In Conversation With Maddy Prior

Maddy Prior has been singing and dancing for over fifty years, and is not about to stop now. I talk to her as she begins rehearsals with Steeleye Span for a May tour of England. The band will be appearing at Leeds City Varieties on May 10th.

Steeleye Span began a 50th anniversary tour in 2019. Covid interrupted the tour but the idea of an anniversary tour is still relevant in 2022. Whilst 1969 saw the roots of Steeleye Span, it wasn’t until 1972 that the classic Steeleye Span line-up of Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Hart and Rick Kemp came together.

So the anniversary tour continues. The year 1972 saw the launch of their classic album Below the Salt. This will form the first half of their performances. The second half will be given over to a variety of their songs from across the decades, that they’ve not played for a while.

I asked Maddy if performing such a classic album as Bellow the Salt will bring back memories. She explained that her whole repertoire is a huge memory bank. She is constantly reminded of earlier performances and times. It will take her back to a time that was more anarchic, when Steeleye Span was changing the nature of folk music. She likes to change the band’s play list frequently, finding that she needs to rest songs for a year or two and then revisit them. They then seem fresher, appearing in a new light.

One song is never rested: All Around My Hat has become the band’s anthem. Maddy says it’s a hard song to sing but she enjoys the challenge of the piece. She believes that Steeleye Span owe a lot to that song. Lives might have been very different without it. She still thinks it’s well structured and is glad it’s become the band’s calling card.

Performing alongside Maddy will be Liam Genockey (drums), Julian Littman (guitar/keyboards and vocals), Andrew Sinclair (guitar), Violeta Vicci (violin and backing vocals), Benji Kirkpatrick (guitar and backing vocals) and Roger Carey (bass). The line up has become more female in recent years, moving away from the solid male backing block of the original Steeleye sound. Jessie May-Smart joined in 2014 and since then has Introduced other female musicians to the band. Violeta Vicci, who has also played with Elbow, accompanies this tour.

Maddy has a powerful voice. I wondered if she had a musical background or had been trained to sing. Interestingly, she explained that she was well into her sixties before she had any formal training. She went to Denmark to follow Complete Voice Training courses, becoming a singing and voice teacher. She learned about how to use the whole body when singing. She has used the experience to maintain her own vocal ability and to teach others.

Rehearsals will take place at Stones Barn, the Arts Centre that Maddy runs with her daughter, Rose-Ellen Kemp, in Cumbria. This is the base for a variety of singing, music and spoken word courses. Previous members of Steeleye Span, Rick Kemp and Martin Carthy, help lead classes too. Maddy leads a number of weekend singing workshops, I am tempted by ‘Singing for the Uncertain’, a singing course that claims to be suitable for absolutely anyone. Rose-Ellen is also developing Speaking for the Uncertain courses with Christina Shewell. An understanding of the power of voice has become a fascination for Maddy and Rose-Ellen.

Both of her children have become musicians and I wondered if this was something she had encouraged. She says that she did try to interest them in traditional music but they both developed very different musical tastes. Rose-Ellen’s genre is heavy rock – Maddy describes her as playing very loud guitar and producing stunning vocals. Her son, Alex Kemp, developed his father’s skill with a guitar but also a love of hip hop.

Maddy explained that when she was young she could never have imagined herself singing traditional English folk songs. Although she frequented folk clubs from a young age, her song choices were all American. It took an American couple to teach her to value the English folk tradition. She was around 19 and working as a roadie for American singers ‘Blind Gary Davis’ and Sandy & Jeanie Darlington. They told her she was not very good at singing American songs. They gave her some English folk tapes to listen to. Maddy, after initially thinking them dull, began to fall in love with English folk and from this she learned how to listen and appreciate.

Since then she’s developed an interest in social history and song. Research has been a big part of building the Steeleye Span repertoire. She finds folks songs deep – they resonate with her in different ways as she ages. A song that she presumed was about true love when she was young might now become a warning about inappropriate relationships. They also visit constant themes such as love and war. Maddy finds it sad that we don’t seem to learn from history.

The tour will start in the North and head south. Maddy has fond memories of Leeds City Varieties. She describes it as a beautiful old theatre, albeit it with rather a steep stage. Going further back, she remembers watching The Good Old Days on TV as a child.

Alongside the tour, there will be the opportunity to purchase newly released recordings. At the beginning of May a live recording of Hark! The Village Wait will be released. Later in the month Good Times of Old England: Steeleye Span 1972-1983, a 12 CD box set, will be issued. The collection contains a mammoth 145 tracks, including over 40 that have not previously been released.

At the end of the tour, Maddy will head back to Cumbria to host the Forgotten Lands Festival. Held in fields near Stones Barn, the small scale Festival is a celebration of folk music and the Cumbrian countryside. The Trials of Cato, a young folk trio, will be headlining, but members of Steeleye Span, including Maddy, will be performing in various guises. Julian Littman will be performing Goblin Market Music, a concept album based on Rossetti’s poem, with other band members.

As Maddy keeps on building that memory bank, we’re happy she’s sharing it with us and helping us build ours.

Steeleye Span Leeds City Varieties 10th May.

Cover photograph: Maddy Prior by Pete Silver.