the AU interview: Seth Lakeman (UK) talks Word of Mouth

Ahead of his appearance at Byron Bay Bluesfest in April and a short promotional tour we caught up with award-winning and Mercury Prize nominated English Folk musician Seth Lakeman to have a chat about his latest album Word of Mouth, his experiences touring Australia, and his involvement in the award-winning collaborative project The Full English.

So congratulations on the new album, I’ve listened to it a couple of times now, it’s great!

Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you.

What was the inspiration or the idea behind this new album?

Well, Word of Mouth, I mean the title came first. I guess it was inspired by, I was reading a book written about Alan Lomax, “The Man Who Recorded The World” who travelled around America, and he was collecting all the old songs, wax cylinder recordings and such. I sort of though, well maybe I could do something inspired by journalism, inspired by stories of people. So I set out with a Dictaphone, you know the Dictaphone you get on the iPhone and spent two and a half years collecting stories from around the South West of England, chatting to people, reaching out and asking for stories from the most interesting people.

I ended up with about a hundred plus interviews. I was chatting to travelling gypsies, to oral history societies, to all sorts of people, and I went into Dartmoor Prison and spoke to some of the prisoners in there to get some of their stories; I ended up with a poem by one of them, which turned into a very sombre song, that is actually quite evocative and beautiful. I ended up with, I guess the most colourful characters, the ones that were most inspiring for songs; it was Dockyard workers, as I said, gypsies travelling, all sorts of people came into it.

I had to whittle it down to fifteen and there’s still a lot more there that I’d like to write about. There’s a farmer that I’m quite close to, who was teaching me all about the horse and plough, and the way people used to have a secret code and language with their horses. And he’s passed away recently, so it’s something that I’d like to write soon. But Word of Mouth was written about people, their stories and that’s really the root of it.

Was it a difficult process transforming these people’s stories into songs?

It was quite challenging I have to say. It was hard trying to pick the interviews to work on. I found it a challenge just trying to discipline myself to do it. It’s not something that I would do again, even though you could probably go on forever with it, as an idea. But yeah, in terms of trying to discipline yourself to stop, I found that quite difficult. I found myself constantly looking for more. That was hard.

In sitting down and taking the best bits it’s almost a magpie situation, you’re sifting through looking for those. Some of them (the stories) were more literal and more narrative than others; others were far more about hooks and lines, perhaps with metaphors used. So some were looser than others. And then it was a case of drawing them all together on the record. It was quite a heavy process. It was a long process.

Hopefully an enjoyable one at the same time.

I did enjoy it. I enjoy the process. I enjoyed making it in the church. We spent three and a half, four weeks making it in a church. I loved it actually I really enjoyed the way it brought these songs into a community space, like a church, and getting people involved. Yeah I really enjoyed it.

I guess in many ways it’s still continuing that oral tradition within the folk tradition, passing down old stories and old songs.

Yeah, I guess preservation in song. That’s definitely what’s happening with these characters. They’re all there, with the secondary CD, that I spent ages putting together, for a couple of months last summer, with a radio producer. The interviews are there, and the interviewees really lead their own stories, over the instrumentals. It’s now been turned into an almost radio ballad show, Billy Bragg has now narrated it, so it’s going to be a radio show over here. It’s really powerful actually, the people and the way they tell their own stories, I almost feel that probably has more poignancy in the whole project than maybe the songs themselves. Laughs.

So for your last album you ended up down a mine, this time you were in a church?

Yeah Mines and now churches. Going from the underground to looking upwards. I’d never even thought of it like that actually. I guess with the church, it was a case of trying to let those instruments breathe a bit more, the acoustic instruments, rather than suffocate them, not in a mine, but a studio. So let them sing out a bit more. We found this small church, there’s nothing fancy about it, it just seemed right. I’ll be honest, it had carpet down, so that really helped, because you don’t want it too lively in there. It was perfect for what we wanted, perfect for voices too.

You release this album on vinyl, was that the first album you’ve released on vinyl?

We did a limited thing over here for Barrel House, but yes it is yeah. And that was only after Barrell House was doing well that we decided to run it off on vinyl as well.

I was going to ask, what prompted you to decide to release it on vinyl as you don’t seem to see a lot of “Folk” releases on vinyl anymore?

No you don’t. I guess a big part of it is the way that music is being consumed and being heard now. I think a lot of people have vinyl now, certainly over here it’s become a very very popular way to listen to music. I’m sure it probably is over there too. It seems to be that people are standing up, and enjoying music in a different way.

Congratulations on your Best Album Award with Full English at the Folk Awards a couple of weeks ago. How did that collaboration come about?

Cheers, yeah that was cool. It was an unusual one. It was something that was put together by EFDSS, English Folk Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House. I was invited to have a look at the archive before it went live, a few months before it went live, and these 58,000 traditional English folk songs were there at the click of a mouse, whereas before they were lost in dusty old books. For me I was invited by Fay [Fay Hield] who was coordinating the whole thing and yeah I guess form there we all put the band together. It was a very successful project, the tour was a sell-out, and we got those two awards, so it’s gone really well. It’s really very popular over here, The Full English, and what a great title.

Is it something that is likely to continue, given its popularity?

Well we’re definitely doing some more, we’re doing Cambridge [Folk Festival] and doing a handful of festivals and four or five gigs, so we can’t not play. The problem is everyone has such busy diaries anyway; Martin [Simpson] does, I do, Bellowhead do. There are some very busy projects out there. Well they’re businesses aren’t they; they’re out there working. We can’t take it too far in that sense. But it’s something we’ll all come back to I think, it was something that worked really well. And you never know with these, a lot of these kinds of projects are a bit of a gamble, but this seemed to work. We got on really well; there weren’t really any egos.

I seem to ask every folk musician I speak to these days this question, but how do you define Folk music? It’s a term that seems to get applied so widely these days.

I’ve always defined it as the people’s music; by the people for the people. I think it should be as broad as that. Folk music, you’re right, is attributed to so much more whimsical singer-songwriter styles of music, more acoustic music. But I don’t think there is any damage being done to traditional folk song, by having acoustic singer-songwriters using the term folk as well. I think it’s growing, and it’s reaching out. I think it’s that that is getting younger people really excited and interested in folk music, and festivals are buzzing. I think the term folk is the people’s music and as long it’s in control by the people I think it’s alright.

It’s one of these genres that seem to go through waves of popularity, what do you attribute this latest revival in popularity to?

I don’t think it’s necessarily the same as it was in the 60s, which was a socialist revival. I think this is more about the sound of the instruments themselves. The fact that people, they are aware and want to hold on, and the Full English is a part of that. Holding on to those old songs and bring them into the new. But also I think, the way Folk music is seen now more widely, I think it’s about the sound of the instruments. I think it’s about the acoustic wooden nature of the instruments and people returning back to those unplugged days.

I think this is going to be your third tour of Australia in the last three or four years, it seems like it’s going quite well over here for you?

It is yeah. The Blues Festival is very supportive of us they always bring us over. They’re very very kind to do so. They always look after us. It’s a very quick trip; it’s only eight days this time. I have new born twins, and can’t stay for too long.


Thanks very much mate. Yeah it’s only a quick visit this time, without the band, just me solo. And it’s mostly just a promotional tour for Word of Mouth. So last time we played tonnes of gigs and festivals and had a great time a proper road trip, about four weeks with the band. And we’ll hopefully try and get back and do some real gigs, I think that’s important. But yeah this time it’s more of a promotional tour.

A whirlwind visit.

It sounds a bit like that yeah (laughs)

As you said you’ve played Bluesfest a couple of times now, how do you find it compares to the festivals back in the UK?

Bluesfest is one of the best festivals in the world. I mean I’ve been lucky enough to do Glastonbury 10-11 times, nearly every year, I know I’ve done it for many years, and other larger festivals. But Bluesfest seems to have this… the quality of the artists that they get, where it’s situated and the size of the site. There are a number of reasons why it’s up there. It’s awesome.

Great, well I’ll wrap it up there. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me again. Enjoy the tour.

Seth Lakeman will play Byron Bay Bluesfest which runs from Thursday 17 April to Monday 21 April

Seth Lakeman Headline Tour Dates

Monday 14th April – Powerhouse, Brisbane, QLD (w/ Suzanne Vega)
Saturday 19th April – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 20th April – The Factory, Sydney, NSW (w/ Suzanne Vega)


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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.