Debra Cowan’s crisp and clear voice is an amazing instrument that she uses to sing traditional (and a few contemporary) songs that are part of history—a history that isn’t always taught in schools but is perhaps best known in any number of English and Scottish pubs. Roseanne Cash said this about Debra: “She has a voice which beautifully combines Celtic and Appalachian sensibilities … deeply satisfying, lyrical and musically elegant.” Words of praise don’t get much better than that!
To learn more about Debra Cowan, check out her website.
Here’s an example of Debra in concert.
Tell us your story about how you came to love music so much and especially about how you came to love traditional music.
For as long as I can remember, music has been a part of my life. I grew up in a time when everyone seemed to be singing: in school, at camp and in my home. My mother was a singer and I can remember her singing for much of my childhood.
I’ve always been fascinated by the past. The music and the stories combined in the old songs seemed to speak to me. When I was a kid, folk music was becoming popular and there were lots of singers singing traditional songs. As a teenager, I got my first taste of English Folk-Rock through Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, specifically the singers Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. I loved the way the songs sounded old, but used electric instruments to create a medieval sound. Almost ten years later, I was introduced to the recordings of Roberts & Barrand, Lou Killen, the Copper Family and others. It dawned on me that these were the same songs but rendered in a way that one might have heard 100 years ago and I was hooked.
Early on in your professional career, you were a middle school math teacher and then you switched gears and became a touring musician. Was there a pivotal point in the classroom one day where you said to yourself, “I’m out of here!” or was it a gradual and slower process that led you to a life of musical adventures?
It was a gradual realization. I’ve always wanted to sing and preform, but never knew how I would go about it. I suppose it was part of not having a clear knowledge of myself and as the years went along, I was finding myself becoming very grumpy. There were also lots of messages from my parents and our culture that said that being a performer wasn’t a “valid” profession and I listened. Who wouldn’t? As time went on, I was always trying to find ways to perform and through a very gifted therapist, I slowly figured out that I have to do this work or I would continue to be unhappy.
You always seem to be enjoying yourself so much on stage. You engage your audiences in such a personal and entertaining way. Do you think your teaching background helped you break down that invisible wall between artist and audience?
It certainly gave me some tools when working in very rowdy Scots pubs! Perhaps my teaching experience has helped me in telling the stories and backgrounds of the songs. The song really is the Star and I am the messenger. As for enjoying myself on stage, singing for me is a joy that I try to communicate in the shows. I want the audience to experience that joy either by joining in on choruses and refrains, or hearing a compelling story rendered in a ballad. I believe that anyone can sing and in my experience, I notice that people have a hunger to sing.
You began your music career in California during college. How did you begin to navigate the world of playing clubs in the UK?
In 1997, I lived in Edinburgh for a brief time prior to my move to New England. I began to get a bit of a reputation when I hosted the Monday night session in Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh. Five years after that I was on a visit over there and began to do floor spots anywhere I could during a month-long trip. As the years went along, I continued to do floor spots whenever I was over there and of course doing the contacting of venues throughout the year. As it is in a performing career here in the USA, it’s a gradual process of doing the work to book a tour by cold-calling and emailing clubs.
A lot of the songs that you sing are from the English and Scottish tradition and you perform a lot there. Are they okay with the fact that you were born and raised with a totally different red, white, and blue flag flying overhead?
They seem quite pleased that I love their songs. But I don’t think it has anything to do with my nationality. I would hope that they see that I respect the material and put it across in a way that tells the story. Those are probably the primary qualities that anyone, whether they are from the British Isles or from America would want in listening to the old songs, broadsides and ballads.
You’ve mentioned Maddy Prior as a big influence in your life. What was it about her that inspired you so much?
I loved her singing style and specifically her ornamentation. I recall practising her ornaments in the ballad “Long Lankin” until I got them perfectly. She continues to inspire me even now.
I have to say, one of my favorite songs that you cover is “Alcohol” by the Kinks. The arrangement on your CD, Fond Desire Farewell is brilliant. How did you come to choose that song? Did Dave Mattacks suggest it by chance?
First off, I’ll take issue with the word “cover”. I don’t do “covers” which to me gives a negative impression, especially in a business sense. I sing songs and render my own interpretation of them.
“Alcohol” has been in my repertoire for almost 35 years. When Dave and I were in pre-production, we had 11 songs chosen and he suggested that we could use one last one to make it a 12-song recording. I asked him if he was familiar with “Alcohol” and he said that he had never heard it, so I played him my version and also sent him an mp3 from the Kinks. It was his idea to add Billy Novick’s clarinet and Wolf Ginandes playing the tuba. He was also the one that came up with the toy piano. It’s a great track and I have had a few thousand downloads of just that one track.
You’ve done a lot of work with John Roberts who is a feisty and fun storyteller and musician. Do you have any interesting road trip stories that you could share?
The accidental road trip to Chicago in 2009 was a real test of whether we could get along with each other. We discovered that we hate each other’s driving: I drive too slow and too cautious for him, and he drives too fast for me. But I have to say that last winter, we decided to drive from Chicago to Schenectady (where John lives) in one day and we did it in snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice and really bad weather conditions. John did most of the driving that day and did a great job.
Other than driving, we really do get on quite well. He has an amazing intellect and he really knows his stuff when it comes not only to the songs, but music as well. He originally started out at University as a Math major and I always leave some of more complex money splits to him. It’s been a great partnership.