the AU interview: Seth Lakeman (UK) discusses Tales from the Barrel House

Mercury Prize nominee and British folk multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman, along with his band, will be coming to Australia for the first time next month.

The tour will see Lakeman joining forces with friend and touring companion Carus Thompson on a series of dates that will see him playing Bluesfest and the Fairbridge Folk Festival, along with a number of other shows. We sit down with Lakeman to discuss his latest record Tales from the Barrel House, a largely DIY effort; getting haunted down mine shafts and the challenges of writing for the fiddle.

Hi Seth, how are you today?

Hi there! Very good thanks.

So are you calling from home today?

I am actually yeah, back home writing today. Going back out on the road on Monday.

Ah excellent, so you’re writing for a new album?

Yeah, just generally writing really. Keeping things ticking along. When I’m home is the only time I get to write really. When I’m on the road it’s not a very easy place to do it. Getting a chance for a bit of a breather.

Sure, I suppose given that a lot of your work has a definite sense of place, it must be difficult to write when you’re traversing the country.

It is tough when you’re out and about to actually focus. When you’re in the van or the bus or a dressing room somewhere it is very difficult to try and focus your mind. So yeah when I’m at home I take the opportunity.

Who or what was that first got you into music, were there any particular musicians? I know you come from quite a musical family, so was it a given you’d eventually fall into music?

Yeah, it evolved through the family really. I play my Great Granny’s violin and I chose to play the violin because my mother was playing it. So that was pretty much right in front of me the whole time growing up. They were part of a folk band, they weren’t professionals, and they were just paying festivals around the area. So, I’d say it probably was my parents, who first got me into actually playing an instrument.

But in terms of the way I was playing it would probably have been artists like Clannan and Chieftans, quite a lot of Irish music was the first introduction I had, all those tune players, they were all quite exciting and energetic tunes.

So was it always a folk music direction, or did you find yourself trying different genres?

Early on when I was first playing the fiddle, because I didn’t really start writing songs until I was probably early twenties, that’s quite late really. It was more about playing tunes and writing tunes. I was a mad fan of Stéphane Grappelli, so I was playing a lot of swing and Stuff Smith and all those sort of artists. It was a kind of mix between Jazz and Irish, Scottish and English Folk music. Then I suddenly got into the singer-songwriters and folk artists like Nic Jones, Paul Brady and Dick Gaughan, artists like that who were using their voice, but also writing as well, like Richard Thompson who’s a massive influence on me.

What was the inspiration behind your latest album Tales from the Barrel House?

It’s a bizarre one really. It’s sort of a leftfield record and it evolved pretty naturally. I was very definite about the concept that I was writing. I spent a year writing these stories about subjects of professions and the old skills. I decided I wanted to record it in a location, to draw a bit more out of the songs. So I started to experiment in places around me, in some of the rooms and old workshops and I found specifically this one, barrel house, where the acoustics sounded fabulous. And just by chance it was there just as it was 150 years ago, with all these old tools and the blacksmiths forge was just next to it. So I started using the tools to emulate some of the sounds, some of the percussive sounds that I wanted on the record.

I have to say it evolved pretty naturally as an idea, and it was all recorded just with one single microphone, just stuck in the corner of the room, rather than straight in front of an instrument. So it was a very unusual record to make. But one, which I think, captured the spirit of the songs perfectly. It’s an unusual record, but it seems to be going quite well over here. I was quite tentative at first and only released it as a limited record, but it’s picked up some pace. I think people are fascinated by the way it was recorded, because it was very unusual and out-there way of doing it. But it seems to have worked, I mean one of them was actually recorded down in the mine, an old tin and copper mine, which was a very bizarre experience.

Recording a song down a mine, must beat your usual studio experience?

(Laughs) Yeah it was very spooky, very weird and surreal. Actually at the end of that, because we documented the whole thing, because it was such a bizarre experience I’d rung a friend of mine who came down, and he started following us around and they came down into the mine that evening when we were recording this track. And we got a few bits out of it, I’d probably say about 50% of it, but at the end of the track we all remember, including the train driver who took us into the chamber, giggling. We heard a young boy; it was very very surreal and uncomfortable (laughs)

Yeah you definitely don’t get that in the studio.

You don’t get that in the studio, no! it wasn’t the tea boy I can tell you.

This album has a definite DIY feel to it, I think you played everything yourself, how important was it for you to be so completely involved in the whole process?

Well it started off like that, and then I started thinking oh maybe I should get a girl singer on this track, some bodhran and some double bass is really missing, but I spoke to people and thought about it some more, and realised it was as important to keep it a singular focused concept record, all performed by myself rather than bringing other people in. Because, I think that would have changed the direction and the sound of the songs. So it was important to keep it individual I think.

You’ve sort of come full circle, Kitty Jay has very much a traditional sort of feel, like this latest album, and you’re sort of back to those roots again now, after a little bit of a pop diversion in the middle.

Yeah I kind of had to compromise for EMI and the circus that is involved with trying to sell records.

Not that pop is necessarily a bad thing.

No definitely not, I love pop. It’s just whether it works within what you are trying to achieve. I think it worked for the first couple of years, but it definitely got to a stage where it didn’t work, and thankfully that was where I was able to get out.

So how do you approach the writing process, do the words come first, or is it the music that you work on beforehand?

Mostly I’d say like a lot of people write. Where they get a pattern of music and a melody over the top that they feel comfortable humming or singing. The hook comes to them, and then they start to build up lyrics that suit the sound of that. That’s usually the way, but I have to say that writing for the fiddle and writing for the guitar are very very different processes.

Writing for a fiddle is something where you are working more in layers, working with a guitar; you’re working like a more conventional songwriter. The fiddle is something quite different, where rhythm is a big part of it, you have to keep something rolling throughout or otherwise you lose where you are with the fiddle. They’re two very different ways of writing, and you can tell them apart quite easily on a record. I mean writing with a fiddle is quite a unique way, and you get some very unusual songs, and unusual ways of approaching songs.

You obviously have the band as well, do you write for the band, or do you write more for yourself?

I write for myself, and then I’ll build it up in my own little studio, adding 5 or 6 different tracks, a bit of kick drum, a bit of this, as you would do a sort of general demo in a studio. It’s good I have my own little writing studio; and then I take it to them and they laugh at me and go “alright then, but what about this?” (laughs)

So this’ll be your first time touring Australia, is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

Yeah, the fact that East Coast Blues have given us this opportunity to come, that definitely the open door for us, and Carus has very kindly put this tour together and given us this opportunity to go around. Really I think we’re just looking forward to seeing what kind of reaction we’re going to get, because we haven’t really explored any other territories. We’ve worked so hard in the UK and we’ve only for the past two years been going into Germany, Holland and Switzerland and spreading out through those areas. I think because the messages and stories are so important, them seem to be quite powerful back here, hopefully over there people are going to really enjoy those stories. As well as the style and the way we’re playing. Because it is upbeat, it’s got a jam band sound to it. It’s got a great vibe, and I think, hopefully, that people in Australia are going to be hooked into that.

I’m definitely looking forward to it; it’s been a while since I last saw you play live.

Ah right, how long ago was that then?

I think it was probably the Freedom Fields tour

Yeah, that was probably six years ago now. Well we’re going to be playing pretty much the whole catalogue of songs, so there’ll be a lot of Freedom Fields in there. And it’s the same musicians. So it probably wont be much different.

So you’ve toured with Carus before, with him supporting you through the UK, can we expect to see any impromptu performances from the two of you?

Of definitely yeah, we’ll definitely end up playing together. We’ll do a couple of numbers at the end together. I know most of his stuff from having done a lot of gigs with him. When he’s doing a gig back in Plymouth and I’m not working I always jump up with him. Obviously he’s been on the road with us four or fives times supporting us around the country, so I know his songs pretty well and so do the boys, so there’ll definitely be a lot of playing together.

What can audiences expect from a Seth Lakeman show?

Well it’s something that is pretty exciting, with acoustic instruments played in quite a way that people haven’t seen before it has to be said. There is a double bass player who is one of the top players in the world I have to say, Ben Nichols. But it’s my brother and myself riffing away on guitars and fiddles, and then theres this incredible Irish percussionist in the background playing the bodhran and driving it along. Hopefully it’ll make people want to get up and dance, and drink. It’s just an upbeat kind of show. It’s very vibey and hopefully something that people will enjoy.

Excellent, well thanks for chatting with me today, good luck on the tour, and hopefully see you on the road.

Thanks, yeah hopefully see you at a show.


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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.