Welsh music star went from breaking into Glasto to playing it
There was a time when Sian Evans, living a nomadic life in squat houses in Cardiff with barely two pennies to rub together, would break into Glastonbury Festival by sneaking under the fence. Fast forward to the festival in 2002, which came with a new “impenetrable” GBP1m security fence designed to keep non-paying chancers at bay, and Sian was helicoptered in as a VIP to perform with her band Kosheen. Nearly two decades later when we meet on a grey October day in Laugharne Sian is padding around her new home, packing the dishwasher and making coffee from a proper espresso machine while she talks.
The dog is licking the dirty plates in the rack while Sian makes two cappuccinos with full-fat organic milk – “I’ve no time for self-denial” – before lighting herself a cigarette. : What happened next for Rachel Isaac, the Welsh star of The Office There is something distinctively familiar about her voice – a husky Welsh burr that has a tendency to break into a naughty chuckle or a burst of song at any given moment.
It’s a voice that defined the UK’s booming live electronic music scene in the early 2000s when Sian fronted electronic band Kosheen with fellow musicians Markee Morrison and Darren Beale. It’s a voice that effortlessly conveys passion, emotion, and feeling and has the power to take me right back to my teenage days when Kosheen brought electronic music into the mainstream. Even today their (by now very old-school) hits Hide U and Catch, with their electronica and dance vibes, instantly stir something in the memory.
It was a time when the music world was saturated with processed pop and yet Kosheen refused to conform. Their songs drew heavily from drum ‘n’ bass and were born out of the chaos of the rave and party scene in south Wales and the south west.
Looking back through the archives when Sian was lead vocalist with Kosheen (Image: Richard Williams)Sian performing with Kosheen (Image: Llona Gerasymova)
Since her Kosheen days Sian, who turned 50 on October 9, has gone on to collaborate with DJ Fresh to create Louder and Rita Ora’s Hot Right Now, both of which ended up as number one hit singles. And yet, somehow, she’s stayed resolutely under the radar.
She gets recognised on the streets less in Cardiff than she does in places like Russia, Poland, and the Czech Republic where the band had, and continues to have, an enormous influence. It begs the question: how does an internationally-renowned artist wind up living in Laugharne? And not just any old house in Laugharne but the four-storey former home of Dylan Thomas.
Sian moved in in June and even now, four months on, can barely believe her luck. Before we sit down properly she insists on taking me for a guided tour around the iconic house, which is done out very tastefully in a very upmarket boutique hotel way. I don’t want to be nosy, I protest feebly, as she shows me the bathroom tiles of which she’s particularly proud. “Of course you do, it’s your job,” she says in a way that is disarmingly kind.
Home has always been important for Sian – it’s just it’s not always looked like this. In fact ever since Sian left her Senghenydd home aged just 15, barely finishing school, there’s been times when she lived in a tipi on a mountaintop in Wales and in squat houses in Bristol. Her only son, Yves, was born in 1991 at the peak of rave culture.
While his parents – who split up not long after – danced through the night Yves slept soundly on piles of coats.
It’s been quite a journey: From biker squats to a mountain tipi to the iconic former home of Dylan Thomas in Laugharne (Image: Richard Williams)
Despite describing a seemingly chaotic and transient early adulthood Sian remembers a reliable and close-knit childhood where music was central. She grew up in a typical Welsh terraced house on a mountainside in Caerphilly. She was allowed the freedom of the mountains, making dens and picking blackberries.
The only order was at her grandparents’ house in Risca. There was a strict regime there – they would eat bread, cheese, and an apple pie on Sundays, birthdays, and Christmas and then do a turn in the front room. Sian would always perform a solo – sometimes accompanied by her auntie Amy, sometimes not.
Her grandfather, a farrier in the coal pits, was the founder of the Aber Valley male voice choir and taught piano for decades to the valley kids for pennies. He was a firm believer that music should be available to everyone and not just those who could afford to pay for it. He taught piano until he was in his 80s for 50p an hour.
And it was him who taught Sian to sing, and most importantly, to love music. Sian ran away from home two weeks before her GCSEs. “I didn’t get on with dad,” she explained. “I was on high alert all the time just trying to keep my head above the water. “Dad was a real tyrant and I was a free spirit.
We clashed massively.” As she entered her teenage years the relationship was unmanageable. And so she headed for the city having failed her formal education and moved into a biker squat in the centre of Cardiff selling flowers in the street, singing at every jam, and immersing herself in Cardiff’s musical culture. “I did whatever I could to keep going,” she said.
Music was her refuge, the place she went to express herself in the midst of all that turmoil. “I have been damaged, I do have scars, but I’ve developed myself as a response to my damage,” she continued. “I’m strong, independent, open. Music is that internal structure that’s kept all this going.”
Sian performing in Southampton in March 2020 (Image: Tony Palmer)
Through musi, Sian discovered a new family – one who “wrapped their arms around me”.
Looking back now she recognises how vulnerable she was but at the time she felt no fear. Looking back also makes her cry as she reflects on just how welcome she was made to feel. “Market people, street traders, musicians – they all became my family,” she remembered fondly.
She rented a two-bed house, crammed full at times with up to seven musicians and artists eating lots of toast and cooking lentil curry together. “Living like that we forged relationships on such a deep level,” she continued. “We all had nothing but shared everything. You learned to appreciate everything so much more.”
She was in and out of bands, backing singing, and eventually began to sing front main vocal. Once her son Yves was born she turned to work in a cabaret band too. “I was broke – this was the best way that I could make some money to be able to support myself and Yves,” she said. Life had no boundaries.
But with one foot in the burgeoning rave scene and the other foot in young parenting Sian was finding it impossible to balance her two worlds. She craved a sense of stability and in 1992 found herself living in a tipi on the side of a Welsh mountain in a travelling community in the forest near Brechfa. How, I ask incredulously.
Sian gives a throaty laugh: “I just ended up there. I woke up under a truck after a party and thought: ‘I’ll live here’. We pretended we were Indians.”
There’s a sense of needing to nurture and to be nurtured that pervades everything she says in a way that gives her words real meaning and depth. “We were wild and free,” she added. “We would take sound systems into the woods and within a few hours there would be hundreds of people from all walks of life, all cultures, all dancing under the stars. The electronic music revolution was just what we needed to empower us and we became more politicised and active than ever.
Sian’s living room is filled with artwork collected from around the world (Image: Richard Williams)
“Within this community I had support from some amazing life-changing people who supported me and my son Yves and gave us the confidence to live the way we wanted to,” she said, the memory bringing tears to her eyes again. “The children ran wild and free having the best early childhood I could offer my son as I had no money. The forest was our playground and classroom.
We all took responsibility for the kids that lived with us.” That freedom extended to Sian too and her creativity flourished. She finally sat down and started writing the songs that had been floating around in her head.
It would be a while before those songs found their place but living “with people as colourful as the nature we lived in” was inspirational. “We were all in some field, all dancing to repeat beats, this embryonic chaotic dance until the sun came up. It was a drug-fuelled, mud-dancing wash out.
Out of this bunch of raggle taggle ravers came producers, musicians, dancers, politicians, revolutionaries, acrobats, circus, festivals, record labels – a whole industry of pioneers and visionaries. “It was an empowering, experimental, crazy time. I was a mum and it was amazing to be on the periphery of that.
There was always a mic at these parties and I was always singing rather than rapping. Your voice is as individual as your thumbprint and my voice was starting to be recognised as interesting.” The young Sian, still in her early 20s, found it difficult to get her music off the ground.
With Yves in tow she headed for Bristol, where her son’s father lived and where there seemed more opportunity. “I came off the mountain to Bristol,” she said. “It was a leap of faith. I would go to the parties, baby on one hip, and he would sleep on the handbags in the hall.” She found a like-minded community in the city. “It was hectic but so beautiful at the same time,” she added.
It was 1998 and eminent DJs and producers Markee and Darren, who’d been big names on the Bristol drum ‘n’ bass circuit for many years, were looking around for a new musical adventure. All it took was for them to hear Sian singing on a track a friend had recorded. A studio session followed, the musical chemistry was immediate, and just over two years later Kosheen had an album in the top 10.
“I remember it was magic,” said Sian, her eyes sparkling. “I cycled over to the Ledge – a massive house shared by all the Bristol scene. I had a housing association flat opposite Ajax – the other side of town. I was preparing for some pointless vocal over heavy bass.
What I was given was something quite different. Strings in swell, emotive, dynamic – I was at home. “Kosheen was born and the rest is kind of history.”
Sian with Kosheen at Radio One Live in Coopers Field in Cardiff in 2003 (Image: Rob Watkins)
There are five Kosheen albums which together make a heady mix of deep drum ‘n’ bass with timbres of tribal beats, sometimes verging closer to pop and disco.
Sian poured everything she had into the first two albums, Resist and Kokopelli. “The Welsh folk songs of my childhood, the Americana of my youth, the hip-hop, and the rave all had somewhere to go,” she said. “We went from poor as church mice to being able to buy my own house,” said Sian, adding that was a big deal for somebody with a history of homelessness and an alternative lifestyle. But her success was never about the material things, she said.
“You don’t think you’ve made it until you sit back and you look at your life and think about where you’ve come from. It’s not money, it’s not even bricks and mortar. It’s relief, it’s that feeling of: ‘Wow’.
Movement is life, progress is life, and you just keep going.” Keeping going meant not being blinded by the dazzling light of success and not falling off the wheel she found herself on. “I couldn’t say no to what was happening,” said Sian. “When opportunity comes knocking you don’t say no.” Sian was in her element – the front woman on main stages the world over and living her dream touching souls.
In summer 2001 Kosheen even performed to a 20,000-strong crowd in Serbia – the first international band to do so since the trouble in the Balkans. But success came at a cost. In May 2003 Sian married a roadie (they have since divorced) but her hectic schedule meant she was rarely in the same country as her new husband and her son.
“I was the only woman on the tour bus, separated from my son,” Sian said. “I struggled with the schedule and my son struggled with the separation.” Yves began kicking off in school and going absent when his mum called home. “He missed me, I missed him,” she continued. “I couldn’t just drop everything and be home with him. Every sinew of my body wanted to be home but I was trying to keep a roof over our head.
We can’t go back there, I’d tell him. This is forward. We have to do this.
We had no other option. “Everybody offered support. I was so grateful thinking: ‘This is it’.
I don’t think it could have been any different. I don’t regret anything apart from I was young. At 25 or 26 you’re not grown up.
It was tricky for my son – that was the hardest part.” She doesn’t hide the fact that Yves had his own struggles as he went through his teenage years but seeing him grow into a man is “quite spectacular” and “breathtaking”, she says. Yves, now 30, has his own flourishing music career and seems to be on the right track.
The other difficulty was the fact that Sian never courted the “image thing”. As a self-confessed feminist it was a real struggle. “I never really thought of myself as a face but more of a voice,” she said. “It was the era of bubblegum pop and I didn’t fit that mould. They would have meetings about my body shape.
It was uncomfortable for me on photoshoots.” Sian tried to keep up but the cracks started to appear in the band as she felt more and more isolated and unsupported. “We had some great crew but I wasn’t one of the guys.
I was closed out. Exhausted and very lonely. My drinking was crippling me but the performances were faultless.
It was going wrong for a long time.” If their first album, Resist, was “a beautiful union of three incredible musicians” then their third, Damage, was when cracks started to appear. It was 2007 and Sian stopped writing. “I couldn’t force it,” she said.
It’s also why the music on Independence (2012) and Solitude (2013) is so different from the earlier works, she thinks.
Sian next to the platinum award for Louder (Image: Richard Williams)
During the five-year hiatus between the third and fourth albums Sian started collaborating with other musicians. She was incredibly “flattered” when Dan Stein (DJ Fresh) approached her. Neither of them were were ready when Louder went “intergalactic” in 2011.
“Nobody could have prepared us for how big Louder was,” she said. “We both thought: ‘This is massive’.” That same year she wrote Hot Right Now, which went on to become the UK’s first ever drum ‘n’ bass number one for Rita Ora. She told her Kosheen bandmates excitedly but they were less than impressed. Sian said: “They didn’t want to know.
I had done a couple of other collaborations and they had mocked them.” Finally the threesome went their separate ways in 2016 with Sian continuing to make a name for herself as a featured vocalist. She formed her own band and performed with her solo unplugged shows, injecting a new lease of life into her classic hits with drums, piano, acoustic guitar, and double bass.
And it’s performing where Sian really comes into her own. When watching that 2002 Glastonbury performance with Kosheen back on YouTube there’s one thing that’s striking: Sian has a real commanding presence and power and it’s something she’s never lost. Performance is what she loves to do, she agrees.
“My granddad taught me how to pull your heart through your music,” she said. “He also taught me to have eye contact. Believe in what you are singing even if you don’t know what the words mean. Feel.
“I also respect that each person there in front of me has invested in this experience and I will do my best to share it with them and they will leave feeling lifted. “It really feels like the songs come to life when there is an audience and the band with me. “I’m a performer – I was born a performer, I think.
I’m in my element when I’m on stage in front of people – not because it’s a ‘Look at me’ scenario but because I love that sense of excitement and community.”
Sian loves to perform (Image: Picasa)
Time and time again Sian comes back to the idea of community and it’s clear she cares and feels deeply – deeper than most in fact. Perhaps only now, aged 50, has she finally found a place she can truly call home. “I think I’ve landed in the right place,” she nodded in agreement, although quickly adds she’ll only be staying for 10 years or so. “It just felt like home.
This does sound very strange and spooky but it felt like it needed me – it felt like it needed a heartbeat and music. “I can reach the most beautiful nature wherever I go. I’m in heaven here and, as an artist, that’s very important.
We give so much out we have to put back. This environment gives back. The sand, the birds, the weather – I’m being fed.”
More interviews by Laura Clements
After Laugharne she might head to Ibiza. “I want to sit in the sun and grow oranges,” she laughed.
She hasn’t moved to west Wales to retire like some people think. “It’s scary because nothing is forever but right at this moment I can’t help but feel lucky,” she continued. “I’m grateful every day. But it doesn’t stop my work ethic.
I need to be busy. I’m a whirlwind and that’s how my life has brought me up. Never think you’ve made it.
The more you have the more you have to lose.” Sian will continue to channel her energy into recording a debut solo album and touring around the world as well as collaborating with as many producers as she can. This year marks 20 years since Kosheen’s platinum-selling debut album Resist and there’s a full UK tour kicking off this October which lasts until mid-2022.
Plus she wants to offer B&B at Seaview and plans to run some songwriting retreats and music therapy sessions from her home in Laugharne. But her immediate plan is to arrange the party for her 50th. She’s struck a deal with the local church – her guests can park up their campervans in the car park if she bungs them a hundred quid and does a low-key gig for them.
Sian, it seems, has found herself yet again living in a proper community and, while her life looks a little more conventional for now, she’d hate to have it any other way.
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