Interview: Kris Wilkinson Hughes on The ARC Tour with Kate Ellis and Anna Howie

Born in Louisiana but semi-Anglicised by over twenty years in the UK, the epitome of Americana UK.

If you were looking for a typical Americana UK artist then you would be hard pushed to find a better example than Louisiana-born Kris Wilkinson Hughes who has worked in Nashville and has been a member of Nashville-based For Kate’s Sake and the UK’s Cicero Buck and is currently working under the banner of My Girl The River with her husband, Joe Hughes, and their teenage daughter, Ruby. While Kris Wilkinson Hughes’s Louisiana heritage fits well with the americana genre, the UK aspect is perfectly captured by the fact that she has actually been a UK resident for over twenty years and currently lives in Bedford. Like many musicians, the pandemic provided both challenges and opportunities to Kris Wilkinson Hughes, and she used the time to develop a songwriting relationship with English singer-songwriter Anna Howie. Inspired by what Gretchen Peters did with Wine Women & Song, she has put together  The ARC Tour with Anna Howie and American Kate Ellis. Americana UK’s Martin caught up with Kris Wilkinson Hughes at her home in Bedford over Zoom to discuss The ARC tour, why she is using the tour as a fundraising event for charity, and whether she sees herself as still American or whether she has become  British.

Where did the inspiration for ARC Tour come from?

I’ve had this idea for quite a while, actually, but I never seemed to have the time to put together three women songwriters touring together, and it wasn’t to be a simple songwriter round where each songwriter played a song independently of the others but to actually play quite a few songs of each other’s work together. So we are all singing harmonies and contributing, but it is not an original idea because Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss, and Matraca Berg do it as Wine Women & Song and it is beautiful. I saw that show quite a few years ago, and it really just struck me what a great way to engage with an audience, and also you have a couple of mates on stage and the banter is really lovely. To have the songwriters just different enough in the voices so it just adds that je ne sais quoi, and while these women are on my albums, in order to hear how we sound as a trio singing for example ‘Cardinal In The Snow’, you have to come and hear it live, and it only exists on this tour in a live performance. It is even different to my ears, when we were rehearsing and you hear Anna Howie and Kate Ellis, who are the other two artists, singing I had to take a moment just to appreciate what I was listening to.

I started writing with Anna Howie and we were lockdown Zoom buddies, we would converse with each other and vent, and put the world to rights, and we would also collaborate a bit. I love the songs she was working on, and I thought Anna would be a lovely contributor and collaborator for this idea. I then did a support slot with Kate Ellis towards the end of 2021, and I felt like there was the third person. Her songs are beautiful, and her voice is very different from mine but not a hundred miles away from Anna’s, so I felt like there were the three sounds. Each has a different timbre and tone, and I asked them what they thought about me trying to book this thing. They were like yeah, and both of them have new albums out so it wasn’t a complete accident that this was the time to strike, haha. I’m really happy with it, the other two women are wonderful people and lovely artists, and we’ve done one show, haha. I think we had about 25 people in this really small room, and we treated it like an enhanced rehearsal because we knew we were going in with a few growing pains if you will, but it actually went really well. We had the feedback from the audience and it was just tremendous. One young woman said you are the new Highwomen, haha, and I was like if we can go that high, haha, it was certainly a compliment but a long way to fall if we don’t make it, haha.

We really, really enjoyed it and it has to start and stop with us enjoying the performing and those aspects of it, and singing on each other’s songs. We’ve thrown in a couple of covers and we will rehearse again as we’ve decided maybe another day of getting together and hashing out a few little more details and harmonies would be good. The dates are quite spread out, and booking this I would have had more luck finding the Holy Grail, haha, because it never failed when I sent out an email saying I’m booking this songwriters tour, and it is right up your street, and they would say they were sorry but all the Americans who cancelled six months ago are now plugging into this time on the calendar so we can’t help you now. That happened several times, so I am just sort of steely focused and dates are trickling in which is fine by us because the other two women are working on their promotion for their own albums.

Who came up with the new arrangements for the songs for the tour?

What we did a good two months out from our first date was we each sent the others three songs with harmonies recorded. We wrote the harmonies, and some of the songs already had harmonies, it was just a matter of you take that one, and you take this one. Some of the songs needed a third harmony, or it was an opportunity to create a part where the song didn’t have it. We each recorded separate tracks where the harmony was prominent for the high or the low with a mix, and it was quite involved really because we were doing it at a distance and we wanted to make sure everyone had what they needed. When everyone had had a good two or three weeks to listen and to learn we got together at Kate’s house about three weeks before the first show and we just started going through everything.

It was like let’s start on Kate’s songs and we sat there with our guitars, and initially, it was mostly voices and I was playing some guitar on one of Kate’s songs and some shaker. Our ideal performance will be when we have had a bit more time and Anna can play guitar, we will be adding more instrumentation but initially, it is the voices we felt we needed to focus on. That seemed to go well, and as I said another rehearsal wouldn’t go amiss. I’ll tell you the thing that really made me realise we needed to really work on this was if I have a show and I play an hour which is about ten songs, or maybe twelve of my own songs, but now you have got two forty-five to fifty-minute sets and you are singing on 75% of everything, we are not singing on every song but we are singing on a lot, suddenly your voice is getting twice the use. So the other thing I have to remember going into the tour dates is to really look after my voice, and build up my stamina. We do have some tour dates where we have two shows back to back, like a Friday and a Saturday, which is absolutely fine but we will definitely have to bear that in mind to give the second night an equal chance of having as good a performance as the one before, haha.

What is behind The 4th Chair fundraising idea which you are also doing on the tour?

I had this idea because a usual songwriters round has four songwriters in it, it is one song after another, and then it starts over, and I thought it is going to be three and I would really like this fourth chair to allow us to raise funds for a local charity, or perhaps the venue is the charity in itself if it is a community space or a food bank. It could even be our sponsor as we have a symbiotic relationship on this tour with ARC Radio, and they said they would help promote the tour and I noticed they were struggling a good few weeks back and there were shoutouts for help to try and keep this internet country station on the go. I said to them that maybe we could do a little bit of fundraising for you if we find ourselves in a venue that doesn’t mind what we fundraise for. It will also just allow, for example, a food bank or if a venue is in need of funds for repair or upkeep, and it is a great opportunity to get the audience to see what is happening in their community and where help might be needed. We will see how that pans out, and there may even be someone who represents that charity on the night who will be able to give a talk on whatever it is they do. Hopefully, that will prove to be helpful.

When you were putting the tour together, did you get a sense of the state of the venues following the challenges of the pandemic?

The strongest sense I got was the shear struggle the promotors, the agents, and the venues are having to try to accommodate this massive influx of requests for gigs, but then also having to accommodate the changes in scheduling for one or two tours back. We always have to be accommodating and grateful, but even more so now because I honestly feel like any date that we can get amongst all this turmoil and re-scheduling and just the desire to put on shows but not to wear out the audience, we are happy to take as long as we can accommodate the night. I have just had to be very understanding, and it is hard when you are the artist and you are doing that side of it. I’d really love someone else to do it, but maybe no one else can sell it like I can because I know exactly how it runs, I know where the idea came from, and I know what the venue and the audience will get on the night, haha.

It may still be early days, but are you making plans to have another tour after this one?

I feel like it’s something that will just keep growing. It is going to take a while for the reputation of it to spread through word of mouth, and I am making a little short promotional video, a little teaser from the first night. We filmed it and I will be sending that to promotors, and to venues and festivals. I envision initially it is probably going to be well into next year that dates will continue to come in, and then I suppose the three of us will sit down and decide is it the three of us always, it was my idea so do I offer it up to two different artists, or do we take it that step further and take it to Ireland, and take it to Holland. Maybe we record and we sit down and cherrypicked some of the songs or write together and do some recording. Obviously with our voices and how they blend I think it would be remiss of us not to capture some of it, but I think all of that should be looked at in good time. I know from the response on the first night it is definitely something people will enjoy, and it is worth our time to do it, I just have to keep putting it under people’s noses and keep saying “Would you like this?”. I think I’m doing everything right and everything I can, and I would love to see it continue, but there again one of these ladies may find that she becomes a very busy artist and I may have to fill a seat out of necessity, time will tell, haha. I have lovely thick cotton printed merch bags that say “The ARC Songwriters Tour 2022” so we have to go along enough for me to sell those bags, haha.

You’ve mentioned you are just back from a trip to America, how do you see yourself these days, are you British or American, or something in between?

That is a great question, haha. I am definitely American, I love going home and I absorb it like a sponge. I still miss it terribly and my family is still in the Deep South. I feel like I’ve fallen through the cracks of americana because I’m American and I’m an artist but I don’t live there so I don’t get the air miles to come over and play, it is not quite so glamourous or exciting to say, ”I drove down from Bedford”, haha. It is quite funny, but I find my feet and I’ve been here almost twenty-two years and I don’t think of myself as British, but when I go home everybody says I sound British, and when I come back here everyone says I sound American, so what can I do, haha.

How much has the UK influenced your songwriting?

Possibly. I suppose I haven’t really thought of it. I find myself influenced more than ever by folk artists and americana artists, whereas once upon a time I was very much a folk pop rock artist. With Cicero Buck, there was a little bit more rock & roll going on with some pop, but that is not to say I don’t still write like that. I feel like I’m a woman of many hats and there are other projects in my brain that are going to have to come out at some point. It is nice to hear, for example, Anna Howie’s record,  and she is very much a British writer and it is really lovely to hear her interpretation and her take on things. Having said all that, I was always a massive anglophile. I loved all the music, all the Manchester music, all the dance music, and to discover artists like Nick Drake, it is all there, and maybe it does come out. I’ve written with Polly Paulusma, and Polly is quite a quintessentially English poet, writer, and interpreter and I absolutely adore what she does. Funnily enough, she gave me an open tuning that Anaïs Mitchell uses a lot, and Polly is all about a lot of different tunings. I’ve started a new album and I’ve written a song in this open tuning which sounds so completely different, so yeah, maybe there is a little bit of this influence going on and I’m not even aware of it, haha.

Who are the artists who still inspire your own music?

I love Patsy Cline, I love that style and the simplicity, and of course, a song like ‘Crazy’ that was written by Willie Nelson, but it is the simplicity and fact that sometimes a song can be that impactful. I love Crowded House very much, Neil Finn is one of my favourite writers, and there is a North Carolina writer called Jonathan Byrd who is a friend of mine, and we played some shows over many years, and I have a lot of his albums. He is a wonderful songwriter and I always feel I can learn something by going back and listening to him. One of the reasons I recorded ’Cardinal In The Snow’ with Neilson Hubbard was because of the sound of Mary Gauthier’s album ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’. Those songs are incredibly impactful and there is such a truth to them. I’ve come to really enjoy Brandi Carlile, and we are going to see her in Colorado in September when we are doing a three-week way out west driving holiday. I feel her albums just go from strength to strength, to strength. I still love a lot of the old soul music and blues, I find myself listening to a lot of different things and those styles hit a spot that I’m not aware of, a sub-conscious thing, and I then go off and write something and I will wonder where did that thing come from, and I can trace it back to listening to Lead Belly, or something.

Are you looking forward to the Black Deer Festival?

We are so excited, all roads lead to Black Deer at this point. We are two months out and we started working on our setlist yesterday. This is the third year lucky, we were invited in 2020 and in 2021, haha, so to make the cut for 2022 with all the travelling international artists making their way back into the country is incredible. We are so grateful to Gill and the team, and Bev, for keeping us on the roster, and there is just going to be a little grease spot where we used to stand, we are going to give it our absolute all and give the people a show to remember. We are so excited and I hope it will be a beautiful weekend but I don’t think people will really care. I’ve just been thinking as well, there is a really lovely writer, Lori McKenna, who you can trace around and find she has co-written this with this and that person, she is an amazing songwriter. James is headlining on the Friday, the day we are playing, and I remember many, many years ago living in downtown Nashville before it is what it is today, they had an Irish pub called Shanna Key and it was this beautiful corner building with four stories, and they were celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day and I did a set of my own songs, and then I did ‘Sit Down’ by James just because I could, haha. I’ve always been a fan, so that is going to be wonderful, that will be a real highlight of the day because we will have played our set, and we will be able to just go off and listen to everybody. That is the other thing about it, what an incredible line-up, and hopefully here is to next year, and next year, and next year, haha.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I am enjoying Anna and Kate’s albums, I must say, mind you I would be in trouble if I wasn’t, haha, thank goodness I think they are lovely. As I said, I think Brandi Carlile’s album is wonderful, ‘In These Silent Days’, and John Batiste who has just won all the awards. I mean, what a ray of sunshine and joy, and energy, I think everyone would do well if they went out and listened to him and try and find that ray of sunshine amongst all those hard moments that life is throwing at us at the moment.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I do just want to thank them because Mark Whitfield has been lovely to me over many years, and thank you so much for buying or streaming the music. Please grab a ticket if you are interested and sharing is caring so let your friends know if you like us. I have always felt in good hands on Americana UK. Americana UK is a true passion project that Mark had all those years ago when we first met him, and it is wonderful to see it become one of the go-to forums for interviews, tours, and album reviews. It is a good place to find stuff out and read about it. Finally, just enjoy your summer of music, we are finally getting those tickets and those tickets will actually be used. Have a brilliant time, get out of your seat, and dance if you want to, haha.

Dates for The ARC Tour can be found  here.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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