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Taking the artistic freedom of a residency to explore musical styles


Meet Holly Clarke

Holly Clarke grew up surrounded by folk music in Coniston, Cumbria. Her family were big music fans with their house full of different styles. However, they always gravitated toward folk.

“My dad was a musician and a woodworker. We would always be noodling on guitars and learning chords,” says Holly. “My home was a creative space.”

Not being attached to one region is integral to her work as a singer and guitar player. She composes traditional music of the British Isles and occasionally Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but with a contemporary edge.

“The core of what I do is storytelling. If I can tell the story correctly through the music, I can view myself as a traditional singer and musician,” she says.

Holly’s trio, Holly and the Reivers, are influenced by the niche genre of folk horror films. The name Reivers represents rebellious raiders from the Scottish and Northumberland borders from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th.

“I’m from Cumbria. Bertie, who plays the banjo, is from Newcastle. Merle is from Scotland. Folk horror heavily influences us,” says Holly. “We like to express that vibe you get from films like The Wickerman and The Lighthouse. Our music can be cinematic.”

When Holly started listening to folk music at school, her friends thought it was strange. Back then, some associated folk music with an older generation, but Holly believes that’s changing.

“I didn’t have many musical opportunities growing up. My school gave me as much as possible, and I’m thankful,” she says. “They allowed me to have gigs; they kept the music room open after-hours, but really I was self-taught.”

In 2011, her mum discovered there were folk programmes based at Sage Gateshead.

“It became apparent that I had to travel,” she says. “Other people came from York and Scotland.”

A Folkestra workshop at Sage Gateshead ignited passion. Holly booked a gig for one of her biggest American heroes, Sarah Watkins, from the band Nickel Creek. She was performing on her solo UK tour.

“It changed my life. I got to meet her afterwards. I didn’t know what to say, but I gave her a recording of me singing one of her songs,” she says.

Holly moved to the North East so she could be part of the Folk and Traditional Music degree at Newcastle University. She first performed at Sage Gateshead in January 2016 as part of her studies.

“I completed my final recital here. Then, I started working with the Artist Development team and got offered my first proper gig: New Year, New Artists,” she says. “That led to a support slot for a sell-out Billy Brag gig in Sage One.”

“I did it with Holly and the Reivers. I’ve never been more terrified, but it was the biggest adrenalin rush,” says Holly. “I ended my support slot with an unaccompanied, ancient ballad. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Holly Clarke playing a guitar on stage

Moving to the next level in the music industry is challenging. Funding is available, but many artists apply for the same support.

“There’s not enough money in the industry for deserving musicians. It makes it cut-throat and highly competitive,” Holly says.

In 2019, Holly became an Artist in Residence at Sage Gateshead. She gathered traditional material through a big ensemble and composed a new soundscape for historical songs and her own compositions.

“I remember feeling honoured. I wanted to bring Neoclassical, Americana and Irish styles together in a melting pot,” says Holly. “It was brilliant that Sage gave me space to explore music and a different way of presenting it to an audience.”

The pandemic struck halfway through her residency, but eventually, Holly performed her showcase last June in Sage One.

“I’ll never forget it; it was magical. All of the work came together. I went from a workshop participant to playing Sage One.”

If you want to help Sage Gateshead support artists like Holly, and continue improving lives through music, consider making a gift to our fundraising campaign.

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