Longevity in the music business is rare, especially for bands. Fights over the lion’s share of the limelight and the inevitable ‘musical differences’ usually result in a shelf life of about 18 months.
One of the reasons that folk legends Steeleye Span have stood the test of time is their willingness to change and adapt. Front-person since the band’s inception in 1969, Maddy Prior has previously said that “Steeleye Span is like a bus. It goes along and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go and sometimes it turns off, so you get off.”
Guitarist and keyboard player Julian Littman embarked upon the Steeleye bus in 2011. During a long musical career he has played with everyone from The Who’s Pete Townshend to Barbara Dickson, as well as writing songs for acts ranging from Sister Sledge to Sheena Easton. Littman has also enjoyed a parallel career as an actor having worked in film, on stage and TV including appearing in cult kids’ TV series Rainbow (respect).
Littman and the band will be playing at the Homegrown Folk Festival in Bury, Lancashire this Autumn. Ahead of this Northern gig, I wonder how he is enjoying his Steeleye experience five years on.
“I’m loving it. I’m involved in the writing of the next album and also doing some lead vocals on it so it’s really enjoyable. It just seems to get better which is very cool and due, I think, to the fact that the band always develops and doesn’t stand still.
“This new album definitely puts the emphasis on more of a heavier rock sound which is great though we’re still doing the traditional stuff alongside it. We’re pretty sure the album is going to be called Dodgy Bastards because it’s all about characters in history from Thomas Cromwell to robbers and murderers. It’s going to be a great mix of the quite dark and heavy with the more light hearted.”
Some people still associate folk music with bearded men in chunky knits singing with a finger in their ear. But Littman is pleased to see that these dated stereotypes are disappearing as the boundaries of the scene keep expanding.
“It’s a really good time for folk music as people are losing their pre-conceptions about it all. There’s a lot of young people into the music now and it’s enjoyed a real resurgence of late. There are so many good artists around it’s ridiculous and keeps things fresh. We’re very fond of Hannah James whose work is impressive, Seth Lakeman is also great and Blair Dunlop is a fantastic songwriter. When you do the festivals you see these acts and can’t help but be blown away by them.
“It’s great to champion them because it’s harder now to make a name for yourself and have durability. When the band started there was the London pub circuit where you could work four nights a week and make enough to live on. Those types of residencies don’t really exist any more so it’s much harder for young acts to make a living and they have to do other jobs and work music around that rather than focus on their talent.”
He adds: “I work a lot with Charlie Dore and we play smaller venues like arts centres and folk clubs. With Steeleye we’re lucky because we have that following, built up over the decades so we can play larger stages. Back in the day you were also able to make money out of selling records which isn’t the case now unless you’re Justin Bieber or someone like that. It’s so cheap to stream music that only you get 0.008 of a penny per download or something ridiculous like that. Unless you get a massive best-seller or feature on a movie soundtrack, the market has really dropped out of selling records and it’s now just a method of promotion and for creating new material.”
Homegrown Festival will feature many styles of folk music including sets from Turin Brakes, Nancy Kerr, Michael McGoldrick and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Steeleye Span are looking forward to showcasing some of their new material but are also aware of the importance of including old favourites.
Littman explains: “Our loyal fans will always want All Around My Hat and, when the season allows, Gaudete – it’s not a proper Christmas without hearing that at least once – but you can put different spins on things. Most of the old favourites though, seem to work best done the way they’ve always been performed. It’s good to filter some new, exciting stuff into the set as well and I’m hoping the music we’re recording at the moment will also feature.
“It’s a really productive time for me. As well as Steeleye, I’m also working with a young rap artist called Jake Barlow in my own recording studio when time allows. I like to work in all sorts of styles, music in general is the big passion. I would’ve loved to have worked with Prince because he was such a brilliant artist.”
I couldn’t end our chat without referencing Littman’s acting career.
“I’ve done a lot of different acting projects but I’ll never top Rainbow. It was a long time ago but great fun and is a kind of high point because it’s the one thing that most people go ‘wow’ at. What can you do?”
By Drew Tosh
Steeleye Span is playing on Oct 15, 2016 at the Homegrown Folk Festival 2016 (October 13-15) hosted at various venues around Bury. For more information visit themet.biz/homegrown