You have to be Maddy to sing this
Sitting on the floor of her cosy study, a fire blazing in the hearth, Maddy Prior is trying to explain what it is that gives certain songs staying power. Staying power that makes them endure, sometimes, over centuries – and Prior, as one of the most distinguished singers of British traditional material over the past half-century, ought to know – and staying power that keeps them alive for a particular singer.
Clearly, it isn’t easy to define. "Some songs have an incredible energy within them that’s hard to assess, but they have an internal power, they move themselves along," she says thoughtfully. "Energy is the only way to describe it. They push from the inside out. It’s a dynamic; you don’t have to drag them along, they just go."
The same might be said of Prior herself. Thirty-five years on from her first appearance on the Sixties folk club circuit, and with 35 albums under her belt, Maddy Prior shows absolutely no sign of a longing to slow down. True, she gave her admirers a shock in 1997 when she announced she was leaving Steeleye Span, the seminal folk-rock ensemble which had endured many cast changes over the years, but had always retained Prior’s powerful, pure and joyful voice as its mainstay. Prior, however, has no regrets: as she points out, "I’d been there 27 years; it’s not like I’m a flibbertigibbet."
She seems somewhat amused to find herself in the midst of another "folk revival": suddenly, young talents like Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby (nominated for a Mercury Award last year) are making traditional music acceptable again. The BBC has even decided to launch the Folk Awards, to take place in London on February 7. With a line-up of performers such as Carthy, Rusby and Youssou N’Dour, the organisers have invited Prior to hand out a gong.
"Revivals," she says drily, "are part of the tradition. It’s a traditional thing to have a revival."
Steeleye Span spearheaded that last renaissance, back in the early Seventies; with their 1973 single, Gaudete, they managed to make a Latin chant a chart topper, and their next hit, All Around My Hat, consolidated their ability to blend popular and traditional styles.
But there’s always been more to Maddy than Steeleye. She was born in Blackpool a little over 50 years ago, and her voice singled her out for attention straight away. "The first thing I remember singing was at a Saturday matinee. Before we sang Land of Hope and Glory – which tells you how long ago it was – they would have a competition, and after you sang the guy would put his hand over your head and people would applaud or not. And I won, which is, I guess, why I’m here. I sang The Tennessee Wig Walk – I have no idea where I learnt it."
The family moved to St Albans before Maddy reached her teens and Maddy soon became involved in the folk club scene there. "Folk clubs were very socially acceptable then," she says, "but of course, they went there and sang the blues, or Kumbaya, or Sinner Man — American things."
The notion of singing English music hadn’t occurred to her; it was a couple of Americans, in fact, who eventually pointed her in that direction, and she’s never looked back. It’s only more recently, as she has begun to write and perform her own work, that she has found herself returning to her more early American influences, the sounds of jazz and blues infusing her material; to no one’s greater surprise than her own. Her latest solo album, Ravenchild, is a subtle blend of traditional material – Bold Poachers, Great Silkie of Sules Skerry – and her own work on traditional themes. The central cycle of songs, based around the natural history and mythology of the raven, is original, and yet remains rooted in ancient legend.
Prior lives with her husband, the bass player Rick Kemp – also late of Steeleye but now with many projects of his own – and their two children, Alex, 19, and Rose, 15, in a rambling farmhouse 20 miles from Carlisle. This is border country, wild and forbidding. In this landscape it seems easy to imagine the murder, the elf-kings, the forbidden loves that are the staple of English traditional music.
"The thing about that material," Prior says, "is what they used to say about The News of the World: all human life is here. It really is with traditional material: you can study it, you can read about it, it brings you into history; it was only getting into the music that got me into history. And traditional music has such scope in it; it has the humour, there’s great ribald stuff and there’s the archetypal material if you want to get into interpreting that, which I love. And that’s just the lyric side – but there are also the melodies, which – once you get your head round them – are just gorgeous. I think it’s one of the interesting things that views of traditional music from the outside are many and varied, but quite often people think it’s simple and therefore easy. But anyone who’s worked in any discipline at all will know that simple doesn’t equate to easy."
And Prior has a quick rebuttal to the suggestion that traditional material is limited, or that it is in any way stuck in the past. "I don’t think it’s that the material has limitations," she says. "It’s more that you have limitations with it." To some extent, this is why she has gone on to write her own material. "A song like Silkie gives all the room for a guitar to soar; or you could sing it unaccompanied. That’s because the song is so strong: you can do anything with it; the limitations are up to you."
As for the charge of nostalgia, traditional music can be a lens:viewed through its history, the present becomes clearer. Like the music she sings, Maddy Prior is history and future rolled into one.
Her energy and enthusiasm are engaging and infectious. She’s taking it easy for the next few months – it seems a rare break – but she will be off to Australia in June, and there are two albums to be made in the next year or so, one with her old accomplices, the Carnival Band, and one with the two fine musicians she now works with on her solo material, Nick Holland and Troy Donnockley. "You have to be prepared to take risks," she says.
"That’s the problem with doing new and interesting things: there’s a moment before they become new and interesting that they can look really foolish."
It’s clear that stagnation is not an option for Prior. Steeleye Span will go on without her – they have produced one album, Horkstow Grange, since her departure – and it’s clear she wishes them well.
But while her work is rooted in the past, her gaze is firmly fixed on the future.