June Tabor was months away from turning 40 when she released her first album. If, however, she was excited to finally fire the starting pistol on her music career, she did an
impressive job hiding her feelings, with the cover sleeve of 1976’s Air’s and Graces depicting the folk singer sternly regarding the camera. She looked as if she were bearing the weight of several worlds upon frail shoulders.
“I’m a miserable bastard,” Tabor, 69, confirms, with a chuckle. “It’s just one of those things; having your photograph taken is quite difficult when it’s posed.”
She’s too modest and suspicious of cliché to embrace the title, but if there was a first lady of British folk, it would surely be the Warwick vocalist. Her haunting voice has been a fixture in English traditional music since her first collaborations with Fairport Convention four decades ago, with her stark interpretations of songs such as ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Bonny Bunch of Roses’ simultaneously stirring the heart and cooling the blood. There is nobody else like her.
Two years on from an acclaimed performance at Cork’s Triskel Christchurch venue, Tabor returns to the city this week as part of an ambitious and wide-ranging Guinness Cork Jazz Festival programme. She will be singing with Quercus, an ongoing collaboration with piano player Huw Warren (also her musical director) and saxophonist Iain Bellamy.
Their latest album, Nightfall, features tunes as diverse as Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Somewhere’ (from West Side Story) and 19th century lament ‘Once I Loved You’ — also widely known as ‘The Irish Girl’ and ‘Let The Wind Blow High or Low’. The eclectic juxtaposition cuts to the heart of her outlook as a musician.
“It’s a question of finding something in the song, whether you are performing it in a slightly different way or changing the chords,” she says of her choice of material. “You think you know a composition and then you discover there are things in there you never knew. It’s what we always do.”
Her ability to breath fresh life into dusty compositions is powerfully demonstrated by her cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, recorded with Oysterband and
featured on the group’s 2011 Ragged Kingdom LP.
“There’s an entire relationship in that song,” she reflects. “There is so much pain in there. As a picture of despair, there are few things that will match it.”
Human emotion is fundamentally unchanged across the centuries, she believes, which is why older pieces continue to resonate so strongly. Consider the aforementioned ‘Once I Loved You’, which she memorably road-tested at the Triskel in 2015. Though the lyrics were first written down in the 19th century — the dirge is regarded as considerably older — the sentiments are not so very different from those of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Heartbreak is heartbreak, regardless of what century you in which you happen to live.
“It’s about being abandoned,” Tabor says. “He’s gone to America, has an eye on another girl. The pain of being hurt, it’s timeless. It is absolutely a treasure trove of emotion and incredible language.
”She doesn’t see it as her job to rescue old songs, but it is immensely satisfying to resuscitate material that might otherwise have been forgotten. Tabor draws the line at being
described as a folklorist and does not embark on anything approaching field research. Rather, she lets the music come to her. If a tune is “meant” to be revived, then it will make itself known.
“I’ve always got my ear out,” she says. “I might hear something and think: Oh, that sounds interesting. I haven’t heard that version before.’ You can find little gems that sometimes get passed by. You find yourself singing it when you didn’t realise you were singing and then you want to share it with other people.”
She has lived for the past 26 years in a remote stretch of countryside straddling Wales and England. This has made her a recluse in the eyes of the metropolitan London media, though she is, in fact, chatty and self-deprecating (folk puritans may, for instance, be shocked to learn she is an enthusiastic supporter of the Arsenal soccer team). Ten years living in London had given Tabor her fill of city bustle. She appreciates the quietness of rural life. Often, she will set off on her bike, the only sound being the wind and her voice as she hums a tune.
Growing up in England’s East Midlands, she had no awareness of folk music. She was introduced to it by the BBC, whose religious programming in the Sixties came with a heavy smattering of traditional ballads. Her interest piqued, she sought out the nearest folk club in Birmingham. A folk revival was gathering pace in the UK, led by groups such as the aforementioned Fairport Convention and Robert Wyatt’s Soft Machine. To Tabor, it was like entering the promised kingdom. She has always sung, but performing before an audience was a step up and she initially suffered jitters.
Meanwhile, she was also living a real life. Tabor graduated from St Hugh’s College Oxford (captaining her team on University Challenge) and worked initially at a library and then helping manage a restaurant. It was only by the late Seventies that the call of music proved irresistible.
In the decades since, Tabor has attracted an ardent fanbase. Elvis Costello wrote ‘All This Useless Beauty’ especially for her; in 2003 she was finally convinced by Jools Holland to appear on his Later Live music show on the BBC.
Tabor has a long-standing love for Ireland and Cork, having performed at the city’s folk festival in the 1970s. “I remember meeting Jimmy ‘Crowley and speaking to him about Salonica’ [an anti-conscription song popular in Munster during the First World War], which Lynched [Irish trad band, now renamed Lankum] has revisited. I love to visit Cork, as it’s always an excuse to stop by one of my favourite restaurants, Cafe Paradiso, which I loved from the moment I discovered it. I hope they stay open for me.”
- June Tabor and Quercus perform at Triskel Christchurch, Cork Jazz Festival, Saturday, October 28.