I meet Seth Lakeman in a West End London hotel on a grey, overcast May morning, twenty-nine days after seeing him rip a hole out of the Hammersmith Apollo before Billy Bragg’s end-of-tour party (live review here). That night Seth and his band owned the stage as no support act has any right to do, but the 37 year old sat in a corner of the hotel lobby seems smaller than the powerful presence I remember. No matter; brief introductions, a firm handshake and a west-country accent establish that yes; this is indeed part of a very important modern folk family.
Just as he grabbed the Bragg fans by the scruff of the neck within minutes, he warms to the subject matter of our conversation immediately. The Q&A will cover a wide range of subjects. Seth doesn’t flinch from opining on any of them, from the journey folk has taken to reach its current status in the contemporary music industry, from recording, playing live, the grounding of a new family, the pros and cons of the digital era and even the odd surprise admission. Each question is considered briefly before being answered, and in keeping with the intensity of his live performances, the responses are honest, passionate and urgent. He’s as inquisitive as I am, and occasionally we fall over each other’s sentences questioning something or trying to make a point. Seth’s need to know and understand is one of the key things I take away from my time with him.
Folk Radio UK (FRUK): The last time I saw you, you were tearing it up at the Hammersmith Apollo; how was it for you?
Seth Lakeman (SL): I didn’t expect full standing in the stalls. We really enjoyed it.
FRUK: It was a special night.
SL: It was. We’ve toured with Billy before but I stood at the side of the stage during his set and he was really going for it.
FRUK: It’s a big hall to walk into as a support act. Does it require a different approach?
SL: It’s always tough doing a support. We were given 40 minutes then told we had more time, but we’d done our set; paring a 90-minute show down to 40 is an art, and we had to think on our feet for the extra song. We cater for support slots differently, to make sure we give a taster of what we do for an audience who may not know much about us. It’s drumming up business, but we love playing live whatever the occasion.’
FRUK: Your energy live is infectious. I was struck by the attack and intensity of the music. Is it hard to maintain?
SL: Even our slow stuff has a power. The music is the way that I am – quite frantic, impatient; the 90 minutes on stage are a good representation of the man. I can’t sit still for 5 minutes. It’s more performance theatre rather than academic folk on stage – not showbiz, but in an entertainment way, rather than providing the song to the audience and waiting for them to judge it.
FRUK: A lot of your songs have a tension and dissonance that mirror the intensity live.
SL: The tension is like imperfection – it draws you in.
FRUK: Does the restlessness manifest itself off-stage?
SL: Yes. Having the twins is an onslaught, but I can’t imagine anything else now. Every moment is taken up, which suits my personality.
FRUK: Word Of Mouth was released in early February; with the dust settled, are you happy?
SL: I’m really pleased with the reception. I felt happy about Word Of Mouth. I hadn’t listened to it recently but I had it on in the car on the way to London – Ian’s sounds are great on this record. You’re trying to draw people in and the recording process and the venue (North Tamerton church) was part of that. For The Saddest Crowd we recorded in one take and Lisbee’s sitting behind me in a pew singing the backing vocals.
FRUK: What’s the overriding emotion you feel when a record is released; relief, sadness, nerves?
SL: It’s almost like throwing your baby out there and seeing how people react. There’s a lot of sensitivity about it. I was chatting to Steve Knightley (friend and songwriter in Show of Hands) recently and we agreed there’s preciousness about the first time you play a song to someone else. It’s a bit of me.
FRUK: What’s your capacity for criticism?
SL: My threshold? I try, but it’s hard, you can’t avoid being affected by it. You’re totally exposed and to survive you have to become immune to it – you get practise as the years go on! Barrel House was a very very brave, bold thing to do. There are people who have got into what I do from the commercial aspect and don’t understand the concept side of the last two albums. Two or three reviews of Word Of Mouth didn’t quite get the work, the themes behind it. It was ‘Oh, he’s gone for the same again, down the mines.’ You know they haven’t really listened to it. You can tell who has listened to it and who hasn’t by what they write.
FRUK: Was it a conscious decision to release some of the conversations that led to the songs?
SL: I wanted to do it. I want to release them as a separate piece in their own right – I think they’re that powerful. I spent a lot of last summer with John Govier from Radio Devon editing and listening to the interviews. It was a lot of work – each interview was a couple of hours long. They were edited purposefully to fit across the songs so that the narrative weaves in and out of the music.
FRUK: Do you have a favourite story from the interviews?
SL: It’s a difficult one but it would have to be the very talented guy I spoke to in Dartmoor prison. He had a voice like Richard Burton, beautiful, commanding attention. He had three or four very powerful poems. Amongst the others, the interview with Reg Hannaford, the last survivor of Operation Tiger (the pre-D-Day training exercises in Lyme Bay) stands out, as do the interview with Tony Hallworth about the last journey on British Rail’s steam engines, and the Minack theatre story, that was another. I knew about when we played down there some years ago.
Seth Lakeman – Tiger interview narrated by Billy Bragg
FRUK: I find Last Rider quite sad, despite the upbeat train rhythm.
SL: It is. Tony’s very emotional about the heyday of steam. It’s part of suiting sound and subject, something that’s been very important to Barrel House and Word Of Mouth. That’s a perfect example – it’s a train!
FRUK: How difficult is it to distil the interviews into a 4 minute song?
SL: There’s a lot of content, it’s not a quick process.
FRUK: Were there interviews that led to nothing?
SL: Loads. My wife suggested I go back over the interviews and songs that didn’t make it to the album and there’s another set that’s completely undeveloped. I’m going to try and do that. I’ve got quite a few from Barrel House too, but I’m terrible at filing them – some are on my phone, some at home, some in the studio. My albums are my filing system.
FRUK: How did you decide what made the cut and what didn’t?
SL: Yeah, who’s to decide which song is working and which isn’t? In the past, it would have been (Seth’s brother and one half of Kathryn Roberts and…) Sean. Sean is a very clever man like that; he has the producer’s vision. He can see how songs go together, so someone like that getting involved to draw out the best songs is nice to have.
FRUK: If Sean isn’t there, who gets first play?
SL: My wife. She’s not a folkie, but likes the great songwriters. She always says ‘Seth, you’re too dark!’ I tell her it’s the material, not me!
FRUK: What does the Word Of Mouth tour have left in store for you?
SL: Our main UK tour is 18 to 20 gigs in the autumn. I’m doing four gigs in Denmark with Adam Cohen (Leonard Cohen’s son) after the UK tour. We’ve already been to Germany and Holland, and also to Australia.
FRUK: How was it down under?
SL: Oh, excellent. They have a real hunger for British folk music. The National Folk Festival (Australia’s equivalent of Cambridge) is well supported and we like a festival, so it was a chance to hang out.
FRUK: Anything new out there we should know about?
SL: Lots. Go Jane Go (Kieran and Lucas Kane with David Francey) are awesome; two singers with their son; banjo, guitar, voice. Very laid back.
FRUK: Take me through a typical day on tour; is there one?
SL: You get into a rhythm. We have a brief meeting when we arrive at a venue; build the PA, soundcheck, then dinner at 5 or 6. There’s always plenty to keep me occupied. For the past 7-8 years it’s been a tour bus and long tours. We pack down after 11 and it takes a couple of hours after the gig to come down.
FRUK: How do you deal with your restlessness?
SL: I’ve got children (laughs).
FRUK: And you relax when?
SL: My downtime is between noon and 2 in a 24-hour cycle. It’s just the way my life is. Last summer was mental. We had Word Of Mouth to finish and I wanted to do that before the twins arrived. Then I was involved in The Full English (EFDSS’ project to digitally archive as many traditional English folk songs as possible – the resulting album on which Seth performs won a BBC Folk award) and then became a father.
If all that sounds beyond the abilities of most of us, I suspect it is. You can almost see the energy Seth provides to these projects just by sitting opposite him; he leans forward into every answer, hands moving constantly to emphasise his points and every response comes complete with a story or example. It occurs to me that coffee might not be Seth’s best friend. It also occurs to me that those of us on the outside of this process can’t always see the bigger picture surrounding the release of an album or the logistics behind a tour. I put it to Seth that Word Of Mouth, released in February this year, had a much longer gestation.
SL: Yes, that’s right. If you include the time it took to arrange and conduct the interviews, then edit them down, decide on which ones to use, then write the songs, record and release them, an album can be three to four years in the making. That’s how it works.
FRUK: But the public doesn’t see that.
FRUK: Does that make the album as an artefact more important?
SL: Possibly. I think folk is an album art rather than something that lends itself to singles.
FRUK: It strikes me that your music and its production values are very contemporary but your subject matter has its antecedents in the most traditional of folk stories. Barrel House and Word Of Mouth are archives of lost industry and a world that isn’t that far behind us but is completely different to the one we live in.
SL: Yes, that’s right. In the studio, I’m the archivist, putting stuff down for posterity.
FRUK: With all the projects going on at any one time, when you switch off, can you listen to music and what is it?
SL: I can, but not often at home, mostly in the car. It’ll be Bruce Hornsby, Andrew Bird. I listen to a lot of world music, stuff off the Putumayo label. Indian artists. Toumani Diabate, Oliver Mtukudzi too. I find the rhythms and the difference between Western music very transportational. I quite like listening to lyrics I don’t understand, so the music becomes a wash. It depends on how I’m listening. It’s either background, or if you’re like me, when someone asks me to listen to something, I really concentrate on it, unpick it, to the extent that not many people ask me to listen to stuff!
FRUK: Who if anyone would you like to collaborate with?
SL: Loads. I’d love to do a record with Ethan Johns. I loved his first record. He played a gig at an eco park in Wales and I hung out with him; there were only about 20 people there and all the time I’m sitting there thinking, it’s Ethan Johns! I’m also trying to record an instrumental album.
FRUK: John’s recently released second album is excellent. What was the last record you heard that made the hairs on your arms go up, and why?
SL: Judee Sill, The Kiss. I only discovered it a couple of weeks ago and I just keep listening to it. A great crafted song with a great arrangement. I love still discovering new music.
Indeed. Once again, the enthusiast rises to the fore, happy to chew the fat, glad he spends his life doing something he clearly loves. We spend several minutes tossing band names back and forth and it’s clear that despite his downtime listening tastes he’s up to speed with the latest in folk and roots music, reserving special mention for the Welsh wizards of Laurel Canyon harmony Zervas and Pepper.
FRUK: Do you have a view on how the digital age has changed the sale and distribution of music?
SL: I think the craft of the album is suffering and dying. Digital is great for immediacy, but for whole content… It’s making the audience pick, it’s like fast food. Is respect for the artist and the material going to be lost; is the amount of creativity going to be lost? As an art form, is music going to suffer? You lose the mystery of music.
FRUK: Can you remember the first record you bought with your own money?
SL: Slippery When Wet; Bon Jovi. (Laughs) It’s a classic isn’t it? I was 13.
We move on. Talk of discoveries, other music and the choices of youth lead us to the kernel of Seth’s family and day-to-day existence. His life in music appears to be very satisfying, but clearly all encompassing. I ask what it is that drives him – is a passion for the music enough; would he be happy with a residence at the local pub every Friday if it meant you could play?
SL: What, and give up the career?
FRUK: Is that how you see it?
SL: I see the promotional work, the interviews and activities like the BBC work for the Royal Albert Hall concert as a career, but not the festivals and playing. I understand there’s a brand that needs selling – the man known as ‘Seth Lakeman’ has to be ‘out there’.
FRUK: Are you comfortable with that?
SL: It’s weird. I don’t pretend to be brilliant at the social media side of it. You upload a bloody picture of yourself with Claudia Winkleman and everyone goes ‘Oooh!’, but upload a picture of the Word Of Mouth album, and it’s tumbleweed. I uploaded a picture of me with Morley in a backpack, me holding two guitar cases and it got a mental reaction! So, you know, take the kids to work is the answer I guess.
FRUK: You’ve already had a career. Multiple albums albums, several bands and now solo. You have another career ahead of you if you want it – look at what Seeger and Guthrie did, or Dylan, Baez, Guthrie, Martyn, the Thompsons. All working and playing at twice your age.
SL: I feel like I can make my records now – previously it was about proving I could do it. Once people knew that, I could make records like Barrel House and Word Of Mouth. I’m in another chapter; children, two albums down the way I wanted to do it. I’m in a good place.
FRUK: Talking of careers, I see your father Geoff has reignited his playing career; performing is in the genes, isn’t it?
SL: He’s playing regularly now and loving it.
FRUK: Do you stand at the back and heckle?
SL: (Laughs) Yeah yeah, the occasional heckle. I contribute when I can too. We play a few sessions together in pubs. He’s taking his musical career more seriously than ever now he’s retired (Geoff Lakeman wrote for The Mirror), but he’s written for years. He made a record with John Leonard (Of Smooth Operations, a radio and TV production company) on Fellside Records.
Geoff Lakeman performing Jim Jones:
FRUK: You share your father’s journalistic skills; what excites you most – the story or the song?
SL: Where Word Of Mouth was concerned, the story of Operation Tiger, when you hear the story itself, sends shivers up the spine. I enjoy both.
FRUK: Can you see a time when you don’t make music?
SL: There’s no urgency to make another album but no, I can’t see that time, not yet. When I’m at home, I don’t surround myself with music. My mates are builders and architects, mates from school. They’re not into what I do; they’re into other music.
The life of this contemporary folk artist is a little strange. Seth Lakeman is both a custodian of an art form that can be traced back to mediaeval troubadours and a curator of the stories of ordinary working people. He’s spent half of the last few years looking back and half wondering what project will attract his attention in the future. It takes considerable talent, energy and vision to be the fulcrum upon which these opposing forces balance but Seth is far too self-effacing to see himself like that. For him, it’s about the next piece, and the next piece, and the next; as long as they involve the creation of music, which appears to be enough.
FRUK: So, what’s next?
SL: The next studio album could be a while, but we’d like to release a live album in early 2015, so we’re going to record the autumn gigs.
FRUK: That sounds great, if you can capture the intensity.
SL: The addition of Lisbee (Stainton) to the band gives us a whole new dimension. She’s brilliant. She’s guesting on everything and is a great element to have in the band. We’ve never done anything live and it’s a really exciting part of what we do. Live is about the band, it’s the icing on the cake – the stimulus behind what we do musically. I do some gigs on my own and they’re great, but I come off stage and there’s no one to talk to. With a band, the buzz is great and uniting.
FRUK: And live?
SL: Apart from the autumn gigs, we’re playing Cambridge and about 18 other festivals during the summer. Our music seems to fit festivals; everyone can get into it.
FRUK: Tell me about June 6 (this interview was conducted before D-Day).
SL: I’m performing King and Country at the D-Day Anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. My Grandfather is featured in the show script. He landed at Juno beach as part of the assault.
FRUK: That will be an emotional night.
SL: It will. There’s no rehearsal either because there isn’t time. The score will be handed out to the orchestra and we’re off!
[Subsequent to the interview, the Anniversary concert was a great success with Seth’s performance considered a highlight, generating huge amounts of positive comments on social media.]
Our time is up, but Seth is happy to linger and talk about some of his father’s recordings on Fellside Records, his enthusiasm continuing to bubble gently to the surface, a fan as much as an artist. His fans have a tour and possible live album to look forward to in the near future, but perhaps more importantly, the knowledge that a musician who can’t sit still artistically for more than 5 minutes is only halfway through a rich and rewarding recording career.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate
Seth Lakeman feat. Lisbee Stainton ~ King and Country live in Cologne, Germany 2014
Upcoming Live Dates
14 – SHERBORNE, Behind The Castle
20 – HATFIELD, Folk By The Oak
25 – MILTON KEYNES, International Festival
26 – MONMOUTH, Monmouth Festival
27 – TROWBRIDGE, Village Pump Folk Festival
02 – CAMBRIDGE Folk Festival
03 – LONDON, Regents Park Open Air Theatre
10 – BROADSTAIRS, Broadstairs Folk Week
17 – DEVON, Beautiful Days Festival
22 – FALMOUTH, Princess Pavilion
23 – OXFORDSHIRE, Towersey Festival
24 – SHREWSBURY Folk Festival
30 – DENMARK, Tonder Festival
31 – DENMARK, Tonder Festival
17 – ST IVES, Guildhall
Photo Credit: Tim Young