Shirley Collins is a folk singer from Sussex, UK. In the 1960s and ’70s, she and her sister Dolly—along with groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span—reinvigorated British folk music by staging the ageless songs in modern and elaborate arrangements. Collins is one of folk music’s most enduring voices, and after a period of over 30 years where she did not record or sing publicly, she released the album Lodestar in 2016. Her follow up, Heart’s Ease, is out July 24th. Jonathan Williger called Collins on July 1st to discuss life during quarantine, her new album, how she’s feeling more comfortable with herself, Boris Johnson, and more.
Jonathan Williger: How are you doing?
Shirley Collins: Alright, still locked down of course—because of the virus—but I don’t know. I’m sort of fine, really, and there’s plenty going on. So it’s good, how are you?
I’m doing okay. Do you live with anyone right now?
No, I live alone, but I’ve lived alone for a great many years, so I’m sort of used to it. So I’m okay, you know?
What have you been doing to keep yourself occupied?
Well, I’ve got a garden at the back of my cottage, so I do a bit of gardening. I’m finding I’m doing lots of reading—sort of consuming books in piles, really, more than I’m listening to music, which is funny, and a bit odd. I walk up and down my little street and garden, and that’s about it.
What have you read? Do you find yourself gravitating towards novels or nonfiction?
I love Anne Tyler—I read all her books over and over. I’ve been reading the Pat Barker book, the Regeneration trilogy. And I read an English writer called Kate Atkinson. People just put books through the letterbox and I read them. And I re-read whatever I can pick up. But it’s good, I'm sort of enjoying that, because I love reading anyway. I’m busy at the moment, too.
Do you feel like you’ve been able to keep a sense of community? It seems like people are dropping by to give you books… have you been able to keep in touch with a lot of people?
There’s a good feeling in the streets because there’s lots of families with little children, and they’re playing outside most of the time. And the trouble with this lockdown thing is that you can only really see your friends. I’ve seen my musicians as well. Ian Kearey, who does all the arranging, he lives close by and he comes and visits once a week and we sit and talk about things.
Yeah, it is interesting that acquaintances have become somewhat of a thing of the past.
True! Not that it’s their fault, you know. I don’t blame anyone. You know, as people keep away, they sort of drop away as well.
Yeah, I think that’s true. What music have you been listening to? At least personally, I’ve gravitated towards certain music that I have loved for a long time. I find that certain music, at least for me, has been harder to engage with than other types, and I’m wondering if you have felt the same way.
Well, I listen to a lot of early music, which I love. I like Italian Renaissance music, the music of Monteverdi and the music of Thomas Tallis. I’ve always loved the sound of that because when it’s somber it’s wonderfully somber, and when it’s merry then it’s very happy music, very lively. I’ve been listening recently to a group, an Irish group—I don’t know if you’ve heard of them—called Lankum. They have a singer called Radie Peat who has just got the most incredible voice. She reminds me of one of the old Irish Tinker women that Alan Lomax recorded in the 1950s. She’s got that same deep, powerful voice that she just throws at you. It’s really remarkable.
Have you been able to see them live?
Yes, I have. They were on locally last year, and I wish I’d gone up to say hello to them but I didn’t. Because there were so many people there, and you always feel a bit reluctant to sort of wander up and say “Hello, I’m Shirley Collins.” (laughter).