Shirley Collins is truly a force of nature. Now in her early 80s, the folk singer continues to make music and develop as though she were half that age. One of the principal reasons for this is the condition of dysphonia, brought on by a painful marriage break-up and to which she lost her voice in the late 1970s.
This decade, however, has seen her complete rehabilitation. She performed live for the first time in 35 years at the Union Chapel in 2014, and followed that with the Lodestar album, released on Domino in 2016. This week she will perform at the Roundhouse, as part of the ‘In The Round’ series of shows.
Collins, it seems, seeks to make up for lost time. Pronouncing herself to be well, she considers the last time she performed at Camden’s famous venue. “This will be the second time I’ve sung live at the Roundhouse. The first was in 1969, nearly 50 years ago! The occasion was the launch of the Harvest label. I’d made an album for Harvest of English traditional folk songs with my sister Dolly Collins, with the London Early Music Consort, and David Munrow as music director. We appeared with, for example, the Edgar Broughton Band, and Deep Purple. I don’t know what the audience made of us – but Harvest had us down as ‘underground’ music.” Was it a cathartic experience for her, returning to sing at the Union Chapel five years back? “Yes, it was. At last I dared to sing again…” and was she satisfied with the reaction to Lodestar two years later? “I certainly was. And it pleased me that critics judged it as an album, and not as a comeback to be treated sentimentally.”
Collins is clearly keen to avoid any pity for her extraordinary story, focusing instead on her primary calling as a singer. In interviews she has spoken of acting as a conduit for folk songs. Is that a wholly natural instinct to carry her forward while singing? “Well, yes. I think I’ve always had a wholly natural instinct for these songs, growing up as I did in a simpler time and in a family that sang, but I had also immersed myself in this music through collections, and listening to the field recordings made of singers of the rural labouring classes from whom the songs came.”
On the subject of contemporary British folk music, and how much she listens to, Shirley is refreshingly honest. “Oh dear,” she exclaims. “I have to say that most ‘contemporary British folk music’ has very little to do with the genuine thing – a lot of singer / songwriter stuff that is, to me, rather indulgent and lacking in understanding of the real tradition. That’s not to say people shouldn’t write songs, but just please don’t call it a folk song.
“However, the best singer of traditional songs, and his own recent songs, is Alasdair Roberts. His recent album What News, with David McGuinness and Amble Skuse, is one that I listen to over and over.” She admits there are a couple of acts who have indeed had a lasting impact on her. “I do love Richard Thompson and the McGarrigle sisters. I love their songs and the fabulous way they sing. Also, since I heard them recently, I love the Irish group Lankum.”
“It pleased me that critics judged it as an album, and not as a comeback to be treated sentimentally.” – Shirley Collins on Lodestar
With technology exerting such a strong grip on society at present, does she think the ‘word of mouth’ that folk music offers is more important than ever? “That’s a tough one to answer. I just don’t think that folk music can work that way nowadays. It’s a totally different world from the time when songs were passed on by word of mouth.”
We return to the Collins instrument itself. How is her singing voice now? “Deeper than it used to be,” she responds. “One critic said I sounded like Tom Waits, but I hope he was exaggerating.” Now that she is back into the recorded and live music fray, her ambitions are happily revised. “My plans for creative ventures in the future are to learn more songs and do more shows,” she says – and then, most intriguingly, “You’ll have to wait for announcements…”
As to her legacy, and how her 1960s work has lasted through to the present day, she is endearingly modest. “Do you know – yes, I am proud! Folk Roots, New Roots with Davy Graham has held up well I think, and yes, the other albums are OK too – and they’re unique in their intention.”
“I still get out and enjoy what I can. The South Downs are my home.” – Shirley Collins
Collins keeps up with political developments, her colours passionately nailed to the mast marked ‘EU’. “Yes, I keep up – it’s important for my grandsons for a start. I still ardently hope we remain in Europe, and I despair of the population who voted to leave – and who allowed themselves to be fooled by tricks and lies.” Yet she has noticed a satisfying blend of consistency and change in Hastings, where she was born. “Well, there’s no longer barbed wire and tank traps on the beach. The thrilling Hastings ‘Jack-In-The-Green’ day has also been revived. In the old town the fishing end is still pretty much the same, but you can’t get into the cinema for fourpence now. There are also a few more artists living there, and there is the great museum almost on the beach.”
She also gets out into the countryside, though this is the only time in the conversation where concessions to advancing years are made. “At my age I can’t really walk the miles I used to,” she admits, “but I still get out and enjoy what I can. The South Downs are my home.”
Collins has two children, and is grateful that both remain involved in creative pursuits. “Yes, of course, but neither of them followed the folk music road. My daughter Polly Marshall and my son-in-law Chris Taplin run their own production company, and Polly has written a play, The Biography Of Arthur Brown, among other books. My son Bobby is manager of Asian Dub Foundation.”
As a final consideration, and given how her career inspires a lot of people, the questions have to be asked; how did Collins find the sheer strength to return to music, and once back, how satisfying have the last five years been for her? “It was a great love of the music that kept me going, even while I wasn’t actually performing, and I’ve loved the past five years, singing not only to people who knew my past work, but to a new and young audience, who are such generous listeners. Thanks to them all.”
Shirley Collins plays the Roundhouse on 31 January 2019. The album Lodestar is out now through Domino. Tour dates and further information can be found here.