For a while there it seemed as though Shirley Collins would fade into the mythology and folklore that dominated her work.
A truly legendary figure in traditional music circles - a performer, advocate, and song collector - she largely withdrew from public performance after being diagnosed with dysphonia.
Yet new album 'Lodestar' finally, definitively ends that. Recorded at her home in Lewes by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown of Cyclobe, and produced and musically directed by Ian Kearey, the span of the material is awe-inspiring, ranging from the 16th century to the 1950s, from English folk song to Cajun songwriting.
Out on November 4th, 'Lodestar' will be accompanied by a series of live dates, with Shirley Collins agreeing to play a series of high profile shows across the country. Truly, these are halcyon days.
Scottish songwriter James Yorkston is a huge fan of Shirley's work, frequently name-checking her as an inspiration on his own music.
Clash invited the Fife bard to pen a personal introduction to the world of Shirley Collins.
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I grew up in a small farming village in an isolated part of the East Neuk of Fife, but my family spent every summer near Lough Ine in West Cork, an even smaller and more isolated community. And it was there, in Ireland, that I first encountered traditional music. Family gatherings, pubs, street corners - we didn't look for it, it was just there, ever present. Of course I absorbed, took to the music, but I was way too young to realise or appreciate that. I was more interested in spearing jellyfish and hunting ghosts.
By my teens, music had become a part of my identity. I would regularly take the hour long bus journey to Dundee to visit the great second-hand record shop Groucho’s, but by then my head was more into punk-rock and I'd far more likely be spending my scant resources buying Dead Kennedys 7”s than exploring the long-hair beardy-weirdy "Folk" section.
That all changed when I was 17 and I moved to Edinburgh. There was a nagging inside me for this music of my childhood and when I was told by my brother Harry of the Music Library on George IV Bridge – well, I had to visit. And thus the exploration began. I made a great many false starts. A good few albums were over-produced, reverb laden follies, too polite for my judgmental ears. Slowly though, I'd discover the good stuff - Willie Clancy, Bess Cronin, Planxty. With this new wealth of material at my fingertips, my interest in folk would jump away from Ireland towards elsewhere and it was then I discovered more of the greats – D’Gary, Oumou Sangare, Orchestra Baobab, Anne Briggs, Jean Ritchie and - of course - Shirley Collins.
What attracted me to take a punt on the Shirley Collins CD was the cover - a bonny lass, playing the banjo. What could go wrong? And straightaway, from the moment I heard the simplicity of the production and the tone of the voice, I was hooked. For here was a singer entirely convincing, seemingly unconcerned with vocal ornamentation or playing up her part in the performance. Here was a voice pure and easy, relaxed, just telling a set of stories in her own voice.
Even the next CD I tried - where she'd hooked up with the exploratory blues guitarist Davey Graham - was perfect. I'd kind of laughed when I picked it up, imagining this clear-spoken young lady attempting to sing the blues, but it was nothing of the sort. Her voice just worked. She didn't change it in an attempt to bend to Davey Graham's style, her voice just sat there splendidly, seemingly unconcerned by the peculiarities being plucked around her. I copied it for my brother Harry and he was amazed, presuming it was a bootleg of Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch. That’s high praise.
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So Shirley became a trusted, A-lister and I'd buy or at least hear everything of hers I could. Not all of it rang true for me - the over-arranged, folk-rock stuff I can live without. But when I began singing music myself, I'd dip into Shirley’s song book, amongst others. My first solo album for Fence Records containing my take of her take of 'Hares On The Mountain', my ‘Fearsome Fairy Tale Lovers’ EP with ‘Higher Germanie’.
This was all pre-internet, of course, and Shirley’s disappearance from music I put down to some unknown circumstance. Perhaps she'd died? Had a family and given up on music? I discovered she'd given up on singing due to her dysphonia, which seemed to me a form of stage fright. A great shame as I felt her voice was one of those that would grow with age. But, life continues and we were blessed with plenty of her old recordings, plus there's always new music to explore...
And then, within recent memory, a new vocal was recorded, a version of 'Babes In The Wood'. I could hardly believe it and I had my doubts, how she would sound these decades later. Not everyone can make that leap successfully, after all. There was no need of worry though as again, from the first few notes she sang, I knew it was perfect. Aged and changed, but there, at ease and quite wonderful.
Shirley has an unusual and very valuable vocal style. She at times sings as though she is distracted, looking the other way, almost. I believe now it is her inhabiting the songs, not for the sake of the performance, but simply reliving the stories. ‘Lodestar’ keeps that feeling. It’s also a current and contemporary sounding album rather than an exercise in nostalgia - that’s not only down to Shirley’s effortless vocal, but also to the production and instrumentation sounding fresh and interesting. I don’t want to say it’s sympathetic cast of players around her as that can imply background and restraint, supportive of someone needing supporting, and there’s little hint of that. The musicians playing sound as though they are delighted to be on-board, such is their dance and spirited feel.
With traditional music, there’s always been one eye on the past, as older singers and older songs have been sought out, recorded and celebrated – Jimmy Macbeath, May Bradley, Harry Cox, Fred Jordan amongst plenty others – and Shirley’s new-yet-aged vocal sits well amongst them. With those old field recordings there was often the feeling that the singer was delighted to be of interest and amused and pleased to be in the spotlight, sharing the songs, singing and being recorded. That same feeling of joy and life shines through on ‘Lodestar’. It’s an exceptional album and not in anyway because of Shirley’s age, but for the overall vibe and feeling it produces. I look forward to hearing what happens next.
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'Lodestar' will be released on November 4th.
Catch Shirley Collins at the following shows:
4 Lewes Union Music Store
7 London Rough Trade East Q&A with Pete Paphides
4 Glasgow Celtic Connections @ Town Hall
11 Bristol Colston Hall
18 London Barbican
23 Wales Safe As Milk Festival @ Pontins Prestatyn Holiday Park
6 Warwick Arts Centre