Record Store Day 2015: Comedian Stewart Lee On His Surprise Folk Tribute To Shirley Collins

Here’s one we didn’t see coming. Stewart Lee has contributed to a new compilation album featuring covers of folk singer Shirley Collins, released for Record Store Day (April 18). The record also features Blur’s Graham Coxon, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Bonnie Prince Billy, Johnny Flynn and Trembling Bells, to name a few. How’d Lee come to be involved in ‘Shirley Inspired’ then? We caught up with the comedian to find out.

You’re more known for your love of The Fall than folk music. When did you first get into Shirley Collins and what attracted you to her music? What do you think makes her so special?

In the ‘70s and ‘80s the local library had a record section and I got folk music out of it because the covers looked cool, and that way I got into Dick Gaughan and June Tabor and Nic Jones. Lots of the best albums were on the Topic label, but I never got into Shirley as a kid because she had dropped off the radar a bit. In the ‘90s I saw one of Shirley’s records in a second hand shop – ‘The Sweet Primroses’ – and because it was on Topic I bought it, and it was brilliant. Around that time David Tibet of Current 93 and David Suff of Fledgling Eecords were starting reissue programs on CD and they deserve a lot of credit for getting things moving. Shirley gave up singing decades before. She did not want to sing, or to be known. Her music is brilliant in a way I doubt artists today could ever replicate – because her voice is without ego. She serves these ancient songs selflessly and tries to hand them back to wherever they came from undamaged. Emotions flow through her. She is a conduit. She is not trying to make a statement about herself. She encompasses everything. And she learned some of these songs from people in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s who learned them from people in the 19th Century. Pretty soon you are in the realm of time travel. I cannot believe I have been lucky enough to meet her.

Why choose this particular (and quite gruesome) song?

I was in a droney band in the late ‘80s where I copied [90s alt-rockers] The Dream Syndicate and we did three gigs. About a decade later we did another and played ‘Polly On The Shore’. I am a rudimentary guitarist. One of my favourite albums of all time is 1970’s ‘On The Shore’ by Trees, a folk rock band who sound a bit like early Fairport Convention, but more mysterious. The Trees’ version of ‘Polly On The Shore’ on that album has a kind of Velvet Underground vibe to it, and it was easy (even for me) to boil it down to three or four chords that you could melt into a king of trancey jam. So we covered it, once. Two years ago I was at a symposium on the art of folk balladry in a medieval hall at St. Edmund Hall in Oxford. At which Shirley was speaking about back in the days when she used to collect traditional songs as a young communist in the 1950s. All those present were asked to prepare a ballad. I didn’t because I am not a musician. But when I got there the moment sized me. I borrowed a guitar, asked Stuart Estell, a proper folk musician who was present, if his concertina was in ‘D’, and did The Trees’ version of ‘Polly On The Shore’ with him. Shirley, and Dave Arthur, another folk veteran, liked it and Shirley asked us, I think, to do it at a forthcoming event related to the proposed documentary about her, and it went from there. I had to play a folk song. It was the only folk song I knew.

What was the experience of meeting her like?

Brilliant. I first met Shirley about 15 years ago when I went to her bungalow in Hove to interview her for a magazine. She made a lovely lunch and was utterly fascinating and inspiring. I am so glad a new generation of people will find out about her.

You’re singing on this release – is this a first for you, and are there any other long-forgotten bands lurking in your past?

Yes. Dust Harvest (1989-90) with a grand total of three gigs under our belts, which was me on guitar, Simon Oakes on bass (whose band Peach had their song ‘You Lied’ covered by Tool, and whose new group Suns of the Tundra play intermittently) and Al Murray, who would become Al Murray The Pub Landlord, on drums.

Did you ever wish you’d chosen music over comedy?

I found the nuts and bolts of doing music gigs dispiriting and all I would have been as a musician was someone copying things I liked, a fan channelling the things I was listening to myself, but as a comic I felt I would have my own voice. Making a record would help me head off a mid-life crisis at least. Actually, Alex Nielsen [of Trembling Bells] is keen for me to do something folky with them, hopefully involving Stuart Estell as well, but it is a long way off. But, no, I have no plans to switch careers.

You’re releasing it for Record Store Day. Will you be found queuing up at your local record shop for anything in particular?

Probably not. All the things I want I will be hanging around for weeks. A few years back I got a double 7” on the 1st Dream Syndicate 12” EP, shrunk down to a 7”. I already had the music but the package suckered me in.

Do you have a favourite record shop? What do you love about it?

All my favourites are either closing or have closed. I used to like Reddingtons in Birmingham, Borderline in Brighton, Garon and Manic Hedgehog in Oxford, Totem in Stoke Newington, all the different branches available in Edinburgh, Ray’s Jazz in London, but they’re all gone now. There’s still Coda in Edinburgh, Swordfish in Birmingham, Probe in Liverpool. My favourite record shop is Backbeat Records in Edinburgh. Backbeat is a place where you never know what you’ll find; probably something you never even knew you wanted. Everything is in crates in unstable 9ft. piles. It feels dangerous. I like to look at £700 acid folk albums on the wall in specialist shops in Brighton and The Arcade in Reading. But I prefer hearing the music on a cheap CD reissue than shelling out. You don’t need to these days. Things I paid £50 for in the ‘90s are on CD or downloads now.

Have you ever thought about funding anything by Kickstarter yourself? What would you offer in return?

No. I wouldn’t want to be beholden to the public’s idea of what I should be doing. I reserve the right to disappoint them and betray their trust and dash their hopes.