Ev­ery­thing to play for

Folk star Lisa Knapp tells Rob Adams how she found her voice

The Herald - Arts - - Arts -

Lisa Knapp isn’t cut out to be a pop star. Hav­ing an­nounced her pres­ence with a de­but album, Wild and Un­daunted, that aroused con­sid­er­able in­ter­est in folk mu­sic cir­cles last year, in a more pres­sured sec­tor of the mu­sic in­dus­try Knapp would be ex­pected to have a ca­reer plan – or would have one drawn up for her.

In­stead, this 30-some­thing mum from South Lon­don is just gath­er­ing ideas. Whether the fol­low-up to Wild and Un­daunted will be an all-tra­di­tional col­lec­tion, all her own songs or a mix­ture of both is a de­ci­sion that Knapp feels no ur­gency to make.

“I didn’t set out with an agenda when I started record­ing that album,” she says. “And I didn’t re­ally know what to ex­pect in terms of re­ac­tion. It was just a set of songs that I’d been singing and I’m very proud of it, but the re­sponse was re­ally grat­i­fy­ing be­cause I’m a late starter com­pared to all th­ese young­sters out there who are mak­ing the folk scene so lively.”

Knapp came to folk mu­sic by a some­what cir­cuitous route. Grow­ing up in Bal­ham, she had vi­o­lin lessons at school from the age of six, played in the school orches­tra and taught her­self gui­tar.

Her early Christ­mases, spent in Hamp­shire with her mum’s fam­ily, were mu­si­cal oc­ca­sions with singsongs round the pi­ano. There was danc­ing but it was more jiv­ing than folk-based, and there were no old un­cles or aunts with bal­lads up their sleeves, al­though there’s one folk hero in the fam­ily tree – Boris Karloff, who was Knapp’s ma­ter­nal grand­mother’s cousin.

Danc­ing of an­other stripe – to hip hop and house mu­sic – claimed Knapp’s in­ter­est in her teens; her vi­o­lin was packed away in the at­tic when play­ing classical mu­sic lost its ap­peal. She dived into the rave scene, al­though she con­fesses to be­ing too scared to get in­volved with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing drugs. Then, through hear­ing a Jimi Hen­drix album, she found that the mu­sic of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a cer­tain ap­peal.

A friend’s par­ents had shelves full of vinyl from the pe­riod – the Doors, Pink Floyd, Zep­pelin, Dylan – and Knapp worked her way through them, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a road to Da­m­as­cus mo­ment with Steel­eye Span’s Please to See the King. Fair­port Con­ven­tion and Shirley Collins, some­thing of whose un­af­fected tones can be heard in Knapp’s own singing, fol­lowed.

“It was the sto­ries and the fact that they have an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with where they come from – the lan­guage, the land­scape and the his­tory – that ap­pealed to me,” she says. “Tra­di­tional songs are time­less, like The Black­smith.

“You might not be quite so likely to meet and fall in love with an un­faith­ful black­smith th­ese days but the things that hap­pen in that song still hap­pen now, so it’s easy to re­late to the words – and it’s a great tune, too.”

By now in her early 20s, Knapp started to seek out her own dis­cov­er­ies. The Water­boys’ Fish­er­man’s Blues be­came a favourite, as did Dolores Keane singing Bonny Bunch of Roses with the Chief­tains. Knapp ad­mits that Keane be­come a key in­flu­ence, and that her singing used to sound Ir­ish.

With the folk mu­sic avail­able south of the Thames, where Knapp lives, this wasn’t so sur­pris­ing. Stock­well, Bal­ham, Clapham and Toot­ing have long had strong Ir­ish com­mu­ni­ties with pub mu­sic ses­sions at their heart and hav­ing dug out her vi­o­lin again, Knapp took lessons in Ir­ish fid­dle and started lis­ten­ing to fid­dle he­roes in­clud­ing Martin Hayes and Tommy Peo­ples. She’d do floor spots at folk clubs – the clas­sic rite of pas­sage where singers and mu­si­cians play a cou­ple of songs or tunes be­fore the main act – and en­tered a young singers com­pe­ti­tion at Red­ditch Fes­ti­val, only to be dis­qual­i­fied for be­ing a few days over the un­der-25 age limit. The or­gan­is­ers gave her a spot at the fes­ti­val in­stead and she be­gan to see mu­sic as a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to the temp­ing work she was do­ing.

Even at that point, ideas for Wild and Un­daunted were de­vel­op­ing but sud­denly she had to put any thoughts about mak­ing mu­sic a ca­reer on hold when a scan re­vealed that she had a brain tu­mour.

“When they told me that it was un­treat­able I was ... well, you can imag­ine,” she says. “But it turns out that it’s only a prob­lem if it starts grow­ing and does funny things. It’s fine at the mo­ment. I’ve learned to live with it and there are peo­ple who have a lot worse to deal with in their lives. I can’t sit around wor­ry­ing about it be­cause it’s not life-threat­en­ing and ac­tu­ally it’s brought me to a stage where if I’m go­ing to do things with my life, I have to get on and do them.”

One of th­ese “things” was her daugh­ter, Bon­nie, who will be five in May. When the tu­mour was dis­cov­ered, doc­tors ad­vised Knapp that if she wanted a fam­ily, she

shouldn’t wait too long. The year be­fore Bon­nie was born, Knapp had ap­peared on her hus­band Gerry Diver’s album, Diver­sions. Diver, who played fid­dle with the mul­ti­cul­tural band Sin E in the 1990s, in­cluded Knapp’s singing of the afore­men­tioned The Black­smith on his album and the buzz around Knapp be­gan.

Vet­eran pro­ducer Youth heard The Black­smith and of­fered to remix it for a com­pi­la­tion album he was work­ing on, What the Folk Vol­ume 1 (Knapp also ap­pears on the re­cently re­leased sec­ond vol­ume). He also sug­gested that he should pro­duce an album of con­tem­po­rary songs for her but Knapp pre­ferred to work with Diver on the mainly tra­di­tional songs – eight of the album’s 11 tracks are “trad arr”; three are Knapp and Diver orig­i­nals – that make up Wild and Un­daunted.

Not­with­stand­ing the strik­ing ar­range- ments – some sim­ple, oth­ers highly tex­tured – that make the album sound very much of our times, the main talk­ing point about the album is Knapp’s very nat­u­ral, un­fet­tered singing.

“When I started singing, I adopted a kind of transat­lantic ac­cent, which a lot of peo­ple do and which works in pop mu­sic or with some­one like Amy Wine­house, who’s fan­tas­tic,” she says. “Then I sounded Ir­ish un­til my friend brought that to my at­ten­tion and I thought, no, you have to find your own voice oth­er­wise it’s go­ing to sound false.”

With men­tion of Mitcham in one song from the album – Laven­der – and Covent Gar­den in an­other, Lon­doner Knapp feels close to her ma­te­rial and is keen to keep that sense of con­nec­tion in fu­ture.

“Laven­der was ac­tu­ally col­lected by a gypsy wo­man who lived in Clapham, so it was close to home in more ways than one,” she says. “I’m al­ways look­ing for new songs to sing, al­ways gath­er­ing ideas. But out of ev­ery 50 songs I come up with, I might use only eight be­cause find­ing ones that feel right isn’t easy and you re­ally have to let them grow on you, re­ally get inside them to un­der­stand them be­fore you can sing them prop­erly. So it’s a slow process but fas­ci­nat­ing, too.”

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