The new millennium has witnessed a myriad of surprise returns by ‘lost’ artists, from Vashti Bunyan and Nic Jones to Rodriguez, Bill Fay, Linda Perhacs, and countless others. But few returns have been as surprising as Shirley Collins’.
While her talks and the publication of her memoirs have ensured she wasn’t completely forgotten, the loss of her singing voice in the early ’80s ensured the folk revival doyen would never hold a tune again.
Or so she, and everyone else thought.
And there are more shows to follow, including Coventry’s Warwick Arts Centre, on Saturday 29 April 2017, which will see the previously silent singer alongside short films, her seven-piece Lodestar Band, guests John Kirkpatrick, Lisa Knapp, and dancers Boss Morris.
“It’s one of those funny things, working now … things coming together in this extraordinary way,” declares the 81-year-old Collins, clearly bowled over by her return to the spotlight. “It’s been extraordinary! We’ve had two five-star reviews, in The Guardian and The Times, for the live show – I don’t mean to sound like I’m boasting, I’m just telling you what’s been happening.”
As her confidence has grown, so too has the strength of her voice – unheard for some 30+ years.
“I’m singing better now than I did on the album,” she says matter-of-factly, “which is just how it is.”
Live dates have ranged from the intimate (Rough Trade in-store), to large (Celtic Connections), with Shirley stressing she feels comfortable in both extremes.
“In the past, I’ve been in folk clubs, and I know I can recreate that intimacy, atmosphere, on a big stage as well.
“When you have a hall that big, you can see the films, there’s plenty of room for the Morris dancing; the musicians can sit in an arch … I’m just thrilled to be doing this in such big venues – but I’m equally happy in folk clubs. I have such very happy memories of the folk club days; I really enjoyed it.”
As well as the forthcoming tour dates, Shirley’s in the running for two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (Best Album and, impressively, Folk Singer Of The Year). There’s also a looming documentary film, and a belated follow-up to her 2004 autobiography, America Over The Water, entitled All In The Downs.
“I started writing it three years ago and had to put it aside to do the album, but in the last couple of days I picked it back up again,” she says of the tome, which is due to be published at the end of the year.
“It’s virtually written – it’s easy doing the writing, but it’s the rest, going through it … that takes time.
“It’s from 1960 onwards, from when I got back from America with Alan Lomax, and how I feel about it all. It’s going to be big! There’s a lot of it.”
The vast period the book spans includes the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes album with Davy Graham, major label releases, The Albion (Country and Dance) Band, the loss of her singing voice, raising a family, jobs in shops and offices (including a stint in a Job Centre and the British Museum), retirement, and her phoenix-like return.
One wonders, could it perhaps make two volumes … ?
“No! No!” Collins interjects quickly before considering the suggestion. “But … it’s a thought, ummm.”
Talk naturally turns to the possibility of a new album. Has anyone mentioned a follow-up to Lodestar yet?
“No!” she says swiftly. “I think because we’re still working on this one, and I guess they want to see how it does.”
However, Collins confesses it’s something she is privately considering.
“This is an awful thing, I haven’t told anyone else this, but I have started to think of songs again – so I’m getting a list ready … just in case.”
Shirley Collins appears at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Saturday 29 April 2017. Guests include John Kirkpatrick, Lisa Knapp, Boss Morris. For tickets call 024 7652 4524 or see: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk
Other tour dates include Safe As Milk Festival (23 April 2017); Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (6 May 2017); Brighton Dome (14 May 2017). Details: www.shirleycollins.co.uk/events.html
If you enjoyed this you may enjoy our interview with the legendary Anne Briggs here.