Steve Knightley, as one half of the award-winning Show of Hands along with multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, has just sold out the Royal Albert Hall for the fourth time. On top of that he’s been described as “One of England’s greatest singer songwriters”. Show of Hands have long been disturbing the roots of English traditional music and Steve’s original songs are a blend of the unsettling and the downright beautiful. He and Show of Hands have been plying their eclectic acoustic trade for at least twenty years and, at the last count, at least twenty albums and their new album Wake the Union is out next month. The ocean is a constant reference point around which his songwriting revolves and and the music is soaked in sea water. He talks to Colin Williams and WhaleFest about why the sea and the whale is such a dominant presence in the musical imagination. So, in rain-soaked Devon just metres from the dockside, we stir hot beverages and ponder big questions:
In historical terms, what percentage of your blood is saltwater?
My Grandfathers were both dockers in Southampton and I think one of them was dockmaster, so on the wall of all my Great Aunts’ houses, in their salons, would have been pictures of sea captains, pictures of boats. My Grandmother’s side of the family came from the Channel Islands and so the images were always there. Also, strange ornate Japanese vases, the stuff you would find in a Victorian front parlour, symbols of ocean travel. So I was born within sight of the sea, genetically programmed. Apart from a brief interlude in the midlands of the UK the sea has always been my world: Southampton, Exeter, Brighton, Portsmouth. I believe you think of the world where you’re the centre of an arc of contacts and places. Well half of mine has always been cut off by water, just a semicircle. I’ve never been very far from the sight and sound of gulls.
I’ve always believed that the sense that the sea and ocean is something special is inate in everyone. Do you believe that, or is a personal connection essential to really feel it?
Unsurprisingly, I’ve not chatted at length about this with people from the landlocked counties. But one of the expressions that once got said in an interview as a throwaway line has now become a bit of a mantra: “If you’re lucky, your music brings you home.” For many singer songwriters there are none of those geographical boundaries, it’s all about me, about my experiences of my relationships and my world. When it’s great, it’s great. When it’s not, it’s really self indulgent, not connected to place or history or the landscape. If you’re trying to generate stories and you’re not interested so much in your emotional landscape, for me it then seemed natural to write about the land and the sea. In fact in some solo shows I divide it into two halves: the land and the sea. There’s certainly no shortage of material.
Would you say that sheer drama of the sea is enough for almost everyone to have some kind of relationship with it?
Well until recently it was a pretty irreversible step, you couldn’t just fly back if you got fed up with it. In almost all of the folk songs there’s an undercurrent of anxiety: ‘will you remember me when I come back?’ Families in seafaring towns must have got familiar with this idea that you’re leaving for a year, a year and a half.
Despite the fact it stands alone as a location does the sea still need to be associated with a sense of place?
Absolutely. Part of it is maybe this West Country thing where you’re never more than 30 or 40 miles from the sea. And it also points out into the Atlantic. It’s the springboard of wave after wave of exploration. Francis Drake and other such characters have always interested me. It’s important as a strorytelling tool.
Have you found the sea to be an equally rich vein in English traditional music as you have in your own songwriting?
Yes. Almost half the traditional songs we do, if not out and out sea shanties, have some kind of maritime connection: Blue Cockade, Haul Away Joe, Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy. It’s just always there and in the tradition it was the most dramatic way you could travel. Maybe a central European folk tradition may have had different tools that took you away from your home but nothing could be more dramatic than getting on a boat and not getting back for a year and a half. I’m just performing a song at the moment I co-wrote with Seth Lakeman called I’ll Haunt You and the opening line is “I’m a year at sea when your letter came / and I can’t get back.” He ends up sending his curses and his bad wishes across the sea. Then what happens is that once something works for you as a method, you carry on doing it and you become known for it. It almost becomes a principle as if you always intended that. But really you’re looking for context, a narrative.
Presumably music that illuminates your relationship with the sea means different things to different people. Does it strike a chord with people you play to?
It does for people who live by the sea and it does those who long to live by the sea. I imagine if you were singing in southern Germany a song like The Dive which is about father and son, working on the water it would still connect. People have an imaginative sense of it even if they don’t have an actual sense of the sea. Maybe it’s very much the British Isles but I always say that one of the national geniuses of the English is this ability to collect and collate. If we didn’t travel so much or maybe but for the Empire… We do it in food, we do it in literature. The English gift is to be like magpies to take stuff and to form it into something else. Maybe more settled countries, more central countries don’t have that experience of the sea but I’d lose half my repertoire if I took out references to the ocean.
There’s a part of your Tall Ships suite of songs that expresses that dual role it plays as saviour and curse: You don’t really want to go but it may be the only way to feed your family…
“Sea that brings us life / take your sacrifice.” Martin Carthy once said that resignation was “that most beautiful and most precarious of emotions.” It’s a very English thing and I also think a bloody- minded thing. For instance, if you knew the pressgang were out and about on Weymouth seafront you probably wouldn’t go out there for a pint with your friends would you? You’d probably take a view about it and say ‘I tell you what, let’s go out to Bridport instead.’ There’s that sort of deal you do with dangerous events and none more so than with the waters of the open ocean.
It’s an observation I often make that in traditional music and song that there is a whole gamut of emotions attached to going away to sea. In the song The Humpback Whale whaling is portaryed as rollicking good fun, in The Weary Whaling Grounds it’s a lament for a sickening three year voyage for no pay, chasing whales that have nearly all been slaughtered…
Yeah, I can see that. There’s a genre that we sometimes call industrial nostalgia that you get amongst northern musicians, lamenting for a way of life that perhaps as a parent the worst, the most signal mark of failure in your life was that you condemned your children to have to do the same job you did whether its in the mines or the mills: “This way of life, this community, we’ve lost so much!” It’s a double edged sword because you verge on nostalgia for a way of life that wasn’t particularly pleasant and it’s the same with the ocean. But I often make the point about folk songs or as a songwriter is that you should be able to be these other people without being made to feel un-PC: In the song you can go out whaling, wenching and hunting because it refers to a way of life and isn’t necessarily a reflection of your own feelings. In the case of the sea, it was always a source of income, always a source of nutrition as well as a geographical constant in your life.
Has the water lost its potency in the public eye as a dangerous place, a killing machine?
Yes. From a time when everybody would have known a percentage of their friends or family who were in danger or who was lost or whose lives could be threatened by working out here on the water. That’s obviously in decline so it starts to drift into myth and legend we’re not likely to know people who have been lost at sea.
You’ve worked with musicians from other parts of the world. Is the sea a connector of cultures as well? Is it something that’s a shared experience?
Only partly. It was for the Chilean musicians. They had a strong sense of the maritime traditions of the country. There are other songwriters with a very very strong sense of place like Chris Wood and for him the sea is not as richer backdrop as the Kentish rivers, he’s very rooted in the soil. It’s not inevitable for musicians. We’ve been working with the American songwriter Richard Shindell and on the new album due out in the autumn we have a version of Reunion Hill which is set in the American Civil War and they have that have that as a palette, with photos and family connections. Think how distant the Crimean War seems to the British: the American Civil War was in the same era but for Richard that is his ‘sea’.
I’ve met the Chilean musicians you worked with and I know that they were exiled during the Pinochet regime for playing traditional music. Is the sea as a means of escape also strong in traditional song and your own songs?
It plays that role too, because it was such an irreversible step to leave your home in the age of sail. It’s also a psychological barrier: You’d travel and return and you’d come back slightly altered, particularly if you’d travelled by sea. I think journeys do that to you. When you’re away what you focus is not on what you’re looking at but where you’ve come from. That’s how we make sense of new experiences, a stronger awareness of what you’ve got back home.
Can you imagine yourself not being by the water?
No, never. Not now. It’s still a daily ambition to be able to go to sleep and wake up within sight and sound of it. I’m about two hundred yards away where I live now but I’d like to be next to it. I like the sound of it. It’s the soundtrack to everything we’ve done.
Our economic relationship with the ocean, certainly in the United Kingdom, has changed. Has it changed our outlook and yours in terms of your songwriting?
Not necessarily, only in that you’re singing about occupations in a more nostalgic way but you’re on the edge of that trap of nostalgia. Having said that, you meet less people involved in the trade. In Exmouth around the docks there was a strong community but it’s in decline. One of best friend here has a fish outlet and a fish restaurant but it’s not a daily encounter. Whoever you are, the sea is always there as a reference point, a source of income and recreation that doesn’t change. But I often observe that you get very mixed messages about why and how the sea is collapsing. One person will say that we’re awash with cod, another will say there are none left. There seems to be as many stories to account for fish stocks as there are for global warming.
So is the sea is going to keep throwing up these stories? Will the narrative constantly renew itself?
Yes. After a while it’s not a cynical, conscious thing. You need reference points. You need songs to be about something. On the new record there’s a lyric: “I’m up on deck and you’re pulling away.” Its just there. It’s a great source of poetic imagery there’s no doubt about it, with other mediums you just wouldn’t get that descent into darkness and uncertainty. Maybe a mountain race has a place they go to represent that danger but to me, there’s nowhere that’s as potent as the sea.