Seth Lakeman: Troubadour of the moors

Seth Lakeman's West Country tales garnered a surprise Mercury nomination. Phil Meadley encounters a reluctant bard
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The Independent Culture

Seth Lakeman is having a magical year. The golden boy of folk has just signed a deal with Relentless Records (the home of KT Tunstall and Joss Stone), having managed to shift 30,000 copies of his latest album, Freedom Fields, under his own steam. He's due to appear at some of the biggest festivals this summer, including Wychwood, a week today. He has also just finished a support tour with Billy Bragg, and four dates in Libya for the British Council. "We got to play in the big amphitheatre in Lepsis Magna," he says. "My brother Sean and I were the first people to play there for 2,000 years! It was pretty cool, mate."

We first met in March when Lakeman was organising a party in a Dartmoor brewery. It was certainly a unique place to launch Freedom Fields, his third album, but it was minus five outside and felt like minus seven inside. Lakeman gritted his teeth and delivered a ferocious onslaught of fiery fiddle, slapped double bass, and taught, driving percussion, with his face contorted either in concentration or the beginnings of hypothermia. On that bitterly cold night the songs from the new album took on a darker menace than I'd heard previously.

It doesn't hurt Seth Lakeman's cause that he's a good-looking boy with a marketable image. Although not the tallest, he's got a stocky, athletic physique - no doubt honed from jogging on the moor - that has won him many female admirers. "Jogging's better than the gym, mate," he says. "I've got to keep fit with what I do. I did a couple of gigs the other day and I was struggling. I smoke and drink quite a lot."

He and his two brothers, Sean and Sam, would be dragged along by their parents to folk clubs, and spent every year camping at Wadebridge folk festival. At the age of 14 he formed a group with his brothers: "We were basically a bunch of precocious teenagers jumping around," he says. "It was better than a paper-round and we earned good money playing at festivals like Sidmouth and Whitby." Here they met the likes of Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby, and Cara Dillon: "There was definitely a generation of sons and daughters that were getting to know each other and experiment with music."

With Rusby and the singer Kathryn Roberts they formed the band Equation, and, in six weeks, had a call from Warner Brothers offering them a million-pound record contract. Lakeman was 17 at the time, and concentrating on the fiddle. When Rusby left to pursue a solo career, Dillon joined, but it wasn't long before she left and Lakeman was thrust into the limelight: "I was forced into singing," he says. "I wasn't happy about it. I was happy playing bits of mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and writing." Equation made three albums. Lakeman left the band to tour with his brother Sam, and Cara Dillon: "That's when I started messing around with the tenor guitar, and singing more, trying different styles. I really loved Roger Wilson's voice, and also a band called Cordelia's Dad. I loved that hard, male folk sound, so I started smoking more fags to try and get a voice like them."

Lakeman hadn't paid much attention to the significance of the Mercury Prize: "I applied because Harriet, my PR, reckoned it was worth a shot. You have to spend £250 just to enter, and also send 50 CDs - which seeing as I was unemployed at the time, was a lot of money. Then one day I was sitting by the side of the M5 and got a call from Harriet telling me to come up to London because I was being nominated for the Mercury Prize. It was good news because my car had just blown up."

The effect was remarkable and almost instantaneous. From selling 400 records and playing a few small venues, Kitty Jay became one of bestselling folk albums of 2005, and Lakeman was filling decent-sized venues and being invited to support The Levellers, and to appear alongside the Pogues and Katie Melua. "Nobody sat me down and said, 'this is why you're here'. I didn't even see myself as a singer at that point. I don't necessarily see myself as a singer now. I'm just trying to express how I might react if I was a sailor, or in a battle, or in love. The tunes were always the most important thing." Freedom Fields has done nothing to dissuade his increasingly loyal fanbase, dealing as it does once again with dark tales of Dartmoor's past and a gamut of freshly researched West Country tales.

Until recently Lakeman remained independent, releasing albums on his own I Scream label . "Artistic control is very important for all artists," he said in March. "I know how much pressure major labels can put you under to make commercial music. This way we can keep costs down because we have a small studio at Sean's house that we have been building up for eight years. We only use acoustic instruments and straightforward DAT machines."

However, a meeting with the Relentless Records' boss Shabs Jobanputra persuaded him that there was a decent major deal with his name on: "I've been putting so many caps on recently," he says. "I've got a good manager and team behind me, but this deal will give me more time to write, and also enable the four of us [his band] to be able to record in a studio like Heliocentric, which we were in the other day. I've had experience with major labels before," he continues. "I can't stand all this fake stylist stuff, and the poppy aspect which is manufactured. As long as I can keep recreating the music I'm doing now, I'll be happy."

Many folk artists mask personal experience behind ancient tales, and with subject matters such as the English Civil War, Cornish shipwrecks, tin mining, and Dartmoor myths, Lakeman's music seems to be no exception. However, if you dig a little deeper you discover a more personal sub-plot lurking. "'Kitty Jay' plays on many strings for me," says Lakeman. "It's loosely based on the story of Kitty Jay, whose grave you can find close to Hound Tor near Ashburton. But there's girl out there who'd kill me if she knew it was about her.

"With something like 'The Setting of the Sun', I was going through a book of Devon and Cornwall folk songs, and found these amazing lyrics, which I decided to write something around." The same can be said of "Childe the Hunter", which is a tale is about Hunter Childe, the young Anglo-Saxon Earl of Plymstock, who became lost in a blizzard while on a hunting expedition. To prevent himself dying of exposure he crawled inside the dead carcass of his horse, and wrote a note passing on his estate to those who would find his body. "The lyrics are so well written that I just tried to incorporate it into my own particular style," he says.

Songs like "The Charmer" and "King and Country" are original compositions, but use the classic "olde-worlde" English folk template. "I probably hide behind that," he admits. "I'm always trying to take on the role of whomever I'm singing about. Maybe I'll get into contemporary issues as I write more, but it's about who, or what, you're surrounded by. At the moment I live on Dartmoor, and when I'm writing I'm immersed in this whole historic, dramatic, dark style, and both albums have been written like that."

Seth Lakeman appears at the Wychwood Festival, Cheltenham ( www.wychwoodfestival.com; 01242 227979) on 2 June. The event also features Billy Bragg, Martha Wainwright, The Handsome Family and Chris Difford. 'Freedom Fields' is on I Scream and will be re-released by Relentless on 24 July

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