Folk singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman, most famous for his Mercury nominated album Kitty Jay, has returned back to the scene with a new found freedom from corporate record companies. His soon to be released album, Tales from the Barrel House, is something quite different, with the recording of one track taking place in the heart of a coal mine. The Devonian musician took some time out from his bow shredding antics to chat to our own Charlotte Gay before his upcoming gig at The Old Firestation in Bournemouth.
So Seth, you’re playing The Old Firestation in Bournemouth in the next few weeks, have you played there before?
Yeah we are, never played there before, I have to say I went there when I was a bit younger about ten years ago when it was a club, I dunno if it is still is.
Ah yes it is still a club, but often welcomes different bands and artists to its stage. So what kind of reception are you expecting to receive, have you got a regular fellowship who usually come along?
We play a kind of high energy acoustic folk music with lots of banjos, fiddles, guitars, double bass and percussion. So it is quite high energy but it should suit the venue quite well and we don’t play in Bournemouth very often so it’s a good chance for us to get there.
You were saying about performing a high energy performance I’ve heard you’re apparently quite good at some bow shredding, I love that phrase.
There is quite a lot of bow shredding I guess, there are a few strings that break on stage as well but generally it’s just something that if people like to have a drink and enjoy a bit of a dance they can come along and just check out what’s going on with five pretty fully on acoustic musicians. It’s an exciting evening definitely and the tour’s been going really well.
This tour is obviously overlapping with the upcoming release of your new album, I grabbed a copy the other day and it’s really good, I’ve been listening to it whilst out and about. I’ve noticed you’ve gone for a much more back to basics feel, what made you want to strip back to this vibe?
I think it was more the way it was directed. When I started writing the songs, they’re pretty much stories about professions and people who work with their hands and I kind of felt that I wanted to record it in a location in a place that suited those stories and subjects. The concept happened with me recording all of it with one microphone in this workhouse called the barrel house in this old heritage centre on the Tamar valley in Devon and Cornwall. Because of that, it sounds pretty stripped back because I did it all myself, kept it quite singular as an idea and approach.
It definitely sounds unique, where about’s in Devon and Cornwall was it recorded?
It was in this place called Morwellam Key. It’s literally how it was left, is it bizarre the way the record has evolved. I used all sorts of percussion in the surrounding room, so in the song called ‘Blacksmith’s Prayer’ there is an anvil [and] a pick axe, and also in the song called ‘More Than Money’ I actually went down into the mine and recorded it there in a chamber about 500 meters into the ground.
I was going to say, I bet it was a health and safety risk assessment nightmare with all these axes and anvils around.
It kind of was, but it was ok. We didn’t take too much down there, well we couldn’t physically. We went down there for a quick recording for an hour and then came back and listened to it through these speakers we had set up in a workshop and it sounded really good, perfect for the style and the theme.
What was it like actually working down there; I mean there must have been lighting, but was it weird to actually be recording down in a mine?
It’s pretty spooky; there is no doubt about that. Everything was documented on videos and there is stuff hitting around on our website, people have actually documented what we were doing because it was quite unique and left field. It’s worth checking out actually. Being down there was of course quite a spooky experience and something I enjoyed, but it was also good to get out when we did.
Was it your idea or something that was put forward to you?
No, it was all conjured up by my eccentric self.
I’ve also heard you’ve performed at Dartmoor prison? So not quite the same as the disused mine but was that weird or just like any other kind of audience?
Yeah I have, back when my career kicked off really with Kitty Jay so that would have been about six years ago. It was a very daunting prospect for me and I almost freaked out and I couldn’t do it but I got through it and they all really enjoyed it because one of the guys, one of the inmates, was actually joining us for the last few songs so that was quite a bit of a surprise and we got them on our side.
Oh that’s good, what was it in particular that you were nervous about?
Performing in Dartmoor murder base in front of inmates of the prison is just an uneasy sort of situation.
So you were saying that this album was very much based around capturing the tales of others, what made you want to tell their stories rather than your own?
It’s just something that I am interested in. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people work and the way they dedicate themselves and how sometimes that has been lost. It was almost to pay tribute to them and also I am quite interested in local history, so not to sound too much like a geek but it’s something I quite like.
Do you think it is something people should be proud of, their local history?
Absolutely, I think it’s incredibly relevant today. With the way technology is moving on people are [becoming] more impatient, moving quickly through life, forgetting the past so much, and I think it is important to reflect. [T]he past is almost as important as the present.
We were talking earlier about Kitty Jay, which of course was nominated for a mercury music prize - quite an accolade – but do you feel it has set quite a high bar for yourself?
It’s not something you should and you can worry about. Obviously it is a wonderful and flattering thing that helps your career but generally it’s not something you can use as something to head for. You can’t use it as a direction, you’ve just got to go with it and kind of accept the way people see that and make music that feels natural afterwards. I think music can sound contrived when you are trying to meet commands of others, and the way they perceive you. It’s a weird one, I’ve definitely done that before but that’s why I feel ...Barrel House is having a new breath of wind, it is a bit more natural and people seem to like that.
Do you think splitting from your old record companies like Relentless and Virgin Records has helped you feel less contrived?
Definitely, I know that Virgin Records would not have released this record, they wouldn’t have liked it, and it’s not commercial enough. I think the biggest thing for me is was when I signed with EMI I was working with Relentless and they were a small company pushing hard on folk music and being brave with the genre. But then I was transferred over to Virgin – I didn’t have a decision on that. Unfortunately you have to compromise with a pop label. Suddenly being on this massive pop label with Katy Perry and Gorillaz, it was a massive team which was spread and didn’t understand what I was doing. So it was very nice to get out from that because it definitely wasn’t the right place for me. But sometimes you are tied in and I was definitely tied in for that record. The fact they let me go is a really good prospect and certainly without that I wouldn’t have made the Tales from the Barrel House.
What are your thoughts on the last few months’ resurgence in the popularity of folk and country music? Do you think overall it is quite difficult to get people interested in this type of music?
I think it is pretty mainstream now, I have to say it is very much electro pop or acoustic, like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Ben Howard, Frank Turner. I really think it is one or the other, for guitar bands it’s not really their time right now. Investment certainly from big companies is going to the electro pop or acoustic singer songwriter world. I would say it is probably the most exciting time for folk music.
Do you think that is going to bring your music into the limelight a bit more?
It’s opened doors for me, I’m doing a gig with the BBC Concert Orchestra, which is something I think I’m pretty privileged to be able to do, and the last people who did that were Elbow. It’s going to be quite exciting. I don’t think I would have a prospect like that if there wasn’t so much light and attention on what this genre is achieving.
Have you ever worked with any orchestral music before?
This is a new one and unique for me. I had a rehearsal with them and it’s something that 90% works, it’s just quite epic.
What is the last 10% that’s needed?
It’s very nearly there. It’s 30 minutes of music so it’s quite a lot to get together.
Before you embarked on solo work, you used to be in a band with your brothers, the Lakeman Brothers, what made you want to breakaway and do your own thing?
I think it’s just directions of where you are writing, we’re all pretty headstrong and the way we all write is quite different. We’ve all got different ideas of how to make music. We still work together every now and then, Sean, my older brother, is on the road with me and he’ll be playing in Bournemouth. When we grew up we were in a similar headspace and playing off each other but obviously as you get older you like to make different kind of stuff. The song writing I was going for was slightly different to what they wanted.
Do you find having a musical family is helpful for your writing?
Definitely, all I get from them is critique. But I think it is important, you’ve got to be as critical as possible because that is the only way you’re going to get better, right? That’s what I’ve always thought – cruel to be kind I guess! I am massively hard on myself when recording but you have to be don’t you? But also as well as that you don’t want to make anything that is too sterile and too thought about, so there is a process of just leaving it to breathe a bit.
Seth and his band will be touring the UK throughout March:
20 March – Bournemouth – Fire Station
21 March – Cambridge -The Junction
22 March – Sheffield – The Plug
23 March – Cardiff – Coal Exchange
24 March – Leamington – Assembly