Shirley Collins’ album Lodestar has been a long time coming. Thirty-eight years, in fact...
The 21st Century has seen some unlikely musical comebacks, but Shirley Collins’ return to music-making trumps most of them. Though she has long been the most important living figure in English traditional music, Collins last made an album in 1978. Following a bitter divorce, she then lost her singing voice thanks to a condition called dysphonia, and her sister and longstanding musical collaborator, the composer Dolly Collins, died in 1994.
In the years since the release of For As Many As Will, however, Shirley Collins has also gained the appreciation and admiration of a new generation of artists — not all of them easily pigeonholed as folk musicians. So, if the fact of Collins recording a new album at the age of 80 wasn’t surprising enough, the leading role played by Ossian Brown and Stephen Thrower might be. Both are former members of the pioneering industrial band Coil, and have continued to explore extreme sound worlds in Current 93 and their current project Cyclobe. The project was overseen by musical director Ian Kearey, a close friend of Collins and a former member of Oysterband and the Blue Aeroplanes, with turns from a number of guest musicians.
A decision that was taken early on was to record the entire album in Shirley Collins’ small cottage, in the Sussex town of Lewes. “What I didn’t want this time was to have to go into the studio,” she says, “because I thought: what’s going to happen is that we’re going to be faced with an engineer who’s never heard of me, doesn’t know my situation and what I do, and is going to think ‘What the hell’s this old lady coming in here thinking she can sing?’ I knew I couldn’t cope with that at all, so we decided to do it at home.”
Ian Kearey adds: “Even if you’ve got a big budget and you’ve got the studio for a week or whatever, there’s still going to be that feeling of ‘This is studio time.’ And for Shirley particularly, coming back to it after this, the last thing she wanted was any feeling of time constraint.”
Also in place from the beginning were the album’s key contributors. Mostly drawn from Collins’ wide circle of friends, they included Ossian Brown, who recalls: “I used to go out to lunch with Shirley and [Current 93 founder] David Tibet in Lewes occasionally and I remember talking about how we’d just agreed to do our first London concert with Cyclobe at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of Anohni’s Meltdown Festival. I was pretty anxious about performing and Shirley was great to talk to about it, she had a lot of empathy of course. I play the hurdy-gurdy, which Shirley loves, so she asked...
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