SHIRLEY COLLINS is a true icon of British music. Her impact on folk music and the folk revival in the 50s and 60s was crucial. A life well lived, Collins has devoted her life to collecting traditional folk music primarily in England, but has also taken field recordings in the Deep South along with Alan Lomax. Having developed dysphonia, Collins disappeared into what she calls “the wilderness” but, after decades away from the limelight, she was persuaded to perform once again and last year released Lodestar, her first album in almost forty years to a great reception. Ahead of her performance at the Philharmonic Hall on 6th May, we caught up with Collins from her sunny Sussex home to talk keeping traditions alive, Brexit and her triumphant return to music
What drew you to the folk revival in the first place?
I was luckily enough to have been born in a time before the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, on the South coast. My grandparents and my aunt sang and some of the songs were folk songs and some of the songs were Victorian sentimental ballads. I grew up during the war so my grandparents sang to me and my sister Dolly in the air raid shelters – to prevent us from getting too scared because there was a lot of bombing on the South Coast. My sister played piano and my family sang carols at Christmas but it wasn’t an excessively musical family. I knew about folk music before the folk revival had started but I was right at the start of the folk revival itself and so I just came across it naturally.
After almost forty years away from music and playing, how is it to not only to be back playing, but to have recorded such a well-received record?
I know it’s amazing. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would have happened again but it’s all sort of come together. Mostly, I have to say, it’s due to the support and encouragement of David Tibet of Current 93. He rang me up about 20 years ago and told me he really liked my singing and was wondering if he could come and talk with me. So he came across to where I was living and brought a couple of friends with him and he asked if I would ever sing again, at one of his concerts. I said no. He asked again five years later and I said no again, and then he asked again and I said maybe and then five years after – it really did take 20 years – I said yes and I turned up. So I did a couple of songs with Ian Kearey, who played and musically directed Lodestar, and that’s the start of it really. Once I got sufficient nerve to do that everything really did start falling into place. It was quite a slow process but it was great really. I’m so pleased I feel like I’m the real Shirley Collins again. I was lost in the wilderness for so long so it was nice to get back.
How did it feel to play that very first gig back?
Well it was one of David Tibet’s concerts so I only played two songs with Ian. One of which was a lullaby which David had requested and the other [was] Death and the Lady, with Ian Kearey playing quite a bluesy slide guitar to it which seemed to really fit. I had to slightly adapt the tune because I can’t sing as high as I used to, and then once we’d got that I realised there was still life in me yet. I was so well received by the audience which was great. It felt just right to be back singing.
You spoke there of the slide guitar on Death and the Lady which made its way onto Lodestar. Was there an influence from your time recording Blues songs in the South of the US with Alan Lomax?
Yes, partly. Two of the songs on the album are from that trip in 1959, one from Virginia and one from Arkansas, which I recorded myself whilst I was out there. I’ve never lost my love for American mountain music especially because it has its roots are so firmly in Britain with it being taken over by pioneers and early convicts and what not. It still fascinates me and it’s very beautiful as well. So I felt I had to put a couple of those songs on the album because they mean so much to me. I also sang my first ever Cajun song. I love Cajun music, I’ve never sang Cajun music before but I heard this song which Ian played me one day by Blind Uncle Gaspard singing a song from an acetate record from the 1920s and fell in love with it. I said to Ian, ‘God I have to sing that one’.
How did you go about picking the songs to feature on the album?
I talked it over with Ian a lot and because I’ve known him for almost thirty years and he’s a wonderful musician with a wide knowledge of music, I was able to just show songs to him and say ‘I love this one, I love this one. Could we do it?’. Funnily enough, I hadn’t got all the songs included when we started recording but as we went along they just presented themselves really in my mind. It was a natural organic thing. The first song Awake, Awake Sweet England is one that I have wanted to sing for years but didn’t know how to do it. But on the album, having the hurdy gurdy made it sound so strange and beautiful. The song itself is just so pertinent – ‘Awake, awake sweet England for dreadful days draw near’ – I thought ‘crikey, it’s exactly what’s happening in the world’.
On the subject of the state of politics today, tradition and the idea of keeping ‘British heritage’ alive is something that seems to have been hijacked by the right. How do you feel about this?
I’m claiming it for us: the working class people. The working classes throughout history have been offered up a terrible deal. These songs are working class songs from the rural and neighbouring classes who were despised, abused and exploited all of their lives and that’s what I’m trying to hang onto. These are our songs from our people and don’t belong to the right wing at all and I hate them for hijacking it. It’s wrong but the only way you can resist it is by presenting the way I do along with other singers and resist it. One day we were playing Death and The Lady and I suddenly morphed into Muddy Waters and sang ‘ My Name is Death D-E-A-T-H’, but at our Rough Trade launch when Trump had just got in and I sang ‘My Name is Death T-R-U-M-P’. You have to get back at them somehow [laughs].
You’ve been a huge influence on a lot of bands. Were you aware of how much of an impact your music was making, especially in those wilderness years?
I wasn’t really, no. I’ve learned now and it’s great. But at the time no, it’s all come as a nice surprise. I mean, I want people to love this music as much as I do and it’s really important to me that we do cling onto this tradition of ours. I couldn’t live without it and I wouldn’t want other people to have to either. They’re good songs and they’re not trivial either. It’s not the easiest thing to listen to, you have to pay attention to what you’re listening to. If the record is making younger people get into the music then that’s great because someone has to pick it up.
There is a huge amount of death on the album. Does this conjure up the cruel reality of life or a dark humour?
Well let me put it to you like this. If you were playing a video game or watching an action film then you would see far more death than you would in Lodestar. We live in a violent world. People often say ‘Merry England’ but it’s not like that. It’s never been a ‘Merry England’. Just think of all the upper classes and kings fighting each other for land, and the murders. It was bloodthirsty times in England, it wasn’t just niceness. It’s not all doom laden but we were definitely aware of this. One day Ian came into my cottage where we were recording rubbing his hands and saying ‘Right, what’s the death count today?’ [laughter] I think the music is so strong anyway you just have to accept what the songs are. The British have a wonderful sense of humour but a real sense of melancholia.
What can we expect from the live shows?
When we do the concert we show films for the songs behind directed by Nick Abrahams and he’s worked with Sigur Rós and it just looks splendid. It’s a proper show with the musicians and morris dancers and they’re fantastic. Glenn Redmond (one of the dancers) can leap higher than most ballet dancers and it brings the house down every time. It’s a real varied show with some really light and cheerful bits as well but I have to be truthful. I have to say it’s a good show and it’s been received so well. It’s been almost fifty years since the last time I went to Liverpool. I used to play with The Spinners and it’s crazy to think that much time has past but it will be great to be back.
Finally, will there be any more new music from you?
We were actually just talking about that today funnily enough. I’ve still got hundreds of songs I still want to record. We’d have to be careful how we did it but I’d love to. I’ve had such a great time recording this album that it’d be great to do more. Obviously my voice isn’t the same care free voice it once was. but it’s great to be back singing and I can’t tell you how good it feels to have reclaimed it.
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Shirley Collins plays Liverpool Philarmonic Hall on 6th May – tickets are available here. Lodestar is out now via Domino Recordings.