Seth Lakeman Interview

With his new album Make Your Mark released, Seth Lakeman has finally been able to take his music back on the road for a British tour, Acoustic Review’s Andy Hughes talked to Seth about writing, a new guitar, and finally getting out to play for an audience again.

So, Seth, you are finally out there again, on tour, how does it feel after such a long lay-off?

It does feel odd, especially as we have a concentrated series of shows together after such a long time of not actually doing anything. I think any musicians who tour a lot have found that they are a bit lost without the routine and experience of going out and playing live. I have really missed it, and I find a huge buzz in playing for people again, and getting that unique atmosphere that you can only get from playing live.

Do you think that connection is stronger for an acoustic musician?

Definitely, yes. If you are in a rock band for example, you have lots of noise and lights and things going on, but an acoustic show is far more intimate, and there is far more of a sense of connection between the artist and the audience. There is more of a feeling of exposure really, there is nothing to hide behind, it’s just you at the front with an acoustic guitar, nowhere to hide, but that’s what is magical about it as well.

You have your new album out Make Your Mark – did you have a lot of songs stockpiled because of lockdown?

 I did yes. I have more or less settled into a two-year cycle for albums, which usually includes a six-month slot for writing. Of course, with lockdown, that six months turned into eighteen months! I do enjoy writing, so I just carried on and then made the selections for the songs for the record. When you make an album, the choices of songs are governed by the construction of the record, what fits with what, and which song fits in the best place, and that influences the songs that finish up on the album when it’s finished. We went into the studio with eighteen songs and recorded all of them, and when we got to the mixing stage, when we were familiar with the sound of the songs, and how the related to each other, we pared it down to fourteen that made the final cut. It’s interesting because sometimes, a song that feels really strong when you write it, and record it, and you feel sure is going to make the album, doesn’t actually fit with the mood and atmosphere that has been created, so it gets left out. That sense of flow and connection is something that happens naturally when you try out the songs in order, and you never know how that will work until you get to that stage of the process.

What’s your writing process, do you always write on acoustic guitar?

 Not always. It depends on the feel of the song in those initial stages of finding it. If I feel the song has an Americana atmosphere to it, I will try a banjo and see if the feel fits, sometimes I use a bouzouki for a melodic song because I find that helps with working through sounds. Other than that, the six-string guitar is a standard instrument for writing.

What got you interested in the guitar, because you started out as a violinist.

I did, and it was listening to my brother play, and he is an excellent acoustic player, and I quite fancied being able to do what he could do. I listened a lot to musicians like Bob Dylan, John Martyn, Martin Carthy, people like that, and just decided to see if I could play at all.

What influenced your choice of your four-string Tenor guitar?

I think that my background as a violinist helped in my choice, the four strings felt natural to me when I picked up the Tenor guitar. Added to that, I have always thought that the harmonies between a Tenor and six-string acoustic sound really good, and a bit different from the standard acoustic guitar sound.

What are the pluses and minuses of four strings?

The major plus is that the four-string setup takes you in different directions when you are writing. Every musician can fall into patterns that become set in your mind, it’s hard to get round them, but the modal tuning makes different things crop up, and that’s always interesting. I think the interplay between the Tenor and the acoustic that I mentioned has become something of an identifiable sound on the new album, as well as the previous one.

What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking of buying a Tenor guitar?

Well, you can find them out there online now. I would certainly advise anyone buying a Tenor to make sure that it is set up properly and tuned, before you start trying to work with it. I use 12-gauge strings, which are pretty much the standard, 6,5,3 and 2. And the GDGD tuning is a good place to start. You can go for the GDAE tuning, which is the mandolin tuning, but of course that does alter the sound completely. As with anything else when playing an instrument, it’s a matter of trying things out and seeing what suits you best. I think you should always be guided by your instincts with tunings, if it feels right, then it is right.

What do you think about the pros and cons of formal teaching as opposed to being self-taught?

This is a debate that always comes up with musicians. I am self-taught, and I do have some basic theory knowledge. My view is that theory is a good thing to have, as long as you are not shackled to it. I think formal teaching can sometimes lead your writing to sound contrived at times, it can restrict the areas you go into when you are composing. A lot of self-taught musicians happen across recognised techniques, but it’s by accident, and experimenting to find what will work for a song or a piece of music. I think the music should channel through you as a musician, and not be too formulaic.

How technical an acoustic guitarist are you?

Melodically, I would say I am OK, I have no worries in that area. In terms of harmony, less so. That’s where a formal musical education would have helped, if I had learned about harmony in composition, then I would know more about it than I do now. But that said, I work with excellent musicians, Ben my bass player particularly has a wonderful grasp of harmonies, so it doesn’t stand in my way at all. I just think you can’t be good at absolutely everything, so use your strengths, and get a little help in the other areas if you need it.

Do you have a favourite song on your new album?

I think Constantly is my favourite, the last song on the album. The song as actually about a good friend of mine who is no longer here. I think it reflects the inspiration I get from the area I live in, the moors and the coast are wonderful, and do inspire the songs and the melodies that I write.

Are you a guitar collector?

Oh yes, it drives my wife crazy! I am really thinking about getting a new Fender Acoustasonic, which sounds fabulous. While we’ve been on tour, I keep popping into instrument shops in the towns we stop at, and having a go on one, so that is absolutely on my list. I’ll have to try and sneak it into the house!