Sandy Fights Back

“If I have to sing Matty Groves one more time, I’ll throw myself out of a window… I’ll be doing a lot of stuff from my early albums, but one of them will NOT be Matty Groves. Or Tam Lin. There, you can write that down.”

There you have it. This week embarking on her first tour for two years, Sandy Denny remains as strong-willed as ever and is anxious for you all to know she won’t be singing her two most famous traditional numbers, no matter how long she’s been away.

Her long absence hasn’t, apparently, been by design. Along with her old man, Trevor Lucas, and Jerry Donahue, she quit Fairport Convention for the second time in 1975 and then decided on a long break to recover her sanity.

But the break dragged on, she gave birth to a daughter, Georgia, and practically the only thing her fans have had to go on has been an album belatedly issued by Island earlier in the year. And Sandy has become increasingly frustrated, yearning to get out on stage and sing in public again.

“I’ve virtually never stopped working since I was 18 – and I’m not telling you how long ago that is – and these two years have done me a lot of good. When you’ve been working so long, you gradually lose your sanity without realising it. But there have been moments recently of total boredom – I got to the stage where I turned the television off if a pop programme came on. I pretended the pop world didn’t exist.”

No, she says, she has no fears that people won’t remember her; or that she won’t be able to handle an audience after so long away. There was never a time when she seriously considered not coming back, and she didn’t intend it to be so long before she did.

Though still friends with Fairport (they all live round Banbury Way), she now concedes it was a mistake to re-join the band. She had done so for emotional, as much as any other, reasons; Trevor Lucas was in the group and they saw each other only occasionally between tours, so when Fairport asked her to re-join it was logical for her to accept and bring some order into their relationship.

“It was a mistake, but in a way I had to do it. My marriage is quite important to me and I hardly ever saw Trevor. In the early part it was quite good, but there were a lot of musical conflicts.

“Swarb is an entity of his own, and we’re both strong personalities . . . I’m not saying we didn’t get on, but we did have our moments. I think they’re better as they are now with just one focal point, instead of two or three.

“And there were politics – sometimes I wonder how they kept going – I keep expecting the big explosion to be splattered all over Britain. But they seem to have it all sorted out now.”

She agrees there seems to be something uncrushable about Fairport. After one sequence of personnel changes they decided to split if anybody else left; a bit later Dave Mattacks quit, but they conveniently forgot their earlier resolution and brought Bruce Rowland into the band.

Now she’s confident of re-establishing herself. She’s proud of all the solo albums she’s made and is writing new material now. There may be one or two traditional things in her concerts, she says, adding the proviso:

“I was never in the traditional clan – I was in the layabout section with Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and all that lot.

“I’m not ashamed of any of my records. Some of them are really good, and I’m surprised they haven’t sold more than they have. They haven’t done bad, but I feel they deserved to be more successful. I feel it’s a style of music of its own. I’ve never consciously copied anybody.”

Sandy Denny pregnant

Sandy Denny looked radiant. Yes, one is always supposed to say that about ladies when they’re pregnant, but in this case it was true. She lounged back, relaxed and ebullient, on the over-stuffed sofa of the Northamptonshire cottage where she lives with her husband, Trevor Lucas.

With her baby due barely a month from now, she was already beginning to talk about an autumn tour, and with no sign at all of any frustration at having been off the road for so long – well over a year, in fact, since she and Trevor left Fairport Convention.

“To be honest,” she said, “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, ‘cos in many ways I really needed a break from the business. I’ve been in it up to my eyes for over ten years, virtually non-stop, though people don’t realise it because I’m not hitting the headlines every day.

“But when you’re working for ten or 11 years with not much of a break you can go completely mad without realising it at the time. It’s taken me since last summer to get back to some sort of sanity – something I didn’t even realise I’d lost.

“Now I feel I can renew my old enthusiasm. For instance, last week I just went and played the piano for about three hours, all sorts of stuff, just for my own enjoyment. It really felt fantastic. It’s the first time I’ve done that, just out of sheer enjoyment, not out of necessity – not having to learn something or write something. I tell you what, it feels good for the first time in years.

“I think by the time that I’m ready to go back and work, which will be October or November, I shall be ready to do it. Obviously, there’s a lot to go through before then, with the baby and everything, but this is how I feel now.

“If I continue along the way I feel now about my music, not about the business but the music itself, I shall be much happier in my work when I do return to it.

“In general, I feel that I must be satisfied with myself. If I’m not satisfied with the way that I’m doing something, how can I expect anyone else to be? How can I make people feel that I’m as good as I want them to feel if I don’t think I am anyway?

“Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know.

“I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own.

“It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?

“I’m not really interested any more in being heavy with people. There’s no point, I’ve just realised, because what can I do? I can’t do anything about anything. What a terribly defeatist attitute, you might say, but if I can’t do anything about the way things are then surely I can try to make people feel a little better about it.

“You’ve got to let yourself branch out as much as you possibly can, otherwise you can’t appreciate things if you’re bigoted, it’s a pain.”

At long last, at least for a time, the pain seems to have gone out of Sandy’s life, and it’s a pleasure to see it.

Softie Sandy

ALL IN ALL, it’s been a funny sort of year for Sandy Denny. She hadn’t performed in this country before last Christmas though she’s worked in America a number of times and played a couple of gigs in Spain.

And it’s typical of her that her first British appearance in almost a year – apart from her unscheduled appearance at Cambridge – should have been her show at the tiny Howff on Monday this week. “I just thought it would be nice.” she said. “It’s a cosy place to play. I thought I’d quite like to because I really like playing. It was just that I haven’t done it for a while and I felt like doing a gig.” Much of the year she’s been working on her latest album, so far not quite completed, so far not even titled.

She’d hoped to do much of it in America when she found that she and her old friends of Fairport were on the West Coast together, but the increasing involvement of her old man, Trevor Lucas, in Fairport, moving from being their producer to an actual member of the band, has also held up things. “I had to give it a rest for some time because Trevor wasn’t available.” she said, “So I had to wait until he had some free time.”

“I think this one is simpler and more romantic than the last. It’s more direct, I know I always say that about every album, but I’m a bit of an old softie at the moment. I’m going to have to get myself some boxing gloves.”

“You know me, I’m always pleased with what I’m doing at the time, recording-wise, luckily, up to this point. I don’t particularly relish any of my old records as being better than the one I’m doing at the moment.”

“Which is good because that gives you an incentive to carry on when you really do have that feeling that you are doing something that is better than the last album.”

“If you always feel like that then I always feel you can keep doing it. I felt that way with the last album and I feel that way with this'”.
British audiences hadn’t heard any of the songs on the new album until the Howff on Monday, though she did some of them in America.
None of the songs is traditional. There’s a jazzy version of the old Fats Waller hit, ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’ with real jazzers like Ian Armitt on piano, Diz Disley on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and Tony Coe on sax – though Tony hadn’t been added to the mix she played me, and she intends to re-do the vocal.

“We did it live, apart from Tony, and it was really fun, and the spirit was so good that I didn’t want to stop them when I felt the vocal wasn’t going quite right. So I’ll do that again until I get it right.”

This jazzy feel may surprise some who think of Sandy as someone who has emerged out of the folk scene to become a singer of more general appeal, but when she was just one of a crowd of girls who used to turn up at the old Cousins and the Scots Hoose – though outstanding among them – she always had ambitions so sing jazz.

She played me two other uncompleted mixes of songs from the album, interrupting them to indicate where strings would come in here, a guitar solo there. One, ‘Carnival’, reminded me somehow of those “end of an era” songs she wrote at the time that Fotheringay was breaking up, and indeed the line-up on it was entirely Fotheringay, Trevor, Jerry Donahue, Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway.

It’s a real autumn song, which could be something of a downer with its images of departing carnivals and the end of summer sunshine, were it not for the strangely uplifting play-out of Sandy’s solo voice singing “Come back soon, the carnival” against a veritable choir of Sandy’s chanting the one word “carnival” over and over.

I doubted it when she said all the voices were her own, though I recalled the remarkable tour de force she made of Dick Farina’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ on the last album. I remarked that she’d be putting all the back-up singers out of work at this rate. “It’s just little ol’ me, doing my impersonations.” she gagged.

The second song was more romantic, almost banal, with the words – I kid you not – “Roses are red, violets are blue” opening it. The title: ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ and though it is, as she says, romantic, there’s a somewhat valedictory mood about it, too, for it’s a song of nostalgia. These are the ways it used to be, it says.

I told her that the waltz was the only actual ballroom dance I’d ever managed to get my feet around. If she’d called it Like an Old Fashioned Foxtrot she’d have lost me immediately.

“Then it’s aimed at you, then, isn’t it? Great”.

While she was in the States there was a rumour that Sandy might rejoin Fairport, and it turns out to have been more than a rumour, after all. But it didn’t happen.

“There was an emergency situation at one point, where it was a case of will I or won’t I? But the emergency situation passed and the idea faded out with the emergency.”

“It’s really nothing to do with me, it’s just they asked me. But because I happen to be me and I used to be with them everyone starts making a big thing out of it. If some other group had asked me to join they wouldn’t have made such a big thing out of it, perhaps, you know?”

It must have been a hard choice for her to make, for Sandy has always preferred not to go out alone. She did the American tour on her own.

“I found it very heavy, actually, to be absolutely honest, I found it exceptionally heavy. There were only three of us. I had a sort of assistant with me and David, my brother, who manages me. When there are just three of you travelling all over America it puts a lot of strain on everybody.”

“Everybody else enjoyed it, David especially, in some ways there were moments when I did but especially the way I did it, which was on my own, it was a bit kind of isolated. A very strange experience.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when Sandy has her next concert tour in the late autumn, she’ll probably have the strength of a band around her, even though it may be only a couple of other musicians.

“I’m working in October and November, concerts and colleges. I’ll try to do more concerts.”

“I mean, I like doing universities and colleges as well but it’s better like in a concert hall with all the comfortable seats and all those kind of things.
People like relaxing to listen rather than sitting on the floor and getting uncomfortable and having to shift every five minutes.”

“I just think it’s a lot more relaxed, using a theatre. Mind you, a lot of universities have got theatres now which makes it a lot easier from that point of view. Those are the nicest ones, obviously, to do, because at least people can sit down.”

“I’m probably going to be working with Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway, if everything works itself out, just as a trio, until we might get somebody else later on. We were even thinking about not calling it me but calling it something else, like a name, you know, to make things a bit more even. But I don’t know, we’re still not absolutely sure.”

“I’m not really sure what I want to do. It’s a simple as that. Even down to the major decisions about whether one does it or does not do it at all. It’s from there, to the minute details of how you are going to do it when you do what you do.”

“As a matter of fact, I’m a bit numb about the way things are going at the moment. When you’re a bit indecisive about some things it becomes such a strain to make decisions. One tends to put things off. I like to kind of delay the decision as much as possible, and therefore one gets into a sort of mesmeric state about were things are going.”

“Apart from writing, I do a lot of thinking. Trying to find out if I have any enthusiasm under that lazy facade.”

Is it just a facade?

“Well that’s what I’m trying to find out.”

Despite all evidences to the contrary, I think the log-jam in Sandy’s life is beginning to break up right now. Her album is nearly finished. She’s going out on the road again. I don’t think she is as far from a decision as she thinks.

The funny year is coming to an end.

Sandy Denny in the Talk-In

Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas were at their Fulham flat watching the test match when I arrived to tape the talk-in. England’s terrible plight was temporarily averted as the TV was switched off and the tape recorder, blaring the skeleton of Sandy’s new album (produced by Trevor), was turned on.

Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson, Jerry Donahue, Richard Thompson, Alan Skidmore, Diz Disley – the featured musicians on the new album – are a fairly typical assembly for Sandy, but there was evidence of at least a few surprises.

We retired to the front room, talked about America and then debated how Sandy could possibly have got her giant grand piano into the house. “They must have built the house around it,” I challenged, but Sandy proved with the aid of geometry and a vivid imagination that this was not necessarily the case.

We haven’t seen much of you in this country – do you still enjoy gigging?

“Yeah, I do – I enjoy actually doing concerts, and when I’m at home installed in my house I quite miss not being on the road but being on the road is actually a lot more strenuous than you remember, though in fact I like doing gigs. That to me is probably the nicest part of any work like that – it’s worth going to America and Australia and stuff just to work.”

Do you find it difficult in organising situations with other musicians for touring or recording?

“Ideally – and this is the truth – I’d like to be in a band so that I didn’t carry all the responsibility. It’s not that I’m shirking, it’s just that when you do have a band that’s literally working for you, it’s quite a responsibility especially if you’re using musicians that you really respect, like telling them what to play and everything.

I think the ideal situation is being in a band and everybody having their own ideas and calling it something else. Like for the past two years I’ve been “Sandy Denny” or it has been “The Sandy Denny Band” or something and I kind of miss the slight anonymity of just being a member of a group.”

Even with Fotheringay it tended to be the Sandy Denny/Trevor Lucas band, though.

“Yeah but at least it was all spread out over everybody. It was nice in that band, I think.”

Why didn’t things work out in Fotheringay?

“Oh, I dunno. I’m easily swayed by people with strong opinions. It was a funny band and when I think of it now I wish we’d kept it up, though it’s silly to say that, because when I think back I’ve learnt an awful lot and I’ve written a lot too, and I think that my writing’s getting better.

You forfeit one thing for another, and musically I suppose I’ve developed along a certain line though whether it’s the right one or not is irrelevant to the amount of knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of years.”

Do you feel now that some of the pressure has been taken off you? I mean there was a time when so much was expected of you after topping polls and so on.

“Oh, right – but all that was really weird. I’m constantly feeling the pressure because I’ve got to keep at it, and even though I haven’t worked in England for a long time I’ve still been working a lot and really it’s all happening, it’s just that one doesn’t hear about it always over here.

As far as I’m concerned the pressure has never really been off, and if it completely disappeared I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I mean, if there really wasn’t any pressure for me to do anything I’d think, ‘Oh God something terrible’s just happened and I’ve become totally talentless and nobody wants to hear anything anymore’.

But I shall be working a lot more here – I shall be starting to work in October, and I’m really looking forward to it. I really am. I’m going to be playing with Pat (Donaldson) and Gerry (Conway) – just them to start with until we get something else happening. We just think it’s fine as it is, just as a trio to start with. I don’t know whether it’ll be a band or me with Pat and Gerry backing me, it’s all in the air at the moment.”

Will it be in the form of a tour?

“Yeah, because I think that’s what we need to do – we really need to do a lot of work before we go back to the States. I mean, I went over to the States last year with Pat playing and Timmy (Donald) and Richard (Thompson) and we did fairly well, but we hadn’t rehearsed enough and the pressure is so much more over there to be really tight and professional, otherwise it’s just not on, and I’d like to work around all the places here and then we’ll go again to America.

I’m not putting America first by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel it’s easier because the pressure is less and we’ll be able to relax more over here.”

I don’t know if you’re able to draw parallels, but how has your music been accepted by American audiences in comparison with the reaction here?

“This time I went over on my own, and I think the reaction was extremely favourable. But I still feel that I work better with musicians and a lot of people in their reviews were quite favourable about what I was doing and a few said it would be nice to hear me with a band. And actually, when I was at the Troubadour, Fairport were in town (Los Angeles) and they got up on stage with me and did five or six of my songs and we did some looning about and stuff and I felt a sudden sense of relief when they started playing. It was just really nice to have them all behind me – you can’t play that many bum notes when you’re on your own.

I’m not looking for excuses for playing bum notes, but if you do play a rotten note there’s no one behind you – so you’ve got to be good in every way.”

Do you tend to be bound to the piano these days?

“It’s just that I love playing the piano much more than I like playing the guitar.”

And presumably you write far more on piano.

“Well, as a matter of fact, that one thing you just heard, ‘The Carnival’, I wrote on guitar. But there’s one I really like on this next LP that was written on piano and there are quite a few on piano. But the trouble with me is that I tend to use the same chords re-arranged and with the tempo a bit different. But I really do like playing the piano.”

If the piano situation was such that it could be possible, would you like to be back in a band with Trevor? I know he’s been producing your new album, but his life has been changing musically since you went back on the road with Fairport.

“Yeah, well I would, I really would because obviously we’re away from each other an awful lot – I mean, he’s off on the road again for a couple of months at the end of September, then he’s off again after that, so it’s obviously a bit of a strain. But he’s really got into it – he really likes to be up on the stage and it’s good for him, I think.

But if he wants to get another band together after a while, I think we might do it. I miss that really warm feeling we used to have with Fotheringay. We’ve all got a soft spot for Fotheringay.”

You’ve always been fairly close, too, to Fairport and the musicians involved through the respective bands.

“Well, right, but it’s a very peculiar thing because everyone always uses the same musicians and…”

Let me ask you how you’ve seen the development of Fairport since you left.

“It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I’m obviously going to be slightly biased in favour at the moment and I think that since they’ve become more solid – I mean this particular lineup has been together for about a year now – and at the beginning of that year when Rosie came out there was this element of them not staying together and it was all on the brink of disaster.

But since then they’ve stuck together and had this one goal to stay together, really work hard and try and to do it properly instead of looning around all over the place. And I think because of their tenacity they’ll probably be a good band again.

I think up until now they’ve had slight material problems because of elements like everyone’s going to leave and you can’t write songs because you’re so uptight and their sets have been really thrown together because they’ve just had to work to live; I think you’ll notice the difference now anyway.”

People still talk about Liege & Lief as being the pinnacle of Fairport’s achievements, which of course you were featured on…

“I don’t think it was the best record at all, of the ones I was on. If you’re going to do an all round thing… there are numbers on every album that I like and ones that I really don’t, but in general the one I like most of all, except for the recording of it which wasn’t as good as it should be, was ‘Unhalfbricking’, I think that was the nicest one… and next to that I like ‘Full House’. Then it started to crumble around a bit and everyone was being schizophrenic and one even wondered whether Fairport would continue at all.”

How have you managed to keep sane through it all?

“I really don’t know. I think I have this mechanism which just clicks off when it’s really like disaster. I don’t believe it really would be. I know it is but I won’t admit it and I think that’s how you get through any heavy traumas or changes. You have to think things are going to look up tomorrow.”

Since we’re talking about your past, are there any songs you’ve written over the years that still hold a very dear place in your heart – going back to the period of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ for instance?

“I like that one sometimes, and there are occasions when I’m really in the mood to sing it and audiences quite like it if I do – but I can’t get it together to do it a lot.

It was one of my first songs, and I just wish people would listen to some of the other ones, although some people still maintain it’s the best song I’ve ever written. They can’t all be wrong, although I don’t agree with them – I’ve written lots more songs that I and they too prefer, but at the moment I’m too into the album to think which ones they are. I think I’ve done my best stuff on this record that’s going to come out.”

On your earlier solo albums you seem to have had a preoccupation with sea…

“Everyone’s asked me that question. I dunno. I just love things like that. When I write songs I often picture myself standing on a beach or standing on a rock or a promenade or something. I just put myself there sometimes and without even realising it I find myself describing what I’m looking at and often it’s the sea. I keep promising myself I’ll put myself somewhere else when I’m writing songs but I really can’t think of anywhere that’s nicer than that.”

Have you tended to write this album in one burst or has it come together over a long period?

“What’s tended to happen, funnily enough in the last couple of months, is that I’ve written a song in my head and I’ve written the tune down and I’ve known what the song is about, but I haven’t written the actual words until recently. Not that I don’t do that every time I go into the studio – I’m usually writing the words as I run up the street to the studio but I’ve really worked on a lot of the songs more than I normally do.

I’ve really thrown out things I don’t like very much and started again. I’ve used up reams of paper on this album just because I don’t want to waste record space.”

I mean, are there any songs that are out of your head the minute they’re down on wax?

“No, it’s not fair to say that because the songs are about things… a lot of my songs are really about specific circumstances and people that I know but whether I’ve put it better is the thing.”

Is there any sort of definition you can give in words to describe the new album? I mean, you’ve recorded a Fats Waller song for instance.

“No, and I’ll tell you why – because it hasn’t got its fur coat on yet, it’s still very basic. I say this every time, but it’s more positive than the last record – I just feel it’s stronger in some ways, but we haven’t gone through the dramas of mixing it and adding things on like orchestras yet.”

When’s it due out?

“October 12, but it’s really going to be a rush getting it out by then.”

So who’ve you heard recently that you’ve really dug?

“Interesting question. Well recently the person who I’ve been most knocked out with is Randy Newman… you see, I haven’t been to all that many places in England and I haven’t heard very many people, which is a drag. But I worked a lot with Randy Newman and I just couldn’t believe it; he was so amazing and so incredibly pertinent in his songs. He’s so cynical about the whole thing and I really got amazed – that was one of the nicest parts about being in America, the fact that I did five or six gigs with him.

Then there’s Dick Gaughan on the folk scene. I mean, he’s always been great, but I’ve only just realised it. I met him at the Cambridge Festival this year…”

You turned up and did a surprise spot during John Prine’s set…

“Yeah. Well, I did a gig with him in the States and I met him and his manager and everybody and I was looking forward to them coming over. So I had to go along and see them anyway… and Steve Goodman as well, all from the stable.

It was the first time I’d been to the Cambridge Festival ever and John just asked me if wanted to, and I said, ‘I only came to see you’, and he said, ‘You can play my guitar’ and I said, ‘I haven’t got any picks,’ so someone rushed off and got me some picks… so I got up and did a couple of songs but I was pretty nervous. They were really nice, actually, the audience.”

Aside from the folky people you use on your albums, the folk revival as such appears to have disintegrated somewhat, don’t you agree?

“Yes, it has a bit. Everyone seems to be gradually retiring or disappearing into oblivion. I should think worth hearing would be John Martyn and Danny Thompson.

There don’t seem to be any folk clubs like they used to be. Since the Cousins closed down it was almost like a nucleus was taken away for some reason, for one part of it. In those days there was always a John Snow for the tradition people and then Cousins for the folkies with the harmonicas and it has always buzzing around, the trads against the contemporaries.

It’s still going on, but it’s such a sophisticated feud now and one doesn’t enter into blatant ignoring of people. But there are these staunch ones left like Pete Bellamy.”

Do you get bored?

“Yes, I can’t think of anyone I want to go and see and there isn’t anywhere to go and see them – not like a folk club with the same kind of feeling. The Chieftains I like, but who doesn’t, really?”

So what are your fondest remembrances?

“I suppose when everybody used to go down the Cousins when it was open all night and everyone would be on – Martin (Carthy) and Swarb and all kinds of people like Alexis Korner would do an overnight thing and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn would be there and the Watersons and Les Bridger.

Davey Graham would do the all nighters as well and those were really good days. John Martyn used to do it too, and Jackson Frank. There were so many visiting American people, Paul Simon used to go down there; then there was Mike Seeger, Tom Paxton.”

Do you think that the placidity of your music is a sign of the general laid back feel that seems to have taken over since the days you’re talking about?

“Yes, a lot of the things I write are slow, because I find it difficult to play the piano fast and I think that restricts me a bit, but even so I don’t mind that very much because I really don’t like to be disturbed by my music – I like to take it easy.

I suppose I’m quite influenced by the folk songs I’ve sung in the past, and I suppose I sing a bit in that way so you’d always call me a kind of a folk singer because the way I sing is a bit folky – it’s a style rather than an actual definition of what folk music is. I love some folk tunes but there are people who spend most of their time getting the traditional stuff out and reviving it in a really pleasant way and while people are doing that I quite like writing my own stuff.

I like doing it because I think I do it well and a lot of other people are into a lot of different aspects of folk music and like to do it authentically and properly. And why not?”

Do you collaborate very much with Trevor during the writing stages?

“No, not at all. I’m a very peculiar writer. I don’t like writing with anyone around at all. I have to be on my own. I am quite secretive about it all, because I don’t like anybody to hear anything until I think it’s really good. So consequently Trevor gets used to the idea that he can only go on what he can hear, which is usually just the backing track. It’s very tense but it works out alright in the end and I don’t know what I’d do in the studio without him.”

Did you ever miss Joe Boyd in an artistic role when he went to the States?

“I dunno. I just kind of plodded on, really. I don’t remember it specifically, but yes, it was a bit higgedly-piggedly after he left, but it sorted itself out. I mean afterwards, Richard (Thompson) and John (Wood) and I just said, let’s have a bash at doing this record and it was a very laid back album to say the least. But at least it was a try.”

The “Tomorrow’s People” Interview

Q: Sandy Denny, how did your singing career start, was it something you drifted into or was it something planned and deliberate?

A: Yes it’s funny, I never planned it definitely but somehow in the back of my mind I knew I would sing eventually. When I was very small, I used to sing a lot and then when I went to my grammar school, you know after I took my eleventh class. I never sang there at all except in a choir, very innocuously in the background, you know, and then when I left school I went to art college. I was at Kingston Art College and just down the road there was a little barge on the river, called “The Barge Folk Club” and I used to go down there and I thought “well I couldn’t sing as well as these” you know, when I heard these people singing. So I learned to play the guitar very badly and I plucked up courage the next week to get up and sing a song and from then on, I’ve just always ehm… well I started doing just gigs around the country and then it got to be a little bit too much, going to college and doing gigs and turning up late and having people congratulate me for coming in at two o’clock in the afternoon and things, so I decided that rather than waste everybody else’s time I just, you know, I’d get out and do it. And it was throughout my year at college that it just developed, you know.

Q: Well it’s developed to such an extend that both last year and the year before, you were named “top girl singer” in the Melody Maker influential music magazine’s readers poll.

A: Yes…

Q: Did that surprise you?

A: Yes! It did, I was utterly amazed when I first won it but when I won it the second year running, having not done particularly much during the year, I was just like, you could have, you know, knocked me over with a feather, really…

Q: What difference did it make to you, winning that Melody Maker Poll?

A. Nothing! I mean, it didn’t make any difference at all. Except that I’ve got two pieces of quartz. (laughs).

Q: With your name on it?

A: With my name on it, like, you know, the whole bit, you know, a little plaque. I’ll show them to you later if you like.

Q: I’d love to see them.

A: Yeah…

Q: But what about financially, it’s natural to think of pop singers as being pretty wealthy people and although I know your music isn’t really quite “pop”, I think outsiders would expect you to be making a very good living out of it, is that true?

A: Well, my overheads are very big, ’cause I run my group myself, you see, so I have to pay them and I, I mean, there’s a lot of money coming in and going out so I’m constantly grabbing onto a bit and then having to give it away again. So I’m not rich personally and I don’t suppose I will be unless things radically change, ’cause having a group is a really expensive business. If I was on my own, I would be rich. And that’s the truth. Mind you, I’d have an awful lot of tax problems, probably. So… (laughs)

Q: Well you’ve sung with groups, you were a solo singer originally and then you sang with the Fairport Convention. Then you built your own group called “Fotheringay” and now you’re more or less on your own again, although you sing with a backing group.

A: Yes…

Q: Which of the songs you’ve made with the groups means most to you now do you think?

A: I like The Deserter on Liege And Lief. That’s a beautiful tune. Ehm, I just like the way we did it, I think that’s the best track on that album. That was with the Fairport Convention. That was the last album I did with them.

Q: People have often commented on the peculiar qualities of your lyrics and you’re of course a songwriter, as well as a singer. I think the atmosphere you create in your songs is a very personal one, it’s compounded of several different elements, I mean, there is magic, there is loneliness, there is a sense of freedom and openness, of people travelling, ehm, there’s strong feeling for nature. You’re constantly writing about rivers and fields and streams. Do you feel that your songs go with a particular lifestyle? I mean, are they a very clear reflection of your own life, for instance?

A: They are… Yes, they are. Ehm, they’re usually written from experience, you know, they’re my experiences of people. Like sometimes those kinds of metaphorical things about rivers and streams might be referring to a particular person. Which is an unusual thing to say, perhaps but, ehm… like, some people are very easily described in natural terms, like, you know, in, I mean, atmospheres and ehm, you know, the way I feel always comes out in some kind of ehm, description of some kind of natural force, you know. I don’t know quite how to explain, I mean, I can’t explain much more than the song itself, you know, without trying… ’cause when I write a song, I don’t remember writing it. You know, I can’t understand, I’m like a different person in my music.

Q: But your meanings are fairly obscure and hidden, perhaps.

A: Yes… they are. They’re supposed to be.

Q: Do you think there’s one reason why your music appeals to young people? Because they do seem to be tending these days towards an interest in magical forces and in a non-materialistic society.

A: Yes. Yes… I think so. Ehm… I get letters from people, you know, all over the world. Not that many, I mean, you know, but I… The ones I do get are amazing. I mean, the effect that my songs appear to have on them is quite astounding. There was a letter from a girl in America, who was very badly, eh, into acid and things like that…


A: Yeah, LSD, and things like that. And eh, she said that, you know, she was a real mess, and that she’d bought my record, just out of the blue for no particular reason and she sat and listened to it for a week, solidly and she’s… you know, she completely came out of herself and never took it again and she just wrote me this letter, saying ‘thank you very much, because I’m not a vegetable anymore’. It was the last album and she said that every song she identified with and she felt like she knew me. She took over my mind for a week. This is where she, you know, explained it to me and it obviously had a good effect on her. And like, I mean, what better thing could anybody tell me? So I guess I must be doing something okay. You know, like, it really isn’t worth ruining your mind with drugs because they are so bad for you. I mean, they really are destructive.

Q: The title track on your last album was called ‘The North Star Grassman and the Ravens’.

A: Yeah.

Q: A very haunting piece of music, beginning as it does with the sound of a ship’s bell, carried in the wind but indeed the song is about a ship, carried by the wind. Where do you think the wind is going to carry your ship?

A: That’s my imagination. I live in a world of my own. Really, I do. I can’t tell you where the wind’s going to blow my ship, I’m afraid but eh, I’m looking forward to finding out myself, actually.

Q: What direction is your own music going in?

A: I’ll always have a band. I think. You know, and my music, I’m trying to make it slightly simpler. Just because I want to, for no other reason. I just want to communicate to more people. I communicate to a lot of people but it’s not enough yet, you know. And it’s not purely from a mercenary point of view. I mean, I just want to, that is my ambition. I want to be happy. I want to be happy in my work. On one day I might reach something a little bit closer to the way I want to evolve (?), you know. But it’s all happening in a very slow way and if we’ve got time left in this world, you know, perhaps I’ll get there one day.

Sandy Solo Star

The oddest, most important lady in the British music business.

Once her music is mentioned, she begins to tense up. She’s defensive, she admits that she’s playing for time and is frightened of giving anything away.

Curious the way she stops seeming domestic and friendly the minute she starts playing guitar or piano and singing her dark songs crammed with bleak imagery.

Her strong, flexible voice, ideally suited to amplification.

Her curiously solemn voice.

Her own slow, brooding ballads – highly personal songs.

She isn’t prepared to discuss what they are about: “They are biographical. About 10 people can understand them. I just take a story and whittle it down to essentials… I wouldn’t write songs if they didn’t mean something to me, but I’m not prepared to tell everyone about my private life like Joni Mitchell does. I like to be a bit more elusive than that”.

On J Lennon: “He really blew his cool when he explained exactly how he wrote Lucy in the Sky”.

It ovbiously wasn’t worth pursuing her lyrics further.

‘Let’s Jump the Broomstick’ shows her power to belt out a rock number even if she does somehow makes this once-cheerful song sound sinister and evil.

America has produced a suitable number of rock stars for a matriarchal society… but for an internationally acclaimed female rock star there’s only serious contender: a chubby, cheerful girl of 23 who lives with a massive dog, an Australian and 3 cats in Fulham, and looks as if she would be most at home making cups of tea.

At Lincoln a few weeks back she played and sang better than I’ve ever heard her before.

“Ambitious? No. Yes. Well, I just plod. It just happens”.

Why Sandy Wants to Fly

“I wish I could fly,” said Sandy Denny.

“I dream about it. It’s a bit Freudian…but I have this vision of my body flying around a mountain and not wanting to actually land on top of it. Better to detach oneself from it and fly around looking at the mountain from all aspects. Landing on it would be too obvious.” When you have recovered from realising that she means it, and that it’s part of her serious philosophy of life, it makes some sense.

Sandy Denny is a complex character who finds it hard to match what is expected of her by a large part of the population.

Since becoming Top Girl Singer in the British Section of the Melody Maker Poll last year, she has spent hours reassessing her work and personality. Finally, she has decided: “I think I do appreciate being slightly well-known, because I’ve got a bit of an ego. But I never want to reach the top. It’s such a long way down. I’d rather hover about near the top and never actually reach the height.”

Fotheringay split last Christmas, since when she has been writing songs, making personal appearances, and working on an album for which most of the songs are self-written. It features her old friend Richard Thompson, and she plays piano and guitar on the record, tentatively called Slapstick Tragedies (eventually titled ‘The North Star Grassman and the Ravens’).

“I rather like that title because it’s a compromise: instead of slapstick comedies, I thought of tragedies because I’m no comedian in my music. Most of my songs seem pretty traumatic, pretty serious. I can’t sing happy songs.”

For a girl who cares a great deal about what people think of her, Sandy was in trenchant mood when we met–talking constructively about the state of the music scene as well as analysing her own problems.

“The words are the most important things to me: the whole structure of a song is important and I reckon that now people have been shown how great words can be, they can see through the poor lyrics.

“But some people are so clumsy in their songwriting. There’s far too much emphasis put on `writing my own material.’ That’s why so many bands are making bad albums. They think it’s expected of them to compose the lot themselves, whereas quite often they haven’t the talent in that direction. Some people might not have a lot to say in words, but a load of music to offer and marvellous interpretations of other people’s songs.

“I suppose a lot of it is money. Running a group, especially in this country, is an extremely expensive business. So apart from gigs (and most of these aren’t well-paid for the average band) the one thing they can get money from is songwriting royalties. That’s OK if they can write, but it’s no way of trying to stop themselves from going bankrupt if they’re struggling to find a songwriting ability that isn’t there. They’d often be better off taking other people’s material and doing it well.

“The only song of mine that’s been done by others is ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, which was recorded by Judy Collins and Nina Simone. In a way, I’m glad: it makes a song more personal when it’s your own: although, I own up, I was knocked out when they did that song!

“You know, I feel ashamed to sing Dylan. I feel I’ve got no right to get inside his mind, because it’s such a personal thing he’s saying. But I’m such a Dylan maniac I can’t resist. He’s as near as I would get to worshipping anyone…even though I’m still worried about why he changed his name.”

Miss Denny is sometimes regarded as a neutral fence-sitter when it comes to projecting an opinion for posterity. But today, her feelings on various topics were coming across with some force: “I don’t think there’s been a better time for musicians, but it’s not necessarily an equally good time for the listeners,” she continued. “The Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins thing: some of the music’s so good, but I wish it wasn’t so trendy.

“Joni is very, very good with words and also with tunes: she has a great affinity for writing words and music that go together very well. I love the structure of her songs. But the over-exposure of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young into so many fragments is a bit much. Stills is a great musician but I don’t like his clumsy words. I love Neil Young in some ways, but I wish he’d put his songs down a tone. Being a singer, I find it sounds strained, and I often wonder if he’ll make it! I can’t relax when I hear him: a semi-tone or tone down would be better.

“Who else is in the news? Elton John’s very talented, especially his lovely piano playing, but the way he’s being publicised strikes me as being a bit un-British. It depends what he wants: if someone tried to change my name, I’d obviously refuse, but ten years ago I might have done it.”

When her new album is out, Sandy plans to do concerts. Though friends have urged her to go completely solo, she feels the need to take to the road with a band of friends. “I’ve sounded out a few people and they’d do the gigs with me,” she said. “Anyway, I don’t want to push myself up front all that much. My ego needs satisfying, but the best way is for it to bounce off others. If I do gigs in the company of musicians I know, they can tell me honestly whether what I’m doing is good or bad, and that matters to me. I’m not self-assured enough to go completely solo, I don’t think.”

Domestically, she has decided to buy a house; she’s ”fed up” with her Fulham flat, yet seems apologetic that she should want to own property: “It’s funny, but people think chicks shouldn’t be successful, financially. I reckon it’s perfectly understandable that I should want a house. If I was successful in any other business, I’d have a house. Why not as a singer, then? I’m not going to get into the pink lame slipper bit, but I’d like a bit more comfort, a house that’s got a garden… ”

“I’m getting out of the lethargic stage now and really doing things,” she said, returning to talk about her recent static spell. “Too often recently, I’ve sat looking out the window doing nothing for three hours at a time. I’ve even sat gazing at my guitar for an hour-and-a-half. Never even played a note. But at the moment, I’m going through a phase of wanting to get things done. A sort of musical rebirth.”

We’ll be hearing from Sandy, tangibly, very soon.

Fotheringay, the Sea and Sandy Denny

A few months ago Fotheringay was a pretty name for a group of musicians who happened to play together. Today it is the name of a band.

As Trevor Lucas put it, when we turned off the election results coming in on the colour TV to play through an early copy of their first album for Island: “It took a little while. Now everyone fits in, without being a showman.

“Gerry and I’ve really only found each other on drums and bass when we get to the recording studio. And Jerry Donahue has become one of the band rather than the lead guitarist.

“In fact, Jerry joined us just four weeks before we started our concert tour, and he had to go off for two weeks of that time to fulfill other commitments.

“I don’t think we have even yet got the sort of collective personality a band needs before you get the same sort of intimacy you can have in a folk club. But it’s coming.”

One of the things, perhaps, that holds the audience at bay is the colossal size of those super hi-fi WEM speakers they use to amplify the group’s acoustic sound, and the fact that the size of their equipment keeps them out of the smaller clubs.

“I must confess I miss the very close communication with the audience you get in a good folk club,” said Trevor Lucas. “But I thought it ought to be possible to get it at concerts if we are relaxed enough. After all I managed to establish that sort of contact at concerts when I was a solo singer.”

Sandy chipped in here. “I miss the folk scene as it was,” she said. “It was so friendly, despite all the intrigues and arguments. There was a very close family atmosphere. The people like Bert and John and us who have veered away from the folk scene must admit we all miss that personal atmosphere.

“But it’s gone for us anyway. I used to be able to go into any one of five pubs around the Cousins in Soho and there’d always be someone there I know. Now I hardly know a soul. Times have changed.”

The new album is remarkable for the number of songs Sandy has contributed. Apart from Trevor’s excellent Ned Kelly ballad (nothing to do with the film), a song she has written with Trevor, Dylan’s Too Much of Nothing, the very beautiful traditional Banks of the Nile, and Gordon Lightfool’s The Way I Feel, the four remaining songs on the album are all by her, and all crackers.

“I think Nothing More is the best song I’ve written,” she says. “It really sums up what I want to say. All the others are based on people I know, or events in my life.

The Pond and the Stream is about Annie Briggs. I was sitting here thinking about her and the words just came.

“Whenever I sing The Sea I think about a particular beach in Wales where I sat late at night, rather sad, a long time ago when I was about 18. It was almost like watching Cinerama as the sun went down.

“I began to think how powerful the sea was, and I even got a little morbid, thinking about what it would be like to swim out and just drown.

“The sea seemed to become a sort of person, like a mind, and that’s what I have tried to convey, the power of the sea.

Peace in the End isn’t really a protest song. It’s more a sort of teaching song, about people getting together, rather than telling people what to do. That’s why it has a sort of gospel feel to it, I suppose.

“Some critics haven’t liked Peace in the End and I think this is because by a mistake the first thousand copies of the single were the wrong mix. On the album it sounds much better.”

It certainly does, for with the five voices of the band, augmented by Linda Peters and Tod Lloyd, and then doubled by overdubbing, the vocal sound is incredibly full.

“lnstead of recording voices each on a separate mike,” said Trevor, “we all stood round two stereo mikes in a circle, which is why we managed to get it so full. In fact, there were very few overdubs on the record. Most of the tracks are almost identical to the way we do the songs live.”

Now Fotheringay are working on broadening their repertoire and getting to know each other even better. Two traditional songs likely to be on their next album are Bruton Town – already recorded by Martin Carthy, and twice by Pentangle – and Eppie Moray, a Scottish balled about attempted rape which Ewan MacColl recorded back in the earliest days or the revival.

“We were going to do Lowlands of Holland,” says Trevor, “and we had an arrangement worked out, but when Steel-Eye Span did it we decided it would be rather heavy to do it too.

“Then we’re going to move into a house in Chichester as soon as possible. With the whole group living there, we’ll really be able to get together.”