‘I had to compose myself when I first heard her’: the astonishing musical versatility of the late Charlotte Greig

From rap mixtapes to music journalism and ghostly drum machine-led folk, the late British artist had few boundaries. Her husband and fans remember her tough, inspiring life

In 1998, an album was released that made quiet ripples. Recorded in the evenings after she had put her four-year-old to bed, Charlotte Greig recorded simple versions of folk songs and originals about lovers and ghosts that come to you at night. She used a four-track cassette recorder to tape her voice, harmonium, dulcimer and an idiosyncratically programmed Dr Rhythm drum machine.

Released on vinyl for the first time this month, Night Visiting Songs still sounds unearthly, beautiful and startlingly sincere, carrying the ghosts of Anne Briggs, Nico and the Young Marble Giants in its textures and rhythms. A set of cover versions follows on Bandcamp, with James Yorkston, Alasdair Roberts, Euros Childs and Katell Keineg among the artists paying tribute. It is a timely reminder of the many talents of Greig, who killed herself in 2014 at the age of 59.

James Yorkston remembers hearing Night Visiting Songs for the first time in 2002 when he was a fledgling artist. It was playing in London’s Ray’s Jazz Shop: the songs Searching for Lambs and Lucy Wan made him burst into tears. “I had to go to the corner of the shop to compose myself – the vocal was so upfront but so fragile. The voice is the instrument to me where you can really get into the sense of the human being, and so it was with her.”

Greig performing with the Mountain Kings.
Greig performing with the Mountain Kings. Photograph: (awaiting credits)

Today, Greig’s style makes Yorkston think of Alice Coltrane and Molly Drake: “As in: it feels for Charlotte there was no thought about the market, or playing in front of hundreds of people in this music. It’s like she’s just said, sod it. This was about her concentrating on the music and what made her happy, and I think that’s when an artist produces the best work.”

Born in 1954 and growing up between Suffolk and Exmoor, where she sang folk songs in school, Greig had already had a remarkably diverse career. After having a son, Henry, in 1980, she made hip-hop mixtapes with rap crew F-F-F-Female Force, which were played by Tim Westwood on LBC, and her 1989 book about girl groups, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was praised by John Peel. She also wrote for the Independent, Mojo and Word in the 1990s and 2000s, when her love of folk blossomed. (It was her gorgeous writing in Word in 2003 that introduced me to Shirley Collins, when Greig called her “a kind of Angela Carter of the folk world – prosaic yet deeply, inscrutably strange”.)

“Having a child made her want a creative outlet in music,” says Greig’s husband, the novelist, biographer and festival organiser John Williams (they had a son, Owen, in 1992, who was in the Welsh Music prize-winning punk band Joanna Gruesome, and now performs in folk-inflected indie combo the Tubs). “Charlotte loved the freedom of language in hip-hop – that was her punk moment – and she later found singing folk wasn’t far away from that. She could do it on her own, and didn’t need four blokes playing behind her.”

After interviewing singer Lal Waterson in 1996, Greig had an epiphany: like Waterson, she realised she could combine family life with being an uncompromising artist, and make records at home. She went on to make five tender albums, which include the Virginia Astley-style atmospherics of 2001’s At Llangennith and the fuller band arrangements of 2005’s Quite Silent (all are available on Bandcamp). With John, she also ran a folk club in Cardiff, compiled a Lal Waterson tribute album, Migrating Bird, and was a regular in the early years of the Green Man festival.

‘Music was part of a healing process for her.’charlotte greig
‘Music was part of a healing process for her.’ Photograph: Sylvie Tata

She also published novels such as 2008’s A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy (praised by Olivia Laing and Tessa Hadley) and wrote plays, but music was the thing that nourished her most, Williams says. “She wanted to revisit that feeling you get when you’re young when you’re going for a walk singing a song you’ve made up, before that’s crushed out of you in adolescence, as it is with so many girls.”

Music also took things Charlotte found difficult from her childhood and allowed her a space to express herself: “It was part of a healing process for her, a shift – and from things she found painful in life, she made something beautiful.”

Then her breast cancer diagnosis came in 2013. “Something broke in her, like a fault line had been hit,” Williams remembers. She died nine months later in June 2014, just before the publication of her last novel, Black Valley.

Williams plans to release Greig’s other albums on vinyl, but as he writes on the liner notes that blend his wife’s words and his: “Night Visiting Songs is the [album] that is most absolutely, singularly, Charlotte Greig.”

His wife writes on the opposite side: “There is little comfort to be had in the face of death and other kinds of loss, but it is inspiring to think that through the centuries people have been able to walk and talk with their lost loved one through the common human experience of dreaming … this is to me what the great ballads offer: a chance to take comfort in what is human, rather than what is divine.” Charlotte’s songs offer us the same spirit of communication a quarter of a century on, singing in the rushes, over hills, at the window, as we let her in.

• Night Visiting Songs is released via Harmonium Records on 14 August and is available along with Greig’s other albums on charlottegreig.bandcamp.com

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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