AN IRISH ORIGINAL
John O'Regan meets the latest singer with England's legendary Steeleye Span
One of Ireland's finest female voices, Gay Woods has been at the forefront of some of Ireland's most daring musical adventures, now she is tackling an English institution. The Dublin born singer's CV includes Steeleye Span,The Woods Band, Gay and Terry Woods and
Auto Da Fe. Now in a strange twist of fate Gay Woods is back with Steeleye Span where it all began for her in 1970. Back then, with ex-husband Terry Woods, Ashley Hutchings, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Gay Woods helped form the legendary UK folk rock band. Without playing any gigs Steeleye Span mark one broke up after recording their debut album, Hark the Village Wait on RCA in January 1970.
Gay went on to pursue a career with Terry forming The Woods Band and playing as a duo before branching out on her own to form Auto Da Fe in 1980. In 1994 Gay Woods received an invitation to rejoin Steeleye Span, "I got a call from their manager Adrian Hopkins in September or October 1994 that Maddy was having a problem with her top range vocals. Rick Kemp, Maddy Prior's husband suggested they contact me. I came back in ad took a secondary role. That was fine with me because I had not been singing since 1989. I was very shocked when I got the call and said no I wouldn't be interested because I wasn't. But then I went for one tour and then they asked me to do a second one". Gay is very much aware of the history, profile and indeed baggage that goes along with being a member of Steeleye Span. "It was very hard, becasuse it was such a funny world in England singing with a folk rock band. Steeley Span has a very high profile and they were playing some very big places. I knew I had to carry something that they were carrying and I was both very nervous and didn'twant to let them down or myself down but I survived it. The memories of the first Steeleye period were swimming around my head. There were a lot of red-hot emotions in the past but I am very grown up now and able to carry this stuff around. However, we are musicians and we do get flighty but it goes with the territory. Looking back, I don't think they knew how to cope with me. I feel it threw them that I was there from the birth. None of the band knew what I had been doing here in Ireland during my abscence. They were under the illusion that I would be exactly as I was in 1970 but boy, were they in for a suprsise ! Musically I had certainly dabbled in different things so with the last two years, some of my personalities have come out on stage."
Maddy Prior's decision to leave Steeleye Span after twenty-seven years sent shock waves through the folk rock community. After the initial return Gay has relaxed more into the role of front person."Now I am the female singer with Steeleye these days, although both Bob Johnson and Peter Knight do some significant singing. Our last tour was better than the previous one, the audiences felt comfortable with me being up there."
On their 'Time' tour of 1995 Steeleye played a short Irish leg taking in Galway, Dublin and Belfast. The Dublin show at the 'Olympia' was particularly poignant for Gay. It was her first major Dublin gig in years and her first hometown show with Steeleye Span. "I felt that it was very important for me" she recalls,"It was great to just rearrange my head, come back and play The |Olympia with a folk rock band from England.It was bizarre, but I like bizarre things, although I didn't know how they would go down in Dublin but they liked them and the audience knew a lot of their songs so I was pleased.
Gay Woods came from a musical and artistic family in Kilmainham. Her parents were both singers and her brothers Austin and Terry got caught up in the Dublin 60's folk boom. Soon younger sister Gay was reeled into the act. Playing venues like the 95 Club in Harcourt Street and the Coffee Kitchen she became immersed in the folk club crowd. Later she met up with Terry Woods and formed a long time partnership both musical and personal until it's demise in 1979.
In that year Gay began the next phase of her career moving to Holland and forming Auto Da Fe with keyboard player Trevor Knight. For Gay Woods the Auto Da Fe period was a colourful and liberating time. "It was the happiest musical time I ever had so far. I learned so much. I was ridding myself of a lot of things that stifled me. It was so liberating for me to stand up and not be a folies anymore. It was the easiest thing in the world because I had yearned for so long to do that music. I still love the songs I wrote at the time.
Auto Da Fe's singles, including November November,Bad Experience and Man of Mine
(produced by Phil Lynott) were highly melodic while the bands live shows threw up discordant cut-up sound collages, Brechtian narratives and snappy electronic sounds breathing angst, menace and anarchy. "Much of what I wanted to do with Auto Da Fe was a visual thing. I didn't just want to stand there singing so I cut up masses of coloured paper and threw it around the stage. The punk period gave women a lot of freedom to express themselves musically. I was always criticised for my age. Instead of the lines of the songs they commented on the lines on my face, which I find very amusing.. I am fifty one now and it's not an issue in the folk rock field which is wonderful as most of the audiences have lines on their faces from wonderful experienced lives. That is liberating for me now where the punk era gave me freedom to shout, scream and write strange lyrics."
Gay Woods retired from singing in 1989. A traumatic car crash after the birth of her daughter Lillian in 1987 resulted in a period of deep depression. "It knocked me off my axis. I was not badly hurt but it was a very emotional time. Lillian was four months old when the crash happened and I thought she would be taken away from me. It was a horrible time and I went into a very deep depression. The life energy just left me. I started to feel deranged from the life I had led and I started to feel very strange with myself. It was like the dark night of the soul.I discovered 'Abaisement de Niveau Mental', the loss of sould and I thought yes, that's whats wrong with me. Then I saw an evening course advertised and went and studies some of Carl Jung's work for a couple of years. I went into Jungian analysis, which was fabulous and I got a diploma through the All-Ireland Centre for Jungian Studies. I am totally clean now !"
After contributing to 'Time Steeleye Span's first studio album for seven years, Gay Wood's Irish background provided ample song material for her contribution to 'Horkstow Grange'.
"As a chld I used to hear Johnny Patterson's The Old Turf Fire on the radio. I got Delia Murphy's hilarious I Wish That I Never Was Wed from a tape of her my brother Terry gave me and he also taught me Erin. Terry was in America for years and I saw a documentary about the lives of Irish women emigrants and how they navigated their lives when they got there, the loneliness for their families and homes, sisters and mothers, inspired me to write
Erin from a feminine viewpoint."
Horkstow Grange yielded some suprises. Out went the big arrangements and in came a quieter but no less dynamic musical approach. Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway participated in the live and recorded sound bringing about musically a return to both Hark the Village Wait and Please to See The King. The Horkkstow Grange album brought up the amount of Irish music in the bands repertoire. "Although Steeleye Spans profile has always been a very English one, that is one comment that has often been made in the reviews. Maddy is very popular with the folk field as well as the folk rock field so with myself being Irish there is a lot of convoluted emotional projectioin at times but this album brought up the Irish input. At this stage when we play the stuff live it goes down very well."
Another interesting release has been The Journey a double CD highlighting a one day gathering in London when all the past/present members of Steeleye Span (bar Terry Woods) regrouped for a charity benefit. "That was amazing because there was so much I didn't know. I had no links with Steeleye Span after I left them the first time. I heard Gaudete on the radio but this was live. After I had sung my songs I went up and sat in the stalls and enjoyed the show.".
With her return to the ranks of Steeleye Span, Gay Woods' singing career is back on track and she is back where she belongs, at centre stage.
This feature was reproduced from Irish Music magazine Vol 5 No. 9, May 2000. You can buy a copy of it and other back issues or take out a subscription by pressing the button.