Show of Hands' Miranda Sykes on breast cancer and a new collaboration

While most of us were watching the developing Covid pandemic, Miranda Sykes had more pressing matters somewhat closer to home.

Thursday, 8th April 2021, 6:00 am
Miranda Sykes, right, and Hannah Martin, who will be playing at The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth in Setpember 2021.

The acclaimed folk performer was diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of 2020, and as lockdown began, she was starting a gruelling course of six rounds of chemotherapy.

‘It's been a funny old year,’ she laughs while talking to The Guide from her home in Totnes, Devon.

Probably best known as folk giants Show of Hands’ long-serving bassist, she is also a solo artist and has recorded three albums as a duo with Rex Preston among many other projects. This autumn she is going on tour in a new project with Hannah Martin, best known for her work with partner Phillip Henry as Edgelarks and as part of Gigspanner Big Band.

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Miranda Sykes in action with Show of Hands at the 2018 Wickham Festival. Picture: Sarah Standing

‘Weirdly, looking back on it, I wasn't really aware of there being a pandemic going on because I was so ill, and just intent on getting through each cycle of chemotherapy.’

During this period, the concerts she was doing from home through Facebook every three weeks became her anchor.

‘My focus was my Facebook live concerts, and the only thing that was tough was not being able to see friends and family. And yes, I was shielding, I wasn't even going for a walk.

‘I’d be really ill for one week, pretty rubbish for one week and then the third week I'd start coming out and going: “I will have a little glass of wine...” And it would be literally on the Wednesday that I'd think: “Oh, I've got the concert on Saturday”, and that would carry me through.

Hannah Martin with partner Phillip Henry who perform as Edgelarks

‘Then the following Wednesday it would be the next cycle.

‘By then I'd know what to expect and that it would knock me for six. I would just have a few days where I felt kind of back to normal – well enough to do a concert. It carried me through, feeling connected to people.

‘It's just been me, my son and my husband in our little bubble, bouncing around, going: “What the hell has happened here?”

‘Once, twice a week sometimes we'd go to the hospital and there'd be nothing on the roads – it was eerie and really weird.

‘That concert was my lifeline.’

Since 2019, Show of Hands, founded by Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, have been playing live as a four-piece, joined by percussionist Cormac Byrne. They were due to tour again during 2020, but that obviously never happened.

The band were able to get together for a one-off streamed concert on October 31 at the Northcott Theare in Exeter. By that point Miranda had undergone a mastectomy and was going through radiotherapy.

‘I was in a pretty rough way there’, she recalls. ‘I suffered some pretty bad radiation burns.’

The Show of Hands tour has been rescheduled for the autumn – including a date at The Wedgewood Rooms on November 26.

‘I know Cambridge has fallen off the roster,’ the flagship folk festival was cancelled for 2021 last month, ‘but I really hope we're able to tour in the autumn, I miss it so, so much now.

‘When I was first diagnosed, Steve (Knightley) said: “Don't worry, just do what you can”, and that would have been amazing. But just to have nothing... That's why those Facebook live concerts were so important to me.

‘It will be amazing to be back on the stage with those guys.’

But before those shows, there’s the tour with Hannah – a project which has been a long time coming. Centred around their deep knowledge of roots music, and a love of harmony singing, the Debut Tour brings together old songs with new ideas; ancient tales with bass, fiddle, and banjo; and two mesmerising storytellers joining voices to create a spine-tingling testimonial to our shared musical heritage.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

‘I got to know Hannah when she and Phil supported Show of Hands on a tour, and I absolutely loved what they did together.

‘But Hannah and I got to work more closely together in 2014 when we toured in Steve Knightley's Wake The Union band, and that was a real chance to knuckle down and do some close harmonies and then it was done, we had dinner one night, had a play together and thought: “Yes, this works really nicely!”

‘It's lovely to work with another female and have the mixture of the viola and the double-bass, and the close harmonies.

‘We started rehearsing properly and then the pandemic hit.’

While both have spent many years playing on the British folk scene, neither has ever dedicated an entire set to traditional song.

They’ve also been enjoying the freshness of working with each other.

‘It really is nice. It's quite special when you sing with someone else and your voices really match and work together and that happened with Hannah, so that's a joy as well, to work closely like that.

‘For both of us to be working on purely traditional songs, neither of us had done that, either together or in our own right before, so that's really great.

Although Hannah only lives in Topsham, ‘about an hour away’, during lockdown it may as well have been the other side of the planet

‘We haven't been able to rehearse – we did a lot of work prior to lockdown, and we haven't seen each other in person for the past year, apart from a socially distanced photo shoot when I was in the middle of chemo.

‘We'll have some intense rehearsal once we can get together. Once we can meet in gardens, that will be doable – but it's the same for everyone – it's not been easy at all.’

And they plan to record an album together next year.

Miranda also put out an album last September, The Farmhouse Sessions, based on her Facebook shows, with her fans picking the songs.

‘I have this loyal following of people who would regularly watch the concerts, so the idea for the album was all kind of centred around them. I thought, I need to give a bit back, they've been so incredible to me, supporting me, and watching in, I just put it out with help of a couple of friends who are also front of house engineers for Show of Hands.

‘I got set up with a little recording studio in my attic and they chopped it about, made it sound good, and we ended up with the album.

‘It's brilliant to have that. It's a lovely thing to come out of a crappy time.’

Another unexpected side-effect of Miranda’s openness about her experience of breast cancer and the treatment is that she’s had supporters contact her about it.

‘A couple of people have made contact with me via Facebook saying: “Oh my god, I've just been diagnosed with breast cancer”, so it's been amazing to be able to share my knowledge and say: “Don't worry about chemo, they've got medicine sorted for the sickness, blah, blah, blah”. And that felt quite incredible, having that as well.’

Miranda and Hannah are at The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth on September 23, doors 7.15pm. Tickets £14. Go to squarerootspromotions.co.uk.

If you're faced with something like that, the symptoms that I had made me think I'd got inflammatory breast cancer, and that's the very worst, you're looking at five years. I was sat there with a one-year-old, as it was at the time - thinking really? I'm going to be around until he's five or six and leave him with his dad.

I had a week of not knowing which type it was, and that was horrific. It was the worst week of my life.

And it makes you think. As soon as you come out and you think I'm going to be ok, I'm going to lose my breast, but I'm going to be ok, it's just the most euphoric incredible feeling, and it makes you appreciate every single day, and everything that you've got.

‘I'm just happy to be alive, I really am.