Sit ye down, weary internet traveller, for I bring to you a tale of epic proportions. In the first weeks of this blog’s existence, I interviewed the singer-songwriter, Ange Hardy, to find out more about the story behind her song, ‘What May You Do for the JAM?’ Within a few hours of its publication, I received a message from Daria Kulesh, a folk singer of Russian origin, very sweetly explaining that she had a few songs with interesting stories, too, and that she’d love to tell me all about them.
A true master of understatement (she’ll later tell me, during a harrowing tale about her family’s deportation under Stalin, that “life’s never easy”), it turned out that Daria’s “few songs” were an album’s worth, and that “interesting” didn’t even begin to cover it. Set for release in February, Long Lost Home is effectively a concept album that tells the story of her grandmother’s family, their aforementioned deportation from their homeland, and the ways in which they lived on in spite of the hardships. The album is also a story in and of itself – one that travels from London to Ingushetia, reunites long-lost relatives along the way, and will end up receiving an official launch at Cecil Sharp House on February 23, 2017 – the anniversary of the deportation. A lot to take in over a brief phone call, but – as you’ll see below – Daria Kulesh has a passion for storytelling, and a determination to get this tale told.
You’re based in London, your background is Russian, and yet you appear to have a Scottish accent. I’m already fascinated, Daria!
Haha! Well, I started singing in an Irish pub in Moscow. There are Irish pubs everywhere there, or at least pubs that are trying to be a bit of everything – Irish, Scottish, English. Even in the most remote parts of Russia you’ll find restaurants and pubs pretending to be everything at once – a kind of generic English, Scottish or Irish, with a dollop of the local culture thrown in for good measure. They play all kinds of music – Bellowhead, which I thought was quite impressive, right through to Riverdance. The pub that I sang in was slightly more Irish because there were quite a few expats around. There were a lot of Irish management consultants and investment bankers. Obviously it wasn’t anything like a proper Irish place, but they did tear up when I’d break into Molly Malone. I sang all the typical ones – the ones that would get me banned from most discerning Irish places.
And the Scottish side of things?
Well, I got into Scottish folk music mainly because there were quite a lot of bands around doing Irish tunes. My main source was Jean Redpath and a big collection of Robert Burns songs – about 12 CDs that I got from the Scottish Culture Centre, which was a really tiny room in a rundown office building. They had this lovely little library of music – tiny, but really rare. I’d also listen to songs on the radio and get them onto cassette, and when the piracy in Russia became so shameless, there was a massive market selling bootleg CDs. Literally outside my house you’d have people selling CDs that were second or third generation recordings – extremely homemade; no pretence at professionalism at all!
So I started singing these Scottish songs and I had a little band, most of whom have ended up as professional musicians, and we started getting gigs outside of the Irish pub at places like the British Embassy and British Council. I began volunteering at the Scottish Cultural Centre, and the more I worked there, the more I got to travel to Scotland, often working as an interpreter for Russian bands when they went abroad. I got to meet a number of Scottish musicians, too – I occasionally had to look after whole pipe bands!
From the Scottish Culture Centre, I “upgraded” to writing for a magazine called British Style, primarily music-related articles, and they sent me over to the UK in 2007 as a field reporter. I guess I’m a complete adventurer – nothing phases me – I’ll have a go at anything.
So you arrived here as a journalist?
Yes. I actually see myself more as a writer than a musician. Language has always been one of my main skills, but it’s really words and stories that are my main strengths. Even music and arrangements I see in a storytelling sort of way. I’m quite jealous of really intuitive musicians, especially being surrounded by all of those cool guys in The Company of Players [Daria also performs with folk band, Kara, and The Company of Players]. I’m just about catching up with them, but I feel I’m a little bit behind because they really feel music on a deep and intuitive level. I never had any formal training. My family are well educated, but not musical. It’s more literate – books and poetry. My uncle was different. There’s a song on my album about him called ‘Like a God’. He had a god-given talent as a musician and a dancer, but he chose to be a doctor. But I never attempted to learn an instrument until quite late in life. I saw myself as a singer rather than an instrumentalist. That was one of the lovely things about coming to the UK. It was much more encouraging. In Russia you’re either a professional musician or nothing.
Your new album is clearly an album based on storytelling. How did you go about writing it? There must’ve been a large element of research.
‘The Moon and the Pilot’ is the song that started the album and the first that I wrote, chronologically. There was a little bit of a precursor on my debut album, Eternal Child. There was a song that was really a bridge – a song called ‘Fata Morgana’, about my grandmother coming to me in a dream after she had died. Something that really shaped me, growing up, was talking to my grandmother. I found her completely fascinating. For the last five years of her life she was fighting cancer, so because the clock was ticking I had this sense of urgency to not just listen to her stories but to also write them down. I have stacks of diaries with all her stories written down in Russian. So, many of the songs on the new album, in their infancy, were written down in these diaries.
The second stage of writing the album was starting on ‘The Moon and the Pilot’. I picked up some photographs from my grandad. I don’t know why, but my grandmother never showed me any photographs, but my grandad made that connection for me years later. The moment I looked at these photographs, instantly I knew who everybody was – my grandmother’s stories had been so vivid. I really had a sense of every person and their main traits. My grandmother’s mother, who is depicted as the moon in the song, was described to me as having lustrous, incredible jet-black hair, white skin and sad eyes. And her dad had kind eyes, and seemed so patient; her own grandmother looked like a tower – angular, severe. But I saw their faces and it gave me another layer of reality. That’s when I started getting the idea for the song ‘Untangle My Bones’.
Did it take you long to start putting the songs together?
‘The Moon and the Pilot’ was written almost in its final state, within half an hour, and was ready for me to perform. You know, there are songs that take eons to edit and I almost never play them live, and some are there just instantly. I had a gig and a radio show within that week, and I played it at both. It was just there.
It sounds like quite an urgent composition. What was it about the song that grabbed you?
There was this very vivid sense of these people coming back, and of me bringing them back. There was this feeling of connection, as if I’d actually met them. So I thought, that’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell their stories. It sounds really pathetic, but I got a little spreadsheet together in Excel, a list of potential songs that I hadn’t written yet, but some of them already had names, such as ‘The Hazel Tree’. I knew immediately that my grandmother would have the symbol of the hazel tree, because that’s what they planted on her grave. It’s a symbol of resurrection – of how she survived and carried on through the most terrible things. ‘Like a God’ was also a title before the song was around.
The whole album feels like a concept album. If that’s the case, what do you think the concept is?
That’s very difficult to say. It’s definitely a celebration of my grandmother’s homeland, and me trying to return it to her, and trying to return her to her homeland. And it’s something I feel I’ve succeeded in. The complicated part of my family’s history is that, following Stalin’s deportations of the Ingush people, my grandmother was disowned by her brother, and he was in charge of the family – he told everyone else what to do. Her father, ‘the pilot’, was long gone by then. My grandmother marrying my grandfather was quite undesirable, and her brother in particular never forgave, and never will forgive I think, which is really sad. But his children have really welcomed me on this journey.
What was so undesirable about their marriage?
It’s was a very conservative culture, and following Stalin’s deportations, they tried to hold on to their culture even more fervently. You know, basically the deportation was an attempt to erase them – not just their culture, but physically also. It was an attempt to physically eliminate them, and to take any remaining sense of identity from them. It wasn’t just the Ingush people – Stalin did that to the Kalmyks, the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars… the more you dig up, it’s just horrific. He eliminated the name, Ingush, from dictionaries and encyclopaedias; he eliminated their history books, their language, their national identity itself. And obviously a lot of people perished in the deportations because it was brutal. At least a third never made it to their destination, because they were transported in the most inhumane conditions – in crammed, insanitary cattle cars in the middle of winter.
So they were trying to survive and make sure that their traditions, identity, and sense of national self-worth survived somehow, despite all the efforts made to the contrary by those in power. So after the deportation, I think it became even more difficult for somebody to marry someone outside of the culture, especially a woman. You see, in that culture, when someone marries someone else, she leaves her family and she goes to her husband’s family. So if that family is not part of the culture, she’s effectively betraying them. So there was more to it than just her brother being a despot. All very complex. Life’s never easy!
As a result she was removed from her family. Some of them came to visit her in Moscow, but she could never go back, especially after her mother and uncle passed away. Again, she had her pride. She was of that land and that culture, where you don’t whinge. Her sense of pride and honour was very high. Even when she was dying, nobody knew. She didn’t tell anyone. She was too proud. It was actually only when I played ‘Moon and the Pilot’ on the BBC World Service that they heard about it back in her homeland! It didn’t exactly go viral, but people remembered her story – it was quite a scandal at the time. Her family was a very prominent family – her grandfather had a university named after him there.
So your song reconnected these people over great distance and time? That’s incredible.
Yes. People started talking, and one of the first people to reach out to me was my grandmother’s nephew, who now lives in Dublin. His wife flew from Dublin to come to my gig. It was incredible! They became my link to the family, and things just started happening. I was contacted by a lovely man called Rustam – he gets a little credit on the album – and he organised my visit to Ingushetia, and gave me cultural advice. He sent me a lot of links to photographs and films and books for me to read in my research. He also sent me footage of the towers and mountains that I’ve used in my video, and he was my host when I visited Ingushetia in August. I met so many of my grandmother’s relatives there and heard so many more stories. It really just completed the picture.
How long has this journey taken you?
I released Eternal Child in January 2015, and that was the same month that I wrote ‘The Moon and the Pilot’. However, I performed the song on BBC World Service, which was the turning point, in November 2015. By then I was already writing the album and there were other songs either written or in progress. But I made that little spreadsheet in the same month that I released my debut album.
And it’s being launched at Cecil Sharp House – the home of English Folk Music. This is quite an international tale!
Yes! That came through a chain of advice and recommendation. I’m really grateful for some of these crazy little chains that happen in my life. You know, one person who knows another person… and things happen. I really wanted to launch the album on February 23, because that’s the anniversary of the deportation. It had to be that date. No flexibility on that. But Cecil Sharp House turned out not to be available, so I was looking for somewhere else. However, I was there one day anyway, and I happened to meet Katy Spicer [Chief Executive and Artistic Director], and she told me that they’d had a cancellation and the date had just become available. It was a crazy feeling that it was just meant to be.
Will you tour the album?
Yes. I’m also doing some folk clubs within commuting distance of London to build up excitement about the launch, but afterwards I’m going on a UK tour further afield. My favourite way of performing the album is with Jonny Dyer – a phenomenal instrumentalist who is my main session player on the album – and he’ll be playing a few dates with me. But the full Long Lost Home band will be with me at Cecil Sharp House, as will many of the people from this incredible journey.
Long Lost Home is released at Cecil Sharp House on February 23, 2017. For more on Daria Kulesh, the album, the subsequent tour dates and tickets, head to www.daria-kulesh.co.uk.