‘Trad2Mad is a singing selfie, less scary than singing to 50-odd people in a folk club,” wrote Bernard Puckett, the Trad2Mad coordinator and an MC at Islington Folk Club (IFC), in Folk London in 2017. That was to publicise the ninth annual free online competition for unaccompanied solo singers and, until now, the last. In response to lockdown, IFC relaunched Trad2Mad in April and it will continue as a monthly competition until at least October.
Trad2Mad, the title reflecting IFC’s motto, “From the fiercely traditional to the frankly eccentric”, was held annually from 2009 to 2017. The first competition, which received only nine entries, was won by Maz O’Connor. Another now established folk act, Gemma Khawaja, won in 2013 – a high point with 36 entries. The prize was £100 and the offer of a set in a three-way split evening at IFC. Some winners moved on to host a whole evening, although not necessarily unaccompanied.
In England there are few folk events that champion unaccompanied solo singing. Many performers, although they often include an unaccompanied song in their sets, may find it hard to get bookings for an evening of unaccompanied song. However, this is the bread and butter of many floor singers and performers at singarounds.
‘Although the competition rules say “We do like to see the singer”, one entrant instead had a picture of a sheep’
For anyone interested in unaccompanied singing, the Trad2Mad entries provide an excellent variety of singers and songs representing some of what normally goes on in folk clubs up and down the country. Although some clips are no longer accessible most of the entries from 2009 onwards are still available on YouTube.
Bernard claims to have “stolen” the idea from an online ukulele competition he saw back in 2009. He thought it would be a good way to raise the profile of IFC, was easy to enter for anyone with a camera and computer and helped to find new talent.
He owns up to enjoying the glimpse into other people’s worlds (something we are all doing much more of now). As challenges he lists keeping within the spirit of the rules and keeping it live. And although the competition rules say “We do like to see the singer”, one entrant instead had a picture of a sheep.
The competition is free to enter and the rules and format remain the same as for the annual competition. Record a video of your performance which, including your introduction, must be no longer than four minutes, upload it to YouTube and send the link to the organisers.
The panel of judges is made up of IFC members, all regular MCs and performers at the club. For the May competition an audience vote was introduced. “Not many votes,” says Bernard, “but enough that it changed the top three order.” The judges’ decision is, of course, final and there are prizes – £25 for first place, £15 for second and £10 for third.
‘Film in landscape not portrait. Get in close or find an interesting backdrop or a natural echo. Don’t worry’
Trad2Mad is “building momentum”, says Bernard, and attracting “some same faces but new people too”. The number of entries almost doubled between April and May.
Bernard has this advice for any would-be contestants: “Film in landscape not portrait. Get in close or find an interesting backdrop or a natural echo. Don’t worry.” In 2017 he wrote: “Try to bring something of your own to the singing,” which is always good advice.
The April winners provided a good representation of both the “trad” and the “mad”. First prize went to Caroline Stupnicka singing The Bay of Biscay-o while third prize went to Iain MacDonald singing Kraftwerk’s The Model. As Bernard says: “It is somehow fitting that on his passing Florian Schneider … has joined the tradition.”
The May competition winners were more traditional although the number and range of singers among the entrants was greater. Anything can happen, so who knows what future months will bring?
For more details of how to enter, how to vote and to find links to entries past and present see:
The winners so far
1 Caroline Stupnicka Bay Of Biscay-o
2= Fiona Clark Love Is
2= Iona Fyfe Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie
3 Iain MacDonald The Model
1 DeLila Black I Never Will Marry
2 Iona Fyfe The Berry Fields O’ Blair
3 Lizzy Hardingham Rolling Down To Old Maui
1 Iona Fyfe Bonny Udny
2 Lizzy Hardingham A Stitch In Time
3 Tara Mackenney Black Is The Colour
1 Tara Mackenny Tha mi dol a dheanaimh banais
2 Fiona Clark The Dreadful End Of Marianna For Sorcery
3 Chris Lamb Net Hauling Song
1 Fiona Clark The Queen And The Soldier
2 James Eagle Reedy River
3 Chris Lamb Fiddler’s Green
First prize, April
Caroline describes herself as a relative newcomer to folk music. “A lifetime ago” she sang in a youth choir, “mainly classical music with a fantastic teacher”. They took part in competitions all over Europe and always did well, which was good for her confidence. Living in London she started going to folk gigs and singarounds with a friend and jumped at the chance to sing in a sea shanty choir, the forerunner of the London Sea Shanty Collective.
Caroline heard about Trad2Mad at the Morris Folk Club and decided to give it a shot. She chose one of her favourite songs, The Bay Of Biscay-o. “I’ve sung it many times before at clubs and singarounds so I felt confident about it.” Caroline loves unaccompanied singing, although she admits to owning a banjo, and is “forever breaking into harmonies when others are leading”. She lists Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson as among her favourite singers and sources of songs to learn. She particularly enjoys women’s low voices and harmonies such as those of Lady Maisery. “I would love to have more opportunities to sing with others like that,” she adds.
Caroline lives in Canterbury and sings at Faversham Folk Club and co-hosts the monthly singaround at the Harrison pub in King’s Cross.
For her one of the benefits of the current situation has been the ability to attend all her favourite London singing events: Sharp’s, the Goose is Out and Morris Folk Club, as well as the London Sea Shanty Collective’s weekly shanty singaround. “All these have been such a joy allowing us to share music and friendship in this frustrating, uncertain time.”
In fact she suggests that this made it easier to record herself performing a song without an audience as she has got used to “essentially singing to a screen”. Caroline’s advice to anyone thinking about entering is: “Absolutely go for it.” She was so delighted with the lovely comments on her video that “coming first was just a bonus”.
First prize, May
DeLila grew up in an environment in which “singing was just a thing people did. Like chatting.” Her family is Haitian living initially in Haiti and then in the US and surrounded by “all sorts of music. French, Haitian, Spanish, American.” She did not use the term “folk” but knows that some of the songs were very old.
DeLila had never taken part in a competition. In fact, growing up she had been so used to people making music at home that she never thought about going out to do it. Listening to David Bowie when studying fashion was her inspiration to make music herself. “I came to it all quite late.”
She lists a very wide range of singers who inspire her: Miriam Makeba, Maria Callas and Mary Hopkin to name just a few. However it was a chance meeting with the late Tom Paley – an IFC regular – which got DeLila involved with folk music. They became friends and during this time DeLila was working on some songs.
Tom was a great person to talk to, “always fun, always positive, always encouraging”. They spoke about civil rights and she describes him as “a real human being.”
For DeLila entering Trad2Mad was a bit of relief from the lockdown blues. She had watched the entries for the previous month, “great songs, lovely voices, expressive faces”. She chose one of her favourite songs, I Never Will Marry, did a few takes of the verse to check the technical details, then “just went for it”. She tried not to become too critical in case it stopped her from entering. It was a challenge not to think about the technical things and to focus on what she wanted to express. “I was worried that my neighbours might knock on the wall or their dogs would start barking.”
Although she normally sings with accompaniment DeLila believes that unaccompanied singing is more than just singing for fun. “Aside from sharing history, telling stories or sharing news, it is one of the simplest ways of connecting and bonding with people.”
DeLila has only just started doing floorspots at clubs before lockdown started, visiting Islington, Sharp’s, Walthamstow and the Cellar Upstairs. Mostly she is accompanied on guitar by Justin Buckley. In the meantime she has started recording, aiming to have an EP out by the end of the year. DeLila is also “trying to figure out the Zoom business” to take part in some online sessions.
First prize, June; joint second prize, April; second prize, May
Iona grew up in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, “within the Traditional Music and Song Association (TMSA) movement” of which she is now national director. As she says her family “brought me to (and left me at)” singarounds, folk clubs and festivals in the north-east of Scotland so she was able to learn her repertoire from tradition bearers and revivalist singers. She started learning poems in the Doric dialect of the area and moved on to ballads and bothy ballads.
For Iona “it all flowed very naturally”, being booked to perform at folk clubs, then graduating in 2019 with a first in traditional music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
The TMSA holds several festivals and competitions throughout the year. Iona entered her first competition at the age of five. She would stay on to watch the adult singing events, learning both from singers of a high calibre and from the adjudications. Songs she learned at this time were included on her debut album, Away From My Window, released in 2018. For Iona taking part in any competition is about “broadening your repertoire and learning from others”. In Trad2Mad she is pleased to have heard songs unfamiliar to her and singers she has never met before.
The TMSA singing competitions are strictly unaccompanied so it was not until her time at the conservatoire that Iona started to collaborate with ensembles but she is comfortable with both. However “some songs just suit being simple, unaccompanied and stripped back”. For the May Trad2Mad Iona sang The Berryfields O’ Blair from Rod Paterson which uses the tune of a bothy ballad, A Pair Of Nicky Tams. “I had a bit of relearning to do,” she adds.
Her influences come from archive recordings – Lucy Stewart and Jeannie Robertson, for example – along with more contemporary singers … including Taylor Swift.
Iona advocates learning ballads and folksongs unaccompanied “to get a good grasp of the narrative. When you get inside the song and you’ve figured out how you want to interpret it then you can start to arrange it with accompaniment.”
Since being a finalist in the 2017 BBC Radio Scotland young musician of the year awards and winning Scots singer of the year at the MG ALBA Scots trad music awards in 2018, Iona has enjoyed a busy touring schedule “taking Scots song to an international audience”. So 2020 was set to be her busiest yet with tours and recording an album planned, all now on hold.
These days Iona, who normally performs with a trio, has been doing a series of ticketed livestream Facebook gigs, “to try to keep myself financially afloat”. For this she sings unaccompanied or accompanies herself on piano. “It certainly still feels really synthetic and awkward performing to a camera,” Iona says, preferring the atmosphere of a live gig.
First prize, August; joint second prize, April
Fiona, brought up by music-loving parents “on the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers”, describes herself as a “Scot who has settled down here” in London. Her dad played in a skiffle band in his younger days but her mum, like so many, never sang outside the house, having been put off at school.
Fiona and her brother “always sang together when we were wee, as kids do – just around the house, on car journeys and so on”. They both sang in the school choir and, unlike Fiona, her brother took on solo roles.
Fiona got back into singing about 10 years ago as a result of taking part in a Kings Place singing workshop run by Karine Polwart and Corrina Hewat, “probably the best £5 I ever spent”. That led to her joining the Morris Folk Choir, conveniently held in a pub on her way home from work. “I gave it a go and I haven’t looked back.”
Now she sings with the London Sea Shanty Collective as well, attends a monthly singaround and sometimes goes to the EFDSS song workshops on Saturday. “They are all really important to my wellbeing. I feel like a different person when I sing.”
Fiona had previously considered entering Trad2Mad having heard about it from members of the Morris choir but had not felt quite ready. Missing singing during lockdown gave her an incentive to give it a go. “Zoom singarounds and rehearsals are better than nothing … but it’s really not the same.” Taking part in a competition, Fiona admits, meant that she put more thought into how she sang the songs than she normally would. It also means that more people have seen her videos.
Fiona is used to singing unaccompanied “as much because I can’t play an instrument as anything else”. Entering all three competitions so far, Fiona has chosen songs which she loves and seemed appropriate for the times. Her prizewinning entry was Love Is by Simon Wells, who she met at a singing weekend. She likes the song’s “optimism and quirkiness … I feel it merits a wider audience”. Recording, Fiona missed the visual feedback from supportive audiences. When you sing live “you have to let it go if there’s a bit that’s not quite how you meant it … maybe better than fretting over each take”.
It is no surprise that Polwart is Fiona’s favourite singer but she has also been inspired by members of the choirs she sings in and participants at singarounds. She is interested in the way that “good singers make a song their own” and this is something Fiona would like to improve in her own singing.
She loves the stories in folk songs and wonders if sometimes an accompaniment can distract from this, but acknowledges a place for both. “I love a good harmony where the voices become the instruments.”
Fiona is looking forward to a time when she can get back to all her regular live singing. “I’d never have stood up in front of anyone and sung a song before I joined Morris Folk Choir and now I almost always take a turn at folk club.” For Fiona entering a singing competition seemed an odd thing to do. “I don’t view singing as a competitive thing! Singing is winning!”
Second prize, June; third prize, May
Lizzy’s family had been regulars at folk festivals long before she was born. She first picked up a fiddle at the age of five and has loved performing ever since, taking part in choirs, orchestras, ensembles and any musical group she could fit into. Eventually she studied for a music degree in Liverpool.
In 2017 Lizzy started singing regularly at her local singers’ club, Watford Folk Club, where she was “welcomed with open arms despite my age and my singer-songwriter inclinations. Sadly”, she adds, “I can’t say this is the case everywhere.” This gave her confidence and by 2018 she was gigging regularly.
As a child Lizzy got the competition bug. She won the Hertfordshire songwriting competition aged 11 with a song that she hopes “will never see the light of day again”. More recently she has won competitions at Watford Folk Club and the Milkmaid Folk Club in Bury St Edmunds, while she got a slot at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival as a runner-up in the Royston young artists competition.
Lizzy really enjoys performing. “A competition just adds an extra thrill to an already fantastic experience. If you don’t do so well it’s a good opportunity to step back and find out why,” she adds reflectively.
Lizzy found out about Trad2Mad while “looking at possible venues for gigs”. She sees it as “a lovely way to sing for an ‘audience’ even if you can’t see them … and a great way to expand your own little folk family, meeting new folkies and learning new tunes”.
Rolling Down To Old Maui, Lizzy’s choice of song, is one she recorded for Seven, her recent album of traditional and self-penned seafaring songs. It has been part of her live set for about six months and she loves it if the audience joins in with “such a rollicking chorus”. Lizzy hopes that anyone who listens to her video will be joining in too.
Normally accompanying herself on guitar, Lizzy always includes some unaccompanied songs in her set for a bit of variety. “I love the freedom of unaccompanied singing and the amount of emotion you can put in.” Lizzy sees unaccompanied singing as “the easiest way to transfer material from one group to another as it doesn’t require you to play an instrument or read music … keeping traditional music alive”. She adds: “If it is a really great song it will withstand a little stretching and rearrangement.”
Lizzy admits that it has been a new challenge learning how to sing to camera with no audience. During lockdown she has taken part in a number of livestreams and collaborative videos. “Everything we’ve ever taught ourselves about performing is now invalid.” She finds the lack of applause particularly strange as it is an opportunity to “wipe the slate clean and to start a fresh story with the next song”.
Chris While is Lizzy’s biggest influence – “not a quintessentially traditional voice but … one of the most phenomenal and seminal voices of our time”. She doesn’t consider herself to have “a traditional female folk voice … which makes you imagine you are being tickled by little blue fairies”. She goes on to list Nancy Kerr, Katriona Gilmore and Maddy Prior as singers she loves, as they all sing with “gusto and passion”. She also lists male voices including Martin Carthy and Nick Drake – and “don’t even get me started on the expanse of emerging talent at the moment”. Blair Dunlop’s songwriting style has also had an influence on her own writing.
Lizzy should have been touring now and was looking forward to the summer festival season. She hopes that postponed gigs can be rescheduled. “I can’t wait to see where else folk music might take me.”
Lizzy’s album Seven, from which half the proceeds are going to the RNLI, is available from Bandcamp.
Third prize, April
Iain says he has always sung. He grew up on the Isle of Lewis with all kinds of music including Gaelic music and English-language folk music. However, he feels “a disconnection with my own cultural heritage as I don’t have fluent Gaelic”. In school he sang in competitions at both the local and national mòds (Gaelic cultural festivals). He remembers advice from an adjudicator not to sing with his eyes closed “as it was a great insult to the audience. It was good advice and not a bad joke either!”
No stranger to Trad2Mad, Iain first heard about it in 2014 through the Morris Folk Choir. He has entered almost every year since and won joint third prize in 2016. Iain’s interest lies not so much in the competition itself; he sees it as “more of a pretext to record myself singing something”. He goes on to say: “It means that when I’m dead and gone, my daughter will have as a treasured possession a baffling video of her dad singing a shanty version of Kraftwerk’s The Model.”
He also hopes that it has encouraged others in the Morris Folk Choir “who are much better singers” to enter – “Well, if Iain can have a go…”
Iain has always tried to do something personal with each of his entries, not just choosing songs he likes. He rewrote – with permission – some of the words of a Tim Jones song, has sung songs such as The Model which people don’t realise can be folk songs, and made his own tune for a Siegfried Sassoon poem. “Songs I sing at folk club are ones I have sung around the house beforehand until I’m confident I know them,” and it was the same for the competition entries.
Iain is used to singing unaccompanied although he says he finds that pitching is a challenge. “It’s always higher than I plan but I rarely have to stop and start again.” One of the challenges in recording is deciding how loud to sing. “It is hard to make yourself project as if you were singing at a folk club, but singing quietly makes it a different kind of performance.”
It usually takes a few goes to achieve a recording that is similar to how he might sing at a folk club. He also finds that having to make the Trad2Mad introduction before singing is “really offputting, somehow”.
Iain joined Morris Folk Choir because he loves harmony and that is what he misses most when he sings on his own, especially at the moment. As “a sucker for harmonising folk artists,” Iain says that the “never fashionable Corries … gave me the bedrock of my folk repertoire”. For him they showed “the range of what you could do within the tradition while remaining committed to the integrity of the song”. Iain suggests though that part of the definition of a folk song is that “you could sing it unaccompanied”.
Iain may be heard precenting at his church, where he leads the singing of unaccompanied psalms. Sometimes with one or two other members of Morris Folk Choir he might be seen at other singarounds or singers’ nights, but the choir and Morris Folk Club are his regular events. Iain has this advice about singing: “Sing in a way which is natural to you, sing it like it was written for you, and sing it like you mean it.” He adds: “There is nothing so subjective as appreciation of a singing voice – so you might as well be yourself.”
First prize, July; third prize, June
Tara thinks that her earliest folk influence was probably the children’s TV programme Bagpuss, with music by Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner. She claims to have been rubbish at music in school but sang in a church choir, the attraction being the payment of 10p an hour. She grew up listening to and enjoying folk music on the radio and has been a Sandy Denny fan ever since.
However, it was at university in Wales that she heard someone sing Matty Groves at a concert for Red Wedge and realised: “There are other people like me.” She was invited to a singaround at a local folk club and that was the start of it all.
Tara’s previous experience of competitions was at the All Ireland Fleadh music festival. Having got through the first rounds she went to Ireland “where there were the ‘real’ people and of course they were fantastic singers. It was a really humbling experience.”
Tara realised that she was just copying other people and hadn’t really found her own voice. “Singing in front of a live jury … people just looking at you” was not a pleasant experience. Tara is much more comfortable in a folk club environment “where you are singing just for enjoyment”.
Having said that she wouldn’t take part in a competition again, Tara found out about Trad2Mad through Sharp’s Folk Club online and thought: “Just go for it, for a laugh.” She believes it is important to encourage traditional music. “It’s a celebration of all those wonderful songs that have come down to us because they meant something to all the people that have sung them.”
Tara chose to sing Black Is The Colour, which she has been singing for quite a while, and just went for it but still found the process nerve-racking. “It is very different singing in front of a camera instead of an audience of people … a lot more scary.” She adds: “There are some things I would change if I did it again. Maybe I’ll enter in July and try to work on something.”
From her experience, Tara’s advice to singers stresses the importance of singing in your own voice, telling the story and making the song your own. Loving unaccompanied singing, Tara believes that it is the sine qua non of folk music. “Without unaccompanied singing, is it really folk?” she asks. “No matter what culture you are from there is something about an unaccompanied voice that touches you.” She adds: “Rich or poor, anywhere in the world, everyone can take part in folk music with the instrument they have on them – their voice.” Previously a children’s librarian, Tara recognises the role of storytelling in song. “It is the story coming through that is important.”
Tara now lives in Brittany and part of her job involves singing nursery rhymes in kindergartens but “there are no singarounds … a shame”. Tara gives two or three concerts a year in churches with a French singer whose focus is Russian and eastern European songs. Tara’s repertoire is mainly Celtic but she is currently learning some Polish songs.
She has plans for a series of concerts to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières. “These are difficult times, particularly in some of the countries where they are not as lucky as we are.” Any money from sales of her CD “made in 2010 – there’s a few left” will also go to the medical charity.