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Interview by John Tobler
EARLY DAYS AND GiGGING
''I was studying at Sheffield University, but the only thing that really interested me and caught my imagination was music; I'd been learning how to play the guitar and as soon as I thought I was proficient enough to at least have a go at performing, that's what I did. Once I'd thought about the possibilities of making ends meet as a folksinger, I couldn't seem to think about any other career. That, in a nutshell, is how I happened to enter this sphere, but obviously it wasn't as basic and seemingly mindless as that it was the result of a great deal of thought—but in the end, I knew that singing-and playing was what I wanted to do.
I left university with a degree in French and Italian, but, because I wasn't too involved with the subjects, I didn't do enough work to get a really good pass .... it was a very ordinary degree. which meant that very few doors were open to me other than teacher training college or a secretarial course. Neither of these was particularly appealing and so almost inevitably, I pursued this ambition of becoming a professional singer this was in summer 1968.
Having had no "folk" background (I'd never been a regular folk club visitor, for instance), I had no preconceived ideas about the romanticism of a folksinger's life—in fact, I didn't even think of myself as a folksinger, because I was only singing my own songs to begin with—but I started with the optimistic hope that everything would work out alright. As it happened, the very early weeks did work out very smoothly; I mentioned to John Martyn, who I vaguely knew through a friend, that I wanted to try and make it as a singer, and he took me round to Al Stewart's place, where he helped me, to record a tape of my songs. At that time, I was going out with Pete Roach, who was involved in John Peel's Night Ride programme peripherally—he told John about me and got him to listen to the tape ..... John liked it and within three weeks I'd done a session for his programme. It was just an incredible run of luck—the sort of thing that most singers wait years for, and it just happened to me straight away—even before I'd got enough songs together to perform.
A couple of days after the Night Ride broadcast, John Peel rang up and asked very sheepishly if I'd be Interested in singing a song on that television show he was on ('How it is') and of course, I jumped at that just couldn't believe it. Then, continuing this amazing run of luck The Central Office of Information phoned and asked if I'd do a film with them. So in the early days, everything fell into place almost by magic.
I was very lucky with performing too, because John often used to take me to gigs where he was playing records, and I was able to get some experience singing in front of an audience, which was relatively new to me. They weren't particularly nice places, but John made them nice because he used to tell the people who I was and that I was going to sing a few songs and they respected him to the degree that I was able to sing to a perfectly silent audience, who were both open minded and appreciative. It wasn't long after that, that I realised the true shape of things that my career wasn't going to fold out magically in front of me unless I did something to make !t, I went through a period of very few gigs, and the ones I did get were often benefits which I didn't get paid for or else gigs which weren't really very suitable—like sharing the bill with a group in some rock club, where the audience weren't even prepared to listen and just talked right through the set. It was then that I realized how difficult it was going to be; I was very naive about the various kinds of pop music rock music and folk music and so on, and I had to sit down and have a good think about how I was going to plan out my future. You see, I'd been aware of pop music, like Cliff Richard and the Beatles but I didn't pick up on folk music until I was at college so my knowledge was really quite limited. I'd learnt some Buffy Sainte Marie songs because when I was at Sheffield, I shared a flat with five other girls, one of whom played guitar and used to sing Buffy songs which she learnt from her albums, and I learned a couple of Bob Dylan songs, but I was playing a nylon string guitar and none of it was sounding too wonderful—on top of which, I hadn't fully appreciated what was expected of a folk club performer I had no connection with the folk scene at all. It was a question of observing the situation and adapting myself to it, slowly working myself into a position where I could fill the role of a club performer was something of a struggle, particularly financially—I had to live with my parents because I couldn't even afford to rent a flat.
Nowadays, I find myself in the pleasant position of being able to be more selective in the gigs I'm offered—like I no longer have to do places which I don't enjoy, because of the audience or because of the barmen ringing up tills throughout my singing, or whatever—because I don't believe that you should perform just for the money, irrespective of whether or not you enjoy it. I can earn enough to get by, without resorting to gigs that I find unpleasant, but in the early days I obviously couldn't pick and choose I had to play every gig I was offered in order to make ends meet, and there was no geographical pattern—it was one gig somewhere in the north, followed by one in the south, then another in the north and so on ....no carefully planned tours or anything like that, unless I managed to get a few dates in Scotland, and then my agency tried to work out a little tour for me up there. But I still go off to gigs by myself usually— catch a train to wherever it is— and it could be a solitary sort of existence, but, in many cases, the club organiser or some-one meets me at the station and treats me as a great friend and the whole thing is lovely and very complete from beginning to end. On the other hand, some promoters greet you with "I'll show you to your dressing room and come and get you when it's time to go on", and then it does become lonely ...you just sit there and tune up and rehearse and so on but I don't really mind that because they re the only opportunities I have to be alone and in peace; if I'm at home the phone's ringing, there are things to be done and so on, and it's good to just sit and play without any disturbance. Most of the places I play though, are friendly, and if they do leave me alone in my dressing room, It's often because they're shy or else maybe think that they'd be disturbing me or intruding on my privacy or something. Being a one-man band. as it were, has its drawbacks, but it has its compensations too. For instance, if I can't get back home after the gig, there's usually someone willing to let me stay at their place over- night ...which is invariably better than getting the milk train back or catching a sleeper, which are never conducive to sleep ..... if it's not too hot it's too cold, or else you have to share with some old lady who keeps waking you up to ask what time it is. It's much nicer to go back with someone and continue the feeling of the gig. if you understand what I mean so much better than piling into a cold railway station or a hotel room.
SONGWRITING & RECORDING
As far as songwriting goes, I've got to feel I want to write a song, or it just doesn't happen; it's not inspiration so much as a frame of mind that urges you to write ...I can't just sit down and think "what shall I write a song about?" that would just be meaningless. I recently did a gig with a group and we were talking about our approach to writing; they said .that whenever they needed songs, like for an album, they just sat down and worked until they came. If I did that, I doubt if I could be satisfied with anything that came out of it you must lose so much—but then, some people treat songwriting as a necessity for an exercise and don't even try for any feeling it's all a matter of personal choice I suppose. For instance, I can only write about things I know about I couldn't write a song about Ireland, because, although I feel strongly about the situation there, I don't really know about it first-hand—I've only read about it in the papers. Maybe if I went there and saw things for myself I could write a song about my observations, but I would never dream of attempting a song which put the whole thing into perspective, or anything like that I must write about things that have affected me personally. In the same way, I no longer sing other people's songs unless I can relate to them in some way or feel close to them.
My first album was recorded at a time when I was very unsure of myself and was more or less feeling my way, and it was one of the first releases on Dandelion. John Peel produced it and neither of us had the technical knowledge to make it a very wonderful record. but it was interesting.
Then there was quite a gap before 'Songs for the Gentle Man' because there had been talk of my doing an album with Paul Samwell-Smith, but all that fell through and I was pretty sad as a result. It took me a long time to prepare the material and work everything out and after I'd given him the rough tapes, everything fell through, and I was left at a bit of a loose end. As it happened, everything worked out very well, because Ron Geesin produced the album and made a beautiful job of it as far as I was concerned. I knew Ron as a friend, and I just asked him if he would do it much to everybody's horror because they all associated him with weirdness and didn't think for one minute that he had the delicacy to handle the kind of songs I'd got ready to record. But that freaky stuff is only one facet of his music, the part that he chooses to project on stage, and I knew that he was capable of much more—for instance he'd just completed the music for 'The Body' and-'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and some of that was just beautiful.
Apart from one song, "The Lady and the Gentle Man", which I don't really like at all any more, that album turned out exactly as I wanted it to I think Ron put in some lovely work on it. At the time, he had his own studio, and I used to go round there and we'd discuss each song I'd go over it. and he'd note the chord shapes and so on, and then I'd leave it to him to arrange, so that when I next saw him, he'd have the arrangement all ready to record.
That was very satisfactory from my point of view, and things worked out very well, but on the other hand I felt a little too detached from the music; I was in effect saying "here's the song. can you do something more to it?" With my last album 'Thank You For . . .', I had total control and did more on my own .....it was more like going into the studio with friends and working on each song, and I managed to get a little more promotion on it as well. With 'Songs for the Gentle Man', Kinney only gave me one ad (in Zigzag, as it happens) and though the album sold very well, I felt that with a little more advertising, it would have done even better..... I was a bit resentful, I must admit, because they'd spent so much money doing that place up, and yet they weren't even prepared to spend even one wall of paint's worth on a few more ads.
Dandelion's had more than its share of problems with various record companies, but even if it means that I never sell any more records than I do at the moment, I'd still prefer to stay on with them, because I'd rather feel good and keep chugging along than be wildly successful and be treated as a "product". At least with Dandelion, you feel as though you have a few friends protecting you from all the horrors than can fall upon you in the pop world."ig Zag 27