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 me then, if she was to ever record, would I play for her. Of course I said yes!
“Some time later she got in touch and said she had a piece she thought would be perfect for me, ‘Awake Awake’, and would I write an instrumental to accompany it — which became ‘The Split Ash Tree’. At this point we were really just testing the ground to see how things would work. The idea was to do an EP, not a full album, as the prospect felt too intimidating, and Shirley was still finding her confidence again. Ian was initially going to handle the recording, but it felt like he already had a lot to focus on with performing himself, so we came up with the idea that me and Stephen would take care of it.”
Naturally, the Shirley Collins of Lodestar sounds quite different from her namesake of the ’60s and ’70s, and it took quite a while for the singer to be comfortable with her 80-year-old voice. “I talked to my friend Pip [Barnes] several times, asking should I proceed with this, or am I going to come out of it with egg all over my face? I said to him, ‘I’m too old to sing now.’ He said ‘Yes, but consider the recordings that you like best listening to. They’re all field recordings. How old are those singers? In their 70s and 80s, often.’ He said, ‘You don’t mind those old voices, so why don’t you look on yourself as one of those now?’ So that gave me a bit of confidence, because I thought ‘Yes, that’s true, I do like listening to old voices.’ And also, because my grandparents sang to Dolly and me during the war, and that was often nightly when there were air raids on and we slept in their shelter, so from quite a young age I was used to listening to their old voices.”
Ian Kearey was another source of encouragement: “It was a case of saying ‘Actually, just listen to it. It’s not that Shirley Collins, it’s the other Shirley Collins you’re listening to.’ And for me, right from the start, even though she was rusty, it was all there. It was all there, just needing to be eased, which is why we took so long to do it.”
“The one thing I do know about myself,” continues Collins, “is that although I didn’t have a good voice now, I still knew how to sing the songs. That never leaves you. I have the same way of doing it that I’ve always done, except the voice is just a bit different. I’ve always been in the same mind. Because what I think you have to do is sing with your own voice, and sing with your own accent, so that it’s a natural sound coming out.
“I’m lucky, because I was born in Sussex and a lot of the songs I sing come from Sussex, so it was quite appropriate. But I just listen to the songs as I’m doing them really, and let the songs do the singing. People try to make the songs what they think is more acceptable or lively, now — and not necessarily destroy it, but certainly damage it, undermine it. I just don’t get it. But in a way I feel sorry for them, because the one advantage of being 80 now is that I grew up with it, and closer to the generations of people that actually sang it and kept it going, learning all these wonderful songs by heart. They couldn’t read music, some of them couldn’t read or write, and yet the songs have come down through many generations just by people learning them by heart and passing them on to someone else who learned it by heart. So I’m closer to that... If you’re 30 or 40 now you have no idea what life was like in the ’30s or ’40s. So it’s the one advantage of being 80 — and yet it is an advantage that I treasure, actually.”
“Shirley has a beautiful grain to her voice now,” says Ossian Brown. “Such a deep earthy quality. You want to hear all of its complex detail. Her voice has transformed in such a moving way, you feel it carries with it a great history and experience of life, conveyed through this profound relationship she has with these songs which have travelled over so many years. It feels very honest, very sincere. That’s something that really shouldn’t be shied away from or cloaked with effects, it’s a great strength and a gift.”
As the sessions gathered pace, Collins soon began to enjoy the recording process. “It was fun. What we’d do is work on the songs in the morning, and then we’d get tired enough to go out, so we popped up to the Italian restaurant and we all had pizzas followed by ice cream, because I knew I had to have ice cream in order to sing. Then in the afternoon it would all flow. It’s my trade secret.”
She also managed to channel any remaining frustration in more manageable ways, as Ian Kearey recalls to his cost: “Shirley was getting annoyed with herself every so often, and was saying ‘I’m saying “fuck” too much. I need a swear box. I tell you what — every time I say “fuck”, you all put a pound in the swear box!’
“Which,” he adds, “gave her free licence to say ‘fuck’ an awful lot.“
Shirley Collins is, in the best possible way, opinionated, especially about the traditional music to which she has devoted her entire life. Even at the height of the folk revival, she never hid her distaste for some of its most celebrated movers and shakers, and her views have not mellowed. “You know which musicians you can absolutely trust, not only with their arrangements, but they trust the songs as well — which is quite a thing. I’m not sure how many people I think have that feeling about songs, that you not only have to do your best for the songs, but you have to trust them as well. You can’t, in my opinion, dramatise the songs vocally, because you’d lose their special quality then. I think a lot of people don’t trust the songs enough to be able to sing them straightforwardly. They feel they’ve got to double up the rhythm, or push it in some way, and that drives me nuts, because that’s not how the English have done it over centuries and I like the way it’s been done. I think that’s the proper way to do it. I might be in a minority there, but I don’t care!”
As her career shows, however, ‘trusting the songs’ doesn’t preclude musical experimentation. One of the most influential folk albums of the ’60s was Folk Routes, New Routes, Collins’ collection of duets with unclassifiable guitarist Davy Graham, while 1971’s No Roses, recorded with then-husband Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Country Band, is perhaps the best English folk-rock album ever made. And, although EMI’s Harvest label is renowned for the string of important psychedelic and progressive albums it released in the ’70s, few were half as weird or as wonderful as Anthems In Eden and Love, Death & The Lady, where Dolly Collins’ unique, minimalist arrangements are performed by the cream of London’s Early Music specialists on sackbuts, crumhorns, rebecs and viols.
Hence, says Ossian Brown, “I think it might surprise a few people that we’re involved with the album, but in a way it’s quite true to form for Shirley. I think she’s always followed her heart, not what’s necessarily safe or the current fashion, at least within the world of traditional folk music. There’s certainly the spirit of traditional folk music within what we do in Cyclobe: it might not feel obvious but there is a definite connection. Although in Cyclobe we create very dense and complex pieces of music, in stark contrast to what Shirley’s doing, a lot of the instruments we work with are traditional folk instruments, not just from England or France but also from Turkey and Greece, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Southeast Europe. We have two hurdy-gurdy players, myself and Cliff Stapleton. Cliff was an early member of the traditional folk dance group Blowzabella. We work with a lot of woodwind and reed instruments, tulums and gaida pipes. Michael York, who makes and plays pipes for Cyclobe, also plays English half long pipes on Shirley’s album, on ‘The Split Ash Tree’. In Cyclobe we blend acoustic folk instruments together with electronic sounds, and we’ve enjoyed using very traditional and sometimes very primitive instruments — not just to play tunes but also to make very unusual sounds. Shirley’s open to this approach too, if it fits the atmosphere of the song and helps illuminate the story. There are quite a few subtle and unusual noises woven into Lodestar — all completely acoustic, though, no electrickery!”
“We were getting the right sounds acoustically, by working on them,” agrees Ian Kearey. “It is letting the instruments do their thing. The hurdy-gurdy’s interesting. On that piece of Ossian’s, ‘The Split Ash Tree’, the melody is played once, but there’s about five or six drones underneath it, which we recorded separately and put together. It’s moving, it’s shifting — it’s electronica.”
Where musicians did assume that their role was to provide prettiness, they were swiftly realigned, as in the case of cellist Elle Osborne. “She thought we wanted something quite sweet and counterpoint-ish,” says Ian, “so she came along and did her first take, and we looked at each other and said ‘That’s lovely, but I like all the squeaks and the bangs and the rattles and other sounds of the instrument. Could you just do a take of that?’ So she did. And in the end, we got about five or six takes which Steve put into a little collage. And sometimes it comes in prettily, and other times it’s just noise. The cello’s great for that, it can make all sorts of weird and wacky noises. But she thought it had to be pretty and sweet, and that wasn’t what we were after.”
“We recorded a number of takes of her improvising to the song, creating some astonishing noises, like the sound of a wooden boat, its hull creaking under water,” adds Ossian. “It was just a question of choosing which elements and phrases worked best from these numerous takes, and then editing them to create a single performance, one that wove through the piece and interacted with Shirley’s singing.”
Collins’ openness to unusual sounds and contributions from those she trusts yielded unexpected fruit on, among others, the album’s first single ‘Cruel Lincoln’. “We went over to Bexhill to talk to Ossian and Steve, and Ossian said ‘Come into the front room, I’ve got something to show you.’ And there were about 40 great, long wooden organ pipes. And he said ‘I want to blow across the top of one for “Cruel Lincoln”.’ So he came out one day with this single organ pipe. How he held it up I don’t know, because it was long — but he just blew across the air hole and it created this lovely soft ’Szzzz’.”
“In fact he hadn’t intended to buy 40-odd organ pipes,” adds Ian. “He wanted one, but they were a job lot.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the project was the almost complete lack of isolation on offer in Collins’ house. “Shirley’s cottage is a lovely quiet cottage, and it’s on a no through road in Lewes — and you wouldn’t believe how much noise there is!” laughs Ian Kearey. “People come past chatting, kids on skateboards, her lovely neighbour Sheila has WI meetings — and Sheila has one of those voices that can cut through metal, bless her, when she laughs — televisions, planes, trains. We’ve had so many stops, sometimes in the middle of a bloody good take. If you really listen very closely, you can probably hear the odd train. But, the hell with it.”
The starting point for each track was usually a live performance with Shirley singing and Ian playing an instrument — often guitar, but also harmonium, mandolin, resonator or This Instrument (see box) — to which overdubs would later be added.
“When recording Shirley and Ian performing live together, in such a small space, it was impossible to get total separation for their individual tracks,” says Ossian Brown, “so if a mistake was made or the emotional emphasis of a particular line wasn’t quite working, we’d have to begin the track again from scratch. And of course the bleed-through made editing later very difficult. But the magic which occurred when Shirley and Ian played and sung together would have been lost if every track was dubbed on individually — their timings and interplay were so organic and intuitive. It just needed a lot of hard work and dedication, of which there was plenty!”
The recording setup was, purposely, very basic. Everything was captured on a two-channel audio interface attached to a laptop, using only a pair of AKG C414s. “We loved the clarity and simplicity of the music Shirley was making with Ian, so it felt natural to mirror that in the way we approached recording,” explains Ossian. “There were also very practical reasons why we took this route. Recording in Shirley’s sitting room there were limitations in terms of space, so we couldn’t fill it with tons of equipment. We didn’t want her cottage to feel invaded! We wanted it to keep its warm and homely atmosphere. Several of the pieces were still being formed at that stage, with instrumentation changing: it was important to keep the space clear so as not to restrict that process. It could so easily have felt claustrophobic, and we didn’t want to add any pressure or clutter to what Shirley might be feeling.
“So many of the wonderful, atmospheric field recordings Shirley has been involved with over the years were recorded very simply — in people’s homes, their kitchens, their pubs — so it seemed natural to approach the recording of these songs in a similar way and take our inspiration and encouragement from them. Before every session we had to transport our equipment to the cottage: we were recording over a fairly long period, so we couldn’t leave everything piled up in her siting room, heaped up around her television! Poor Shirley, it would’ve been terrible. So it really was a case of the less we take, the better.
“It was essential to the quality of the recordings that Shirley’s voice should feel consistent throughout the album. We tried to create precisely the same space every time we worked, so that the sound we captured was consistent. We didn’t want it to feel like each track had been recorded in a different space. For instance, we took photographs of the position that Shirley was sitting in, so that we could recreate it as closely as possible every time we recorded her. Just before we began recording Lodestar I was lucky to find a 1950s cloth-covered screen in an old antique shop in Lewes, with a ghostly white woodland scene printed on it; it’s pretty tall, six foot high, with a wooden frame and paper filling. It worked perfectly as an acoustic screen to sit behind Shirley: a beautiful ‘portable environment’ for her, and a perfect setting for some of the songs on the album. We were surprised at how different her voice would sound on the recordings if she was facing in just a slightly different direction, or if the screen behind her was folded differently.”
Stephen and Ossian had to think on their feet to handle some of Shirley and Ian’s more unusual musical ideas. “One interesting challenge was to record a Morris dancer [Glen Redman] in Shirley’s sitting room,” says Ossian. “We needed a recording that felt as natural as possible, capturing the bells, the jumping rhythm, the joyful spirit of it all, whilst making sure the dancer didn’t get tangled up in leads, headbutt the microphone, or add any unexpected counter-rhythms by banging his head on the ceiling!”
Another challenge arose on the album’s closing track, ‘The Silver Swan’, adapted from a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons that Collins learned as a child with her mother and sister, and set to a haunting harmonium arrangement by Ian Kearey. “I have a little portable harmonium, an old Salvation Army one, which I’ve used on many, many recordings, but I hadn’t used this thing for a few years, and over that time, it’s developed some really interesting creaks and bangs, and when you are trying to pedal it, it’s not silent. If you play it in time, every time there’s a pause, it dies, so you’ve got to keep it going constantly, so you’re pedalling completely out of time, banging and crunching. We set up the mics and it was bloody horrible.”
“Although we were keen to get the effect of the foot pedals we didn’t want them to dominate,” agrees Ossian, “because the speed at which Ian had to pedal created a rhythm quite at odds with the mood of the song. With the pedal rhythm sounding more distant it worked beautifully, like a little wooden heart pumping away in the background, a swan’s heart even. First of all we tried putting the microphone above and slightly behind Ian’s head, but this just deadened the sound and we lost the richness of the instrument’s deep wooden bass. So we placed the microphone just above the keyboard, at 40cm, which picked up a lovely rich tone. To reduce the sound of the pedals I tried laying on the floor and moving them by hand — you could minimise the volume considerably this way as you had more control. Unfortunately this made it difficult for Ian to perform the tune as he was so accustomed to using the pedals whilst playing.”
“So, first Shirley went and got some blankets,” continues Ian, “which we put over the harmonium and over the pedals, and then we got some of the cushions from the sofa and built them up. By the end, it was like playing behind the Berlin Wall. The only thing that wasn’t covered was my head. It took half a day to build me in — I couldn’t have a cup of tea, couldn’t go to the loo, I was stuck!”
“We never wanted to achieve a perfectly clean sound from any of the instruments,” concludes Ossian. “It was important to keep their character. We just had to get the right balance, between the creaking and clunking mechanics of these old instruments, and the tune itself.
"We had a similar issue recording the hurdy-gurdy. To play it, you press the keys up into the key box to make contact with the vibrating string, and then release them, letting them fall with gravity. This creates quite a percussive sound, and it’s a lovely feature of the instrument when played live, but if you’re not careful it can be quite distracting and dominating when recording. You really want to keep this ‘clacking’ percussive noise sound to a minimum without losing it entirely. The hurdy-gurdy I play is a Pajot Jenzat, an old acoustic instrument made in France in the mid-to-late 1800s, and over the years it’s developed all kinds of eccentricities. We eventually got a nice recording by having one microphone slightly above and behind me to the right of my shoulder, and another in front of me level to the bridge, about 70cm away.”
The recording of Lodestar was a leisurely affair, with the core team assembling at Shirley’s cottage for sporadic sessions before Ossian and Steve took the results away to edit them. “After the recording sessions, Shirley and Ian would come over to our studio and we’d listen through everything together. We would all throw in various ideas about how the pieces could be optimised or developed in the mix. Steve and I took notes and set to work piecing it all together. In the preliminary mixes we kept the songs very open and intimate. It soon became apparent that the songs should sound close to how they were performed, with Shirley’s vocals very present and up-front. We used a few subtle reverbs, ones you would barely notice, and some mild compression.”
Final mixes were then carried out by engineer Jamie Johnson, with guidance from Ian Kearey. “We went into [record label] Domino and played him the first mixes, and he sat there just listening so intently,” says Ian. “Again, I wrote him copious notes of what I thought could go, and he went away and came back with them. So I’d make suggestions sometimes, he’d take them in, and we’d send them back and forth by email until we got it right.”
The finished album is both as powerful and as gloriously out of step with current trends as anything Shirley Collins has ever made. “See, what I didn’t want was for this album to be trivial,” she says. “Folk music is derided a lot, and I’m sure a lot of people listening to the album will think ‘What on earth’s this about?’ — but for me, it’s like archaeology. Somebody’s dug up a bit of treasure that’s really important. It’s valuable, it’s history, and for me, it’s always this sense of pride in the working people. It’s their music, and I just want them to be honoured and their music to be kept going, and for it to be acknowledged that it was theirs.”
Lodestar reminds us that the music of the working people is very lucky to have Shirley Collins as its champion.
Shirley Collins is best known as a singer in her own right, but she has also made key contributions to musical history on the other side of the microphone. In 1959, Collins and her partner Alan Lomax embarked on an expedition through the Deep South of America, collecting traditional songs and recording their singers, including the then-unknown Mississippi Fred McDowell. Given the attitudes that prevailed in those states, this was a bold thing for an unmarried 23-year-old English woman to do; and the experience had a profound effect on Collins. Two of the songs on Lodestar — ‘Pretty Polly’ and ‘The Rich Irish Lady’ — look back to that trip, the former recorded by Collins herself from the singing of Ollie Gilbert.
“It was in Timbo, Arkansas, out in the mountains of the Ozarks. The pioneer spirit still existed there at that time, in 1959. Her husband Oscar Gilbert was known as the ‘fightingest man in the county’. He was blind, and he was a bully, and he was a great fiddle player. Oh, and he was also a moonshine maker. This particular day, Alan and Oscar and the other men had gone in to have their food, and we had to serve them first. Then I moved in with the womenfolk where we had our meal after the men were satisfied. So Alan was in there with him, drinking moonshine and having a great conversation, and Alan let me have the tape machine that day, the great big Ampex. So I spent the afternoon with Ollie recording her.
“The end of that day was extraordinary. I needed to go to the loo and asked her where it was, and she said ‘Well, it’s outside, honey.’ There were no indoor toilets anywhere in Arkansas. So we wandered down the garden together and we came to this hut. She went inside and called me in, and it was a double-seater! And she sat down on one and patted the one next to her. I thought ‘Well, when in Arkansas, what are you going to do?’ So we sat side by side and she nudged me in the ribs with a very sharp elbow, and she said ‘Now Shirley, I’m gonna sing you an ugly song.’ I said ‘What’s an ugly song?’. She said ‘You know ugly!’ And she sang me two of the filthiest songs I’ve ever heard in my life. And then we got up, wandered back up the garden and she turned into this sweet old granny again.”
One of the most prominent and intriguing sounds on Lodestar comes from an instrument that is, literally, like no other. “I had it made in 1967 by John Bailey,” says Shirley Collins. “It was John’s suggestion that I had an instrument that looked good, because I was going out with my five-string banjo, which wasn’t the prettiest instrument, although it was the only thing I could play. So we asked John Bailey to make an instrument, and because I could only play five-string banjo, it had to have a five-string banjo neck, which is Victorian, an English one, and then it’s on this heart-shaped body with a lovely heart-shaped soundhole. It’s very, very pretty, and it makes a lovely sound.”
“The bottom looks almost like one half of an Appalachian dulcimer, but exaggerated,” continues Ian. “You can play it like a banjo, or you can, like I did on ‘Pretty Polly’, play it like a dulcimer, with a pick, trying to get that Appalachian dulcimer sound out of it. I’ve used it on all sorts of different recordings here and there, because it’s got its own character, unlike anything else. When you really get it going you can get a wonderful swirl going inside it. What this gives you is the sustain of a wooden body, so it actually broadens what you can do on a five-string banjo neck.”
“There’s a lovely label inside, which says ‘This Instrument was made for Shirley Collins by John Bailey,’ with the date underneath it. He didn’t know what to call it. Is it a banjimo? Is it a dulcilar? Because John Bailey put ‘This Instrument’, that’s what it’s called now.”