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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Maddy Prior on Wintersmith, Peter Knight's departure and why being in Steeleye Span is hard

"We haven't learned anything about how to deal with being in a band. 
We've learned nothing. We've never been sensible, that's just never been part of our make-up. A lot of the time there are stresses that are quite unnecessary."

"Terry (Pratchett) has listened to our music from way back," said Maddy Prior. "He was introduced to Boys of Bedlam as a young man and when you read his books you recognise references to our work. He quotes lines from our songs and you sort of recognise them. So he uses 'you love not where you live' which is a song that we do... But he also knows a lot of other material."

I was asking what it was that, in essence, Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett have in common because after reading Wintersmith - the book on which the band's latest album is based - it struck me that it was more than just an appreciation of each other's work (which has been apparent since Pratchett chose Thomas the Rhymer as his track to keep on Desert Island Discs and Prior says she has read 10-15 of his books). It's as if the sensibility of each is from the same wellspring: something essentially English, historically truthful but also fantastical. They inhabit the same psychic landscape.

Reading Wintersmith, I was particularly moved by Pratchett's witches: complicated, hard-working, under-appreciated women, somewhere between wise and clever (on the whole), with senses of humour but also the knowledge that they might fall off the edge of society at any time. He anatomises the social high wire act of these characters with aching, heartbreaking clarity while also keeping it the right side of sentimental through the usual English device of making a joke out of the whole thing. 

I've also been struck that Pratchett's deep empathy with those characters may go a little further than is entirely usual, in the sense that in public appearances he has often chosen to look as much like one of them as it is reasonable for a man to do.

That's not just me, is it?

Prior began speaking about the history of witchcraft and the patriarchal landscape that real-life so-called "witches" made their way through, recommending a book on the subject that I can see on Amazon is also one of Hilary Mantel's favourites. (Guess what I'm buying myself for Christmas.) "I find it very interesting the way that Terry has presented the witches: they play the game of being scary but... It was a change in social circumstances that led to this myth.

"There had always been wise women and women who knew about herbs and medicine. But suddenly communities were separated form the land and from each other and all the old communal ways of being were ended. One of the ways that remained of surviving was by threatening people if they didn't help you. So it's very interesting to know that during the witch trials you had to prove that you'd done something to a woman to make her put a spell on you: in order to get her convicted you had to explain how you had threatened her. It was a very complicated social manoeuvre and Terry looks at that in a kind of inverted way. 

"The great thing about his books, though, is that there is never total evil, just people getting the wrong end of the stick. He's not so much a feminist as a humanist.

"I'm lucky in that I've never had to deal with really bad situations in life, in which people have no empathy for each other. But I know that it happens and that when it does, it can be... Terry's explanation for all this is that the perpetrators have something missing: it's not deliberate evil in that sense."

Sounds like he's coming at the issue of psychopathy from a very kindly perspective, which is reassuring but not necessarily the response that psychopaths evoke when you meet them. What saves Pratchett's worldview from tweeness is the shadows around the edges, into which people - the witches - will fall when things go wrong. He writes about "cackling" as the gateway to insanity, the thing that witches start to do when they're on their own if things are going badly for them and down which road you find "poisoned spinning wheels and gingerbread cottages". The first time I read that, I shuddered involuntarily, my childhood dread of becoming lost in the Great North Woods or somesuch, plunging to the surface.

So why is Peter Knight leaving the band at the end of the Wintersmith tour?

"I'm not quite sure," said Prior. "Maybe it's time to have a break and do other things. Gigspanner is his baby and that's what he wants to do. It's a bit late on for returns but I would never say it's out of the question."

There was a slight pause. 

"Actually, though, we've only just found out and it's been a very stressful tour as a result. When someone is leaving it changes the dynamics of the band. What we'll do next I'm not sure. He's left before though."


"Yes. In the 70s. Peter and Bob left and Martin (Carthy) and John (Kirkpatrick) joined. Then a year or so slid by and we reformed with Pete and Bob again. You get something in each musical situation that you're in that you don't get anywhere else and sometimes you miss that. Pete will never get what he gets from Steeleye anywhere else - it's a different dynamic. 

"There has always been a drive in Steeleye that has made it a very powerful band. There is a huge amount of energy, a huge sound that is extremely distinctive that comes from those of us who have been in the band the longest. But it's always been a difficult band to be in."

How do you mean?

"There is a lot of tension: strong personalities and huge dynamics. Never a day goes by that we don't have a row. You would think that after all this time we would get on. But no. Pete is just finding it too much at the moment. 

"But that's actually what makes it a very interesting band. We haven't learned anything about how to deal with being in a band. We've learned nothing. We've never been sensible, that's just never been part of our make-up. A lot of the time there are stresses that are quite unnecessary.

"I look at all these young people navigating their way between bands on the scene these days and think how good they are at that and wonder how they do it?

"But the other side of our equation is that we laugh a lot. Our energy comes out in different directons: very positive and very, very negative. But it's springing out in all directions at the moment. It's amazing that we've lasted this long really.

"I really have no idea what we will do with Peter gone. He's very distinctive: it would be like trying to replace me. It's a voice that nobody else has, a voice in which he has spent 45 years learning how to speak. If somebody else were coming in, it would be difficult."

Still, at the Barbican gig on Monday, Spiers & Boden joined Steeleye on stage for a stunning evening that was notable partly for the look of unadulterated pleasure on the duo's faces and the way they were hanging around at the side of the stage, clearly hoping to be invited to join in All Around My Hat. Well you would, wouldn't you?

As they left the stage again the question: "You wouldn't like to join the band, would you?" floated after them. But I guess that since Spiers & Boden are packing in their double act apparently to devote more energy to Bellowhead, it's hard to see how they'd make time for another folk behemoth...

So what advice would she give her younger self? When I spoke to Peter Knight a few months ago - he broke the news about the Wintersmith project - he spoke with some regret about the lack of business acumen they'd had in the 70s...

"We were never shrewd people and that's the nature of the business. We had fantastic times touring the US, they were great days. We fought and raged and laughed our way around and I wouldn't have missed it. And this is what our lives have been. Why would I change it? The easiest place in the world is the grave and yet we spend our lives trying to make things easy.

"Sometimes this is lovely work. But my experience has been that as soon as you put a lot of energy in, it stops being easy. The more you invest in something the harder it gets and by the end nothing in my life will have been invested in to the same extent as Steeleye, simply in time alone."

A couple of people sent questions about spin-off projects. The first was whether there will be a follow-up to Three for Joy and then there was another, from someone on Twitter calling themselves Fractal Geek, asking how you got into "obscure but fab, odd-tempo east European stuff"? 

"Well, Hannah, Giles and I will be touring with Three for Joy next year, starting in April, and we'll probably record something as well. Hannah is such a little treasure and she and Giles are such a delight to work with. This is what I mean about not getting the same energy with any band..."

"We are looking at yodelling at the moment: I'm trying to get some skills: I've never had any skills particularly."

This seems like an odd thing to say for someone who's in a band that was partly responsible for producing an entire generation of musicians, although given the number of young multi-instrumentalists playing folk these days, I can see where she's coming from.

"Hannah and Giles are both very skilled in lots of different areas. It's difficult to yodel well: to actually control it is quite difficult. But Hannah learned it on an exchange in Finland at Sibelius academy. She's a sponge for learning things and I'm picking up stuff that drops off as she rides by."

And the east European stuff?

"June Tabor and I sang Bulgarian material. It was the first thing we learned together, I think because an album came out on Topic in the 60s and it kind of became a part of our canon. But again, I think it's Hannah who's really nailed this stuff. She goes to ethno-music camps that are often in Slovenia and teaches them English music and in return she learns yodelling and overtone singing."

You're obviously impressed by and fond of Hannah and Giles. What do you think the outlook is for youngsters on the folk scene?

"Traditional music is massive these days, isn't it? All these players: there are so many of them. It's just like it was in the 60s but there are so many of them and they are so much more skilful and they all grew up on it. Hannah's parents went to festivals and took her with them and her mum was in a dance team, which is how she became aware of clogging. I didn't come to all this until I was 17 and there was nobody else doing it. We had to find it ourselves.

"What the youngsters need is a massive audience, whereas what they've got is the same audience we had and quite often exactly the same people. When I was young, people used to say to us 'Why don't you get a proper job?' Whereas these days it seems to have somehow become the proper job, the one where if you play your cards right you can make good money.

"The audience in the US is massive, just colossal. Almost every state is the same size on its own that the UK is." The trouble is finding a way of reaching it, though.

I talked a bit about how the UK's highest profile marketing platform - the BBC folk awards - somehow doesn't seem to see itself as a marketing platform and is, in my opinion, letting the youngsters in the industry down quite badly. The secrecy surrounding the judging process is only the start of it, as I suspect knowing the average age of the judges would reveal the nature of the problem, allowing it to be fixed. (Expect more on this soon, since Fergus Dudley turned out to be saying the things he said last year simply to get me off his back. Nothing has changed.)

"I know what you're saying. I'm not denying that the folk mafia has become a bit... What you need is young producers. There are some in their 30s and 40s. I'm thinking of Bellowhead. But they're really playing to the same crowd that we've always played to. It's the middle men they need, to find a new market for them. It is a problem.

"It's the same in Scotland. They have a massive number of players. But it's almost that nobody English is going up there any more and nobody Scottish is coming down here. That border has become very strong. I live nine miles from the border and I think it's an independence thing. I don't quite know what has happened: perhaps that country's resentment has just come to fruition?"

It's been a pleasure, Maddy.

* You can buy the beautiful Wintersmith album, here. And Terry Pratchett's quietly brilliant book here, where there is also a Terry Pratchett blog.

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