Interview with Seth Lakeman
If anyone dares to tell you that folk music is in anyway a gentle affair, direct them towards Seth Lakeman’s best-loved offering, ‘Kitty Jay’ – better still, take them to see it live. When you hear the impassioned song about the ‘beauty cast away’ taking her own life, and see the smoke rising from Seth’s furious fiddle playing, the momentum and vigour is as strong as any rock number. It’s with this ability to spin a yarn and promote it with unbridled energy that has seen Seth secure his place at the top of festival bills like Folk East, where we talk to Seth about playing this month…
You’re playing Folk East this month, on hopefully what’ll turn out to be a sunnier day than today – is it pretty grim where you are?
It’s starting to clear up thankfully, but yeah, as it has been everywhere, it’s been a pretty harsh summer so far. Fingers crossed for the weekend.
So Folk East looks like a great line-up of folk and roots music. The festival circuit has always been quite welcoming ground for you – it’s kept you busy, hasn’t it?
Absolutely, yeah, yeah; it’s something we’re doing every weekend and we’re always very busy working every weekend throughout the summer, so yeah, it’s familiar ground for us.
Does that mean you’re fully initiated into the set-up and you can manoeuvre around the circuit easily?
Yeah, just take some welly boots with you, a mac just in case it rains and musically-wise, you just try to keep it as upbeat as possible and try to convert a new audience to what you’re doing and also get the ones who are in to what you’re doing to enjoy themselves.
I was wondering what kind of relationship there is between yourself and other folk artists on the scene, because you must find yourselves often on the same bill…
Yeah, quite often you’re meeting up again with people that you know well, or have worked alongside, so yeah, you’re always crossing paths with all sorts of people, especially people like Show of Hand, Bellowhead and people like that.
For many, their first introduction to you was when you played with your brothers as The Lakeman Brothers – did having each other around at the beginning give each of you the fortitude to form your own musical identities?
I guess it does, yeah, it spurs you on; I think at that age a lot of the foundations are laid and it’s an important time and it was an exciting time for us because we were bouncing off each other.
And I imagine you didn’t have to build the relationships as you usually do first, because I guess there must have been a certain amount of intuition between you all?
I first encountered you supporting the Levellers actually about 7 or 8 years ago; you toured with them quite extensively – did touring with such an established band teach you a lot on the road?
Well I’ve toured with a lot of artists – The Pogues, Tori Amos, Billy Bragg and The Levellers were one of them and yeah, I think you learn a lot from their stagecraft, and really how an audience react, so yeah, I did learn a lot from working with them.
You’ve been lucky enough to travel with your music, and I wondered whether you’d encountered, or even been inspired by different countries’ folk and roots music?
Yeah absolutely, I think that’s the privileged part of playing and taking your music to other shores. I haven’t necessarily written songs about other countries or other cultures, but I was certainly inspired; like when we went to Libya, I was inspired by the rhythms and a song that I wrote about 2 or 3 years ago called ‘Blood Red Sky’ was written after I’d heard those rhythms and percussions when we were working with the north African drummers there. So I guess yeah, things do influence your music.
Folk is a genre with a passionate fanbase and you’ve experienced a reaction from both ends of the spectrum really, from people heralding your success to others denigrating your explorations into other sounds – is it a hard line to traverse, or do you try and ignore it all?
Well it’s a difficult one because people are very passionate about it and purists like to keep things in a place that it’s comfortable for them and they don’t like the way that music can be influenced by other genres, so sometimes yeah, it’s a difficult tightrope to tread, but I think in a way, it’s something you’ve got to ignore as well, because it can influence what you’re doing too much. You’ve got to evolve; that’s the most important thing about any musical genre, you’ve got to evolve.
With the new album, ‘Tales from the Barrel House’, I think what’s good is that sometimes you live in an area and forget to look at its history and legacies because you’re too close to it, but you’ve managed to delve into the area again and unlock its secrets – was that your aim?
Yeah, exactly, the concept was to explore all these forgotten trades and forgotten secrets, exactly – accounts of people working and how that reflected the surrounding area. I think there’s a certain passion for that, that’s sometimes forgotten. It was also about stepping back and in a way, combining the sound with the subject, you know, in terms of the way it was recorded, and the treatment, exactly as you’re saying. Usually, traditional records aren’t really made for that treatment, so I don’t know if a lot of them get it, because it’s quite an indie, leftfield record. Some people have said to me, ‘was that recorded on a Dictaphone?!’ but I don’t think they quite understood what I was trying to do. It was capturing the environment and the atmosphere, the sounds of ghosts of the past.
Lots of people have picked up on the fact that you recorded ‘More than Money’ in a coal chamber, and it’s not like it was a converted space that was now a studio – it was a coal chamber! Were there elements of your space that you had to adapt for?
Yeah, recording that harsh, edgy sound that you can hear from the start of the record, worked very well. We were incredibly lucky with the sound all the way through the album on the whole of ‘…Barrel House’. Myself and the engineer, when we finally got back to the studio to hear it on proper speakers – ‘cause when you’re there you’re just hearing it through headphones so you don’t know what you’re collecting – it was almost like field recordings, it was similar to that. Yeah, we were quite surprised how things were sounding and the banjo was the thing that was reflecting off the walls the best. It just seemed to sound alive, it was incredible.
So I saw the picture of the Honour Oak Tree on Facebook and I’m assuming that’s where you got the name for the record label. That’s quintessential of your work then, unearthing and bringing back to life these forgotten fables – is that fair to say?
Yeah and it’s a tree right next to where we live now; we moved and it was like a turning, a new direction in what we were trying to achieve and going back to roots, reflecting roots, yeah.
You’ve managed to keep your releases pretty frequent; what do you attribute to your constant creativity, or is it actually harder than it appears to maintain?
Oh, it’s incredibly hard all the time! Like today, I give up a lot of stuff to write and it’s my only hobby – well it’s my job – but I do enjoy the process. In a way it’s like an obsession when you’re creating something from just the thread of an idea, then you’re right at the point where it’s on a record or it’s being performed live something – it’s a buzz.
The idea of what the end result might be, does that give you enough self-motivation, and are you good at sticking to that?
Yeah, pretty much, sticking to that process yeah. Especially as I’m a few records in, you’re used to the process and about now’s the time I start to knuckle down. At the moment I’m writing a new idea about word of mouth, collecting aural history about people who are talking, at this moment in time, about what they’re doing. So yeah, you kind of get your head into whatever space is needed for that moment… It’s an interesting career to be part of in that way!
When you were signed to Virgin, you probably didn’t even realise the shackles that were being placed upon you, but inevitably with a major there are. Now you’re not with them, what are you enjoying most about your freedom?
Well, being able to write and being able to sing in the way you want to do it; they never really controlled my performance but there was certainly a lot of guidance and suggestion in terms of writing. I think records have a certain… well, they sound contrived sometimes because of that, so now artistically, being able to make something that I wanted to make… I mean, I would definitely have got other artists on there, but it felt like something that should come from my hand and it felt like it needed to be performed by one person. But the next record will definitely be something that’s involving other people and I guess just spreading sonically. It’s far more liberating now, being able to work on my own label and write what I want to write. It’s freedom and a breath of fresh air.
You’ve explored the use of guitars and drums and it’s a complete untruth that folk music is soft, or twee – they’re protest songs and they need energy to give them impact. Has that been a consideration of yours? Your live show would certainly suggest that…
Well I see music in any genre is there to be conveyed, and it’s there for theatre as well. A big part of it is obviously putting yourself in other people’s shoes – that’s what I like to write about – but it doesn’t mean that there has to be a lack of passion in there or performance. Part of our entertainment is rhythm and melody, and the rhythm is hugely important, hence why the songs are so upbeat and it’s an intense, but exciting show, I think. With all those elements together, that’s kind of what you get and an influence of folk music where it’s being fed by what you know, the kind of 70s and 80s folk musicians, and feeding off rock and pop and world music. In America and Australia, folk music is definitely portrayed more in the kind of way I would do it, rather than in a reserved way that sometimes folk music is portrayed, or how some people think it should be portrayed, you know.
We have the weight of influence from all our forefathers and we’re at an age now where we think, ‘why shouldn’t we give it a go?’
Absolutely, I think that we live in a volatile world at the moment and there’s no doubt that they want to try and experiment with things as much as possible, with writing and with sound.
Seth Lakeman heads the bill for the brilliant first edition of the Folk East Festival, which runs for 3 days over 24th-26th August at Somerleyton Hall. For tickets and more info, go to www.folkeast.co.uk