Spanning the years

Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior continues to defy age while talking to Dave Woodhall.

Maddy Prior is a singing coach, a downright lovely lady and best-known as singer with Steeleye Span, who are playing Birmingham Town Hall on 14th December. It’s a venue she has some experience of.

“It’s lovely. It’s a great hall and so much better since it was refurbished. I think the seating has been banked up so the audience seem closer to the stage.”

You’ve said before that Steeleye Span is like a bus – you get on, you get off, you get back on again. Clearly you’re back on now – is that for good?

“It’s never say never, but that’s true about everything. Life throws at you what it throws. The band has changed line-ups as some people have gone out and come back while some have just gone but it’s a sort of gang who have been in and out of the band.”

It must make for a healthy relationship as it means you’re never going to have a big fall out with the band splitting and members only talking through their lawyers. Rather like being in a relationship and going into the next room to avoid an argument?

“It’s all very different now. When we started the idea of taking a year out was inconceivable because everyone was convinced the audience would forget you, which we now know isn’t true. It’s extraordinary to think that now but because we were at each other’s throats we had to split. We should have just taken a year off but nobody did that back then. We were making two albums a year – ten in five years, which is insane. We were all doling it.”

The Elvis Costello song Shipbuilding is in your set now. Last time we spoke you were saying about how folk music grew out of people wanting to know the news, and that’s a song which relates to an event.

“Absolutely, and we’re doing others that Rick Kemp wrote in the eighties. All the references are old now so young people would hardly know them. One’s about a Vulcan bomber and they were apparently useless. Only Rick would know that because he’s interested in planes. Folk’s still evolving. Songs we’ve written in our lifetime are now history.”

Talking of evolving, you’ve done a collaboration with Francis Rossi.

“Indeed. he’s come in and sung and played guitar on Hard Times of Old England, which is one of those songs that keeps coming in because every time you think we’ve got to do it ‘cos times is bad, times keep getting worse.”

You never think of Francis Rossi evolving because he’s just kept doing the same thing for fifty-odd years but it’s not really like that. Music does evolve.

“You might not think it but it does evolve. Everything changes, we change as people, our bodies change which makes a difference to our voices. A body of twenty sounds different to a body of seventy.”

And yet your voice seems to sound much the same as it ever did. What manner of sorcery is this?

“It has changed, it is different, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to be singing how I was at twenty. It’s got more gravitas now. I can still do two hours on stage and I am quite fit these days. The great thing about voices is that they are so related to the body. Whatever’s happening to you shows in the voice.”

Some singers seem to have their voice go and then it recovers.

“It happens. A lot of that is to do with discovering technique. Most people in the pop world went out back in the day and didn’t know anything about voice, I didn’t until about twelve yeas ago and then ‘Bloody hell, that’s happening!’. I did training in CVT, complete vocal technique. They look at the voice apart from genre, unlike most teaching which is attached to genre.

“The best teaching is opera, but you have to sing opera for it to work whereas I went to a singing teacher when I was fifteen and thought I didn’t want to sing like that so I didn’t go again. But with CVT it’s just about what your voice can do. Singers on The Voice and such programmes, they’ve got technique and have to have it because they do all kinds of things they’re not used to. it’s fascinating because in the past opera teachers would say they’re wrecking their voices but the reality is that I went to see Bruce Springsteen in the seventies and I thought he wouldn’t last five minutes because his voice was so rough. Three hours later he’s still performing so he’s learned a way of singing that doesn’t cost his voice.

“All those American singers have got to be incredibly fit to do that. The Rat Pack used to swim to keep their voices because it’s the same breathing techniques and all the big heavy metal singers have to stay fit to do that because the stomach muscles are doing the work.

“After doing it for forty years I realised things weren’t as they were so I had to to learn and it’s fascinating to pick up the techniques.”

I don’t have a clue about all this but it was fascinating to listen to, even if I doubt it will help my singing much.

Steeleye Span are playing Birmingham Town Hall on 14th December as part of a UK tour.