On 16th September Lisa Knapp (our Artist of the Month in September) released Hidden Seam which featured guest artists: James Yorkston, Kathryn Williams, Marry Waterson and Martin Carthy, a spectacular album and a very worthy successor to her highly acclaimed début Wild And Undaunted. Folk Radio UK caught up with Lisa to talk about her new album, folk song collecting and the shipping forecasts…
Are you a fan of the Shipping Forecast? Do you listen to it on the radio or did the inspiration to use it come from another route?
“A fan, yes I suppose I am a fan of the Shipping Forecast, I hadn’t really thought of it like that as its kind of always there isn’t it, like part of the furniture. Yes, I’m familiar with it through the radio, It’s a quite magical thing for me I think.
There’s something mysterious about the names given to the regions, unless your a sailor, it carries over into the song and the way the instruments are recorded can you give me a little insight into what you were aiming for and how the piece came together?
“The words are so idiosyncratic that you remember them distinctly, all the weather stuff too, cyclonic 4, squally, showers etc. It creates a mythic place I think. A place always imagined rarely visited.
“Initially I wasn’t really aiming for anything in particular with the song, in that I didn’t really have the sound of the song in my head before hand or anything. I was musing at the time a lot around the concept of water on the planet, how it’s in everything, how we can never be far from this substance, how it exists in every element, as solid as liquid and as gas, and how magnificently water got here in the first place. They say these great oceans hit the planet from space in huge clusters!!
“I can’t really remember the moment I thought of using the Shipping Forecast but I began to mess around with the order of the regions to try to find some sort of rhyme. It was pure coincidence that Gerry and I started jamming one day and as I’d been messing round with it I just blurted it out over some chords Gerry banged out (literally) on the autoharp. It sort of formed itself, then I went off and wrote the middle part using the autoharp. I wanted at that point to express something about the idea of how connected we are to these watery spaces and that the same water flows though us all, generationally, also, and this idea is contained in the title track Hidden Seam as well, I think it’s very poetic that in singing, in speaking and breathing we constantly emit water through our breath which connects to these areas in the Shipping Forecast.
“We then recorded the vocals and autoharp in the studio where Gerry made a completely magical section for the middle with strings and added vocals. I knew that I’d like some sort of programming so some time after I contacted Oliver Cherer as I’d admired his work under his moniker of Dollboy. We had a lovely evening at his flat choosing sounds that fitted my description of ‘pips and squeaks’ basically. A while after that I was ill in bed for a week or so, bored as hell, and I thought I’d really like to see if I could find some recorded sounds and that’s when I came across this amazing 1960’s US Marine recording of creatures and motors from under the sea, the sounds of the porpoises and narwhals and seals really bring the under water thing to life I think. They make me think of all the life under the sea in those amazing regions chanted in the forecast.”
In the title track, you sing “And all the singers and all the songs and all the songs and all the singers.” Are you connecting with other singers and songs and do you see yourself as part of the ongoing history of music making?
“Well, again that song seemed to come first in a moment when I was just playing around on a keyboard. I’d been shown an amazing video by Malcolm Taylor at my favourite library which I always mention (the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, Camden) It was a 1980’s documentary on the Folk Song Collector, Singer and writer A L Lloyd. Bert Lloyd, as he was known, is a really fascinating character within 20th century folk song and contributed to British Folk Music in a huge way. He was a pioneer in collecting songs and tunes from home and abroad particularly from Eastern Europe and Australia. Unlike many/most associated with the folk movement during the 20th century and previous, he didn’t come from the more upper and educated classes, in fact he came from very humble and lowly beginnings and coincidentally was born in a house in a parallel road to where I grew up in, which makes him very interesting to me. He was a completely self taught man who really achieved some great things. Apart from that he had an infectious love of and romanticism about folk music. At the end of the documentary he says something along the lines of that he’d always felt there was some sort of “hidden seam or secret stream” in reference to the fact that song pervades all humanity, runs through all streaks and veins of human culture and existence. I thought that was such a beautiful way to look at it and it really stuck with me.
“The idea of, “All the singers and all the songs” for me reflects the same notion as the water idea in Shipping Song and mirrors how language therefore songs, music works too. Like water it bleeds through human culture, all these sounds and ideas.”
How did the collaborations on the album come about? Did you have specific people you wanted to work with? Did the songs suggest certain people?
“The songs did suggest certain people though I’d long wanted to work with all of them too as I’ve been an admirer of all of them for years. Particularly to have Martin Carthy in our studio playing one of my songs in his singular amazing way was really special, what a privilege! I’d love to do something else with him!
“I’ve long been an admirer of Alasdair Roberts and regard his songwriting as some of the best I’ve ever heard. When I wrote Hunt The Hare and Gerry and I were recording it in the studio we both thought it would be really fitting for Alasdair’s voice and style and was great that he agreed to do it.
“I first met James Yorkston at the BBC Electric Proms (come to think of it I also met Kath Williams, Alasdair and Marry Waterson there too) again a unique and brilliant songwriter I had the pleasure of touring Scotland with James a year or so after my first album release. He came up one day with this recording of Lal and Mike Waterson, singing this song Black Horse. He suggested it for a wee encore on the tour so that’s where I learned it. I thought it was lovely and when I got back I had a play around with it and got a bit busy with the drums!!
“The sweet, sweet voiced Kathryn Williams, a gifted and amazing songwriter I had the pleasure of working with her at the BBC Electric Proms and then again on the Daughters of Albion tour. I thought her voice would be perfect for Hushabye and was really privileged she contributed to the writing as well.
“Marry Waterson I met at the BBC Electric Proms which was dedicated to the work of her late mother Lal. What a privilege again to have her sing on her mother’s song on the album!! I was so chuffed when she said she would do it, I absolutely love her voice. She has since released two stunning albums with her bother Oliver Knight, go check them out!
“I have to say that I really am indebted to the generosity of all the above who contributed to Hidden Seam and also inspired by their talents as songwriters to explore my own. A massive thanks to them.”
I’ve already mentioned the sound of Shipping Song and you may have already covered this, but there are many striking things in the arrangements across the board, the strings in particular, it suggests a very patient process of building layers. Did you set out with a specific sound in mind or did it evolve as you went along.
“It did evolve really and it was a fairly elongated process, not always through choice but that’s just how it worked out. I have Gerry Diver to thank though really for the string department, he has such a great vision as producer and is also mind-bendingly adept at playing many instruments but particularly strings as you can hear. I think they’ve added so much to the overall sound.”
Tell me about the May EP.
“Well, the May EP Series is expecting its second instalment next May! It’s a series of recordings exploring themes of May within traditional song material and original pieces. I’m fascinated by folklore around May, May Queens, Jack in The Greens, May Day, etc. The first EP, Hunt The Hare ~ A Branch Of May was self-produced (apart from Hunt The Hare) and came out in 2012 and contained 5 tracks, 2 traditional and 3 ‘wot I wrote.’ It received a really good reception so I was dead proud. The next one will be entirely traditional songs and I’m looking forward to doing some low key solo shows in May to launch it.
Am I right in thinking that you’ve had a few other collaborative projects on the go over the last few years? If so can you tell me about them?
“I think the main one would have to have been the Canal project I did with Leafcutter John. We were asked to perform a series of concerts on a Canal boat along the Grand Union Canal as part of a celebration and collection of historical and archival materials relating to life on canals when they were used in industry for transportation. We basically took it upon ourselves to write a whole hour’s worth of brand new material and experimented with all sorts of sounds as Leafcutter John is an electronics artist. It was such great fun and I would love to do something like that again. Incidentally, Leafcutter John is working on a remix of the tittle track Hidden Seam so look out for that. Eeek! The excitement!”
What inspires you? Are you constantly busy as a writer, or do you work in bursts?
“I am constantly busy, not necessarily as a writer. I definitely work in bursts. At the moment I’ve been quite busy supporting the release of Hidden Seam so haven’t really had time to write for a bit. Inspiration comes from all over the place but I think it really comes in cycles and after a phase of writing a lot and thinking a lot about writing I think you kind of empty your cache or something. It’s like you have to have a bit of time to fill up again and go and do things, see new things, hear new things, etc, which is kind of where I’m at at the moment with writing, although I’m currently inspired to actually play and sing quite a bit more.”
The sleeve is spectacular, can you tell me more abut that, working with David and so forth.
“Thanks. Well, David Angel took lots of the press pictures for Wild & Undaunted, but we had both said that we’d like to do something for a cover one day. As well as loads of other great stuff he’s done quite a few folk artists covers; Jim Moray’s amazing Skulk cover, Bellowhead’s Hedonism album etc and I really loved the look of them. Also, he has a wonderful gothic, illustrator sort of style which I think really matches the content and sound of this album as it’s very full and big in sound. David’s a hugely talented photographer and visual stylist and completely fun to work with. I also had help from a wonderful lady called Hope Winter-Hall who generously gave a lot of time to me in developing ideas for the look of the cover etc, big thanks to them both.”
Is there a dark heart to the album with Seagiver and Two Ravens?
“Yes, I think there is. Songs about death, well I am a folk singer!”
How have you approached live performance? I note that it’s mostly you and Gerry. What are the plans for touring? Anything else in the pipeline?
“As I’ve not toured extensively for a while I want to get a good bit of momentum behind the album so that I can tour it properly. It’s a very full sounding album so it needs a full sounding band. At the launch gig we had Pete Flood from Bellowhead on percussion, Gerry (Diver) was on piano, fiddle and loops, Fred Thomas on double bass and Tomos Brangwyn on hammered dulcimer, it was a fabulously full sound and really punched out the percussive nature of the album. So we’re looking forward to taking that on tour later this season and into 2014. It’ll be great to get to play at some festivals next year too. In the meantime there are a few more intimate duo gigs that Gerry and I will be doing but only up until early next year. Then I will be (gulp!!), working up a solo set! So that will be different obviously to the Hidden Seam set (as I don’t have 4 other pairs of hands) but will be good to do an intimate set and I’m particularly concentrating on the May stuff with that and looking forward to it too.
“In the pipeline? Well, yes there’s lots of stuff in the pipeline but that would be telling. You’ll have to watch this space I guess.
Interview by: Simon Holland