Posts Tagged ‘folk’

Sam Lee interview: “It’s wonderful taking folk music slap bang into Piccadilly”

Posted on May 25th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


(photo by Alex Harvey-Brown)

This interview is an extract from the June 2017 (#128) issue of Songlines. To read the full interview order a copy of the edition at:

As Sam Lee brings his Norwegian-British sound-jam Vindauga to this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival and pushes folk onto the big screen in Guy Ritchie’s new film, Nathaniel Handy steps into the headspace of folk music’s polymath.

Sam Lee is a song collector. More than that, he favours full-immersion baptism in the Gypsy and Traveller folk singing communities from which he has gleaned an oral repository. Yet he is not only a conserver of song, but also a conservationist more broadly. “Before folk music, I worked in nature studies doing a lot of wilderness training. It’s my first passion,” he tells me. And should the son and heir of Madonna and Guy Ritchie one day become a famous survival expert, we may well have Sam Lee to thank for it.

He brought his bushcraft to the Ritchie household in Wiltshire when he was invited to discuss a new film project with the director. “Guy likes folk music,” reveals Lee. “He was making a film set in the first century and he wanted folk music. He wanted that sense of authenticity.” The film in question is the blockbuster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a sprawling epic of English braveheartedness set for release on May 19.


“I’m using the same principles as conservationists of rewilding certain areas of land into being musical places”


“I went down to his house in Wiltshire and he took me on a tour round the grounds,” Lee remembers. “I taught him and his son a few things about the outdoors and he was like, ‘Geezer, how come there’s this Jewish kid who knows all about folk music and the outdoors?’ He just couldn’t get his head around it. But he said, ‘Right, we’ll get you in the film’.”

Lee visited the Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden where he saw the sheer scale of a film that was also shot on location in Snowdonia, the Forest of Dean, Windsor Great Park and the Isle of Skye’s distinctive Quiraing region. “It’s enormous,” says Lee. “Castles. Cave systems. What they’ve built is phenomenal.”

It’s not the usual setting for English folk music, which is what makes Ritchie’s punt so brave. “He just put me in a studio with some scenes and said, ‘Sing’,” Lee explains. “I actually went for Scottish Traveller ballads, because they’re my favourites, but also because they have that sense of drama. A little bit of the song ‘The Wild, Wild Berry’ came to me.” It was to become the soundtrack to a trailer that has gone viral. “They said they’d never had a reaction to a song on a trailer like it,” says Lee. “I was immediately bombarded by people asking, ‘Dude, what sort of music is this? Where can I find it?’ It’s unbelievable what’s happened to it.”

These are certainly strange environs for folk music. The trailer reveals classic Hollywood treatment, with a fantastical monster and CGI galore. It is English myth remade for the action movie age. Such big screen treatment of British folk song might make some uneasy, but Lee believes it’s high time it got the exposure. “The art of cinema is about trying to create an experience,” he says. “Folk music is a brilliant way to transport a viewer, which is why you get bagpipes all the time; they’re a great way of getting a sense of drama, ancientness and ensuing battle. It’s amazing that British folk hasn’t been utilised more in the way that American folk music has been in so much American cinema.”



PODCAST Listen to Sam Lee talk about Vindauga on the Kings Place podcast:

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English folk today

Posted on May 9th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


The cover star of the latest issue is folk singer and song collector Sam Lee, who, in the course of a fascinating interview, talks about his upcoming appearance that this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival. Lee is part of a thriving English folk scene, a scene which you can explore in greater depth via the interviews and features gathered below. For the latest album reviews and articles exploring the best music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines.



Eliza Carthy – Wayward and free

Nathaniel Handy speaks to English singer-songwriter Eliza Carthy, who is the happiest she’s ever been with her new band, new voice and newfound freedom



Lady Maisery – Folk Songs in the Key of Life

English folk trio Lady Maisery speak to Julian May about their latest album that blurs the line between traditional and contemporary song in order to tackle that most daunting of subjects, the cycle of life



Show of Hands – Show and Tell

The English folk duo Show of Hands are highly popular stalwarts of the folk circuit, regularly performing sell-out shows across the UK. They chat to Nathaniel Handy about the people behind their songs



Sweet Liberties – The voices of democracy

Two pivotal anniversaries in democratic history have been marked in a song project called Sweet Liberties. Julian May gets a history lesson from singers Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr and Martyn Joseph



Introducing…Stick in the Wheel

Tim Cumming talks to Nicola Kearey about keeping in touch with the past and how their plainspoken take on traditional English songs is shaking up the folk world

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Show of Hands – Show and Tell

Posted on May 8th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


The English folk duo Show of Hands are highly popular stalwarts of the folk circuit, regularly performing sell-out shows across the UK. They chat to Nathaniel Handy about the people behind their songs

Bruce Springsteen has few peers. It’s not a matter of his music so much as his commitment. His single-minded faith in where he is taking his audience; his legendary stamina in delivering the ultimate night, every night, in venues big or small; and his pursuit of a near spiritual connection with his audience. All this makes Springsteen stand out from the crowd. But why the hell would you want to know about that? This isn’t a rock’n’roll mag.

The reason is that Steve Knightley – one half of the Devon folk duo Show of Hands – never has the example of The Boss far from his mind when he steps out onto a stage at night. “It’s your contract,” he says of the Springsteen ideal. “You’ve done a deal with the people out there. You don’t know who’s rolling up, but they’ve made that journey to be here tonight. You’re looking out at guys who may have pulled someone from a car crash, may have just had the worst day of their life, but they’ve come out. You can’t forget that.”

Like the big man himself, Knightley holds the stage with an easy swagger and a ready wit. Yet behind all the banter is an awareness that music is a serious business. It can enrich lives and as a performer you have a responsibility. He has no time for the grumpy artist with the slouching, vacant indifference that passes for cool. “It’s not fair and it’s not right,” he says with the conviction of an old West Country farmer.

Knightley is standing under the blue glow of the stage lights in the vast, whispering space of the Hackney Empire in London. Beside him is a man who has shared his musical path since they were teenagers in the folk clubs of Exeter: the multi-talented Phil Beer. They are in the early stages of another nationwide tour in support of their latest studio album, The Long Way Home. It’s their first ever show at the Empire and East London is perhaps not their natural stamping ground, but they are an act that can rely on a dedicated following. It’s about more than the music – it’s that contract again.

As Knightley explains, the duo’s love of Americana runs deep – right back to their earliest musical experiences growing up in Exeter. “A lot of the guys we used to listen to were into the ragtime and the blues as much as the folk,” he explains. “Wizz Jones, Bert Jansch, Cliff Aungier and Gerry Lockran – a lot of them used to get a feature on local television on their way down to Cornwall. That’s why there’s always been a smattering of blues and slide.” That smattering is there again on their latest album in the track ‘Sweet Bella’ – “genuine, West Country frontier gibberish,” as Beer calls it.

Their 2012 studio outing – Wake the Union – was a study in Americana. “We had been touring with Richard Shindell, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, Rodney Branigan and Leonard Podolak & Matt Gordon – hanging out with six Americana artists,” says Knightley. “What do you do at soundchecks? You tend to play that stuff. There’s a common language between Americana and British music.”

Finding the common language has always been a central endeavour for Show of Hands, from their early work with exiled Chilean musicians to the many songs that connect Britain with the migrant communities that settled around the world from Australia to Canada. The new album features a bare, stripped-back transportation tale discovered by Beer in a rare book of folk ballads. Called ‘Virginia’, it reveals links between the US and Britain that most would find extraordinary today. “I found it in A Ballad History of England: from 1588 to the Present Day by Roy Palmer,” says Beer. “It’s about white slavery and the only other reference to that I know of in recent years is [Giles Milton’s] White Gold about a Cornish lad who worked for the caliphate for 20 years after being sold by Barbary pirates and who finally managed to escape.”

The idea that plantation slavery in Virginia was anything other than black African slavery would be a shock to many. “I think it was too brief a period for it to become established in memory, because with the discovery of Australia they started shipping them there,” says Knightley. “We’re only talking a 30- or 40-year period of sentencing to plantations in Virginia.”

Such informative spotlights on hidden areas of our collective past are a Show of Hands speciality. They draw on the work of Dick Gaughan and Aly Bain for another track – ‘John Harrison’s Hands’ – that tells the life story of the man who invented a way of measuring longitude at sea. It is one of those epics that seem intent on laying down a manifesto for an entire way of life. “The only song I know that is as ambitious is ‘Northwest Passage’ by [late Canadian folk singer] Stan Rogers,” says Knightley. “It takes as a theme someone’s whole life as a journey. I think that’s remarkable.” He also loves the irony of the fact that it took two Scotsmen to write a song revealing the greatness of a low-born Englishman rejected by the elite.

Sometimes, in their dredging of the past, the duo can achieve a quite devastating contemporary resonance. Take the singing of ‘The Bonny Light Horseman’ to conclude a song about a contemporary British military death, or ‘The Keys of Canterbury’ in the midst of their banking crisis album, Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed. Closing their new release is a song that could appear innocuous enough. It sounds traditional and its lyrics hark back to the folk tradition of female drummer boy songs – relating the 17th- and 18th-century practice of girls dressing as boys and enlisting in the army or navy. It’s a long tradition. This track, ‘Mesopotamia’, evokes an ancient Middle East, and yet listening to it sends a chill down the spine. Hearing it in Hackney, a stone’s throw from where young girls have departed ‘to the wars’ of the Islamic State, makes you acutely aware that nowhere else have you yet heard an artistic response to these events.

“The lyrics I rejected were brutal,” reveals Knightley of the first take of the song. “They were very bloodthirsty and sharp-edged. I was persuaded and I’m glad I was.” This decision to use more oblique lyrics is maybe more powerful, and yet he made the decision for fear of causing offence to the wrong people. The duo are keenly aware of the dangers of misinterpretation. It has dogged their hit song ‘Roots’ – a rallying cry for the English to connect with their lost identity that was quickly appropriated by the far right for its own ends. To even have such dilemmas to deal with illustrates how brave their music is and how important, too. Such issues need intelligent artistic responses. The resonance of such songs reveals that need.

Beer and Knightley are now taking on the aura of elder statesmen of English folk. Both clearing three score years, they have been at their game for decades now and have a battle-hardened strength that comes of gigging round the pubs, clubs and small venues of England. The whole air of The Long Way Home is of reflection, a gathering in of the past, a reckoning with life. It’s a record that only musicians of a certain age could make. Younger artists wouldn’t have the experience for it.

Running through this record, and through all their music like a talisman, is the mighty shadow of West Country folk singer, Tony Rose. He died in 2002, and his passing has clearly left a considerable hole felt deeply by the duo. He was central to their first love of folk. The reverence with which they perform his signature song, ‘Twas on One April’s Morning’, is arresting. They conclude it with a wonderful tune penned by Knightley and executed on fiddle by Beer: ‘Isca Rose’, named in Tony’s honour.

For those who heard their last album, Centenary – a commemoration of World War I in song and poetry – ‘Isca Rose’ will be familiar. It’s the tune set to stanzas of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ from AE Housman’s immortal A Shropshire Lad. The reappearance of this fiddle air, sliding in again on this new album like the returning tide, encapsulates the rhythmic nature of Show of Hands. They have picked up the mantle left by Rose and his contemporaries and are already passing it down to artists like Seth Lakeman, Jackie Oates and even Knightley’s own son, Jack. It speaks of a never-ending process.

As they stand solemnly together with their long-time collaborator Miranda Sykes at a single mic under a single spotlight at Hackney Empire, this sense of continuity is brought home. They sing a new sea shanty – ‘Keep Hauling’ – a capella. The human voice stripped bare. The auditorium is as still as the mouth of the river Exe on a summer’s day.

This article originally appeared in Songlines #115. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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Lady Maisery – Folk Songs in the Key of Life

Posted on May 8th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


English folk trio Lady Maisery speak to Julian May about their latest album that blurs the line between traditional and contemporary song in order to tackle that most daunting of subjects, the cycle of life (photograph: James Fagan)

We came together through a love of singing,” says Rowan Rheingans, “and songs and their messages, the power of songs and the sharing of songs.” Between them, Lady Maisery, a trio of Rheingans, Hannah James and Hazel Askew, play the harp, concertina, accordion, fiddle, viola, banjo, bansitar and piano. And ankle bells and some foot percussion. Most importantly, though, they all sing, in gorgeous harmony, often without any of those instruments. They’re renowned for reviving diddling, singing tunes wordlessly, using their voices as instruments, an art that had all but disappeared in the UK.

Though youthful, all three are seasoned artists. James worked with the band Kerfuffle for nine years, then continued with Sam Sweeney, Bellowhead’s fiddle player. Askew and Rheingans are both in successful duos with their respective sisters. The Rheingans Sisters won the Best Original Track Award at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards with their song ‘Mackerel’. All three are participants in the Songs of Separation project, which brought together ten female musicians from Scotland and England to work on songs of dislocation and parting. They grew up with folk music and knew one another as teenagers from meeting at festivals and summer schools.

“We all ended up going to Newcastle University, though we weren’t all there at the same time,” says Askew. “I had spoken to Hannah a few times about starting a vocal trio, but we weren’t sure who we could get to sing low. Then I ended up sharing a flat with Rowan so it all fell into place.”

Lady Maisery released their first album, Weave and Spin, in 2011 and their second, the dark and powerful Mayday, in 2013 (a Top of the World review in #94). The singing on both was highly praised. “We love singing,” Askew reiterates. “We spend a long time arranging, coming up with harmonies. Singing a song in different ways, listening back and picking out this harmony, that chord that we thought worked. We all sing and we all play, so we have lots of possibilities.”

Lady Maisery take their name from a woman in a song who, in the face of familial opposition, refuses to give up the man she loves, the man of her choosing. The song, centuries old, is absolutely contemporary. She falls victim to what today is known as ‘honour killing.’ The band’s name encapsulates the engagement of these young women with traditional song, human rights, and gender politics. Mayday explored all of these.

“People think of us as a group dealing mainly with folk songs, and folk music is an amazing situation to explore these things in,” Rheingans says. “That’s a very strong and important part of our work. But we’re also all very interested in other kinds of music, other kinds of literature.” James studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with accordionist Maria Kalaniemi. Rheingans also loves Scandinavian music and has studied in Sweden. Askew plays medieval harp with the early music ensemble, The Dufay Collective. They compose for the theatre and James, steeped in clog, Irish and Appalachian dance, created and performed Jig Doll, a solo percussive dance show.

“We come across songs and images in those realms that we want to explore,” says Rheingans. “They come into our repertoire quite naturally.” So, Cycle, Lady Maisery’s new and very impressive album, includes traditional material gathered by Frank Kidson (who travelled widely as a landscape painter, collecting folk songs as he went) and Sabine Baring-Gould, the extraordinary West Country vicar (he fathered 15 children, collected volumes of songs and has more than 1,240 publications to his name). But there is also a lyric by the contemporary novelist Toby Litt, a song by American rocker Todd Rundgren, a hymn by the Reverend John Newton (who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’), and Gerrard Winstanley’s ’Diggers’ Song’. There are songs of their own, too, and some beautiful tunes.

“We started to work, after Mayday, on songs that for various reasons we all wanted to do,” Askew, the harp and concertina player, says. “When we had the group of songs we thought, what links these?” James jumps in. “We found the theme. It was subconscious at first, then became clearer. Life, the cycle of life!”

And I thought their last album, with its juxtapositions and multiplicity of meanings, was ambitious. Cycle could have been daunting, but Lady Maisery handle their monumental theme deftly as well as bravely. Songs are arranged around the turning of the year, reflecting our relation with the natural world and the land, our place in the cycle. Woven within this is the progress of our lives, from the vigour of our springtime, in Rheingans’ song ‘Sing for the Morning’, to ‘The Winter of Life’, a vision of a contented old age. Baring-Gould collected this from Charles Arscott, clearly a wise man, in South Zeal, Devon, on March 20 1896.

“We live in times of such uncertainty,” James says. “Everyone feels uncertain. This is an attempt to get back to those things we all have in common and can lean on: the cycle of life.”

Lady Maisery sing songs of solidarity: Richard Fariña’s ‘Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, ‘Diggers’ Song’, and the album ends with ‘Land on the Shore’. This is a Shaker hymn, full of hope and faith that we will, together, get to wherever that far shore lies. Given what is happening now between North Africa and the far shore of Europe, this song resonates politically, as well as spiritually.

“Not that it’s a ‘happy album,’” Rheingans insists. “But it’s not dwelling on hardship, more on strength, and the whole picture. The basics of life – that’s what it’s about.”

Cycle is certainly not superficially upbeat: there is no skirting round the fact that the cycle of life is rounded by death. ‘So Far’ is taken from a secular requiem. Askew’s ‘Order and Chaos’ grapples, like many folk songs, with death and what might follow, but she was inspired by Aaron Freeman’s scientific eulogy ‘You Want a Physicist to Speak at your Funeral’ – offering comfort from the fact that while energy and matter change, they cannot be destroyed. Cycle is akin to Maria Rainer Rilke’s great sequence, Sonnets to Orpheus, a celebration of creation, sung into being, without God.

Right in the middle is ‘A Father’s Lullaby’, a remarkable song by Askew that exemplifies Lady Maisery’s approach. Askew wrote it after visiting the Foundling Museum in London, the UK’s first children’s charity. From 1741 until 1954, the Foundling Hospital cared for abandoned children. Most who took their infants there because they were unable to look after them were women. But there were many men too, fathers left holding the baby because the mother had died in childbirth. This double desolation moved Askew to write. Her song, though, is wrapped like a baby’s shawl around a folk song. Frank Collinson collected ‘A Lullaby’ from F Kitching of Guildford in Surrey. You can find it, as Askew did, in the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s marvellous online archive, The Full English.

That song speaks of a mother who has gone ‘down the green lane…Over the common and through the green moor.’ In Askew’s hands these words accrue a deeper meaning: the mother is not off on a country jaunt. Her journey is out of this world. She will never come ‘back to her baby once more.’ The lullaby the father sings to his baby is also a lament for the child’s mother. This is brilliantly achieved by Askew, who augments the traditional song with words of her own.

“We started with traditional songs. Now we’re picking out what is relevant about them, and probing what a folk song is,” says James. “The Todd Rundgren song doesn’t seem so different from a traditional song.” It is about the collapse of old industry and the old securities it provided. ‘Diggers’ Song’ protests the dispossession of people when land is enclosed. Both have significance beyond the economic, in the fracturing of relationships, with society and the earth.

Over this past summer, Lady Maisery have performed these songs at different festivals and venues, to all sorts of audiences. “We’re in an interesting position,” Rheingans says. “We have quite a political message, but we’re not seen as political singers. We’re singing to an audience with a wide range of views. Some of the people in our audiences voted to leave the European Union. They’re not all reading the same papers.”

But she recalls Lady Maisery’s performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival, soon after the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. “People were very emotional when we sang our songs about pulling down walls. They were very engaged. And with ‘Land on the Shore’, it’s very simple, easy for people to join in with, and there’s a kind of shared meaning – we will all end up in the same place, so let’s just be thankful, and kind to each other. I think folk songs are good at bringing people together in some kind of essential friendship. At those times I feel very grateful to be involved in singing them.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #123. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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