Seth Lakeman’s rousing acoustic folk and roots songs have long been inspired by the landscapes of the Westcountry and the history of the region’s people. More often than not the Dartmoor born and bred troubadour has trawled back through the centuries to interpret significant events, lost rural or industrial ways of life, or eerie moorland legends.
But for his latest long player, aptly titled Word of Mouth, he has kept to a much tighter brief, writing from real life, and basing his lyrics on the fascinating personal testimonies of those whose tales they tell.
Armed with his natural and insatiable curiosity – and a tape recorder – Seth explored communities close to home in Devon and Cornwall, digging out extraordinary reminiscences from ordinary people, tapping into passions and experiences, and recording them for posterity and reference.
The result is, in effect, a double album – one disc airing a dozen distinctive, powerful and emotive folk songs and the other offering fascinating extracts from the interviews that informed them. It tells of hard working lives, majestic landscapes, the tragedy of war and the price of revolution.
“It’s a factual approach, rather than an emotive one,” explains Seth who grew up, alongside older music making brothers Sean and Sam, watching their journalist father Geoff in action, always alert to tales that begged to be told more widely.
“The whole point is preservation and being a mouthpiece for these stories. When you do that it’s important to get it right – you owe them something. It’s quite a diverse record both musically and lyrically and with the different characters that I have chosen to write about,” adds Seth, who says the poems of Devon writer Graham Searle were also a rich source.
Among those chosen characters is Rowena Cade, creator of the magnificent Minack Theatre, cut into the granite cliffs at Porthcurno in West Cornwall where Seth was captured on film playing a live show a few years ago. For that particular celebratory song – Labour She Called Home – he was allowed access to rare archive recordings of the late Rowena telling how the theatre was built through sheer hard work and determination.
Last Rider looks at the life of a long-serving railway worker, based on Seth’s conversations with Tony Hallworth who now drives steam trains on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway.
For opening track The Wanderer he talked to Ken and Carl, a pair of travellers he met at Wadebridge Carnival who have put down roots but hanker after their old life on the road; for The Courier he spoke to old friend, artist and Dartmoor expert Derek Banks; Another Long Night looks at life through the eyes of John York a dock worker veteran with 40 odd years’ service behind him. Tiger draws on the memories of Reg Hannaford, the last living witness to Operation Tiger, the Second World War training exercise on Devon’s Slapton Sands that went disastrously wrong.
“It was so powerful chatting to him,” says Seth. “He’d watched it all unfold; it was very emotional. The general in charge of the exercise committed suicide – that’s not common knowledge. We know about it as a whole but the actual details are revealing.”
The Tolpuddle Martyrs and their struggle for workers’ rights is captured in Each Man, and the title The Saddest Crowd comes from a plaque on Plymouth Harbour marking the arrival of surviving crew members from the Titanic who disembarked there from rescue craft SS Lapland.
“It’s based around an article by a journalist who went to meet them as they came off, describing the faces and the feelings. It was fascinating – no one in Plymouth knew that the survivors came in to Millbay Docks, it’s as much to open people’s eyes locally,” he says.
“I probably did about 100 interviews and ended up with around 20 songs; 12 have gone on the album. I haven’t used their words exactly – it was more about the rhythms of people speaking and the phrases they used, rather than a literal thing.”
Still forging ahead and bridging the gap between traditional folk and modern musical sensibilities, Seth’s Word of Mouth is the natural successor to 2011’s Tales From the Barrel House – an LP which was essentially a homage to the artisans and tradespeople who have gradually disappeared from the post industrial world. He added to its atmosphere by recording at Morwellham Quay, the old copper mine and river port, turned educational visitor attraction, near Tavistock, exactly where those old working practices were commonplace a century and more ago.
This time Seth decamped to the North Cornwall countryside and the tiny village church at North Tamerton, near Bude, to lay down his songs. His unusual choice of studio was all about capturing the natural sound of the room – something he says is a mostly forgotten part of the recording process.
“I enjoyed the honesty and edginess of that, the instruments, certainly wooden instruments, breathe a bit more, he says. “It is the complete opposite to building a record in the studio. Sometimes just singing some of the lyrics, looking up at the stained glass window – it was a powerful, emotional feeling, I think it adds to the passion. You can hear the birds, something could be tuned here or there but there’s no autotune, reverb or effects added – just the church.”
Seth’s traditional folk roots shine more clearly than ever before on the album, capturing the multi-hued brilliance of his live band – double bassist Ben Nicholls, percussionist Cormac Byrne and guitarist and vocalist Lisbee Stainton. Her contribution is key for the recurring female perspective that threads through the album, particularly on Bal Maiden, which looks at the forgotten thousands of 19th century female Devon and Cornwall copper miners.
“Having two voices that work so well together makes a real difference to the sound,” says Seth.
While most of the songs were plotted in advance, Bells was actually written in the church after Seth got talking to warden and bellringer Ernie Hicks, who brought them pasties for lunch each day while they were recording.
“I recorded the bells, then listened to Ernie telling me how no one wants to ring them any more. They all came in for their practice, we had to stop recording and I watched them, then they were telling me what ringing the bells means to them. It was a song written in situ, something I’ve never done before.”
Guest instrumentalists add depth and drama to several songs; Leon Hunt plays banjo on Last Rider, cellist India Bourne on The Wanderer and Lau accordion player Martin Green on Tiger. The whole project was produced and mixed by Ian Grimble, an Abbey Road studios veteran and Communion label co-founder whose credits include Manic Street Preachers, Beth Orton and Cat Stevens.
Making the record coincided with Seth becoming a father for the first time. He and his wife, Hannah, who married in 2012, became parents to twins five months ago – daughter Lowen and son Morley – making a hat-trick of doubles for the three Lakeman brothers.
“It’s been quite an adjustment,” he confesses. “You really get involved as a father when you have twins because you always have to be there for one of them.”
Seth’s other current project is The Full English, for which he teams up with musician archivists Martin Simpson, Fay Hield and others, to reactivate songs from the English folk tradition. This prompted his choice of Frank Kidson’s Portrait Of My Wife to close the album.
The next step is to share its contents as far and wide as possible. A handful of key dates accompany the launch; then there are lots of summer festivals, a theatre tour and a return to Australia in the pipeline. And in between Seth will be keeping busy with that demanding occupation known simply as being dad.
Word of Mouth is released on the Cooking Vinyl label on Monday as a CD, a vinyl LP and a limited special edition two CD and “making of the album” DVD pack with a 24-page booklet containing exclusive photos and lyrics. Seth Lakeman is playing at Exeter Cathedral on Friday, February 7 and Truro Cathedral on Saturday, February 8. To book visit seetickets.com.
Here is a video of Seth's new single The Courier taken from Word Of Mouth: