By David Hennessy
Cork singer-songwriter Polly Barrett, acclaimed as the new darling of folk-pop when she released her debut album Mr Bookshop in 2012, is back with a new album, Probably Me, that is already receiving huge support from the BBC and other media. The interesting collection of songs includes a fantasy retelling of the story of Jack the Ripper only in Polly’s tale, the killer is stopped by vigilante action.
Polly explains to The Irish World why she went from writing personal songs to something so far removed: “I had written about a lot of my own experiences, mostly my love life, and I sort of felt like I had kind of exhausted that area and I wanted to try some new avenues so I decided to look into history and some things I could write about there.
“I also wrote The Greater Good based on the first world war. Those two songs were my attempt at sort of looking at something that wasn’t necessarily personal to me but something that interested me.
“I really liked the idea because I found it really intriguing that Jack the Ripper wasn’t caught and he stopped killing, no one knew why, and I thought: Wouldn’t it be really cool if actually what happened was there was this big vigilante movement that cancelled him out and he stopped killing because he was killed himself? I like that idea. It’s a gory but a happy ending.
“I made up the character of Mary Kelly’s (Jack’s final victim) sister who wanted revenge and she’s the one who actually does the deed in the song. She didn’t actually exist. Mary Kelly, as far as I knew, didn’t have any known family. It’s not a theory that has any basis only my own imagination.”
There are many theories out there about who Jack the Ripper was and why he stopped killing. Which one does Polly subscribe to? “Having actually done some research on it, I came across a theory which I think is probably what happened and that is that Jack the Ripper was actually a woman, possibly the wife of the doctor (Dr T Neill Cream) who was suspected of being Jack for a while because apparently in all the cases, the women were killed and then opened up and had various organs taken out, particularly the sexual organs. In all the cases in history where those kinds of murders are committed, it’s been a woman and it’s been a sort of a weird uterus envy, a woman who couldn’t have children so it’s that kind of thing. There’s no case of a man ever committing a crime like that so it does look like that is more likely.”
What drew Polly to such a topic? “It probably was some time I had spent in London. I had visited the London Dungeons and there’s a whole section there to do with Jack the Ripper and stuff like that. It’s one of those things which has always appealed to me because it’s really creepy, it’s really scary but also really mysterious and interesting. Can you imagine being a woman living in London at that time and knowing that person was out there and you were a potential victim all the time? It’s terrifying.”
Polly also mentions there The Greater Good which deals with war with mournful regret that comes through in lines like ‘you don’t know and it’s not your fault that you and your brothers have you to leave’ and ‘little boy, you won’t see 22, you might not even make it to 17’. This is aptly timed being centenary year: “What kind of inspired that was I went to see a film, The King’s Speech, and there’s a scene in that where a married couple are sitting listening to the radio and it’s announced that war is breaking out and just at that moment their son comes into the room and he’s sort of 17 and you kind of see them look at him and look at each other and you realise what that means for them as a family, not just as a country.
“Certainly in the First World War, so many people went off never to come back and a lot of them knew what they were getting themselves in for. They knew the chances were they weren’t going to survive this and the fact that there was no choice involved with conscription and the fact that you’re fighting somebody else’s battle. A lot of these people had no idea of politics, of any of the stuff that was going on between countries at that time and it was so so sad that people end up fighting wars for ‘the greater good’.
Born in Kinsale, Polly grew up in Crosshaven. Since the release of her last collection, she has toured the UK and Ireland extensively. She has spent much time in the UK as her mother was from Essex and Polly herself studied at Rose Brufod College in Kent where she earned a BA in Actor-musicianship. Although Polly is based in Cork, the UK has been kind to her as it is where she has appeared on bills with Agnes Obel, KT Tunstall and Cara Luft.
“The UK is definitely where I’m focusing most of my energy, you’ve got a much better audience for folk music over there, a much better audience for original stuff, people are a lot more willing to go out and listen to people they haven’t heard before. It’s a great place. I don’t know why I don’t move there. I am half English so I have loads of family over there. I was in England for the first time when I was three weeks old and I went to university in London for three years.
Although Mr Bookshop and Probably Me are very similar in style, the progression is noticeable with a more complete sound to Polly’s latest album: “Mr Bookshop was very much all me, that was all my ideas and on a smaller budget and over quite a long period of time. I was in the studio when I could afford to be in the studio and I wasn’t really working with a producer, I was producing it myself with the engineer who wouldn’t really call himself a producer either. We were just trying to arrange the songs as best we could with the instruments I had at my disposal whereas this time I met Scott (Poley), the producer of Probably Me on tour last year.
“He was working with another musician that I’m a big fan of, Cara Luft the Canadian singer-songwriter, and when he sort of mentioned he would be happy to do my new album, I just knew it was the right thing. It was a very different approach. I went over there, we recorded it in one week and he played a lot of the instruments on the album. He had some amazing ideas, we had very similar tastes in music and very similar ideas of where we wanted the album to go so it was a completely different way of working. And also, I think it is a lot more like me, my actual musical taste and creativity comes through a lot better in Probably Me than it did in Mr Bookshop just because I was learning really with Mr Bookshop.
“I can hear that now when I listen to Probably Me, it actually sounds like I feel like I sound when I sing it whereas with Mr Bookshop, I didn’t feel that came across so well.”
Although the new album was recorded in Liverpool, did Polly have time to enjoy the city? “Hardly at all, we spent every day from breakfast until 10 or 11 at night in studio so I went for one drive, through the city, was pointed out various landmarks and then taken back to the studio then,” she laughs.
“With the whole musical history that is in Liverpool, people sort of say: ‘Oh wow, you recorded in Liverpool? What was it like?’ But in truth, I was in the suburbs in a studio so it could have been anywhere. Scott Poley was the draw, not Liverpool.”
Mr Bookshop was done on a small budget and so she recorded it over a year and a half: “It was quite a long process whereas this one was really quick. When you’re working so intensively in a studio, you work a lot better because your work is constantly in that working mindset and so you’re much more creative and you don’t have to take any time to get back into it like you do if you’re going in and out. All that was on my mind was the album and recording so it was great.”
The new album also includes Polly’s interpretations of well known numbers P Stands for Paddy and Anachie Gordon: “That’s the beauty of folk music I think, taking something making it your own and passing it on to somebody else.”
Polly studied to be an actress at Rose Bruford College and does acting in commercials in addition to her music. Short commitments like these projects suit well with her schedule of recording and gigging: “Obviously if a major part in Game of Thrones or something like that came up, I would be taking it but that’s not on the cards.
“It happened to me a couple of times when I was busking around in Cork City that someone would come up and say: ‘Did you know that there’s a girl on an ad who looks exactly like you?’ And I’m like: ‘Really? Wow, that’s amazing’.”
Probably Me by Polly Barrett is out on September 22. For more information, you can go to www.pollybarrett.co.uk, go to https://www.facebook.com/pollybarrettmusic and https://twitter.com/polly_barrett.