Shirley Collins returns with first album in nearly four decades

Shirley Collins
Shirley Collins

A remarkable story finds the happiest of conclusions as Shirley Collins returns to performing in her beloved home county of Sussex with music from her first release in nearly 40 years, Lodestar.

Shirley, one of the most important voices in British folk, “lost” her voice in the late 1970s in a moment of heartbreak and personal crisis following a marriage break-up.

Now, all these years later, she has “found” it again – and plays the Brighton Festival on the back of a new album, released last November to warm and positive reviews.

Shirley presents Lodestar Live on Sunday, May 14 at 7.30pm at Brighton Dome Concert Hall – an album bringing together English, American and Cajun songs dating from the 16th century to the 1950s, collected by Shirley and recorded at her home in Lewes with music director Ian Kearey.

A key part of the British Folk revival of the 60s and 70s, her voice is still as captivating now as it was then. Lodestar shows that, even at the age of 81, Shirley still pushes at the boundaries of folk music.

“I had just stopped singing all those years, but I had written a book about my year in America in 1959 and then I started doing a talk about it, with pictures and music, and that developed into me talking about English gipsy music and the music of Sussex. I was performing, talking about it, but still not singing.

“But I was still hankering after singing, I suppose. But it was (the avant-garde musician) David Tibet who really started it. He has got a huge fan following, but the sort of music I don’t really understand myself. But he turned out to be a great fan of mine from years back. It was quite extraordinary, but 20 years ago, he started trying to persuade me to sing again. He came to see me when I was living in Brighton. He had all my old albums. He said ‘Will you ever sing again?’ I said no. He kept trying to encourage me. Five years later, he said he had a concert coming up and would I sing a song. I said no. And then five years passed, and he said he had a concert coming up and I would I sing a song. I said perhaps and then I didn’t turn up. And then about three years ago, he said he had a concert in London and would I sing a song. This time I turned up and I did it. Perhaps I was fed up of him chivvying me! I made the decision a couple of weeks before. I rehearsed a couple of songs and sang for the first time in more than 30 years. It was lovely. I got such a great reaction from the audience. It was full of warmth. And it felt right. I felt good to have Ian Kearey playing guitar. He gave me lots of confidence. And then it all happened in a rush. People have made a film about me. It is now in post-production. And Ian just kept saying ‘Let’s do some more.’ I still had plenty of songs that I still wanted to sing even though I had never recorded them, and then Domino, the record company, got involved.

“They were willing to allow me to record the album in my own little cottage in Lewes. I had to do everything that kept me confident. I knew if I was in a studio I would feel a bit judged, but that if I was at home, I could take all the time that I wanted. The album came out last November, and for some reason it seems to have struck a chord with people.”

So does Shirley wish she had done it before? “No, I think the time was right. I wish I had been singing for all those years instead of doing the other things I had to turn to after I lost my voice, but I never stopped listening to music and I never stopped loving music. It was just that I couldn’t sing it. I just needed the time to be right…”

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