Traditional form, timeless themes

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June Tabor has been a librarian and a restaurateur. She brings something of both to her folk singing: what she calls a “librarian’s mind of storing things up” and a cook’s habit of combining materials in hand to create “something in the moment that has to be true to its ingredients but to amount to something in its own right”.

Her new album, Apples (Topic), mixes social history, medieval French ballads and English folk. “There’s a linear connection between the preservation of varieties of apples and preserving landscape and memory and culture,” she says. “Apples, as a title, points in every direction, and so does traditional music if you give it a chance. Traditional music has a subtlety and variety you certainly wouldn’t find in popular music, and an approachability you would not find in classical. It’s easy to dismiss traditional music as museum music; I reject that utterly. History repeats itself. Emotions are timeless, universal and applicable to modern life.”

Tabor is an enthusiastic collaborator: as “chick singer” with folk rockers the Oyster Band; as half of Silly Sisters with Maddy Prior; with the folk trio Coope, Boyes and Simpson. She has plans to share a stage with the classical soprano Catherine Bott, a near-contemporary from her school days. “I’d sound like a Mellotron next to a Steinway D, but we think there are points at which our worlds will touch.”

Tabor’s early recordings were largely unaccompanied, highlighting her strong voice, wide dynamic range and bleak material. Recently she has settled on a form of piano-heavy chamber folk. The main instrumental colour on Apples is Andy Cutting’s diatonic accordion. “In Andy’s hands the melodeon is a stunning instrument – joyful, exuberant, subtle.” She has high standards for her accompanying musicians. “Someone who can play an instrument well or who can accompany himself doesn’t necessarily make a good accompanist. There’s an art of listening, anticipation, sympathy to the song but also watching intensely for the fraction of a move towards the microphone.”

When she selects songs, her point of entry is always the words. “I don’t read music. I always have to start with the text so I know if it’s worth listening to. The words have to speak to me, then I can make them speak to someone else.”

One theme that has consistently spoken to her is war, especially the first world war, about which she has sung a lot. Apples extends this repertoire with “Standing in Line”, by Tabor’s old comrade-in-arms Les Simpson, with its images of a war widow’s half-empty washing line.

“The enormity of World War One is something people should never forget,” she says. “We’re suffering its repercussions now in what’s happening in Iraq. We need to keep singing about it to make politicians realise that the endless waging of war is not the answer to anything.”

Another of Tabor’s obsessions is the sea, curiously for someone who grew up in Warwick, about as land-locked as England gets. Apples ends with “Send Us a Quiet Night”, a sailor’s anxious plea, written a quarter of a century ago by Christopher Somerville, a poet better known now as a travel writer. Tabor takes the song quietly, with Mark Emerson’s minimalist piano arrangement. When she repeats the prayer as a chorus, the melody is uneven, fearful, refusing to resolve. “Christopher’s father served on a destroyer in the Battle of Malta, and that was sub-consciously in the back of his mind when he wrote the song,” she says. “It spoke so strongly for me, that sense of praying for dawn.”

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