Shirley Collins talks to Dave Freak for Folking

Shirley Collins
Photograph by Eva Vermandel

“It’s been a sort of fairy story!” is how Shirley Collins describes her unexpected return to the spotlight with a studio album and live tour after 30 years of silence.

The singer and song collector was at the forefront of the so-called folk revival, releasing a string of well-received and influential albums in the 1960s and 1970s as a solo artist, and with Davy Graham (the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes), sister Dolly Collins, and the Albion Band. But the shock of her marriage break up to Fairport Convention and Albion Band’s Ashley Hutchings in the early 1980s led to dysphonia, and she effectively lost her singing voice.

But after 20 years of polite pestering David Tibet, of Current 93, managed to get Collins on stage in 2014, at London’s Union Chapel, and the (former) singer (and a hushed audience) discovered she could hold a tune after all!

“Then two filmmakers approached me at one of my talks about gypsies, and wanted to make a film about me, so this started up as well,” Shirley reports on her surprising return to the spotlight. “I guess people wanted to meet me before I died!” she laughs, before quickly adding: “No! I don’t mean that … but there seemed to be enough people out there that remembered me, and it all snowballed.”

Hence the home recording and release of Lodestar at the end of 2016 – via the ever excellent Domino label – and a run of hugely acclaimed live shows.

“I couldn’t tell you how, but it’s been such a surprise. I’m glad it happened, it’s lovely to sing again,” enthuses the 82-year-old. “Domino have been so supportive. They do help promote the album and support you, unlike some record labels that just put out a record and watch it slip away. They’ve all become such friends, I’m so happy to have made this at this point … I do feel so blessed by it all.”

After so long away from recording and singing (Collins says she didn’t even sing at home, in private), it was decided to record Lodestar in the comfort of the folk doyen’s own home in Lewes, Sussex. Pulling together a collection of English, American and Cajun songs from the 16th century to 1950s, highlights include ‘Death And The Lady’, which Collins initially recorded over 45 years ago on Love, Death And The Lady.

“Yes, that was recorded with my sister, Dolly, in nineteen-sixty-whenever-it-was. I always loved that song and I sang that at the Union Chapel, so it was my first song in public again. Of course the key had to be lowered. When it came to doing it Ian [Kearey, Lodestar’s producer] wrote a new arrangement – I love the slide guitar.

“I love Muddy Waters, I love the blues, and there was a point when it suddenly turned into a Muddy Waters song where I’ve spelt death – D.E.A.T.H.” she chuckles. I did that song at Rough Trade [store in London] for the record launch and I did ‘Death spelt … T.R.U.M.P! It got a great cheer! I shouldn’t do it to that song, it’s a bit of mischief … I love the song anyway. It felt so right with the slide guitar on it, it made it sound mysterious, but strong.”

Taking Lodestar out on tour, Collins has created a full show which sees her perform the album in its entirety, plus film shorts, Morris dancing, and guest musicians.

“We’ve had guests like Graham Coxon – it’s unbelievable. Here’s this guitarist from Blur, and he sings, and plays, so beautifully – who’d have thought he’d be so into folk music? When we visit Warwick Arts Centre [29 April 2017] we’ll have John Kirkpatrick [who] is just about my favourite singer, and Lisa Knapp – she’s a really gorgeous singer. At other shows, we’ve got Olivia Chaney, who is very good too, and others.”

In her time away from music, it would be wrong to suggest Collins was invisible. She published a memoir in 2004, America Over The Water, documenting her song collecting expedition with Alan Lomax; picked up an MBE for her Services To Music in 2007; curated a South Bank festival in 2008, and received a Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards the same year; and created a series of spoken word-based shows exploring Gypsy singers, Bob Copper, music from Sussex, and her trip to the USA.

Now back as a bona fide ‘recording artiste’, she’s full of praise for many younger performers (such as Knapp, Chaney, Alasdair Roberts and others), but finds the current popular use of the term ‘folk’ to seemingly describe anyone with an acoustic guitar somewhat misleading.

“People who write their own stuff – that’s not traditional music. I have to say that I don’t find it very interesting, I know that sounds harsh, but it’s not traditional folk music.”

Perhaps ‘singer/songwriter’ would be a better term?

“Exactly!” she agrees swiftly. “I get these messages from Amazon, and there was one about Folk Singers and number one on the list was Adele! Adele!” she repeats, exasperated. “I do like her as a singer … but she is not folk music!

“So I have to put proper folk songs in front of people – that’s my challenge. Folk … it gives us our music, it’s not global, it’s not about making money. I don’t like globalisation – everything is the same everywhere. I want variety. I want choice. I hear these kids singing with American accents and that saddens me … everything becomes a blur to me. I like difference, I like distinctiveness, I like the fact [folk is] still surviving, it’s working class music … and I don’t care if it’s not working class people recording, but I work to be part of that.

“It’s music from the labouring classes provided by people who’ve kept it going, learning it off by heart and passing it down. That’s a great achievement – people who’ve been exploited by the wealthy providing this glorious music.”

She agrees that the rise of gloablisation and dominance of pop music would make a song collecting exercise like she embarked on in 1959 virtually pointless today.

“Big business has encroached on everything and everywhere. I don’t think I want to go there now. It was bad enough in 1959, but now? I wouldn’t feel safe – would you? America feels sad to me now. It was dangerous in 1959,” she recalls of her trip as an outsider in her mid-20s. “It was right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement and we were going to places like Mississippi State Penitentiary, where we recorded these work songs, and black communities, but we were always welcomed, we always felt welcomed by the old blues men and the true, old mountaineers. They wanted to meet us, they wanted to meet people from the old country. But we were held up at gunpoint – we stopped to take a photograph of a chain gang. There we had a gun pointed at us and we were told ‘get those wheels rolling!’”

Collins also recalls a run-in with an aggressive Kentucky Baptist who took offence to her short hair and clothes

“I had to run to escape,” she says. “There was something scary … but if we’d been there a year later, I might have ended up as a pile of bones in the Mississippi mud. There was this sense that people were watching … always watching …”

Dave Freak

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Shirley Collins – Lodestar link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

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* Shirley Collins appears at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Saturday 29 April 2017. For tickets and more information, see: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

Artist’s website: www.shirleycollins.co.uk

Damien O’Kane talks to Dave Freak

Damien O'Kane 2

Hailing from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, banjo-playing singer and arranger Damien O’Kane certainly ruffled a few feathers with his recent solo album, Areas Of High Traffic. Featuring a selection of (as he rightly says) “great songs” they’re given a surprising sheen by O’Kane and his band, while the publicity images depict very urban, contemporary, scenes – all blurred traffic lights and graffiti. Very much rooted in the Celtic folk tradition it may musically be, but it doesn’t sound, or look, like your average folk album. Nonetheless, it’s deservedly wowed critics and listeners alike.

On stage since he was 13, performing with The O’Kane Family Band, Damien’s since gone on to partner with Shona Kilping and joined Flook (winning the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Group in 2006 with them), before embarking on a solo career, teaming up with David Kosky, and forming a professional and personal relationship with Yorkshire songstress Kate Rusby.

Prior to autumn dates with Kate, O’Kane’ll be playing with her, as well as appearing solo, at Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival 2016, in August.

Areas Of High Traffic had some incredible reviews, and was (of course) nominated for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award; any thoughts on why the album has made such an impact, and resonated with so many people?

Mmmmm. Sonically it is pretty different to most folk albums that came out last year, or at least the ones that I heard. I wanted a ‘big band’ sound for this album, with a kit and a more overall ‘modern’ sound to coat the fantastic traditional songs I’d chosen (bar one original song on the album). I have an eclectic taste in music having grown up listening to all sorts, from Techno/Dance Music right down to those classic Planxty albums or early Paul Brady material. I always wanted to try and marry the new with the old and I haven’t really had the courage until this album to do it. The album has more influences than just the aforementioned though. The other members of the band, Cormac Byrne on drums and percussion – Steven Iveson on electric guitar and Anthony Davis on keys/synths/pads and more, brought some of their musical experiences to the table and it resulted in a hugely enjoyable time in the studio. Together they cover blues, jazz, electronica and many more genres of traditional material. I brought all the material, all the chords and a shape for the songs, with a different sonic palette in mind for them and we all seemed to ‘pull on the same rope’, which was fantastic. I wanted an ambient, rocky, dancy feel to a lot of the material and I’m really chuffed how the album finished up.

I also think people are a lot more open minded to change these days. It is not such a shock anymore as there are so many interesting things going on in traditional music right now.

The theme of ‘family’ seems to link many of the songs, either in terms of subject or your decision to include – from ‘The Blacksmith’, which you remember hearing at an early age, to the more obvious ‘The Goddaughter’ and ‘Interlude For Mama’. Did you set out with that theme in mind when you were planning the album?

No, I didn’t set out with a ‘family’ theme, but I am hugely influenced and eternally grateful to my family who have supported and encouraged my music career from the very start. My folks introduced us (my three brothers, two sisters and I) to traditional music at a very early age and started sending us to classes. I have loved it since then. A huge number of children nowadays don’t even get the chance to play music and it is an ever declining ‘priority’ in schools from what I can see. That is a very sad thing. When I play music, Irish traditional music, I feel a huge sense of identity and family.

You’ve referred to the book Folk Singing in North Derry: Shamrock, Rose and Thistle as your “‘bible’ of folk songs” – when did you first come across the collection?

I first came across this book around 2008/2009 when I was introduced to a great collector of Irish traditional music and song, Jackie Devenney. Jackie hails from Coleraine in Co. Derry, like myself, and I was incredibly surprised to learn of Jackie and of the wealth of repertoire we boast in the north of Ireland. It is this material that excites me, songs with place names I recognise and places I played as a child. Shamrock, Rose and Thistle is only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the songs but I feel attached to it as it was my first learning of all these homeland songs and I love to take the stories out and bring them to life.

What are some of the ‘interesting bits and bangy things’ that percussionist Cormac Byrne is credited as playing on the album?

Well, Cormac could make a pencil sharpener rhythmical! But he did some really interesting things on Areas Of High Traffic on triangles and weird shakers and washboards and other things that I didn’t even recognise! The most interesting bangy thing he used was a bucket! Yes a bucket. You can hear it on the second track ‘The Blacksmith’. It is literally a metal bucket turned upside down. Genius!

The album has a very distinctive urban look – graffiti and skyscrapers; what was the idea behind it? Was there a conscious decision to make it not look like ‘a folk album’?

There was definitely a conscious decision to make it look different. The music is very different to anything I’ve done before so I thought the look should be too. There’s hints of urban music influences throughout the album, it is overall a more mainstream sound and I wanted to depict that through the image as well. I am really not a fan of the ‘stand in a field with a guitar’ photo, which has almost become a stereotype of folk music, and it has always been, arguably more so now than ever, a lot more than this. The next generation are creating some incredible and new sounds with folk music and it’s a really great time to be a part of it. Folk music deserves as much press as any other genre of music but it is hugely difficult to compete with those big bands on big labels where copious amounts of money are spent on image, then comes the music!! So I guess the answer is yes, I didn’t want it to look like a stereotype. I wanted it to be more interesting and David Angel, the photographer for the album, is the king at being interesting. I gave him an idea and he brought it to life.

I understand that you’ve been working on a new album with guitarist David Kosky – will this be a direct follow-up to The Mystery Inch, or something different?

I can’t really say very much about this at the minute but I am indeed working on an album with David Kosky. But not just David! There is another key banjo player involved in the project who will be announced at some point over the net few months but there is a list of guests planned for the album I would never, ever have dreamt I would ever work with!

When do you think they’ll be another solo album to follow Areas Of High Traffic?

I am starting a new solo album in October and would like to have it finished before the end of the year. I waited so long between Summer Hill and Areas Of High Traffic, through no fault of my own, but I’d like to follow up with another. I had so much fun making Areas… and the other lads are excited to get going on another.

Any other plans, projects or collaborations coming up?

Actually, I’ve just finished Producing Kate Rusby’s new album. I have to say, and even though she’s my wife, this is a very, very exciting album and not one people will expect. It is called Life In A Paper Boat and will be released in October but I’m not telling you anymore! As for other plans/ projects/ collaborations coming up, they are all covered in the questions above! I need some time to spend with my family.

You’re appearing twice at Towersey Festival – have you played the festival before?

I think the last and only time I played at Towersey was back in 2007 when I was playing in a duo with piano accordion player extraordinaire, the brilliant Shona Kipling. I can just remember being quite nervous. At that point I wasn’t really used to playing at big festivals but I remember having a great time and having a few drinks after the gig! I’ve been back as a punter since and it’s one of those festivals that has a great festival atmosphere and there’s lots going on all day every day. I’m looking forward to this year where I get to perform with Kate Rusby on the Friday (26 Aug 2016) and my own band on the Saturday (27 Aug 2016).

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Areas of High Traffic

Artist’s website: damienokane.co.uk

In case it passed you by – ‘The Mystery Inch’: