This week, I was incredibly chuffed to talk to one of my heroes. Steve Knightley is the lead singer and songwriter for the massively popular folk band, Show of Hands. Steve will be joined on the Grand Theatre stage this Friday night by Phil Beer, co-founder of the band, and double bass player/singer, Miranda Sykes who has been playing with them for ten years. We discussed the insignificance of album charts, English identity and the importance of facts and figures in song-writing:
The tour is called the Hand in Hand tour. What’s the significance of that title?
We normally have a support artist but this year we are doing our own support. We’re doing three songs each. So it’s a slightly different structure. We do three songs each in the first half then we come together in the second half. We also had an amazing photo taken by a guy who is doing a project called Show of Hands, a guy called called Tim Booth, and he took a lovely picture of us with our fingers all entwined. We thought we’ve got this lovely image and we’re doing a tour and it’s nice to give a tour a name so we called it the Hand in Hand tour.
You’ve been going 21 years and Miranda has been playing with you for the last ten years, are you going to make her official?
It’s not really like that. Show of Hands, Phil and I, are the business as it were, Miranda is a permanently hired musician. She could take a better offer if one came along and she is developing her own career with her partner so it suits us all at the moment. We’re doing lots of solo activity next year so it’s a chance for her to go out and do a bit more. Most people now have seen us with her, most of our audience, so she’s pretty much part of the landscape.
Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed hit number 170 in the album chart. Wake the Union got to number 73 so the next one…Top ten? Do you care?
No, not at all. It doesn’t mean anything. People get to number one because the record companies give away one free with every one that’s bought so it’s a big con. We’re more concerned with selling to people at gigs and selling regularly at realistic prices so it’s a nice PR thing every now and then but it doesn’t mean much.
You have enough of a fan base that you could fill the Albert Hall four times.
Yeah, there’s so many Mercury Prize winners playing to fifty people a night. It’s a nice PR story, some of these things, but it doesn’t mean a lot.
The BNP picked your song, Roots, to use in a video. You were successful in getting them to remove it and you support the Folk against Fascism campaign to show that you’re defintiely opposed to that sort of thing. The song has the lyric: ‘It’s my flag too and I want it back’. Was that a reference to the BNP and wanting to claim the flag back from groups like that?
No it wasn’t. The line before is: ‘I lost St George in the Union Jack’. That very much means that English people can wave the flag of St George without it being a racist or a right wing thing. It’s really re-claiming it from the old symbol of empire I suppose and saying that the Scots have got the Saltire, the Irish have got the cross and the Welsh have got the dragon so why can’t we have something that’s ours without it necessarily threatening anybody? It was misquoted here and there, somebody said ‘I lost St George and the Union Jack’ and that becomes a little bit more sinister, that’s not what I wrote. I can see how it was open to misinterpretation and open to the right to use it but that’s always going to be the danger of a song that’s slightly polemical.
It’s quite difficult for the English to get away from the idea of imperialism. Did it seem like an important song to write?
It was and the people I got the biggest pats on the head from were the Irish and the Scots who said, ‘Good on you, we can sing Flower of Scotland, Caledonia I Love You, and we can sing all the Irish, sometimes quite sentimental, songs about the Celtic spirit and the Celtic identitiy and good luck to you for trying to do the same. We’re not threatened by it.’ It was odd to find some slightly uncomfortable reactions in England. We’re not used to celebrating our culture in a vigorous way I suppose but I think things have got better.
It’s part of a development towards being able to do that again?
In the European context, we are just one country. Scotland is drifting towards devolution and independence so it’s right that the English should have a voice aswell. There’s a programme on the radio tonight about Manchester and the metropolitan identity, the economic region thriving, and I think that’s going to happen throughout the country. Music is a part of all that.
The shift onto a more local, community-based feeling?
Yeah, it’s happening down in our part of the world, it’s happening in food and drink and recipes. In all sorts of areas, people are enjoying the ‘local’ and it’s nice if you can do that musically I think.
Do you see Show of Hands as recording the current mood in your songs, for the record?
I think so. It’s funny that you put songs aside and then headlines come along that refresh them. We’re doing a song at the moment called The Flood and one of the elements that fed into that was the death of people in the process of coming here to find work and while they’re working here, in Morecambe Bay and people who were trapped in the back of trucks. I wrote a song about the floods of people and how we should have an open door policy, wherever possible, if the work is there, and as soon as we started singing it, all these horrible stories from the Mediterranean started, people perishing coming, trying to find their way to us. So you write a song that seems topical, you think it’s got a shelf life that’s limited and then current affairs come round and reinvigorate it again.
If you’re part of the folk tradition, it does seem to be these same themes that keep coming round and that’s why, perhaps, the old folk tunes become popular again. They link to current events.
Also, they’re quite non-judgemental as well. They’re not very self-pitying a lot of these songs about warfare and emigration, they don’t tend to say, ‘Oh, isn’t war terrible and isn’t awful what happened to me’, they just lay out the time.
They tell the story rather than the moral.
Yeah, that’s right.
Do you think that, being a teacher, do you think that impacted on the way you wrote the songs?
I taught part time for about four years but I think the impact on the songs was a bit of rigour when it came to facts and figures. I like to know my history and geography. Even when I wrote a song about the Cheltenham Gold Cup. I like to know the odds and I like to know the number of jumps. I do the research, like for the song Cousin Jack, I researched the names of the places and what was found where. I think in that sense, it has helped to have a semi-academic background.
Do you think you were influenced by folk when you started out learning to play? That there were those stories coming through?
When I was a teenager, if you played the acoustic guitar there wasn’t the unplugged thing then. The folk scene was your natural home. I think it’s brilliant that there are so many unplugged nights. All the pubs and clubs round our way, people are playing Radio Head songs but they’re not connected to the folk scene as such. It was not very cool in some ways to play folk music when I was a teenager. Now Ed Sheeran is an iconic figure so things have changed.
Do you think that grass roots movements can still affect change?
I think so. It’s the climate or the soundtrack to change. I’m thinking back to Billy Bragg and the miners’ strikes and songs. Some of his best songs were almost the soundtrack. If you think of the civil rights movement and singing We Shall Overcome. Did it change anything? Perhaps not but it was the backing track while change was going on so it’s crucial to have that. It’s crucial when change is happening that there are musicians providing the backing track to that.
Is there going to be an album in the offing in the next year?
We’re working on an album for the centenary of World War One. That’s going to be quite exciting. The new studio album will probably be this time next year.
Are you coming back to the Fylde Folk Festival any time soon?
I’m sure we will. We were there for Alan’s big day last year. As long as they keep asking us we’re never going to be too big. I know some people try to put their fees up so they don’t connect to the people that used to book them and I think that’s a bit unfair really. We’ve never thought of this like a league table where you want to be in the Premier League and you want to play to thousands of people. It’s just playing music. Some days it’s the Albert Hall and the next day it’s the village hall. It’s an enjoyable process really.
Do you have plans to go back to the Albert Hall?
Well we’ve done it every five years. We’ll probably go back in two or three years’ time.
Show of Hands will be performing at the Grand Theatre on 8th November at 7.30pm. Unbelievably, there is a handful of tickets left. Get yourself onto the website and book them while you have the chance. I’ll see you there!
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