June Tabor: ‘There is a strong connection with Oysterband’

June Tabor and Oysterband in concert. Picture: Judith Burrows
June Tabor and Oysterband in concert. Picture: Judith Burrows
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Folk singer June Tabor is touring with Oysterband. She talks to DUNCAN SEAMAN about the reunion.

June Tabor has a very simple reason for reuniting with the folk rock group Oysterband. “We like doing it,” says the singer commonly regarded as having one of the finest voices in British folk music.

“It is something that we both enjoy doing, we like singing and playing together immensely. For me, it’s very different from the other things I do. It’s a different voice and a slightly different approach to some of the songs. It is selfish pleasure but also wanting to share some of the enjoyment that we get out of playing together with an audience again.”

The collaboration first took root in 1990 with the album Freedom and Rain; 21 years later they hitched up again for another much-praised record, Ragged Kingdom, which branched out beyond the traditional folk repertoire with renditions of Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses, Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s soul standard Dark End of the Street, PJ Harvey’s That Was My Veil and post-punk group Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart.

It won Best Traditional Song, Best Album and Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, while Tabor was named Folk Singer of the Year.

Eight years on, they are back together again for a UK tour that includes a date at Leeds Town Hall.

June Tabor and Oysterband. Picture: Judith Burrows

June Tabor and Oysterband. Picture: Judith Burrows

Tabor, 71, thinks there is a strong empathy between her and the group. “Between John and I particularly, being the two singers,” she says. “We get together every so often anyway and we just talk and sing a bit, walk up the road with John’s dog and things like that, and just share songs, because it’s one of the great pleasures of our lives.

“But with the other members of the band yes, there is a strong connection. I haven’t worked with Pete Flood before, this will be the first time with him, but it seems to be just as satisfying and he is just as sympathetic to the material as the previous incumbents of the drum stool were, so that’s great. Adrian [Oxall] and I talk cricket.”

Tabor and Oysterband will be road testing some new songs on the tour, but the singer isn’t sure yet if further down the line they will record them. “Making an album with effectively quite a large ensemble is an expensive business,” she says. “We may never make another formal album but if we do then it is a good idea to have done some work on the songs. Rehearsing in the studio is expensive, you need the budget the size of somebody very famous.

“There have been new songs introduced anyway, even in the latter stages when we were doing Ragged Kingdom, that weren’t on the album but which we thought might work well and did, so they will reappear this time. We’ve been trying out one or two new things in rehearsal which will gradually get introduced into the set. There are some things that have been in the repertoire but were never recorded on either album.

Sometimes a song will just grab my attention because the use of words are not only concise but also very strong visually and I do see many songs unrolling in my head when I hear them or particularly when I sing them.

June Tabor

“It’s good to introduce something new into what is effectively an established repertoire because it makes you think differently about the existing songs. Singing them differently to how you did before or just changing the position of them in the set and putting something new in just changes the emphasis and wakes you up.”

Tabor reveals she has been “looking again at the work of my good late friend Bill Caddick”, the Wolverhampton folk singer who died last year aged 74. “He was one hell of a songwriter. We haven’t some up with anything yet but I would love to do something that I haven’t done before of his that would commemorate his remarkable writing. I’m still thinking about that one.

“And Richard Thompson. You can look into Richard’s work and think, ‘God, I haven’t spotted that one before, we should do that one’. Then, of courses, you have to get it past the committee.”

Throughout a musical career that began in folk clubs in Warwickshire in the 1960s and developed during her time at Oxford University then later with Maddy Prior in the duo Silly Sisters before going solo, Tabor has been renowned as one of the great interpreters of other writers’ songs. She is drawn, she says, to poetry and concision in lyrics as well as their storytelling. “It’s whatever makes a song work and makes it speaks to me. It could be the way of storytelling.

“Good storytelling in a song is like short story writing, you don’t start at the beginning and finish at the end, or rarely. In ballads that happens but that’s a completely different genre. In modern writing very often it’s just taking a moment in an episode and you refer back to it and put things forward slightly, you’re just dropped into the middle of the situation. But good writing will depict the whole picture and the whole atmosphere of what’s happening.

“It could also be strong visual images. Sometimes a song will just grab my attention because the use of words are not only concise but also very strong visually and I do see many songs unrolling in my head when I hear them or particularly when I sing them. If a song does that then it’s got a good start with me. You find a lot of songs that you’re attracted to but you can’t necessarily perform them the way they ask to be performed or the way they deserve. You can try and maybe it doesn’t work, but then every so often everything comes right and you think, ‘yes, I’m doing that song justice, I’m hopefully doing what the song made me feel, think or see to the audience’ and then you’ve got it right.”

She recalls falling in love with traditional music in her teens. “The first time I got taken to a folk club that was me hooked.” Anne Briggs and Belle Stewart were early influences. Tabor discovered them through the Topic Records catalogue. “Goodness me, what an absolute treasure trove of recorded material. It was being taken to a record shop by my sister who said, ‘You’re interested in folk music, come on I’ll buy you a record, just go and pick one’. We went to one of the best places you could have gone – because she lived in London – Dobells on Charing Cross Road and she left me in the folk section for a while. I found this EP of Anne’s, Hazards of Love, and I looked at the sleeve and I thought, ‘This is interesting, this is a young woman, not much older than me and there’s nothing else but her voice’.

“I took it home and put it on my little Dansette record player – dreadful speakers, but what the hell – and I thought, ‘This is incredible, she is doing everything with her voice that the song requires’. I didn’t put it into those words back then but [I realised] this way of singing doesn’t need accompaniment, I can do all this on my own. So I just listened and listened, and slowed it down and sat in the bathroom, because that was the best acoustics, and tried copying it. I just immersed myself in it and purely from listening and imitating acquired that technique, or the beginnings of it anyway.

“And then I found, again by looking in a record shop, the Stewarts of Blair and here was Belle Stewart singing in a very different way but doing the same thing with the voice. A complete performance without the need for any accompaniment, and even then the stories came through and were what attracted me not just to the songs but to singing them as well, as a means of storytelling.

“Those two people were a huge influence on me as a singer then and still are now. There are elements of what I learnt from listening to them still in the way I sing. The more you sing you think, ‘I can do that but I won’t do it quite yet, I’ll do it when it counts’, vocal ornamentation, because Anne’s style is very ornamented, Belle’s is the Scottish traveller style with very strong singing but there’s sweeps and bending of notes, like nothing else, really, and all that’s still in the way I sing. And quite a few other things too, but that’s how I learnt – listen, listen again, then try and copy it and then mostly don’t do it.”

June Tabor and Oysterband play at Leeds Town Hall on November 1. www.leedstownhall.co.uk