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Beginning this week is a series of documentaries
exploring the musical influences of four of the most
successful artists in contemporary English folk
music. The programmes are part of Five Culture, an
initiative between Five and Arts Council England,
which is devised to encourage people to participate
in the arts. Using exclusive footage and interviews,
the series reveals the highs, lows and the influences
of these talented musicians. The subject of this
week’s film is singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman – a
rising star of the folk scene.
“Once in a while,” says Ian Anderson of Jethro
Tull, “someone comes along who is capable of
being the vanguard of a musical style, with a real
chance of breaking through to a much wider
public. Seth Lakeman is that person.” Having
been born and brought up on Dartmoor, Seth
Lakeman draws much of his inspiration from local
myths and legends. “It’s a very inspirational place
– quite magical,” he explains. “It’s a big part of
me.” By retelling locally relevant stories, Lakeman
places himself firmly in the English folk tradition.
With his mother a violinist and his father the
owner of various folk clubs, music was a large part
of Lakeman’s upbringing. He first picked up a violin
at the age of six, and began playing professionally
with his two brothers as a teenager. The Lakeman
Brothers, as they were known, were virtuoso
performers, described by Steve Knightley of Show
of Hands as “bratpack folkies”. But at the age of
27, Lakeman found himself struggling to make a
living and in need of a new direction. He went back
home and locked himself away for six months in
search of creative inspiration. The result was ‘Kitty
Jay’, an album full of dark, moody songs inspired
by the sinister myths and legends of Dartmoor.
The album was launched with a gig at Dartmoor
prison, adding a great deal of resonance to the
material. Performing songs based on local
legends of tragedy to those incarcerated in the
area made perfect sense to Lakeman. “The two
tie in so well together,” he explains.
The prison gig made Seth Lakeman a
household name on Dartmoor, but ‘Kitty Jay’ was
soon to achieve much wider acclaim. In 2005, the
album received a nomination for the Mercury
Music Prize and Lakeman was booked to perform
at the ceremony. “He was, on that night, just
utterly different from anything else there,” recalls
Paul Rees, editor of Q magazine. His energetic
performance of the title track earned him
recognition from people who might not normally
listen to folk music. David Farrow, Seth Lakeman’s
manager, believes the appearance at the awards
cut out many years of hard work. As soon as the
show aired, the media became interested.
With the nomination under his belt, Lakeman
went on to write more folk-infuenced songs that
were picked up by mainstream radio. In London,
major record labels began to see his potential and
a deal soon followed with Relentless Records.
Though folk is rarely championed by such labels,
Shabs Jobanputra of Relentless is confident that
the genre can break into the mainstream. “Seth is
challenging the concept people have of folk
music and the people who play it,” he says. DJ
Mark Radcliffe, who describes Lakeman as “the
poster boy of new British folk” can see no reason
why the artist should not be a big success.
While working on his first record for Relentless,
Lakeman returned to Dartmoor and once again
drew inspiration from the landscape. This time,
however, he decided to bring the folk tradition
into the modern age by retelling a more recent
tale. ‘Solomon Browne’ tells the tragic story of the
Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981, in which eight
local men died while trying to save the crew of a
stricken ship off the Cornwall coast. “That’s
another aspect to folk music,” says fan Matthew
Wright. “Bringing the past and history – our
culture – back into the present.”
At the London launch of Lakeman’s latest
record, fans queued around the block for tickets,
and his gigs now sell out regularly. “It’s a great
time for folk music at the moment,” he says. “As a
folk fiddle player, it’s an amazing dream.”

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