Interview: Seth Lakeman, folk star for all seasons

Seth Lakeman.
Seth Lakeman.
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By Graham Chalmers

Seth Lakeman looks too good to be true but true he is.

The cover of Seth Lakeman's Word of Mouth album.

The cover of Seth Lakeman's Word of Mouth album.

There have been plenty of acoustic acts who have dipped their toe in both the commercial and the folk worlds in recent years.

But few have done so with such natural conviction.

Combining the smouldering good looks of someone in a fireman’s calendar and the flinty passion of a folk club veteran, this former Mercury Prize nominee is the real deal in a field of also-rans.

Fans of this multi-talented singer-songwriter will be looking forward to seeing him on stage at the Royal Hall on Thursday, January 29 when he will be performing what he tells me will be an “eclectic set” of solo and band material.

Seth, himself, is a big fan of the venue, after his last appearance there in 2013.

Talking to me on the phone from his home in south west, this foot-stomping master of the fiddle, banjo and viola describes the Royal Hall as a “wonderful theatre, not quite forgotten but like a secret place that only local people know about.”

His most recent album, the impressive Word of Mouth was praised for, once again, giving contemporary life to the folk tradition with fresh tales from Devon and Cornwall.

Anyone unaware of the award-winning 37-year-old’s lengthy back catalogue may simply know him as the only singer on the show Tim Rice: A Life in Song who sang solo on BBC 2 on Christmas Day.

Seth said: “Sir Tim sent me a lovely email asking me to take part so I suggested doing Any Dream Will Do.

“It was a bit daunting. I was the only person to perform without an orchestra and I was doing quite a sombre version of the song. I wanted to give the song a different perspective.”

Known for being a lively performer on stage, I suggest to Seth that a lot of what passes for ‘folk’ in the current era lacks a sense of place or a feel for the oral tradition.

Which is not, frankly, something you can accuse Seth of.

“I come from Dartmoor. It’s one of the last wildernesses in this country, like parts of the Highlands or the Brecon Beacons. I’ve always felt very passionate about that.

“I spent two years before recording Word of Mouth interviewing people in the West Country about their stories and their lives.”

Listening to Seth speak, it’s hard to believe some of his previous work has been compared to Led Zeppelin and Muse.

The former is understandable, for Robert Plant and co were a band whose rhythmic drive often contained a folk influence, like much of 60s and 70s rock, come to think of it.

But Muse?

“I suppose coming after Kitty Jay, critics weren’t expecting some of the music I was making on Poor Man’s Heaven and Hearts & Minds.

“I think people would have understood it more if they had come to my live shows. They happened after I’d been experimenting with sounds with my band on stage.”

Commemorating the hidden stories of local history may have been something he was born to do since he first formed a trio in the mid-1990s with his brothers Sean and Sam but his musical influences span the history of popular music.

“I’ve gone all the way from playing swing jazz as a young violinist in my teens to rock n roll.

“I like U2 and some quite heavy stuff like AC/DC and West Coast bands like Counting Crows. My new favourite band is War on Drugs. Their new album is great.”

Despite the success of Seth’s ‘rock phase’ (his Poor Man’s Heaven album reached number eight on 2008), folk was never far from his heart or mind.

His sixth solo album, Tales from the Barrel House was recorded partly in a cooperage and was full of laments to blacksmiths and carpenters, fishermen and tin miners.

Recorded in a church, Word of Mouth may encompass hints of pop, rock and country, as well as folk, but the deluxe version comes complete with a spoken word CD containing the voices of the people Seth spent so long interviewing.

I’d be meaning to ask him if he reads a lot, anyway, in this digital era where folk music’s oral roots feel left behind.

“A lot of my songs are based on reading and on research, either on my laptop or from libraries.”

So you prepare for writing songs a bit like a book author?

“Perhaps I’m a mini-novelist doing four or five minute novels.”

At this point the excited voice of what sounds like a naughty-sounding child bursts down the phone.

Having released his first album with his brothers back in 1994 and been signed to Time Warner a year later, I suggest that despite his youthful voice and looks, Seth is a bit of a veteran in the music business?

“Now that I’m married with kids, it certainly make you feel like one.

“The word ‘veteran’ scares me, though. I do feel established, I suppose.”

After slightly rudely pushing the merits of Magna Carta’s brilliant but, as yet, unreleased Fields of Eden album, I tell him I think his voice will be even better in the future when it deepens as he gets older.

“Maybe I should take up smoking? Whatever happens I feel very lucky to be able to do music as a career. I remember a time when I was signing on, struggling to make ends meet.”

Seth Lakeman and band play the Royal Hall, Harrogate on Thursday, January 29 at 7.30pm.

Tickets are available on 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk