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Heather Heywood by Steve McGrail

Heather Heywood

IT'S A LONG WAY from performing songs under a table (more of which later!) to national concert platforms and recording studios, and to a reputation in Scottish traditional music that places her amongst the 'Greats'. But that's been Heather Heywood's journey, which she's made unassumingly, not having planned it, nor even quite believing it's happened, either. It has, though, for hers is a voice which leads people like Ian Green of Greentrax to call her one of the finest singers of the last three decades, whilst to Beryl Marriott "comparing her with Jeannie Robertson, as many do, is wholly justified".

"I've always sung", Heather says, "I can't help it. My family weren't especially musical, 'though sometimes me and my sisters would try Everly Brothers' stuff together. We lived in a mining area and I heard many mining songs, parlour ballads rather than traditional, I suppose. I liked them. At school shows ('though I sang reluctantly) I did mining disasters when everyone else did Elvis. After a bit, the teachers asked me if I couldn't do a happy song for a change, but I stuck to what I enjoyed most".

Her parents didn't encourage her much ("we weren't a praising family"), but they certainly respected her talent. "Mum used to invite folk in for a cup of tea, like passing tramps, and she always had me sing for them - but I was so shy, I'd only do it from behind a door or below the kitchen table! I now see she must have been proud of me then. She definitely was about my first recording, she had all the neighbours in to hear it".

It was a Martin Carthy album that she heard when she was 19 which first showed her what was out there. She was bowled over by it, but also relieved to find that it wasn't merely her who'd liked such songs. Marriage to folk enthusiast Pete Heywood ("we met romantically at Blackpool") quickly got her into the then burgeoning folk scene.

She listened rather than performed, however, until one night at Eglinton Folk Club in Irvine. They were short of floor singers so Pete pushed her forward. She sang a Maddy Prior number and to her surprise, got a resounding reception. After that, in her words, she "never looked back".

She adopted Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins as her guides; to this day, if she hears a new ballad she'll always go back to its source, usually them. What made a song good for her then, as now, she says, is something with a real story, well sung. "I close my eyes and listen. If it's good, I feel I'm there, there on the "Dowie Dens of Yarrow", say, looking for my lost lover. When I sing myself, I'm away somewhere else. If I drop a song now it's because I can no longer see myself in it. It's not just old songs that affect me, incidentally. I remember a new one called "Some People Cry" by a Welsh duo. I tried learning it but couldn't for ages, because I kept on crying". Beryl Marriot recognises this aspect of her: "Songs with a psychological truth make the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Few singers achieve that, but Heather does because she understands truth".

Time went on and she began a family. She and Pete now have three children. For a while she was able to do the festivals and, at Kilmarnock Folk Club which she and Pete had launched, she would routinely open the evening with a song. "That made me regularly learn new material", she recalls, "but it's funny, it didn't necessarily stay with me. I retain the songs I haven't learned for a particular purpose, the ones I wanted to learn because they've touched me most".

She's remained basically a solo or unaccompanied performer. A solitary tour of Brittany with The Clutha (Geordanna McCulloch having temporarily dropped out) was her one 'group' experience. "I've got mixed feelings about group performing. I half like it, because you're not so exposed, but then you've got to remember to fit in with the others. Being by yourself is a bit lonely (better, sometimes, if you've got an accompanist), but at least you're more in control. Truthfully, I'm not a group person. I even have problems at the church, with choirs. As usual, I shut my eyes and I'm away. I think they get fed up with me, I can't stick to the regimented notes they want!"

Big ballads, of course, have been her thing. "I'm not so taken with lighter numbers", she says, "'though I like a few". Nowadays, she says, she has no real favourite amongst the ballads, but enjoys doing "The Cruel Mother" as much as any. Interestingly, many people consider this splendid work to be her best: "Hers is probably the definitive version", thinks Beryl Marriott.

She's not noticeably awestruck or reverential about this sort of material, however. She remembers going to festivals in England, or TMSA ones, and being puzzled by people worrying about the history and origins of songs. "Maybe I'm just a simple soul", she sighs, "but I thought you just sang something because you liked it. Sometimes I don't even understand all the words until I've done them for a bit". The point, she says, is to ensure that other people enjoy what she does. She appears to succeed, even winning over the doubters. Judith Moody, a Whitby Folk Week organiser, talks of a non-trad friend of hers encountering Heather's music for the first time. "She didn't expect to be, but she was captivated and promptly bought the CD!"

This must all sound as if singing and learning songs come easily to Heather. "Well, they do and they don't. Of course, I sing constantly, I don't even know I'm at it, folk sometimes think I'm talking to myself. I certainly don't know what I do when I'm singing. An American woman academic once asked me why I'd done something or other. I said I didn't know I had. She said she actually found that quite refreshing, she was used to people telling her what they thought she wanted to hear. All I'm sure of is that my singing changes according to my mood".

She does have definable learning techniques, though. She'll tackle the first two verses in one go, then add verse after verse, singing them over and over again. "Learning is quite hard. The first thing I do is unlearn the first version I've heard. Let's say it’s from Alison McMorland, whom I really admire. At first, I'd decorate it as much as she does. But then I'd strip away a lot of the decoration (much as I like it) until the song becomes my own".

As with any singer, there are other artists who've influenced her heavily, Alison, Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins for a start. "I admire Dick Gaughan, Archie Fisher and the late Ian Manuel... Oh, and Ewan McColl, particularly for his range of songs, and The Gaugers... Then there's Geordanna and Kevin Mitchell, and perhaps the person who most stands out for the way he can hold a ballad, Rod Paterson. There are some great new-generation singers, too, like Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart, it's wonderful to see young performers coming through".

If she perhaps hasn't a clear idea of exactly what she's doing herself by way of vocal technique, she does try to think about how audiences might react to the actual songs themselves. That means she'll sometimes slightly adapt a song to make it more acceptable. "I'll maybe remove a verse to keep the story flowing. You've got to respect an audience's needs. With the repetition in ballads, audiences can drift off. I don't think there's anything wrong with 'trimming'. The song's in no danger, as it's now safely written down and can't be lost. The 'purest' of songs is useless if nobody's listening. Anyhow, put it this way, nobody's ever complained about me doing this".

One side of her that's strikingly obvious is her modesty. "People tell me I'm good but I don't quite believe them. That's why I've never tried to make a career of singing. I've never looked for work in case I let people down". It's maybe part of the reason that her recordings are sparse, just three solo albums (with a fourth in progress) and a scattering of compilations.

She's positively not keen on recording studios. "They're nerve-wracking, even though you might have someone mouthing encouraging noises at you", she says. Paradoxically, she records well, as Ian Green knows. "Heather was Greentrax's tenth release. I remember that recording, I had to be very supportive to get her before the mike at all. Yet once she started, it was amazing. "The Cruel Mother" I'll always remember, a nine-minute ballad that she did in one go. You'd expect any performer to fluff something over nine minutes, but she didn't... Flawless, absolutely flawless".

So, the accolades flow. Heather seems largely impervious to them, however. "I honestly don't believe I'm that special", she says. "Like I said, I'm a bit of a simple soul, I just like songs, that's all it is. I mean, singing to me is just pure joy - so what else would I do?"

Links, further information and recordings:

The Tradition Bearers website
Heather Heywood website
Buy Heather's recordings from 'The Listening Post' online shop of The Living Tradition magazine.