Interview with singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman

Singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman is touring his new album, A Pilgrim’s Tale, in places of historical significance to The Mayflower during the 400th anniversary of the journey. Ahead of his gig at St Andrew’s Church in Immingham, we chatted with Seth about the inspiration and history behind the album, the importance of this story and the role that Lincolnshire played in it.

Was this the first time Lincolnshire has featured on one of your albums?

The history itself has led me to the area and has led the area into the songs. [Lincolnshire] wasn’t necessarily somewhere I was looking towards, I was more just following their [the Pilgrim’s] story, guided by history.

When the separatists were coming, this was the epicentre of it all. It made sense to follow that journey. This is a concept tour about the Pilgrims and the journey they took – the leap of faith and so I think it’s important to follow that from the birthplace of it all really.

Are you hoping to introduce people to this story through the album?

It’s obviously a really important story and I think this is a good window for those that don’t know anything about it. Because I met members of the Wampanoag Tribe when I was over in America, that had a huge impact on me and the way A Pilgrim’s Tale is told. That perspective is very much at the forefront of the album. It’s really part of the story that people don’t know about and I think that’s really important. The whole album starts off with this premonition song from a young native American girl waking up and seeing these island invaders with fire in their eyes and that’s quite a powerful image. I think it’s important to be a bit shocking and thought the album was a good chance to make a statement.

It takes the listener on the journey and that was the idea. It’s quite a big undertaking and a huge responsibility. This story is incredibly sensitive over there [the US] and the way Thanksgiving is seen and celebrated in America by white Americans, but with native Americans, it’s the Day of Mourning, it’s a very different thing. Edward Winslow with just that tiny little meal they had together, the forced alliance that happened, and it’s all just kind of got carried away. But I never really understood that until now. It’s amazing when you uncover it.

What was original inspiration behind the album?

There’s a folk singer who I knew from Plymouth called Cyrill Tawney who made an album called The Mayflower Garland for the 350th anniversary and it just gave me the idea to represent it for the 400th. That was the seed and then I approached [Plymouth’s] Theatre Royal. A lot of these songs will play a part of a production called This Land. It’s quite a separate entity, but that’s where the songs will take place again after this tour. I was working with a director, Nick Stimson [Theatre Royal’s Associate Director], and we were very much trying to iron out and concentrate the right story. That’s where I discovered the “Great Iron Screw” and the challenges they [the Pilgrims] were up against. We were both doing lots of reading and sharing the research.

Is this your usual approach to song-writing?

As much as I’m into local history, this is quite a specific album with narration. It’s something that I’ve never really locked myself away and approached before. So it was the unknown really. Will I do something like this again? I’ll probably do something completely opposite next time. There’s certain constraints when you’re writing something like this, I would say, because of the responsibility of telling the story, that weight on your shoulders, but I think it would be good to shake some of that off in the future and just loosen up and go back to world of music rather than lyrics.

Did you visit any of these historic locations as part of the song writing process or was it more about bringing the finished product here afterwards?

I didn’t, no. But we’re going to the [Immingham Museum & Heritage Centre] before the gig, it’s a bit of whistle stop tour. We’ve spoken to Julie [Donn], the vicar, who told us there’s twenty street names [in Immingham] are named after the original settlers. I need to talk a walk and see. So we’re going to try and get as much out of being here as we can. And each [tour location] is significant to the story.

We’re touching on US history here whereas you’ve been rooted in the British tradition. Does this represent a new direction going forward, a more worldly approach perhaps?

Interesting. I’ve not really looked at it like that, but yeah. Ultimately, what we’d like to do is take this show to America. Somehow play it in Boston [Massachusetts] to finish the story. So visiting all these places of significance and finishing sometime in September or November this year and maybe playing somewhere is Massachusetts. Fingers crossed. I think it would work really well and I think people would really appreciate it over there. That’s music isn’t it? As I do with stuff that I really like, it’s about spreading the word.

We are telling the whole story from beginning to end. The whole album is played out in its entirety. I would say there’s not many acts that go out and do that nowadays so that’s a challenge in of itself because it’s all brand-new material. It’s challenging for an audience, but exciting, because this a real kind of history-led piece.

So the whole album will be played in sequence start to finish?

Absolutely, yeah. It’s the full thing, but with wonderful projections put together by two graphic designers from Plymouth College of Art. We’ve got a projector and a lighting guy who’s looking after that. They’ve done a wonderful job.

Any final words about Lincolnshire?

[Lincolnshire] is great for music, isn’t it? I think it’s a solid music county. I’m always chatting to [folk singer] Martin Simpson about it, who’s a big Lincolnshire fan, that’s his roots. It’s always great to come here.

Responses have been edited for clarity. 

A Pilgrim’s Tale is out on Friday 7 February. Seth plays Gainsborough’s Trinity Arts Centre on Saturday 8 February and Boston’s Blackfriars Theatre and Arts Centre on Sunday 9 February.