SHE USED to think folk music was “old and boring”, but a little persistence and some tough advice from an American duo she once roadied for, set Maddy Prior on her way to becoming one of Britain’s greatest post-war folk singers.
For the majority of Steeleye Span’s long career, Maddy has been the lead vocalist with the band, who, alongside Pentangle and Fairport Convention, revitalised British folk music in the late 1960s and 1970s through fusing traditional forms with rock, blues, prog, and jazz.
Now Steeleye Span are celebrating 45 years in existence and marking the occasion with a British and Irish tour which takes in the Town Hall Theatre on Monday May 19 at 8pm.
Maddy was born in Blackpool and moved to St Albans in the English Home Counties in Hertfordshire at 11. “I’ve got that strange north/south divide thing,” she tells me during our Thursday morning interview. Her initial impressions of folk music were not positive.
“We did a bit at school and as a result I didn’t like it very much,” she says, “but it was cool in my adolescence to sing American folk songs and get into Bob Dylan. From that I started going to folk clubs. It was funny how I got into that. I started singing in folk clubs while working in a Wimpy fast food place for €10. I was getting €8 for the singing, which I preferred so that decided that! The Wimpy was my last decision about a career and last bit of work I ever did!”
Besides singing in folk clubs Maddy was also a roadie for various visiting American musicians. One encounter in particular was to prove life changing.
“I drove Reverend Gary Davis around for a month in 1966. That was a character forming experience!” she says. “Then I met this American couple and drove them around for a year. They told me to stop singing American folk songs, because they said I was rubbish at it! They had lots of tapes of English folk music and I started to listen to them, reluctantly at first I might add. I found the songs old and boring. But I listened to the tapes again, and again, and eventually I found ‘Oh I like that song’, ‘Oh I like that one too’. You get your ear in, that’s what you have to do with any music. Then I teamed up with Tim Hart and did the folk clubs.”
Maddy and Tim came into contact with Irish folk duo Terry Woods - who had recently left Sweeney’s Men - and his wife Gay, who were looking to form a band. Nobody could have predicted that the Steeleye Span would come about because of a football match!
“It did!” laughs Maddy. “We would have great football games. We had one with Fairport Convention and we asked ‘How long a side is the game?’ and Richard Thompson said ‘45 minutes each way’. Everybody gasped! As I remember it, Terry and Gay Woods were looking to form a band with Ashley Hutchings. They were staying in the same house Tim and I were living in, and they asked ‘Do you want to join the band?’ We had some rehearsals and thought, ‘Let’s give it a go’, but it’s not always a good idea to get involved with people you don’t really know. Ashley had just left Fairport after being in a bad car crash and was still struggling with it. He was like the referee between two couples - and the ref was poorly - but we did get on well, but then Terry and Gay did leave, so maybe we didn’t!”
Steeleye Span’s ‘classic period’ was the 1970s, particularly with the run of albums from 1972’s Below The Salt and on throughout the rest of the decade.
“The thing about Steeleye is that it had several strains of music,” says Maddy. “Bob Johnson did the ballads, Pete Knight did the tunes, I did the trad. All the albums are a combined thing, and each has a strength and weakness. In the seventies we were signed to Chrysalis to do 10 albums in five years - that’s an album every six months! We weren’t able to do that, but there was this constant pressure to record, so we were somewhat cavelier with the recording process, but that meant you could try things, which we did. We were very experimental. Parcel Of Rouges is one of my favourites, but the first album [1970’s Hark! The Village Wait] and Please To See The King were good.”
However Steeleye are no nostalgia act but remain very much a going concern as demonstrated by their most recent album, Wintersmith, released late last year, which was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett.
Given Steeleye’s repetoire contains songs with titles like ‘Seven Hundred Elves’, ‘Two Magicians’, ‘Alison Gross’ (“she must be the uglyiest witch in the north country” ), and ‘Demon Lover’ it is no surprise that Pratchett is a major Steeleye fan.
“Terry was on Desert Island Discs and he chose one of our albums,” says Maddy. “It became obvious he took a lot from what we do. I’ve been reading his novels for years. They are very clever in how they take an idea and go off left-field with it. We played his 60th birthday party and around that period suggested it would be good to work together, and he suggested Wintersmith. It took five years to get around to it - Steeleye Span has never been an easy band to be in - but we all wrote songs, and came together, and it turned out much better than I thought it would!”
Maddy has been the backbone of Steeleye for the majority of its career, but considering she has enjoyed success with other projects, such as Silly Sisters with June Tabor, and more recently Maddy Prior & Friends, what is the attraction of continuing to work with the band?
“The interesting thing about being in a band is that you think ‘If we could get better at this or that it would be a better band’, but it doesn’t work like that,” Maddy says. “You can only ever be in one band and you do what you do in that band. If you go somewhere else, you do something else. You cannot do again what you once did in that other band. If you like what you do in that band, there is an energy to that band of a certain type and Steeleye Span has an energy you can’t find anywhere else, and I like that energy.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall Theatre through 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie