A conversation with Dartmoor’s soundtrack

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

I have a confession to make. Seth and I have actually met before. I was at a bar in Looe during their annual music festival around five years ago when a punter came flying into me, knocking my drink clean out of my hand after tripping on the dance floor.

An extremely apologetic Seth Lakeman insisted on buying me a drink; in a fan-boy-struck giddy haze, I declined his offer. Should I remind him that he technically owes me a pint? Best not, it could torpedo the interview.

Seth talks to me from his home patch of Yelverton, where he’s busy prepping for the next tour. “I’ve always lived in and around Yelvy, I lived in Tavy for a bit but I grew up in Buckland Monachorum. I’ve been away a lot over the last few years with touring so it’s nice to be at home.”

The Dartmoor landscape has been profoundly influential on Seth’s music. Over the years, many Dartmoor legends have been re-imagined though his songs. “It’s great being from here, me and the wife are always out walking on the Moor, I have a Springer Spaniel so we have little choice. I actually went around Burrator this morning.”

When pushed to name a favoured beauty spot Seth pauses, “Peak Hill is one of my favourite places. I really love that place. Long Ash is lovely too, stunning views across the valley. We did the two moors way last year, we did the whole thing, well, the Dartmoor bit anyway. Once we hit Chagford we couldn’t get any further, all paths lead to the Ring of Bells, it seems.”

In February Seth finished a mammoth eighteen-month tour. In addition to his own musical endeavours his part-time gig is playing in Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters. The former Led Zeppelin rock icon hand-picked Seth for the band, a retro psychedelic outfit reminiscent of the rock bands from the 60s and 70s. The group consistently impresses both fans and the music press alike.

Whilst on the short break from touring Seth had a limited window to record his latest album. “We dusted off the instruments and went for it, The Well Worn Path was made in January, I had a window of around three or four weeks in which to record it. I had a bunch of songs that I wanted to have finished in that time.”

Having recorded his first solo album, The Punch Bowl, in a kitchen and a previous album in an old coal chamber, the new record was recorded in a slightly more comfortable setting. “We recorded it in a garage studio that I’ve got at home. It was everything in one room, all the instruments and even the control room. It was a couple of days getting the equipment inside and all set up.

‘When it came to recording it was literally four days. We went to the Rock Inn for dinner every night. We recorded all the tracks in one room, even the mixing desk crammed in and everything. Some days we recorded five or six tracks a day, we then whittled them down to the best eleven songs. It was really quick, mate!”

The latest album was produced by Ben Hillier, an acclaimed producer, having worked with Blur, Elbow and Depeche Mode.

“Parts of the new album have a dark, moody sound. That January time of year, that lack of light. It’s that real Dartmoor feel, a very moody landscape feeling to it. There are other upbeat tracks too, the whole album has a pretty raucous and raw sound.”

Some of the new songs are noticeably reminiscent of Seth’s second album – Kitty Jay which was recorded some fifteen years ago when he was relatively unknown on the folk scene.

The new album stays true to the art of telling stories. “There’s a few interesting narratives to it. There’s a song about Bob Fitzsimmons, a heavyweight boxer down in Cornwall, a really fascinating tale, a David and Goliath style story that I was reading about at the time. So there are narratives on there, a contemporary folk record for sure. The actual sound of the record reflects
Dartmoor, especially songs like The Gloaming, and the title track The Well Worn Path.”

It’s probably fair to say that folk music isn’t the native territory of younger people. With the word ‘folk’ coming from the German word of “volk” meaning – people, many of Seth’s songs stay true to this ancient tradition of spreading stories by song.  They centre around people and folklore, myths, and legends, stories that would perhaps remain otherwise unknown to fans of his music. Sometimes real and more recent events are preserved through his lyrics with songs like Solomon Brown, a catchy yet sincere tribute to the 1981 Penlee lifeboat disaster off the Cornish coast.

Now that the new album is finished Seth is eager to head out on tour again. The schedule it seems, is relentless. “I’m really keen to get out on the road and cement this new sound that we’ve developed for this album. We’ve got a February tour and I want to play with this album again.”

As a talented musician with chiselled good looks, Seth retains a humble outlook, clearly not taking the success and rarity of his career for granted. In 2018, it’s hard to imagine there being an abundance of young successful folk musicians.

“It’s been mad, you know, I’ve been so lucky to do some of these things. I’ve been playing Rock n Roll with Sheryl Crow and Robert Plant in Toronto, jamming with Mumford & Sons and Robert too. I’ve been able to do the most incredible things, its absolutely mind-blowing. It’s as good as it gets, especially in times when it’s either the pop music route or nothing really.” One glance at his work schedule queries how much ‘luck’ has to do with it. Whilst on tour with the Sensational Space Shifters Seth doubled as the support act. A full support slot followed by a lengthy set with the full band. It seems indicative of his work ethic.

Having been located in the Plymouth area for most of his life Seth has been heavily involved in the 2020 Mayflower 400th Anniversary concert planned for the city. A host of celebrations are scheduled to mark the historic landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.

“I was working over in the U.S with Robert Plant. I spent time in Massachusetts and met the tribe who first met the original settlers there, so I’ve done plenty of research. I’ve convinced them that we’ll tell two sides of the story in the concert.”

As for working with Robert Plant? “Robert is so inclusive when it comes to my input, he’s always up for hearing your ideas.”
In recent years the rock legend has been known to tear up the blueprint when it comes to performing classic Led Zeppelin songs. “You know, when he’s about to go, you’ve got to be ready. He just goes for it and that’s it! You’re straight in the psychedelic 60s and the songs format is out of the window, you’ve always got to be ready for that when playing with him.”

Whilst its been a year of highs, Seth tragically lost his best friend some weeks ago. Former Plymouth Herald journalist Tristan Nichols died in his sleep at home in October.

At just 40 years old, the death of the award-winning journalist was received with an outpouring of grief from journalist colleagues and friends alike from across Devon and beyond.

Having gone to school together Seth has decided to organise a fundraiser for his family. “We’re going to put a gig on and raise some money for his daughter. We may do it on his birthday which was February 17th, there will be others playing too, I think Mad Dog Mcrea will hopefully play also.”

Much like his best friend, Seth’s father Geoff Lakeman was also a journalist, the South West Correspondent for the Daily Mirror. Was it this that inspired a passion for great stories?

“Journalism was always flooding through our house, the stories, the ideas, the energy. Everyday is a new day, a new story and that certainly rubbed off and inspired me. I think you get this natural sense and intrigue; you learn a detective style of thinking. Naturally, it’s the kind of personality you adopt, the inquisitive nature and the need to ask questions.”

BBC Radio Wales recently refused to play one of his latest songs, one which Seth describes as “explicitly against Brexit”.

“On Well Worn Path there are some proper political songs, one is more subtle than the other. There’s certainly an anti-Brexit song called Divided We Will Fall. They refused to play it on BBC Wales due to the lyrical sentiment, the song in its lyrics, its all about being united and staying together as a country.

‘I was chatting to Wynne Evans (the man who sings the enraging ‘Go-compare’ adverts who also has his own radio show) in the BBC studio and it may have been the way I presented it, because
I introduced it as an ‘anti-Brexit’ song – they wouldn’t play it on air.”

Whilst the impartially of the BBC is to be expected, the political sensitivities surrounding Brexit have seeped into the arts and one would think this domain could be offered an exception, given the layers of abstraction that are innately prevalent.

“A lot of young musicians have a slight fear of being as vocal as artists were in the sixties and seventies. The BBC aren’t helping that and they’re probably one of the only real vehicles to actually sell your music these days.”

With another tour booked due to start in February, will it be time for a well earned break? “I reckon we’ve got a busy summer coming up. I think we’re doing Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Celtic connections and maybe Beautiful Days.”

The Beautiful Days festival is run by folk-punk act The Levellers, who have been a profound influence on Seth. “They’re good mates, I first went on tour with them when I was about 25, it was terrifying, it was like a rock and roll university. I got the later part of their rock and roll lifestyle.

‘They were at the tail end of their ‘crazy period’, they’ve calmed down a bit now. They’re great, those guys. One of the best live bands out there. They’re completely unique.”

Seth can often be seen joining The Levellers on stage at Beautiful Days, held in Ottery St Mary. The popular festival has produced its own community of bands, artists that have played and evolved
together over the years. If Radiohead are a proper Glastonbury band, then Seth is arguably the Beautiful Days equivalent.

Seth now has to go and I thank him for his time. Dare I mention
the pint that I’m still owed? No. I’ll send him a copy of this interview in the post and remain firmly at my local pub The Teign House until he arrives, cheers!

The Well Worn Path is now on general release.
Seth will be playing In Exeter Cathedral in February.
For more information, visit www.sethlakeman.co.uk

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