Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Beverley Martyn

“It doesn’t matter how long it is, it’s good for me. Something good in my life!” I’ve just reminded Coventry-born Beverley Martyn that it’s fourteen years since she released her last album and almost fifty since she recorded her first single. Now she’s back with a new solo album, The Phoenix And The Turtle. Judging by the launch gig at London’s Bush Hall, where she was backed by a tight band led by her producer Mark Pavey, she’s firing on all cylinders.

The new release features songs written throughout her entire career, beginning with her very first, ‘Sweet Joy’. “I was a wishful girl then,” she tells me. “I think because I didn’t know what I was doing I just came up with some things that were quite original.” The song took shape at the end of her relationship with the late Bert Jansch, one of many creative titans she’s worked with. Such songs are “like an affirmation. It comes out of whatever happened, so you learn something from it. You can learn about exquisite sadness”.  

She’ll always be best remembered for her partnership, marital and musical, with John Martyn, and the two classic albums they made together for Island Records. “John was probably the biggest musical influence on me,” she reflects. “He was full of music”. After the marriage broke up, John went on to great solo success but Beverley discovered her name wasn’t on the contract. It rankles still: “I was young and trusted my new husband to make sure that I was safe and everything.” John is commemorated on her new album in ‘Women And Malt Whiskey’: “He did like the malt. But songwriting isn’t always about life. You have to make up some of it. You take from sources of inspiration, from other people, from whatever.”

Another man in her life was Nick Drake. She’s finally finished and recorded ‘Reckless Jane’, a song she started writing with Nick shortly before he died. “He was having fun. Relaxed. Yes, he was introspective, but when he was with me he actually interacted in the present. He stayed with me. I was the mummy with all the chicks around. He was a large duckling. He just followed the crowd.”

She deplores the changes to the music business since the glory days of Island under her old friend Chris Blackwell. “You used to be taken into the directors’ room at board meetings and they’d say, ‘This is our latest artist and we’ve decided to give time to this person. We believe in her’. Now it seems impossible to get close to the head.” And the status of women in the business – has that improved any? “Well, if they get their tits out, they do get a better deal.” Then they get messed up, of course: “It’s like casualty time. Even Adele. You’re talking about a fledgling. I don’t call her an artist yet. You’ve got to give her time to get messed up.”

I suggest that the obsession with image – the right dress, the right make-up – has crept into even the BBC Folk Awards. “I’m not particularly interested in folk or the Folk Awards. My roots are in jazz and blues. I love jazz. I’ve been spoilt for the greatest musicians. I see what’s going on now. Nothing too much excites me in the new range.”

What of the future? There’s talk of putting out her unreleased material from the 60s and 70s. “I don’t know what the legalities are. There’d be stuff that I haven’t finished or stuff that I was working on with Denny Cordell maybe.” If there’s anything half as good as her gravelly take on ‘When The Levee Breaks’, I’ll be the first to pre-order.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Razorbills

The Razorbills have just released their second album, Like Everbody Else. Expectations are high, but before I give it a spin, this might be a good moment to dig out my review of their 2012 debut...

To Hell With Youth And Beauty (Lost Wasp Records)

The clue is in the album title. Scottish ‘indie-folk-pop’ band The Razorbills are not chasing the teen market. They’re making music for grown-ups.

It’s primarily an acoustic line-up, with prominent banjo and mandolin from Harry Thomson and violin from Michelle McClure. But the sound is infused with an electric energy and unpredictable quirkiness that steers well clear of the over-praised Mumfords’ territory. 

Alan McClure, lead vocalist and chief songwriter, is a distinctive talent, sometimes reminiscent of fellow Scot Mike Heron. As a lyricist he’s a master of the witty put-down. (‘It’s not my job to think on a global scale | So kindly shut your gob’ may not be everyone’s idea of an eco-anthem.) But he can do serious as well: ‘God Forgotten’ meditates on the disillusionment following a religious upbringing. With one ear cocked to his folk heritage, McClure adds catchy, danceable tunes, and, deftly supported by the rhythm section of Jon Noad and Richard Ipaint, the whole thing takes off.  

I first discovered The Razorbills through their friendship with 1960s folk icon Shelagh McDonald. Appropriately, much of the music here – ‘Flower In The 60s’ an obvious example – sounds like a creative engagement with the past. Definitely a band on the up.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel). Look out for my review of Alan McClure's solo album in the current issue.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Shelagh McDonald interview

As comebacks go, this one takes some beating. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Shelagh McDonald was one of the most respected singer-songwriters on the folk scene. After migrating south from her native Scotland and making a couple of impressive albums, she’d been hailed by Melody Maker as ‘the new Sandy Denny’. Then, in 1972, she simply vanished. For over thirty years, rumours of her whereabouts circulated. Finally, in 2005, with her back catalogue now attracting attention from a new generation, she resurfaced, to tell of a catastrophic experience with LSD that had caused her to quit the music business. Her voice shot, she’d spent the intervening decades travelling, often living under canvas. Happily, that velvety voice has now returned and Shelagh, confidence restored, is performing again.

This interview was conducted in July 2013. We spoke shortly after she’d played a rare London gig, supporting Mike Heron and Trembling Bells.  

You've said that female folk singers were unusual on the club scene in the ‘60s. Did you find it a welcoming environment?

From the moment I decided to take music seriously, I strove to be accepted as a musician, pure and simple, and the guys in the business have consistently paid me the compliment of treating me as one of them. They’ve been great... never patronized, nor let me off the hook if I’d done a rotten gig.

I love your guitar style. Must require a lot of practice. Who were your masters in finger style?

My guitar heroes?! How long have you got! The very first influence was Bert Jansch, whose albums I wore down to within an inch of their lives to learn exactly what he was doing with his fingers. Would like to say I did the same with Davey Graham, but his Arabic cross-rhythms were totally beyond me. (I have played his guitar, though! Broke a string one night in Cousins and, while fixing it, became aware of a pair of hands clutching a guitar as he gently lowered it down on my shoulders... felt as if I’d just been given the Order of the Garter!). My friend Keith Christmas also helped steer me away from the strict folky fingerstyle I used for traditional stuff and, like many in the folk scene, Joni Mitchell solved the problem of bringing colour to one’s guitar sound without breaking your finger-joints... thus began my addiction to open tunings.

You started (am I right?) by singing trad material and other people's songs. When and how did you start writing your own songs?

As with guitar playing, so with songwriting... Joni’s first album was the one that broke the mould for me. Sure, there were loads of good songs being written, but for me they lacked the introspection I was after. I’m a great one for the ‘stream of consciousness’ school of songwriting, because complete honesty is a prerequisite for any art form and songwriting is no different. The only problem with this is, of course, that you can only be as honest as your self-development will allow and I now look back on my early songs as being rather like reading Adrian Mole... or should that be Ariadne Mole?!

Several of your songs from the ‘60s are about named individuals - Rod, Liz… That's rather different from, for instance, Sandy Denny, who wrote about her friends but concealed their identities in opaque lyrics. Any thoughts on the relative merits in lyric-writing of telling it straight vs wrapping up one's meaning?

I’ve always had very laid-back friends... always told them I was writing about them and felt that if I’d disguised their names they would have been a bit miffed.

At the two gigs I've been to you haven’t revived your old self-written songs. How do you feel about those songs now?

My personal favourites are those I played piano on, and of the others, I would say that ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Peacock Lady’ have stood the test of time.

When and how did your voice ‘come back’? Was it before the events of 2005 when the press rediscovered you?

Having read in the Scottish Daily Mail in 2005 that my albums had been re-issued I thought I’d better see if my voice (which I’d completely given up on) could be cranked up to an acceptable level in case anyone asked me to sing for my supper! Gordon [her late partner] and I were living in the middle of a forest at the time and I would start with little ten minute sessions singing anything that came into my head. At this point my throat was still seized up and it could be a bit painful. Each day I’d sing for an extra ten minutes and after about nine days my throat started to relax. From then it was a simple matter of gradually increasing the volume till I was able to really feel what was happening to my vocal cords and regard my voice as an instrument to be played seriously rather than being picked up and strummed to pass away a few idle moments.

Does the music business seem a totally different place now? If so, what are the biggest changes you've noticed?

The music scene is unrecognizable but the audiences are the same. I think that’s what keeps us all going. It’s the old story... the digital signal has changed everything, particularly the legal side of things, and I’m not alone in referring to this as a minefield. Back then, a folk concert in a proper concert hall was regarded as a mega event. I got my first professional gigs by using the ubiquitous door-stop sized ‘Folk Directory’ and writing to every folk club in the country and people would book you without having heard of you. Anyone who was daft enough to travel from Scotland to Devon for peanuts was good enough for them because we were all part of this mad family! It goes without saying I wish there were more folk clubs and that they met more than just once a month. However, I applaud the trend in combining folk with story-telling, poetry, stand-up, etc.

How has your own songwriting changed?

I’m aiming for a more open-ended approach. After a while the whole idea of sticking rigidly to one verse, followed by a chorus to be repeated between successive verses is like putting music into a straitjacket. Would like to think I’m playing around and experimenting more, and hopefully taking more risks.

What's next? Can we expect a new album? I hope so!

Next gigs on the horizon are the Wickerman in Dumfries and Galloway, the Oran Mor in Glasgow, then on to the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Am really looking forward to all of them and to starting my first album for (don’t remind me how many) years next month. Around autumn I’ll be working with an amazing songwriter, Nigel H Seymour, who I would urge folks to listen out for.

(Cheeky question but…) how do you plan to vote in the Scottish referendum?     

Am torn here, firstly because I have a much loved relative (alas, no longer with us) who was a prime mover and shaker in bringing the SNP out of the backwoods and if I opted for the status quo he might turn in his grave. On the other hand, he might be equally mortified if he knew that our oil revenues continued to be controlled, not by Whitehall, but by the major oil companies operating from London if we voted for home rule. I will take my cue from my adored relative and vote consistently where my conscience dictates.

[This interview first appeared in part in R2 (Rock’n’Reel), September/October 2013. Thanks to editor Sean McGhee, to Heather Maxwell McLennan for permission to use her photograph, and of course to Shelagh herself.]

Thursday, 23 January 2014

King Crimson book

Andrew Keeling
(SPACEWARD) www.andrewkeeling.co.uk
ISBN 978-0-9570489-3-5 Softcover. 138 pp.

“King Crimson is a way of doing things,” says Robert Fripp, the enigmatic founder and powerhouse behind the band in all its many incarnations. For forty years since it emerged, fully formed, as the originator of ‘progressive rock’, Crimson has been “doing things”, fusing jazz, rock, classical and folk with a healthy dose of ‘alternative’ philosophy and whatever else takes Fripp’s fancy at the time. He gathers like-minded, high-calibre musicians, gives them a reading-list (according to drummer Bill Bruford) and, together, they explore.

Crimson is a way of life for its followers, too, none of them more zealous than Andrew Keeling, musicologist and composer. After writing guides to three of the early albums, he now surveys their entire output up to 1984, taking in also Fripp’s solo projects and collaborations. I desperately wanted to like this book. Apart from Sid Smith’s band biography, there is little good critical discussion of their work. But I found Keeling’s approach frustrating. I’m unclear who he is writing for. Commissioned by Fripp himself, the book mixes personal anecdote with generalisations about the era and about the relationship of Crimson’s music to that era; added to that is a deal of technical musical analysis which may deter potential readers and often seems disconnected from the function of interpretation which it should serve.

Essentially, the author expects us to know stuff already. He’s not big on explanation. In The Court Of The Crimson King “unlocks the entire semiology of the counter-culture”. How? Is ‘Ladies Of The Road’ misogynistic or not? I was none the wiser at the end of a paragraph about ‘political correctness’ and the ‘nanny state’.

Carping aside, I learned things here: the reasons for the band’s initial break-up in 1974; the influence of World Music on Discipline (1981). But overall, I fear, Fripp’s resistance to explaining himself has rubbed off on his interpreter.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)