Maddy Prior MBE, folk singer and song writer chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Status Quo, her drunken evening with John Lydon, her latest album Shortwinger and her forthcoming tour of the UK.

Maddy Prior, MBE is an English folk singer, best known for being the lead vocalist in Steeleye Span. Originally she was part of the singing duo Mac & Maddy with Mac MacLeod before going on to perform with Tim Hart. They recorded two albums before they helped to form the group Steeleye Span in 1969.

She left Steeleye Span in 1997 but returned in 2002 and has toured with them in 2008, 2009 and 2013. In 2007 Prior toured with the Carnival Band and with Giles Lewin and Hannah James she completed two successful UK tours in the spring and autumn of 2012, and a third in autumn 2013.

She has released numerous singles and albums as a solo artist, as well as a number with these bands and she has also been involved in several collaborations. Her versatility as an artist is demonstrated by her broad musical scope as a vocalist and songwriter which extends from her own interpretations of traditional folk through to hard rock and ambient electronic textures.

In 2001 Prior was awarded the MBE for her services to folk music and in 2014 she received an Honorary Fellowship from the University of Cumbria. She currently runs an Arts Centre called Stones Barn in Cumbria which offers residential courses.

Whilst busy promoting her latest album with Hannah James & Giles Lewin, ‘Shortwinger’ (Park Records), Maddy took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Good morning Maddy how are you?

I’m alright thanks Kevin, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, it’s my pleasure.

And just how is life treating you?

I have to be honest with you and say that life at the moment is very good, very good indeed.

And I understand that you have recently attended The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. How was that?

That was absolutely fantastic. The funny thing is that I booked the accommodation online before I got there and found myself staying on the Falls Road (laughter). And that was, I have to say, rather surprising (laughter).

Despite that did you enjoy being at the awards?

Yes I did, I had a marvellous time.

Now we really have to talk about your new album Shortwinger.

Indeed we do.

Well I have to say that I have been playing it for the past couple of weeks and I think that it is a lovely piece of work.

I’m so pleased that you have said that because I think that it is lovely too.

Are you happy with it?

Yes I am. As you know I have been working with Hannah (James) and Giles (Lewin) once again on this album, and I have to say that they are both such good musicians. They bring something really fresh and interesting to music and what we do.

From writing to recording, how long has it taken you to put the album together?

Probably about a year I would think simply because the three of us are always doing other things as well. In Hannah’s case she is most probably doing twenty-five other things (laughter). In fact I honestly believe that she is doing far more than me.

I find that very hard to believe (laughter).

(Laughter) I know. Also Giles has got a family plus he is also involved in lots of other things too but he never tells you about them (laughter). He is very much understated is our Giles.

It is always pleasing whenever you are working with Giles and Hannah?

Yes it is, it really is. When we first started it actually came out of the fact that I had worked in a trio with Giles and Benji (Kirkpatrick) who is now in Steeleye Span of course. Benji couldn’t do the tour so we had to get somebody else involved. I didn’t want to bring in just another guitarist because to me, that didn’t make sense so I said “let’s go for something completely different” and something completely different it certainly was (laughter). So we invited Hannah to join us. She came along and we all sat around a table, looking at each other, wondering just what we were going to make of this (laughter). Her skills are so different to mine and Giles’; they are so distinctive, and she is simply so skilful that she makes the accordion do all manner of things.

She is also heavily into foot percussion and dance, which also gives us another direction too. Hannah has worked a lot of the time in Ethno camps throughout Europe (worldwide camps for exchanging their national music) , particularly throughout Slovenia. So she has picked up a lot of Middle European and South American skills from people who just teach each other music. So Hannah has got all of these skills which she has never used on stage, they were just kind of hidden away in a box. I think that when we recorded our 3 For Joy album that kind of opened her eyes to the fact that she could use some of these different skills that she had kept hidden away for so long. She really is so skilful at these sorts of things.

I have to ask you; just who or what is a Shortwinger?

It is another word for a hawk and in particular a Goshawk. The first track on the album, Austringer, is all about the man who handles goshawks. He is called an Austringer. We use a hell of a lot of language and words which originate from hawking. One of my favourites is fed-up, which is when you give a bird too much food and he sulks and refuses to fly, they say that he his fed-up (laughter).

I know that feeling very well (laughter).

Yes, exactly (laughter). So we now use fed-up as meaning not interested which is exactly what the bird is. There are others too such as rouse, which is to wake up, and haggard. I find that haggard is a good one. Whenever birds are at the end of their migration they become haggard. I personally find Goshawks particularly interesting; I find them to be very murderous (laughter). That is their kind of thing, they don’t hover and look elegant; they simply go from the fist to the prey (laughter).

Well I am going to rock the boat and move away from hawks and tell you that my go to track on the album is The Fabled Hare.

Well thank you Kevin, that is really nice of you to say.

You mention 3 For Joy, having read the reviews a lot of the fans are saying that it is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

Oh right, well that is interesting. What I think is that 3 For Joy is kind of left field. It isn’t an album that you would expect from anybody really (laughter). I have to say that I like the freshness of it; that’s what I think it is, it’s fresh. I do remember someone writing a review of Tim Hart and saying “how fresh it sounded” and I remember thinking ‘it bloody well ought to, we are only eighteen’ (laughter). It is nice to feel that music is fresh, especially with Hannah and Giles, which it is.

Who has musically inspired you along the way?

Well the very first one was Kathleen Ferrier singing opera strangely enough although I never followed through with that. She sang songs such as Art Thou Troubled? There was something about her voice that just got me and I loved the music. It was the very first record that I ever had. My dad bought me a record player so that I was able to play this one record. I wanted to play it as I was going to sleep but of course in those days you had to get up and physically take the record off the player (laughter). So she was my very first inspiration. Having said that she sang some Folk songs and I absolutely hated them, simply because it wasn’t right hearing her singing them.

I knew absolutely nothing about Folk music, but her voice for me simply didn’t work. And I was right, it doesn’t work, I don’t think. Folk music is a totally different skill to Opera, and believe me, they are both skilful. It’s like nowadays, pop music is incredibly skilful, whereas back in the day it was always said that “pop stars, they can’t sing” (laughter). However, they are not trying to sing Opera, so you have to take on board that what they are trying to do is not the same thing. After Kathleen there was inevitably Joan Baez. At that time Joan was singing a lot of English ballads. So it has to be said that I learnt a lot of English ballads off an American, if you see what I mean (laughter).

But at that time I would also go dancing to traditional Jazz, Ska and Blue Beat because I was a Mod for a while. And what you have to remember is that they all kind of come into the mix. I loved partner dancing especially the Jive, and four hours of dancing was my idea of a good night out (laughter). So as you can see there were lots of influences. And then, of course, I met up with Tim (Hart). It was actually an American couple that got me into English music strangely enough. I was driving them around the UK for a year and they said “you have got to stop singing this American music, because you are rubbish at it; you have got to sing your own English music” (laughter).

Being Americans they had got lots of cassette tapes which they gave to me telling me to “go away and listen to those” and I really did want to impress them so I listened to this stuff and thought ‘how boring is this. I can’t get my head around this at all’ but after listening to it for a while, it sort of sank in. I suddenly found myself saying “oh that one’s quite nice” and “I quite like that one” (laughter). It is the same with any music, if you want to know about it, you have just got to listen to it for quite a long time so that you fully understand the vocabulary. I didn’t grasp that at first, and then gradually I started to understand it. One of my favourite songs ever, The Lark In The Morning is actually a song that I learnt whilst I was at school. But I would never have sung it unless I had seen it in the English Folksong Journals (laughter).

You are about to go back out on the road touring the new album. Does touring still excite you?

Yes it does and to be honest with you I feel that I need to tour, I always have. Don’t get me wrong, touring really is quite hard to do and the singing is hard too. I keep thinking to myself that touring used to be easy but when I look back through my old diaries and bits of writing, it appears that I was always complaining about touring (laughter). So I think that in reality, touring simply changes all of the time and it is something that you have to be aware of, more so as time goes on. You always get to the next place on the tour schedule and think ‘the next place is going to be good’ but the minute that you get there you start looking back at the previous night’s venue thinking ‘now that was good’ (laughing). It happens all through life and it is entirely true.

Are you always writing?

I tend to write in fits and starts. Let me put it another way, I tend to write when I have something to write about. I don’t find myself writing things out of nowhere. I sometimes write when I feel that I have a bit of poetry to put down in writing but I am by no means prolific when it comes to writing or anything really although I do seem to put out a lot of albums (laughter). There are sometimes things going on in my life which I put into song and then sometimes there isn’t. I am more about words than anything else I think. I just happen to sing the words if you see what I mean (laughter).

I recently read somewhere that Bob Dylan claims to write a new song every day. All that I can say to that is that there must be some dross in there (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s right, I know exactly what you mean. You do have to write quite a lot and then weed it. It’s called editing (laughter).

Amongst other things no doubt (laughter).

You know that sometimes you write something and it is just right. And other times you write something, struggle away with it, and sometimes you can make something of it, but believe me, not always.

You have mentioned the amount of work that Giles gets through in a year, have you ever thought about slowing down?

(Laughter) It doesn’t feel to me as though I am actually working, in fact some of the time I do feel quite lazy. I suppose that it all depends upon your perspective doesn’t it (laughter).

Well before we spoke I have been looking at your tour schedules for the coming year. You will be going out on tour with Giles and Hannah, Steeleye Span, and The Carnival Band; it just appears to me that it’s nonstop.

I know what you mean but it’s not nonstop really (laughter). You have to remember that two or three days off for me is quite a lot. In fact I have had the whole of both January and February this year doing absolutely nothing which, to be honest, I needed.

And just what are you like at home when you are doing nothing, are you climbing up the walls?

No I watch the television (laughter). I tend to potter around, and to be honest I am quite difficult to motivate if there isn’t a gig or something for me to do, if you know what I mean. I quite like having things to do because it motivates me.

I find this extremely hard to believe but you have now been in the music business for over fifty years. Have you enjoyed the ride?

Yes I have but then again, who wouldn’t (laughter). To make matters worse it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Steeleye Span next year (laughter). Before that I was working with Tim for around four years before we started Steeleye. And thinking about it I was doing a year on my own before that so it must actually be around fifty-two or even fifty-three years now, bloody hell (laughter).

(Laughter) which just goes to highlight my point about you perhaps slowing down a little.

I do take on board what you say but there really is no need for me to slow down in a sense. I am actually doing the best job in the world which is why, of course, all of these youngsters want to do it (laughter).

I was fortunate enough to speak to Alice Cooper and when I asked him if he had any thoughts on retiring he simply smiled and said ‘what from young man, singing or golf’ (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) I love the idea of Alice playing golf with Johnny Mathis which apparently is what they used to get up to together.

On the subject of strange pairings, I was recently speaking to John Lydon and he told me that every Sunday he will go down to the local bar, have a cigarette and a pint whilst reading the Sunday paper just as he would if he were still here in the UK and he does this every week in the company of one Engelbert Humperdinck.

(Laughter) well there you go. I have to tell you that I once met John when we were both fairly drunk. He was trying his very best to get rid of this middle-aged woman who was clinging on to his every word (laughter). He said “what do you do” and I told him that I was a singer. By this time I had become totally disheartened but he then asked me “who do you sing with” and I told him that I was singing with Steeleye Span. He said “oh no, I’m really sorry, I think that you are great and I have all of your albums” (laughter). So it really was funny.

I actually found him to be a very intelligent man.

Yes he is and I have to say, a thoroughly nice bloke.

So you are now telling me that you have been in the music business for almost fifty-three years. In that case, if I put you on the spot, what would you say has been the highlight so far?

Oh well I would have to say that is really difficult. I think what I like is just doing the work. I just want the work to be good. I want to produce a good body of work, and so I try not to do things that I don’t want to do. Actually, I don’t have to do things that I don’t want to do which makes for a pretty good life. My dad used to say “if you have got ten thousand pounds in the bank, then you can tell anyone to eff off” (laughter). I thought about that for years and I thought ‘do you know that is a really good piece of advice’ but then I thought to myself, I would never tell anyone to eff off (laughter). I would just simply wander away.

I never find myself saying “no, I’m not going to do that” I tend to simply not answer (laughter). So thinking about it I have pretty much always done what I have wanted to do. I have been on treks to Peru and dog sledging for holidays which is my idea of a great holiday; I love those kind of things. I’m not the kind of person who goes away on a holiday so those things have been my holidays. I haven’t really replaced that yet because I can’t really do the treks anymore. Thinking about it, I might just try to build myself up for one more trek.

Have there ever been any low points where you have woken up and thought that’s it, I’ve had enough of this?

Oh yes (laughter).

You are not supposed to say that with such conviction (laughter).

The thing about it is that it is a life like any other, there are ups and there are downs. Overall I can’t imagine anything else that I would rather have done. But having said that, there have been times when I have rung home and said “I really can’t do this anymore, please fetch me home” and all of that sort of thing (laughter). On one occasion, my father threatened to come out to the middle of America because I had been complaining so much (laughter). I said “no, no, no, I’m fine” (laughter). But being honest you do get low spots especially when you are working with the same people all of the time. You get stresses and strains just like you do in any situation, just as you would working in an office.

Wasn’t it The Rolling Stones who said that “the bands that stay together the longest are the bands that travel alone”?

Yes they did, I did see that and I have to say that I can see that. You have to have your own space, you have to be your own person within the band. You can’t be with it too much. I have to say that Steeleye Span spent far too much time together. Having said that, I have to be honest and say that during the 70s and 80s we laughed, god did we laugh. All of the time it was so hyper, so brilliant, so desperate, so hysterical and so very funny (laughter). I wouldn’t have missed it for the world; travelling across America and playing Top Of The Pops. It was crazy but god did we have a laugh.

What was your very first experience of playing on Top Of The Pops?

(Laughter) well my very first appearance on Top Of The Pops was with Steeleye Span when we were promoting Gaudete. I loved it because Slade were appearing on the same show as us (laughter). I have to be honest and say that it was all very weird (laughter). I can’t remember if it was the drummer or the bass player, but one of them kicked off big time because they weren’t in shot (laughter). It was interesting really, again, I wouldn’t have missed it. I like to be able to say that I was on Top Of The Pops; it is a marker.

You have worked with lots of artists, Jethro Tull, Mike Oldfield, Ralph McTell and Status Quo to name but a few. Which gave you the greatest pleasure?

Well I think that doing All Around My Hat with Status Quo has to be up there. If you checkout the video footage on YouTube it is clear to see that I am having such a good time (laughter). It was just my kind of music, that kind of rock and roll (laughter).

We have briefly mentioned Ralph McTell, in 1974 he wrote When Maddy Dances for you. Did you know that he was writing it for you?

No not at all, it was just a case of suddenly it was there, which was lovely. (Laughter) funnily enough I saw Ralph a couple of evenings ago now at the Folk Awards in Belfast. It was great to see him.

Is he in good health?

Yes he is, it was great to see him. He was there presenting the odd award or two (laughter). Ralph is a lovely friend, we have known each other for many years now. I use to go to his house whenever I was pissed off with the band (laughter). I would always go and moan to Ralph.

What was the first record that you bought?

That’s quite difficult really because my brother was always buying records and they were always regarded as being family records. But certainly back in the early days I am pretty sure that I bought an album by The Springfield’s, together with one by The Beach Boys. However, the very first records that we had as a family were some old 78s which had been given to us by a family friend, and in there was Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price, Hound Dog by Elvis Presley and Clarinets a la King by The Vienna Clarinet Connection. As you can see I have always had a mixed bag of material. It’s very easy to find yourself on a twisted journey with music. I find that it never goes in a straight line.

Who did you first see performing live?

Thinking about it that would most probably have been The Spinners actually. The thing is that I would always be going to the theatre with my parents when I was younger, particularly at The Watford Playhouse. But the first gig that I saw would most probably have been at The Folk Club. Having said that I would spend a lot of time at The Jazz Club where there would always be someone playing, people like Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and all those kind of people. But I didn’t see them because I didn’t have my glasses on because I was busy dancing (laughter). You have to remember that Donovan was a very good personal friend of mine.

I remember seeing him at one of his very early gigs in St Albans and he was really good. We all loved him, we thought that he was brilliant. His music always bounced, the way that he played the guitar was, it has to be said very unique. He wrote great songs too.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Well there have been two songs that have made me cry recently, one was Waterlily by Karine Polwart and the other was when I heard Art Thou Troubled? by Kathleen Ferrier. Someone sent it to me and I thought ‘oh this will be interesting to listen to this’ and I absolutely burst into tears.

If you could have written one song in the whole world, what would you have written?

(Laughter) well that has really well and truly put me on the spot hasn’t it. I don’t know, I really don’t know. Thinking about it then I would have to say that it would most probably have been Tam Lin which as you probably know was written by Robert Burns sometime in the late 1770s.

I honestly thought that you may have said Happy Birthday, just like some of the other artists that I have asked, simply because it is making millions (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) well that’s the problem, I wasn’t thinking financially (laughter).

Is folk music here in the UK currently in a good place?

Oh I have to say that it is in a fantastic place at the moment. I can’t believe the skill of these young ones, they are all brilliant players. There is, as I call it, a guard in the middle order, people like John Boden, Lisa Knapp, and Benji Kirkpatrick, all of those type of people who have all learnt their skills and are now experimenting, for example Karine Polwart with Wind Resistance. He is now producing some absolutely brilliant stuff. They have all matured now into being fully fledged artists who are all doing very different things in their own right, just like Benji did with Bendrix, his interpretations of Jimi Hendrix material. So there is a lot of energy within those middle years as well as all of these youngsters coming up. So take it from me, there is a lot of stuff currently going on.

In 2001 you were awarded the MBE for your services to folk music. That must have made you feel good?

I have to say that yes, it was great. I was totally chuffed with that. My parents were absolutely delighted for me.

Was it always going to be a career in music for you?

No it wasn’t. I started off by working a week in a Wimpy bar whilst I was on holiday with a friend, for which I got ten quid, and I then did a gig on my own with a banjo for which I received eight quid so I thought ‘I think that I will do this for a bit’ (laughter). And that was it. Don’t forget, that was back in the days when you could say “I will do this for a bit and then I will go and do something else” (laughter). However, I have to say that I wouldn’t like to start doing anything now. I think that the kids today are faced with a terribly hard time.

You mention Wimpy’s and you mention playing the banjo, was there ever a Plan B just in case music didn’t work out for you?

Not really. I was into art, sewing and things like that. So I am fairly confident that I would have put something together but saying that, it most probably wouldn’t have been as successful (laughter). I don’t really know because I was known for my singing from quite a young age. The first thing that I ever did was the Saturday Matinee, which was, if you can remember, where they had a singing competition before the movies were shown and I used to win that quite regularly at eight or nine years old. I have always said that if you get the encouragement early enough, then that would keep you doing it.

On the other hand, if someone tells you that you have got a voice like a foghorn, then you are not likely to carry on doing it (laughter). People were always telling me “oh you are really good” but the truth of the matter is that they couldn’t have known that much and I really couldn’t have been that good but they said the right things to me to keep me going and to keep me interested in singing.

So what do you make of the shift in the way that we consume our music?

Well I remember when Radiohead released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows back in 2007 directly through their own website as a digital download. The fans could apparently pay any price that they liked for the download. The band never said just how much they made from it, in fact all that they would say was that it was “very successful” (laughter). But then, after a year or two they released the album on CD. When they were asked as to why they were releasing the CD they replied by saying that “the fans want the artefact”. And the reality is that people do want the artefact, especially those of my generation of course, and those slightly younger. They want to have something to hold; they do not want the album to be in the ether, it is not enough for them and it certainly isn’t enough for me. I actually want hard copies (laughter).

Well I have to tell you that it was rumoured that Radiohead earned five million pounds during the first two days of the album being available to download.

Did they really, well that just goes to prove that someone got their marketing correct on that one didn’t they (laughter).

On that note Maddy, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been absolutely delightful. You take care and I will see you at Loughborough University on Wednesday 18th April.

Thank you Kevin, that was a really good interview. You take care and please do make sure that you come over and say hello when we get to Loughborough



Date Venue
Sat 14th Playhouse Halifax
Sun 15th Civic Theatre Rotherham
Mon 16th The Ropewalk Barton Upon Humber
Tue 17th The National Centre For Early Music York
Wed 18th LU Arts Loughborough
Fri 20th Landmark Arts Centre Teddington
Sat 21st The Guildhall Lichfield
Sun 22nd Abbey Theatre & Arts Centre Nuneaton
Tue 24th Forest Arts Centre New Milton
Thu 26th The Spring Arts & Heritage Theatre Havant
Fri 27th Astor Community Centre Deal
Sat 28th Arts Centre Colchester
Sun 29th The Tithe Barn Bishop’s Cleeve


Date Venue
Wed 2nd Arts Centre Colchester
Thu 3rd Chapel Arts Centre Bath
Fri 4th Ropetackle Arts Centre Shoreham By Sea
Sat 5th Arts Centre Shaftesbury

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