My Music

(4/4)

Concluding 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 was devised to encourage people
to participate in the arts. Using exclusive footage
and interviews, this week’s film focuses on Eliza
Carthy, a singer-songwriter who is bringing
traditional music to a new audience.
For many, Eliza Carthy is at the forefront of a
revival of English folk music. Part of a legendary
musical dynasty, she has been touring since she
was a teenager and regularly mixes musical
genres as disparate as music hall, tango and even
drum and bass. Her willingness to experiment
with various styles has allowed her music to reach
a new generation of fans, and has earned her two
nominations for the coveted Mercury Music prize.
Eliza’s mother, Norma Waterston – herself a pioneering folk singer – believes that her daughter’s eclectic approach to folk is essential to the survival of the tradition. “Each generation has its own
influences,” she says. “You can do whatever you want with [the music] – it is very forgiving.” Music journalist Colin Irwin, meanwhile, thinks that Eliza’s interpretation of traditional music is something of a natural progression. “Are they pop songs or are they folk songs?” he asks. “I think she would tell you they are part of the same thing.”
Despite her broad influences, most of Eliza’s work is rooted in the tradition of English folk music.
But for her, ensuring the survival of this genre is not a passive process. To keep up with a sense of Englishness that is multi-faceted and constantly changing, Eliza is eager that her music must also evolve. Television shows like ‘The X-Factor’ and the singing of Christmas carols in a Sheffield pub are, she explains, all part of English music.
“I think she has great respect for the tradition,” says Colin Irwin of Eliza’s attitude to folk, “but also a healthy disrespect too.” Such a disrespect led to the release of her 1998 album ‘Red Rice’, a record that mixed folk songs with sampled beats and drum-and-bass rhythms. At the time, many members of the folk establishment were outraged, but Eliza insists that the album was not a case of shoehorning her music into a modern style in an attempt to achieve mass appeal – rather it was the product of a wide range of musical influences.
Musician Billy Bragg thinks that Eliza’s ability to take old songs and change them is part of her allure. When she covered one of his lesser-known songs, ‘King James Version’, Bragg feels that Eliza added something extra to his work. “She picked it up and took it to another place,” he says.
Such reversioning of English songs, even if not particularly old, is an essential part of the folk tradition of storytelling. “To take something that everyone is familiar with and to give it another depth, another powerful sensibility – I think that’s her great strength,” says Bragg.
Eliza was brought up near Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire – a place she still calls home and returns to whenever possible. Her early life was dominated by music, with her mother a singer and her father, Martin, a figurehead of the English folk scene. It is clear where her love of music came from, but her unquestionable talent on the violin is something for which she can take full credit. Martin remembers watching his daughter develop as a musician and recalls with great fondness a particular performance of ‘Maid Lamenting’, a traditional folk song. “It was an astonishing piece of playing and singing,” he says. “She is an extraordinary musician and she has a way of going straight to the heart of something.” Eliza’s new album, ‘Dreams of Breathing Underwater’, is due for release later this year, and she will soon be embarking on another busy tour.
But reaching an audience is only part of Eliza’s love of music. “You get the feeling that she would do whatever she does whether there were an audience or not,” says comedian and fan Stewart Lee. “She feels driven to create.”

Continuing 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, this week’s film focuses
on Athena – a young singer-songwriter currently
making waves in the music industry.
Athena Andreadis was born and now lives in
London, but she grew up in the bustling Greek city
of Thessaloníki. She made the decision to
become a singer at the age of six and spent much
of her youth singing at home. “I had to do it,” she
explains. “Nothing else made sense.” Though she
writes most of her songs in London, Athena
returns regularly to Greece to draw inspiration
from the country’s unique sights, sounds and smells. “This place gives me a lot,” she says.
Athena’s distinct, haunting voice and intimate personal songs have won her a loyal following.
She released her first album, ‘Breathe with Me’, at the beginning of last year, and has just two short tours of the UK under her belt. In September 2007, she performed at the St Ives end-ofsummer
festival in Cornwall with a band made up of musicians she met while studying in London.
As the cameras join Athena and her band backstage at the festival, the musicians poke fun at their folk credentials by making a mess of their dressing room, before immediately tidying it up.
For Athena, writing songs is a deeply personal process that can only happen once she has emptied her mind of conscious thought. “It’s very much a meditative thing,” she explains. “Don’t think – just feel.” Once in her creative muse, she draws inspiration from all around her, including the most mundane of sources. Sitting at the piano, she describes how the opening lyrics of ‘Green Eyes’, a song from her album, were inspired by a cup of coffee that had gone cold while she was trying to write. This simple, personal touch is key to Athena’s music. “Essentially, it’s about capturing truth and capturing intimacy,” she says.
“It’s about capturing magic.”
In striving to express her inner thoughts and emotions, Athena plans every last detail of each song – leaving nothing to chance. Certain piano chords are chosen to represent intimacy; a simple, speech-like voice is selected to evoke a tone of storytelling; while a more breathy voice might symbolise the expression of raw emotions.
In terms of her accompaniment, only acoustic instruments will do. “I love acoustic instruments,” she explains. “I love how they resonate.”
Despite having only been in the business for a short period of time, Athena has caught the attention of critics and fellow musicians alike.
“The first time I met Athena,” says Chris Difford of Squeeze, “it struck me instantly that she was hugely talented.” Chris and Athena now meet regularly at a converted monastery in Italy, where Chris runs a workshop for songwriters. During these sessions, Athena drives her fellow musicians, always putting in a complete performance despite the lack of an audience.
Athena has made the brave decision to keep control of her own career thus far, despite a great deal of interest from major record labels. A degree of independence is an essential part of maintaining her own direction, and allows her to travel freely around the country, meeting and performing with a number of different musicians – many of whom help her craft her unique style. “It’s all about meeting the right people,” she says.
Chris Difford is convinced that Athena is managing fine without the backing of a big label.
“I don’t think she needs to be packaged by anybody other than herself,” he explains. “She is simply and beautifully her.” But Athena is constantly evolving and seems ever-eager to develop as a songwriter. “The moment I stop challenging myself and learning and trying to do better,” she says, “something in me will die.”

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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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