the same thing, particularly in country music and things like that. Think of Anne Kirkpatrick and Slim Dusty - not that they would be related explicitly to our music. So yeah, there's a tendency to be working less as an 'on-the-road' band and more as getting together and doing one-off gigs and playing when we can. But we do do a lot of our communicating on stage. We won't see each other for a while and we'll jump up on stage, and suddenly you're having the conversations you haven't had for three or four months.

Demetrius Romeo: Has it ever been detrimental? Has there ever been a full-on 'revenger's tragedy' opera taking place?

KATE FAGAN: I don't think so. But I can remember getting on stage mid-conversation when something probably should have been resolved beforehand, and just letting it smooth its way out during the set.

Demetrius Romeo: On the first Fagan's album, Common Treasury, you've got a 'trad. arranging' credit, whereas by the third album Turning Fine, you're writing songs. I imagine you've actually been writing songs for a lot longer than that, though...


Demetrius Romeo: Can you remember the first time you wrote a song?

KATE FAGAN: Probably the first song that stuck around was... I would have been... I used to arrange a lot of poems to music. I always had both relationships going at once - my love of poetry and my love of music. So I used to set a lot of other people's poems to music.

Demetrius Romeo: As a published poet, some of the reviews I've read have described you as a lyrical poet; at the same time, your lyrics are poetic. When you set out writing, do you know from the onset whether you're writing a song or a poem?

KATE FAGAN: That is something I defintely know, whether you're in one genre or 'creative zone', or the other. But I never know where either of them is going to end up. I just know when they're starting and when they're finishing, both for poems and for songs. I think one difference would be that a poem for me often begins out of a space of thinking a couple of lyrical phrases that I hear in relation to the world, and the equivalent to that [in music] for me would be a riff on the guitar - I get a riff in my head and a couple of words that match that riff and we're off.

Demetrius Romeo: Can you give me an example of your poetry?

KATE FAGAN: Okay. It's from a book called The Long Moment. This is a poem called 'The Waste of Tongues', and there are seventeen parts to it. It's a long, serial work. I tend to work in series that are sort of 'improvisations' of thinking and word, in a sense, not unlike musical improvisations. This one has, I suppose, a social and political impetus to it. I'll just read one piece of it.

For a fortnight you speak to me
from the furthest lake, each encounter
along its glazed perimeter. Nothing is dusty
because everything is dust. Experience
in transposition, a memory sets firm without
indifference, a phone on the hill blinks
in and out as we hang from a satellite.
At the hotel bar you wonder who pays
for a silver and rose underworld, as though
when he said spectacular, he meant it.

Demetrius Romeo: I always have a gut reaction after a poem, to ruin it by going, 'so what does it all mean?' Do you find that the way you communicate with your audience is different with poetry, than with music?

KATE FAGAN: Definitely.

Demetrius Romeo: How does it differ?

KATE FAGAN: I think music sets off a really different series of reactions in people, often very physical, even though I have had that at poetry readings as well - people being very moved by something that is appropriate to them or relates to their particular life experience or something they were feeling. A friend of mine said to me once, "I didn't know I thought that, and then I heard you read that and I realised I'd been thinking that all along," which was probably the highest compliment.

Demetrius Romeo: What project do you see yourself pursuing next? Are we currently in poetry mode or music mode?

KATE FAGAN: A little bit of both. What I'd really like to do now is get my solo album off the ground because I've written all the material for it and I've been working a lot over the last decade with the Fagans. I'm currently doing all the 'pre-' work for my album right now. Most of it's written. So that's the next big thing on the horizon for me.

Song: 'Joan of Arc' - The Fagans

The Fagans: March-April gigs confirmed

Saturday 13th-Sunday 14th March
Blue Mountains Festival, Katoomba
The Fagans appearing @ 11am (main stage) and 7pm (Guinness stage) on Saturday,
and 5pm (Clarendon Hotel) Sunday
Kate appearing @ 3pm (Clarendon Hotel) on Saturday

Saturday 20th March, 8.30pm:
The Fagans @ Brunswick Music Festival, Melbourne
East Brunswick Club Hotel
Bookings: (03) 9388 1460 Booking Number 23 (Festival bookings)
Internet bookings:

Wednesday 24th March:
10.00pm: The Fagans live on Late Night Live, Radio National

** Saturday 27th March, 8.00pm sharp **
The Fagans @ The Harp Hotel
900 Princes Highway, Tempe, 9559 6300, $15/$12
Opening set by Kate

Thursday 8 April - Monday 12 April (Easter):
National Folk Festival
Many gigs in many combinations!

Wednesday April 21, 8pm, Town Hall or Seymour Centre (venue tbc):
The Fagans @ benefit for East Timor and the Kirsty Sword Gusmao Foundation.