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Chatting unaccompanied folk with Piers Cawley

There’s a tendency among folk fans to talk in hushed tones about the possibility of a revival. Whether such a thing is likely or not, one thing’s for sure – the last few years have seen a resurgence of performers singing traditional songs in a stripped-down way. More often than not, it’s a singer and an instrument – a duo at most. What you rarely come across outside of very traditional clubs, however, is someone recording and performing in the most stripped-down manner possible: as an unaccompanied singer. 

Fans of traditional folk song will recognise the irony in all this. Traditional songs have evolved accompaniment over time. Initially, they were the domain of the unaccompanied pub singer or manual labourer – the local who knew a few songs and could belt them out on demand. In an age of instant, polished music at the touch of a button, the unaccompanied singer has moved so far from being what we think of as natural that people react to them as almost alien.  

And yet those that hanker to perform stripped-down folk rarely go back to the original form for any length of time. Many traditional singers will do an unaccompanied song or two in their set, but it takes real skill and a tonne of cojones to step up and sing unaccompanied throughout. To present a 10-minute ballad to a modern audience and hold their attention throughout requires a delicate balance of showmanship, vocal prowess and understanding – both of your audience and the nature of the song in hand. It’s a dying art for obvious reasons. Few can do it well. 

Someone like Piers Cawley, therefore, is a rare breed indeed. Untrained in music, and certainly not from any kind of folkie heritage, he came to traditional music through his passion for communal singing and a real love for the songs being sung. He cut his teeth at a time when legendary singers were plying their trade, learning from the likes of Johnny Collins and Lou Killen, and expanding his repertoire through years of singing floor spots in the good old way. 

Today he releases his debut album, Isolation Sessions #1, a collection of entirely unaccompanied songs. You can get it via the embedded link below. In the meantime, read on as Piers holds forth on the world of the unaccompanied singer, and how he feels it fits into the world around us.

You’re about to release an album of unaccompanied folk singing, although it’s not your first set of releases, is it? You’ve released a few things on Bandcamp that are connected to #TradSongTuesday, which is incidentally where I first became aware of you.

Yes, I went through my archive list and thought it would be nice to put some of those out in clean recordings, so they’re car-friendly and not suffering the compression that Youtube does. I thought I might as well do it, and if people want to pay me a bit of money in these lockdown times, I’m very grateful to have that.

It’s quite late in life to be releasing a debut album, isn’t it?

(Laughs) Yeah, although the Northumbrian shepherd, Willie Scott, was about 80 before his first solo album was released. Why now? Because nobody ever asked me until now. My family were business people. My mum, until recently, ran the business that she inherited from my grandfather, and my cousins are now doing it. My brother has another business. We weren’t musical at all in the family. So there’s no model for how to go about having a musical career, you know? I don’t even know what I don’t know! I didn’t know to ask. I just hoped people would hear me in a floor spot and say, “yeah, let’s get him!”

Tell me about your introduction to those floor spots.

I came in as an early Gen-Xer, very late Boomer. I was the young, callow youth in the folk club scene that nobody was going to book because there were better people. I’m a few years older than people like Eliza Carthy, who is brilliant, and I’m not meaning this in any way as a knock on Eliza, but the family leg-up meant people had heard of her. And also, by the time she appeared, the folk club scene had started to realise it was ageing out. It still is. So they were like, “Young people! Get in!”

So, were you going to folk clubs with people like Eliza?

I wasn’t going to clubs with Eliza because I wasn’t living in that area, and I fall in that strange place of being too young to get gigs as one of the performers in the second revival, and slightly too old to be seen as a young person at that time. Also, I don’t play instruments, so if people wanted to book a performer like me… well, Johnny Collins was still alive. Johnny had a bigger repertoire than me, and people knew him of course. So singing clubs would book people like him.

When did you start singing?

I’ve been a singer since I was in the school choir, and I was tapped by my headmaster to go along to the church choir. I was about eight or nine.

So, when you say your family weren’t musical, what kind of music was going on around the house? Presumably not folk?

Not folk, no. Although a friend of the family, my aunt’s best friend at school, is Cathy Barclay. She was in a three-part harmony group called Bryony. She was on the folk scene in York, although I didn’t really take much notice of it. They gave my dad a tape of their album Part Time Job, which is a really nice record. I listened to that but didn’t really think of folk singing as a thing. Dad was the music listener in the house, and it was stuff like Bridge Over Troubled Water and There Goes Rhyming Simon. They were played until the grooves were smooth. It’s not a bad place to start, though, is it?

Classic albums, both.

And also, he was the person who taught me to listen back. That thing where if you like an artist you go and find out who they liked, and then go and find out who they liked, and so on. Eventually you’ll hit some old guy in the Delta.

I keep wondering how far we can keep going back!

(Laughs) Yes. It’s interesting how often you don’t get to the old guy in the Delta. So many of the tunes that we have for the ballads come from Appalachian sources, and when you compare them to the tunes we have that came through the Scottish sources and the English sources, there’s way more rhythmic syncopation going on in the Appalachian tunes. That appears to be black-influenced. Shanties, too, are apparently sourced from black culture, according to Stan Hugill. Certainly, you can draw a direct line from the stuff that Lomax recorded at Parchman Farm to the shanties. You can hear the commonality.

So, going back to your early singing days…

Yes, I’ve gone off on a tangent.

It’s all good.

I got into choirs, and I went off on trips to places like Salzburg with the choir. It’s at that time I discovered I loved harmony. I was also involved in my local Scouts troop, where I became the unofficial choir master. So I had a big repertoire of Scouts songs. Dad played rugby, so some of the rugby songs came in as well. If you want songs traditionally learnt, knee-to-knee, it’s ‘Nobby Hall’ or ‘Dinah, Dinah Show Us Your Leg’. Filthy! Not stuff I can generally sing. But it used to be nice at the Sheffield Sessions, where they had the Mucky Songs Session. It’s quite nice to sing something that you actually learnt from your dad. There aren’t many!

And, in fact, quite a few I learnt from my mum as well, because she had a better memory for words. She used to do the meals at the rugby club, dishing up the pie and peas. All the blokes would start singing and would not want female company. So what would happen was, the women would be sat in the back – and they’re probably driving home – so they’re joining in with the songs quietly.

A different world in many ways, eh?

Yes. So, I learnt a lot of songs through that social singing that has sort of died out. It happened in places that were not folk clubs. We had a yacht and we were members of the Yacht Club in Bridlington. They’d have a regatta week, and there’d be a piss-up cruise to Flamborough Head. That would generally devolve into a few of us singing round the rugby songs.

And all of that was, presumably, unaccompanied?

Well, yeah. Group singing. I never took to an accompanying instrument. I had a go at flute and I had a go at sax, but I never put the practice in. I got a banjo, which is more of a threat of a banjo than an actual banjo. I’ve not really got any further than the straightforward chord walloping. It’s fun for ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ and stuff like that, but I’ve got no idea how to approach arranging for songs in the Appalachian ballad sense. I listen to Sara Grey in awe, but I have no idea how to approach what she’s doing.

At what point did you transition from singing on a yacht and in rugby clubs to turning up in a folk club and doing your first floor spot?

I was at university in Nottingham around the time that Fisherman’s Blues came out. I was a huge Waterboys fan before that, and I was already doing the thing of listening back with them and discovering Van Morrison. The first Van Morrison record I owned was the one he made with The Chieftains (Irish Heartbeat). That’s got some wonderful stuff on it. I’ve not listened to it in years, although I could probably sing you at least half the material even now.

So, I’m listening to that and I’m loving it, and it has reminded me of the record that Cathy Barclay gave my dad. I’m like, “Oh, this is folk music.”

I was supplementing my grant by working in a pub in Beeston, Nottingham. As so many pubs did back then, they had a folk session every Thursday night and it happened to be a night I was working. I thought, “Hang on a minute… I know stuff like that.”

So, which songs did you get up and sing?

This first thing I sang there would either have been ‘Carrickfergus’, not realising what a big song it was, or, ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’, which would’ve been from that Van Morrison source.

Around the same time, there was this chap’s wedding I went to. He was marrying an Irish lass, and a bunch of her lot had come over and they were singing up a storm at the party. I was joining in a bit – not knowing much of the material but just knowing that this kind of informal pass-the-song-around kind of thing was really exciting to me as a way of making music.

I see. So, it was Irish music that bit you first?

Yeah, I got involved in the Irish music scene in Nottingham with the singing sessions. Then I moved down to London and started going to a few Irish sessions there as well. And that’s basically where I started. I took a job in Northampton and started going to a club there, and that’s when I started going to something that wasn’t primarily a session in an Irish pub. And I haven’t really looked back.

So, you started with an Irish repertoire and then English songs began to infiltrate…

Yes. The person who is probably most responsible for that is my wife, Gill. She’s like a songbook. We’ve been together for nearly 30 years and she can still sing a song that I’ve never heard her sing before. She’s a lovely singer.

Were you listening to any well-known unaccompanied singers?

Well, my other big influence – and this is in retrospect; I didn’t realise what a massive great whack on the side of the head this was – was Johnny Collins. The way he performed was amazing. From Johnny, I got into that circuit of singers’ clubs. They’d book guests that were good at leading singers rather than concert clubs. I love a good concert club, and I’m not knocking it, but it’s that thing about having someone who turns up and their job is almost to turn the people in the room into an impromptu choir for the duration of the evening. Everyone in the club knows that that’s what they’re there for.

It was an interesting time, because there were the people like Johnny, and Bill Whaley & Dave Fletcher. They’d turn up to your club, listen to your floor singers and they’d spot the good songs from your floor singers and they’d carry that song to the next club. I think that was a brilliant thing. We ended up with a bunch of local songwriters who then proceeded to get known in the wider folksong culture because of the singers who would turn up and listen to the floor spots. It’s a thing I miss. It’s been a long time since I went to that sort of folk club.

I have to say, I haven’t seen very many unaccompanied singers as the main event at a folk club evening. A lot of that must have to do with there being so few unaccompanied singers putting themselves forward, but also to do with club organisers not being too eager to programme a single unaccompanied singer for a whole evening. With this album you’re releasing, are you putting yourself forward as a singer that can take that part of the tradition forward?

It sounds incredibly arrogant, but yes. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to do. (Laughs sheepishly.)

It’s OK to be have a bit of a mission! It’s not arrogant to say that you want to have a go.

I know, but it took me such a long time before I was able to recognise that I was actually quite good at this. It was a good 15 years before I learnt to accept any praise from anybody.

I have personal experience that suggests you still find it difficult. Having listened to you sing all 10 minutes of the mighty ballad ‘Tam Lin’, I tried to congratulate you on your version and you told me anyone can do it!

In my defence, though, there’s a difference between saying, “No, I was crap”, which is the kind of thing I’ve been guilty of in the past, and a response that says, “Anyone can do this”. You have to encourage people to have a go.

Yeah, maybe, but I listened to your version of ‘Tam Lin’ again this morning on Bandcamp, and, sure, anyone can have a go, but it takes some skill and understanding to do a version that is compelling and, at the same time, something of your own. There are a number of wonderful recorded versions of that song, the obvious one being Mike Waterson’s. So, to offer up your own take on it in a way that can hold people’s attention… it’s that talent that I was praising you for.

Well, thank you.

There you go.

(Laughs)

We’re learning. Tell me a bit more about your ‘Tam Lin’.

I didn’t learn it from Mike Waterson, actually. I learnt it from a Pete Morton recording. But when I finally heard the Mike Waterson version, I knew where Pete had learnt it from. I went and did some searching for words and I found a couple of extra verses I liked – the ones about the old grey knight – and I think they’re wonderful.

Now, in Mike’s version, it’s about a rape. “He never once asked her leave.” The version of that verse that I sing is the one that Pete Morton sings: I couldn’t see what happened because the leaves got in the way. Also, at the beginning of the song she’s warned, “Don’t go down there because you won’t come back with your maidenhead”, and the very next verse she buggers off down there. She’s an amazing woman. That exchange with the knight, where she tells him she’ll never marry him in a month of Sundays is just brilliant. She’s a strong, powerful woman, and it’s a delight to tell her story in that regard.

But from a technical aspect, I like the way you draw the listener in. You take something like the Frankie Armstrong version, which is defiant and angry…

It’s an amazing recording.

…and then you take Mike Waterson’s delivery of the song and a lot of it is about being wowed by his dexterity.

Yes.

What I like about your version is that there are points where it’s almost a whisper. You’re really bringing the listener in. Rather than just follow this tradition of singing it as a big ballad with all that bravado, you’ve kinda gone in the other direction and done something very subtle.

I can’t remember who said this, or maybe it’s something I got from the source recordings of some of the Appalachian singers… but it seems to me, especially with unaccompanied singers, that the less the singer did the more powerful the song was. That old cliche of, “song not singer”. If I start getting to pyrotechnical, or trying to interpret with my voice what’s happening in the ballad, there isn’t the room for the listener to do that. The beautiful thing about these [points to his studio mic] is that I can sing quietly. If I was singing in a pub it’d be very different.

My goal is to not over-dramatise. You have to know what the song means to you, otherwise why are you singing it? But with things like ‘Tam Lin’, the words and tune do the job. My role as a singer is to be a conduit, and to deliver it well. The less you do with it unaccompanied, the more austere it is; the more power it has.

Let’s go back to the point about being an unaccompanied singer at a time when promoters seem afraid to book them.

I remember a conversation with Lou Killen shortly before she passed. She’d gone down to London to do a gig at Magpie’s Nest, I think it was. She’s there with her concertina, and she’s doing ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ and all that sort of stuff. And there are young people in the audience. They’re listening; she has their attention, but she’s also seeing phone screens. She put the box down and she sang an unaccompanied ballad. She said that by the end of it every single phone screen was off, and the quality of listening that was going on was palpably different. She said, “I didn’t pick up the box for the rest of the evening.”

So, why are so few unaccompanied singers headlining folk evenings these days?

I think there’s almost a fear. Promoters don’t know whether it’s going to turn their audience off or not. Quoting Martin Carthy, he remembers people asking, “What kind of 17-year-old is going to listen to that sort of old-fashioned music and get turned on by it?” and his response was, “Well, I fucking did!”

There’s a magic to that kind of performance that comes out in part because it’s so different to anything else you’re going to hear. I used to get amazing responses when I used to go to open-mic sessions in London. For a start, the sound engineer was like, “What’s your instrument?” And I’d just be singing. “You’ve got a backing tape?” Nah, don’t worry about it.

Hahaha!

I’d often end up singing these big ballads. The thing that gave me the faith in this kind of material was the response from people who weren’t coming out expecting a night of folk songs. It was incredibly positive. I thought, “Yeah, there’s something here. It’s not just me that likes this.”

You do seem very much at home when you’re singing to an audience.

There is nowhere I feel more alive and happy than standing on a stage in front of a large crowd of people. There’s nothing more fun than singing in company, but crafting a set – two 40-min sets, or, in my case, writing down my repertoire, picking a song to start with and a song to finish with and then seeing where the set leads me – is just magical.

To hear Piers Cawley’s new album, head to his Bandcamp page. To chat to him about performing, find him on Twitter or on his own website.

2 Comments

    • Jon Jon

      Danke.

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