Here’s a feature about folk musician, Seth Lakeman, which appeared in The Herald recently:
When Seth Lakeman’s fourth solo album, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven,’ was released earlier this year it came with the added fanfare of a TV advertising campaign.
Traditionally reserved for only the biggest selling acts or those into which record companies have invested colossal sums of money, its incongruity served only to highlight just how far the thirty-one year old songwriter has come in the fourteen years since he made his recorded debut (as one third of the Lakeman Brothers). More importantly, it worked, with the album debuting at number 8 in the album charts.
While the brothers made three albums together, and Seth also worked with British folk luminaries, Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon (his sister in law), it was only really with his second solo album, ‘Kitty Jay’ (released in 2005) that Lakeman’s music started to enter a wider consciousness.
Recorded at home in Devon and released on the tiny label, iScream, which he had formed with his brother Sean, it was not only a more cohesive and adventurous record than its predecessor, ‘The Punch Bowl,’ but one which came as a distillation of his previous work and influences.
“I started playing very young. I had picked up a fiddle by the age of six and was playing clubs by the age of 12, partly because my father ran a folk club in Plymouth,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t really until my early twenties that I decided to take it more seriously and do something with it. It was then that that I started working on more song based structures and trying to incorporate stories into them.”
If the style and technique changed, it was still easy to contextualise it within the work of not only his previous collaborators but also his favourite fiddlers (Tom McConville and Stephane Grappelli) and songwriters (Richard Thompson and Randy Newman). Like many great records, it was also driven by an element of desperation.
“When I started out on ‘Kitty Jay’ it was like a clean sheet of paper,” he recalls. “I was signing on at the time, and it was a bit like entering a lottery and finding that the golden ticket fell out.”
“I did the album in two weeks at home and all I really had in mind was to do something that was based on fiddle and vocals and to be song based. In many ways the style and sound had a lot to do with my own naivety at the time, but when I came upon something that was very rhythmic and riff driven, I knew that it was the sound I had been looking for.”
However, it was not so much the record’s release, but its subsequent appearance on the 2005 Mercury Music Prize shortlist that seemed to alert a wider public to the previously insular world of Lakeman’s music.
“Until then, I was making no money and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” he says, “but that was what gave me the opportunity to go out and find an audience or for an audience to go out and find me. I think there is also a type of confidence that develop out of that type of recognition.”
While ‘Kitty Jay’ was in many ways the token folk album on the list and was never realistically likely to pick up the award, it did propel Lakeman towards larger venues with his live show and expedited the release of another album, ‘Freedom Fields,’ which was subsequently picked up by EMI, under the guise of their Relentless imprint.
Historically the attempts of artists coming from the folk scene to crossover to a more mainstream audience have failed, alienating their former fans and failing to find new ones. However, in Lakeman’s case, the timing seems to have worked out well.
“I’m quite fortunate that it seems to have grown at a comfortable, natural pace. EMI bought into the business and that took away a lot of the administrative and organisational burdens that we had, and also they managed to squeeze a few singles out from the albums.”
“Of course, it is hard to let go of something that you feel is your baby – but once you reach a certain level it becomes too big to physically retain control every aspect of what you do. So the compromise, if there was any, that I made was to make sure I retained complete control over the music while in most other areas I am kind of flowing as I go. “
By Lakeman’s account there are a number of reasons for this – what he describes as the ‘stylistically protected’ nature of his music, his ambiguous definition of his genre and the generally sympathetic nature of the record company.
“What I do is quite unique,” he says, “which makes it quite difficult for people to interfere. The songs are based on what I know, stories from this part of the world, while the music is always going to be centred on the fiddle and foot stomping rhythms.”
“While, I think I have always felt part of a British folk tradition, even if I was flying the flag for this part of the world, I have never really claimed to be one thing or the other. I have kind of paved my own way from here. I have never felt any kind of backlash from the purists, or, at least, they have always been really nice to my face!”
However he readily admits, that with the injection of capital, comes a upping of expectations.
“The bigger the record company, the bigger these will be, and it will always be a bit of a battle,” he says. “I am sure there is part of the record company sees me in the same bracket as people like Damien Rice or James Blunt, but while that is an element of what I do, I am never really going to be a radio artist. Universal lyrics are not really what I am about, and the music is always going to have a rhythmic, quirky element which is always a bit alien to being massively popular.”
Following his current tour (and accompanying single “Solomon Browne”) it is time to commence work on album number five for Lakeman. Listening to him describe his music and its direction highlights the crossroads at which his career stands. On the one hand he has successfully defined a sound that he is happy to continue to work within, on the other, he talks of expanding the scope of it by engaging a third party producer (his previous albums have been largely produced primarily by his brother, Sean).
“I don’t see it changing that much,” he says with regards the future. “While it is too early to tell song wise, I know that the vocals are not really going to change, when I started singing, I was basically trying to mimic the sound of the violin.”
“There will be a long batch of writing after the tour, and I think it will be next Spring before we are back out. There is stuff to do in Australia next March and I also have a lot of songs left over from the ‘Poor Man’s Heaven‘ sessions that I would like to go back to.”
There are contradictions too: at various points he suggests both that he would like to go back to the naïve approach of ‘Kitty Jay,’ at others he suggests that album number five may be the time to engage a producer of some reputation.
“I’d love to work with someone like Tchad Blake or Brad Jones, maybe even someone like John Leckie, who would probably strip everything right back. It would be great to work with a real guru like that at some stage. I think so far the records have moved from a very naïve sound to one that is much closer to the live sound, maybe there is another step to take.”
Where it leads may be open to speculation and interpretation, but with a growing reputation as a recording artist, and with nearly twenty years of honing himself as a live performer, now may well be the time to see Lakeman at his peak.
By his own admission, the shows are a ‘high energy, ninety minute combination of the three most recent records,’ and that is a rich reservoir to call upon. (John Williamson)