I can’t sing a note. Not one. It’s one of the myriad of reasons why I avoid karaoke like the plague. However, if I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a voice, I would want to sound like Emily Portman.
Listening to Portman is a joyous experience. Originally from Glastonbury, this Liverpool-based singer has been described as ‘one of the new British folk scene’s most beguiling presences’. It’s hard to argue with that. You can hear a pin drop during her live performances, everyone in thrall to the purity of her voice and mesmerised by ethereal songs that speak of the dark underbelly of folklore and balladry. Her debut album The Glamoury scooped two BBC Folk Award nominations while her second, Hatchling, won rave reviews.
Like many folk artists, Portman engages in many musical collaborations. The most recent of these is The Furrow Collective – an exploration of the obscure world of balladry at its darkest and quirkiest by Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton (you can catch them at Bury Met on February 27). But before that Portman is touring with Lucy Ward and Emma Sweeney in a series of gigs under the moniker ‘Womenfolk’.
Billed as ‘an outstanding triple bill featuring three leading lights of British contemporary folk’, Womenfolk kicks off at Band on the Wall in Manchester on January 30. Northern Soul caught up with Portman earlier this month.
Northern Soul: You’re living in Liverpool now but you used to live in Newcastle. How are you enjoying your new city?
Emily Portman: There’s a vibrant culture here and very friendly people with a very big identity. I think that comes from being out a limb geographically in the same way Newcastle is. I live in St Michael’s which has a slightly faded grandeur, a slightly gothic feel. It appeals to me.
NS: Although there are number of new collaborations on the horizon, you’ve had a long-term relationship with Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton as the Emily Portman Trio. What is the draw of collaborating with other musicians?
EP: There’s something very special about playing with friends and like-minded musicians – you begin to move together and with Lucy and Rachel the harmonies get to a point where our voices seem to mesh together and become greater than the sum of their parts. That’s magical to me. And with The Furrow Collective, we got together for a weekend and played til we had ballads coming out of our ears, it felt like we could make three albums. It’s been a really fruitful collaboration and Alasdair’s presence changes the dynamic as well as his guitar and voice adding an earthier sound to the harp, strings and concertina. Also it’s given me the chance to play harmonium and Lucy to play her saw!
NS: You mentioned The Furrow Collective. How did that come about?
EP: We’ve been friends for years and we are all passionate about traditional music. The Furrow Collective is basically the Emily Portman Trio and Alasdair Roberts but it’s a very different beast. Alasdair has a very distinct style of his own. The dynamic is different in a very positive way. The Furrow Collective is very much a home grown DIY project, recorded in a village hall with the desire to hold on to some of that live spark that often disappears once you have a mic in front of you in a windowless studio.
NS: You’re about to tour with Lucy Ward and Emma Sweeney as Womenfolk. What is that like?
EP: So this Womenfolk tour will be something different again. The idea is we all do a solo set. I haven’t played solo for years as I’m really into harmony singing. So it was a little daunting at first. It’s a bit of an experiment from my point of view of trying things I wouldn’t perform with the trio. It’s making me approach my own songs in a different way and find new solo arrangements for them. I’m also digging up old ballads that I’ve always wanted to sing but haven’t got round to. It’s going to be a more intimate, stripped back affair.
NS: You’re the mother of a 19-month-year old. What’s it like combining parenthood with touring?
EP: It’s constantly changing as she gets older and her needs change. At six weeks old she came along to gigs and has carried on coming on tour with use. I think she gets a lot out of it as well.
NS: How would you describe your music?
EP: I write new music inspired by fairytales and ballads. I write, maybe, in a magical realism way. I’m very much inspired by Angela Carter. I try to write new things that aren’t pastiches of the folk songbook but I’m honoured when people sometimes say that the songs have a timeless feel like folk songs do. That’s the highest compliment to me. People have said that it’s weird folk and it is on the more alternative dark edge of folk rather than twee.
NS: Will we be seeing a new album from you any time soon?
EP: I am writing at the moment, I am starting to get some time back. I’m working on a new solo album of self-penned material but it’s in its infancy. And it’s my first time writing since having a child. It will have to be next year when it comes out, probably Spring 2015.
By Helen Nugent
Main image by Elly Lucas
Womenfolk are playing at Band on the Wall in Manchester on January 30 and then touring. Full details here: http://bandonthewall.org/events/4157/ and here: http://www.emilyportman.co.uk/gigs/