Chief of a Cornish Clan - Nigel Schofield discusses the delayed debut of Geoff Lakeman
Folk music has always had performers who could justly lay claim to the title of ‘First Family of Folk’ - The Carters, The Coppers, The Waterson:Carthys… In the 21st century, that crown could surely pass to The Lakemans (should that be Lakemen?) – Seth, Sean and his wife Kathryn Roberts, and Sam and his wife Cara Dillon.
Head of clan Lakeman, however, and with his wife Joy, leader of the Lakeman Family group from which the three famous brothers launched their careers, is Geoff Lakeman. Approaching his seventieth year, he has just released his debut album which includes all those members of his extended family among a galaxy of backing musicians and harmony singers.
He struck out from his home on Dartmoor to play a short series of gigs in the North of England. I caught up with him for a lunchtime chat en route from York to Cheshire. We start with how the album came about. The title says it all, really.
“After All These Years”, Geoff says, “I suppose because it’s been a long time coming. I used to play a lot when the kids were growing up. Then, in their teens, the boys formed The Lakeman Brothers and I slipped into the background. As parents, we didn’t push them; they just made their choice and, as it happened, it was a choice I hoped they’d be able to make and be successful at. It wasn’t something I sought to be a direct part of; I had a different career to focus on. For 30-odd years, I was a journalist at the Daily Mirror. So, while music was always part of my life, it wasn’t my job. We’d had the Lakeman Family group, which became the Lakeman Brothers as they decided it was what they wanted to commit to on a full-time basis. I wasn’t in a position to do that. Out of that came their solo careers and performing with their partners.”
“I was still singing and playing, of course, but that was a personal, amateur thing - literally done for the enjoyment of it - singing at family gatherings or in the local folk club or whatever. Then, when I retired, I realised I had the opportunity to go further afield, which meant I not only had the chance to be heard by other people but, more importantly, I could also hear the great music being made by people like me in folk clubs up and down the country.”
As someone closely involved in his local (and the London) folk scene for many years, Geoff is in a unique position to offer his views on the clubs he has visited for the first time.
“Different clubs have different focuses. In some clubs people want to join in, singing clubs essentially; in others people prefer to sit and listen. In some places it’s the singing that’s important; others have superb instrumental players; others like to listen to songwriters. I’m not talking about professionals here (though I suppose it affects the type of act clubs tend to book) but the huge number of purely amateur players, people you only get to hear when you are lucky enough to be in a club when they get up to do a floor spot. Travelling up and down the country I’ve heard some great singers and absolutely brilliant players. A lot of them are young too, which I find very reassuring.”
When Geoff plays a club, his set is wide ranging and full of surprises. Although there will usually be an a cappella song, most are accompanied by his concertina. “I play a Crane duet concertina,” he says. “For many years I had just the one, which I got quite cheaply by modern standards. I’ve now got a spare that I have with me – you can’t start doing instrument repairs mid-set. Unlike most box players, I don’t need to take a selection of instruments in different keys. You can play any music in any key on it.”
Realising it was a rather chicken-and-egg question, I wondered which came first, the idea of playing further afield or the recording of the album.
“It certainly wasn’t a matter of making a CD so I had something to sell at gigs; that awful word, ‘merchandise’. I suppose the whole thing, when you look at how it ended up, came about partly by accident. There was pressure from my family to make recordings of some of the songs I sing, even if it was nothing more than having something my grandchildren could listen to one day - something they could wave in the air and say, ‘That’s my grand-dad’. That sounds a lot more morbid than it actually was, but there you go. So I set out to make a solo album, which Sean offered to produce.”
“Originally, I just recorded the vocals and concertina. Then Sean suggested adding other instruments. He put some fantastic guitar on it. It was a natural progression for Seth to add violin or viola on some tracks. Kathryn came up with some lovely harmony vocal ideas. Sam put on some piano parts. What began as me drawing up a list of songs I’d like to record and then planning to do them solo turned into me with my sons - though if we’d started out thinking of it as a Lakeman Family project, I doubt it would have got off the ground.”
“The family playing together sparked the idea of getting more people to come in. Cara, for example, is only on one track: she does a lovely harmony on an American song called Wide, Wide River To Cross; I was in the studio when she recorded her part and it was just magical. She sounds like a cross between the McGarrigle Sisters and Emmylou Harris, which is exactly right for the song because it needed that style of American harmony singing. Jim Causley was just fantastic; he added some great bass harmonies. Sam Kelly got involved with the choruses as well. Then there’s Ben Nicholls who is a great bass player. I always get nervous when I do this – not wanting to miss anybody out. Everyone on the record contributed something special and unique.”
“It was an organic thing. Sean would come up with an idea and then go about making it happen. It was an incredibly supportive process. All the way through the process of making the album I was struck by how lucky I was. When you consider how the whole thing started out – just me putting down a few songs for posterity. Then all these great performers were so generous with their time and talent and it began to turn into a proper CD.”
“I am really proud about the way things turned out because it was the old and the new working together. Of course, it’s my first album, and they’ve been doing it for years, so what’s old and what’s new is a matter of debate. What is true is that we were making music that spanned generations; a genuine, if I may borrow the phrase, living tradition. Also, of course, an evolving tradition, as there was a real sense of evolution in the way the album came together.”
So how did the arrangements on the tracks evolve? “There are tracks that are just me, even one that is a cappella, but that wasn’t because we couldn’t think of anything to add - I wanted some tracks to reflect how I sound when I sing in a normal situation. We had this idea that a cello would really add something to The Road Together, the one and only tune on the album. The way that tune came about is interesting. Cara was doing a big gig and for some reason some members of her band couldn’t make it. She picked up the phone and rang Dónal Lunny and Máirtín O’Connor (who wrote the tune) to ask if they’d come and play. It was in Bristol and, obviously, it was a gig I wasn’t going to miss. I met Máirtín backstage and when I said I was a concertina player he just gave me his CD, which is where I found the tune. I thought Gill Redmond would be perfect on it. So, I rang her up to ask her. In fact, I woke her up, because it was at Sidmouth last year and she’d been playing until about four in the morning or something. I said, ‘It’s Geoff Lakeman; I wonder if you’d play on my album’. She said, ‘Who?’ Anyhow, things worked out and she came in and played, essentially live, straight onto the track. Very professional. Very impressive.”
In what is clearly a stellar supporting cast, one name stands out more than the rest. On England Green / England Grey, an astonishing celebration of the conflicting nature of Englishness, alongside Geoff, Seth and Sam, the credits tell us there is ‘Nic Jones – harmony vocals’.
“Nic walks past my house most days with his dog. He lives 500 yards up the road from me. There he was, minding his own business, he probably wasn’t even aware I was making a record. Sean suggested we ask him to sing on something. So I did, and he agreed to sing on England Green / England Grey which he’d never heard before. The first time he listened to the track, he came up with this fantastic harmony. Next day we took him to the studio and recorded a few takes - he was spot on every time; it didn’t get any better and it didn’t get any worse. He’s a singer’s singer and his voice, and what he did with the song, were exactly right. When I played the recording to Reg Meuross who wrote it, he was incredibly moved by the recording.”
I agree I felt the same. I’d been impressed with the song when I heard Geoff play it in my local club. Like so many of the songs he sings, it has a great chorus that draws you into the song, intellectually and vocally. Hearing the recording, with Nic’s distinctive vocal, in a song about “my home, my love, my England” where we “sing the songs of old John Ball, Cecil Sharp and John and Paul” could not have been more right.
“Oh yes, it’s all there in Nic’s voice – a sense of what we’ve lost, what we’ve gained, what strength of will has enabled us to preserve. It’s about how we love England, being English, for all her faults – ‘in spite of all’ as the song says.”
Despite the large and noteworthy supporting cast, one never forgets whose CD it is. Everyone is supportive and the sound is never cluttered. One has a strong sense of everyone being determined to get it right. Geoff smiles at this and is typically self-effacing.
“When I talk about the CD at gigs, I sometimes say it’s got everything on it apart from the Band of the Grenadier Guards! All the people we asked to be on the album agreed, but play in a way which, as you said, doesn’t crowd it out. It’s like playing a session or singing in a club; people who join in can enhance what’s going on without diverting attention or cluttering things up. I must give Sean all the credit as producer here, because it was all down to him to make sure it remained very much my album. That’s not any kind of false modesty, just an acknowledgement that he never lost sight of the original purpose of what we were doing.”
It occurs to me that there must have been an editorial process in the choice of material. Geoff plays a wider range of material than the album might suggest, though retaining the West Country / traditional flavour throughout gives the CD a tremendous sense of internal integrity (in both senses).
“My live set is a very eclectic set. Of course, it includes the kind of songs I did on the album - traditional songs, some of my own, things by Cornish writers and so on. But I’ll also do 20s and 30s jazz songs, Richard Thompson, Randy Newman, all kinds of things. In fact, I did record one of my favourite Randy Newman songs for the album, but when it came to the final choice, it was Sean who said it didn’t quite work. The other Americana things fitted in, but that didn’t. It was disappointing, but he was absolutely right.”
“I’m very happy with all the tracks that are on the album. In fact, the one that I was uncertain about is one of my own – The Doggie Song¬ – and it was Kathryn who insisted that it had to go on. It’s a lot more light-hearted than the rest of the album, though it’s still a protest song.” (Geoff laughs knowingly, given the song’s subject matter.)
I point out that, like much of the CD, it is a Cornish song, full of musical place names. It’s also a postscript, separated by a slightly longer than usual gap. “Both good points,” says Geoff. “In fact, we could have made it a ‘hidden bonus track’ but I thought that was a bit gimmicky to be honest; in a way, that would draw attention to the song, rather than the opposite. Interesting that you should mention the place names as that was one of my reasons for thinking of not including it. I was worried it was too local, too specific if you like; though when one of those place names is Looe, it’s a god-send in a comic song. I could call it a canine critique of Cornwall, but really it’s a bit of nonsense that people seem to enjoy.”
The album includes two other songs written by Geoff. Both draw on his Cornish background and are songs of social comment. The first is the eminently singable Tie ‘Em Up. “That one is what I call my protest-shanty. I was worried it would have limited appeal because, partly, it’s a travelogue of Cornish place names. But people seem to have really picked up on it, and as you say they do like to join in with the chorus.”
Since it is a complaint about the restrictions placed on Cornish fishermen (“You can go fishing once a year…Rotas, quotas, laws and rules.”), I wondered whether it worried Geoff that it might have got sucked in to the whole Brexit debate.
“I can see why you might think that. Of course, it uses a specific instance to talk about official restrictions in a more general way. You can understand how something that affects someone’s livelihood, their trade and traditions, might stop them from seeing the big picture. I am in a bit of a quandary, because the song was inspired by how people felt and what they were saying, like how they were affected by the Common Agricultural Policy. But it was a song about something specific - not an example of what might be wrong with the EEC or Europe as a whole. I do think that a lot of people are going to be disappointed by Brexit because they focused on some particular issue they hoped would be changed and it might well not. I don’t want to be patronising: these are my people; it’s where I come from. They have a different attitude. They hate the London-centric approach to politics. I do genuinely feel for the fisherman because just like the mines that have been shut down, just like the farms that are struggling, they are no longer able to carry on working in the way they have for centuries, for reasons that are beyond their control.”
I like the idea of a protest shanty, but suggest that a key aspect of the song, and others he has written like it, is that it is not a direct protest but rather an informed and heartfelt social comment.
“I know what you mean – they’re not protest songs in the sense of telling people what they should think. They might persuade people, but that is a different thing: in that case they’ve reached a decision by thinking about something. That’s what I like songs to do - to draw someone’s attention to an issue and invite them to give it some consideration.”
One of the reasons why his songs are so effective is Geoff’s ability to write songs with memorable and immediately singable choruses. It is hard to resist joining in.
“That comes from a tradition I grew up with, and which still goes on today. Local fishermen would form male-voice choirs, singing hymns, patriotic songs and, of course, songs about their trade and the place they are from. It wasn’t about being performers but about ordinary people singing. Equally it wasn’t about watching as an audience; there was an assumption that anyone listening would join in as well. That’s always been part of my approach and it influences both the way I write and the songs I choose to sing by other people.”
“When I was 16 and going in pubs – which we all did in those days – singing was very much part of what went on, singing together as opposed to performing. Those choirs would come in too – sometimes to practice – and they’d sing ritual songs, muscular hearty songs, nonsensical songs, sometimes bawdy songs. It was music without barriers. That’s always been the thing to me.”
“When I moved from Cornwall to London to work, I used to go to folk clubs, the Herga in particular, where that kind of singing was very much what went on. If I’m writing a song and I find myself thinking about what the audience will be doing during it, I know it needs work on the chorus. That’s something that, to me, is part of every kind of great popular music – whether it’s a protest anthem or a great pop song from any era or a shanty or one of the great hymns. They are all about joining in, being part of a bigger thing, belonging.”
Those words, in a sense, bring our conversation full circle. Geoff is head of, but also part of, Clan Lakeman, a team which, with a little help from its friends, has created his solo album, which is much more than a solo album - a personal project that has led to a fully-fledged impressive CD, taking Geoff on the road, sharing his music with thousands of others, belonging.
Magnificently supported by friends and family on the album or voices in folk clubs, Geoff is now able to take up the threads set aside half a century ago and share the music he loves, particularly that of his native South-West, and (to borrow a phrase from another singer-songwriter) still Cornish after all these years. He seems surprised by his own success.
“The album has sold well. I’m already on the second pressing. People have started asking me about whether certain songs will be on my next album. That’s a bit premature. We haven’t even thought about whether there will be a second album, let alone what might be on it. If I feel another one coming on then, of course, I’d do it, though in many ways, because I am so delighted with how this one turned out and also because it’s been so well received, the thought frightens me a bit.”
Does he mean he has given himself a lot to live up to? Or is he referring to his amazing supporting cast?
“Neither really. I know the people who sang and played on the album enjoyed it, so I’m confident if I wanted people to play on another album it wouldn’t be an issue. I wouldn’t want to make the same album again, but what if I made one that was very different? Of course, you’ve lured me into discussing an album that doesn’t exist and may not ever exist.”
We shall see. I, for one, hope that the hypothetical second CD becomes a reality very soon.
Published in Issue 118 of The Living Tradition - April 2017
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Photo by Jim Ellison