“I never even knew women could be composers,” admits Katie Chatburn.
“It’s kind of ironic that garage music was created in south London and the orchestra is led by a conductor and arranger working from her studio in Hebden Bridge,” she adds, laughing.
We’re in a tiny pub in Shepley, West Yorkshire, on a wet and chilly late autumn evening. It’s about as far from the glamour of the concert stage or the thrill of a club night as you can get.
Just weeks before our meeting you might have seen her starring on the Graham Norton Show with the Sugababes, via the Royal Albert Hall, where she commanded her 36-piece Ignition Orchestra in a high-octane gig fronted by DJ Spoony and featuring the stars of the UK garage scene.
The Heptonstall-based composer and conductor had been involved with the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) for some years, working with youth groups and Liverpool Youth Orchestra.
“Yaw Owusu, the artistic director, who I’d done some work with, came up with the idea of Garage Classical and he pulled together me and DJ Spoony,” she says. She got together an orchestra of young people to play a selection of garage hits in Sefton Park in the summer of 2017.
The gig didn’t quite go as planned. “It absolutely poured down and only a few thousand people came,” Chatburn says. Luckily, DJ Spoony was sufficiently intrigued to want to do it again. “Within a year, his management company had got us a gig at the Barbican,” she says.
This time a few more people came. In fact, it sold out. “It was magical. In the quiet moments you could hear a pin drop and in the wild moments the crowd was so loud I couldn’t hear the orchestra.”
The musicians, which Chatburn named the Ignition Orchestra, played Hammersmith Apollo last Christmas with Miss Dynamite as the encore and the Albert Hall a few weeks ago with the likes of So Solid Crew and Paloma Faith. The whole project is now accompanied by a 12-track studio album, DJ Spoony presents Classical Garage, which was released last month.
She says that making the album, which the orchestra recorded in Liverpool and Manchester, before Spoony’s label took over the rest of the process, has been hugely rewarding. “We’ve had a really great combination of original and new artists and I think we’ve managed to make a fresh sound while producing something garage fans still like.”
For Chatburn, who says she’s always been “a classical person in the rock and pop world and the rock and pop person in the classical world”, it’s a dream come true.
She learned piano and cello as a child, played cello in a metal band and was a keen visitor to Glastonbury before (and after) studying at the Royal Academy of Music.
Her first boyfriend was really into garage music (she had been more into rock music) and with him she got into the garage scene.
The division between classical music and other genres is something Chatburn wants to challenge. “Though this sounds patronising, some of the people at the Barbican gig had never even seen an orchestra before and the classical fans had never seen an orchestra interacting with the MC,” she says.
“I am really passionate about ending this snobbery attached to classical music.” On this, Chatburn is extremely keen to point out that this wasn’t a case of trying to make garage music more accessible by adding an orchestra.
“Not at all. In fact the hardcore garage fans seem to approve of what we’re doing. Musically it fits. There are so many melodies and ideas in there and I wanted to orchestrate it in a way that was just colouring in what was already there.”
And garage is also a great way to promote women’s place in music, something else Chatburn is passionate about supporting. “Women were so involved in early garage and we have ended up with an album with a 50/50 gender split and an orchestra that’s, accidentally, got more women than men and is really diverse. It’s great.”
Blackburn-born Chatburn, who teaches at Leeds College of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, likes to think that these sort of role models will encourage more women into specific types of music and this is something she’s focused on heavily throughout her career.
“I helped set up the popular music degree at the Royal Northern College,” she says, “and we had something like one female bass player, one female drummer and one female guitarist out of a few hundred.”
She has a theory that women have a more acute sense of risk between the ages of 14 and 18 and she would like to follow up her idea with more academic research.
“Popular music is all about taking risks. Girls at that age seem to favour one-on-one learning over group work.”
She adds: “There’s this idea that the history of popular music is very male and I really love the idea that someone like me being on a podium could be helping to change that perception.”
This prompts an anecdote. Working in a deprived area of Leeds recently with Opera North, Chatburn encountered a little girl with a talent for conducting.
“She was using a whisk as a baton and when I handed it to her, her shoulders went back and she became so animated with so many ideas. I told her she was a born conductor. When she left she looked at her mum and said, ‘That lady’s a composer and she knows my name...’”
Role models helped a lot in Chatburn’s own career. She realised the joy of music when a school music teacher asked the class to make up a scale and write a piece based on it.
“I went away and wrote a piece about an alien talking to a little girl,” she says. “It was life-changing. Just having the confidence to be told that you can express yourself. It’s really important.”
And then, she says, “I only went to the Royal Academy because this amazing lady who taught me at sixth form handed me a load of prospectuses.”
She’d also encouraged her to apply for a competition run by the SPNM (Society For The Promotion Of New Music).
“They were basically looking for two 17-year-olds to rescore the film Wilde. So I sat in front of the VHS with my cello and wrote some music. We recorded it at the Royal College of Music and the composer Debbie Wiseman was there. Until that point I had no idea women could even be composers. I’d honestly never heard of one.”
Fast forward to a few weeks ago and Chatburn was emerging from her hotel room ready for the Albert Hall gig when she realised something. She had inadvertently booked into the same hotel that she had stayed in as a teenager for the SPNM competition.
“That competition absolutely got me into music college and completely changed my life,” she says.