Sharron Kraus is a folk musician and singer whose solo work and collaborations offer a dark and subversive take on traditional music. Rolling Stone nominated her first album, Beautiful Twisted, as one of their critics’ top releases of 2002, and in the intervening period she has issued albums under her own name and in the company of like-minded musicians to wide acclaim.
Currently based in Sheffield, Kraus takes musical inspiration from her native America – she was born in the Bronx – as well as from Britain and from Wales in particular. Her current project is Friends and Enemies; Lovers and Strangers, an album of songs based on stories in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi to be released by Clay Pipe Music in May. In March she performed songs from the album with harpist Harriet Earis at ‘Prosiect Mabinogi’, a three-day event devoted to retellings and cultural interpretations of the stories at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Graham Tomlinson spoke to her following her appearance in Aberystwyth, and shortly before she was due to give a paper on her creative relationship with mid-Wales at a symposium in Cambridge on The Alchemical Landscape.
Graham Tomlinson: Where did your connection with Wales begin?
Sharron Kraus: I spent a year as a student at Aberystwyth way back. I’d started doing an undergraduate degree there but it was at the time when Maggie Thatcher was closing down departments she thought were a bit – I don’t know – useless (laughs). I was studying philosophy, and the courses that I’d initially hoped to be taking in my second and third year had been slashed and about two-thirds of the department were leaving. So I transferred and finished up my degree elsewhere, but was left with this feeling of having been cheated out of the three years I was hoping to spend there. Whilst I was there I didn’t realise that the place was really getting a hold on me, but after I left I was kind of haunted by the landscape.
I’d spent the weekends on the back of a motorbike going up and down the mountain roads and so that landscape imprinted itself deep into my subconscious – I remember having some quite vivid dreams in that landscape after I’d left. I used to visit some of my friends who’d been students there, but then as time went on and they left, I lost the connection there for a while. I regained it fairly recently with another visit to someone that I’d met through music, and at that point had a very emotional sense of being overcome by falling in love with the place all over again. That was the point I decided that if it were possible to move back, then I’d like to give that a go, and ended up spending three years in the hills just to the east of Aberystwyth.
And what was your first introduction to the Mabinogion?
I imagine it was in that student year when I was just devouring as much of the library at Aberystwyth University as I could – it was somewhere that I just jumped into and grabbed books, mostly on philosophy, but also on mythology and the occult. It was part of being somewhere where suddenly there were all these books that you never knew you wanted until you found them. But then when I moved back this time round, one of the things that I was doing was just trying to immerse myself in aspects of Welsh culture and that’s one of the obvious places to go in doing that. I started reading the stories and really paying attention to them, and I guess wondering what on earth is going on in some of them. I wanted to wrestle with them rather than just read them and move on.
Was there a particular story, or an image within one of the stories, that inspired you to make a first musical response?
The first thing that happened in starting to write was that I was reading the very first section in the First Branch where Pwyll is hunting and he finds the stag with the pack of white hounds on it; he chases them away and sets his own hounds on it. In the context of the rest of the story he’s someone who’s generally trustworthy and honourable and – OK, he’s sometimes impulsive – but that seemed like a really rash thing to do. I was puzzled by why he would have done that. If there’s a pack of hounds, there’s got to be a hunter somewhere, and that’s not a very honourable thing, so what’s going on?
Individual motivations are quite challenging in a lot of the stories.
At the beginning I was thinking that sometimes you just have to accept implausible characterisation in order for the plot to move forward. But I wanted more than that and I was hoping that I would find a way to understand it. The thing that then happened to me that made sense of that kind of mistake on a personal level was that I was up in Edinburgh and meeting a friend in the Scottish National Gallery. I think it was in April and it was just turning to Spring, and I was caught without sunglasses on a very bright day. I went into the toilets in the Gallery and I saw that somebody had left a pair of sunglasses by the sink. And in my mind I was thinking, ‘Oh, those would come in handy’ (laughs). Then I thought, somebody will come back for them so I’ll leave them. But then I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to be wandering round the gallery for a couple of hours. . .maybe, if when I come back in two hours, maybe I’ll take them’. I came back and I thought well, they’ve been there for two hours, why don’t I just take them? So I did take them and I was wearing them and making use of them. And I still have them, actually. Then it crossed my mind that I could have been wearing these stolen sunglasses wandering around Edinburgh and somebody could’ve come up to me and said, ‘You’ve stolen my sunglasses!’ At which point I would have been in the parallel scenario. And hopefully it wouldn’t have been the Lord of the Otherworld (laughs).
It’s interesting you made the connection with Pwyll’s actions.
It struck me that I’m not a dishonest person, I tend to care about doing the right thing. But in that situation, it was fairly trivial and I’ve got to say, the sunglasses were fairly cheap, it wasn’t like a pair of designer ones. If they had been designer, expensive-looking sunglasses I would’ve just handed them in. But they were cheap and trashy, but still nice in a trashy kind of way. And very useful (laughs). So the idea was that sometimes we just do something that, on reflection, we might think isn’t right, but it’s only little and we give in to temptation because it doesn’t seem to really matter.
So having then got to that point and written one song, when did you start to think, ‘I can do something more with this?’
At that point I started to trust that if I was digging further with any of the other things that were a little bit mysterious, then I would find answers that made sense, rather than just recognising that there was nothing deeper to be found. I started thinking about writing as a process to thinking about some of the other characters. But again, it was another personal situation that prompted the next song, which is the song about Pwyll and Rhiannon, ‘The Hunter’. At the time I fell in love with someone who was just not a sensible person to fall in love with. It was exhilarating, but it was also this feeling of the things that we think of as stable – as being ‘This is who I am, and this is the way things are in my life’ – that when something like that happens, those things get shaken up. It’s not a new idea at all, it’s just that it was a more extreme version of it than I’d experienced before, so that then yielded the song. And at that point I was thinking, OK, when it’s a set of stories that’s as concise as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, two songs is on its way to being an album’s worth of material.
What I particularly like about ‘The Hunter’ is that you conflate the explicit hunting episodes which appear throughout the Mabinogion with Pwyll’s pursuit of Rhiannon on horseback – it conveys something of the character of the collection of stories as a whole.
Yes, and because of him being a hunter at the beginning, and because in the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd where he’s coming hunting and she meets him – it’s almost that there’s this strand running through in which hunting and love are connected.
But then there’s the interesting question about whether it’s the hunter who’s going to be taking the right approach to love, or the hunted. People talk about being ‘successful’ in love, but what I’m interested in is the difference between the pursuit of love that can be seen as something we can be ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ in, as opposed to something that we allow to take control. Not that we’re just playing at it and saying ‘I’m the kind of person who manages to fall in love’, but that the ways in which we open up to it can be dangerous, rather than just something that we do because it’s something that we want to do successfully.
Having made the decision that you could turn this into an album, did you then look at other artistic responses to the stories in the Mabinogi? Given that I’ve heard you talk about your own work in the context of hauntology, I’m thinking particularly of something like the 1969 TV production of The Owl Service.
I re-read The Owl Service, as well as Susan Cooper and Jenny Nimmo – there’s some really amazing children’s literature that’s either set in Wales or uses some of the characters from Welsh mythology. And Will Parker’s online translations and commentaries I found illuminating, so I wasn’t just reading the stories and responding to them in isolation. Also at some point towards the end of writing the songs but before I recorded them, I discovered Robyn Williamson’s soundtrack to the  theatre production, so I was listening to that.
Did you make any ‘false starts’ when writing the songs? Were there aspects of the stories that seemed to resist a musical response because they were too complex somehow?
The one thing that resisted being written was a song about Gwydion. I got to the point where I just couldn’t get inside him, I couldn’t make sense of who he was – he was too slippery, and maybe that’s something about the character that he is anyway. But the funny thing about it is that after finishing the album, a song started emerging so I now have a Gwydion song as well which we performed at the Mabinogi weekend. It fits with the others really nicely, but as yet it’s not been recorded.
Did you perform all the songs at the Mabinogi event?
Yes, there were ten songs altogether. We did them in order with little quotes from the stories – I’m reading them in English, Harriet’s reading them in medieval Welsh – to introduce each song. We performed the whole set like that and that seemed to work really well.
There’s a focus in particular in the songs on the female characters – Branwen, Rhiannon, Blodeuwedd are all referenced directly. Was that a conscious decision?
It wasn’t a conscious decision in terms of thinking about their gender. I guess all of the characters I wrote a song about were just characters I wanted to spend time getting inside. And veering away from the female characters for a minute, Efnysien was a really exciting and challenging task, because he just seems so evil, inexplicably so. My version of him [in ‘A Hero’s Death’] is someone who’s cast in the dark role as a result of having a sibling who’s the golden boy, so that’s my understanding of him.
But going back to the female characters, you tend not to have so much content to work with and their voices are less strong. So then the task is to try and get a sense of what would be going on for them. Especially with Branwen, you’ve got all this action taking place around her, and she’s not really doing very much.
She doesn’t really seem to be an agent of her own destiny – not at all in fact, and certainly not at the start of the story.
No, the only thing that seems to be her doing something for herself is training the starling. But to just get a sense of what it’s like to be her, that’s what I was wanting to do with that song. It’s a sad story, but I wanted to tell it in a way that made what happened feel less like a tragedy, if that makes sense. I wanted to tell it in a way that didn’t just cast her as a victim; I’m trying to have her as someone who is resigned to things happening a certain way. Whether it succeeds or not, I don’t know. But I got the sense that she’s the kind of person I could pick out of a group of people if I could have a chat with them – that instead of a line-up of suspects and you just have to pick them on their appearance, I could pick Branwen out through conversation or her demeanour.
Another character that I somehow wasn’t drawn to while I was writing but as a result of what came up last weekend [at Prosiect Mabinogi] in people’s talks and in the showing of Otherworld, the [S4C] animated film, I realised that I’d skimmed over Aranrhod. I didn’t get engage with her at all, and if anything she’s the strongest female character. So I’m not sure why I didn’t latch onto her, because I would have expected to in hindsight, but somehow I didn’t.
Are you planning to play the album in sequence again when you tour?
At this point I’m just organising a fairly random array of gigs. But my plan for the future is hopefully to take the songs to festivals and arts centres and as many venues as possible – together with Harriet and hopefully another singer as well – as a trio to perform the songs.
Inevitably there will be people coming to the album who’ll have no knowledge of the Mabinogi, but what would you hope that someone might take from the stories if they heard your album?
The main thing that I hope – and this is what seems to be happening when I’ve been playing the songs out live – is that I get people thinking, ‘Ah, I want to go away and read those’. People are asking lots of questions about the stories, and they’re definitely thinking about going and finding them. So that’s the main thing really. I want the songs to work as songs without people having to have done their homework, but if people like the songs and also want to go away and do some homework, then even better. And it’s not homework – the stories are so short, if you just spent a day, you could read all of the Four Branches and decide whether to spend longer with them or not. But it wouldn’t be a wasted day.
Friends and Enemies; Lovers and Strangers is available to pre-order from Clay Pipe Music and will be released on Monday 18th May. Sharron Kraus’s website and blog is at www.sharronkraus.com.