It’s Carnival time

Dave Woodhall talks to folk legend Maddy Prior.

What began as a one-off project has now become a semi-regular Christmas occurence. Steeleye Span singer Maddy Prior teams up with the Carnival Band for a tour performing seasonal songs old and new. We spoke to her about this year’s tour, and much more.

Watching clips of your earlier music and then some from more recently, these untrained ears at least can’t judge any difference. Do you have some sort of Voice of Dorian Gray hidden away, because you sound exactly the same?

“I wish. It’s fantastic if you think that but it does change, you do different things with it as you get older and you have a different relationship with it because it’s almost like it’s a separate thing from you in some ways and that’s why people are so nervous about their voice because it reveals so much about them.”

You have, though, changed the nature of your collaborators over the years. Your current touring partners the Carnival Band, for example. You’ve been with them for some time.

“It’s about thirty years, on and off. It’s not all the time so there’s a freshness about it, we tour every other year. There’s no stress , we’re not trying to make our way in the world, we’re just working. The band do a lot of work when I’m not with them and they’re all great players. But I’ve never worked with anyone who isn’t a great player. I’ve been lucky in that the people who’ve come into my life musically have been very, very good. Tim Hart and I working together was really interesting and we learned a huge amount about the traditions and then coming into Steeleye was quite extraordinary and everyone in the band has always been very good.”

It’s interesting that you talk about tradition there, because the more I learn about music the more I realise it’s all interlinked. We interviewed Neville Staple of the Specials recently and you’d be hard pressed to think of two more dissimilar bands than Steeleye Span and the Specials, yet he spoke of writing songs about events when he was growing up and of toasting, which he said was the equivalent in Jamaica of reading a newspaper. Folk music’s always been like that hasn’t it?

“That’s what they were. A lot of the broadsides were a way of getting information. They would sing ballads about hanging – they liked ballads about hanging. Nothing’s changed, people still like watching the bad news on TV. You think all the stuff is different but the values are the same. People are the same around the world, there might be cultural differences but they want the same kind of things and that’s all there in folk songs.”

The current tour sees you with the Carnival Band at Birmingham Town Hall on 22nd December, performing Christmas songs.

“It’s based around carols but not the sort that you’d necessarily be familiar with unless you’ve seen us before. It’s French carols, others, but they’re all beautiful. There are some written by the band including a piece called Bright Evening Star and we do some better-known one; Angels from the Realms of Glory, we do that as though we’re living in Louisiana which makes it stand out. The band are all classically trained, they can put a twist on things, that’s what they like to do”.

The Town Hall, especially at Christmas. There can’t be many more atmospheric venues.

“It’s brilliant. There’s the market outside and the refurbishment a while ago was fantastic, what was that, about ten years ago? I’m at the stage now where a while ago was about ten years.”

And you’re never quiet are you? You’re never not busy.

“I like doing different projects, and the Carnival Band are so brilliant. They’re classy.”

Classy. That’s a Maddy Prior word. But you’re also doing so much else.

“I run courses up in the Scottish borders, where I do poetry and that sort of thing from Stones Barn. That takes up a lot of my time. And there’s Steeleye, Rick has finally left. He’s been leaving for thirty years but it’s too much for him and he’s finally gone so we have to re-figure yet again. We’ll be touring again in the autumn. I work with Hannah James and Giles Lewin, we have a lovely little trio that goes out and does all kinds of bizarre music.”

Steeleye have had a revolving door membership over the years but you always seem to leave, split and re-form amicably. That’s not easy when you see the animosity that’s caused when many bands break up.

“Most of us have been in the band long enough to see people come and go; I’ve left before now. I always refer to it as a bus. You can get on, get off and it carries on.”

You mentioned the courses you run at Stones Barn. One of them is called Singing for the Uncertain. That’s a great idea for those of us who might love singing but have no discernible talent whatsoever.

“A lot of people are told when they’re young that they can’t sing, they’re not allowed in the choir and that sort of thing and they go on believing this and they don’t sing for the next thirty years. Then one day they think ‘Well it sounds alright in the car’. Anyone can sing but if you don’t do it then you won’t get any better at it. It’s like anything else. It’s no good saying you can’t, it’s because you don’t.”

Not that there’s any chance of you ever not singing.

“I hope not. The voice is the last thing to go when you’ve got Alzheimer’s so I hope I can carry on.”

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band play Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday 22nd December. Tickets £25.50 from the Town Hall website