An Interview With Contemporary Folk Singer-Songwriter Kate MacLeod & Look At Her Newest Single ‘The Secret Forest Lament’

If you are in need of a sound that fills you up like food for the soul, then look no further. Kate MacLeod has you covered. 

Having released her first debut album in 1995, MacLeod has steadily built up her career in the world of Americana folk music as an authentically driven contemporary singer songwriter with a traditional spirit. Her style has covered a vast array of genres from Bluegrass to Celtic to Eastern European, and her voice has taken her far and wide from Switzerland to California, where she accepted the 2019 Best of the West Award by the Far-West division of the International Folk Alliance. 

MacLeod’s voice can easily put you in a trance: slinking its way through your bones and slowly releasing every tension in your nerves. Then, before you know it, her voice has left nothing but peace in its wake. It’s no wonder why she’s been compared to icons like Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. MacLeod compliments her soft, dreamlike voice with her talents in acoustic guitar, harmonica, and fiddle to produce a feeling of nostalgia and warmth that challenges us to take a pause in our busy schedules, look up from our screens, and relish in the calm of a summer day in the sun.  

Listening to her music, you can’t help but become completely immersed in the stories she tells, whether that be of a forsaken love, a beloved homeland, or the search for where the magic happens. And through it all, MacLeod makes a point to remind you of where you’ve come from and to see the hope in where you’re going.

On July 17th of this year, Macleod released her newest single “The Secret Forest Lament.” Similarly to her 2014 album, the single is based on a book that has inspired her. The song opens with a sense of haunting allure that is in a slight contrast to her usual harmonious aura. Basically if the Hunger Games’ “Hanging Tree” had a second cousin, this would be it, but instead of it being a song for the people, it’s a song for the trees. The march of a drum and a male harmony that arrives like a ghost in the night leads us into a line that feels all too much like a warning, “We can bury our past, but don’t be surprised if the forest comes looking for us.”

What is MacLeod trying to say you might ask?

Well, we had a chance to discuss with MacLeod all about her new single as well as her inspirations, insights, and more.

So what has influenced you to build your career as an Americana folk singer-songwriter?

Influences for being an Americana musician have changed over time. My career has gone though many stages, and a re-commitment was made each step of the way. The term “Americana” was not being used when I started out. I remember when that term became solidified, and I like it.

In the beginning years for me, other people in my region were recording my songs, and I was often asked to perform them on my local radio station. This went on for a long time before I considered recording my own music in any way, and it was many years while I worked, played music, and raised a family, before I became a full-time musician. I’m a musician who has taken the influences of traditional American, Celtic, early Country, Bluegrass, and Old Time, and in a natural way put my own spin on them all. That to me is the definition of Americana. It’s a genre in which I can be both true to tradition, experimental, and simple in a country kind of way. All of our music is important to me. It’s part of our collective culture, and I feel strongly that one of my roles as a musician is to keep it alive and current.

My goals have been toward creating meaningful music, learning to be a better musician, and sharing it with others. I want all of my neighbors to love music, and to play fiddle tunes on their porch. I’ve kept working over the years, at every new stage examining my decisions, and have become more committed over time. People have had a lot to do with my commitment to it, such as all of those who sing my songs, the people who are patrons, and those who remind me of who or what I am when I wonder (my closest friends).

What artists, would you say, have played a significant influence on you as a musician and songwriter?

There are so many influences, and from different genres. Genius and courageous acts of music have always moved my heart, and so do the lives of musicians. For me, it goes way back to Bach, Schubert, Hildegard of Bingen, and the book Songlines. I’ve learned the most from traditional music…what makes a song live for generations?

Time bridges to now, where I am influenced by the recent and or living people such as Jean Ritchie (who passed away in 2015) and especially those I know personally and have worked with such as Tim O’Brien, Skip Gorman, and pianist Robin Spielberg. There is a long list of great artists that I admire in the Americana genre, names that we all know, but for this interview I’d like to stress that the personal connections are always where I learn the most useful things in the realms of both musicianship and in music business. Mentoring, advice, and playing with the best musicians I can work with, are all important parts of development.

Musically, I’m influenced by everything that I hear, in one way or another, as are most of my music friends. But I think I’ve struggled some business-wise in that I don’t always fit within a specific genre, which creates a problem in marketing. For instance, I don’t know what genre “The Secret Forest Lament” really fits into, but it clearly is a culmination of so many things I’ve heard.

It’s safe to say that by now you are an experienced writer. Can you walk us through your songwriting process?

My songwriting process has not changed much since the beginning. That’s what “got me into this mess” as I joke about. It comes very naturally to me, songs appear in my mind every day and from out of my sleep. I keep sound files of the ideas, I don’t like to let them disappear. I like to summarize stories into a song, or a book into a song, or an experience into a song. Although, the important note here is that I’ve learned much from other writers, mostly in the area of editing. Editing is an extremely important step in any act of creation or design. My editing and arranging have matured over the years, due some to experience, but primarily due to all of the workshops I’ve been involved in for songwriting, both those I’ve attended and ones I’ve taught.

Most of us instructors agree that we learn as much when we teach as the students do. And I’m talking about the editing of both the lyrics and the music. There are some songs that I sing over and over, then I realize I don’t like where that melody is going, so I alter it some. I replace words from time to time. Give the song some time, and let it become itself. In a way we should be a song gardener, pruning the song so that it grows to a point where it is focused and strong.

Are there any moments in your career that you continue to look back on fondly?

Any time that I have worked with other amazing musicians, I recall with fondness. That includes many people. What musicians may lack in security of career and other expectations, is often made up for in richness of experiences. Our travels are important, seeing the world as a musician is a feast. I especially like to create music based on my travels and share it with the people who were involved. In picking an example of fondness, I’d have to say that the time I worked with Charles Sawtelle was pivotal. He helped me with my first two recordings, while he was struggling himself with cancer, and eventually died from it. Charles was/is an extremely funny, smart, and gifted person, and really did help me despite myself. I still remember him talking about always shining his boots before a show, and I don’t go on stage without thinking about that, with a Texas accent.

For months now you’ve been performing virtually for your weekly “Sing Your Heart Out Online Sing-In” on Facebook and YouTube. What’s been the greatest adjustment for you going from live shows to livestreamed shows?

I do miss being involved with events. But in the meantime, due to the pandemic, I’m really enjoying the streaming format. The biggest challenges with the streaming are the technological issues and the irregularity of the streaming experience. It can be frustrating and sometimes discouraging, as there are many factors going into it.

Over time, I’ve collected the equipment that works for me and am continually learning about the technology. I think streaming is a great avenue for sharing music. My show is not a formal concert, it’s a music sharing time. Every week is a different subject and collection of songs. Once a month, it’s a fundraiser. It’s been an amazing experience and has propelled me into new ways of practicing, and I spend much time researching music. About teaching lessons online, I don’t seem to like that very much, because in my teaching practice I’ve always played with my students 80% of the lesson time, which can’t easily be done in online formats. Musicians everywhere are waiting for someone to come up with a format that will allow us to play music together online in real time.

Your latest single “The Secret Forest Lament” is based off of Charles Bowden’s book The Secret Forest. For those who don’t already know, could you describe the meaning behind the song and what inspired you to create it?

As a musician who contributes music and time to activist organizations, I’m often moved by books such as The Secret Forest, for which I expound on in my own medium of music. The book is an environmental piece, it’s a lament for the loss of the Dry Tropical Forest in Mexico (but speaks to the loss of all forests) and the accompanying loss of the indigenous people who lived with the forest for generations.

My response to the book came easily in writing the song, from the first chapter I began to taking notes. The production of the song itself was a place to convey the depth of the issues, specifically with the many layers of percussion that were used in the music production. There are only three musicians in this production, but it sounds like many more are involved. The subject matter called to my mind a complex and mysterious sound, to mirror that of a living forest. The lyrics are summarized from phrases and concepts in the book and I made an effort to maintain the balance of beauty, sadness, and anger that exist in the book itself. I also adore the chance to bring to attention other works that I think should be shared, so it’s a pleasure to promote the book while sharing the song.

This also isn’t the first time you’ve written a song based on a book. Your 2014 album was compiled of songs entirely based on different books and was actually recorded live during a concert in a bookstore. (Very cool, by the way.) What is it about books that draws you to write songs about them? 

It’s been going on for decades, I think my first song about a book was written in the 1980s, “Blue Highways”, based on the book Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. I think a story can be told in any form that has words, so a book can be a song. And I hear melody from a book, I’m weird that way. I know soon when I’m reading a book, if there is a song in it for me to bring out, and when I notice that I take notes along the way, with references to page numbers. I’ve enjoyed the friendships I’ve made with some authors through this process.

Is the single a sign that your fans should expect more music from you soon?

Yeah! I’ve got a lot of music in my back pocket, ready to go. The downtime during the pandemic we’re currently experiencing has afforded me time to work on finishing up other projects that have been in the works. Funds collected through my Patreon.com patron support keep the projects moving that might otherwise be stalled these days. I have a full-length recording project in the last stages of production. It will be released within the next few months if I can figure out how to effectively release a significant piece of work during these times. In addition, I’ve really enjoyed working on this new single, so I’ve got a few more songs in cue for the same process.

What have you always hoped fans would take away from your music?

I’d like people to connect their real lives with what I compose, but also to sometimes learn about something new, such is the difference between one of my love songs, and my song about Butch Cassidy. I’d like people to hear the music and say to themselves, “I want to play along with this, maybe I’ll learn this song.” Music makes people feel better for the most part, either by listening or by playing. Reach a heart in a good way and you’ve done a good thing.

What advice would you offer someone who is just now taking flight in the folk side of the music industry?

Well, the label of ‘folk’ is a word that is used by others more than myself, because it’s a word that is sometimes marginalized by the larger music business, and is also attached in peoples’ minds to a specific era of music. But aside from that, in talking about it, I would say that my advice is to be true to yourself, and be true to where the music lies in your heart and ears. Don’t try to be exactly like some other artist that influenced you, as the people who rise out of the norm are those who usually have something to offer that no one else has, their unique voice. I also suggest to start a Roth IRA now, not later, really, do this, every time you earn a dollar, put some of it away for getting old and living well. That’s my 2 cents.

Photo by Jeanette Bonnell

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