Ed Power talks to folk legend and farmer June Tabor who tops the bill at Triskel in Cork for a weekend of music from the ECM label
JUNE TABOR’S laughter has the quality of a babbling brook — it is loud, sparkling and goes on quite a while. But the biggest surprise is that the 67-year-old icon of contemporary folk music is capable of humour at all. Tabor’s public persona is of a severe matriarch, weighed down by all the sadness in the world.
“Well I AM serious — about my music,” says Tabor, taking a break from tending her farm in the rugged hinterlands between Wales and England. “The songs are about difficult subjects. You should be serious about it. What I don’t like is when people say ‘Ooh, your music is a bit dark isn’t it? ‘Dark’ — what is that supposed to mean? Life is a serious matter — the problems we face are often very serious. That doesn’t mean I walk around with a scowl, my jaw about to hit the floor.”
Tabor is a towering figure in English folk. Her haunting interpretations of venerable dirges such as ‘Bonny May’ and the 17th-century Canadian ballad ‘Plains of Waterloo’ remind us the genre can be as powerful — and relevant — as music written just yesterday. Thus, she has helped demolish the perception in England of folk as historically the preserve of cranks, obscurists and morris dancers, and carved a trail for younger artists such as The Unthanks and Sam Lee.
“I discovered traditional music when I was 15 or 16,” she says. “My family has no musical background at all, except that my mum and dad liked to sing along to anything they’d heard on the radio. To me, singing was a natural expression. I sing even when nobody is listening. I will be on a bike singing and people may perhaps wonder, ‘why is that woman singing to herself?”
Her introduction to folk came via religious programming on the BBC. “I’m extremely old and a long time ago there was this unwritten rule that public broadcasters had to put on religious programmes on a Sunday. That is where I first encountered folk. Then a traditional club opened in the town next door and a friend said, ‘Well you like folk music — let’s go’.”
If singing came naturally, live performance did not. “You have to learn how to do it — and it’s a petrifying experience at the start,” she says. “Goodness, it can be scary. “But I do enjoy it — when you get an audience that is listening. I’ve had audiences where no one is listening and that is a very depressing experience. It doesn’t always happen that things go fantastically — if it did, then it wouldn’t feel so special.”
Tabor was born in Warwick in the English midlands and studied at Oxford. She found work as a librarian after graduation (and later ran a restaurant). But music was the constant running through her life. Having started as accompanist to influential folk singers such as Martin Simpson and Rosie Hardman, in the ’80s she forged a partnership with jazz pianist Huw Warren, later to become her musical director.
After stepping away from music for several years she joined the Oyster Band for the seminal Freedom and Rain LP in 1990 and collaborated with Elvis Costello on the track All This Useless Beauty (which he wrote especially for her). Her most recent solo release, 2011’s Ashore, was a rumination on mankind’s often troubled relationship with the sea.
She travels to Cork this weekend for a Triskel Christchurch performance with Quercus, her jazz-influenced collaboration with Warren and experimental saxophonist Iain Ballamy of Food. It’s part of a three-day celebration of the Munich classical and jazz crossover label ECM, which, along with its support of Quercus, has helped introduce to the world such far-flung avant-gardists as jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, experimental guitarist Pat Metheny and minimalist composer Arvo Pärt [ . . . ]