If you’ve ever been to a Lucy Ward gig, you’ll know it’s always a happy occasion. She’s a big personality, and can charm even the stiffest crowd into singing along with anything from the ‘fulorums’ of Maids When You’re Young to Pulp’s Common People.
But there’s much more to Ward than a sunny disposition. Single Flame, her second album, is a complex and thoughtful record. It opens with I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak – a stately track that examines the role of the protest song. Her own take on that particular genre, For the Dead Men (which was released as a single last year), remains a rousing and plain-speaking call to action.
But there is more to Single Flame than peace and protest. Ward explores a wealth of themes, from the rich life of Stuart Shorter (Ink), to the nature of beauty (Honey). Meanwhile, dishonour, shame and hatred haunt The Consequence, a bleak take on familial violence, tonally worlds apart from Mike Waterson’s A Stitch in Time, which featured on Ward’s well-received debut, Adelphi Has To Fly.
Her gently husky, warmly accented voice is sounding better than ever, particularly on the hypnotic Rites of Man and doleful traditional track Lord I Don’t Want to Die in the Storm. On the latter, sparse banjo and bass provide a minimal backing, and you can almost feel the clouds gathering. On the other hand, Marching Through the Green Grass – another traditional track – is a riot, with military-style drums propelling Ward through the song as she cheerfully extols the virtues of her soldier boy.
Ward rightly picked me up for using the word ‘serious’ in the interview below: after all, her debut covered death, homelessness, infidelity, murder, violence, and in a song entitled Death, more death. But while those themes haven’t disappeared, her graceful, stately handling of them struck me when I listened to Single Flame. Perhaps the word I was searching for was not ‘serious’, but ‘mature’. Either way, it’s a successful, thoughtful and satisfying piece of work.
Lucy Ward spoke to Folk Witness about the album, as well as protest songs, working with Stu Hanna, and (we did ask) sandwiches.
FW: What are the main differences between Single Flame and your debut album? Have you found songwriting easier the more you’ve done it or was it a ‘difficult second album’?
Lucy: I definitely felt the weight of the second album. I spent a long time undecided about the best way to go forward. Adelphi Has To Fly was so well received that I was worried the songs I was writing for Single Flame would be too far removed from that start point. But in the end I decided to just go with the flow and so far people have responded really well. There is more instrumentation on this record, but even in the songs with complex arrangements I’ve tried to make sure the lyrics stay centre stage.
I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak mentions the songs of the 1960s peace movement, and illustrates the point that we haven’t achieved peace yet. Do you think Bob Dylan and Melanie Safka’s songs failed? Do you think there’s still hope for protest songs – can they change the world?
I don’t think those songs failed at all! In the 50-odd years since the 1960s so much has changed and progressed – green issues, equality – the list goes on. We have definitely made giant leaps forward. My song isn’t about a generation failing, it’s about bringing back some of the optimism of those times and not allowing our cynicism and apathy to get in the way of progress, protest and change. How many times have we heard people say ‘Well what difference does my vote make anyway!’? I think it’s important to keep in mind that songs generally document moments and emotions and yes, maybe sometimes, they can also inspire and spark action, I heard Billy Bragg say recently that Dylan didn’t write Blowin’ in the Wind and inspire the civil rights movement – he wrote it about the civil rights movement. Billy’s own Between the Wars didn’t cause the miners to go on strike. It works the other way round. So yes, protest songs are important, hopefully they make us think, help us remember, and sometimes, just sometimes, they provide a backdrop for defining moments in our history.
What has motivated you to write protest songs like For the Dead Men? Are there any particular events or people?
I didn’t set out to write protest songs, I think it is incredibly important to sing about things that have real meaning to you and that you have an emotional connection with (although I do like to have fun with proper daft material too!). My inspiration is always very varied: something on the radio, the news, something I’ve overheard in a café or just a flight of fantasy. In the case of For the Dead Men, I wrote it when we couldn’t turn on our TVs and radios without hearing about protest – around the time of the cuts demonstrations and student marches in London.
Do you feel you’re ploughing a lonely furrow in terms of writing songs about peace and justice? I can’t think of too many young acts covering the same ground you are…
Well firstly, there are two songs on the album that talk about peace and justice, so I am not really sure if I am ploughing a furrow at all. There are some lightly eco-friendly themes on there too, but it’s certainly not a full-blown rant. I think protest has become a dirty word for some musicians (and audiences) of all ages. Maybe they think it’s angry and they don’t want to be told what to do. But surely those songs are actually just about opening a discussion? They don’t need to be a call to arms, they don’t even need to pose a question – they just are. Sean Taylor has written some fantastic songs with a protest edge, but like me, he’s a just a songwriter who writes about what inspires him in that moment.
It feels like a serious album, with themes of shame and death. What’s it going to be like playing some of this material live?
The body count in Single Flame is considerably less than it was in Adelphi Has To Fly! So I’m not sure I quite subscribe to the notion that I suddenly have a lot more serious material to contend with. When I perform live, I have always balanced out the often dark nature of my music with friendly banter, a general sense of enjoyment and having fun. Although it was never any grand plan, maybe people connect better to those heavier songs because they feel at ease that I am just being myself. (And because they know that some respite will be just around the corner!)
How was working with Stu Hanna? David Eagle told us some entertaining stories about his working methods…
You know, David wasn’t exaggerating too much. I guess it’s different for bands: they have already put so much work into arranging the songs. However, for solo artists an album is a chance to let loose with all the craziness you imagined but don’t actually have enough arms/vocal boxes to play. So me and Stu spend ages (a whole seven months) just playing and singing until eventually the album takes shape. We recorded both albums in Stu’s home studio, which is perfect for me! No pressure of “time is money”! I sing into a duvet and we stop for tea breaks and every so often the dog pops in to just check on our progress. My favourite bit about recording is when you get on to the vocals. Although there are some tracks performed completely live, me and Stu have a tendency to labour over the delivery of certain words and that’s when we get to the “sing it like an old lady”, “sing it like you are dying”, “sing it like you are freezing cold” stuff, which I love! So much fun and even though it seems daft, he knows exactly what to say to help you capture the perfect emotion.
How did you choose the traditional tracks that appear on the album? Do you start with the songs you’ve written and try and pick trad songs to complement or contrast with them?
Not at all! Maybe that would be a good approach in the future! Absolutely nothing on the album was put there because that’s what would be expected. For a long time I wasn’t sure which traditional songs would make it on to the record. We started working on Marching Through The Green Grass, (a version of The Soldier Boy) and quite quickly we knew we would have a lot of fun with it, so we worked it up and it made the final cut. Lord I Don’t Want to Die in the Storm worked very differently. I found the words on Mudcat Café ages ago, but could never source a tune. We had a couple of hours off from recording and were just talking about songs and it came up in the conversation; Stu said “let’s just make up a tune”. I started singing, he picked up his banjo and it was as unplanned as that.
How’s Carlos the ukulele getting on?
Carlos is well! He actually has got married to a lovely little soprano uke called Carla! They make beautiful music together… I don’t know if other musicians feel the need to name their instruments and give them back stories?! Maybe that could be a future question for this article hehe…what is your guitar called? [For the record, FW’s guitar doesn’t have a name, but Tony is a frontrunner] In all seriousness though, I am having a lot of fun learning ukulele. I still feel like a complete beginner and often get confused and start playing guitar chords instead, but that is joy of it.
Here’s Folk Witness’s traditional, probing final question. What is your favourite sandwich?
In terms of standard sarnie you can buy at any motorway services it’s all about egg mayo. However, given the choice, it would have to be brie, grape and cranberry sauce on some really lush multiseeded bread with lots of fresh salad leaves. Though if I was being really extravagant/unhealthy/indulgent I would go for a classic pie sandwich every time!
Single Flame is out on Navigator Records on August 19