HEN most people meet me," laughs Maddy Prior, "they say wonderfully disconcerting things like 'You're so ordinary!'".|
But the people who danced in the aisles with Prior during her Steeleye Span days certainly don't think she's ordinary. Nor does the young Australian duo who introduced a song at the National Folk Festival with something approaching reverence, as being learnt from Maddy Prior. And nor does the Canadian performer, a dual Juno winner, who described Prior's voice as "amazing" when reflecting on the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Perhaps what people really mean by "ordinary" is that, despite all the accolades, Prior remains down-to-earth, modest and unaffected.
Maddy Prior was born in Blackpool, Lancashire in 1947 and spent her teenage years in St Albans, Hertfordshire. She is part of an artistic family, with her father a writer and her brother the creator of remarkable one man shows.
Prior says, "The creative life, the artistic world was always there and always...available and a happy choice in some senses for my parents, which made it easier for me. They supported me in what I wanted to do. I think it was also the fact that I was a girl and therefore was expected to marry in those days...so it wasn't quite as essential that I, for instance, had a proper job. Perhaps if I had been a boy it might have been different, but I don't know."
Her father, Allan Prior, is internationally acclaimed for his radio and television plays and novels. Over the years he has won numerous awards, including the Crime Writers Association Award, Writers Guild of Great Britain Award, Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, Screenwriters Guild Award and a British Academy Award. His television plays include 'Z Cars', 'Softly, Softly', 'The Sweeney', 'Blake's Seven', 'General Hospital', 'Dr Finlay's Casebook', 'The Onedin Line' and 'Barlow at Large'. George Grella, in the second edition of 'Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers' (1985), wrote of Allan Prior, "His best novel may be 'The Interrogators', which could also be the best British police procedural novel ever written.".
Maddy Prior says that one of the impacts of having a writer father is that she is a quiet person around the home. "This is very largely to do with my father working in the house and so the one thing that you didn't do was make noise...But it made for an articulate and interesting household and I think that made a difference to my view of life."
Prior says, however, that another side effect of her family background is that, "I haven't any real experience of anybody working nine to five. [Even after leaving home] I was involved with musicians who didn't work nine to five and then we've involved ourselves in a rural community where people don't work nine to five either. So I've never really had any experience in my life of that kind of background. Which is fairly weird really, probably detaches one to some degree from the rest of the world. I worked a week in a Wimpy Bar - that's the only work in that sense that I've ever done. And I suppose...I've brought up my children in a similar way. They've experienced much the same background and I don't know whether that leads to certain expectations, that we expect them to be a certain way. They look as if they may go in similar directions to us and one wonders if it is the same expectation that a policeman or an accountant has."
In discussing her brother, Maddy Prior says, "Michael is a doctor and he is an amazing bloke. He's turned out to be the biggest eccentric of the lot of us. He is very straight. As a doctor he wears a suit and has short hair - he's always had short hair, he's the one person I've known who never grew his hair long in the 60s or 70s. And he is very upright, but he is totally off the wall. He does one man shows. He did Hitler - three acts, just under an hour each - based on a book that my father wrote - and he works it all out and does massive research. He's obsessed, almost, with what he does, but he really does work incredibly hard to get it right and it's very impressive - but he only probably does them two or three times - there is not a run involved or anything like that. He did a show about Jesus, which he's just performed once - an extraordinary piece of work. I think he enjoys putting it together, the whole process of living with it in his head.
"I think one of the things about writing and working on music for me is that there is always something in your head that you can go and play with, if you like. When you're writing something, you get ideas and then other things spring off. For instance at the moment, I'm doing a piece on ravens so I'm doing a visual dance-style approach. And then I get interested in lights. And I've become more interested in those things, in a way, being out of Steeleye [Span] because there is more scope and I don't have to please other people with what I do in my immediate environment.
"And Michael has...[a similar idea], I think, in that he likes having that going on in his head. Sir Winston Churchill said about writing a book - it was somewhere that you always could go - something you could do that you really enjoyed."
Maddy Prior says that her involvement in the music industry was a long slow progress. "I think I knew when I was very young that I wanted to go on the stage. There was a children's matinee - at the cinema - and before the show began there would be a talent competition. I'd be about eight years old, and I entered with a song called the "Tennessee Wigwalk". I used to win, and that's why I kept doing it.
"I sang in the local folk club as a resident while I was at school, and after...the week in the Wimpy Bar I decided that singing had more future. To begin with I hitched to gigs, then my mum and dad bought me a car and I started to drive other people, one of whom was...the Reverend Gary Davis. He used to call me 'Miss Maddy'."
Prior says that she is "a naturally nervous performer, but I have now come to look on that as in some ways a blessing. There's nothing like stark fear to focus the mind, and the most engaging attribute in many performers is their involvement in what they are doing. I hope it works like that for me. It certainly does from the inside, where I live the songs afresh each night, and consequently they gain in depth, and become like old friends.
"The fact that I'm a singer has not affected my life perhaps as much as it should have done. Luckily, not being an opera singer or a show performer where they are rigid with keys, I have been able to be kind to my voice when it needed it, and have wandered from soprano to alto and back willy nilly. Good thing keyboards have transpose buttons - but that can have its own complications."
Although Maddy Prior has played a number of instruments during her career ( "the harp I particularly liked"), she says that "it would seem I was put on this earth to sing and not get in the way of the superb musicians I've had the good fortune to play with".
An interesting aspect of Prior's career is her development as a songwriter. "I didn't start writing songs until I was nearly thirty. I think my reluctance was partly due to my father being a writer, and I steered away from it. Our kids seem to be drawn to it because of our involvement. Strange.
"I was terrified when I first began to sing my own songs, but quickly realised that, although it was revealing, there was a certain strength gained from the courage to do it. I remember an actress who was involved in an orgy scene - at the National Theatre, so it was definitely art - saying that stripping off made her feel so powerful. My courage did not stretch that far.
"Anyone singing one of my songs is such a compliment. I am always so chuffed."
Maddy Prior has had to juggle her career with the demands of her home life with husband Rick Kemp (the former Steeleye Span bass player) and their two children.
"Moving from tour to a stretch at home sometimes does your head in. I tend to try to do it in fairly big blocks and I think that the main problem is that you lose track of what is happening at home. And when you have children that's really quite difficult. You have to try to remember where they are or what they are doing or find out where they are or what they are doing in their heads. That, I think, is the most difficult part of being a working mother. I'm at home for long blocks of time and then I'm away for long blocks of time. And you tend to forget the home routine - it takes a week to get back into it before you remember that you have to put the bins out and then there's ballet and this, that and the other. It is the simple practical stuff that is so mind bending. Although the children have grown a bit now, strangely enough it doesn't seem to have reduced the worry!
"[When I'm on tour], I read quite a lot. I go to museums, although not as much as I used to. I walk - what I like to do is just walk from the hotel and the amazing thing is that how quickly the place becomes somewhere completely different. You can be in the middle of nowhere and you just go and take a walk and suddenly you find that there is something extraordinary around the corner. And walking in different urban environments is always quite interesting. So walking and reading are what I mostly do.
"The great thing about tour is that you don't have to remember anything. All you have to do is get to the next gig...You don't have to organise yourself because the world is organised for you. You know that all you have to do is get on that stage at a certain time and that is pretty much your only responsibility of the day. You worry about things like sleep, that you're fit enough and that you don't have a sore throat...but generally that's the only thing you've got to think about. So it's a much more straight forward life being on the road. You have to juggle a lot more when you are at home.
"My husband Rick Kemp [who recently released a new solo album, 'Spies']...is a great support and great person. He's just been to Australia to record an album with some old friends. He's come back to music after time out studying for an Arts Degree. That's been really positive and good to watch because he is a wonderful musician and writer and player."
In addition to her recordings and live performances, Maddy Prior has also undertaken work for radio, television and theatre.
"I've done some presenting of radio programs of acappella music which is very different for me to do. I fondly imagined when I first took it on that it would be very largely unaccompanied British material - as it turns out that was a very small part of it because the world contains massive numbers of acappella singers. The Americans have got a big acappella scene that is based around rock and rap, where they produce the sounds of drum and bass vocally, which is kind of an amazing inversion of a modern trend. But the extraordinary thing about people in music is how they use it and what they do with it. And there is also loads of African material and middle European...But there's all sorts of musics and it is much more a world music program.
"Television has been small, sputtering amounts. We did a series of programs in the 70s and they are interesting to watch now simply because they are so slow. One doesn't realise how slow the programs were then...
"The television work I suppose that I've most enjoyed doing recently has been work with the wildlife unit. I did Hares with them and I've just recently worked with the same people on a program on ravens which has been really fascinating because, unlike most wildlife programs that are exclusively about animals, [this program] involves man's interactions with animals, also our view of animals through mythology. It's quite unusual and the people I work with are consequently very unusual people and that's been a very rewarding area to work in and hopefully it will bring other ideas.
"The theatre's mostly been through the Cottesloe Company in the 70s/80s. We did the "Corunna" - the British retreat to Corunna - which we managed to do with ten people where all the actors had to sing and all the singers had to act...I went and did a bit of singing and a bit of acting, but I'm not really an actor..."
In reflecting on her career, Maddy Prior says that she sees herself as being involved in "re-invigorating traditional music, helping it back to a valued place in our musical panorama, where it deserves to be, instead of languishing in the laughter zone of incomprehension". And during the past thirty years in the music business, she has met and worked with many of the finest performers in folk music.
"Because of the lifestyle one gets very good at picking up where you left off three, four, ten years ago. Our similarity of problems easily over-rides differences of style, and it is sadly always more likely that it is those with whom you are closest you will develop most enmity!"
Prior goes on to says that working on other people's recordings is generally " a refreshing experience. It doesn't happen that frequently because what I do is fairly specific, I think, and fairly predictable in the sense that people know what I do now, so the expectations are not usually a problem."
Over the years, a number of important performers that Maddy Prior has known have been lost prematurely from the British folk music scene.
Lal Waterson - sister of Mike and Norma, sister-in-law of Martin Carthy, aunt of Eliza Carthy - died suddenly from cancer in 1998.
Dolly Collins - sister of Shirley - died of a heart attack in 1995.
Sandy Denny - Fairport Convention, Fortheringay - died in 1978 following a brain haemorrhage attributed to a fall. Her husband, Trevor Lucas, died of a heart attack in 1989.
Peter Bellamy - The Young Tradition - killed himself in 1991.
Despite the attention and acclaim that has come her way, Prior has managed to remain out of the limelight when she is away from the stage.
"Thankfully I'm very rarely recognised and approached. I'm not a person who appreciates that usually - it's not so bad now - but I used to find it really intrusive. But happily it rarely has happened. I tend to look quite different, I think. I'm not a person who ever dresses up off stage...I like to dress up for the stage, it's part of the performance for me. It's almost as if I change my persona to go on stage, so I have to change my clothes. It's part of my ritual, it allows me to do it. As if I find that going on as me isn't very comfortable. And that's mainly because I think I'm such a slob off stage!"
When it is suggested to Prior that very little has been written about her as a person, despite the considerable amount that has been written about her work with Steeleye Span, Silly Sisters and The Carnival Band, she seems genuinely surprised. "I don't know that I've noticed whether there's much written about me as a person. I think of myself as a team player, but I'm not sure that the bands that I work with think that because I always tend to be the one who gets interviews and the photograph...There is something about being the singer that communicates directly with people without being via anything else, like through an instrument. And although people love instrumentalists, I don't know why it is that the singer usually gets featured in the media - presumably because that is what people are interested in, I suppose. So I don't know that I've been aware that I've deliberately kept out of the limelight, it's kind of been thrust upon me in a way. Part of the job that I do is to be up front. It is what I'm good at, if you like. I don't think other people necessarily think that I've hidden away!"
Maddy Prior has continued to develop as a person and performer over the years.
"I'm fairly strong in lots of ways which is what enables me to write, sing and tour...I'm not a shy and retiring violet, although in some ways I'm quite private and shy, most people have that side to them. But now I think I'm actually stronger than I always thought I was..."
She says, "I was not brilliant at school. I suspect that I've got an element of dyslexia - I've managed to eventually overcome it...[Recently] I did some Open University courses and I found that that's given me access to study which I haven't had before. And I really enjoy study...I'm very interested in history and I like reading about it. I like to study concerning the areas that I'm writing about."
In relation to her work with The Carnival Band, Prior says that it both reflects her personal spirituality and is a celebration of fine music. "I think the singing is more of a spiritual activity for me than I realised. That there is something I can put into music that possibly isn't anywhere else in my life. I don't think that I really attached myself to my music for a long time. Whereas now I'm probably more in touch with it and I really enjoy singing. It's what I love to do. And it is also, with The Carnival Band, a celebration of fine music because they are wonderful musicians and very cultured and great fun to work with."
The liner notes of Maddy Prior's first album with Tim Hart in 1968 list her personal interests as including dressmaking, embroidering and horse-riding. Prior says, "Dressmaking in a way disappeared out of my life when the children were young - simply because of the palaver of getting it out and putting it away...If you've got young children about it's a nightmare because they're always sticking pins in themselves. And also there was very little time - it's quite a time consuming activity.
"But in the early days I always used to make my stage clothes and I found that was part of the performance. And I suppose that is why I still dress up. I used to make medieval clothes in the early days and then Elizabethan. Kind of weird, but that was what I liked to do.
"I've sort of come back to that in a way. I have a friend who makes jackets for me - I like to wear a particular sort of jacket - I find them very good for stage. With the Ravens, I've developed this visual dance/idea and that comes out of dressmaking...
"I've still got some pieces of embroidery that I was probably doing when I was first quoted actually. Embroidery's like that - you can pick it up and put it down for years."
Making music continues to bring great joy to Maddy Prior.
"I enjoy what I am doing, it is what I do most, apart from being a mother. And there are a lot of positive things for me at the moment.
"Being out of Steeleye [Span] over a year now, it's noticeable that in some ways it's freed me to do things and to go into my head with ideas that I'm interested in without the hindrance, as I said, of having to make other people happy about what I'm doing...I think that the audience is a bit alarmed about the directions I take, but they are very forgiving on the whole and stay with me through more of it than I would have expected perhaps."
Maddy Prior's new album, 'Ravenchild' is filled with memorable atmosphere and drama and includes her remarkable 'In The Company Of Ravens' song cycle. "My new album has been intriguing to do. Troy Donockley and Nick Holland have been the mainstays of that work. They're amazingly talented and have been fantastic for me to work with and hopefully that will continue."
And so to where we began. "When most people meet me," laughs Maddy Prior, "they say wonderfully disconcerting things like 'You're so ordinary!'".
© Sue Barrett 1999
Sue Barrett is a freelance music writer and lives in Australia. An abridged version of this article appeared under the title "Maddy Prior - Woman in the Wings" in the October 1999 issue of the Australian music magazine, 'Rhythms'.