Captive audience

The inmates might prefer gangsta rap, but Seth Lakeman decided HM Prison Dartmoor was just the place to launch his folk album. Fiona Sturges reports
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The Independent Culture

It's with an air of anticipation that the 60 audience members file into a small, starkly furnished chapel for a performance by Seth Lakeman, the former fiddler with the much-hyped folk group Equation. Only the wire mesh on the windows and presence of uniformed officers hint at the chapel's infamous location.

It's with an air of anticipation that the 60 audience members file into a small, starkly furnished chapel for a performance by Seth Lakeman, the former fiddler with the much-hyped folk group Equation. Only the wire mesh on the windows and presence of uniformed officers hint at the chapel's infamous location.

Following in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, who played his legendary sessions at San Quentin 45 years ago, Lakeman has chosen to launch his first solo album at Dartmoor prison, one of the most isolated and austere jails in the country. Built 200 years ago by French convicts captured in the Napoleonic wars, this granite-clad fortress sits on the edge of Princetown, which, at 1,400 feet above sea level, is the highest town in England. The previously backwards and brutal regime led the chief inspector of prisons to threaten it with privatisation and condemn it as "the prison that time forgot". Now, the recently-appointed governor Claudia Sturt is trying to rid the prison of its oppressive reputation and, as she puts it, "give the inmates something to look forward to, something to enjoy".

When Lakeman, a tanned 27-year-old sporting flared jeans and a boyish grin, finally arrives on stage he's greeted with enthusiastic applause and a hail of wolf-whistles. He and his band play a 40-minute set made up of songs from his current LP, Kitty Jay. His sound is rooted in traditional folk, with many songs pared down to voice and fiddle. The album is built around the myths, legends and superstitions of Dartmoor, where Lakeman grew up and is named after the local servant girl who got pregnant and hanged herself. Since suicides weren't allowed to be buried on consecrated ground, she was instead laid to rest at a remote crossroads near Hound Tor on the north part of the moor. Ever since her burial fresh flowers have been placed on her grave, though no one has ever been seen putting them there.

Lakeman is a warm and chatty presence, chatting about the legends that form the basis of his songs and cracking near-the-knuckle gags about life "inside". Along with the legend of Kitty Jay, we are treated to "The Bold Knight", a song about a wanderer who lay injured on the moor and "John Lomas" about a servant boy who murders his mistress for love. The final track brings a guest appearance from Charlie, a quietly spoken, heavily tattooed inmate from nearby Liskeard who is serving seven years for manslaughter. Lakeman heard about him while on a tour of the prison looking for a place to play and arranged to rehearse some songs with him in his cell. He turns out to be a remarkable blues singer and his self-penned song "Dartmoor Blues", rather touchingly prompts a standing ovation and thunderous howling from his fellow prisoners.

The idea for the show came about during a conversation in the pub between Lakeman and a local prison officer. He suggested that Lakeman write to the governor and see if he could play at the jail. Once she had agreed, the gig was flyposted inside the prison and tickets were distributed as a reward for good behaviour.

Later, over a pint in the nearby town of Yelverton, Lakeman admits that he was quaking all day at the prospect of playing to an audience of convicted criminals. "I wasn't sure how they were going to react," he explains. "I was told most of them hadn't heard acoustic folk music before, and they certainly hadn't heard of me. Apparently they're into gangsta rap." He felt that the prison was a fitting place to launch his album. "It seemed an interesting place to play a gig and to play a set of songs which were specific to the area," he says. "The songs deal with extremes of human emotion, which I'm sure the prisoners at Dartmoor can identify with."

Music is in Lakeman's blood. His father, Geoff, is part of a jazz band, Speakeasy; he and his family used to busk in France together under the moniker The Fredicott Frantic Five. "We used to sit on the streets of Brittany playing these jazz and folk songs when I was 11 or 12. Did we make any money? Not a huge amount but it was a great experience." Lakeman's first proper band, Equation, signed a deal with Warner Bros when he was just 16. The band comprised his two brothers, Sean and Sam, and the singers Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts. Later on, Rusby left to pursue a highly successful solo career and was replaced by Cara Dillon. The band recorded an album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios called Return to Me though, due to internal disputes, it was never released. After an exhaustive and successful tour of the United States, Equation made a second album though they quickly got tired of record company executives coming to -the studio and demanding hits. Soon after the release of their album, First Name Terms, the band split. "They were great days," Lakeman recalls. "We got to travel and see the world. But after five years I think we all wanted to try something else."

For the next two years he worked with his brother Sam and Cara Dillon as a trio, appearing on Dillon's self-titled debut album. Then he decided to embark on his own project and set about writing Kitty Jay. "The land and the people in this area had been good to me," he reflects. "My family's always lived this area and the stories have been spoken about as long as I can remember. It felt right to acknowledge that in my songs."

This is the first time he has taken centre stage as a singer and admits to being seriously daunted by the prospect. "Initially I wasn't into the idea bit but after working on my voice I began to think maybe I could do it. After years of singing behind gifted girl singers, I was quite intimidated. Now I'm gathering confidence though. For the first time it's about me and my songs. It's terrifying, but in a good way."

'Kitty Jay' is out now on iScream records

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