THE GAY WOODS INTERVIEW
by nick clark
"I came in doing what I was asked to do
– staying pretty much in the background"
Photo: Claude Calteux
PART ONE: THE NEW IRISH SINGER.
Gay Woods has been a Steeleye Span vocalist now for nearly five
years. She joined them first on tour in 1994 - re-uniting her with Maddy
Prior, with whom she had sung on the bands first album a quarter of a
century before. When she subsequently took over the role of the main singer few
would have envied her the task, following as she did, the celebrated 'first lady
of folk'. That we can now look back and say she has done this successfully is no
small testimony to her achievement. She has been widely acclaimed on the bands
most recent tour not only as singer but personality in her own right and who
would argue that she has taken the front role and made it her own? More than
that she has helped the band find a new direction, guiding them into the
uncharted waters of traditional Irish music which has led to the release of a
fresh and moving record 'Horkstow Grange'. Gay
is also very approachable. She was willing to chat about her work and the music
of the past very comfortably with me for nearly an hour and the text of that
conversation is what I re- produce here. We talked as she concluded the 30th
Anniversary Tour with Steeleye and that was the starting point for our
How are you after the tour ?
Just about back to normality now.
Do you get a rest now?
Yes, I don't know what we are doing next. It's nice to get back and fulfil my
You're talking about a new album, is that right?
Yes that's on the cards. We don't tour in January so we might start thinking
about it then.
That'll be recorded where?
Peter wants to go to a residential studio where we can all stay because he feels
it would be better for the music and I agree because our musical relationship
has changed now. We like to talk through the music and it's at a creative high
at the moment. Certainly between Tim Harries and Peter and myself we want to
work at things a bit more before we put them onto disc.
The whole outlook of the band has changed. Is that a
Well, ha ha ha, here we go. When I came in - they asked me to join because Maddy
was having some voice problems. When I came in I didn't know what had gone on -
I didn't follow the band so I came in doing what I was asked to do - staying
pretty much in the background and that was what was required but then.... Can
you keep somebody like me down? I kept coming out as my voice got stronger,
because I had given up singing when I had my daughter in 1986 - not just for her
but because I had had enough of it - I wanted to do other stuff so I went off
and did a study course. So for me it was just (enough) going onto big stages
with a band with a high profile so I was very cautious but then I gradually got
stronger and stronger and really started to love it all again - that's what
happened really. Then, of course, I brought some Irishy stuff - my own stuff
into the band and the band really started to get off on it and they realised
'God, she can sing as well' - so it happened as if by nature.
There's a huge Irish content in 'Horkstow Grange'.
Were the band happy to go towards that?
They were because, I think, I don't come from a traditional Irish background -
I'm a city person so my love of Irish music is really through the later stuff -
around the 1920's and 1930's particularly the songs like 'Old Maid in the
Garrett' and 'I Wish that I Never Was Wed'. I just love those
pantomime, almost ridiculous songs so I wasn't coming from a really trad Irish
background so I think that's why it could sit very well with the Steeleye stuff.
Their main focus has always been on the words of their songs and what they're
singing about- they've recorded some beautiful songs which I'm crazy about as
well like 'Thomas the Rhymer'. I just love them because they are so old
and because they have a good story to them and such humanity.
Going into, say 'Horkstow Grange', how do you work
out who is going to choose the songs?
The way we have done things in the past is that each individual goes with
something that strikes them - something that will resonate with them.Then we
come back and meet in the rehearsal room and we throw into the middle of the
room what everybody thinks they would like to do and we see what hits us all.
It's hit and miss like the lottery but really (it's) what works well with
everybody and what everyone is happy about, comfortable about and will be happy
performing on the stage. That's very important to us - that you don't have to go
on tour saying 'I dread doing this song tonight'. We wanted to get rid of that
A lot of the Irish stuff has made it through to the live
set. Is this because you are still pushing 'Horkstow Grange' or because,
as you say, you're all very comfortable with it?
We are very comfortable with it and I suppose, I, being the lead singer at the
moment, it's great for the musicians because they can just do what they do best.
I'm still singing some of Steeleye's old songs so I don't mind that for now but
I'd like to go back and do some of their really early stuff, that's what I'm
going for. We really want to do 'Alison Gross' - the real gothic stuff,
that's what we're trying to get Bob to do, 'Two Butchers' and all that
weird stuff and at the same time keep putting new stuff in - whether it be Irish
Is Bob more in favour of the new stuff?
I think he's a bit uncomfortable with going so far back in the past but he just
needs a bit of encouragement - or threats!
Do you think it's because he's played it too many times?
It could be that - of course there is that aspect to it but we're just trying to
breathe new life into such great songs that I hope will not die because I love
performing them and keeping them alive. It's such a great heritage you have in
the British Isles because in Ireland we don't have such songs in the gothic
flavour like for instance 'One True Love' - we don't have that. It's
probably the language - perhaps we have them in with the ancient Irish stuff, I
don't know but the stories and the subjects they're written on are just so
unique from Britain.
Have you thought about what you are taking to the new
Yes, yes there's a lot of stuff lying around that's yearning to be recorded.
Is it more of the same - will there be Irish influences?
There's a few Irish things and I certainly have a few English things I would
love to do as well. I'm not quite sure yet - I'll have to apply myself - a few
things will have to be re-arranged and of course what will work in a live
situation because I hate to put stuff on CD and they're never played although
you can only do so much.
The track 'Erin' translated well on stage
Yes - great. I think it's the nature of that kind of music.I think what's good
about Peter's playing is he will interpret it in his own individual way - he
won't play it like a traditional Irish musician would. So I think that's the
beauty in it - you have a great criss-crossing. I will apply a very primitive
Irish bog-beat and Peter will interpret it his way and then Tim's doing his
thing and Bob as well and the drummer. That's why I like it so much.
Talking of drummers do you have a new one in mind?
Oh I don't know. We're thinking about that because it's so important who plays
what.We might use two drummers if we are recording but we'll see.It depends on
Steeleye is traditionally a five-piece outfit.
I wish we had one drummer - I really do.
Just a question of finding the right person?
At the Nettlebed
gig (see review on this site) you seemed almost with
the crowd in applauding the bands performance
They're so good. The one thing since I rejoined them, I've always been
fascinated at their application 'cos they do have a particularly unique sound
and when they are down in the doldrums sometimes emotionally I remind them. When
they're trying to work out songs they have, once they get to it, this magic.I
think for me, when Peter and Bob riff together, that's their sound.I can be
analyst here because I'm still the new woman and I'm fascinated sometimes on
stage by just their sound - their Steeleye Span sound and I hope that I can
liberate them further.
Is that the secret of longevity? Is that why people keep
going back to see them?
Yes - that and their choice of songs. That is why I hope they will do some of
the earlier stuff with this line-up on the stage. But it's interesting to see
what they will come up with - Bob and Peter, for the new album.I know what I'm
going to come up with!
This is the end of THE GAY WOOD'S INTERVIEW PART ONE.
All text contained in this interview is exclusive to The Unofficial Steeleye
Span Web Site and copyright remains with Nick Clark. It cannot be
reproduced in any form whatsoever without the permission of the copyright
2nd. Dec. 1999