Mercury Prize nominated Seth in Norwich

EMMA LEE “Ooh, do you mind holding on a minute?” asks folk musician Seth Lakeman as he answers the phone. It sounds like I might have caught him off guard. Cue a bit of clattering.

EMMA LEE

“Ooh, do you mind holding on a minute?” asks folk musician Seth Lakeman as he answers the phone. It sounds like I might have caught him off guard. Cue a bit of clattering.

“Right, I'm outside now. Sorry, I'm in the middle of rehearsals,” he says cheerily. “And things have been so crazy recently.”

Crazy is probably the most apt way to describe the last few months of the 28-year-old's life.

When the shortlist for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize is announced, it's almost guaranteed it will throw up a couple of surprises.

Nestling among the big-sellers and the year's critically-acclaimed new indie act there is sure to be the odd wildcard entry. The one that has the tabloids asking “who?”.

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And this year the honour was all Seth's.

His story has a bit of a fairytale quality to it.

The album, Kitty Jay, is a collection of songs inspired by Devon folk tales - and cost just £300 to record in what's known as the Piano Kitchen in a cottage. It was released on Seth's own label, I-Scream.

He describes them as “songs about the people and the landscape” and the Kitty Jay of the title was a Dartmoor servant girl who committed suicide after she became pregnant.

Seth says that it was “easier” to record the album at home - although he did have to make slightly unusual preparations like unplugging the fridge, taking down the clock and taking the phone off the hook.

And a few takes had to be re-recorded because the microphones picked up the sound of a neighbouring farmer's tractor revving.

“I was born and bred in Dartmoor. The songs are inspired by the area - folktales. I wanted to make a record that was about Dartmoor,” he says.

The album was launched in a rather unconventional style - with a concert for the inmates at Dartmoor Prison.

“Dartmoor prison is three miles from where I am standing and it is the landmark for Dartmoor. I spoke to one of the prison officers and the governor said they would love to have me in. I played to 100 prisoners and got a great reaction. One of the prisoners ended up playing with us. They are starved of music,” he says.

He spent his last £175 on entering the Mercury Music Prize - and his car broke down on the way to the shortlist announcement.

“I was actually sat on the M1 with a broken-down car. It felt a bit weird, but really exciting,” he says.

“It's just accelerated everything I've done and everything I'm doing. You get a huge national stage. I'm still driving the Ford Escort, but I'm going to swap it for something more reliable,” he adds.

Although he didn't win, sales of his album have shot up - and he's been featured on TV shows including the Six O'Clock News. And there are those critics who have noted that with his dark hair and chiselled cheekbones, he's somewhat easy on the eye and has heart-throb potential.

What's it like finding yourself in the spotlight?

“It's so strange, people are asking me to do weird things,” he says. “It's quite hard to get my head around. Some of it has been fun and some of it has been hard work, but it has been a really exciting time for me.”

He says that despite the attention, he's fighting to keep his independence.

“I'm trying not to, I really am. What I want to do is keep this control. I'm already having to talk in 'units'. The main thing I'm avoiding is having a manager. I think things will calm down,” he says.

“I don't really want to live in Soho either,” he adds.

“Between the ages of 17 and 23 I was signed to a major label and I feel happy to be in control of what I'm doing now.”

Ah, yes, his previous career. At 17, he left school and toured the world with major label signing Equation, which also featured the folk singers Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon.

Seth grew up in a musical family - his parents ran a folk club in Plymouth. From when he was aged about 12 he and his brothers would spend their summers busking in France.

“I picked up a fiddle and things progressed from there,” he says. “I was lucky because both my parents play and I had a good all-round view of what it has to offer.

“We used to busk as a family in France. Most people had a paper round, we would be out in the summer playing in market squares.

“We would put a hat out,” he sighs. “I don't know, we were young kids being exploited by their own parents,” he says with his tongue very firmly in his cheek.

Talking about his decision to go solo he says: “I started writing my own stuff and found I was naturally progressing as a solo performer. I felt more comfortable doing it that way.”

And he doesn't see why folk music shouldn't cross over into the mainstream.

“What I love is the nature of the music. It's quite emotional, can be quite exciting, great rhythms,” he says.

Making the Mercury Music Prize shortlist must have opened doors for him as an artist - who would he work with if he could? Richard Thompson, Roger Wilson, Neil Finn and Randy Newman are among the artists he admires.

He pauses for a second.

“Ummm, I think it would have to be Rachel Stevens,” he laughs. “I think we would have a lot in common.”

t The Seth Lakeman Trio play Norwich Arts Centre on October 25. Box office: 01603 660352. The album, Kitty Jay, is on I-Scream records. Website: www.sethlakeman.co.uk

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