‘You’ve got to keep plugging away, reach people where you can’
Rising folk star Lisbee Stainton tells MALCOLM WYATT why Ribchester Village Hall matters just as much as the O2 Arena
Lisbee Stainton is barely 26 but already has four albums behind her and is attracting plenty of critical acclaim, not least through her work with award-winning folk artist Seth Lakeman.
But while she’s turning heads on the road and on record with her eight-string guitar sound and sweet vocals, you’d struggle to easily categorise her.
Of the music media, Mojo talked about Lisbee’s ‘slowly revolving rhythms, wistful English melancholy with a soul undertow, and a sweet folk-pop voice’.
Fellow magazine Maverick suggested she was ‘a unique genre-less artist who is slowly but surely making her global mark’. So is that fair praise?
“I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve had so many problems trying to describe my music.”
Okay, let’s try again. As a young female regularly mentioned in folk circles, I guess Lisbee gets compared to Kate Rusby a fair bit too.
“Well, yeah, and Joni Mitchell comes up a bit. I don’t see it personally, but I’m a huge fan of hers, so if that influence comes through, I’m very pleased with that.
“Usually, it’s people I love who are compared me to, those I listen to a lot, like Fleetwood Mac and Joan Baez. It’s lovely being compared to these artists. You could say nothing’s original in music, but you do strive to find something.”
Among those who mentioned Joni Mitchell was Paul Carrack, who took Lisbee on tour with him in 2011, while the Independent on Sunday spoke of ‘cultured folk pop’.
But whoever she’s compared to, Lisbee’s certainly a rising star, with fans and critics alike truly sitting up and taking notice.
“Yeah, it seems so. We’ve been gigging and writing, and it’s all really good.”
The ‘we’ suggests it’s not just Lisbee, and while her appearance at Ribchester Village Hall – the latest promotion from Carl Barrow’s Hollow Horse Events - is a solo show, there are band gigs too. And then there’s the work with Seth Lakeman.
This Hampshire-born artist has been writing songs since she was nine. Is there still space in the set for some of those formative efforts?
“Not the very first ones! They’re probably not good enough to be aired publically. But there are a couple I play which I wrote when I was 16 or so.”
Lisbee graduated in 2009 from the University of London with a degree in popular music, by which time she’d released her first album, Firefly. Two years earlier, at the age of 17, she became the first unsigned singer-songwriter to play London’s O2 Arena, performing two shows to 30,000 people.
“It was a big variety show. I knew the producer, who said he was putting something together at the Millennium Dome and had one of my songs in mind.
“He said he would love me to come along and play it. It was a song called Follow, which I wrote when I was around 15.”
When new wave icon turned BBC 6Music presenter Tom Robinson asked Lisbee for a copy of her single Red after hearing it on her MySpace page, the ball really started rolling.
He described her on air as ‘a serious young talent’, with Red play-listed by BBC Radio 2 and followed by the release of second album Girl On An Unmade Bed, produced by Rupert Christie – known for past collaborations with U2, Green Day, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Lou Reed – and recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
A second single, Never Quite An Angel, was also play-listed by Radio 2, with the third, Just Like Me, BBC 6Music’s Radcliffe & Maconie Show’s record of the week.
Lisbee was soon brought to the attention of Joan Armatrading, who personally chose her as the main support act for an extensive UK and mainland Europe tour, including a sell-out at The Royal Albert Hall.
“That tour was amazing. It was the first I ever did, doing 76 dates with her around the UK, Europe and Scandinavia. “She’s a fantastic performer, and seasoned too – she knows what she’s doing. I learned a lot over those four months.”
Shortly after, Lisbee featured on BBC Radio 2’s In Concert before a 44-date headline European tour, and further supports with Tom Dice and The Mavericks’ Raul Malo.
In early 2011, Paul Carrack invited her to be the main support for his European tour, and her third album, Go, also received national acclaim, word spreading about Lisbee and her eight-string guitar sound.
So what’s the story with the guitar?
“I got it hand-made by a guy called Joe White, down in Surrey, who’d been sorting out my guitars for years.
“In my final year of university I’d been saving up for him to make me a 12-strong guitar. I turned up in his workshop and had a play around with a draft of the sort of eight-string I play now.
“He’d been looking for a suitable guinea pig, who would suit the guitar and be interested in it. Because I’m a picky kind of player, it works really well. I’ve been playing it ever since, and it’s brilliant.”
Pretty soon, Lisbee joined Seth Lakeman’s band as a special guest, singing and play banjo, harmonium, guitar and harmonica, winning a whole new audience.
So how did the link with Mercury Music Prize nominee Seth come about?
“I supported him in Germany in 2012. I’d been a fan since I was about 17 and he emailed me to ask if I fancied doing a couple of harmonies on the tour.
“I thought that was putting rather a lot of faith in someone he’d never met, but I knew the songs already, so I said, ‘No problem!’
“Having got on stage with him, it just really worked. Something just clicked. He approached me at the end of the tour and asked if I would like to be involved with a big tour. From then on I kind of ended up being in the band!”
Lisbee also played on Seth’s latest album, Word of Mouth, including harmonies and backing vocals. Was that a learning experience?
“Every album is different and every recording process is different, so it’s always interesting to see how other artists work. He loves the concept of organic spaces, and the church where we recorded – in North Tamerton, Cornwall - was great. It was a lot of fun but a challenge to record in - getting it all right.”
Several big festival appearances have followed, including Glastonbury, Cropredy and Beautiful Days, and Lisbee now has four of her own albums behind her.
The latest, Word Games, was recorded in South Wales and released last November, produced by Mikko Gordon, who previously worked with Lana Del Ray and Chris Difford, and Rupert Christie again.
“There’s been a really lovely reaction, especially from live audiences. People have really taken to it.”
It includes songs co-written with Seth Lakeman, who also contributed vocals, viola and bouzouki, and Eleanor McEvoy, her own special guest on the album tour.
So has Lisbee’s music evolved a little over the course of those first four albums?
“Definitely. You always need each album to be a step up from the last in every respect, so I’m constantly trying to make sure I’m pushing myself, not only as a songwriter but as a performer in terms of arrangements and the musicians you’ve got, the details you’ve got, the spaces you’re in …”
Beyond her current solo shows, including those at Ribchester Village Hall and Ramsbottom Festival, Lisbee’s joining Seth Lakeman’s main album tour in October, before a few more of her own dates, continuing to promote Word Games.
Her Ribchester date comes before a spell with Seth Lakeman that includes celebrated venues like Shepherd’s Bush Empire, The Lowry in Salford, Birmingham Town Hall, Edinburgh Queen’s Hall and Gateshead The Sage. But she sees little difference.
“I play anywhere and everywhere, and even in the last few months I’ve done the most bizarre locations. But I enjoy that, and it keeps things interesting.
“If you’re in the same theatres all the time, I’d imagine you’d get lazy. I was recently in Devon playing an art gallery, then a little club in Ascot. I like that variety.”
So are the solo dates a continuation of your Word Games tour?
“Pretty much. I’ve been touring this album on and off all year, and will continue to do so until the next. There are just so many people to reach and so many places to go. If you’re a massive artist, you can do one big tour and everybody will turn up. When you’re on my level you’ve got to keep plugging away to reach people where you can.”
What’s the set-up when we get to see you up here?
“I come in various guises! At Ribchester it’s just me, then at Ramsbottom it’ll be a full band – me and three others. Occasionally I’ll go out with just a drummer too.”
The day I spoke to Lisbee, she was headed to Dudley for a house gig, but this is an artist who completed a series of intimate ‘living room’ concerts - including one aboard nuclear submarine HMS Vigilant – for the Go tour.
Does she tend to rock out a bit more when she’s got a band? “It’s just a different vibe, to be honest. I love playing both ways, but with the band you can dig into the arrangements a lot.
“I love taking a bit more of a back seat in terms of the guitar and really enjoying the vocal side.
“That way I can bring out parts of the album I couldn’t do on my own, lacking the number of limbs needed!
“I also work with some brilliant musicians, so love hearing their musicality and character come through in live performance.”
Lisbee Stainton plays Ribchester Village Hall on September 19, with Glyn Shipman her special guest.
Tickets are £12 via ticketweb at www.ticketweb.co.uk/event/lisbee-stainton-with-special-guest-glyn-shipman-tickets/116963