NE day many years ago Kate Stables’ father returned from a car boot sale with a novelty item under his arm. A collector of musical instruments, esoteric and otherwise, he’d spied a banjo amid the bric-a-brac and stumped up on the spot.
At home his daughter, an aspiring songwriter, picked it up and started strumming. She liked how it sounded — warm but with an edge, familiar yet with hints of the open road.
“My dad acquires musical instruments from sales,” Stables explains, “A one point he got a banjo. I started writing on it.”
Fans of contemporary English folk-rock will bowled over by the music Stables records as This Is The Kit. Wispy and just the right side of ethereal, she has, across a 12-year career, taken her place alongside Laura Marling and The Unthanks at the top table of acoustic British songwriters.
Among her prominent fans, Elbow’s Guy Garvey was such an enthusiastic cheerleader that he fronted a BBC radio documentary in which he argued her 2010 LP, Wriggle Out The Restless, deserved a Mercury Music Prize nomination (it didn’t receive one).
The secret ingredient to her writing, it can be argued, is its intensity. There’s an edge to her playing and, especially, her voice that keeps at bay the tweeness often an unfortunate byproduct of middle-class, home counties types donning waistcoats and bashing banjos.
Her journey has, moreover, been circuitous and then some. It is a supreme irony that Stables had to move to Paris in order to hone a distinctly British sound.
“Living in a foreign country widens your perceptions a bit,” she says, “I’m not saying that not living in a foreign country narrows your perceptions. But you’re used to meeting new people in new countries — for me, I found that I’ve learned stuff.”
Her songwriting reaches a new peak with her latest album, Moonshine Freeze. Staples reunites with John Parish (a frequent collaborator with PJ Harvey) and Aaron Dessner, guitarist with The National and a producer with whom she has worked in the past (This Is The Kit supported The National at 3Arena in 2013).
The record, moreover, brims with fascinating juxtapositions. On the title track, for instance, her crystalline, folky voice interweaves with urgent indie guitars and gothic saxophone. Seek it out and slap it on: it’s mesmerising and a little unnerving too.
Stables is independent with a vengeance and approaches her life in music as an ongoing adventure rather than a profession.
“I don’t think of it as a career in any way. Maybe I’ve sort of taken a simpleton’s viewpoint. I write songs and play gigs. If people are still booking me for gigs, I’ll keep doing them. It’s a job I have chosen to do on whatever scale is appropriate. It feels pretty wild.”
That’s despite signing to Rough Trade, the influential UK record label that has sprinkled stardust on The Strokes and The Libertines.
“It makes a different profile-wise,” she says. “They’ve a much larger web of awareness. They have a bigger team in terms of promo and telling people about what you do. Mostly, they’re really great to work with.”
Stables was raised in leafy Winchester in the south of England. Middle class and sensible, Winchester wasn’t the most inspiring place to grow up. But she is proud to have come from there.
“I had a very happy childhood and amazing friends. It nourished me in whatever way a home town nourishes you. A lot of people don’t have a great time.They find it boring or get involved in drugs. You could probably say that of any small town. For me it was a good place.”
- Moonshine Freeze is out now. This Is The Kit play Cyprus Avenue Cork on Tuesday January 16 and Whelan’s Dublin Wednesday January 17