by nick clark

"I came in doing what I was asked to do
staying pretty much in the background"

Photo: Claude Calteux


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 discussion.

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 family duties.

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 deliberate thing?

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 aspect.

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 or English.

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 sessions?

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 the material.

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!


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 holder.

2nd. Dec. 1999