At Back Seat Mafia we are eagerly awaiting the release of sixties folk pioneer Shirley Collins new album ‘Heart’s Ease’ via Domino on 24th July. After 2016’s epic ‘Lodestar’ which marked her return to recording and performing after a 35 year pause, we wanted to talk to Shirley about the new record and what the next stage of her extraordinary musical life has in store.
Here is what she had to say:
BM: Hi Shirley, thanks so much for talking to us. Before we get onto ‘Heart’s Ease’ how have you been dealing with the lockdown and the strange times we have found ourselves in recently?
Shirley Collins: I’ve lived on my own for many years, so it hasn’t really been a problem and I’ve got a small garden which helps a lot. That’s up to now. Over the last week or so I’ve begun to get cabin-fever. I get quite angry some of the time – and I swear more than usual – mostly at inanimate objects that won’t behave! (That sounds like I‘m referring to the Government – but I really mean jar and tin lids that won’t open.)
So now the release date is nearly here what are your feelings about the new album?
I’m pleased with the new album. My singing is stronger than it was on
Lodestar. I love the songs and the arrangements – Ian Kearey is a wonder – he comes up with the right thing every time. And the musicians –The Lodestar Band – know what they’re doing too!! And in its way, it feels like an album for these strange times.
The tracklist for ‘Heart’s Ease’ looks intriguing to say the least- how did you set about the task of choosing the traditional songs on the album?
Choosing the songs? You could say that the songs choose me! They are all
songs I’ve had in my head for years – and finally it’s the right time to let them out! But it’s also partly choosing songs from the old Sussex traditional singers whose music I’ve known and loved for ages – George Maynard, the Copper Family, Harry Upton, while I’ve still got the opportunity of doing it.
And there are more newly written songs this time around- can you tell us something about these?
The newly-written songs I chose, in a way, for family reasons. Locked in Ice was written by my sister’s son, Buz Collins, a singer-songwriter, who sadly took his own life a few years back. On one of his albums Water & Rain (1999) was a song he’d written The Baychimo, the true story of a vessel that became a ghost ship, drifting round the Arctic, unmanned, until its last sighting in 1969. Buz sang it as a rather rocky song; I slowed it right down, set it 100 years earlier, and re-named it Locked in Ice. In its way, it reminded me of my life – locked in ice away from singing for over 35 years.
Sweet Greens & Blues was a by-chance discovery of an old cassette on which was written Sweet Greens & Blues – Shirley & Davy. When I played it I remember Davy and I recording it in the living room at my home in Blackheath in 1964/5. It had been written by my then husband Austin John Marshall about our little children Polly and Rob, and I’d set the words to a traditional American tune. And it was Rob who suggested I sing it for Heart’s Ease – and so I did! Austin John and I parted rather badly, and divorced. He died in New York a few years back, and Polly and Rob had to go out and deal with his funeral and all his affairs, so
this song is by way of a reconciliation, a healing. As is the other written song – again by A J Marshall – The Whitsun Dance which I’d first recorded on Anthems in Eden, back in 1969.
So as a singer do you approach the traditional songs differently to the new material?
No – no difference in the way I sing the written songs and the traditional ones. I can’t sing any other way!
This time around you have recorded in the studio rather than at home- how did that work out for you?
I really enjoyed recording Heart’s Ease in a studio. I didn’t quite have the nerve to do that for Lodestar, the first album for Domino. But when I reflect on it – it’s actually easier to work in a studio than at home – and far fewer distractions, too. Our engineer was Al Scott – and he’s a friend of Ian Kearey’s – they were in The Oyster Band together for some years – and Al still is. He was patient, attentive, and of course he understood the music, too, so was sympathetic to it.
And the title of the ailbum, ‘Heart’s Ease’ what is the story, if there is one, behind that?
Heart’s Ease is a wild flower of the pansy family, one of my late sister Dolly’s favourites, so I was thinking of her….. and of course, being able to sing again has given my heart ease. Simple really…
Like Lodestar the new record is on Domino records which is not a recognised ‘folk’ label in the same way as say Topic. How important do you think it is to nudge traditional music a little bit beyond its boundaries?
I’m really fortunate to be on the Domino label now – there’s a more dynamic outlook, less cosy than the companies that release traditional or what passes as ‘folk music’ nowadays. I hope that doesn’t sound too unkind. An album can simply disappear. . but that’s not going to happen with Domino. Their team really supports their artists and everyone is approachable. That makes such a difference. And it’s interesting for me to be introduced to a different audience.
You have the reputation as an avid listener and music lover as well as maker. What have you found yourself listening to over the past few months?
Over the last few months I’ve been listening to the usual music I love – Two Renaissance Dance Bands – David Munrow , and The Broadside Band’s 17 th – century English Country Dances from Playford. Those are old favourites, and so full of energy, life and beauty. They both comfort and energise me, in a way that modern music doesn’t. Of new recordings, I love the Irish group Lankum – Radie Peat’s voice is stunningly raw and honest. And I play ‘What News’ over
and over again – Alasdair Roberts. David McGuinness and Amble Skuse – their marvellous new takes on old Scottish ballads. And I love early recordings of Cajun music. There’s something so defiant about it!
And what are your plans from here, live shows, another film project perhaps?
Plans? Lord knows what’s going to happen. The final track on Heart’s Ease – Crow Link – is a nod, perhaps, towards a third album. We, the Lodestar Band, just have one gig lined up for next year – at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, with Brian Catling and Matthew Shaw – and that was postponed from this May!
A question of survival for all of us. It’s all in the lap of the Gods who don’t seem to like any of us right now! And I don’t think we can blame them!
Still – as one of the old Sussex folk songs says:
There’s many a dark and a cloudy morning
Turns out to be a most sunshiny day.
Hearts Ease is out via Domino on July 24th.