Truly making his mark – in conversation with Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman is back, and on the evidence of new LP, Make Your Mark, the last 18 months did nothing to blunt his creative prowess.

Emerging from the long days, weeks and months of lockdown, the celebrated indie-folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s latest album – out in a fortnight on CD and in digital format, and next month on vinyl – is his 11th studio offering since going solo in 2002.

Released on his Honour Oak Records label, the new record’s 14 songs were recorded at Middle Farm Studios – as namechecked in my recent Tim Keegan /Departure Lounge feature/interview – in his native Devon earlier this year as restrictions eased, 44-year-old Seth self-producing.

“The pandemic gave me a real determination to come out musically stronger, and I really dug deep into myself. Being able to record and play with the band again was really quite spiritual.”

Most associated with fiddle and tenor guitar, but also a dab hand with banjo and viola, as well as that distinctive voice, it’s now 16 years since Seth’s Mercury Music Prize nomination for second album Kitty Jay, his solo career following a spell alongside siblings Sam and Sean as the Lakeman Brothers.

Their debut LP landed in 1994, when he was 17, the trio then joining forces with Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts as Equation, while Seth also raised his profile guesting on sister-in-law Cara Dillon’s award-winning eponymous debut LP before going it alone.

Kitty Jay was his first record to make true headway, but 2006 follow-up Freedom Fields was the first certified gold, and as well as his new studio offering, he’s celebrating the latter’s 15th anniversary with a deluxe CD and vinyl reissue, with both records showcased at live dates this month.

First though, a quick story about serendipity, and how the day my eldest daughter headed down by train from Lancashire for a university open day and fact-finding mission around Plymouth, Seth happened to be launching his new album via a live web-stream from the pitchside at Home Park, home of his beloved Plymouth Argyle FC.

Seth, from the West Devon village of Buckland Monachorum, performed ‘The Giant’ and ‘Side by Side’ with bandmate Alex Hart, amid a little crowing about the Pilgrims being early League One leaders.

And one week on, I was through to the man himself, who was so wrapped up in pre-tour rehearsals that he’d forgotten I was calling. But he obligingly broke off so I was able to chat with an acclaimed crossover folk star on my radar since first taking a punt on Freedom Fields at Leyland Library not long after its release, clearly someone with discerning taste having ordered it in.

That third record helped build on his cult following and find a wider audience, Seth subsequently named Folk Singer of the Year and Freedom Fields awarded Album of the Year at 2007’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, that long player becoming one of the best-selling traditionally-based folk records in the UK.

Tours with The Levellers, Billy Bragg and Jools Holland helped spread the word, and in my case, I sought out Kitty Jay next, then headed back to 2002 solo debut The Punch Bowl before shelling out on 2008’s Poor Man’s Heaven, keeping close tabs ever since, the clincher perhaps May 2009’s band show at the wondrous Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall, albeit with this punter having to make do with the DVD experience.

My own love of his part of the world was a factor, admittedly, but it was Seth’s creative approach to song storytelling and his musicianship that truly struck the right chords. So, have the last 15 years since Freedom Fields – inspired by one of the turning point battles of the English Civil War, the people of Plymouth standing united against the Royalists – flown by?

“It has really. I’ve been pretty busy, and I’ve released a lot of material, but I’m still finding a source of inspiration. I’ve always loved writing songs and the whole process. And yeah, it does feel like it’s flown.”

We could go back even further to The Punch Bowl. Was that you finding your feet?

“Yes, finding my voice, really, working out if I could be a singer and was it something I could achieve. I knew, melodically, I was a violinist and was trying out guitars. But yes, it was an experiment really.”

Did you see Kitty Jay as your true arrival? Or was there an earlier point where you you’d written a song or a whole album that made you realise, ‘I can do this’, and accordingly carried an inner belief?

“I think that was the first time I really understood the process of making a whole album, where each song is like a chapter of a book. The full concept of an album also struck me, that’s where the Dartmoor legends and stories came from, and that’s the arrival of Kitty Jay.

“Lots of things were coming into play there, such as learning to sing with a violin, learning about the tenor guitar, things like that … experimenting with sound, really.”

Are you an avid reader? It seems – from the sheer breadth of subject matter for songs – that you’ve got this thirst for knowledge and want to share it. And I guess that’s what folk music was intended for, traditionally, being educational as well as entertaining.

“Exactly, sharing stories about real people and their efforts, and celebrating them in song. That’s something I’ve always loved. Singing about where you come from, making sure people are aware of that – you don’t want to lose sight of your roots. So many times we step over into Americana, which I have, and we love to do that, but it’s always good to find those stories right here, back at home.

“And, yeah, I used to be a big reader, but then I had kids, so it’s not so much as it used to be! But I’m always keen to find stories. I was a big reader for the Mayflower project I was part of. That involved lots of research.”

That research led to early 2020’s A Pilgrim’s Tale, telling the epic tale of the Pilgrim Fathers on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, a tie-in tour involving 10 towns and cities associated with the voyage, ending at Plymouth’s St Andrew’s Church – where the latest tour started this week – just before the first lockdown.

I mentioned my daughter’s Plymouth move, and it was only when we were looking to find rented rooms nearby that I spotted the location of Freedom Fields. But I guess I’m just one of many who’s learned more about Devonian – and Cornish – folklore and history through his songs.

“Ah, that’s good, and that’s all part of it, you know, trying to show people Dartmoor and the surrounding area, Plymouth, Cornwall … the full West Country tour!”

Some of that history is far more recent and still raw in certain cases. And as I mentioned Poor Man’s Heaven, that LP includes Solomon Browne, Seth’s tribute to the crew members of West Cornwall’s Penlee lifeboat, lost at sea 40 years ago next month. In fact, he told me about his pride at being part of events for the official opening of Solomon Browne Memorial Hall in Mousehole in 2017, recalling conversation there with the coxswain of the Penlee crew, who lost his father in the disaster.

As for the new record, from opener ‘Hollow’ – with shades of Gray for me in Seth’s vocal … David Gray, that is – through to closing number, ‘Constantly’, Make Your Mark grabs you from the off. Familiar yet fresh, we’re soon reeled in, early highlights including ‘Love Will Still Remain’, which kind of fires you out of the cannon, Seth’s fiddle to the fore, and the harmonising with Alex adding another dimension on next offering, ‘Bound to Someone’. Meanwhile, ‘The Higher We Aspire’ was a clear choice as the album’s lead single, Seth at his most subtly commercial, in another fine example of well-crafted indie-pop folk.  

Make Your Mark sees Seth tackles the environment, love, death, and self-belief, trademark Lakeman themes, and while I’d not had a proper chance to wallow within when we spoke, I soon had, and I’m suitably impressed. He’s clearly still making his mark.

Down the years, there have been songs about miners, ships’ crews, soldiers, artisans, craftsmen, and plenty more working-class heroes and villain, fair maidens and returning prodigal sons, his tales often timeless, not concerned with any specific periods of history or elements of traditional folk.

“You try and jump back and forth, in as much as I love history and I love language. I like writing in that traditional way too. But I also love Americana, West Coast, I love pop, I love rock. On Poor Man’s Heaven and Hearts and Minds, there’s lots of riffing and heavy drums. All sorts.”

While my tastes always varied, folk was something I struggled to take on board for a long time, until perhaps the influence of The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Celtic folk – The Pogues, The Waterboys, and so on – finally lured me. In more recent years I’ve grown far closer to that world, not least through finding the beauty in Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, right through to Americana, Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions providing another turning point. And Seth’s music stands up there with the best of all that in my mind.

Understanding the way all those influences play off each other was key to my appreciation, the BBC/RTE Transatlantic Sessions productions among the factors helping illuminate those links, and that’s where I caught Sam Lakeman and wife Cara Dillon among those featured. But I was also pleased to hear him say that his own influences were certainly not just drawn from the folk roots world.

“Oh, crumbs! I mean, I love Public Service Broadcasting. I love their new album (Bright Magic), and was rocking out to that, and I’ve just introduced my kids to AC/DC and all those heavy bands … and obviously Zeppelin. My son was in the car and I’m playing him ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Good Times Bad Times’. And I was playing some classical guitar music the other night. And jazz. I mean, Stephane Grappelli is one of my biggest heroes.”

Now he’s mentioned ‘Kashmir’, I’ve another image of him, blasting that out with his children as he drives deeper into that dramatic Dartmoor scenery.

“Ha!”

Seriously though, that makes me re-evaluate tracks like the brooding, powerful ‘The Lark’ on the new LP. I could hear a Gretchen Peters-like vibe before, and now hear the homegrown dark blues of Robert Plant too, with a similar feel on next track, ‘Side by Side’. Perhaps it was always there, yet never quite sinking in.

There is a link, a phone call from the Led Zep frontman on New Year’s Day 2017 leading to input on Plant’s Carry Fire LP that year and him joining his tour as part of the Sensational Space Shifters band and as tour support, further engagements together following in 2018 in the US and Australia.

And while domestic responsibilities (Seth and Cornish-born wife Hannah have twins aged eight and a five-year-old) may have come even more to the fore in recent years, he still managed to turn around his ‘lockdown album’, the latest released through Honour Oak Records, the label name inspired by a tree close to where he was based in Whitchurch around the time of 2012’s Tales From the Barrel House LP, marking the boundary of French prisoners on parole in Tavistock from Princetown on Dartmoor during the 1803/4 Napoleonic War, and also where money was deposited in exchange for food during an 1832 cholera outbreak.

And will his live band help him echo what he’s pulled off on the new record when it comes to the tour?

“Yeah, the same guys are on the road with me. That’s what we’re doing here (rehearsing – I think that’s him subtly saying he best put the phone down soon and get back to it), and I’m very excited at the prospect of being able to get back out there.”

As well as the afore-mentioned Alex Hart on added vocals, the band also comprises Benji Kirkpatrick (Bellowhead, Faustus), on bouzouki, banjo and mandolin; Toby Kearney, principal percussionist at Birmingham Conservatoire, on drums; and Ben Nicholls, on bass, the latter having worked with Seth for many moons.

“Yeah, 20 odd years now. A long, long time!”

Are you in regular touch with brothers Sam and Sean (the latter having produced his first four solo LPs)?

“Yeah, all the time. We did a Lakeman family gathering show not long ago, back in the summer. For Beautiful Days, and that was really successful.”

Thinking back to having that security of that band of brothers, so to speak, if you could go back 20 years to just before The Punch Bowl came out, is there a certain bit of advice you’d offer yourself, maybe making yourself a little less anxious about the solo career path ahead?

“Yeah, there’s always that point about not being too precious about music. I might have been a bit too worried about the ‘folk police’. That’s something I wouldn’t want to be so worried about now. I really wouldn’t!

“And I’d tell young musicians it’s all there to be used, the tradition. It’s all about creativity, you know, and pushing boundaries. I think that’s the key to all kinds of music.”

Going back to your roots – Seth began playing music with his parents and brothers at an early age – I’m guessing you grew up with folk. How do you think the state of the future of roots music as a proper music of the people is at this point in time?

“It feels like it’s at a bit of a turning point. Because, you know, we’ve come out of something that is so extreme, for human beings, at that point of socialising and connection. Music has a real opportunity now to unite and almost heal people, show them there’s a really positive way forward.

“I think that’s where music has a real opportunity. So yeah, the people’s music and music in general, I think, has that great opportunity.”

And with that, Seth was away, back to his rehearsals, those UK dates ever closer (with a link to a tour video here), this accomplished artiste having truly made his mark these past two decades, and showing no sign of letting up yet.

Make Your Mark is set for release on Friday, November 19th in CD and digital formats, and on Friday, December 17th on double vinyl. You can also order a signed Freedom Fields deluxe reissue now on CD and double vinyl – limited edition coloured and black – all with exclusive bonus content, including unreleased tracks and rare demos, with a signed art print from selected stores via this link. And for more information, head to Seth’s official website.

And while the tour is now underway – opening dates at Plymouth St Andrew’s Church and Exeter Cathedral behind him – he ventures further afield these next couple of weeks for shows at Carmarthen Lyric Theatre (Thursday, 4th November); Guildford G Live (Friday, 5th November); Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (Saturday, 6th November); Yeovil Westlands (Sunday, 7th November); Leeds City Varieties Music Hall (Monday, 8th November); Oxford SJE Arts (Tuesday, 9th November); Birmingham Town Hall (Wednesday, 10th November); Newark Palace Theatre (Thursday, 11th November); Bath Forum (Friday, 12th November); Cambridge Corn Exchange (Saturday, 13th November); Southend Palace Theatre (Sunday, 14th November); Milton Keynes The Stables (Monday, 15th November); London, Islington Union Chapel (Tuesday, 16th November); Manchester Stoller Hall (Wednesday, 17th November); and Buxton Opera House (Thursday, 18th November). For tickets, head to Seth’s website live dates link or this SeeTickets link.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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