Seth Lakeman: ‘I straddled the two worlds of folk and pop’

By his own admission, Freedom Fields is an album that Seth Lakeman holds in considerable affection. Released after his nomination for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize with his second solo LP Kitty Jay, it became his major commercial breakthrough, selling more than 100,000 copies.

Seth Lakeman. Picture: Tom Griffiths

“It was at a point in my career where I guess things really turned a corner,” says the now 44-year-old folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who is busy readying himself for a tour to mark the record’s 15th anniversary.

“I’d had a breakthrough with Kitty Jay but Freedom Fields really seemed to connect with an audience. Kitty Jay was a bit more of a conceptual record all about Dartmoor, but this one, although still being set in history, had a lot more commercial success and seemed to stretch itself far and wide, not just in this country but abroad.”

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Without realising it, Lakeman suddenly found himself “straddling the two worlds of folk and pop”. “It was more of a singer-songwriter approach, I guess,” he reflects.

Remarkably perhaps, he made Kitty Jay and Freedom Fields “not that far apart” with his eldest brother Sean. “Really what I was trying to do was follow the same template that me and Sean were working at,” he recalls. “We made Freedom Fields in two or three weeks at his place. It was during that Mercury Prize storm. It certainly gave me a bit of a lift in confidence.”

The album’s title song was named after a former Plymouth hospital that closed in 1998. “That hospital was actually named after Freedom Fields Park, which was named after the Freedom Fields Battle where the people of Plymouth got together and kicked out the Royalists (in 1643). It’s an important place for Plymothians, the symbolism of a hospital and everything that relates to it. It’s a powerful song for that reason, with that narrative. It’s more for the people of Plymouth, it feels like.”

The album’s success propelled Lakeman into a whirlwind of high-profile gigs that included the likes of Glastonbury and Hyde Park Calling in the UK and South By South West in Austin, Texas, alongside Amy Winehouse. He also toured with Tori Amos. “It was crazy stuff, back and forth,” he laughs. “I did Canada with Billy Bragg. They were trying to break me in all sorts of places. I was living on the road, as you do. It was a really exciting time for me.

“Then it’s having a band that can deliver those songs and excite an audience. I’ll be honest, it was an amazing bunch of musicians – Cormac Byrne, Sean Lakeman, my brother, and Ben Nicholls.”

Seth Lakeman. Picture: Tom Griffiths

Midway through 2006 Lakeman signed to a major label and became a poster boy for English folk music – something he came to feel detracted from the music. “It was a strange one, you have to go with the flow a bit,” he says. “I definitely felt a lot of conversations with media they were jumping on the ‘poster boy of folk’ side rather than the fact that I’d come out of the Mercury and the seriousness of the music and the writing and the background.

“I definitely felt it was a bit shallow, really. But looking back now as a 44-year-old, I realise it’s this bubblegum thing that sells. I totally get it. If you sign to EMI you’ve got to do that.”

After 18 months confined to home during the pandemic, Lakeman says he is “massively” looking forward to playing the songs live again. In March of this year he recorded his 12th solo album, Make Your Mark, which he feels is “like the sister record to Freedom Fields – it feels like it’s come full circle”.

He coped with the first lockdown by writing “tons of songs”. “It was quite inspiring to have that break, I’m very privileged to live on Dartmoor because there’s so much around us to inspire,” he says. However without anywhere to perform he admits he then “lost” his thread.

“Sadly if you break a musician’s annual schedule, that’s what happens. Without taking it to any people or getting a response or a connection, I did feel pretty down and depressed. It was tough.”

As a result, Make Your Mark is “a bit more personal” than some of his more traditional-leaning records, which have drawn on the folk archive and historic events. “The single Higher We Aspire is about pushing yourself, carrying those burdens that we all have,” he explains. “Generally it was inspired by nature – it was going to be through that period – but also the way you react to losing people in your life, peers and dear friends that pass away.

“It’s a moving album. As ever, it’s a real journey as well. There are stories thrown in from around the West Country, inspiration from the coastline to the moorland. In that sense, it does encompass the usual territory for me but I definitely delved a little bit further. I guess it’s more introspective.”

Having just come off A Pilgrim’s Tale, a conceptual album he made to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing to North America, he was looking for a project that didn’t involve as much research. “In terms of getting too structured about things, I felt quite loose about it all. I just wanted to write a singer-songwriter album.”

Besides, he says: “With three children, I don’t get that much time to read...I wanted to do something that was more personal, rather than following another story. It was time to step away from that, because I’d spent a good couple of years writing about the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans. I was delving into the hymnal world. It was pretty heavy. This was different.”

Seth Lakeman plays at Leeds City Varieties on November 8. Freedom Fields 15th anniversary edition is out on October 29 while Make Your Mark is released on November 19.