Lisa Knapp on “Till April is Dead”, collaborating with guitar legends and the immortal importance of the shipping forecast

I first heard Lisa Knapp when I came back from living in Japan. In the decade I’d been there, I’d found myself drawn into a musical scene that centred around a duo called Tenniscoats – a couple who mix fragments of acoustic performance into weird and wonderful soundscapes. I was keen to find someone in the UK doing something similar, and Lisa’s name kept cropping up. I was instantly taken with her wonderful sound poem, ‘Shipping Song‘, which takes the words to the old shipping forecast and places them into something that verges on the avant garde.

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I saw her a few years later performing ‘Blackwater Side’ with Martin Carthy at the Bert Jansch tribute concert, and I was once again transfixed. That she isn’t a better known name seems almost criminal, although the general public’s loss is the folk scene’s gain.

Having last week released a fascinating new album (Till April is Dead – A Garland Of May) which explores the folk songs and traditions of the month of May, I was pleased to find she was up for a Grizzly Folk interview, and so off I went, dictaphone in hand, to a decidedly non-folkie greasy spoon in Clapham. There I found Lisa, wrapped up warm against an early May morning that seemed intent on impersonating a freezing February washout. Thankfully, she was a warm and open interviewee, and over the course of several cups of hot stuff, we ploughed our way through folk song collecting, the rites and rituals of Padstow, collaborations with guitar legends and the reasons why so many folk songs start by, “roving out one morning in May”.

Won’t you pull up a coffee and join us?

I’m fascinated by the way in which you weave traditional songs into vivid cinematic soundscapes. Do you go into the session with a grand cinematic vision, or is it something that grows organically?

Erm, I don’t know if I consciously think that I work that way! If I have a piece that I want to work on I just keep coming back to it constantly and keep chiseling away until I think it sounds right. But certainly, with this new May album, I really liked the idea of going to pre-recorded sounds and building up what you call a soundscape – I just think those things add so much. I don’t know where I got the idea for that from. I suppose it’s in millions of things – there are millions of examples of people who do that.

One of the first sounds that you hear on your new May album sounds to me like a fragment from Voice of the People – a man’s voice speaking about the bringing in of the month of May.

That’s Steve Roud. I used to go and just hang out, whenever I could, in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House…

I do that a lot, too. 

[Laughs] I used to do it a lot when Malcolm was there. Steve would pop in on a Tuesday – maybe it was his research day, or whatever – and what Steve doesn’t know about the entire history of folksong, folklore and balladry in this country, frankly isn’t worth knowing. So it was amazing to ask him a question, and off he’d go! He’d be like a mine of information. When I became interested in the idea of the month of May, Malcolm Taylor actually showed me the film Oss Oss Wee Oss!

Oss Oss Wee Oss!?

Do you know that film? It’s an Alan Lomax thing – a beautiful film, really of its time. There’s an amazing bit when they’re in a park and the Oss and the Teaser (the guy that dances with the horse) do this really extraordinary dance, and it’s like… where did they get that from?! It’s really bizarre, but also really specific with the shapes that his body is making. It’s an extraordinary thing to see, and it really does seem like something you’d find on a documentary about ancient tribes somewhere. It has that kind of feel to it – raw and ancient. It was mesmerising, and from there I was inspired to look into the traditional songs of May.

You have the Padstow song, ‘Hal-an-Tow’, and then there are these garlanding customs and songs about weaving flowers around the houses. In the urban areas, you have the sweeps deciding that May Day was when they were going to have their parade – dressing up and getting riotously drunk and banging things. And then there are the May carols, which are a lot to do with collecting money. It’s interesting why, throughout May, there are all these things going on all over the place. I think it’s a fascinating little area of English folk song.

The seasons play a large role in a lot of folk songs, don’t they? You have the Frost & Fire album by The Watersons which goes into that.

Yeah, Frost & Fire… I suppose most folk songs are kind of 18th or 19th century, although there are obviously older ones, and while a lot of that’s post-industrial, I think people still had a more profound relationship with the land. Food was seasonal. There was no heating – you got damned cold. So that would’ve added to the starkness of the changing of the seasons. If you think about the month of May, it’s when the year really starts to kick in.

Click the pic to buy Lisa’s album

What’s your background with folk music, then? You’ve done the subject of May before on an EP, and your albums always seem to fall back into the tradition at some point, alongside your own songwriting. Were you raised a folkie?

No, not at all. I was a single child with a single mum and we lived in Tooting. Mum’s family are from Hampshire – I used to go down there and go bareback riding with my cousins. My nan’s house – the centre of everything every Christmas – was near Fareham, and that was all coal fires and big roasts. There was a slight connection there to the countryside, but the main connection was really with my family being musical, although not really into folk music. That said, my mum will occasional say, “Oh, I know that song. My grandad used to sing that.” She wouldn’t have known it as ‘a folk song’ – it was just a song. But they were all very musical and there was a lot of gathering around the piano at Christmas. It was playing together for enjoyment, really.

That’s an interesting point. My grandmother is almost 90. Occasionally she’ll ask me to get the guitar out and play a song, and I’ll pretend to be clever and go on about the song being exclusive to such and such a place, and she’ll join in, saying, “That’s not a folk song! We used to sing that back in Liverpool!” I’m not sure why she thinks a folk song can’t be from Liverpool, but the point is these songs seem to have travelled a lot. 

Yeah, and also you come to realise that folk songs and tunes are quite heavily embedded in our culture. Steve Roud says the playground is the last area where folk songs are still expressing themselves – they’re passed on, they’re not formal, they’re part of a community. It’s really interesting. I went to a Church of England school where we sung a lot of hymns, and loads of melodies that I find now – or a fair few, at least – you hear and you think, “oh wow, that’s that hymn”, when actually the hymn came from the folk song.

I played violin at school quite a lot. It wasn’t really folkie, but I did a lot of music back then. The pull towards traditional music came in my twenties, when I started going to a folk club in Balham.

Is it still taking place? 

It is, but it has moved around a fair bit. It was in Tooting originally, and it’s called the Court Sessions. I went their religiously for quite a few years and became friendly with the people who ran it, and I saw a lot of performers in that environment. It was an old-style folk club, you know, in the top room of a pub, put together in the style of the revival generation, so you had your floor spots and that kind of thing. At around the same time I got my fiddle out of the loft, and I’d been learning guitar. I started going to a couple of really good Irish sessions near me, and I started going to see Brendan Mulcaire in Stockwell, and I got really into that environment. So I had a kind of singing apprenticeship in the folk clubs, and a fiddle playing thing in the sessions. It kind of grew out of that.

And you were writing your own stuff at that time? 

I wasn’t really writing, no. I’d started writing, but it would take me quite a while to finish.

Take something like ‘Shipping Song’. How does something like that come into existence? It almost feels created or moulded, rather than having been written, if that makes sense. 

Yes, well… I kind of didn’t write it, in a way. I’d been really fascinated by the shipping forecast, and I’d been wondering for a long time how I could make it into a song. I was ill for a long time, stuck in bed, and I was bored. I had my computer out and I just started fiddling around a bit with the words, trying to see where the natural rhymes were and what fitted with what. I moved the order around a lot so I wouldn’t advise anyone to navigate by it! Hahaha! Then Gerry [Lisa’s partner and producer, Gerry Diver] and I were jamming one day and I had those words, and it just came out. So I took the autoharp and wrote the middle bit, and it was at that point that I got the idea you mentioned earlier of using the sounds and soundscapes.

Where did you find your sounds? 

I was just poking about online really, and I found a 1960s American recording where they seemed to be firing torpedoes from their submarine. There are lots of recordings of porpoises [does surprisingly accurate porpoise impersonation] and other incredible noises from under the sea, so I just nicked bits of them. I love mixing the sounds of the world with music. The shipping forecast just fell into place, really.

I can’t think of anything much more British sounding. Having lived abroad, that radio sound from my childhood has the ability to call me home, so to speak. 

Yeah, it really does. And I really wanted it to feel like you were going on some kind of journey. I also found that just saying the words… the words alone come with such history and resonance, and I think you have enough space in the sound of that song to just hear the words. You go around those waters, and you can hear all the languages that come in through those words. And that’s a fascinating part of what being English is. There has always been this influx of languages, and therefore ideas.

I did a documentary about it, and there’s loads of stuff out there that has used it. It’s like a charm when you hear it on the radio late at night. I interviewed a sailor for that documentary, and he said that of course they don’t get their information from that anymore – it’s all online now – and it’s almost defunct. But I think it’d be a sadder world without the shipping forecast – for everyone else, if not the sailors.

You said that you find your sounds online, just poking about. Is that how you find your traditional folk songs, or are you more the kind that pokes about in libraries? 

I used to go down to the library, but now the library is online. You can’t really beat going down to Cecil Sharp House, though. Saying that, I’ve got a lot of books at home and sometimes I’ll just go for another search through one of them – you can always find something you’ve never heard before.

I couldn’t agree more. I’ll often go down to the cafe at Cecil Sharp House to use their wifi and write this blog, and I love spending time in the library chatting to people like Laura Smyth, who replaced Malcolm Taylor [as director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library]. You can’t beat a Laura or a Malcolm. 

You can’t! It’s being in that environment with all the books there. All those songs in all those books… they’re like little voices crying, “Get me out!” There is so much story in those books… and the smell of them; the old ones. Of course, there are loads of other great resources online.

There are. It seems to attract a lot of obsessives, folk music. 

Hahaha! It really does!

I love that bizarrely named website, Mainly Norfolk. I do loads of my research on that site. 

Yes, it’s so handy, and such a brilliant resource. I think the ideal world is a combination of both the library and the internet. I can easily spend hours poking about on The Full English. There’s some great stuff buried on it.

When you were collecting for this album, though, there must’ve been a million songs connected with May. How did you narrow them down? 

The garlanding songs tend to be quite similar, lyrically. We had two on there, but we couldn’t have a third because it’d start to get… hahaha! I don’t want to say boring, but… You know, “we’ve changed the tune, but sorry, it’s the same lyrics again.” You’re right, though: there are millions of songs that start with, “As I walked out one morning in May.”

Or roved… 

Or roved, yes.

I think ‘to rove’ must be the most folkie verb out there. Have you ever roved out on a May morning? 

Yeah, like this morning – although it felt more like February. The fact that it’s always May is interesting, though. I think it might also be that it’s easier to rhyme than roving out one morning in August. It doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily. May offers you so many more options. Also, in literature, the month of May also has a lot of resonance. So the album is a mix up of those ritual kind of songs.

Your version of ‘Hal-an-Tow’ is extraordinary. It must be so easy to fall into doing well-known songs like that without really thinking about it, but you’ve turned it on its head. How do you go about tackling something as popular as that? 

Like anything, I think you’ve just got to show up. Every morning I was there at the computer – every spare chance – just trying to work out how to approach it. After I’d spoken to Steve Roud, I was reading his book called The English Year – I highly recommend it – and another book by another great historian called Ronald Hutton, called Stations of the SunBoth contain brilliant research on the historicity of May in England – what has happened in the past and what still goes on.

My mum has always used the phrase, “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out”, and I started to find [in the books] other phrases to do with May. I thought that was interesting, so I started to search online and I found a Spanish one. My friend provided a German one, and a French friend gave me a French one, and I realised that this wasn’t anything new or unique to this country. It just felt like such a brilliant idea, and it came from one of those accidents that happen when you show up.

How did you put it together?

So, I started to lay them down to get some kind of order, and then I must’ve put the harp down.

The autoharp again? 

No, it’s a lap harp. And as I was doing it I just started singing ‘Hal-an-Tow’. It just came out. Again, it was an accident. I don’t think at that point I had the idea that I was going to do a May album, although that wasn’t the first song to fall out. I think the ‘May Garland’ was first. I’d also done some May gigs and I’d been looking around for some material. I think all of that is how ‘Hal-an-Tow’ started. But to get it from something quite rudimentary to what it is now – that took quite a long time.

And that must be the chiseling process that you mentioned at the start of this interview. 

Yeah, and right at the end of it Gerry came in and started weaving his magic. He’s great at making things sound… great!

I’ve heard Gerry called a genius recently, but I have to admit that I don’t know a huge amount about him. 

He produced Sam Lee’s first album, which got the Mercury nomination, and he produced Tom Robinson’s first album in 20 years just last year. He’s played all over the place. He did a fantastic thing called The Speech Projecton which he isolated speech from old interviews with Irish musicians and then made pieces using them. He then went off to interview Christy Moore and Shane MacGowan and made more stunning pieces of music. He’s also an amazing traditional Irish fiddle player and he plays a myriad of other things amazingly as well – not to mention having a wonderful arranging and producing ear. It’s like, y’know, I’ve got the whole package! Haha.

Collaborations seem to be a big part of what you do. You had Martin Carthy on an earlier album, and this time you’ve recruited Blur’s Graham Coxon. What’s the difference between collaborating with someone who is purely traditional, such as Martin, and someone who likes to make big, angry guitar noises, like Graham? 

To be honest, they were both the same in that they were both really open. Martin Carthy does play in a traditional way, I suppose, but he’s a very open person in terms of the music that he likes to listen to, and he’s one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet. Every time you’re near him, you’re just like [makes the kind of face you might make when falling in love with a puppy]… he’s just so lovely. His process was a determination just to get it right. Graham is also a very humble person.

Do you approach these people yourself? 

Yeah [laughs nervously] – you don’t know if you should do it, and then you think, “well they can only say no”. It’s amazing to have them both on tracks of mine. I’m deeply indebted to both of them.

I remember seeing you playing with Martin at the Bert Jansch tribute when you had to hold up an iPad because he kept forgetting the words. 

Aw… bless him.

I’ve seen him do that a few times. Last time someone took your job and help up an iPhone. He seems to attract people with lyrics on Apple products. They should sponsor him. 

Ha! But, to be fair, there are a lot of lyrics in folk songs – too many, in fact.

Do you follow many contemporary folk musicians? Do you perhaps associate yourself with any that have similar styles? 

I don’t really think about it, to be honest. That association is for other people to make.

It seems to be quite a good time to be thinking about folk music, though. There are a lot of interesting albums coming out. 

It has so blossomed. 15 years ago there was nobody under 40 doing it, unless they were the offspring of a folk legend. That meant that there were three people doing folk music! Haha. But it has really exploded, which I think is brilliant. And it has started to seep into other aspects of society – people are becoming more aware that it exists. That said, it’s still the case that a lot of people have never heard of Martin Carthy, for example. They might have heard ‘Scarborough Fair’, but it would be by Simon & Garfunkel. We don’t regard our folk music in the same way as they do in other countries.

And in terms of touring this album, what can we expect? 

I’m not doing much. I’ve got two dates in Wales, but I’m currently without an agent. So, if anyone wants to book me – or even fancies being an agent – I’m available! Hahaha. Actually, in July I’m doing a tour with the Dead Rat Orchestra. If you don’t know them, they’re a great mix of electronica and snippets of folk ballads. So I’ll be an honorary Dead Rat for that tour. That’ll be fantastic.

To find out more about Lisa Knapp (and perhaps even become her agent), check out www.lisaknapp.co.uk. Her latest album, Till April Is Dead – A Garland Of Mayis out now. Main images of Lisa Knapp by Teresa Klasener and David Angelsml. 

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