When the band Equation stumbled to semi-retirement in 2001, Seth Lakeman appeared to be the bandmember least equipped to find solo success. His brothers Sam and Sean teamed up in successful duos with their partners and fellow bandmembers Cara Dillon and Kathryn Roberts, but few imagined the band's frenzied fiddle player/guitarist would swiftly transform himself into not only one of the hottest talents on the British folk scene, but achieve fame and success well beyond the genre's parameters. Post-Equation, he played support fiddle behind his sister-in-law Cara Dillon, but back home in the beautiful, dramatic surroundings of Dartmoor in the southwest of England, he was inspired to write songs about the myriad legends and folklore endemic to the mystical countryside in which he was raised. His sole motivation for releasing his first solo album, The Punch Bowl (recorded in brother Sean's kitchen with other members of Equation and released on his own iScream label in 2002), was to stir up enough interest to get a few folk club gigs. The album sank without a trace. He didn't have the credibility or a striking enough voice to be taken seriously performing traditional material, and his own songs seemed scarcely original enough to garner attention beyond Equation followers.
Lakeman had little expectation that his second effort, 2004's Kitty Jay, would fare any better. Again recorded on a shoestring budget (£300!) in his brother's kitchen, it delved further into Devon's rich legacy of legends and was officially launched with a surreal gig in front of a captive audience at the bleak, intimidating Dartmoor Prison close to his home. But unlike its predecessor, Kitty Jay captured people's imaginations in unexpected ways. The title track told the harrowing story of a maid who committed suicide when ostracized by the local community after being impregnated by the squire's son, and inspired a trail of visitors to her roadside grave. Lakeman, meanwhile, found himself the shock inclusion on the short list of the 2005 Mercury Music Prize alongside rock luminaries Coldplay, Kaiser Chiefs, Magic Numbers, Hard-Fi, KT Tunstall, and eventual winners Antony and the Johnsons. Lakeman's passionate performance of "Kitty Jay" at the finals and his genial, homespun attitude toward the press interest accompanying it helped win a whole new audience, not merely for him, but the folk genre he was representing.
Suddenly Lakeman was the pinup boy of "nu folk," and although his next album, Freedom Fields, had already been recorded in a similarly modest manner to the previous two, EMI stepped forward in 2006 to sign him to its Relentless imprint and remix and reissue the album. With the full might of a major company behind him, Lakeman was projected into a previously alien world of singles, remixes, videos, daytime TV and radio promotion, and massive tours. He took it all in his stride and relished the chance to create a bigger sound, establishing a band, including brother Sean on guitar and Irish percussionist Cormac Byrne from the Uiscedwr trio playing bodhran.
Achieving mainstream recognition and a couple of minor U.K. hit singles (with "The White Hare" and "Lady of the Sea"), Lakeman's spectacular rise was greeted with skepticism by a folk world programmed to be suspicious of crossover success. Yet while his style was hardly authentic -- a novel hybrid of traditional song, frothy pop, and classically flavored fiddle playing -- he built an entirely new, young fan base for the music, something many had tried and failed to do before him. He was rewarded with Album of the Year (for Freedom Fields) and Singer of the Year honors at the 2007 BBC Folk Awards, though there was an outcry when the apparently self-written "The White Hare" was nominated as traditional track of the year. His fourth album, Poor Man's Heaven -- a rock-influenced effort with Zeppelin-esque drums -- arrived in 2008, followed by a move to Virgin, another label in the EMI stable, for Hearts & Minds in 2010.
Following the end of his EMI contract, Lakeman opted to release his sixth album, 2011's Tales from the Barrel House, on tiny indie label Honour Oak; concomitantly, it reached only number 63 in the U.K. album charts. Undeterred, Lakeman continued to tour, performing a special show with the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2013, five tracks from which were released as an EP. For his next album, Lakeman signed to Cooking Vinyl. Word of Mouth was slated for release in early 2014 and was preceded by the haunting, minimalist single "Portrait of My Wife." Few ever successfully manage to straddle the disparate worlds of pop and folk, but with his infectious energy, original style, and natural charisma, Seth Lakeman kept his balance. ~ Colin Irwin