Lisa Knapp - the circuitous route to folk
Lisa Knapp isn’t cut out to be a pop star. Having announced her presence with a debut album, Wild and Undaunted, that aroused considerable interest in folk music circles last year, in a more pressured part of the music industry Knapp would be expected to have a career plan – or would be having one created for her.
Instead, this thirty-something mum from South London is just gathering ideas. Whether the follow-up to Wild and Undaunted will be an all-traditional collection, all her own songs or a mixture of both is a decision that Knapp feels no urgency to make.
"I didn’t set out with an agenda when I started recording that album," she says. "And I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of reaction. It was just a set of songs that I’d been singing and I’m very proud of it, but the response was really gratifying because I’m a late starter compared to all these youngsters out there who are making the folk scene so lively."
Knapp came to folk music by a circuitous route. Growing up in Balham, she had violin lessons at school from the age of six, played in the school orchestra and taught herself guitar. Christmases, spent in Hampshire with her mum’s family, were musical occasions with singsongs round the piano. There was dancing but it was jiving rather than folk dancing and there were no old uncles or aunts with ballads up their sleeves, although there’s one folk hero in the family tree – Boris Karloff, who was Knapp’s maternal grandmother’s cousin.
Dancing of another stripe – to hip hop and house music – claimed Knapp’s interest in her teens as her violin got stored away in the attic when playing classical music lost its appeal. She dived into the rave scene with gusto, although she confesses to being too scared to get involved with the accompanying drugs, and then through hearing a Jimi Hendrix album, she found that the late 1960s and early 1970s had a certain appeal.
A friend’s parents had shelves full of vinyl from the time: the Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Knapp worked her way through them, arriving at a road to Damascus experience with Steeleye Span’s Please to See the King. Fairport Convention and Shirley Collins, something of whose unaffected southern English tones can be heard in Knapp’s own singing, followed.
"It was the stories in the songs and the fact that they have a very intimate relationship with where they come from – the language, the landscape and the history – that appealed to me," she says. "The other thing is that traditional songs are timeless, like The Blacksmith. You might not be quite so likely to meet and fall in love with an unfaithful blacksmith these days but the things that happen in that song still happen now, so it’s easy to relate to the words – and it’s a great tune, too."
By now in her early twenties, Knapp started to seek out her own discoveries. The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues became a favourite, as did Dolores Keane singing Bonny Bunch of Roses with the Chieftains. Keane would become a big influence until a friend pointed out that Knapp sounded Irish when she sang.
With the folk music available south of the Thames, where Knapp lives, this wasn’t so surprising. Stockwell, Balham, Clapham and Tooting have long had strong Irish communities with pub music sessions at their heart and having dug out her violin again, Knapp took lessons in Irish fiddle and started listening to fiddle heroes including Martin Hayes and Tommy Peoples. She’d do floor spots at folk clubs – the classic rite of passage where singers and musicians play a couple of songs or tunes before the main act – and entered a young singers competition at Redditch Festival, only to be disqualified for being a few days over the under-25 age limit. The organisers gave her a spot at the festival instead and she began to see music as a viable alternative to the temping work she was doing.
Even at that point, ideas for Wild and Undaunted were developing but suddenly she had to put any thoughts about making music a career on hold when a scan revealed that she had a brain tumour.
"When they told me that it was untreatable I was, well, you can imagine," she says. "But it turns out that it’s only a problem if it starts growing and does funny things. It’s fine at the moment. I’ve learned to live with it and there are people who have a lot worse to deal with in their lives. I can’t sit around worrying about it because it’s not life-threatening and actually it’s brought me to a stage where if I’m going to do things with my life, I have to get on and do them."
One of these ‘things’ is her daughter, Bonnie, who will be five in May. When the tumour was discovered, doctors advised Knapp that if she wanted a family, she shouldn’t wait too long. The year before Bonnie was born, Knapp had appeared on her husband, Gerry Diver’s album, Diversions. Diver, who played fiddle with the multicultural band Sin E in the 1990s, included Knapp’s singing of the aforementioned The Blacksmith on his album and the buzz about Knapp began.
Producer and re-mix artist Youth heard The Blacksmith and offered to re-mix it for a compilation album he was working on, What the Folk Volume 1 (Knapp also appears on the recently released second volume). He also suggested that he should produce an album of contemporary songs for her but Knapp preferred to work with Diver on the mainly traditional songs – eight of the album’s eleven tracks are "trad arr"; three are Knapp and Diver originals – that make up Wild and Undaunted.
Notwithstanding the striking arrangements – some simple, others highly textured – that make the album sound very much of our times, the main talking point about the album is Knapp’s very natural, unfettered singing.
"When I started singing, I adopted a kind of transatlantic accent, which a lot of people do and which works in pop music or with someone like Amy Winehouse, who’s fantastic," she says. "Then I sounded Irish until my friend brought that to my attention and I thought, no, you have to find your own voice otherwise it’s going to sound false."
With mention of Mitcham in one song from the album – Lavender - and Covent Garden in another, as a Londoner Knapp feels close to her material and is keen to keep that sense of connection in future.
"Lavender was actually collected by a gypsy woman who lived in Clapham, so it was close to home in more ways than one," she says. "I’m always looking for new songs to sing, always gathering ideas. But out of every fifty songs I come up with, I might use only eight because finding ones that feel right isn’t easy and you really have to let them grow on you, really get inside them to understand them before you can sing them properly. So it’s a slow process but fascinating, too."
From The Herald, March 29, 2008