An Interview With Maddy Prior

Maddy Prior singing into microphone

Prior at Cropredy, 2016. By Rob Glover.

It must be quite a unique scenario. For 28 years, Maddy Prior was the front person for one of the most successful folk-rock groups ever – Steeleye Span (as if you didn’t know). Come the late ’90s, she got off that particular bus, as she described it, and forged ahead with her own solo work. Interestingly, neither her career nor the band’s has suffered, despite Maddy being the main focal point for all that time. In Steeleye’s case, Gay Woods took over the lead vocals and the way they have approached the change has ensured their reputation stays intact. Maddy herself always had a number of projects apart from the band: Silly Sisters (with June Tabor), The Carnival Band and the Maddy Prior Band among them. Now, her most recent solo CD Ravenchild has been issued by Park Records; an enigmatic album with a couple of feature sets of songs on the diverse topics of Napoleon and ravens. She took time to discuss it on the eve of her 2000 Australian tour.

This interview was conducted by Michael Hunter on May 17, 2000. It was originally conducted for dB Magazine, Adelaide, South Australia.

Michael Hunter: Listening to the album, if I had to describe it in one word, I think it would be “moody.”

Maddy Prior: Yeah, I’d say that was about right. You can’t take on ravens and Silkie without having a bit of mood about the place. Or Napoleon, come to that. In fact, I’m surprised there’s any jollity in it at all! But I’ve always liked the dark side anyway. All this image of traditional music as being jolly has always been a bit of a figment of most peoples’ imagination.

MH: Perhaps “atmospheric” might be another description of it.

MP: Yeah, I think the lads are really good at getting atmosphere. Certainly, “With Napoleon In Russia” has got terrific atmosphere. We’re not frightened to use sounds and wind noises which gave it that bleakness, I think. And on “Great Silkie Of Sules Skerry, with that massive kind of atmospheric feel about it with the sea. I thank the lads for that ’cause I really like that. It’s given it a great kind of image and depth.

MH: And since that’s the final track, that’s pretty much the feel you’re left with as well.

MP: Yes. We couldn’t fit it in anywhere else, actually!

MH: You’ve been working with Nick Holland (keyboards, vocals) and Troy Donockley (Uillean pipes, guitar, whistle, cittern, vocals) for a while now?

MP: I’ve worked with Nick for ages; nine or ten years or something. He’s fabulous, he’s just a great player. The great thing is he knows nothing whatever about traditional music, so he has no preconceived ideas about what he should do, which I love. He basically comes out of soul music, that’s what his kind of passion is so he’s just flying by the seat of his pants, really. He’s sort of got used to it a bit now, or at least he’s got used to my version of it. Troy has obviously got much more of a handle on it and he knows traditional music but he also knows classical music and popular music. He’s a very wide-ranging musician with enormous scope and he’s brought that all into this. His lovely lead guitar parts and gorgeous string type effects. (Nick and Troy) are great together.

MH: Do you have any say in the arrangements yourself or do you pretty much leave it to them?

MP: I try to, but they just tell me to bog off! That’s much more their department, they are just such great arrangers. It’s interesting actually because I’ve done some work with Peter Knight recently, from Steeleye, and it’s been great working with him again. Some of the songs we’ve done are what he’s brought and it’s quite different. That’s what I love. I just carry on singing the songs and everybody around me changes, which is great!

MH: I assume Steeleye is not a swear word for you now, then?

MP: Oh, no no no. Too silly, all that.

MH: If anybody in the audience yells out for “All Around My Hat,” do they get a stern look, though?

MP: They usually don’t, actually. It doesn’t usually come up. I have had the odd one but I just ignore it. They’ve obviously missed the point, but I can’t help their problems! The thing is, you see, I keep changing in my solo world. I’ve been working with my husband Rick (Kemp). We’ve worked together in and out of this solo world forever, and it’s different all the time. Some of the songs stay the same, some of them change all the time, the musicians change. And it’s great. I like that. I like change, and even Steeleye changed enormously through its career.

MH: Talking of change, the lyrics of “Rigs Of The Time” on the CD are all new. I think it’s a wonderful updating of it.

MP: Yes, I really enjoyed doing that but one of the problems I’ve discovered is that some things become out of date. I’m not one of life’s slaves to the muse so I have to rewrite these words. When I come to Australia I’ll probably do an Olympics verse. Some of them don’t change at all, the transnational companies are the same.

MH: But is that not one of the definitions of folk music, that it is “of the time,” whichever time that may be?

MP: Absolutely. That’s why I thought I’d update it. Because to me, these songs are relevant. They use a different vocabulary and different technology, but the energy driving it all is the same humanity as it was always. The Romans were complaining about noise in the streets and that the young people were doing it all wrong and it’s not as good as it was when I was young! They were saying that in Roman times. Nothing changes.

MH: Mind you, it makes it sound like honesty never is in fashion.

“No, it isn’t. Certainly not in the public world; politics and high social levels.

MH: Am I correct in saying some of the lyrics for “Scorched Earth” (one of the tracks in the Napoleon sequence) are taken from the song “Bonny Bunch Of Roses”?

MP: I think it’s “A Grand Conversation,” isn’t it? I’ve always thought the Grand Conversation was Napoleon, where his son is talking to his mother. It could be the “Bonny Bunch Of Roses.” Actually, I think you might be right. There’s two songs, actually, that are very similar. In fact, the Bonny Bunch Of Roses are mentioned, but I moved that out because it wasn’t relevant to the song. But certainly yes, it’s a song that I know and the tune is just brilliant, an Irish tune. The Irish love Napoleon, working on the principle “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” So they wrote some great songs about Napoleon, and that is one. The rest of the song is kind of like, it’s really hard to figure out what’s going on. But the one verse about the retreat from Russia is the best, so I lifted that and the tune and then wrote the rest of it. They’re all traditional tunes in that piece but I wrote all the words. “Boney” is traditional but again, I re-wrote some of the words.

MH: On “The Great Silkie,” and it’s something I’ve noticed in traditional songs before, sometimes the story seems incomplete. Maybe there’s other verses out there somewhere, but it occurred to me with this one, the father is telling the mother what the fate of the child will be (father takes son off to the sea to become a silkie or seal-man himself, mother will marry a gunner who will kill both of them), so you’d think therefore she can prevent it now.

MP: There are many things written about “if we know the future, can we change it?” And if we could change the past, would it change the future and in what way? The butterfly effect. I think the subtext is absolutely crucial to it, actually, ’cause that’s what the song is about – those mysteries. I mean, anything to do with the sea, you take on board the Jungian kind of dimension. We’re in the unconscious here. I think that discussion about whether you can change the future if you know it, I don’t think that aspect of it is incomplete. There may be some other verses in the middle, I think there might be one or two, but they don’t actually fundamentally change the story. I looked at them and I thought they don’t add and they weren’t verses I was familiar with so I thought I’d leave it in this form. Sometimes they extend bits and you think “Why?” Maybe there was a longer version originally but I don’t think so. And it’s obviously about a creature from the sea, something that lives on land and on sea, and the shape shifting. You don’t get more in the area of mythology than that. In five or six verses, the atmosphere it lends, the only other modern song that comes close to that is the “Wichita Lineman,” which has only got about eight lines. And it conveys in such a short space such an incredible vision and I think the “Silkie” does that as well. There’s only about six verses and it just tells this immense and amazing story. When the traditional songs are good, boy they’re good!

MH: And with this whole subcontext I hadn’t considered before!

MP: Well, when you think about traditional music, it goes on and on, it goes down and down. I’ve sung these songs for years and they still surprise me sometimes. I think, “Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought of that!” In fact, I hadn’t thought of that subtext till you mentioned it. But I’ve read quite a lot of stories that go around that discussion.

MH: Are there still plenty of good traditional songs out there that haven’t already been done in a modern way?

MP: Well, I think the great thing about them is there were songs when I first got involved in traditional music in the revival back in the Sixties that were so well-known and so well-trod that nobody would sing. You’d be looking for obscure material. Of course, now that’s all changed. The people don’t know the material any more. There isn’t that great mass of people who are familiar with this material. So it’s a case of going back and finding those songs that were wonderful but were too well known and rethinking them. I think “Silkie” is one of those.

MH: It’s kind of a shame that what was familiar now isn’t, despite the efforts of people such as yourself. I thought the whole idea was to try and popularise them.

MP: I know. We thought that if the world heard this music, it would embrace it with enthusiasm but it seems we were wrong! Just the discerning few, I think we can call them. It’s fascinating music if you work in it and examine it and think about it and look at it, the history, mythology, archetypal work, there’s humour, there’s novelty, it’s topical, you just have to recognise it. It’s just such wonderful material to work with.

MH: And the odd damn good tune as well.

MP: Oh, the tunes! Once you get your ear in, of course, but that takes work. Most people are imbued with the American tune. It has become all pervading. Except that’s not quite true now because the African tunes come in as well. The Cuban and Latin. But it tends to be Americanised versions, but that’s all right. What rolls around comes around.

MH: So what’s this rapping in “Rich Pickings?

MP: Exactly. We’ll steal from anywhere, we’re not fussed. The tradition has always been a whore in that sense, they’ll take it from anywhere. This vision of purists is an illusion. It’s never been pure, it’s always taken from anywhere. It’s like if you listen to any of the Top Twenty in any year, there’s the most ridiculous combinations of songs. You think, “that wasn’t around at the same time as that,” some crass novelty piece and some wonderful song that soars and rages, and loads of stuff you’ve forgotten that’s just rubbish. Well, traditional music’s like that. It’s all there. There’s novelty, there’s rubbish, it really does reflect people. The tradition has no taste whatever, you know.

MH: What does that say about the people who follow the tradition?

MP: Well, each generation finds its own version and picks out different sorts of songs and finds different sorts of songs interesting. Eventually, you usually come back to the big ones. Nic Jones was great, he found these odd 17th-18th century songs like “Noble Lord Hawking” and whaling songs. He was an ornery bugger. His material was quite different from what everybody else was doing at the same time. For me, he was the Ry Cooder of English music. Ry Cooder did all that “one more cigarette,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, all that stuff from the Thirties and Forties which was kind of like “What is that? What’s that about?” It’s kind of old but not old enough to be interesting, and it’s not blues. Billy The Kid and all that weird material that nobody else was doing. And Nic did that.

The tradition’s got no taste itself, it’s just what different people’s taste brings into it or takes out of it. We have a particular take on it which will be very much of our time but we can’t see it now ’cause to us it’s just good taste.

MH: Even listening back to folk-rock recordings of say the Eighties, you can tell it’s of its time because of the syndrums all over it, or whatever.

MP: That’s right. Absolutely, and also the types of songs we chose. “Spotted Cow” was the song that we sang then and I thoroughly enjoyed, and “One Misty Moisty Morning,” because they had a naivete that we really liked at that point, whereas now, I wouldn’t find that as interesting. So at different points in your life, you’re interested in different bits, you know.

MH: Is your fascination with ravens a fairly new thing for you?

MP: It was a television program, for a wildlife program, so I just read up and got to know about ravens. It’s different aspects of life and lore, really. The Morrigan is obviously the Celtic goddess of battle. The masts of Morrigan is where they put the heads. They revered the head; it was generally a good thing, but not if you were an enemy!

And so the long and changing career of Maddy Prior continues with as much momentum as ever. Along with her solo work, she still performs occasionally with the Carnival Band and with ex-members of Steeleye in various combinations, so the pace of her life is probably only slightly less hectic than when she was a full time member of the band. It’s been a long and influential career that shows no signs of slowing down, for which a great many people are very grateful! The Ravenchild CD is a fine representation of where she is now musically: mythological and current, folky and contemporary – and with that unique and unmistakable voice. Need I say more?

Michael Hunter – 2000