Interview with Katharine Blake of Miranda Sex Garden
Two Blakes in One
by Beth Winegarner
As someone whose music has been compared to the Spice Girls, Katharine Blake is decidedly optimistic.
Blake — co-founder and vocalist for Miranda Sex Garden as well as the music director for the Mediaeval Baebes — resembles a Spice Girl about as much as, say, Trent Reznor.
Nevertheless, the Baebes, a group which Blake assembled from friends who wanted to get together and sing medieval secular music and plainsongs, were hailed as “classical music’s answer to the Spice Girls” by the British media.
“We’re a bunch of friends. We love singing together and we love performing. We want to dress like princesses and cavort around, and I think that’s sort of timeless,” Blake says. “Also it’s a very good gimmick. When we were compared to [them]; that’s quite a bland comparison, but it did us a lot of favors and helped us get a lot of headlines.”
These days, Blake shares her time equally between the Baebes — which released its third album, “Undrentide,” in Europe in April — and Miranda Sex Garden, released its latest, “Carnival of Souls,” in July. Although Blake’s been focusing most of her energies on the Baebes since founding the group in 1996, she was offered the opportunity to make a new MSG album for Sugardaddy Records and couldn’t resist.
“There’s a bunch of material [MSG] wanted to get out, and about a year ago this bloke called Nigel Sharman asked me if I had any projects I was interested in doing,” Blake says. “We put together a label and put out an Miranda Sex Garden album. I enjoy Mediaeval Baebes, but it’s nice to do something that’s quite opposite as well.”
In fact, it’s that dichotomy between the classical and the modern which fuels Blake’s musical life, and has since she was a young girl. She was born in London in 1970 into a musical family where both parents worked as teachers. Her father also performed as a jazz trumpeter, and Blake was raised on classical and jazz music.
“I take that knowledge and put it into more of a modern context,” Blake says, adding that she wasn’t especially influenced by pop music. “I think my expression comes from inside me rather than hearing something and thinking I want to try it.”
Miranda Sex Garden was founded in the late 1980s when Blake got together with two friends, Jocelyn West and Kelly McCusker, and began singing madrigals for spare change on London’s Portobello Road. They were discovered by Barry Adamson and invited to record an album, “Madra,” for Mute Records, which was released in 1991.
Subsequent MSG albums have become more and more modern, fusing jazz, classical, cabaret and experimental rock into a sound unlike any other. On 1993’s “Suspiria” — named for the film by Italian horror master Dario Argento — the group covers David Lynch’s “In Heaven (Everything is Fine);” on “Carnival,” the band delivers a rousing rendition of the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan.” Some songs approach the listener lightly, with Blake’s whispery soprano lilting over a wash of white noise; others are a cavalcade of sound, rhythm and chaos.
“A lot of people think there must have been some kind of higher plan in the way the band has evolved,” Blake says, “But things have happened for very normal reasons, which is why I like it. One day I was singing madrigals, the next I was jamming with my flatmates. The unpredictability of it keeps it unique.”
The members of Miranda Sex Garden left Mute and went their separate ways in 1995, but the core lineup from “Fairytales” has returned. Today, Miranda Sex Garden includes Blake on lead vocals, Trevor Sharpe on drums, Ben Golomstock on guitar, Teresa “TC” Casella on bass, Mike Servent on keyboards and Barney Hollington on violin.
Blake says “Carnival” feels more integrated than some of MSG’s previous work. “There’s more song structure than we’ve had in the past. It’s a lot more romantic; it flows better; it’s more sexy. I think we just got more relaxed with the medium. Initially it was kind of an experiment, with Elizabethan love songs, and then we started collaborating with rock musicians. I felt like there was a conflict between the elements, but when it worked it was quite astonishing and unique. Now we’re more relaxed and we can write better songs,” she says with a laugh.
One of the tracks, “Tonight,” is a sultry jazz number featuring Blake’s father Robin on saxophone and brother Andrew on trumpet. “I think they’re just fantastic musicians,” she says. “I admire their ability to improvise; they’re very elegant and very sophisticated.”
Another song, “Escape from Kilburn,” is an instrumental interpretation of the band’s exodus from the hellish neighborhood in London. “If you had been [there], you’d know why we want to escape. It’s in an area of London which is nice because it’s vaguely central, but that’s all you can say about it,” Blake says with a laugh. The song was written as a last-minute addition before the band went on tour; at the time they vowed to leave Kilburn for friendlier neighborhoods. “I like that [the song] implies the thrill of the chase.”
Although MSG plans to tour later this year, Blake’s immediate plans include more dates with the Mediaeval Baebes. The group’s first two releases, “Salva Nos” (Latin for “Save Us”) and “Worldes Blysse” both topped classical charts in Britain and Europe.
“Mediaeval Baebes started off with a bunch of friends singing for fun, but I think a lot of people find it hard to believe, because it was a completely uncynical exercise in spending time with your friends in a productive manner,” Blake says.
Blake would uncover medieval poetry, written in Middle English, French, Italian, German or Latin, and then puts the word to music. Although most of the Baebes have never had any professional singing experience, Blake says their amateur voices lend themselves well to the material.
“I figure they didn’t sing in operatic voices back in medieval times. It’s got an earthy, spiritual approach, yet it sounds like anyone could do it — and anyone can; it’s just that we are the only ones doing it, and presenting it in kind of a glamorous showbiz context,” Blake says. Both “Salva Nos” and “Worldes Blysse” have a soothing, melodic feel, evoking ancient churchyards and private sanctuaries.
For “Undrentide,” the twelvesome teamed up with Velvet Underground founder John Cale. For Blake, the exercise was both educational and unnerving. “I’m a massive Velvet Underground fan, and for that reason it was extremely exciting,” she says. “It was unlike anything in my previous experience. It was scary putting my work into someone else’s hands.”
Likewise, her feelings about the outcome — which pairs the Baebes’ melodic voices to unexpected rhythms, guitar and saxophone — are mixed. “I can see it reaching a broader audience,” Blake says. “Some of it’s fantastic; some of it isn’t my vision. It’s his vision. If somebody has a very strong idea, you’re going to end up not sharing his vision. Some of it I thought was inappropriate.”
However, Blake adds that she’d be willing to work with other producers in the future. “It’s healthy to cross-pollinate your ideas, whether or not you’re a hundred percent happy with the results,” she says.
In the past, she’s worked with a wide array of musicians, including a collaboration with Nick Cave on his “Murder Ballads” and “Let Love In” albums; with Alex Hacke of Einsturzende Neubauten (who produced MSG’s “Fairytales”) on his experimental cabaret album “Noctambule;” with composer Michael Nyman on “Prospero’s Books;” and performed on the soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s film “Blue.”
In recent years, Blake has also taken to singing cabaret songs at the Waikiki Lounge in London where her sets included versions of “Diamonds are Forever” and “Goldfinger” (which she performs naked and covered in gold paint). “I love the idea of just singing,” Blake says. “I love writing songs, but it’s quite traumatic, like giving birth. Here, I don’t worry about structure and some other person’s lyrics; I just sing it.”
Blake says that much of her life is taken up by music, and the rest is taking up by “partying. That’s my hobby,” she laughs. “I’m incapable of having a hobby because I get obsessive about it.”
This article was originally published in ROCKRGRL magazine
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