In December 2012, after seeing Lisa Knapp perform a short slot at a Christmas-themed daytime gig in Islington’s famous Union Chapel, I speculatively bought a copy of what was at the time her most recent CD. That CD, a brief and lovely EP called Hunt The Hare – A Branch Of May, was Knapp’s first concerted attempt to document and interpret some of the folk songs inspired by the year’s most evocative month. Five years after the release of that disc, she has taken the project a step further, releasing an album of May songs – Till April Is Dead – A Garland Of May. Despite being an album of predominantly traditional songs, it is one of the most original, daring and inspired releases of the year so far.
I was interested to know what is it about this time of year that gets Lisa Knapp’s creative juices flowing, and why May has always held such power over the imaginations of singers and writers. Here is what she had to say:
‘I don’t think anyone necessarily knows exactly why there are so many May rituals and customs,’ she admits, before offering her own theory: ‘It’s a time of year when the weather begins to be accommodating, and the trees and blooms look beautiful and are budding up again after what at that point always seems an interminable winter.’ And of course, there is the simple but long-standing human need to have a good time. ‘People love to celebrate. Many of the events that exist now are reinventions and resurrections of older customs, but the first mention in England dates as far back as 1240 with the complaint of one Bishop Grosseteste complaining that his priests were demeaning themselves by joining in the ‘May games’. So, it’s certainly something that has happened in this country for many many centuries.’
As befits someone who has spent years studying and singing about folkloric traditions, Knapp is eloquent on her subject, going on to explain that ‘there were Roman celebrations of the goddess Flora at around the end of April happening circa 200 or so BC, and there are also early Germanic traditions which involve the month of May, but there are no references thus far in literature to substantiate a connection with those celebrations in England as far as I’m aware. Also, beware the internet in its description of ‘ancient pagan customs’ as I’ve not seen much evidence to link modern customs with anything ancient directly although the feel of many of them is very pagan.
‘There are certainly records about maypoles from people like Pepys and beliefs about chimney-sweeps and milk maids celebrating May by collecting greenery and decorating themselves and processioning down streets collecting money, or making garlands and collecting money accompanied by musicians, dancing, and dare I say probably some alcohol.’
She is quick to recognise the practical as well as the artistic and ceremonial reasons for the popularity of May as a subject: ‘In modern times I think there have been different reasons for different customs. Firstly, there is the fact that May is when the year finally turns from winter to summer (although it can be a bit juddery in that regard!) so people actually feel like coming together and celebrating outside. I also think that May has so many metaphoric resonances and has been mined by poets over the years for this reason which has added to the romanticism of May I think. It’s mentioned a lot as a month in folk song to be ‘walking out’ in possibly because May is such a brilliant word to rhyme with as opposed to, say, August! I think ‘May’ represents potentiality, promise and mystery of the cycle of life – the life-giving sun is finally out, flowers begin to bud and bloom, the landscape changes so dramatically and beautifully, birds are singing, it all draws people to celebrate the fact that at last summer is here.
‘In times past when there weren’t modern comforts of central heating and abundance of food the change in the weather would have been more substantially felt. I also think that there’s something special about feeling connected to the land, each other and the landscape in a time when we live a very urban lifestyle, less in touch with the outside and more isolated. I think also, in many of the celebrations like the Morris dancing at the crack of dawn to ‘bring in the May’ and the Jack in the Green processions and hobby horse rituals that there is just such an attractive element of mystery, ancientness and connectedness with tradition. Also, it’s a great time for a party.’
So, has she known since that first EP that she would eventually release a whole album of May songs? Is it a project that she has had mapped out for a while? Well, not exactly.
‘I actually thought I would release a series of EPs on a May theme, but I began working on new May material and just thought it would be better to have one complete album rather than dribs and drabs, to make something substantial.’
The new album certainly does sound substantial. There is no hint that the apparently narrow subject might become restrictive. In fact, it seems to have been creatively liberating. Knapp has never been a staunch musical traditionalist, but on Till April Is Dead her experimental side is more prevalent than ever, particularly in the use of vocal effects and non-traditional production techniques. But she insists she has no intention of consciously messing with listeners’ notions of what constitutes folk music. ‘I just set out to make the song feel right,’ she says. And when I ask her about the difficulties of reproducing the album’s sound in a live setting, she is refreshingly honest and open to the idea that folk music is not immutable: ‘I do like to reproduce the songs as true as possible to the recording, but I can’t always do that: say if I was performing solo or unplugged for instance I obviously can’t have drums and bass. But then again songs often have a different life as a live piece, the recording isn’t necessarily setting the song in stone.’
One of the new album’s most weird and wonderful tracks is Staines Morris, a collaboration with cultish Current 93 mainstay David Tibet. I asked Knapp how it came about, and what Tibet was like to work with.
‘I have been singing Staines Morris as part of my solo May set for some time. After having seen David Tibet perform at the Union Chapel with his new project Hipnopazuzu in collaboration with Youth (producer) which Gerry [Diver, Knapp’s partner and long-term musical collaborator] played fiddle and bodhran at, I thought David was a really spellbinding performer. As Gerry and I were listening back to our recording of Staines Morris we thought he would sound great on it. I felt a bit shy to ask but finally summoned up the courage to ask David and he generously and thankfully said yes. He recorded it down in Hastings, so I wasn’t actually there when he did it, but I loved what he sent back. I’d love to collaborate in the more real sense in the future though.’
Other collaborators on the album include Blur’s Graham Coxon and Brighton-based folk singer Mary Hampton, and Knapp’s influences from the folk world and beyond are wide-ranging – she lists Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays and Kate Bush alongside Anne Briggs and Martin Carthy. But in all her music there is a distinct and unique personality. Part of this is down to the unmatched clarity of her singing, but she also recognises the importance of a sense of place in her music. When I mention that despite its often rural themes, her album has a distinctly ‘London-y’ feel to it, she agrees: ‘I think to me a sense of place is important in what I do and as I am from and based in London that’s bound to come out. I think a big part of folk song is celebrating origin so yes I think that’s a big part of things.’
It is telling that she mentions celebration. Till April Is Dead is at heart a profoundly celebratory body of work (even if it does often celebrate the darker side of the season). It is also an album that should itself be celebrated, a quietly uncompromising collection of songs by one of our finest singers.
Till April is Dead: A Garland of May is Out Now: https://lisaknapp.lnk.to/TillAprilIsDead
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