‘Learning folk songs has taught me to try and be sparing in my own writing,’ says BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Emily Portman.
Through three acclaimed solo albums, she has distilled the acoustic essence of old-time sentiment and sound, bringing fresh ears and an innovative pen to the folk vernacular.
She is lauded for her darkly surreal sonic worlds where folklore and myth collide with urban landscapes, inviting praise from Uncut, fRoots, Jarvis Cocker and Mark Radcliffe.
The PRS for Music Foundation-funded artist is also a founder of The Corale Band and member of The Furrow Collective, alongside Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrell and folk luminary Alasdair Roberts.
We catch up with her for our Folkways feature in the upcoming print issue of M to get her take on the preservation of traditional music for future generations.
She also discusses its effects on her own songwriting, how wider British folklore is a constant source of inspiration to her and why folk ebbs and flows over the decades…
How did you first discover traditional folk music and British folklore?
I used to dance about to Steeleye Span’s Now We Are Six as a kid, not knowing the songs were in fact folk ballads. It wasn’t until I went to study on a music BTEC that my teacher, Howard Harrison, introduced me to the music of Martin Carthy and leant me the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. I was hooked! Discovering this music felt like coming home somehow and luckily Newcastle University were starting a new Folk Music Degree so I jumped at the chance to find out more about this new passion!
Why does it inspire you and how has it influenced the music you make yourself?
I love the stories in the songs, and my favourite singers are those who draw me into that story. The traditional song lyrics are often so sparingly and poetically told – they can convey a huge amount of drama and intrigue in a few lines. So learning folk songs has taught me to try and be sparing in my own writing… although the folk songs have the advantage of many many, retellings, which shave off the unnecessary details over the centuries!
Folk songs offer insight into how people used to live, and those themes that continue to occupy us now. The melodies are often brilliant too and all those interesting time signatures and modes have influenced my own writing over the years. Since discovering folk music my songs have become more narrative based – and less concerned with naval gazing than they used to be, which is a good thing I think!
Which songwriters in particular have influenced you?
I’m a big Lal Waterson fan, I love her sparse, angular melodies. I’ve been lucky enough to play with Alasdair Roberts in our band The Furrow Collective, and he also happens to be one of my favourite songwriters. Ali has a special way with words. Like many I’m a big Bjork fan, and Joni Mitchell featured heavily in my formative listening, thanks to my mum’s record collection.
How do you set about telling modern stories in the old folk music tradition?
I don’t really think of what I do in those terms. My own writing doesn’t try to keep within any old folk traditions or pastiche them, it’s new music and time will tell if it becomes part of any folk music canon, but I’m not presuming anything! I do take great inspiration from those traditions in my writing: I started out taking fairytales and folk tales and reinterpreting them, for my first album The Glamoury. I think of my songs more as impressions than faithful retellings, but the stories will always be there no matter how much some young upstart messes about with them!
Angela Carter has been a big influence and I love her approach to reinvigorating and subverting folk tales. Her novels have inspired songs like Hinge of the Year in Hatchlings. For my latest album Coracle, I had a few stories of my own to tell about new motherhood and bereavement, and I also found myself reading stories and learning ballads on those themes which formed the basis of new songs.
Why do you think traditional folk is still relevant to today’s musicians?
It’s a rich seam to draw from and it’s more accessible today than ever, with the digitisation of so many archives. Whether you’re a songwriter, a singer or an instrumentalist, there’s so much to draw from, to reinterpret and to get inspired by in your own writing and playing. Some songs will fall by the wayside and lose relevance, but many ballads hold just as much power today as they ever did.
What about for audiences?
Personally I love the down-to-earth nature of a folk gig – whenever I see someone like Martin Carthy play it feels like I’m being invited into his living room; that special rapport he, and many other folk musicians, has with the audience is refreshingly unaffected. Seeing Lynched the other day, I felt the same – the whole room was filled with a lovely warm, atmosphere… And you could hear a pin drop when the songs were sung. Folk audiences are listening audiences and for a songwriter and ballad singer like me, it’s a magical thing to know that people are really listening to those stories.
Do you think the traditional folk vernacular is still strong in Britain?
The UK folk scene is certainly strong and it’s largely down to the generosity of older generations, who pass on the music with such passion. Whenever traditions teeter on the brink of extinction it seems that some bright spark resurrects them again and they take on new life. In Newcastle, where I used to live, rapper sword dancing, ceilidhs and tar barrel rolling are all going strong! Some people get preoccupied with authenticity and unbroken traditions, but I think what ever their age, their use in bringing together communities, remains the same.
Has the songwriting thread remained unbroken since ancient times or do you think it’s been disrupted over recent years?
Interesting question! I think people will always be moved to write songs and I can’t see that changing as long as people have something to write with! But whether we’ll continue to see as many diverse professional songwriters is another matter. It is harder than ever to sustain a career as a musician, now that people can access music for free – and expect to. Songwriters are going to have to find different ways of making a living and I think there’s a danger that it’ll effect diversity. I hope I’m just being pessimistic, though.
You also give talks about traditional songs and write articles on folk music – what are the key messages you try to get across?
I’ve written articles for fROOTS championing fellow musicians and it’s great to gain insight into how other bands work. I did a Masters in traditional music and became fascinated by the multiple meanings that can be drawn from one song. Many people say that ballads are timeless and whilst I can see their point, I think that meanings can change and shift depending on singer and context… it can make you think twice about singing some songs that could reinforce some negative stereotypes. Not all ballads are full of worldly wisdom but they can always provide little windows into our history, including the uncomfortable bits we’d rather forget. Luckily there are also lots of songs that defy stereotypes too and personally I’m always drawn to those with strong female protagonists, of which there are many!
How do you see traditional folk evolving in the future?
I do think it’s harder than ever for musicians to make a living these days, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the future of folk music – it’s constantly evolving and there are so many bright young things emerging with a passion for the music. It’s a good sign that I can’t keep up with all the new bands! Folk music has always gone through waves of popularity and obscurity. But thanks to the continuing work of dedicated folk, many archives are now easily accessible to anyone who’s interested.
What more can be done to support it?
Support independent musicians by coming to our concerts! Buy our music direct from us, rather than the big websites who give us a tiny percentage of the profit. Buy independent music magazines and join organisations like EFDSS!
What’s next for you?
I’ve just released a new CD of traditional songs with The Furrow Collective called Wild Hog and we’ll be touring our new music throughout next year. I am touring with my new six piece The Coracle band throughout December and we have a tour in March 2017.
March live dates:
23 – Ropetackle, Shoreham
24 – Northwall, Oxford
25 – Bridgewater Arts Centre, Bridgewater
26 – Blackheath Concert Hall, London
27 – Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Ludlow