Mike Atkinson

Interview: Seth Lakeman

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 17, 2008

It’s refreshing to note that you’re embarking on an 11-date UK tour, without having any new product to promote. We don’t get that too often anymore. Does the tour have a particular purpose?

Just to get out and play, really. We enjoy touring, we enjoy playing, and it seems to be something that audiences are into. There’s also a whole new album called Poor Man’s Heaven, which comes out on 30th June.

Will you be performing some of the new songs for the first time?

We will, actually. We’ll probably play a good eight or nine songs from the new record. We played a handful of them last summer, and on our last tour in November, and there was a great reaction. We’re quite excited to see how they go down. And playing the Rescue Rooms is always a lot of fun for us.

We are blessed. It has a great acoustic, and you can get quite an intimacy.

I think so as well. Last time in Nottingham we played the university, and I was actually missing playing the Rescue Rooms. We always have a great night there. I did one of my first gigs there, with Benji Kirkpatrick and also John Jones from the Oyster Band, and I remember just thinking it was an amazing venue. And it turned into a club afterwards!

I’ve heard rumours that the new album is less acoustic and more electric…?

It’s not electric, no. It’s just heavyweight; it’s quite in your face. In terms of the stories, I’ve gone for a coastal-based concept. There are stories of tragedy, including the true story of a lifeboat disaster that happened in Cornwall. There are stories of the wreckers in Cornwall, who used to put beacons on the coast to lure ships in and steal their cargo. There’s a story of a pirate, and there’s a story of the Hurlers Stones on Bodmin Moor, so it’s very much a West Country based record. Most of the stories are about wanting or aspiring to something more in your life, and so the title of Poor Man’s Heaven refers to that aspiration, or that ambition.

How do you come across these stories? We’ve lost the oral tradition, so is there a certain amount of research involved?

Obviously, there’s some of it which is made up. Some are based on a true story, such as Solomon Browne, the Penlee lifeboat disaster song. Crimson Dawn is based on a very romantic true story with a happy ending, which is quite strange for a folk song! There’s also The Unquiet Grave, which is a traditional song that I’ve reworked. But mostly it’s researched: looking on the Internet, or knowing about the songs anyway. A lot of people in this area are aware of the little coves where wrecks have happened, and of the Manacles rocks, which have wrecked thousands of ships over the years. So I guess it’s common knowledge round here, and you just kind of dig out the details.

We don’t have anything like that in our part of the country at all, I don’t think…

[Baffled] What, in Nottingham? Haven’t you got …?

[Hastily] Well, yes, we have Mr. Hood. But he’s been done to death. And he’s apparently from Sheffield, anyway. They’ve even put Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster! It’s got nothing to do with us!

That’s madness… (Laughter)

Going back a bit, you first caught a lot of people’s attention when you were plucked from obscurity for the Mercury Music Prize in 2005. You represented what a lot of people still think of as the “token folk” category, which means that no-one thinks it will win. A lot of the nominated folk artists have quickly returned to their own scenes, but for you it provided a real springboard to greater success. In retrospect, do you see that as a defining moment?

I think it just gave me the confidence to work out that what I was doing was something that people could enjoy, and were starting to enjoy. I wasn’t even trying to be a lead singer. At that point, I was actually trying to put a band together with a girl singer. I released Kitty Jay as an experiment, and then the nomination meant that I could actually be a professional solo artist. So that was the break.

I’m a person who likes to experiment in music quite a lot. I like to produce my own records, with my brother Sean, and I like to be involved in every part of the project. It develops with curiosity, I guess.

Your breakout at the Mercurys seemed to coincide with a remarkable resurgence of popular interest in British folk and folk-influenced music. It feels like it has broken out of the niche where it was languishing for a good couple of decades.

I was lucky enough to come out at that point, yes – but I was already well aware that acoustic music, open mike nights and contemporary singer-songwriters were coming through. The record companies were starting to finance people like Damien Rice and KT Tunstall, well before I was doing anything. With artists like Kate Rusby, Jose Gonzales and Newton Faulkner, a lot of people are doing things from different directions – but you’re right, it seems to be more popular than ever. I think that’s because of the confidence from the labels of using acoustic instruments, and so they’re putting money behind that. I also think it’s from MySpace and the Internet revolution, which has really fuelled independent musicians.

It’s bad news for the record companies, but an amazing opportunity for people who are actually making the music, so I think you’re right. A friend tells me that there’s a whole underground acoustic scene going on in London at the moment: not so much directly folk-influenced, but very much acoustic music. He’s going to gigs all the time, and there’s a whole network of people that all seem to know each other, and so there’s something really breaking through there.

Yes, it’s exciting. I think it’s good for English music, so hopefully we’ll get something that will translate internationally, and that we can stand proud of as a country. Because I think, to be honest, we could do with that musically. It’s just an exciting time. You kind of know. You can feel something bubbling, can’t you?

Definitely, definitely. Talking about breaking out internationally, you supported Tori Amos around Europe last year. How did European audiences take to your very English material? They wouldn’t have had the same reference points, so did they get it?

Well, that’s the thing about what I do. There’s quite a lot of depth, in terms of the stories and the messages that I’m singing about. So without having that in the forefront of your mind, and because it’s not popular music, it doesn’t translate as well.

But because of the energy, and the instruments that we use, and the way the guys are so amazing musically: whenever we’ve played abroad, people really are into it. They really like what they’re hearing. In that way, I would love to follow in the footsteps of an act like the John Butler Trio. He sells a lot of records in other countries, and he spreads himself in a really good way, but without selling out to anyone.

In a certain sense, a weight has been placed on your shoulders, in that you’re almost being cast in the role of an ambassador for British folk. For people that don’t buy fRoots magazine, or who don’t listen to Mike Harding’s show on Radio Two, yours and Kate Rusby’s may be the only folk-influenced albums in their collections. Does that role sit easily on your shoulders?

Kate would probably be more of a folk artist than me. I’m definitely a folk singer, but I write pretty much most of what I do. Because it’s conjured up from my mind, but inspired from where I live and the people I live around, it’s definitely very realistic English music; there’s no doubt about that. I do feel a certain amount of pressure sometimes, but I also feel very content with the way things have gone. I couldn’t be happier, actually. I’ve been very lucky. The reality of what I do is: I play the fiddle and the tenor guitar, stomp my foot, and sing songs about local legends and stuff.

Unlike the rock tradition, which exploits the differences between the generations, you seem to be playing in a tradition which actually builds bridges between them. There’s less of an emphasis on that kind of difference. Is that a fair observation?

I think it is, yeah. I’m trying to look forward as well as re-work traditional songs, which I have done once or twice on this new record. I like to write new narrative tales such as Solomon Browne, which covers a disaster from 1981. I’m trying to put a record together that feels right and can flow well, and I think Poor Man’s Heaven has done that. I’m not consciously setting out to change folk song, or direct it in a different way. I’m really just trying to find a collection of songs that I’ve written, that really encompass a poor man’s heaven.

What line-up will you be taking on stage? You used to perform accompanied by nothing more than your foot, but I guess it has expanded a bit by now.

Yeah, my foot has turned into an engine room drum kit behind me: a guy called Andy Tween from Bristol, who’s amazing. Then we’ve got Ben Nichols on double bass and banjo, me on fiddle and acoustic guitar, and my brother Sean on acoustic six-string guitar.

So it’s an acoustic line-up – but like you say, there has been such a boom. Last year, we were playing after McFly and before The Sugababes on the V Festival Tent, which was an amazing experience for us, and something that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. So I think you’re right: the music is changing, and young people are really getting into it.

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