June Tabor: ‘Will I ever write a song? I would say the answer is no’
The English folk singer began to focus on music only in her 40s, and regards herself as an ‘interpreter’ of existing songs
June Tabor: “Because I didn’t attempt a full-time music career until I was 40, I came to it as a very different person”
June Tabor’s dark, distinctive singing has featured on dozens of records over the past 40-odd years, ranging from raw folk songs in the style of Anne Briggs to high-fidelity jazz and folk-rock. Although her performances are often austere and outwardly serious – a veneer enhanced by the somewhat intense photos of her that often grace the covers of her albums – Tabor is quick to laugh and joke in person. Songs about cannibalism and war give way to stories about annoying the dogs with her singing and her favourite vegetarian restaurant (Cork’s Cafe Paradiso, in case you’re interested).
Happily for Tabor, this week sees one of her projects, Quercus, come to Cork for the ECM Weekend there. Quercus – Tabor, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and long-term collaborator Huw Warren – fall somewhere between jazz and folk, without fitting comfortably into either category. It’s a rare project where you feel all three musicians are contributing equally.
“It’s an occasional kind of happening, really, but one that is very enjoyable for all three of us,” says Tabor of the band.
“Just to stand on stage and have Iain playing along so gently, it’s like two voices rather than a voice and an instrument. It’s extraordinary. And Huw of course is an accompanist like no other on earth. It is, in a way, three voices – the piano, the saxophone and my voice – all telling effectively the same story or reflections on a central theme, which is the song. The whole point of having this trio is to try and explore the ways it can actually be a triangle with points of equal importance rather than one peak and a couple further down.”
For Tabor, the songs and their stories are still at the heart of the project. The songs she sings come from all over – medieval English hymns, Napoleonic war ballads, peasant songs – but she says there’s a common thread of quality storytelling that allows her to pluck a song from the past and bring it to life in the present.
‘Captures a mood’
“It’s like a short story; it captures a mood, it captures an instant in time, it might paint a specific picture with strong, unique visual images – just something that I respond to,” she says.
“It is giving the past its own voice now. The best of traditional songs are timeless, and whether it’s feelings of disadvantage or political struggle, or whether it’s talking about human emotions, relationships, all those things are timeless. That’s what traditional song does so well, to encapsulate that. It sets it in a context and, at the same time, it’s universal.”
Although she started performing in folk clubs when she was a teenager, Tabor only took up music full time after she turned 40. Previously she worked as a librarian in London and then opened and closed an ill-fated restaurant in Penrith, a small town in the Lake District, which led her to concentrate on singing.
It was around this time, in the late 1980s, that Tabor first played with Huw Warren, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“When I finally did opt for music as a full-time career, there was a huge explosion of trial and error, but a very enjoyable one. I learned a hell of a lot in doing that. I also think, because I didn’t attempt a full-time music career until I was 40, I came to it as a very different person. If I’d done it at twentysomething, it wouldn’t necessarily have turned out quite the way it did. I was a lot more awkward at 40, and could say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, I want to do it my way, I want to sing the songs that I want to’.”
Tabor is something of an outlier, even in the folk scene, because in almost half a century of performing, she has never written her own songs. She says people are often shocked by the fact, but she has simply never considered herself the best person for the job.
“That’s not what I’m any good at, and I only like things I’m good at,” she says, laughing. “What I’m good at is finding other people’s songs and giving them the attention that they deserve, and sometimes finding things in them, whether they’re traditional pieces or modern writing, finding things in them that even the writer hadn’t recognised at the time. I’m an interpreter. That’s what I do. If you ask me, will I ever write a song? I would say the answer is no.”
Tabor is quick to focus on the collaborative element of folk music. Whether acknowledging the writers of the songs she sings or praising the musicians who help her bring them to life, she sees herself as part of a tradition, as someone helping to carry a history rather than an individual out front, leading the way.
“It isn’t just the voice,” she says. “It’s the choice of song, it’s the interpretation of the song, it’s who accompanies it, how they accompany it and what the instrumentation is. It’s a huge combination of circumstances that make something work.
“The most important thing is, always, the song and what the words say. Everything else follows from that. Although I have frequently made fast attempts – usually failed – to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you’ve got to have that basis of good material to build on. All those things contribute to it, and it isn’t any one factor. It certainly isn’t just me.”
- Quercus play the Triskel Christchurch in Cork on Sunday, November 29th