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Baker's Dozen

Lodestars: Shirley Collins' Favourite Albums
Jude Rogers , July 8th, 2020 08:37

The return of Shirley Collins to song has been one of the most joyous music stories in recent times. Ahead of the release of her new album, the singer sits down with Jude Rogers to discus her 13 favourite records

Birthdays in the midst of global pandemics aren’t exactly ideal, but one 85-year-old in Lewes will be making the most of it. “I’m getting Morris men dancing down the road,” says Shirley Collins, the keeper of English folk music’s steady flame. “Socially distanced, of course.” Lockdown’s not been entirely easy for her: a family member has been ill with the virus, and she’s longed for landscapes far beyond the no-through road where she lives, where she enjoys a slow amble up and down the hill early in the morning and in the evenings “when it’s darker and cooler”.

She also recently saw a friend posting about walking in the Sussex Downs, and hearing skylarks. “I had a total breakdown at that. I cried and cried and cried.” She’s getting fed up, basically – but quickly, her tone shifts, and an impishness enters her voice. “It also helps to have been a bit busy, of course. I’m also putting out an album, don’t you know!”

Heart’s Ease is Collins’ second release on Domino Records since her much-praised 2016 comeback record, Lodestar. That album was recorded at home, to help Collins with her confidence after not singing for over 35 years. The effect of this was tentative, touching and intimate, especially when birdsong in her garden shimmered through murder ballads like ‘Cruel Lincoln'. “The skateboards and me making too many cups of tea became a problem, though," she laughs.

After that, came a 2017 documentary about her extraordinary life, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, which reminded us of the young woman who left Hastings for London to be a folk singer at 17, ran folk nights, then released her debut album Sweet England, at 23, before travelling alone by boat to America to record traditional music with Alan Lomax, the renowned folklorist, who was twenty years her senior. One of my favourite stories about Shirley is about this trip. She told me it when we first met in 2008, over tea and cakes in a Lewes pub, about a singer they recorded, Texas Gladden, warning her to be careful around Lomax. “She didn't know I was already sleeping with him!” Shirley said, brightly, topping up my china cup.

She’s been brilliantly rebellious ever since in the interviews I’ve done with her, but never rude. Her righteous slagging-off Ewan MacColl in a 2015 tribute to his life, when everyone else danced around his flaws, was a particular moment. (On a personal note, she also bought my son his first ice cream for his first birthday, and stuck a candle in it, during a weekend break we had in Lewes, so she’s a legend in our house.)

In 2018 came Shirley’s second gorgeous volume of memoirs, All In The Downs (it later won the Penderyn Prize). So did more live performances. You could sense Shirley’s confidence growing as she sang, although her ego never has; she remains resolutely against people’s personalities and image overwhelming their songs.

For Hearts’ Ease, her band upped sticks to a studio in Brighton last summer, bringing together folk songs that Shirley has known all her life, like ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Canadee-i-o’, plus a few striking originals close to her heart. One is ‘Sweet Greens and Blues’, written by Shirley’s first husband, the late Austin John Marshall, which talks fondly about when their children, Polly and Bobby, were young. She came across it on one of “hundreds” of old tapes she has, and it included a long-lost example of Davy Graham’s guitar-playing (Marshall had introduced her to Davy Graham, which led to their 1965 folk masterpiece, Folk Roots, New Routes). Shirley’s been reflecting on the support Marshall gave to her career, she says, despite their painful divorce a few years later. “So much time has passed. My children are in their 50s. My grandkids are in their late teens. Having [this] song on the record felt like a lovely chance to bring them all together again.”

Then there’s ‘Locked In Ice’, a song by Shirley’s late nephew, Buz, telling the story of a treacherous 19th century sea journey (it was a rock track in its original form: Shirley’s “pared it down quite a bit!”). The album is also named after one of her sister Dolly’s favourite wildflowers. This is an album in which landscapes, nature and family echoes ripple beautifully together.

They do most dramatically in the album’s finale, ‘Crowlink’, named after an East Sussex cliff, in which Shirley emerges from field recordings of the sea, wind and seagulls as a small, solid vessel, “doomed to travel endlessly”. Still, there’s a fortitude in her singing that suggests we haven’t heard the last of her yet.

“I’ve been that little lone ship tossed around by the sea for years,” she says of that song, the humour in her voice as clear as the melancholy. “But now I’ve returned to what I love. It’s nice to come home.”

Shirley Collins' new album Hearts Ease is released on 24th July, buy the physical from Domino here and the digital here. Shirley's memoir All In The Downs is available from Strange Attractor here

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