It can’t have escaped your notice that Topic Records is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. We’ve already had selected deluxe reissues of important albums but how can you really celebrate a catalogue as vast as this? Vision & Revision, subtitled The First 80 Years Of Topic Records, is the solution. Twenty artists, mostly from the younger generation, perform a song that was released on a Topic record some time in the last eight decades. I must congratulate Glen Johnson and Michael Mastrangelo who curated the set but I’m intrigued to know how they set about their task. Did they select twenty songs and parcel them out – surely not? So they must have picked twenty performers and turned them loose on the archives. Each one has a story and you’ll get dizzy following the cross-references.
The first disc opens with one of the old stagers, Martin Simpson, who sings ‘Beaulampkin’ which appeared on his first album. Martin didn’t join Topic until his third record but he learned the song from Hedy West’s Ballads. Of course, Sam Kelly learned ‘Shawnee Town’ from Martin and the baton moves on again. Another veteran is Martin Carthy who cites Sam Larner for ‘Napoleon’s Dream’. Martin heard Sam perform when he was just a teenager and Emily Portman gives Waterson:Carthy as the source of ‘The Bay Of Biscay’ – fifty years separate the two inspirations.
Martin is mentioned again by Chris Wood as the source of ‘Fable Of The Wings’, the Keith Christmas song adapted by Brass Monkey. It’s an unexpected choice and Chris takes it back to something like the guitar original. Anne Briggs is mentioned more than once and Kitty Macfarlane goes as far as singing ‘Go Your Way’ while Olivia Chaney borrows ‘Polly Vaughan’ from Hazards Of Love. Nancy Kerr namechecks June Tabor, Oysterband tackle Nic Jones’ ‘Seven Gypsies’ – an excellent reading of the song – and Peggy Seeger goes to Mike Waterson leaving The Oldham Tinkers to sing ‘Dirty Old Town’.
Another unexpected treat is Richard Thompson’s ‘The Light Bob’s Lassie’, a version of ‘Katie Cruel’ and there are two voices I haven’t heard before. The first is Irish singer Lisa O’Neill who sings ‘As I Roved Out’ with a mighty voice that takes absolutely no prisoners. The second is Lankum – please don’t ask me why I haven’t heard them before – whose lengthy take on ‘The Sea Captain’ closes the second disc.
There’s probably a great pub game to be had from matching twenty singers to twenty songs from the Topic catalogue but this is the official version. Sadly I won’t be around to hear what they select for the second eighty years.
Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.
With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.
For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.
“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg
This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.
Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.
London-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney follows up her 2015 Nonesuch debut, The Longest River, with Shelter on June 15th 2018. The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett (David Byrne, the Magnetic Fields, Sufjan Stevens, The National, St. Vincent, Florence Welch, Father John Misty, et al.) and features eight original songs, along with Chaney’s interpretations of Henry Purcell’s ‘O Solitude’ and Frank Harford and Tex Ritter’s ‘Long Time Gone’, first recorded by the Everly Brothers; the full track list is below.
Chaney describes her time writing songs for Shelter: “I had been on the road a lot and was struggling with the grit and loneliness of urban life. I think I’d been questioning what home, belonging, a sense of purpose, and my own culture even meant. I’d been craving wilderness and a return to essentials for a long time. Then, while touring in the US, I realized the place I needed was already in my life. It was ancient, barely habitable, and remote.
“Thus a crumbling eighteenth-century cottage in the austere but magical hills of the North Yorkshire Moors—a family retreat since my teens, with no electricity or plumbing, where the only water comes from a spring—became the home for my work on Shelter,” she continues. “We brought out an Arts and Crafts Bechstein piano and an old wood burner to the house; and as summer’s end turned to autumn’s shorter, colder days, the room with the upright and stove fueled my stay.”
Chaney says of working with Thomas Bartlett, “His close affiliation with such a varied and acclaimed group of artists was of enormous importance. His taste and sphere of understanding were as diverse as mine. He prioritized my compositions’ meaning and lyricism, rather than jumping on the bandwagon of noisy popularity. I wanted a recording as intimate as the songs and their form. The only other musicians are Thomas and Jordan Hunt, my longtime collaborator who adds strings and background vocals on select songs. It’s just the three of us playing every sound you hear, using our instrumental and compositional craft, and Thomas’ musician-producer’s ear extraordinaire.”
Born in Florence, Italy, Chaney grew up in Oxford, England, in a household whose intellectual and artistic engagement was complemented by an expansive musical soundscape. This included Billie Holiday, Mozart operas, Sandy Denny, Prince, Tracy Chapman, Bert Jansch, Michael Jackson, and Joni Mitchell. She studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she took in everything the conservatory had to offer. Her curiosity led her further afield, from Ligeti to West African pop, Edith Piaf to Laurie Anderson, Mary Margaret O’Hara to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Sonic Youth to Sappho, Kate Bush to old-time country music—all while finding her own voice.
The range of artists she’s shared a stage with includes Robert Plant, Zero 7, the Labeque Sisters, Martin and Eliza Carthy, and Kronos Quartet, with whom she also recorded two songs for the 2017 Nonesuch album Folk Songs.
Most recently she fronted a Grammy-nominated album, The Queen of Hearts, forming a new outfit, Offa Rex, with the Decemberists. The Guardian’s review of that album said that “Chaney has a magical voice, full of heft, soul and sunlight” and fRoots said, “Chaney has never sounded better,” while the Arts Desk said it was her “voice, with its clarity, power and emotional weight, that carries Offa Rex to the heights.” The Financial Times added that “Chaney’s singing makes ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ one of the best versions ever.”
Born in Florence but raised in Oxford, Olivia Chaney’s 2015 debut album following contributions to assorted collections and albums by Seth Lakeman and Alasdair Roberts earned her extensive praise and many fans. Not least among them being Colin Meloy of Portland indie rock Americana outfit The Decemberists who struck up a Twitter relationship that led to her supporting them on an American tour and, following assorted conversations about traditional English folk, the proposal that they be her answer to the Albion Dance Band.
Thus was born this project in which they reinterpret as collection of familiar (mostly) traditional British songs in a late 60s-early 70s folk rock vein. Rather inevitably, comparisons have been drawn to Steeleye Span and Denny-era Fairport, but another reference would be to another Denny-fronted outfit, Fotheringay.
Produced by Tucker Martine, the album opens with prominent harpsichord on ‘The Queen Of Hearts’, a number dating back to Charles II and variously recorded by Joan Baez, Martin Carthy (from whom they learned it) and Cyril Tawny, but here taking on a sort of courtly psychedelia sound, Chaney’s echoey pure voice soaring over the guitar waves.
Another one from the Roud collection, ‘Blackleg Miner’, a controversial folk ballad in its support of violence against strikebreakers, is perhaps now forever associated with Steeleye Span, and with Meloy taking lead over a mandolin-led backing, this is a similarly muscular drums-driven version. Another Steeleye staple, ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’, a song of love gone cold and suicidal despair, gets an almost Zeppelin introduction with heavy guitar and drums in contrast to Chaney’s light soaring vocals before it briefly shifts into a harmonium-backed passage only to plunge back into a psych rock stew of organ, fuzz guitar and electric piano.
It’s in decided contrast to the earlier and far more gentle ‘The Gardener’, a Child ballad sometimes known as ‘Proud Maisrie’ about a haughty woman rebuffing the titular suitor with his promises of floral gowns, etched out here on fiddle and guitars or, indeed, a stunning minimalist interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s meltingly lovely ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ on which Chaney backed by just a yearning drone.
Another much recorded traditional number, most memorably by June Tabor, ‘Flash Company’, a reflective song about the ruination of living the high life, actually puts me in mind of early 10,000 Maniacs and is one of the several highlights here, followed in turn by the ringing guitar arpeggios backing of ‘Old Churchyard’, Chaney’s hymnal reading perhaps harking more to American folk traditions than British. However with its Morris tune, the brief instrumental interlude of ‘Constant Billy/I’ll Go Enlist’, arranged by the band’s accordionist, Jenny Conlee, brings things very much back to the English countryside.
Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, ‘Willie O’Winsbury’ is the song Meloy requested Chaney to record in that first tweet, an 18th century Scottish ballad in which, discovering he’s daughter’s become pregnant in his absence, confronts the man responsible, here Thomas, intending to have him hung, but, won over by his charm and looks, offers him both her, gold and land, the first of which he accepts, but, underlining his honest intentions, not the latter. First recorded in 1968 by Sweeney’s Men and subsequently by the likes of Anne Briggs, John Renbourn and Fairport, the version here given a pastoral arrangement of fluttering acoustic guitar and harmonium with Chaney’s singing a perfect complement.
Only a minute shorter, things hark back to Steeleye electric folk rock with the steady beat and harmonium drizzled ‘Bonny May’, otherwise known as ‘The Broom of Cowdenknowes’, here adopting the version recorded by June Tabor that essentially about the rape of a shepherdess by a passing aristocrat and her subsequent pregnancy, though, atypically, it has a happy ending with him returning and taken mother and child off with him.
It closes with a Lal Waterson song, Meloy again on keening lead with Chaney duetting for a resonant ringing acoustic guitar and drums treatment of ‘To Make You Stay’ that, with extended instrumental passages, actually ends things on an early Decemberists note. Whether this is just a one-off remains to be seen, but if nothing else is certainly going to introduce Chaney to a whole bigger audience, which can’t be a bad thing for either of them.
“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 …”
John Peel was a fan of Peter Bellamy’s album of Kipling songs Oak, Ash And Thorn. ‘I hope Oak, Ash and Thorn will not be the sole venture of this kind you undertake and I look forward to featuring more of Kipling’s poetry and your music on the radio,’ he was supposed to have said. Of course, he wasn’t the only fan of this curious record, which first came out forty years ago on the Argo label, followed by a sister album, the equally strange and beguiling Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. It is fitting that the first contributor to this present-day homage is none other than Jon Boden: a leading light on the current scene and a musician and singer who has always been eager to cite his admiration for Bellamy. The other fifteen tracks have been put forward by a range of different musicians, emphasising Bellamy’s influence on a whole new generation. From traditional singers, (Fay Hield, Sam Lee), to alt.folk innovators, (Trembling Bells, The Owl Service), this celebration of Bellamy’s Puck settings will undoubtedly cast a new light on his classic interpretations. There are names from the current young British folk scene that you will undoubtedly recognise – from The Unthanks to Emily Portman to the award winning Jackie Oates – to newer artists you may well not, like Rapunzel and Sedayne, Elle Osborne and Olivia Chaney. Peter Bellamy was a maverick, a musician that refused to follow fashion. Though famously referring to himself as a ‘boring, bleating old traddy’, he was as happy listening to the latest offering from Frank Zappa as he was extolling the virtues of traditional singers such as Walter Pardon. In tribute, there are artists here that perhaps wouldn’t always be neatly slotted into genre pigeonholes. And their take on these now-canonical songs will need room to breathe and grow before they intrigue and enchant, just like Bellamy did all those years ago.