“When I first arrived at Dartington in 2005 I was blown away by how beautiful it was,” says Totnes singer Mae Karthauser of her old school. “So romantic, wild and inspiring. Such a special place.”
Mae recorded her most recent single ‘Army Dreamers’, a sumptuous cover of Kate Bush’s 1981 anti-war classic, at Sorting Room Studios, which is also on the Dartington Estate.
Ahead of her gig at the Word Cafe in Totnes this Thursday, Mae sat down to chat about music, her magical time at Dartington College, and her heartbreak at the current situation on the Estate.
Hey Mae! You recorded ‘Army Dreamers’ at Sorting Room Studios on the Dartington Estate. What was that experience like?
The three of us – with Ben Roberts on cello, and Ronja Schlumberger on flute – love the feeling of authentic live performance. Trying to capture that energy, that synergy, the magical chemistry of the living moment. Sorting Room Studios set us up on a charming old Steinway piano that’s been there for years, in a room I used to sit in for seminars and lectures when I was a student. And we just played the song live, together. It felt very fitting.
Why record live? Isn’t studio multi-tracking much better for getting a clean finished product?
The end result always has more of a raw, edgy, honest quality when you record this way, I think, than when you overlay tracks. If we go out of tune a bit, well, that’s a feature! Music feels more alive this way. You can get too obsessed with perfection, and end up with something sterile. Our producer for Army Dreamers, Rowland O’Connor, did a brilliant job. He has great sensitivity and taste.
I read you also recorded your album there?
Yes, our most recent album was recorded at Sorting Room, with Jimmy Stewart that time. Jimmy is incredibly skilled and doing brilliant things with sound all over the world these days.
Why is Dartington such a great place to record?
Dartington is a perfect place to record. It’s so dramatic, and romantic with its sweeping gardens and landscapes cascading down to the river. It lends itself to making art, especially art with a vintage flavour. When I first arrived here I was so inspired, by the setting, the history. It was dreamlike.
What did you learn, studying at Dartington?
Up until that point I’d followed a very standard progression. GCSE music, A level music. It felt like my musical education was sending me down this deep linear groove, adopting a traditional classical approach, the same syllabus everybody else was following. Dartington blew all that out of the water. Suddenly I had to challenge everything I understood about music.
Dartington taught me to take things out of context, look at art in different ways. Challenge the things we take for granted. They wanted us to open our minds. They wanted us to examine ourselves, and explore what music really is, its function. I was inspired, and I learned so much about myself.
What did Dartington teach you about yourself?
It’s easy, I think, when you’re studying, to kind of play the game a little bit, try and get a pat on the head for anticipating what they want. Dartington didn’t want that. I wasn’t going to get very far by just by pleasing people. That was helpful to me. I explored my own musical interests. I grew enormously as a musician. To this day I’ve been evolving my creative practice from what was seeded at Dartington.
Are you sad about what’s happening there now, with the future for Dartington looking so uncertain?
It’s difficult to absorb. There’s a part of me that’s in denial, I think. I want to remain hopeful, but it seems like a lot of beautiful and well-established parts of Dartington are dying. In 2009, towards the end of my degree, the College was closing. It was national news. I remember us lying on the floor in protest, while the trustees stepped over us on the way to discuss our future in their meeting rooms. It was bleak, and dark. It feels a bit like that now too.
You have a gig on Thursday at the Barrel House, what can people expect?
It’s part of the Word Cafe hosted by Julie Mullen. She is a fantastic artist, writer, actress and all-round genius. It’s a poetry evening, but I’ll be playing music. Award-winning poet Greta Stoddart is also performing. I love how poetry and music can complement each other, and the Barrel House has this gorgeous Ukrainian upright piano, which is a big draw for me. I’ll play songs from our recent album August, and Army Dreamers.
How is Army Dreamers getting on since you released it?
The epic video we made at an abandoned church in Buckfastleigh is doing really well online, we’ve had lots of lovely feedback. The Kate Bush fandom in particular has been very approving. I performed it live on BBC Devon last week, CLASH magazine and Fatea have said some really nice things. It also, weirdly, got picked up by Eve Lily, an influencer on TikTok, and on her page has picked up like 40 thousand views! I love that it’s just out there in the world, right now, a little wisp of magic, made in Dartington.
Images courtesy of Simon Congdon
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