Interview with June Tabor

Published April 23, 2013

Songs take star billing in June’s fresh journey of heartfelt interpretation

By Jackie Butler, Western Morning News.

On a clear and bright April day, June Tabor is busy sowing seeds and tidying up in the big garden of her home in the Welsh borders.

In a few days’ time the queen of contemporary folk singers takes to the road on a concert tour with her latest musical project – an inspired jazz-tinged trio called Quercus featuring saxophonist Iain Bellamy and her long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren, both celebrated musicians in their fields.

But first there is much catching up to do outdoors.

“The weather has been so strange; we had heavy snow and a lot of things didn’t get done,” says June. “I have to stuff seeds into every kind of nook and cranny now.

“I try to grow as many things to eat as I can. For a long time I lived in London and didn’t have anywhere to grown things, but my I used to help my mum in the garden; I never learned what to do, but it was just there in the back of my memory.

“Once you get hooked on that kind of thing, it never leaves you.”

The same sentiment could be expressed about June’s other obsession – singing songs.

While these two things may be wildly disparate, they both involve her taking an essence and nurturing it into beautiful maturity.

“One is a connection to things like home and soil and weather, and the other is something that is virtually in isolation,” she observes.

“Singing is in the moment; it’s unique to the space and the audience and how you perform on that night, the inspiration you get from the people you are playing with. It is very ephemeral, and totally real at the same time.”

Quercus is a combination that came together organically. June and Huw both admired Iain’s playing and they first got together to perform at the Berlin Jazz Festival a few years ago. The band’s eponymous album just released on the ECM label was actually recorded live when they toured back in 2006.

The trio create a melee of traditional folk, jazz and chamber music, weaving these elements together through poignant words and enchanting melodies, delivered with deep-rooted heart and soul.

“Huw and Iain come from a jazz background and I don’t. We are not trying to bend music into unnatural shapes; we are making something unique to us as a trio.

“It defies categorisation; all the songs tell stories. It is music that deserves attention. All I can say is listen to it,” she says.

While it is clear that June, now 65, owner of a distinctively deep, rich-toned voice and twice the winner of Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, has no love of the mechanics of gigging or recording, her passion for telling stories through song will never fade.

“I don’t write songs; I have never written one. I have ideas about what songs should be about and then I tell people who come back with something magnificent,” she says. “What I do is interpret and breathe life into them and take them in a slightly different direction.”

June gets enormous joy from discovering new, and old, songs to sing. Her professional journey began as a late teenager in the mid-1960s, inspired by folk singers Annie Briggs and Belle Stewart. She sang in folk clubs while she was a student at Oxford University and joined her first band there. An early appearance at Sidmouth Folk Festival established her as a burgeoning talent.

In 1976 her first solo album, Airs and Graces, was released to great acclaim. There have been 17 more since then, and her back catalogue also contains many weighty collaborations, including work with Martin Simpson, Maddy Prior, Fairport Convention and the comic Mrs Ackroyd Band. Working with the folk rock ensemble Oysterband has also proved fruitful and enjoyable on two separate occasions. The first was in 1990 when they recorded and then toured the album Freedom and Rain together.

Two decades later they joined forces again for the universally acclaimed Ragged Kingdom – an album mainly of traditional folk songs and featuring an astonishingly arresting cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. It was this partnership that lured June out touring again.

“I wasn’t doing that many gigs any more, then the album with the Oysterband happened. Gigging with them has been wonderful,” citing one of their final shows together at Exeter Cathedral earlier this year as “a lovely lovely gig”.

June may have been singing professionally for more than 40 years, but she is never complacent about it.

“I do still feel nervous on stage. You need something to keep you sharp. I wonder will I remember the words, will I do justice to the song I am performing,” she says.

“To me all the songs we play are really special. I want to perform them to the best of my ability and for the audience to get as much out of them as I do. The best performance is when it sounds like a song is being sung for the first time. That is so important. If you think it is just another song, then you are doing it a disservice.”

Buy tickets to see Quercus play at Exeter Phoenix on Tue 23 April >>