‘When people ask me what kind of singer I am, I find it hard to answer . . . I always say I’m a folksinger. ‘Folk’ is a huge umbrella – I’m not a bluegrass singer, or a traditional Irish singer, but ‘folk singer’ covers it.”
Heidi Talbot has just returned to Ireland, and the night before we talk she made her first appearance on The Late Late Show. Having grown up with the programme – she's in her 30s – it was a big deal, but not necessarily for the reasons people assume. "I was fine during the warm-up, but then you hear that music, so I started to get very nervous."
Nerves took hold because her father, brother and two sisters were in the audience. Talbot has been making musical waves – just not in Ireland – so her her success has been at a remove from her family. In the UK, her latest album, Angels Without Wings , has been scooping up four-star reviews from British broadsheets. She is signed to a US label, Compass, and is based in Glasgow. "So much of what I've done has been in the US or the UK, so my family have never seen anything I've done on TV."
Talbot grew up in a family of nine children, with four sisters and four brothers on either side of her. When she was growing up in Kill, Co Kildare, her parents were involved in the local choir. (The family lived opposite the church.) Her mother played piano and organ, and led the choir, and her father, a builder, also sang and loved music. "I grew up with folk music; it was what my parents listened to. I loved The Fureys, The Dubliners and Mary Black. "
Success has been incremental, and has stemmed from years of dedication. Talbot wended her way along a very traditional route – of grafting, playing gigs and taking any paying music jobs along the way. At 18 she left Ireland for New York, and started singing with a band that played weddings. There were other regular gigs, in pubs around the Bronx and Manhattan, and a break finally came.
“I had a regular gig in a Bronx pub, and there was a local woman in the audience called Joni Madden. She manages a band called Cherish the Ladies, whose singer had just left, so she approached me about filling in for a few shows.”
A handful of gigs turned into six and a half years of constant work – the group played 150 gigs a year. “I learned a lot, but it was intense. I went from singing in pubs where no one is listening to playing to 2,000 people in arts centres where everyone is there to hear you. I was really shy at first, and couldn’t talk to the audience, but I had to get over that.”
While she was playing with Cherish the Ladies, Talbot bought a house in Galway and commuted to New York. The strain became too much, and increasingly she wanted to play her own gigs and go solo.
Raising your profile
Folk has its champions and detractors, but it’s a genre that embodies a strong sense of itself. There is honesty, protestation and laments aplenty, but modern incarnations can be overlooked and pigeonholed as niche. “There are great young folk singers out there, but it’s hard to get gigs and raise your profile.”
Talbot self-released her debut album, pressing 1,000 copies. (She doesn’t have a copy of it herself.) Having been signed to Compass for the past few years, she is keen to set up a label to distribute her music. Increasingly artists gravitate to this model, but Talbot believes that folk music has always been a self-sufficient genre.
“Record shops closing hasn’t really affected my sales. I don’t – and folk music doesn’t – sell a lot of albums in shops. It’s hard to even get folk albums into shops, and we sell most of our music on the road. Our friend Roddy Woomble told us that when he was in Idlewild they weren’t allowed to sell CDs at gigs. Now that he’s made a folk album and done the circuit he realised how DIY it is. I remember him saying to me, ‘You’ve totally got it sorted, you folkies.’ ”
Talbot's new album has been selling at gigs and elsewhere, helped by the pedigree of her collaborators. Mark Knopfler plays guitar on two tracks (her husband, John, who is her producer, plays in Knopfler's touring band), and she convinced the Mercury Prize nominee King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, to contribute. Anderson was asked in a newspaper article to pick his fantasy band; he picked Talbot and Morten Harket, of A-ha, on lead vocals.
Talbot and Anderson met at festivals and talked about working together. "He asked if I had anything in terms of lyrics, but I just told him, 'Make it a bit miserable.' " Why? "Miserable songs are just more enjoyable to sing. You can become very emotional about it; there's more truth to it. Everyone has experienced sadness, so we can always relate to a sad song."
The new songs sound personal, and Talbot is not afraid to be open in her lyrics. For her, if it’s something she’s happy to talk to someone about, it can work its way into her songs. Next week she returns to Scotland before a tour of UK and European festivals. Her and John’s three-year-old daughter travels with them.
At home in Scotland, they are converting an adjoining cottage into a recording studio and want to set up their label. And the future? "We'd like to get our record label off the ground, and be self-sufficient. Oh, and more kids," she says with a laugh. "If I could work with anyone, it would be Jack White. I bet he's a folkie. I'm sure of it."
Angels Without Wings is available at heiditalbot.com