When Seth Lakeman walks into his label’s London office, it’s like a holy man has appeared offering fish for the five thousand. To a man they stand and beam at him, and he beams back, his piercing blue eyes acknowledging them all by name, sharing a small moment with each.
Anyone who thought the Dartmoor-based folkster a latter-day Heathcliff would knowingly nod. From the mystical wilds known to urban types as ‘the countryside’ comes the romantic hero, the better to brighten days.
Which is exactly what he does for his desk-bound record company people in Hammersmith. They love him. And little wonder, for he’s ridiculously enthusiastic, and charming with it. Everything’s a salivating affirmative, an anecdotal aside, an affirmation of positivity. It’s all quite addictive, as personality traits go. Contentedly one can sit back and let him babble away, safe in the knowledge that a story won’t just be imparted, but performed, the full cadences of voice and subtleties of the English language deployed to turn what would in other hands be hum-drum, even commonplace, into the stuff of legend.
Like his car crash. On the way up a motorway he piled into another car. The office sighs, swoons and laughs at all the right moments as he tells the story. Absurdly, the thought occurs that maybe he usually drives a horse and cart. Like a Hardy-era figure, or Stella Gibbons’ brooding Seth in Cold Comfort Farm, Lakeman is full of cinematic possibilities.
But enough already. Back in the 21st century, we sit down and start chatting; about Macs. He’s broken his. “I think I dropped it. I stuck it in a hold in a plane,” he sighs, shaking his head. Oops. It’s all too technical, perhaps, when one’s other gadgets seem likely to stretch to a plough and a fire stoker. He recorded his first three albums, including the Mercury-nominated Kitty Jay, on an 8-track tape in a kitchen, “next to an Aga”. Nuff said.
But his new record Poor Man’s Heaven, his fourth, looks set to drag him into the present – and maybe startle his hay-flecked fans along the way. “We’ve been using a combination of (the 8-track) and ProTools,” he announces. He’s been using Tori Amos‘s microphone too – “I think it’s called a bluebottle – it’s just amazing” – having toured with her. “She’s a lovely woman and an incredible musician,” he enthuses. When I ask him if he has an assortment of mixers and engineers now he’s signed to a major label, he laughs, “We haven’t forked out that much!” It’s still brother Sean on producing duties.
Such changes to his approach as there have been are changes for the good, he says. “It’s nice to get a violin sounding as pure as it possibly could. Before I was disguising a lot of the sound by double tracking.” The edginess his listeners hear is, to Lakeman, imperfection. And he doesn’t like imperfection.
He completed recording of Poor Man’s Heaven in April 2007, but with his ascension to major labelness (EMI’s Relentless imprint, home to an assortment of characters that begins with KT Tunstall and ends with Joss Stone), its predecessor Freedom Fields was re-released by his new friends. “I felt like it was done, but I’m having to look at it in a bigger picture. Who was going to sell it, target-market it? There’s no point in having a team with the forward running around on his own and there’s no midfield behind. It just doesn’t work.”
Lakeman’s eyes are misting over at the thought of breaking the States. But he’s not overly naive about his prospects in the world’s biggest music marketplace. “I guess the most marketable record in the States would be this new one. I can see that as a vision,” he says, gazing skyward. “But it’s such a huge place – you’ve got to make sure you’re going there for the right reasons.” And he knows that about which he speaks. In 2000 he had a baptism of, if not fire, then at least getting-on-for-scalding liquid. “I did 72 gigs over there, back to back, and came back with £500. It was a hell of a lot of fun, but I don’t really want to do that again.”
And yet all the touring had a positive effect too. “We were touring so much in the last 12 months, I think this record reflects stylistically on the fact that we’re probably more together. It’s a lot tighter. It relates better as a live entity.”
“There’s no point in having a team with the forward running around on his own and there’s no midfield behind. It just doesn’t work.”
– Seth Lakeman on making majors make sense
As for themes, we find that Lakeman is settling in to his ouevre as a chronicler of human endurance. “It’s all based around coastal legends and stories of achievements of people from around Devon and Cornwall, and how that’s affected the past and present.” He goes on to cite one such story. “There’s a song about a guy called John Coppinger, who’s a pirate who was pretty fearsome 300 years ago round the Cornish coast.”
There’s more. “Another story which really inspired me was the Penny lifeboat disaster, which only happened 25 years ago but really affected the local people. It’s the story of eight guys who risked their lives trying to save this vessel called the Union Star. It’s just about their feelings, their courage and human bravery. It was an important thing to celebrate that in the song. And there are songs about wreckers who used to put up false beacons and then salvage the cargo.. It’s all that sort of style.”
Lakeman’s songs rarely, if ever, relate his own experiences. Instead he delves into folklore, history and legend. “I’ve always been interested in military history; a lot of guys would be. I guess you can relate yourself to how you would feel if you were alive 50 years ago. But I think what fascinated me was my grandfather. You digest so many of these stories, but they’re just part of the way you live your life and the way people lived their lives before you.”
Some of them are research, he says, while others he just knew about. “John Coppinger I knew about. Kitty Jay is one of the most famous stories from Dartmoor. Chide The Hunter… I try to do a bit more research, try to put myself in their shoes. You need some sort of account of it which I was searching for.” It’s an unusual approach to lyric writing – is it a folk ethic or Seth ethic? “A bit of both. I love a beginning, middle and end in a story, whether it’s about yourself, or you relate yourself to them, or you’re just talking about a second person. I love a journey.” In Seth’s tales, “There’s always something serious happening – an act of bravery, or someone dying, some drama!”
What’s different about this fourth record’s themes relative to its predecessors’? “On this next record it’s… no different!” he grins. So it’s more of the same? “No, no!” Same same, but different? He bursts into peals of laughter. “It’s just explored a bit more about bravery in people. That’s where it sits apart from Freedom Fields. The way it’s been perceived by my friends – and they aren’t necessarily into what I do, being fans of rock bands and stuff – they’re liking it more already. It’s more immediate.”
Why does he think that is? “It’s more controlled in terms of how we have vision for it. Freedom Fields and Kitty Jay, when we made them we got carried away with them, me and Sean, and we had a vision for them, but they were produced and recorded as we went. This had more vision from when we started. We had things together better.”
Things haven’t always been this controlled. He launched Kitty Jay by playing a gig in Dartmoor Prison. “Myself and a drunken man, who was a prison officer, thought of that. I’d just finished the record and I played it to him. I only live a couple of miles away from Dartmoor prison; it has this massive presence, with its big bell at the front door. We were kind of brought up to be in awe of this building. And then he said, why don’t you do a gig to launch it?”
Was he consciously copying Johnny Cash? “Well, I wasn’t aware of the whole Johnny Cash thing, I really wasn’t,” he says. “I’d never been introduced to his music. Now I have; amazing. But then we ended up doing this concert which was quite stressful, quite an emotional thing for me to go through. It was how the Mercury panel got to hear the album, it was how the local press got to hear about me, and I sold quite a few records off the back of it. It got me out of the dole. It was an emotional time – it was the moment when I knew I could have a solo career. The Mercury was a marketing thing; but that was an emotional step, and it was personal.”
Ah yes, the Mercury thing. Some artists boycott them; others seemingly can’t get enough of them. What does he make of them? “You’ve got to embrace them to a certain extent because it’s the nature of where music and the arts have all gone,” he reasons. “The taste element is very difficult to judge. It can overshadow what people love making music for. People can end up making music for the music ceremony, to try to pick up an award.”
It’s been said that he’s singlehandedly responsible for making folk music sexy. “My mother wrote that,” he counters, grinning. Is it to do with his not having a beard? “Maybe! And maybe it’s to do with the fact that they’re stand-up gigs, and sweaty. It’s quite a rock’n’roll gig but playing acoustic instruments. It’s like a Levellers crowd now – you get the real drinkers who go nuts down the front. And I think you can do that with our show now. But I don’t know how much bigger we can take it than this.” He’s not interested in having backing singers or keyboards to beef up his sound. “I’m certainly not going to let that happen. We’re not desperate to get a radio hit.”
Indeed Lakeman decamped to Libya at the behest of the British Council for a collaborative tour featuring percussionists from the region. Afterwards, he says, “We were invited back to do the whole meeting thing with Gaddafi, but we were too busy touring.” Whether that was diplomatically expedient or otherwise, the band enjoyed working with the Libyan musicians. “It was great – we were playing with two north African drummers. We took traditional English dance-folk and mixed it with this Libyan 40-minute song, and they just go for it.” He waxes lyrical about the percussion; the performance was recorded, and he hopes to release it at some stage.
Before award nominations, Gaddafi avoidance tactics and major label deals, Lakeman already had a wealth of experience to draw on that predates his solo career. He was 18 when the first Equations album came out and he has been playing fiddle since the age of five. “I’ve been knocking around for a while,” he agrees. Does he have musical ambitions as yet unfulfilled? “What I’d like to do at some point is make a really down and gritty tunes record where I can study and approach the fiddle again. I always love playing behind people. I was playing behind Damian Dempsey recently over in Canada. It’s a really good feeling being behind someone, part of a band, when you’re not having the added pressure of having to run it or be the front man.”
“People can end up making music… to try to pick up an award.”
– Seth Lakeman cautions against Mercury prescriptions
But his public want him as a front man. Last year he sold out two nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. “I keep pinching myself really. We’re not changing anything to make it grow. I’m just writing more. We haven’t left fiddles or banjos behind, we’ve just locked in together as a unit, as a band.” Fellow musicians, he says, have inspired too. “We’ve enjoyed the likes of John Butler Trio and Ben Harper, those sort of artists, and watched them function and see why they’re successful.” He reels off a list of acts he likes at the moment which includes Josh Rouse, an Appelachian band, Crowded House, Peter Gabriel, Richard Thompson, Benji Kirkpatrick (“he’s a friend of mine”), The Waifs, Fairport Convention, Paul Simon, Kate Rusby…
What about KT Tunstall? Has he considered a duet with his labelmate? “It might be quite interesting,” he muses. “I like the way she’s quite rhythmical.” Has he mentioned that to Relentless, I wonder? He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “No! I dunno if they would! Would they?” Who else? “Rachel Stevens?” Beat. The penny drops. He bursts out laughing.
“A big influence on Freedom Fields was a band from America called Cordelia’s Dad. The singer’s a guy called Tim Eriksson. He was singing a lot of the soundtrack of Cold Mountain with Jack White.” Would Seth try his hand at acting, a la White? “I’ll stick to what I know, mate!” he laughs. “But I don’t know, if there was a fiddle part… what would they make? Fiddler On The Roof? Who knows! I could consider it… I think I’d be better with a non-speaking part!”
When he’s not touring or recording, a typical Dartmoor day for Seth looks a bit thus: “I’ll get up with a hangover, go for a run, hit a hundred golf balls, go to the pub! But even if I’m not touring, or playing, I’ll still be playing music just for my own existence really. I just quite enjoy playing. I’m starting to enjoy myself as a singer; I’d never considered myself to be a singer.”
He takes a minute to check on the progress of repairs to his car and then gets called away to a web chat, all smiles and jokes. Lakeman, now a slightly richer man edging towards his personal heaven, seems at least to be making things work for him.
Seth Lakeman’s album Poor Man’s Heaven is out now through Relentless/EMI.