The "Tomorrow's People" Interview

Clive Jordan - BBC World Service, 01 January 1972

Q: Sandy Denny, how did your singing career start, was it something you drifted into or was it something planned and deliberate?

A: Yes it's funny, I never planned it definitely but somehow in the back of my mind I knew I would sing eventually. When I was very small, I used to sing a lot and then when I went to my grammar school, you know after I took my eleventh class. I never sang there at all except in a choir, very innocuously in the background, you know, and then when I left school I went to art college. I was at Kingston Art College and just down the road there was a little barge on the river, called "The Barge Folk Club" and I used to go down there and I thought "well I couldn't sing as well as these" you know, when I heard these people singing. So I learned to play the guitar very badly and I plucked up courage the next week to get up and sing a song and from then on, I've just always ehm... well I started doing just gigs around the country and then it got to be a little bit too much, going to college and doing gigs and turning up late and having people congratulate me for coming in at two o'clock in the afternoon and things, so I decided that rather than waste everybody else's time I just, you know, I'd get out and do it. And it was throughout my year at college that it just developed, you know.

Q: Well it's developed to such an extend that both last year and the year before, you were named "top girl singer" in the Melody Maker influential music magazine's readers poll.

A: Yes...

Q: Did that surprise you?

A: Yes! It did, I was utterly amazed when I first won it but when I won it the second year running, having not done particularly much during the year, I was just like, you could have, you know, knocked me over with a feather, really...

Q: What difference did it make to you, winning that Melody Maker Poll?

A. Nothing! I mean, it didn't make any difference at all. Except that I've got two pieces of quartz. (laughs).

Q: With your name on it?

A: With my name on it, like, you know, the whole bit, you know, a little plaque. I'll show them to you later if you like.

Q: I'd love to see them.

A: Yeah...

Q: But what about financially, it's natural to think of pop singers as being pretty wealthy people and although I know your music isn't really quite "pop", I think outsiders would expect you to be making a very good living out of it, is that true?

A: Well, my overheads are very big, 'cause I run my group myself, you see, so I have to pay them and I, I mean, there's a lot of money coming in and going out so I'm constantly grabbing onto a bit and then having to give it away again. So I'm not rich personally and I don't suppose I will be unless things radically change, 'cause having a group is a really expensive business. If I was on my own, I would be rich. And that's the truth. Mind you, I'd have an awful lot of tax problems, probably. So... (laughs)

Q: Well you've sung with groups, you were a solo singer originally and then you sang with the Fairport Convention. Then you built your own group called "Fotheringay" and now you're more or less on your own again, although you sing with a backing group.

A: Yes...

Q: Which of the songs you've made with the groups means most to you now do you think?

A: I like The Deserter on Liege And Lief. That's a beautiful tune. Ehm, I just like the way we did it, I think that's the best track on that album. That was with the Fairport Convention. That was the last album I did with them.

Q: People have often commented on the peculiar qualities of your lyrics and you're of course a songwriter, as well as a singer. I think the atmosphere you create in your songs is a very personal one, it's compounded of several different elements, I mean, there is magic, there is loneliness, there is a sense of freedom and openness, of people travelling, ehm, there's strong feeling for nature. You're constantly writing about rivers and fields and streams. Do you feel that your songs go with a particular lifestyle? I mean, are they a very clear reflection of your own life, for instance?

A: They are... Yes, they are. Ehm, they're usually written from experience, you know, they're my experiences of people. Like sometimes those kinds of metaphorical things about rivers and streams might be referring to a particular person. Which is an unusual thing to say, perhaps but, ehm... like, some people are very easily described in natural terms, like, you know, in, I mean, atmospheres and ehm, you know, the way I feel always comes out in some kind of ehm, description of some kind of natural force, you know. I don't know quite how to explain, I mean, I can't explain much more than the song itself, you know, without trying... 'cause when I write a song, I don't remember writing it. You know, I can't understand, I'm like a different person in my music.

Q: But your meanings are fairly obscure and hidden, perhaps.

A: Yes... they are. They're supposed to be.

Q: Do you think there's one reason why your music appeals to young people? Because they do seem to be tending these days towards an interest in magical forces and in a non-materialistic society.

A: Yes. Yes... I think so. Ehm... I get letters from people, you know, all over the world. Not that many, I mean, you know, but I... The ones I do get are amazing. I mean, the effect that my songs appear to have on them is quite astounding. There was a letter from a girl in America, who was very badly, eh, into acid and things like that...

Q: LSD?

A: Yeah, LSD, and things like that. And eh, she said that, you know, she was a real mess, and that she'd bought my record, just out of the blue for no particular reason and she sat and listened to it for a week, solidly and she's... you know, she completely came out of herself and never took it again and she just wrote me this letter, saying 'thank you very much, because I'm not a vegetable anymore'. It was the last album and she said that every song she identified with and she felt like she knew me. She took over my mind for a week. This is where she, you know, explained it to me and it obviously had a good effect on her. And like, I mean, what better thing could anybody tell me? So I guess I must be doing something okay. You know, like, it really isn't worth ruining your mind with drugs because they are so bad for you. I mean, they really are destructive.

Q: The title track on your last album was called 'The North Star Grassman and the Ravens'.

A: Yeah.

Q: A very haunting piece of music, beginning as it does with the sound of a ship's bell, carried in the wind but indeed the song is about a ship, carried by the wind. Where do you think the wind is going to carry your ship?

A: That's my imagination. I live in a world of my own. Really, I do. I can't tell you where the wind's going to blow my ship, I'm afraid but eh, I'm looking forward to finding out myself, actually.

Q: What direction is your own music going in?

A: I'll always have a band. I think. You know, and my music, I'm trying to make it slightly simpler. Just because I want to, for no other reason. I just want to communicate to more people. I communicate to a lot of people but it's not enough yet, you know. And it's not purely from a mercenary point of view. I mean, I just want to, that is my ambition. I want to be happy. I want to be happy in my work. On one day I might reach something a little bit closer to the way I want to evolve (?), you know. But it's all happening in a very slow way and if we've got time left in this world, you know, perhaps I'll get there one day.