The Cork singer who wants to put poetry into folk
Emily Mae Winters tells Adam Shaw that poetry can be central to our lives
“Medicine, law, business, engineering , these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
The immortal words of Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society strike a chord and, depending on who you ask, are loaded with truths. Folk singer Emily Mae Winters is certainly a devotee of this school of thought and is someone who has forever been infatuated with the written word. At school, when many of her classmates relished exercise and competition, she would head for her books. The many difficult hours spent examining a poem for its themes and metaphors were far from wearisome. On the contrary, these were favourite classes of the day.
“Growing up in Ireland, I was a bit of a poetry geek and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been writing my own poems,” she says. “Most people at my school were very sporty and I was, shall we say, not. I spent a lot of time in the library reading and writing poems. People probably thought I was a bit weird.
“They’d hate the ‘oh what does it actually mean?’ aspect of poetry but that’s something I’ve always enjoyed – the way it can mean lots of different things to lots of different people.”
If poetry is to be considered her first love, it will have to fight off music for the honour. It seems that when Emily wasn’t reading or writing poems, she was listening to or singing songs. Living in Co. Cork her tastes lay in folk, country and Americana and she cites Dolly Parton, Lou Harris and Mary Carpenter as some of her early influences.
“There’s a lot of authenticity in folk and country. The older songs are proper love songs and I think I got swept up by the romanticism of it all.
“This concept of identity and where you come from is also a big thing. I’ve moved around a fair bit – London, Cambridge, Birmingham, West Cork.
“I don’t really call one place home so I think that’s why I feel it’s important to pay tribute to everything I’ve been influenced by.”
It comes across in her style of music – a “nod to both sides of the Irish Sea” – mixing traditional English and Irish folk with a more contemporary sound and a bit of Americana. The result is something unique, and her passion for poetry combined with the inspiration she draws from her various homes add a further angle. She speaks of the captivating landscapes of Clonakilty, the changes she had to make when she moved from Birmingham aged ten and how she always looks forward to going back to visit.
“It’s nice returning to Ireland because there’s a slower pace of life there. I’ll usually just spend my time walking along the beach or popping into the local bars and joining in with the music.
“When I first arrived, it was a bit of a culture shock. I’d come from a big city where there were loads of things to do and this felt like a bit of a one-horse town.
“You’re not really prepared for the shock of rocking up where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everything about everyone. “It took a bit of getting used to but I took solace in the music scene. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful place.”
Since moving back to Britain, Emily has taken full advantage of the flourishing folk scene and the fact that the role of the singer-songwriter is gaining greater traction.
“It’s really varied wherever you go; every club you go to is completely different. Folk is very much alive and what’s great to see is that you’ve got more and more young people carrying it on.
“And people are opening up more to the idea of the singer-songwriter. As much as I love traditional folk songs and the different ways people arrange them, I also like more contemporary stuff and artists who have written their own things.”
It has culminated in the release of her first album, Siren Serenade, which will be available from the end of April. An extension of her EP, Foreign Waters, she explains how it was a natural progression since things had been building up nicely for a while. She still gets the time to read, visit Ireland and enjoy her music.
She’s even taken on a role as a teacher, offering poetry classes to children and young adults. And the spirit of John Keating has already made its way into her methods, as she explains the importance of creativity in our lives. “If you look at the old rhyming schemes of ballad poetry, it is literally the same as any song.
“When younger people tell me they don’t like poetry, I ask them if they like Stormzy because what he does is poetry as well.
“Whatever it is, it’s nice to be able to connect with creative things because, if we didn’t, I think life would be pretty soulless.”
• Siren Serenade will be released at the end of April. For more information and tour dates, visit www.emilymaewinters.com