words: Jack Tractor
pics: Chris Saunders
Crispian Hunt, when he was the singer in Longpigs, once stated that "Sheffield is a fantastic place to do fuck all in." And he's still right. This ain't London with its desperate keeping up with the capitals attitude. It's not expensive yet and it's a friendly place. All components conducive to a pleasant indolence and a lengthy luxiant slothing about. It can be a comfortable and comforting place to live. This may go some way to explaining Sally Doherty's apparent lack of lateral movement over the past 31 years.
Geographically she hasn't moved far at all. Born in Sheffield she grew up in Banner Cross, studied Art on Hallam's Psalter Lane campus. She still lives round the corner from Endcliffe Park, plays the occasional gig at the Lescar and we meet up for some dangerously strong coffee in uber-Italian enoteca Nonnas, a particularly powerful stone's throw from her house. Like much of Sheffield's music scene however Sally's visibility is in inverse proportion to her output. Since her 1995 solo debut she has had six albums out, mostly with her group, the Sumacs. Add appearances with Italian dance project, Planet Funk, Shock Headed Peters, Sol Invictus, local group Sieben, another project, Summerisle bubbling away and gigs both in the UK and Europe and you've an exhausting itinery. The kind of itinery which requires a measure of stability at its core. Sally is a singer, a songwriter and a musician.
While her music suggests occasionally troubled depths she, a small, delicate woman with thick, coiled black hair which, like her surname, betrays her Irish roots emanates composure. She has a very steady, dark, blue-eyed, gaze and there is a lack of theatricality in her manner which reflects her stage presence. Sally is no diva. Seeing her live, in any of her incarnations - self written, folk tinged torch songs with The Sumacs or interpreting latin based melodies with her three-piece, you're struck by the intensity with which she sings - she stands very still only bringing her arms up slowly as her pure, rich voices stretches to unveil the melody. She regards her voice as an instrument - not seperate from the corporeal whole. This week she is forsaking caffeine and alcohol, for health rather than vocal reasons.
“It’s the same thing really though,” she says.
Initially Sally felt her future was to be in art - she took a fine art degree moving from Painting to film making before realizing, via the soundtrack work that accompanied the films, that her future was in music.
"I had thought of doing a music degree and started at A-level. But I'd stopped having flute lessons at 15 and was told that I wasn't good enough!" Perhaps it's this cleaving from formal musical education and experience of other art media that allows Sally to write her own music. Many classically trained musicans are almost constrained by their training - an eptness for a particular instrument is untranslatable into self-expression. "I write most of my songs on the piano, starting with harmony and chords then working from there. I take a long time to write lyrics because I don't like having lyrics there just for the sake of it. I totally open myself up when I'm singing my own material. My music is heavy."
Conversely one of the projects she seems to have taken the most pleasure in was 2000's 'Daughter Of The Sea' which was a collaboration with her mother Berlie who is a double Carnegie Prize winning children’s story writer.
“She set Midnight Man to her own music, so that my speaking voice, her singing voice and the voices of the harp, the violin, cello and flute weave in and out in a sort of sound picture. I had been inspired by Debussy, and she in turn was inspired by my words,” wrote Berlie.
Sally herself enjoys the act of interpretation. “Singing other people's songs - I really like doing it, you can always discover something in there. There's always an angle.”
Amongst those she she admires and sings are the splendidly gloomy Belgian, Jacques Brel - who's inspired, amongst many others, Marc Almond and Scott Walker - and Antonio Carlos Jobim - who, perhaps unfairly is probably best remembered for the supermarket muzaked Girl From Ipanema. Sally, on the other hand points out 'he wrote thousand of beautiful melodies and much of it has this wonderful samba rhythm running through it.” Sally is a singer you would say, rather than specifically a folk or jazz singer. It’s the breadth of her tastes which allows her the freedom to cross genres.
"My first thing was Morrisey and I played in a rock band, it was sort of a goth / Smiths type thing and then I was listening to Indian music, Peruvian music African and Jazz. My Mum's a singer as well and I got folk from her. My band is called the Sumacs for a couple of reasons. I got this album by Yma Sumac, very 60s cover, colourful with people playing bongos and she has a fantastic voice, makes a lot of different noises so I tried doing that kind of thing until I found my own style. You've got to experiment before you find out what it is you want to do.”
Sally is yet another one of these Sheffield artists who have achieved a level of fame outside their city while retaining a comforting level of near anonymity closer to home. This summer has seen Sally clocking up a couple of tours of Italy with Planet Funk - an Italian dance based project whose album 'Non Zero Sumness' is shortly to be released by Virgin in the UK. It's a strange situation where Sally plays key gigs in the Grapes, The Lescar and Cubana here but in Europe pitches up at venues varying between 2,000 and 50,000.
“I do enjoy it but you can feel very separate from the audience. There’s a big gap between the audience and the stage and I have to wear inner ear monitors so there’s not that intimacy there.”
She’s recently toured Italy with Planet Funk, the only woman in a nine-piece outfit - again a different proposition to her own band. It's a truism that the music industry is notoriously male-dominated. In Sheffield, as elsewhere, there are plenty of woman involved but as a proportion they are woefully under represented. At one point The Sumacs consisted entirely of women, a course of events that Sally denies was conscious.
"It was just people that I enjoyed playing with, but it is good to have some people to talk to. In Planet Funk I'm the only woman. It can get a bit blokey after five weeks, this is not to say that men aren’t capable of understanding, sensitivity and compromise, but you can end up feeling a bit left out."
There’s a new album to be recorded, with the help of local producer, Lyndon Hobson. It could take a while - she’s writing it as she goes and will bring in the musicians as and when they are required. Her European distributors have gone a bit quiet and she’s not certain how she’ll get the thing out but the impression you get of Sally is of a determined woman and you certainly wouldn’t bet against her sorting everything out for herself.
“I saw Liz [Hanks, Cello player] at a concert and really wanted to play with her so I wrote her a letter and arranged to meet her.” “I don’t have a manager, I got ripped off and most of the things I do I can do for myself.”
Sheffield, for Sally at least, is a wonderful place to do plenty. Sally will be playing at the Youlgreave Folk Festival on the 19th September and at Cubana’s on the 16th and 23rd.