Everything to play for
Folk star Lisa Knapp tells Rob Adams how she found her voice
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.”