Shirley Collins was one of the most respected musicians in the 1960s British folk revival. Then she lost her voice. Now, after an absence of almost 40 years, she’s back with a gig in her home county. By EDWIN GILSON
WHEN Shirley Collins steps on to the stage at the Brighton Dome on Sunday, a remarkable comeback story will be complete.
The Sussex date marks a significant milestone for the musician, who grew up in Hastings and now lives in Lewes via Brighton. Collins has been no stranger to large venues in her career, both as a figurehead of the 1960s folk scene or since her latter-day revival, but this is the gig that truly rounds off her journey over the last few years.
“It’s all been rather remarkable, I must say,” says the 81 year-old with a laugh down the phone from her home in the shadow of Lewes castle. “Fingers crossed I can hold it together in Brighton.”
If recent reviews are anything to go by, she needn’t worry. Lodestar, Collins’ seventh album and her first in 38 years, was praised by critics for retaining the same haunting, otherworldly sound that made her a cult figure in the first place. During her absence from music she earned admirers from Graham Coxon to Stewart Lee, as well as an MBE for services to music in 2007. Her comeback has been met with widespread enthusiasm but the singer admits to feeling anxious about the whole thing.
“It was scary at first and for a while I wasn’t sure I could to it,” she says. “Then I started to really enjoy it and my singing got better at every gig.” The Guardian called Lodestar a “confident and uncompromising record”, which is a resounding endorsement of a musician who had gone so long without performing. How did Collins manage to approach recording in a natural way, to not overthink the whole process? “This sounds silly but I just had to do what I had to do,” she says. “It had to come naturally. That’s why I recorded the whole album in my cottage here in Lewes.”
Her revival is all the more striking, and commendable, given the way her music career derailed in the first place. After a traumatic divorce from husband and fellow musician Ashley Hutchings, she was diagnosed with dysphonia. Rather than accept her faltering voice and giving up straight away, Collins tried to persevere.
“I struggled for about 18 months but almost every gig I did, it was appalling. I used to feel so humiliated because I couldn’t sing properly. The more I tried, of course, the worse it got. I was doing the songs a disservice and myself a disservice. I had to raise kids and I needed a career, so I opted out of music. It was a heartbreaking decision.”
She went to doctors, throat specialists and even a faith healer to remedy the problem, to an avail. It took encouragement from David Tibet of folk band Current 93 for Collins to consider singing again and she eventually joined the group on stage. It goes without saying that Collins voice isn’t what it once was “because I’m that much older”, but it has got stronger even in the time she has been performing Lodestar live.
The album is gloriously morbid in places and commentators wasted no time totting up the death count in the songs’ lyrics; the common consensus is 11 fatalities. When asked whether this gothic quality is a hyperbolically grotesque take on the world or comes from a more fantastical imaginary place, Collins says she is merely channelling the dark underbelly of English folk music.
“People always just think of England historically as a merry old place but it never really was. There have been dreadful things done in our name. We had civil war and peasant revolts. It’s a dark history but a fascinating one.” This line of conversation quickly blends into Brexit talk. Collins is proud that Lewes voted “remain” (“It’s too intelligent not to”) but says that the overall vote “makes me doubt the English – why are they being so stupid? How can anybody think this is a good idea?”
There is a line on Lodestar that is pertinent to these fears: “Repent, repent, sweet England, for dreadful days are near.” And yet this was written a few years ago, before Brexit was even a phrase. “It’s too late to repent now,” laughs Collins. “I feel disturbed about everything now but, at the same time, I still love England.”
Nobody can deny Collins’ credentials to critique the state of the nation. Having been raised in a working class family in Hastings, with a “particularly political mother”, Collins quickly learned about the social infrastructure of England. “Hastings was quite a poverty stricken town when I was a child and we went through the war as well. But there’s a stubbornness about Sussex people; the county’s motto is ‘we wunt be druv’ after all.”
This attitude could also be applied to Collins’ resolve and determination in returning to the stage after so many years. Her comeback is a reminder of her proud place in British folklore. And even given her advanced years, she has ambitions to keep the momentum going.
“I’m lucky to have got this far but it’s gone so well that I want it to continue – there are many more songs I want to sing.”
Brighton Festival, Brighton Dome, Sunday, 7.30pm