Midway through their tour, taking in some of the lesser known haunts across the UK, Steeleye Span have had a full year – not to mention, career. Just this past summer, saw them touring across Canada and North America. A place familiar to guitarist Julian Littman, who joined Steeleye five years ago…
Venturing to Nashville in his twenties, alongside Charlie Dore, they set about recording their album in JJ Cale’s studios. An album that was, frustratingly, never to see the light of day. Tucked away, somewhere in the vaults, is the original tape – with the sounds of legends of times passed. Who knows if it will emerge into the light. But as we are told, every cloud has a silver lining, and Julian Littman should know, after providing the theme music for the former children’s television series, ‘Rainbow’ in the 1970s.
“We were with Rainbow for two years. We could have stayed on but we got a bit frightened, and thought we’d get stuck in dungarees and singing songs about various things, so we decided to knock it on the head. It was great, it was really good fun – it was the halcyon days of 70s television.” Says Julian.
No stranger to theatre and the entertainment industry, Julian has worked in Broadway for several years, before joining the current line-up of Steeleye Span. Since their inception in 1969, the only original member remaining is Maddy Prior. Joining her are Rick Kemp on bass, Jessie May Smart on fiddle, Liam Genockey and Andrew Sinclair, as well as old names such as Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Tim Harries, Bob Johnson and most recently Peter Knight.
With so many personnel changes, you might wonder where that leaves Steeleye in terms of their identity. Do they suffer from an identity crisis?
“The band is always evolving and changing, it is really exciting. Jessie is a great fiddle player – she has an incredible energy. We really have that folk rock thing nailed this time.” Julian reflects on the dynamics of the current band line-up.
Maddy Prior, alongside Tim Hart, founded Steeleye Span in 1969. Her solo career has also been a prolific one and she was a contributing vocalist to The Lady, a homage to the lost songs of Sandy Denny – alongside musicians Thea Gilmore, Joan Wasser and Lavinia Blackwall. Maddy remains central to Steeleye’s current line-up, with a healthy chunk of their live set being a series of Maddy’s earlier solo work, revamped in the traditional Steeleye Span style.
“His books are very much in the mode of Steeleye – it’s that magical world. It’s amusing, it can be a little bit brutal, it’s witty. There are ballads all about fairies, about people being spirited away…”
Having been heavily influenced by the Beatles, it was via Julian’s connection with musician Charlie Dore, that his early musical career took perhaps an unexpected path, when they collaborated together in a bluegrass band, following on from those heady Rainbow days:
“My influences are all the usual stuff – Beatles, Stones, Hendrix. But I got into the folk stuff quite early, and my brother was into the blues, so we got all the imports in from America when we were younger. And the British folk thing and prog-rock – Fairport, and of course Steeleye… It all filters through.”
Julian and Charlie would end up recording a cover of Here Comes the Sun, perhaps an inevitable choice, given their connections to the band:
“Charlie was good friends with George Harrison so we decided to cover Here Comes the Sun for a MOJO compilation. We went with something positive, something different – we just happened to lapse into this Hawaiian groove – I think it started with the ukulele. It became this rather nice, dreamy harmony – it just developed over a few days.” Julian recalls.
Not only did they record a Beatles cover together, they previously performed in a bluegrass band and recorded Charlie Dore’s debut album which took them to Nashville, as mentioned:
“Charlie Dore’s first album was recorded in Nashville at JJ Cale’s studio and then we mixed it in LA – all very groovy stuff, we were only in our early 20s. It was the late 70s, and things were becoming very glossy production-wise, everything was double tracked. We came back to England and it was certainly very natural sounding – we weren’t poppy enough. Somewhere in the vaults we still have the original tape. We had some legendary Nashville players on it – some of which aren’t with us anymore – and a few players from Elvis’ band.”
Julian also composes as a solo musician, and released his album ‘Life’s Rich Bloody Tapestry’ in 2012. His solo work is much more influenced by personal experience, taking a more auto-biographical approach, as he explains:
“When writing for myself it is more from a personal, deeper place. For instance, The Ballad of Kathy Flynn is all about my early days. I was adopted – it’s about my real mother. She was a young, Irish girl and had to have me adopted at birth. I wrote that a long time after finding out about who she was. About three years ago, I found out that she had died and I got in touch with my half siblings who were delighted to hear from me – so now I know them. So that’s a happy ending. I’ve got this whole new Irish family.”
Perhaps paradoxically, Steeleye Span tend to write from a fantastical, almost ethereal starting place. And so, it would follow that they would eventually collaborate with the fantasy novelist, Sir Terry Pratchett. Their songs often conjure up lost worlds, hidden dimensions – the fantasy and folklore that is given substance through the imagination.
Wintersmith, was released in 2013 and is the culmination of the mutual adoration between members of Steeleye, and author, and former Bath Chronicle journalist, Sir Terry Pratchett. Having written over 70 novels in his lifetime, Terry Pratchett might have found Steeleye Span a source of inspiration to his own creative work:
“This had been in the pipeline for ages before I had joined the band.” Julian explains. “Terry said ‘Look, I’ve got a book that I think Steeleye would make a really good thing on, and it’s called Wintersmith.’ Terry had been a fan of the band for years and years, he had them play at his 60th birthday.” Julian recalls.
Wintersmith was published in 2006. Filled with imagery and dark underworlds, it charts the journey between the Wintersmith and Tiffany, through frozen scenes and misplaced desires. The prose gave Steeleye Span enough inspiration to write an entire album, based on its dream-weaving qualities. As Julian explains, it was a fairly straightforward process:
“We said, ‘Let’s do three songs, each based on what’s in the book’. I wrote three, Maddy wrote three, we all wrote our songs. Then we all came back together. By divvying it up, we found ourselves with a 15 song set. I wrote one called The Dark Morris Tune, You and The Summer Lady.”
Lyrics and prose can have symbiotic effects on each other. With one form giving rise to the other – and vice versa. While a novel might have the capacity and depth to explore characters, flesh out an entire life story, and create its own complex world; a song is a snapshot of another world. Though often complex, and frequently ambiguous in its intent, a song is a condensed version of prose – with the voice and instrumentation acting as the characterisation. Julian’s technique involved directly drawing upon Terry’s prose:
“I cherry picked stuff – word for word – from the stuff he had written. And then on other bits I would do my own. A lot of it I took verbatim from Terry – making it scan of course.” Says Julian.
Fully appreciative of the similarities that exist between Terry’s prose and Steeleye’s music, Julian adds:
“His books are very much in the mode of Steeleye – it’s that magical world. It’s amusing, it can be a little bit brutal, it’s witty. There are ballads all about fairies, about people being spirited away. It sort of sits well with the band. We do about five or six of these songs in the set. They’re good, powerful moments.”
Julian hopes that in collaborating with Terry Pratchett, that this will bring a new generation of listeners to discover and appreciate Steeleye Span. Julian joins the current Steeleye Span line-up for their UK tour, paying a visit to St George’s in Bristol on 15 December.
“We’re ready to rock & roll. Our set will be a mixture of Wintersmith, aswell as some old and new ones that haven’t been recorded yet. We’ve also dug up a couple of really old ones that we’re re-jigging, like Boys of Bedlam which I did on my solo album. Also there’ll be some from Maddy’s early, solo career – quite epic stuff. And the old favourites such as All Around My Hat. It went down well in Holland and they don’t know us as well in Holland so we think it will go down well here.” Julian says, before extending an invite to their show and hanging up the phone.
A conversation well worth having.
Steeleye Span play at St George’s on 15 December. Tickets are available now: www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk
Wintersmith is the 22nd studio album from Steeleye Span and is available to purchase here: www.steeleyespan.org.uk
Their tour continues at the following venues:
- 9 Dec – Corn Exchange, Ipswich
- 10 Dec – St Mary’s In the Castle, Hastings
- 12 Dec – The Lighthouse, Poole
- 13 Dec – Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch
- 14 Dec – Cadogan Hall, London
- 15 Dec – St George’s, Bristol
- 16 Dec – Portsmouth Guildhall, Portsmouth
- 17 Dec – City Hall, Salisbury
View the video for Somewhere Along the Road below:
Author: Demelza Durston