July 1, 2015 / 11:17 AM / 4 years ago

Songwriter Emily Portman on folk tales and motherhood

LONDON (Reuters) - British songwriter Emily Portman draws on folklore, fairy tales and mythology to craft haunting, ethereal songs that weave the otherworldly with the everyday.

Emily Portman poses for a photograph at Cecil Sharp House in London, Britain June 27, 2015. REUTERS/Claire Milhench

Typical subjects for her first two albums included metamorphosis, mythical creatures and wicked stepmothers, but on her new album “Coracle”, out in June, she also draws on personal experience in songs tackling pregnancy and motherhood, grief and loss.

“I’d given birth and my step-mum passed away at a similar time, and these two big things seemed to seep into the songs,” she says, speaking to Reuters by phone from Liverpool.

“It actually helped to be able to write about them, and I found myself looking for stories that seemed to express some of the things I was thinking about.”

Motherhood is a rich seam in folk song and fairy tales, and Portman addresses aspects such as waiting for the birth of her own daughter on “Brink of June”. But she has not entirely abandoned her love for the darker folklore of the British Isles.

Album opener “Darkening Bell”, inspired by a trip to a neolithic burial chamber in Wales, is a sinister tale recalling myths of a slumbering king under a hill.

The album, shaped by leading folk producer Andy Bell, features Portman’s regular collaborators Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton. But she’s also joined by guest musicians such as Bellowhead’s Sam Sweeney on nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle.

Q. You spent your formative years in Glastonbury. How much influence has that had on your songwriting?

A. It was an unusual upbringing in that in Glastonbury a lot of things seemed normal, but when I moved to Newcastle I realized they weren’t, such as seeing druids on the High Street. It isn’t all barmy hippies but it was definitely a place where my imagination could really grow.

As a child I used to write stories, and later I was drawn to the storytelling element in ballads. When I came back to folk tales and fairy tales and started re-reading them, I started seeing links between ballads and fairy tales.

Q. One of the tracks on “Coracle”, “High Tide”, is a collaboration with Merseyside poet Eleanor Rees written for the Irish Sea Sessions, part of Liverpool Irish Festival. How did that come about?

A. I found Eleanor teaching a creative writing course and we had really similar interests in playing with traditional forms. I told her about the Irish Sea Sessions and because I was new to Liverpool I didn’t feel well placed to write about it, so I asked her to write me a song. This is about a mermaid character who feels most at home in the water at high tide.

Q. What else have you got planned for this year?

A. There’s a new EP from The Furrow Collective (Portman, Newton and Farrell with Alasdair Roberts). And I’ve been playing again with the first band I was in, The Devil’s Interval, a harmony trio with Jim Causley and Lauren McCormick. We’re playing Sidmouth (FolkWeek) this summer and London’s King’s Place in December for an event with Martin Carthy.

Reporting by Claire Milhench; Editing by Michael Roddy and Raissa Kasolowsky

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