Emily Portman on studying folk music at university, collecting supernatural folk songs and how to be a touring mum

A folk music conversation with Emily Portman is a many splendored thing. A prominent part of the contemporary scene as an in-demand performer and songwriter, she is also deeply fascinated by the academic side of the tradition – willing and eager to talk at length on everything from the lives of the collectors to the themes and tropes that crop up in songs across the country.

Incredibly generous with her time, her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. In the days following this interview, she was in regular contact via text message, not checking up on my progress but – perhaps having spotted someone similarly enthralled – recommending various singers and songs that she thought might interest me. Aside from having learnt all about the Newcastle University folk music degree, the logistics of being a touring mother and why her upcoming tour is something of a farewell, I’ve also walked away from this interview armed with more traveller songs than I knew existed. I’ll be eternally grateful for that (although my poor, beleaguered family may feel otherwise).

As she says herself further down this page, “the folk scene is an incredibly generous, welcoming and friendly place to be. If people think you’ve got an interest, they’re really going to go out of their way to help and enthuse.” Emily appears to be the embodiment of that notion. If you ever find yourself teetering on the edge of a folk obsession, get hold of her number. She’d make a wonderful guide.

Common to a lot of the interviews on this blog is mention of the ‘folk music bug’. Where and when did that bite you, if that’s not too personal a thing to ask? 

Oooh! Where it bit me? I remember it well. I went to do a BTEC in popular music. I’m from Glastonbury, and I went to college in Taunton where I had a great teacher called Howard Harrison. He was into folk music and I didn’t really know much about it at the time. I was just 17 and I was writing my own songs, and really into my parents’ record collection. I was playing Joni Mitchell and Carole King and all of those kind of things, so I was on the way there I suppose – folk in the loosest sense.

I remember Howard giving me CDs of Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy, and telling me about the Penguin Book of English Folk SongsHe lent it to me and I devoured it. It was brilliant! I really didn’t know about ballads and folk songs, so my education began there. I started going to Taunton Library and taking out all of the folk CDs and archive books. Cecil Sharp collected a lot in Somerset and I was really excited by that. That was where it started for me, and then shortly after I discovered they were doing a folk music degree course at Newcastle University, so that ended up being what I decided to do, to go and find out more, really.

We’ll come back to the folk music degree in a minute, but I wonder, when you got bitten by the bug did it stop you writing songs? Did you suddenly find yourself completely enthralled by the tradition? 

Yes, I would say that’s quite accurate, actually. I’d been writing a lot, and all of a sudden I came across these songs and they just fascinated me. I learnt a lot of traditional songs from then on and put the writing part to one side. But, obviously, I took it up again later on down the line and my writing changed; I was influenced heavily by the tradition. For a while it felt like I was a sponge taking in loads of songs, and it took a while for that to filter through – to get that urge to start writing again.

It seems to me that folk singers are often attracted to themes. Was that something that happened to you? Did you find yourself suddenly chasing whaling songs? 

Ha! Yeah, I think so. I found myself liking ballads with strong women in, and being quite attracted to songs where women used their wits to get themselves out of slightly sticky situations. That continues to fascinate me.

Can you give me any examples? 

Well, last night, supporting Shirley Collins, I sang ‘For I Am a Maid”, from Birmingham Irish singer, Cecilia Costello. It’s about a woman who dresses up as a man and goes to sea in search of her true love… I do like a good female sailor song. I also sing, ‘The Female Drummer’, and I like singing ‘The Outlandish Knight’, ‘Broomfield Wager’, ‘King Henry’… there are loads of great ones. Themes of women and metamorphosis are also things that interest me in my own songwriting – there’s a feminist perspective there and I love writers like Angela Carter. On my Coracle album I was reflecting on motherhood, having just become a mum myself.

Are there other themes that grab your interest?

I’m interested in the way that relationships are portrayed, although that’s not the extent of my interest. I love a magical ballad, where something supernatural seems to just kind of drift in. That mixture of the everyday and the magical, where it seems like an everyday scenario and suddenly up will pop a ghost [laughs]. Or a character like Billy Blind. It’ll just seem to happen simultaneously, drifting into an everyday environment.

Earlier you spoke about ‘folk in the loosest sense’. What does the term ‘folk music’ mean to you, then? 

Well, I think that ‘folk’ is an overused term. It means many things to many people, so I will use it because it’s widely known to mean the kind of music I’m into. But I’d probably refer to the ‘traditional songs’ as being those that have been passed down through the generations. I would say that’s ‘traditional music’, whereas ‘folk music’ seems to be a little bit harder to pin down because it’s a kind of general genre. You could say that Joni Mitchell is folk music, but you could also say the music that people are making on the streets is folk music, and that might be rap as much as it’s anything else.

To go back to the folk music degree – I’m fascinated by that. I wonder what kind of people turn up on that course, what you learn, and the kind of jobs that people hope to get afterwards. 

Yeah… good question. I think the graduates and people on that degree course are quite a varied bunch, really. I made lots of really good friends up there, so I’d say they’re likeminded. There are people that have grown up with folk music and have played it their whole life, and then there are people like me who had chanced across it and became obsessed by it and wanted to find out more. When I went I felt very much like a novice, I suppose, yet I still felt welcome. I learnt an awful lot and it was a great introduction – I had some absolutely brilliant teachers. Out of my friends, a few of us have gone into performance while others have gone into a really wide range of careers – speech therapist, teachers and people working in the arts in general. It’s like a lot of arts degrees. It’s very much the opposite of being some kind of folk music factory. Some people get into performance but it’s far from the only thing that people pursue afterwards.

What do you learn, then? Is it the history of the collectors? The musicality? The technique? 

It’s structured a little bit differently now, but in my day there was a big emphasis on having lessons. It was a four-year degree at the time and it had a kind of conservatoire level of instrumental and vocal lessons. I was able to take up the concertina, and I’d never even come across a concertina before. I did ballad studies, and you could take modules from what we called the ‘normal music’ degree – modules in rap or free improvisation. All kinds, really. There was an emphasis on the songwriting module, which I’ve since taught on, and that really got me back into songwriting.

I’ve just turned 40 and I must say, I’m sad and mournful to find that there’s a folk degree that I’ve missed out on… 

Aw! Well there are many different ways in, and I don’t necessarily think that the degree is the best way for a lot of people. Going and playing it and going to folk clubs is equally as important. For me, however, because I have an academic interest in it as well, it actually suited me.

As you said, a lot of people are brought up in folk music with their parents taking them to clubs and festivals. As someone who came to it relatively inexperienced, did you find yourself starstruck by any of the musicians that you met on the way? 

Yes, at the age of 17 I’d just discovered these people – people like Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins. I went and did a guitar course with Martin Carthy, and I found him to be a lovely, generous, humble man. What I’ve found all the way through is that, yes you can get starstruck, but the folk scene is an incredibly generous, welcoming and friendly place to be. If people think you’ve got an interest, they’re really going to go out of their way to help and enthuse. People like Alastair Anderson, who started the folk degree… he went above and beyond the job of teacher. You’d find the teachers down at the folk session [laughs]. It’s a passion. People are in it for the music and the songs… never really for the money.

Well if becomes quite an obsession, doesn’t it?  

Yeah, I think so. And it becomes important for people to pass that on. It’s very much an integral part of the music – that feeling that we’ve got something special here, and it’s kind of reliant on enthusing the next generation to enjoy the music, to reinterpret and reinvigorate it.

I saw you at Normafest and was surprised to find you were singing with The Waterson Family. How did that come about? 

As I told you, I did a guitar course with Martin Carthy, and we kept in touch after that. It’s quite a small scene, really, so you meet each other at festivals. I’d formed a trio with Lauren McCormick and Jim Causley when we were at university, singing unaccompanied ballads in three-part harmony, and the Waterson-Carthy family decided they’d invite us on their Frost & Fire tours. We did that every December for about six years, I think.

It was always about singing around the seasons, so we learnt a huge repertoire, and it was a real highlight for me to be able to sing with such a brilliant bunch of singers who just let us join in, basically. I miss it at Christmas because it’s such a powerful thing to sing in harmony with a group of people. Having done Normafest with them this year was such a joy to sing with them again, and we’re going to be doing a festival in Hull in April. We’re going to continue to sing with them, and hopefully Norma will be better by then, too.

So you’re an adopted Waterson!

Oh, well… that’s a big title! We love singing with them and it’s such a great sound.

Do you still go out collecting or looking for songs, or are you mainly focused on songwriting now?  

Definitely, I’m still looking for songs. I’m not a collector, but I do collect books – anything I’ll spot in a secondhand shop. Also, I have my own band – The Coracle Band – but I’m also involved with The Furrow Collective, in which we all bring traditional songs to the table. I’ve also got a concert with Alasdair Roberts at the Sage Festival in Gateshead called Pass It On. We’re supporting Shirley Collins, and we’ve got some new songs together for that. So, yeah, it’s important for me to keep on looking for new material.

So you tend to pick up new material in books, largely? 

Yes, but also The Voice of the People series that Topic Records released – a huge collection of audio archive material. That’s my favourite place to look really, because you get a real feel for the singers’ styles, and there are some beautiful singers. I particularly like a lot of the traveller singers, actually. I like their style and their repertoire. Over the years I’ve also learnt a lot from singers like Mary Ann Haynes and Jasper Smith.

You live up in Liverpool now, don’t you? Does that influence what you listen out for? Are you looking for local songs?

That’s a good question. I don’t quite see it in those terms – that I should always look locally – but I did actually end up singing a song that I knew had been collected in Liverpool, and it does give that kind of extra connection.

What was that? 

I found a version of the Irish song, ‘Shule Agra’ that had been collected in Liverpool. It made me return to Cecilia Costello’s version, which I now sing in The Furrow Collective. But I feel that songs move around. Ballads move from Scotland to England to America quite fluidly, and I think that while it’s really exciting to find a song down the road from you, I find it equally as exciting to just be drawn in by a story; to not let those geographical borders limit you. In The Furrow Collective, we’re made up of two Scots and two English, and we sing each others’ songs and see the connections. I’ll always go for the story. I’m always interested in a really good yarn.

And occasionally you’ll take a song that doesn’t have a tune and write a melody for it. Is that the case? 

Yes, definitely. If there’s a story that’s so good and you know it’s going to stay in the book unless you put a tune to it, then I think that’s a really good incentive and quite an exciting way of working.

With The Furrow Collective, if you remove Alasdair then you’re down to the Emily Portman Trio… 

Ha! Yes, that’s true, but we work together quite differently. I’m doing a March tour, and it’s the last one with the Emily Portman Trio. It’s actually with the Coracle Band, but after that Rachel Newton is off to focus on her solo career, so it’s kind of a farewell – the Trio will be no more, sadly. But we’ll be together in The Furrow Collective, and that works really well for us as well.

So is the Emily Portman Trio finishing up largely because Rachel is going off to do her own thing, or is it just time, generally? 

It’s funny, I’ve loved working with Rachel and Lucy over the years – they’re just my favourite musicians to work with. When I was looking at touring this year, I was thinking that Lucy is very busy with Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, and she’s starting her solo career. Rachel as well – they’re both beautiful musicians and they’re starting to spread their wings with solo projects. So I said to them, “Does this, y’know, need to be given a rest for a little while?” It takes a lot of energy, learning new material, and all that kind of thing. At the time they both said that they wanted to carry on, because we love playing together, but I think Rachel realised that actually there are only so many tours you can do in a year! She’s such a generous musician and she plays so beautifully on my stuff, but she also has a vast repertoire of her own.

I’m actually really, really happy to see her putting her own stuff first. She’s in so many bands. She’s a very sought-after musician to play with! And I think it’ll give Lucy time to focus on her stuff for a bit. Sad as it is to say goodbye to that part of it all, I know that it’s not the end. We’re still really good friends and we’ll be seeing a lot of each other, especially in The Furrow Collective. It feels like a kind of natural progression, really.

As for me, I think it’ll bring something new to the music that I next perform and write. I’ve got a kind of open book for the next chapter, really.

What do you think you might write on that page? 

Well, for me practically, I’m pregnant, so… I think I’ll have a baby! There’s a new little being coming into the world in July, so that’s at the forefront of my mind. I know, already having had a child, that it is possible to make music and do motherhood. I definitely have plans to write another album and do another traditional project as well. I’ve got a lot of folk songs that I’ve never really sang out. I’ve never done a solo folk music album, so that could be something… but I’m taking my time with it. I’m not rushing into the next thing. These times of change call for some careful thinking. I’m one of those people who ends up taking on too much, so this time round I’m going to choose something really good. It’s the self-employed person’s tendency to say yes to everything, I think. Do you know what I mean?

I’m self-employed too, so I know all about that. 

Do you do that as well?

Absolutely. This blog is kind of an example of that. 

Yes, so you know exactly what I mean. You’re always thinking so far in advance, and thinking, “Yes! Work! That’ll be a good thing!” It’s something that me and musician friends talk about quite a lot: “How do we figure out what we’re going to be feeling this time next year?” [Laughs] How much is too much?

How do you juggle being a mother of young children with being a self-employed musician – notoriously, not a terribly stable career? 

Well, yes, exactly! It has been challenging at times. What I did, first off, three months after my daughter was born, was I went on tour. I just continued to say yes to things, with absolutely no knowledge of how I was going to cope with that. Luckily, a mixture of having a very supportive band, partner and mum helped me get through that stage. But every new stage – now she’s at school, for example – throws up new challenges of how to juggle childcare and that kind of thing. I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband – also a musician, but one that has very sensibly gone into music lecturing. At least one of us has a proper job!

Basically, you just have to love it to do it, because it’s a right old headache, the logistics of it all. I do really love it, though. This time round… well, I have absolutely no idea [laughs] I’m just going to continue to tour with The Furrow Collective and a little baby and see how it goes. Anything’s possible if you really want to do it.

I only have a small amount of experience of that, being a very, very occasional musician with two children. 

It’s about the logistics, really, and finding the balance. I remember it being amazing when I got a bit of childcare, because that’s when I wrote my album. “Oh my goodness, I’ve got half an hour! Yes! I’m going to write something!” But I found that, when I had time to write, I was so tired that I just needed to sleep.

The muse, so to speak, grabs you at very specific and inconvenient moments. It doesn’t fit comfortably around schedules. 

It doesn’t, but I think also that it made me quite disciplined. I’d realise that I just needed to write anything – I just needed to start. Actually, just giving myself permission for it to be dreadful… I had to write through it being, “Oh, I’m so tired”, and all that froth until I found what I was really interested in; getting inspired by ballads again. It was definitely different from my last album, which was all, “Oh, I think I’ll just go and sit on a clifftop in Tynemouth, and I’ll see if the muse comes.” There was absolutely none of that. It was just scribbling in a notebook with half an hour to spare!

For more info on Emily Portman, including her touring schedule with all of her myriad projects, take a look at www.emilyportman.co.uk. Her farewell tour with the Emily Portman Trio begins on March 23, 2017. Main photos by Elly Lucas

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