Perfect Sound Forever

Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins & Davey Graham promo photo

Interview, Part 4 of 5
by Johan Kugelberg of Ugly Things

JK: Just in general, has the studio recording process been traumatic for you?

SC: No, not until the very end of my career.

JK: What kind of microphones did you use?

SC: I don't remember. Whatever engineer I was using, I was in their hands and that was their job.

JK: They picked the microphones. So you didn't notice that certain ones suited you or sounded better?

SC: No, I wasn't that conscious of stuff like that. I just went in to sing the songs and you had to trust the engineer to do their best for you.

JK: What kind of live performances surrounded this LP?

SC: I don't think we were touring much then. I was still doing solo folk clubs with the banjo. Especially from the strength and that great sound of Davy's, I think it enhanced the song. Some people even to this day say, "I like your accompanied stuff best", but I don't. I love the unaccompanied stuff, but I always thought that especially once I'd found that Dolly and I could work together that the songs were given their due at last. You weren't just getting up and singing the songs and maybe strumming a few chords behind it, but a properly trained musician, someone who had this music in her heart as well as in her mind, she was given free reign to do what she wanted with the songs. In no way did it spoil them, they were enhanced, it was so glorious to sing them. I can't tell you the pleasure of it.

JK: It is also building the cathedral of emotional bonds. You are sisters, you are creating music together, and it just builds and builds.

SC: And we were fortunate because we loved each other, Dolly and me. We were very close sisters.

JK: You had two children at this point, too.

SC: Yes, very, very hard work.

JK: Your daughter was born in '65?

SC: Well, Polly is older and they were born a year or so apart, so '64 and '65.

JK: That obviously must have limited the touring.

SC: No, I don't know how I did it. My mom came around to baby sit a lot. I shouldn't say this, but (that was) one of the reasons that my marriage broke up. Having a mom around all the time, and she and John didn't get on, and John and I were starting to not get on. I traveled back overnight trains. Unless it was a tour, I would gig somewhere and have to catch a train back. I'd catch an overnight train and then catch another train out to Black Heath.

JK: A parent understands that sort of desperation that a person would go through to back to the kids even if it takes eight hours to get home and you only get to see them for an hour before you are off again.

SC: Yes. And if John was looking after the kids and mom wasn't around, John was absolutely hopeless. He couldn't get them up in the morning to get them to school. I was just afraid he wasn't looking after them properly. I don't really know, when I look back on it, why I was taking on these things, but the music was so important to me that I just wanted to sing so badly. And somehow, we made it work. I had a very good friend out at Black Heath that had children and she looked after the kids sometimes. It wasn't as if I was away all the time. I feel guilty about it now when I look back on it.

JK: They got other things instead. They got other things through your music and your art that was facilitated by some of that gigging. If one is an artist, one is almost forced to create. I'm not an artist, I have a love for great artists, but it seems that drive to sing, to paint, to write is so strong. How did The Power of the True Love Knot come about?

SC: The crazy thing is that I do not remember half of it. You're just sort of going through it and living through it. I think I married Ashley in '71. So I was still with John Marshall then. I don't know how we met Joe Boyd, but we did.

JK: He arrived in London in '67.

SC: I do remember, it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Dolly and I were on the same bill as the Incredible String Band. We all got on. They were all wacky and high all the time. I didn't even drink at that point and I certainly never did drugs. That was part of the problem with Davy, was that he did of course. I couldn't hack it. It was just not my thing.

JK: It's a different talk and another article all together, but how much hard drugs existed in the edgier part of the London folk scene early on is quite astounding. There was even heroin as early as '64 or '65.

SC: Was there? I was totally unaware of it. But then I was singing in the scene, but I wasn't really part of the scene. Anyway, I think having met Joe and the Incredible String Band at this concert, I think the idea probably would have been rooted by John again. I was just singing and he was having the ideas at that time. I guess he sort of sweet talked Boyd into producing and getting an album with Polydor. It was all so difficult talking to record companies at the time. None of them knew who you were or what you were doing.

JK: I would say the differences between '64 and '68 are vast. In 1968 and I am sitting around second guessing again, if Polydor had put out a record that adventurous, it was probably: 'who knows what these crazy counter culture kids want?' Maybe they want Shirley and the String Band. Who knows what these freaks with long hair want? This is very much the history of what happened with the record business in the U.S., because every record company employed a company freak. And what Joe Boyd was, before he went to the U.K., when he was still in the U.S., he was already the company freak who comes in and brings in the weird stuff that may be what the proverbial kids actually like. Also in looking at this album and Polydor in 1968, they have Joe Boyd who is this very charismatic American with a hip counter culture track record. So of course he managed to shoehorn that record in. So you were very outside the age of Aquarius, hippie, late-60's scene. How did you view it at the time?

SC: I have to confess that I sort of despised it. I thought it was so silly.

JK: Excellent! I love you! Don't get me started on the hippies!

SC: It embarrassed me a little bit as well.

JK: You would still play shows in, eh, hippie environments with the Incredible String Band, who I do think are too deep to be considered hippies.

SC: I loved their music at the time. I thought it was really attractive and intriguing. I didn't understand all of it, but I thought the sound of it was lovely.

JK: Were you familiar with Clive Palmer and COB as well?

SC: No, I wasn't.

JK: He was on the first Incredible String Band album.

SC: That's right, yes. In fact I saw him last summer because the Incredible String Band were playing down there. No, it was just the two.

JK: Were you aware of the Fairports this time?

SC: No.

JK: Because their first album came out in '67. The reason I'm asking is because that's a Polydor album as well.

SC: Right, because Joe was their producer as well.

JK: Right. It is documented in other interviews with you that you were made aware of Fairport Convention through Liege and Leif.

SC: That's right. Great album. I don't think I was aware of Fairport then. I don't think I found out about Fairport until Ashley heard about them.

JK: How did you become interested in early music?

SC: I always loved it. Uncle Fred, Purcell was his favorite composer. He also played us some Monteverdi as well when we were teenagers which I loved.

JK: I think it's a very obvious influence in your work.

SC: Well, yes. But this again, it was the sound of that music that just completely spellbound me. I think my favorite music of all really is Italian Renaissance. I used to go along with John to rehearsals at Musica Reservata at the Early Music Center.

JK: Did you have their records as well?

SC: I can't remember. I'm sorry to be so hopeless about things but one didn't keep a diary at the time or take notes in case one would be asked these questions later (laughing). Anyway, it was there that we first heard the flute organ, and as I said it was transforming.

JK: Can we talk a little bit about the work process leading up to Anthems In Eden? It's such a central and devastating record. How did you and Dolly start the work on this?

SC: Joe was involved with that as well. I think we just decided what songs we would use and what story we would vaguely tell, because its not an absolutely crystal clear path through those songs. Its just taking certain songs from before the first World War.

JK: What do you think led you to think about the Great War at that point in 1969? The change in the world between the years leading up to World War I and the years afterwards. Do you remember anything of the seed behind that idea, the development of that idea?

SC: Well, I think the other thing that fascinates me in life are English churches. I love old churches and by an extension of those, I've always loved memorial stones. They've always had some sort of hook on me. I think this feeling was coming through all the time. I knew in England that maples were no longer around on the village greens as they had once been. My gran and grandad told us about them and how they were replaced of course. It just started to gel somehow. I was starting to sing things from the Napoleonic War, like "All Things Are Quite Silent", or "High Germany". It just fused really. It was all things that I loved and that fascinated me sort of burning away in my brain and coming out the more we would talk about it. I know Dolly, and the rest of the country, was fascinated by what had happened in World War One. I remember I had read Robert Graves, A Farewell To All That. The last thing that Dolly wrote before she died was her suite of songs from the first World War poets. I had also met Robert Graves when I was with Lomax. We used to sing at his parties. Wed take Polly along in her carry cart to Robert Graves house. He used to love "The Week Before Easter." That was the song he liked. It all just came together.

JK: So that is a part of how the connection to the early music musicians that appeared on that record came about as well

SC: Yes. It's also sort of fortuitous. It's serendipity. Just hearing something at the right time that triggers off, or you read something in the Observer that said early music and you say ;"oh yeah?" It wasn't as big then, because it's a huge section of recorded music, but it wasn't then, it was just starting. There was David Munrow working with Michael Morrow.

JK: Would you like to talk about David Munrow and Michael Morrow? Because that's actually the next thing on my list.

SC: It was a bit difficult because it was his Musica Reservata that we were going along to listen to rehearsals of. I'm pretty sure David Munrow was part of that ensemble then, but then David broke away to form his New London Consort. I remember Michael being not very interested in what we were talking about, because we talked to him afterwards about the sort of music that I was doing and I think he wasn't interested. I remember him as being a very somber man and not very approachable and I was quite nervous of him. But David Munrow who had spent some time when he was 18 or so on one of the British Counsel overseas things, he had gone to Peru I think. He had just fallen in love with folk whistles and flutes and woodwind instruments. That virtually started his life as a woodwind specialist, so he was inclined to like folk music. He just sort of fell in with the plans when it was finally put together that we could record this suite of songs with early music instruments with David as musical director. By that time I think he had broken away from Michael Morrow and I think there was some pretty bad feeling about it in the early music circles, and formed his own consort.

JK: How many times was Anthems in Eden performed as a whole?

SC: I think once on the radio, only four or five times. A couple of universities I remember.

JK: And that was all the same people that performed on the record that performed at those shows?

SC: No, not always. We couldn't always get everybody. One time we did it just with Dolly but we had the singing with us and the dancer to do the Morris dance at the end.

JK: One thing I wanted to ask you: what was the Country Camera?

SC: I've probably still got it, it was just a bit of photographs.

JK: Uh, apparently there was a TV show called The Country Camera in 1969 that you guys appeared on.

SC: Oh was there?! Then we did. How do you know about this? Why don't I know about this? Why didn't anyone tell me? (laughter). No, I don't remember that at all.

JK: I guess I read up on it too much on all this. The follow up question is along the same lines. In a couple of articles, it has been mentioned that there were color supplement features on you and Dolly.

SC: Yes, there was something that came out in the Observer. That was mostly about how difficult it was for me to travel. And the women who came to interview me from the Observer, I told her how difficult it was getting back sometimes on the overnight trains and I found it impossible to keep up with their wash. And she said, "Haven't you got knickers for them every day?" "Doesn't your nanny do this?" (laughter). There were some nice pieces about Dolly. Mostly about the bus, I think. People seemed more interested in the bus than in the music.

JK: Bohemian lifestyle story, very colorful and all that.

SC: Yes, we did quite a lot of publicity. There was one picture of me with my five-string banjo neck with a dulcimer shape cut in it, and it said "Damsel of the Dulceroy."

JK: This was about the time that you met Peter Bellamy?

SC: Yes, because they were singing around at various clubs and concerts and I had heard them and absolutely loved what they did. The vigor of it and the lovely harmonies, and the fact that they sang fairly much like the Coppers with sort of hippie leanings. They were a wonderful group and one of the best things to come out of the revival.

JK: Why did they appear under pseudonyms on the Primroses?

SC: Because they were contracted to Trans-Atlantic then.

JK: Was Trans-Atlantic that big of a jerk about it?

SC: They seemed to think so at the time that we couldn't use their real names.

JK: Are you and Dolly on the single that was issued from Holly Bears The Crown that ended up being the only thing that came out?

SC:I don't remember, which track was it?

JK: "The Boar's Head Carol."

SC: I might have been singing on it. I can't remember. I didn't know there was a single, so I think I'd have known if I'd been on it.

JK: How did the Holly Bears the Crown concept come about?

SC: Well, I've always loved carols.

JK: What label was that intended for release on?

SC: That was Argo as well. But it didn't ever come out. We all got colds when we went in the studio. The Young Tradition hadn't rehearsed anything until they got to the studio and we just sort of did it all on the spot. I think we were all sort of a bit dissappointed with it at the time. Although when I listen to it later when Fledg'ling put it out, I thought there were some lovely tracks on it.

JK: I think it is lovely. We played it this Christmas.

JK: The shift in mood and tone between Anthems in Eden and Love Death and the Lady is enormous.

SC: Yes, I was breaking up with John then and the music pretty much reflects everything I think about, its all part of life. I was choosing songs that reflected how unhappy I was and how rigid I felt about things.

JK: And Dolly supported that statement in your art.

SC: Well if I provide the songs, Dolly always knew what was going on.

JK: Her arrangements are darker, too. Not grim, mind you, but very, very dark.

SC: I always thought that I had been slighted by the MacColl camp. They always made it sound like I was a superficial sweet-voiced singer from Sussex. But what they never quite understood was the darker side of the English material and the melancholy nature of the English.

See Part 5 of 5 of the Shirley Collins interview

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