See The Sea: An Interview with June Tabor
Over her 40 year career, June Tabor has carved out a singular place on the British folk scene, and beyond. She’s an interpreter par excellence of everything from Anglo-Scottish ballads to French chansons, jazz standards, comic songs, and material by writers including Richard Thompson, Bill Caddick, Lal Waterson, Elvis Costello and Les Barker. Add to this her collaborations with Maddy Prior, Martin Simpson, the Oyster Band and the Creative Jazz Orchestra, among others, and the result is a staggeringly rich and accomplished body of work. The signature, throughout, is Tabor’s extraordinary voice: a hauntingly low and expressive instrument that can warm and chill, convey imperious detachment and burning passion, and dig deeply into the soul of a song, powerfully transmitting its emotions to the listener.
Dubbed “chamber folk” by one commentator, Tabor’s unique jazz- and classical-inflected approach to the tradition has been honed across concerts and recordings with her regular musicians, including Huw Warren (piano), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (accordion) and Tim Harries (double bass). It’s this line-up that shines again on Tabor’s latest album, Ashore [review], another glorious piece of work whose thirteen beautifully measured and atmospheric tracks explore maritime themes. I had the pleasure of catching up with June over the phone for Wears the Trousers to talk about the new album, cannibalism at sea, gender politics in traditional music, and exactly what a good song can do.
Firstly, I wanted to congratulate you on Ashore. It’s another fantastic piece of work and I’ve been totally absorbed by it over the past few days. You’ve recorded many songs that have referenced the sea in some way over the years, why did you decide to focus an entire album on songs dealing with those themes and images?
The album really came into being out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in 2009. That was a show to celebrate Topic Records’s 70th anniversary. Topic asked me to contribute and it was up to me to do exactly what I wanted - great! So I started to think about material … We’d come to the sea, musically, a few times before, just because there are so many different kinds of songs that can be connected under that theme. Linking songs, I’ve found, can shine new light on older material; it can make you think again about songs that you thought you knew. So I started looking at the repertoire, and then to think about material that we hadn’t performed before, and would like to. I also started to think about the relationship of the British people, specifically, to the sea. And of course Topic is a very British label; they’ve done so much to promote and celebrate the music of these islands. So that seemed appropriate too. And when it came to thinking about a new record this seemed the obvious solution. It’s such a fascinating area, so rich and diverse. I don’t make albums because I have to; I make albums when I want to make them, when I think “This is something special, something I want to share.”
Where does your fascination with the sea stem from do you think?
Probably from the fact that I was born nowhere near it! As a Midlander I was born about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get, though of course we in Britain are never very far from the sea; it’s part of the British psyche in a way. My own relationship with the sea was born of trepidation, really. Just standing and looking out at the sea is so overwhelming. It’s like nothing else. And I still can’t swim!
It’s not in any way a romanticised view of the sea that the album presents, is it? The songs tend to associate the sea with loss and conflict and separation.
And getting eaten!
Indeed! The jolliest song you’ve recorded here is about cannibalism.
Well, precisely. I couldn’t resist that one [“Le Petit Navire”]. At the QEH show, we performed it alongside two other pieces: “The Ship In Distress” - another amazing piece of work - and Thackeray’s “Three Sailors of Bristol City.” Songs dealing with cannibalism at sea were surprisingly popular in the nineteenth century. “Le Petit Navire” is wonderful and I love the fact that although the poor boy does get eaten, they do so with a nice white sauce and a salad.
Very classy and very French! Let’s talk about some of the other songs on the album, firstly the two tracks that you’ve previously recorded: Ian Telfer’s “Finisterre,” which opens the record, and Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line.” Why did you decide to revisit those two, and what were you seeking to do differently with them this time around?
They’re both songs that I’ve loved for many years, since the first time I performed them. And they’ve stayed in the repertoire throughout the years - not constantly, they do come and go - but they’re songs that I’ve always returned to. I loved what Maddy and I did with “The Grey Funnel Line” [on the first Silly Sisters album], and we still perform it that way, but this version is very different. You’ve got Huw’s incredible piano-playing, then Mark’s viola comes in… It creates something very visual, a piece of cinema. I’ve dedicated this version to my friend Mac Brown, who was in the Navy. He said that this song sums up exactly what a sailor feels when he decides to turn his back on the sea. I think that this version speaks so strongly of not wanting to leave, but knowing you have to for your survival as a human being. Very sadly, Mac died before he could hear this version.
With “Finisterre,” the new arrangement really developed around Andy Cutting’s wonderful spacy accordion-playing, and it’s evolved through performing it at various concerts. I picture this version this way: it’s the 1940s and here’s Humphrey Bogart, nursing his drink, gazing out to sea… Again the arrangement, and the way it builds, just give the song another dimension. One of the things I love about this kind of music is that you can constantly find new dimensions in it the more space you give it.
There’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere to the album. I’ve been listening to it sitting in front of the fire, bundled up in a big jumper, with a blanket…
And a hot toddy, I hope!
The record really makes you feel the rain, the gales, the hail, the north wind.
Yes, the weather and the sea are so inextricably intertwined. In the notes to the album I talk about the shipping forecast, that litany of place names, those very matter-of-fact descriptions of the weather, interrupting the Test Match. It’s really a part of our heritage.
Was it a conscious decision to emphasise atmosphere and mood this time around?
Yes, in a way. But ultimately it’s the songs that tell me what to do with them. The words are so strong that they inspire - dictate, really - the approach that we take: the instrumentation, the arrangements, my phrasing.
On this album you’re also returning to material by Elvis Costello who wrote two songs for you in the early 1990s. In this case, though, you’re taking on one of his most iconic songs, “Shipbuilding.” How did you decide on that one?
I really just sit down and let my former-librarian’s mind rove over all the songs that might be possibilities for a project. At the QEH show, we did a suite of songs about war-at-sea, and I thought “Is there a song that talks about war and the sea in more contemporary times?” And I found myself thinking about “Shipbuilding.” Of course it’s a pop song. But it’s an extremely well-written pop song with so many great references. The lines about being “back by Christmas,” the “telegram” and “notifying the next of kin” - they all speak so clearly about ordinary people’s experience of war.
I listened again to Robert Wyatt’s version, and I thought “Well, I can’t see how to do it as well as that…” But then it becomes a bit like solving a crossword clue. I presented the song to Huw and said “Shall we have a go?” We began by stripping it back. Most contemporary songs don’t work well that way; they were written with accompaniment in mind … But this one did work. Huw is so good and so quick and we came up with this version. It’s always risky to take on a song that means so much to people. But hopefully those who like the Robert Wyatt version will also respond to this ... And the images of the Falklands War are still very fresh in people’s minds, not the younger generation of course, but for a great many people. They will tap into those images when they hear the song.
I’m fascinated by your treatment of the Child ballad that’s on the album, “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.” It turns the song into this incredible dream sequence, almost.
This one originated when I was asked by Maria Hayes, an artist based in North Wales, to contribute something to a film of her making paintings of seals. I performed a spoken-word piece for the film, and Maria asked if I had any Selkie songs. I thought of this one, looked at it again, and was really struck by it. The Joan Baez version would have been the first that I heard, though that one had a new tune. When Child collected his version it was thought that no tune had survived. But this version was collected from John Sinclair of Flotta in the 1930s.
In terms of the approach, it’s completely improvised. The idea was to set up a kind of parallel story-telling between the accompaniment and the lyrics, reflecting the parallel worlds described in the song. And there’s a spoken-word piece that’s included before the final verse. That’s something that I enjoy doing in live performance. I think it can be quite arresting. And there’s a tradition to it, partly for practical reasons: ie. if the singer forgets the lyrics - which can sometimes happen with these long songs…
I was thrilled to see “Across The Wide Ocean” closing the album. It’s a song that you’ve been performing live for a number of years now, and I think it’s devastating, a Les Barker masterpiece. Tell me a bit about the historical background to this.
Les wrote it as part of his opera The Stones of Callanish which is about the history of emigration from the islands of Scotland. He used translations from the original Gaelic of testimonies of those who were evicted during the Highland Clearances in the nineteenth century. The lyrics come directly from those testimonies.
It’s an incredible piece of work. It’s so graphic, and not only in terms of the images. Those lines: “They hunted us like deer..”; “They said we’d have a farm.” In many cases false promises were made to the emigrants, and many of those who did reach their destination - Canada, mainly - who didn’t die on the journey, found that there were no farms for them there and they starved. The descriptions of the hardship that they suffered … It was, essentially, a form of ethnic cleansing.
The song confronts the pain of that history before bringing it into the present-day in the final verse: “And man still steals from man/The rich take what they can.” It conjures images that we’ve all seen in the press of contemporary emigration, migrants washed up on beaches in Spain. The boat people. All those resonances.
Again, in terms of the approach to recording it, it’s improvised. Huw begins playing, I start singing when I feel like it, and then the other musicians come in. And it’s never quite the same twice.
Ashore is your nineteenth album by my calculation… How has your approach to making a record changed over the years?
Well, when I started out I hadn’t got a clue! My introduction to making an album was the first Silly Sisters record with Maddy and I remember going into this rather flash studio, with all sorts of equipment, and I wasn’t sure about it at all. Also, I was so used to singing unaccompanied at that stage. In fact, when I came to record my first solo album, Airs and Graces, and the first track “While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping,” Nic Jones had to put the instrumentation on afterwards; it was the only way that I felt I could do it. He managed it, bless him, but he did say that he turned partially grey in the process.
Eventually, though, I found that the best way for me to record is to do it live, with the musicians. It gets the best results. Even if there’s a mistake, or something goes slightly wrong, it’s a true performance that you’re getting.
Exactly. And I do think that shines through the performances by all the musicians on the albums. Some kind of chemistry - much over-used word, but I suppose that’s what it is - happens under those conditions. Recording in a nice location helps too. A nice big room. With windows.
You’ve always chosen great material to record, whether traditional or contemporary. Do you think that what you look for in material has changed at all over the years?
Yes, probably. But it’s still always about the words first. Strong images, a strong narrative. As I’ve got older economy of lyric has become more desirable, where the song is the most effective distillation of an idea. A song, for me, is like a short story. A good song takes you inside it, and when you’re spat out on the other side at the end, you’re changed.
Have you been tempted to write yourself? I think you’ve said that “Aqaba” with Bill Caddick was the closest you came to that.
I have suggested ideas to people, as with Bill and “Aqaba.” Long ago I did try to write a song: I do still have it and come across it sometimes. I set myself a fairly ambitious task, because it was based on the work of Marie de France, the 12th century writer. It’s a werewolf story, and a really strong piece of material. My aim was to adapt it into English ballad form. But when I got to something like verse forty-three, I thought: “Well, no, this isn’t really working…” I should have got Gabriel Yacoub to do it, but unfortunately I didn’t know him at the time!
Self-criticism comes into it, certainly: thinking that it wouldn’t be good enough. But I do know that I can spot a good song, and that I’m a good interpreter of songs. And of course there are song-writers who don’t perform their own work. So it always excites me to track down a good song and to get it out there to a wider audience. With some singer-songwriters, their work is so personal that it can be difficult for another singer to interpret it. There has to be an element of … detachment, I suppose, in the writing so that I can find a way to make the song my own.
You’ve talked before about the cinematic quality of the great ballads: “Young Johnstone” as Peckinpah meets Kurosawa for example. Is that quality something that you look for in contemporary material as well?
Sometimes, yes. A song like Lal Waterson’s “The Scarecrow” certainly has that. I’ve found that referring to film can be a useful way of explaining something to someone else; it’s often helpful to go to another art form. Though they do always tend to be older films.
A new one I’d recommend is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, which is out here in a few months. As it progresses it felt like this incredible folk ballad to me. And when it got to the final image I thought: “That’s ‘Bonnie James Campbell’!”
I’ll make a note of that! “Bonnie James Campbell” is fabulous, isn’t it, a whole film in itself.
I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about gender, both in relation to traditional music and the folk scene more broadly. In interviews you’ve mentioned the resourceful female characters that feature in some traditional songs, “Geordie” for example. Is a feminist dimension something that’s important to you in a song?
It’s interesting, when I was younger I wouldn’t have thought about the feminist or sexist qualities in a given song. But as you get older - and more sensible - you do find yourself thinking more and more about what a song is actually saying. I wouldn’t sing something just because it had a good female character, but there are certainly songs that I wouldn’t sing now, “Prince Heathen,” for example, just because of the violence that’s done to the woman in the song. In the case of “Geordie,” he is such a wet and she just marches in there and says “I’m going to sort this out.” It’s wonderful. These kinds of characters do turn up again and again in traditional songs. Though I’m not sure just how accurately it reflects the reality of the time, given women’s lack of power. As with the “broken token” ballads - those affirmations of faithfulness - there’s probably an element of wish-fulfilment here.
Do you find it more of a challenge to inhabit a song that’s written from a male point-of-view? Or is it more about the emotional content for you?
It’s more about the emotional content, really. And I have sung a lot of songs from a male perspective over the years. With modern songs, though, one sometimes feels less inclined to do that. I was thinking last night about Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country” for some reason… And changing it to “Boy of the North Country” doesn’t really work, though of course people did it. But it just doesn’t sit as well.
One of the things that I love about traditional music, the big ballads, is that you’re not locked into one perspective as in many pop songs. I was listening to your version of “Rosie Anderson” the other day and the way it moves between perspectives is incredible. You sympathise with both the male and the female character over those many verses. Again, it’s cinematic.
Yes, it’s another amazing song. “‘My meat I cannot take,’ he said/‘My clothes I cannot wear/For thinking on Rosie Anderson/That once I loved so dear.’”
Kills me every time, that verse. It’s such a powerful image of emotional torment.
And then her descent… Heartbreaking!
I know it’s not a song that you perform these days…
Well, I’ll make a note of it. Perhaps we’ll start doing it again. It might be one to revisit.
How do you think things have changed for women on the folk scene since you started out?
That’s a hard one. I would like to think that it’s less difficult now. The folk scene remains a fairly small world in some ways - it should be much bigger - and it has this independent spirit that has allowed a lot of women to flourish and develop … In terms of younger artists, I’m thinking about someone like Emily Portman; I love the way she approaches songs; I haven’t seen her live yet, but I have her album. Even so, being a female performer isn’t easy. There are still certain preconceptions, I think, about what women should sing, and not sing, and what we’re good at. But it has got better, I’d like to think.
Looking back over your career, is there a particular project or a particular album that you feel especially proud of?
Album-wise, I’d probably say An Echo of Hooves. Or aleyn, which was a concert album, though we edited out the sounds of the audience. Some of the performances there are very special to me. In terms of projects, working with the Creative Jazz Orchestra was a wonderful experience, not only for the songs that ended up on A Quiet Eye, but also those live performances that found their way on to Always.
Such as that phenomenal version of “Casey’s Last Ride.”
What a song! But honestly when I get together with Huw and Andy and Mark and Tim and we’re working on something like “Across The Wide Ocean” that’s such a thrill. I love working with them. It’s a relationship that keeps on getting stronger and better. And who knows where we might go next?
What do you enjoy most about live performance these days?
It’s the interaction - the exchange - between the musicians, me and the audience. Everything lifts, the music goes onto another level… And you think “I’m never going to sing that song as well again!” The last concert at King’s Place, for example, was wonderful. Great piano, great room. Just a wonderful collective experience. Now, that’s the best of live performance. The worst was probably being on a bill with Steve Harley years ago, with no-one listening…
Do you and Maddy ever talk about doing another Silly Sisters album?
We’ve been talking about it for years! When we get together now we discuss songs we might do. But we haven’t got around to it yet.
And I believe you’re recording again with Martin Simpson at the moment.
Yes, just one track on Martin’s new album. We’ve been discussing a few things that we might do for it, and now we’ve decided. I’m heading off next week to work on that.
What do you think about the way people tend to access music these days?
(groans of despair) Well, the good side is that so much more music is available now. It’s much less restricted than it used to be. But you see, when it comes to the Internet…well, I’m a book person. And when it comes to music I don’t really want to hear something that someone’s recorded with love and passion squashed onto one of those MP3 things where you’re losing so much. I have to say that it makes me worried and scared that people might just download an album and in the process are losing about 60% of the glory of the arrangements and the performances. My hope is that people who do download might seek out the record afterwards.
What are your plans for this year in terms of touring?
Not! As usual there will be scattered performances throughout the year. But the conditions do have to be right and it’s not that easy to find the right places… Plus, as I’ve got older, I’ve found that I really don’t enjoy travel as much as I used to. But I do absolutely love to perform live and so there will be some.
Ashore is released through Topic Records on 21st February. Go get!