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Guest slot 2 - Ken Patterson, musician, composer, and performer

For the second of the guest contributions to my blog, we turn from writing to music and are joined by the local musician, composer and performer, Ken Patterson. I first met Ken when we worked together on ‘Haalin’ the Lines’ documenting the lives and struggles of Newbiggin folk through the music and words of Ken’s good friend, Tim Dalling. Since then, I’ve followed Ken’s many eclectic and inspiring community music projects, and had the pleasure of being involved in a recent single to raise awareness of local food banks and food poverty.

Ken is a wonderful example of talented creatives who bring together communities through music to celebrate our history and highlight key social issues and injustices. Over to Ken now to answer questions on his varied and fascinating life, and the many bands and projects with which he has been involved, and is still working with. I wish I had half of Ken’s passion, energy, and enthusiasm!

Thank you. It’s great to join your blog Chris!

1. Tell us about yourself

I’m a 66 year old baby boomer from Newcastle. I’m known as a musician/composer these days but I have been a competitive athlete and swimmer, veterinary student, Rothbury restauranteur, an actor, film-maker and teacher. In life I like to ring the changes, I haven’t had a career as such, more a meander through different incarnations creating stuff as I go.

My passion has become the provision of opportunities for all to join in with music-making, with a legacy of Steel Pan groups, Heaton People’s Band / 10th Avenue Band, 4 Corners Music, & Meze Mundo, established over the last thirty years, each promoting an egalitarian approach to community music.

Working with Folkworks, particularly managing their international ‘Making Music on the Line’ millennium project, and also in collaboration with The Sage Gateshead’s community music team, has sustained progression in my work as a musician. And latterly, opportunities to write music for Theatre san Frontieres and Amber Films 2016 ‘From Us to Me’ have built my confidence as a composer.

2. Describe your music in five words

Eclectic, brassy, improvised, folky, participatory

3. What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just mixed ‘Yorkshire Pud and Gravy’, a song I wrote about someone close to me surviving physical and mental health crises.

I’m in this ‘70s Edinburgh folk rock band, Caedmon. We still meet to record together and this is our latest single. It’s Bossa Nova with a lyric about getting out the other side of the fog. It recalls when I was touring with Theatre sans Frontieres in 2005. We had a Sunday off in a post-flood Tewkesbury, and a small group of us set off to find in a pub across sodden fields. A mist descended and we almost gave up on our lunchtime expedition, but the hostelry eventually revealed itself and inside there was a log fire burning and Yorkshire Pud on the bar… the latter ladled with salty gravy for the beer drinkers to build their thirsts.

When deciding on new material to record it occurred to us that the allegory works well for these Covid times through which we’re trying to navigate. We’re all hoping for that Yorkshire Pud and Gravy moment!

4. What’s been your proudest moment as a musician or composer?

I’m proudest when collaborations with others lift into exciting celebrations of all the talent that is there. When we invent and write the music for ambitious community projects bringing choirs and bands together in some sort of novel format.

For example, ‘Lagging Behind’ when 4 Corners Music (my musical partnership with Stakeford vocalist Richard Scott) collaborated with the National Energy Association, Amber Films, Heaton Voices, Wansbeck Voices, Chillingham Rd Band and Meze Mundo Band.

Our 50 minute documentary ‘Lagging Behind’ film, a historical examination of the way we heat our homes, was projected on to a big screen at the Tyne Theatre and the massed choirs and bands performed our newly composed songs live to the footage which, in turn, featured on screen individuals in the choir, fuel poverty activists, architects, old footage of Dan Smith and much more.

Furthermore, during Covid I’ve found that music video-making has became a way of collaborating at arms length. Meze Mundo band members have provided me with audio and video clips recorded on mobile phones which I’ve edited into short films. And Heaton’s ‘Shoe Tree Arts’, that I contribute to, has been looking at the history of the Newcastle Corn Riots of 1740. I pulled together a ballad which tells the tale of the riots in with contributions from numerous musicians in the Newcastle area, including you, Chris! It was inspired by a Fairport Convention version of John Barleycorn sung to ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’. The 9 minute video, which includes animation of cracked corn on a light table. is called Geordie Barelycorn (note the spelling!).

5. Who are your heroes in music?

My early heroes were Pentangle. I tried to emulate Bert Jansch’s guitar playing, I loved Danny Thomson’s double bass, the fusion of Terry Cox’s jazz drumming with traditional folk and Jacqui McShee’s voice. I saw them three times at the Newcastle City Hall.

My later heroes are people who have influenced my approach to community music, e.g. Keith Morris and Grand Union Orchestra who helped me learn by ear and improvise, and Hugh Nankivell, who was Newcastle and Gateshead’s composer in residence in the ‘80s. His approach is one of constant composition and open access for all to participatory music.

6. If you could meet any musician or composer, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

My biggest influences in composing are those close to me who I do get to meet and work with, although not necessarily on a regular basis. I aspire to fame but have never been famous, but I don’t hold any famous composer in particular awe.

7. What’s your favourite part of the creative process - and your least favourite?

The favourite part of the creative process is when all the building blocks of a composition: phrases, choruses, verses, bridge passages and the like come together. The musical ideas, invented in small chunks, all combine and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. The excitement of a grand celebratory performance adds to this climax of all the compositional process.

But I lack confidence when singing my own songs. The worst bit is when singing a song solo for the very first time, if I’m not sure whether the piece is all working and I’m shy of the declaration of my ideas which underpin the piece.

8. When you are not composing or playing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?

Favourite time spent is when I become immersed in visual artistic activity: hours can spin by when painting watercolours or potting at the wheel. Making food for friends and family is always a joy as well.

9. What is the one piece of music you always recommend to people and why?

As a seventeen year old I headed off to the Dick Vet School in Edinburgh. On my first day, I bought my first denim shirt and walked into the indoor ‘Greyfriars Market’, a hippy clothing and vinyl records emporium. ‘Reeling in the Years’ was playing on the house sound system. I lingered and fell in love with the whole of Steely Dan’s ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ Album as it played... Then I bought it on the spot.

But to a young instrumentalist starting out, I would recommend learning any simple 8 bar or 16 bar folk tune by ear. Why? Because learning by ear is the start of discovering your instrument as a voice through which you can truly express yourself. I know brilliant sight-readers who fear improvisation and don’t really own their music… they are just brilliant technicians.

10. What is next for you?

Next are performances with a string trio ‘Little Big Blue’. I was brought up to play ‘cello. I played it in our ’70s Caedmon folk rock line-up but had barely touched the instrument since. During Covid, I came upon musicians Stu and Fiona Finden who live about 200 metres away from my house in the Ouseburn valley. Known for playing as the horn section of Whapweasel, it turned out that they also both play fiddles, and mandolin. We started rehearsing together, with me on ‘cello, practising in my back garden (when the rules and weather would allow it). We’re now starting to get gigs singing traditional folk material.

Also we collaborate with Chris Bostock, storyteller, providing music landscapes for his yarns.


To find out more on Ken and his music, check out this film showcasing some of his self-composed songs:

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