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For too many years Seth Lakeman, fiddler/foot-tapping maestro and composer of some of the 21st century’s most vital folk music, has hidden in the shadows as an illustrious folk back-up musician of some pedigree. Looking back on his numerous appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival he recalls “I once played with a band called Equation which was about seven years ago and once with Cara Dillon which was a couple of years ago. I’ve always played with other people, as a guitarist and a singer, backing Cara and things like that. In fact I played with The Indigo Girls about three years ago so that was great. I’ve enjoyed Cambridge every time.”
2005 saw Seth win over a packed club tent, rammed full with punters eager to see the then recently announced Mercury Music Prize nominee, a man of limitless talent and charm and in ‘Kitty Jay’, a record so rich in ideas and passion that no one dared label it the “token folk nomination” of Mercury years gone by. In fact, ‘Kitty Jay’ enjoyed such a resounding post-nomination new lease of life that the new Seth Lakeman album, ‘Freedom Fields’, would have its release delayed by several months. Finally seeing the light of day in March of this year, Seth remains riding high on a sea of both critical and public approval. The summer months will once again see him back in the South East, not just at Cambridge but also at a real curiosity of a gig setting in Hatfield Forest alongside Karine Polwart. Music-Zine put a few queries his way ahead of those summer dates.
How has the response been to new album ‘Freedom Fields’?
It’s pretty much all been good, actually I don’t know of anything bad (laughs). All very positive reviews which was obviously tough for us because of ‘Kitty Jay’ being a good success, to follow up and not to be gunned down was a very good result for us. We’ve sold a good number and for it to get a second breath of life which is what it’s getting now is brilliant for us, it’s great!
So is your life all festivals and travel right now?
Yeah, its festivals and promo to a single release and a re-release of the record so just basically more of a PR thing going on than I was able to do to hopefully sell more records. I enjoy travelling, it’s a privilege to be able to see such great places in this country and everywhere else so in that way I do enjoy it. It does get quite tiring sometimes but it certainly has its good days and it’s a lot of fun to do.
How was your recent support tour with Billy Bragg?
It was really good, I’ve always respected him as an artist so it was a real privilege to go out and do his tour and he’s just asked us to do the Canadian leg which will be a really good introduction for us over there. It seemed to go down really well, I think it went down better in terms of some of the gigs we were doing were stood up and I think it relates better what we’re doing in that way. We certainly enjoyed the tour; it was a lot of fun to go on tour with that team.
It being his anti-BNP tour, did he try and engage you politically at all?
He took me to one side and sat me down to explain to me the nature of what the BNP was talking about, why he didn’t support it and the local election thing. The Barking gig was obviously really poignant for him, but I just kept really quiet about anything to do with that, it was his tour and we were there just for a musical basis rather than a political one.
Would you say music and politics are happy bedfellows?
They are because it’s more about the songwriting and expressing oneself. Politics has always been a part of that, with any emotion, politics is about people. There’s always going to be a place there and there has been in traditional song for years and years. Workers rights and all of that, I think it’s just a follow on so there’s definitely a strong relationship there.
I see that you were an Ambassador for Traditional Music in Libya recently?
It was just a random call to our manager and the British Council said we’d really like you to go over there on a 10-day stint and play in some of the universities in Libya. I played with a couple of Libyan drummers, some of the best over there, and I quite like a challenge as I’m sure you might have read, I launched the record in Dartmoor Prison so I quite like being on the edge a little bit. I just thought “what a great idea” so me and the lads went out there and played in these universities. It was a combination of emotions for them because they’d never really seen Western music before and didn’t really know how to react, but it was just an incredible honour to be able to do it.
Why did you launch ‘Kitty Jay’ in Dartmoor prison?
Was I a madman?! (laughs) It’s only a couple of miles away from where I actually live so I drink with a lot of wardens around that area. One of them, me and him came up with the idea after a few drinks because he had just heard the night before the record I’d made, and it was a concept record about Dartmoor legends and myths. There’s a lot of murder-esque ballads and the best landmark to put it in would be to play to the prisoners there because they overlook that area every day. Lo and behold it all happened!
And was it a good response inside?
Yeah brilliant, I mean I ended up playing with one of the guys in there so that was great for the guys inside ‘cos they saw that we were playing a few tracks together. They were screaming and loving it so it was certainly an experience to do that.
I’ve read that your music “applies historical experience to universal truths about the human condition” – is this what you are trying to achieve?
I guess that’s to do with the Freedom Fields battle and how people might have felt. It’s a thread that runs through the latest record, things like ‘The Charmer’, ‘King And Country’, going away to fight and how people feel about that emotionally and how it affects them. There’s a few songs that relate there. Where I am is quite rich in history, and the Freedom Fields battle is one of the biggest battles that took place in 1643 in the civil war then. It’s such a big subject that I learnt at school that I just ended up wanting to write a song about it, so that came first and then it inspired a few of the others. Trying to picture myself as a soldier fighting then and how I might feel about it and how I might feel about going away and leaving someone behind.
Is it true that you actually record albums in your brother’s kitchen?
That’s absolutely true, between the omelette and chips! (laughs) It’s a straight forward kitchen with an aga, a slate floor and stone walls. You can record quite easily these days, it’s not a computer pro-tools set up it’s a straight forward tape thing. We only need a few microphones and a half decent desk which we’ve got, a compressor and a Lexicon processor and things like that and that’s really all you need to record an acoustic record. As long as you know how to get a good sound out of all of these wooden instruments and a production technique that worked just from doubling up playing guitars or using hooks on fiddles. That kitchen definitely has a live sound, I’ve recorded elsewhere and the fiddle and the voice sound a lot liver in there which I think has helped.
How willing were you to have all that water poured over you in the video to ‘Lady Of The Sea’?
The director phoned me the night before and said do you mind having a little bit of water put in your violin and I thought “well I’ve busked in dripping rain before and it’s never been too bad” so I agreed and said “no, that’s fine”. Then in the corner of my eye when we were doing one of the takes this fire hose comes from nowhere and it just drenched me! Once it had been done once they did it about ten times with the water as heavy as that and the fiddle just fell apart, which was quite heart wrenching actually. Still, it’s been fixed so it’s all alright but I tell you what it was a stressful moment.
Are you happy with the end result?
I’m really happy with it, I wasn’t sure how much of a Take That route they were going to go with the whole water thing, but I think it’s come out really quite dark and it represents the song really well, it’s a performance based video which is good.
Do you want to try and break into the mainstream pop market now?
I’m just sticking to what I’m doing, I’ve been offered stuff by other companies but I haven’t wanted to take it because I’m happy doing what I’m doing and it seems to be building on its own. ‘Relentless’ just want to help it and boost it in a quicker way but hopefully I can just keep on writing as much as possible. They’ve got much more power than I had, or any of the team I’ve ever worked with, to take it to more people. Hopefully I’m not going to change the way I’m writing or anything. I’ve been with a major once before, many years ago, so I kind of know what it’s like.
Do you think folk music in general is becoming more popular?
It might be, I think what’s happened in a way, you know this download revolution has sort of knocked the majors a bit which is giving independent labels a bit more of a chance to get the music out there. And that’s always been a bit of a problem so in that way, yeah, I think the smaller genres like jazz and folk, especially folk, there might be more of a chance for artists to be crossing over a bit. There are certainly some great writers and great guys, it’s been quite a dominated female scene for quite a long time actually, so with Jim Moray and James Blunt that’s got that sort of acoustic element to it. They’re talented writers.
Did the Mercury nomination have a profound effect on your career?
Yes it did, that was the launch pad for everything that has gone on until now. It was a great moment for me and it marked the start of something really good, it was a great honour to be part of that prize.
Were you familiar with the Antony & The Johnson’s album before the awards?
No but I got it afterwards and I really liked it
Would you follow in Kate Rusby’s footsteps and work with Ronan Keating if the offer were on the table?
I probably wouldn’t no, but only because he’d only out-sing me and out-look me and I don’t really fancy putting my arm around him. I would work with Rachel Stevens, for different reasons though (laughs). Seriously though, I think that was a good song and quite a brave move by Kate.
What would you say is the best folk album so far this year?
Was Chris Wood’s album this year? That’s probably the best one…(thinks)…no, actually it’s Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Seeger Sessions’.
And what album would you send a folk newcomer to as a good starting point with the genre?
Nick Drake’s a good starting point for that acoustic song-writery vibe but then you’ve got hardcore folk where you could turn to Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick or Roger Wilson. Then you could have American with the really early Paul Simon stuff, or even the really early John Martyn before he got too jazzy; that’s really good folk music.
What was the first record you ever bought?
Mr. Mister, ‘Broken Wings’ (laughs guiltily)
And what is your all time favourite album?
It might be Bruce Hornsby or…Peter Gabriel ‘So’. Yeah, real experimental challenging stuff, it was Daniel Lanois who was involved with that wasn’t it?
Yes, finally then, what would get you up dancing at a wedding Seth?
Good old Irish dancing tunes. De Danaan, that sort of thing.