Behold the Stone Foundation – the Neil Sheasby interview

Market Forces: The two Neils out front with Stone Foundation, namely Jones (left) and Sheasby.

US broadcaster David Brinkley is quoted as saying, ‘A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her’. And Neil Sheasby knows a fair bit about all that.

For all the accolades and attention coming the way of the band he co-founded with namesake Neil Jones a dozen or so years ago, he insists they’ve had plenty of false starts, trials and tribulations en route.

Right now though, Stone Foundation are on the crest of a wave, their fourth album Street Rituals making the top-30 (and debuting at No.2 in the indie version), with a little help from interest generated by the latest big name to help spread the word about a soulful combo who pride themselves on an ability to offer us ‘the sound of Memphis, via the Midlands’.

Following their recent flirtation with commercial success, I pass on congratulations to Mr Sheasby, who is currently enjoying the plaudits, the wider world finally catching on. In fact rumour has it that Ed Sheeran was a nervous wreck waiting for that following week’s chart to be revealed.

“Ha! I’m not sure about that! I’m not quite sure what our expectations were, but we’re not doing a great deal different to what we’ve always done, although Paul’s name’s brought a lot more attention to it. Ultimately I think we’ve made a good record, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see it gain some acknowledgement and respect.”

The ‘Paul’ he’s name-dropping there is former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller, a major solo star for a quarter of a century now. And I throw my hat in the ring, admitting to Neil I’ve been among those catching up with the back-catalogue since hearing Your Balloon is Rising a couple of months ago, also featuring Weller.

The two Neils mention a ‘decade of trial, error and frequent returns to the drawing board before finding the right direction’. But listening back through the catalogue, they were never far off, were they?

“I don’t think so, no. We’ve always stuck to what we’ve believed in and what we wanted to do. There’s a certain path and vision, and no bandwagon. What afforded us the opportunity this time was not just working with Paul but having the luxury of doing it at his place.

Ritual Confrontation: Neil Sheasby, left, and co-founder Neil Jones get up close and personal, the band on hand

“We’ve always recorded very hand-to-mouth at our own rehearsal space, and that’s always been good, working within our boundaries and means, but this has taken us to a new level really. Songwriting-wise, I’m really proud of the last couple of albums and it’s nice we’re finally getting people drawn to what we’re doing.”

Impressed by Stone Foundation’s previous endeavours, word has it that Weller personally contacted the two Neils in early 2016 to propose working together, having heard that previous year’s LP A Life Unlimited, initially concentrating on one specific demo. But having enjoyed the process so much, the resulting 10 compositions on Street Rituals all have musical input from The Modfather, with two – The Limit of a Man and The Colour Of … – carrying Jones/Sheasby/Weller credits.

In fact, he pretty much joined the band for those recording sessions at Black Barn studio in Ripley, Surrey, playing guitar, piano and adding vocals to several songs as well as overseeing production.

As the man himself put it, “These are dark, dark times so I was glad to hear a positive voice and vibrations in the words and a joy in the music…what a pleasure and a privilege it was to work with these fellas. It’s their best songwriting to date, and I just hope people get to hear it. There are some great tunes and I like the message on the record. I like the social comment. You have so little of that these days.”

So – I put it to Neil S on the phone the day before they set off for two dates in Germany, their latest 10-date UK tour set to follow – what did Stone Foundation learn from the experience of having their hero at the controls and around and about the studio?

“It’s the first time me and Neil have ever had an outside producer, other than us and our in-house engineer Andy Codling spearheading everything before. And as me and Neil write together it’s lovely to have a different pair of ears and eyes on the project.

“A lot of the time the tracks we recorded came together very quickly and what you’re hearing a lot of it is probably two or three takes. The five of us played together and we added horns and strings after. Sometimes Neil and I look at each other, thinking, ‘Was that right? Maybe we should do it again, fix this bit or that bit’. But with Paul it was like, ‘If it sounds good, it probably is, you’ve probably got it there’.

“I think what we learned was to trust our instincts a little more, and it was akin to the old soul records we like. We had a couple of days a week with a session booked and we’d record the first batch of four tunes then go down again and do another two days, more or less live. So he brought that feel to the project.”

Rising Sons: A still from Your Balloon Is Rising, in which Stone Foundation are fronted by Paul Weller.

Were you nervous? Weller’s a big name. Or did he quickly put you at ease?

“He did actually. The first thing he did was volunteer to carry the gear in with us and made us a cup of tea. I think if you let yourself freak out too much you’ll intimidate yourself. We’re massive fans, me especially.

“He’s the reason I started a band. I was a Jam fan then subsequently a Style Council fan, never missing a tour. I’ve come from that fan perspective and his music’s always been in my life. But you have to leave that at the door. Immediately what we got from Paul was that you could tell it wasn’t a token gesture.

“It wasn’t about adding backing vocals to one of his tracks. It was a real collaboration. And there was a genuine sense and genuine excitement about the prospect of working with and playing with a live band. We didn’t know where we were going. He’d sent a rough demo to finish and we’d sent one back, recorded at our place, which he loved and said, ‘What else have you got? Shall we set a date and see what we can do?’

“So we prepared, got a few songs in the can and went down, played what we both knew, then said we’ve also got this. It all just clicked together. It was a real union. He said, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ at which point we had about four songs and didn’t know where we stood. We said we possibly had an EP there, to which he said, ‘Why don’t you go back, write a few more, we’ll do the process again and I think you’ve got an album’. And he’s been involved all the way, more or less joining the band!”

I get the impression from my own past interviews with the likes of From the Jam duo Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings that Paul’s very involved in what goes down at his studio when the mood takes him, and you obviously made a big impression on him.

“He is, and we’re very much of the same mindset. He’ll try anything. It may not work out but you’re only losing time. He’s very adventurous and his musical landscape’s very much that way. Whatever serves the song best. And it all happened very naturally.”

Of course, you’re not the first outfit with Midlands roots to get a helping hand from Weller. I’m thinking of a certain group from … erm, Moseley Shoals …

“Ocean Colour Scene? Yeah, I used to know those boys fairly well, and met Steve (Cradock, Weller’s long-time guitar-playing bandmate) for the first time in 20 years at a Royal Albert Hall gig we played the other week”.

I was going to ask about that – was that the date in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust?

“That’s right. It was nice to see him again and I’ve a lot of respect for him.”

The first three Stone Foundation albums were released on Turning Point. When and why did the switch come about to 100% Records?

“Turning Point was just a thing we made up. It wasn’t a real record label. It was our own imprint and we got distribution for it. It was just a monicker to put our records out with. Now with 100% it’s a blessing to have a label that takes the heavy lifting off me and Neil, having looked after all that for so long.”

Well, to paraphrase the sentiment of the recent single, you have to take into consideration The Limit of a Man.

“You do. Correct!”

And how does that Jones/Sheasby/Weller credit on the records look to you?

Third Album: Stone Foundation's A Life Unlimited (2015)

Third Helping: A Life Unlimited (2015)

“It’s the new Stock Aitken Waterman, mate! It’s incredible. I started out as a 14-year-old in youth clubs playing Jam covers, and I’m 50 this year. So what a journey!”

At this point we realise Neil is just 11 days older than me, having first suspected we must be around the same age when I saw an online piece he’d written for hmv.com, not least considering how Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and The Jam’s Sound Affects were major inspirations on him finding his path.

“That’s right, and that must put it in perspective for you too. What would it feel like if you’d made a record with Paul Weller? And that’s exactly how I feel.”

Just one last question about Paul, whose interest in your latest album suggests a more laid-back album coming up from him. Is that the case? Is Long Long Road a good indication of what’s coming our way? I know you’ve already heard A Kind Revolution.

“It’s great and I think it’s the best piece of work he’s done in many a year. It’s going to delight a lot of his long-standing fans. It’s one of those albums, a piece of work from start to finish. No filler. A proper record. You’ve a lot to look forward to there.”

Of course, Weller’s not the only big name on this album. Were you excited at the prospect of legendary soul singer William Bell, who lends his voice to Strange People, being involved?

“Of course! Absolutely!”

You’re a big Stax fan, I understand.

“I am, and that was down to interviews with The Jam really. They talked a lot about soul records and Tamla Motown, Stax, Northern Soul, and Curtis Mayfield. A whole lot opens up to you from that. I had this Stax compilation album, The Guys with Soul, and William Bell’s I Forgot to Be your Lover was one I played over and over. I was no more than 13 years old then, so to go from that to having him sing on one of your records …

“And just by chance. We were supporting him at Islington Chapel last July, and told him we had this track maybe he’d be interested in listening to, because we could hear his voice on it. And he said yes. That’s a testament to what we’re doing. It’s all about the music. If we’re not writing the songs we’re not going to be reaching these people. It was the same with Bettye LaVette. And to have people of that calibre involved … they’re legends!”

Soul Cookin': The Stax compilation that turned Neil Sheasby on to William Bell

Stax  Haven: A pivotal LP for Neil Sheasby

I was coming on to Bettye, who features on Season of Change. Her musical CV is something to marvel at, going right back to associations with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King and a young Otis Redding.

“Completely!”

In short, Street Rituals superbly showcases an outfit continuing to develop a unique style of soul, their subtle horn and string arrangements adding swathes of colour and light to their strongest songs to date. What’s more, the lyrics seem ripe for the times, reflecting issues of uncertainty and division, yet with a prevailing sense of hope and optimism for the future, in the tradition of so many classic soul artists they admire, not least Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers.

One prime example is new single Back in the Game, which reminds me of The Impressions. Then there’s a Staple Singers feel elsewhere, and so on. Even if I didn’t know Mr Sheasby’s route into all this I could clearly see an appreciation of classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul.

“Yes, The Isley Brothers too, and Marvin (Gaye). We listen to a lot of that, and the social commentary side was important to us. There’s so much happening there, and we wanted to hold a mirror up to that. There’s so much to say, it would be throwaway to just write simple love songs. And those records – the Curtis Mayfield records, the Isley Brothers, the William Bell records, are steeped in all that. These are troubled times and while we want to reflect on that, we also want to offer a bit of open optimism.”

Well, we could do with as positive message right now, the way this country and the rest of the world seems to be heading.

“I think we do, mate. Yeah.”

You’ve had influential fans from the early days, be it The Specials, The Proclaimers, Dr Robert and The Blow Monkeys and so on. Then I was listening to A Life Unlimited, thinking there’s a real Graham Parker feel to the vocals on a track there, The Night Teller, only realising why later.

“Ah, he’s great. A lovely fella. I met him at a book launch. I’m a fan and we got chatting, got on really well, swapped numbers, with no real idea we’d work together. Then we started working on A Life Unlimited, this song The Night Teller cropped up, we had a discussion, saying maybe we should send it to him, see what he thinks. He dug it and decided to do it. And he was everything we wanted him to be. Brilliant.”

Now you have four albums under your belt, do you think this latest one is the closest you’ve come to where you envisage yourself? Or is this just you at a particular point in your career?

“This is probably a more rounded record, with 10 tracks that really hang together from start to finish. That’s what I’m particularly pleased with, and lyrically as well as musically the album holds together better than anything we’ve done previously. Saying that, I was really very proud of the last record and we still play a lot of those songs live as they hold up so well. But this is more cohesive than anything else we’ve done.

“But when Weller’s knocking at your door and ringing you up, you’ve got to up your game, haven’t you? He inspired us.”

Shady Character: 2011's debut LP from Stone Foundation

Shady Character: Stone Foundation’s 2011 debut LP

While Neil S is from Atherstone and Neil J from nearby Tamworth, they first met in the late ‘90s on the London gig circuit, playing in different bands on the same bill at the Laurel Tree in Camden, Sheasby’s band Mandrake Roots (‘You’ll not find them on the internet – there’s nothing there!’) supported by Jones’ more indie outfit Walrus Gumboot (cool name, by the way).

“We were both in bands we were coming to the end of. I was getting disgruntled, looking for pastures new, and so was Neil. When I left my previous band the first thing I wanted to do was find a singer. And although we only lived a stone’s throw away from each other, his band just happened to have supported us in London.

“I went to check him out again and decided this is it, I should really work with this fella. approaching him about doing something. That’s how it began, but it took ages, some four or five years to find the right line-up. We knew we wanted this big sound but it took us ages to find the right players. It was trial and error, but all the time we were bonding, playing records to each other and writing songs.”

He was into hip-hop then, wasn’t he?

“He was, and first time I went around his house I discovered he was the only other bloke I knew who had the Third Bass album. I was impressed with that. Records and shoes impress me most … and he passed both tests!”

Stone Foundation UK tour dates: April 27th – Bristol, The Fleece; April 28th – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge; April 29th – Norwich, Arts Centre; May 5th – Coventry, The Empire; May 6th – Brighton, Concorde Club 2; May 12th – Leeds, The Wardrobe; May 13th – London, Islington Assembly Hall; May 18th – Newcastle, The Cluny; May 19th – Edinburgh, Voodoo Rooms; May 20th – Glasgow, Admiral Bar.

For full tour details, how to catch up on the back-catalogue, and all the latest from Stone Foundation, head here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

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Spirit of ’77 – All Around the World with Russell Hastings and From The Jam

Jam Pact: Russell Hastings in live action (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

It was a cheap shot, but when I called Russell Hastings back seven hours after rescheduling our initial 10am date due to a dodgy signal, I couldn’t help but ask him, ‘So, Just Who is the Five o’clock Hero?’

“Ha! I definitely think my old man was. Bruce’s as well, and of course Smithers-Jones was written about his Dad, which oddly enough was the same story as with mine really. He worked all over, but it was a similar scenario, working for 25 years then called in one day and told there was no longer a use for him.”

Thankfully there’s been no such lack of appreciation in the workplace for Russell (guitar/vocals) and bandmate Bruce Foxton (bass/vocals), still loved All Around The World 11 years after forming From the Jam, the group borne out of Russell’s band The Gift, which initially also involved The Jam drummer Rick Buckler.

In short, what started out as a 30th anniversary project has gone from strength to strength, the pair continuing to do the rounds and now celebrating 40 years since The Jam’s debut single and album of the same name, In The City. Time moves on, eh, Russell?

“I know! We’ve actually got a Foxton and Hastings 10th anniversary celebration t-shirt. Yet none of us had any idea or clue where it would go when we started. When we came off stage the other night, I sat in the dressing room, looked at Bruce and the boys, and thought how everyone out there was buzzing and having a great time. And we were buzzing and having a great time too. End of story!

“Everyone had a fantastic night. You can have as much inverted snobbery as you like, and everyone seems to have an opinion these days, but all those people are having a great time, whether they’re having a nostalgia trip or it’s younger people watching and hearing those songs played live for the first time.”

While Paul Weller was resolutely never part of any reformation, the former Jam front-man and Bruce are back on good terms these days, Paul even donating studio time and his own services for two great albums out under Bruce’s name, 2012’s Back in the Room and 2016’s Smash the Clock. Have they had chance to pop into Black Barn in Ripley, Surrey, of late?

“Not since September. But of course we recorded all of Smash the Clock back in there, which was great.”

Double Act: Russell and Bruce share vocal duties for From The Jam (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Any chance of a new Foxton and Hastings album coming our way during this upcoming hectic schedule?

“Yes, there is! We were only talking about it the other day. We already have a few ideas, as was the case with both of the other albums. It’s a case of making some time for it really. It wouldn’t be released this year but certainly would be next year.”

But for now it’s all about the live show, with Russell amazed at the continued positive reaction they get when I caught up with him, recovering at home after memorable St Patrick’s weekend shows at Dublin Academy and Belfast Ulster Hall.

“It was really good fun. To play Ireland is great, and Belfast blew us and them away really. Something magical happened that night, and I guess 1,500 people in the Ulster Hall and us with those songs proved a great chemistry for a fuelled night.”

Do you tend to find that when you go that little further afield, geographically, you’re appreciated more by audiences?

“I do think that‘s the case, although we hadn’t been to Belfast for nine years. We’ve played Sydney more times than Ireland. Last time it was Rick, Bruce, myself, and Dave (Moore, guitar/keyboards, also originally with Russell in The Gift), and we hadn’t really touched the surface in Belfast. So when we went back and found out it was practically a sold-out, huge hall, it was amazing. And then we came out on stage and the place erupted!”

It seems you have another busy year ahead of you, with those live dates stacking up again.

“Yeah, they are. We looked at Dublin as the start of that, and our year goes through until January really. And it amazes us that we can go out to that many venues in that many towns and still sell places out. It just seems to have got stronger in the last two years. And it’s still growing really.”

True Aim: Russell Hastings has his sights on another great tour with From The Jam (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

I get the impression the Preston Guild Hall show being rescheduled for August 18th (01772 804 444) was a good example of that interest. You’ve become victims of your own success.

“That’s exactly what it is. We sold out that gig and unbeknown to us the promoter switched it to a bigger venue but a seated one, and people aren’t going to appreciate that. Also, there was something else going on that night. So we decided to reschedule. We only like playing seated venues for our That’s Entertainment acoustic show. But now it’s back to a standing venue, and it’ll be a great night.”

Last time we spoke, three years ago, Russell and I talked about him living the dream, including a great anecdote about Bruce handing him a towel in the back of a boat, asking ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ Now it appears they even have a cruise-ship engagement lined up, albeit not in the Caribbean, and possibly leaving the jet-skis behind this time.

“Yeah, that’s weird, isn’t it! We get picked up in Liverpool, do two shows overnight then arrive in Dublin, I believe, no doubt flying back to Gatwick from there.”

You don’t strike me as a band happy to be on the retro circuit, and it all sounds a bit bizarre, From the Jam out on the high seas with the likes of Suzi Quatro, The Manfreds, The Yardbirds, Slade, The Animals and The Troggs.

“We’re not precious these days about who we share a bill with.”

So go on then, Russell – ‘fess up, was there ever a Suzi Quatro poster on your wall as a kid?

“Probably on my brother’s. Actually, I saw her on telly the other week, and thought she’s not doing so bad, really! But I always remember her floating around the charts in the early to mid-70s.”

Metal Nun: Dave Hill at the height of his sartorial elegance

And although it’s only half of the old band that bill includes some old favourites of mine, the mighty Slade.

“Well, we did a festival with them in Whitehaven three or four years ago, while me, Rick and Bruce bumped into Dave Hill and co. at a service station on the M40 about 10 years ago. When we got in the car after we said to each other, ‘Did that just happen?’ And of course Dave Hill looked like Dave Hill!

“You sort of get used to some weird things happening. We also played a festival back last year where Leo Sayer was on the bill, and he came and chatted to us. Then two months later we’re in Sydney, played this amazing gig, came off stage and after about five minutes the dressing room door burst open and Leo ran in. We had photos with him, then when he went, Bruce was again asking, ‘Did that just happen?’”

I think that’s another reason why we love Bruce. Being at the top table doesn’t seem to have changed him. He’s still a music fan above all else.

“Absolutely, he has no concept of stardom! He doesn’t really get it, and is always quite surprised when he gets stopped. We’ve been all over the world and sometime when you get stopped by people you do have to take a second look and think, ‘Are they talking to me?’ Walking down the street in Perth, Western Australia, 9,000 miles from home, you think, ‘How can anyone possibly know me here?’ But it’s a joy really, a pleasure.”

That Irish Sea cruise engagement also gives Russell and Bruce a chance to catch up with Big Country drummer and past writewyattuk interviewee Mark Brzezicki, a former member of From the Jam’s touring band, who also featured with them in the studio.

“Yeah, we have a great love for each other. He’s a wonderful guy, genuinely nice, one of the funniest characters I know, and hasn’t got a bad bone in his body.”

Seeing as they’re sailing out of Liverpool, I mention how the 2017 itinerary also includes a few shows at The Cavern. I know it moved from its original spot, but that must still be something for a big Beatles fan.

“It is! The first single I ever bought was a Beatles song, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da. I got my Mum to go and get it from Woolworth’s. That was 1969 and I was four. I got into music very young.”

Now your own sons are 18 and 13, do they tend to come and catch you live from time to time?

“They do, especially in this area, like Brighton.”

Song Craft: Russell Hastings in live action with From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Either of them following your musical lead?

“Not just yet. I did ask one the other night, ‘When are you gonna pick that guitar up? I told him, ‘When you’re ready, I’ll show you.’

You can’t force it, can you. You need a proper hunger for it.

“Exactly, you’ve got to have a reason to pick it up. In my case, I just wanted to play some of the songs I knew and had no idea how to go about that. I felt my way around a guitar first … and I’m still doing that really!”

And what will the band set-up be for the In the City 40th anniversary tour?

“We have Mike Randon on drums, and while Tom Heel has now joined Paul’s band, we now have on keys Andy Fairclough, who was with Secret Affair and also fits in well. He’s another great player and a really nice guy.”

Having recently written on this website about the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s first single White Riot and the self-titled debut album that followed, another big punk and new wave anniversary is almost upon us. You’ve told me before how the Locarno in Portsmouth later that year was your first Jam gig. But what were you up to when In the City came out at the end of April ’77? Were The Jam on your radar then?

“They weren’t at that time, but certainly were a few months after. But around that period I was listening to the (Sex) Pistols, having got into them early. At secondary school I remember going on a sponsored walk with school when someone had a ghetto-blaster with them with a load of batteries and were playing their first album.

The Inspiration: Released in April 1977

“I still put that on from time to time, and really enjoy it. It’s a fantastic album and I listen to it with fresh ears every time, rather than going down any nostalgia route. The production’s so good on it, it doesn’t sound like ‘70s production and has so much energy. In fact, I think it’s more profound these days to listen to than it was then.”

You were barely 12 then, so did you have older siblings getting you into all that?

“I have an older brother, four years older than me. I was already very much into music but he would come home with his record collection, and like little brothers do I’d nick his records! There was a lot of Bowie going around, which is the case again around my house now, like Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory.”

Will there be a band pilgrimage to Stratford Place. London W1, to mark the anniversary of that debut Jam single and album?

“Well, there’ll be a whole year of pilgrimage! And the thing is that I can still remove myself from it all and listen to a Jam album as an outsider and think how great it is. I like delving into some rarities and old demos.”

And are you still hearing new stories about those early days from Bruce?

“Erm … I’ve probably heard them all by now. I hear him tell others then help him out when he can’t remember all the punchlines!”

And will there be a tour marking the anniversary of The Gift next, that final album in 1982, 35 years on?

“Yes – we start that in September. First we have this tour, playing a selection of songs from In the City, some of our favourites from the album, then it will be the same with The Gift. There are some great tracks there too. That way it keeps everybody interested throughout the whole night, not just the die-hards.”

Behind You: Bruce in leap mode as Russell belts out another top Jam number (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

From the Jam’s In the City tour continues this April at Lowestoft The Aquarium (21st), Bedford Corn Exchange (22nd), Warrington Parr Hall (28th), Kendal Brewery Arts Centre (29th), Barnoldswick Arts Centre (30th), then in May at Leicester Academy 2 (6th), Norwich The Waterfront (11th & 12th), Manchester The Gorilla (13th), Milton Keynes The Stables (17th), Derby The Flowerpot (18th), London Under the Bridge (19th & 26th, first night sold out), Leeds Cookham Moor (20th), Runcorn The Brindley (23rd), Liverpool The Cavern (25th), Worthing St Paul’s Arts Centre (27th) and Southend-on-Sea Garon Park (28th). For details of those and the many dates that follow, head to the band’s live page here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

This is just the latest Jam-related feature on this blog, with links to previous ones here:

Super Sonik flight with Weller … again (April 20th, 2012)

Back (on the phone) with Bruce Foxton (May 31st, 2013)

Bruce Foxton – Back in the Room – a writewyattuk review (May 31st, 2013)

Sound affects on a midsummer’s night (June 22nd, 2013)

Weller’s ever-changing mode (October 13th, 2013)

Where did it all go right? In conversation with Russell Hastings (May 3rd, 2014)

When Setting Sons rise again – Bruce Foxton & From The Jam update (October 3rd, 2014)

From The Jam/Deadwood Dog – Preston 53 Degrees (October 12th, 2014)

Time for Truth – the Rick Buckler interview (April 2nd, 2015)

Now The Time Has Come – back in touch with Bruce Foxton (January 21st, 2016)

From the Jam / Nine Below Zero – Colne, The Muni (February 1st, 2016)

Bruce Foxton – Smash The Clock – a writewyattuk review (May 28th, 2016) 

About the Young Idea – talking about The Jam with Nicky Weller (August 14, 2016)

To Be Someone – Talking about The Jam with Den Davis (January 26th, 2017)

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Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Preston, The Continental

Two’s Company: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, mid-pre-gig psych up session

“The fun’s over. Strap yourself in, it’s gonna be a miserable ride”.

After upbeat sets from opening acts Tom Hyatt and Sweeney Astray, Josienne Clarke suggested a change of mood was on the cards at this happening River Ribble watering hole on Friday night.

But this golden vocal talent Josienne and treasured guitarist Ben Walker play it just the right side of maudlin, and what followed was a compelling set, one fully showcasing their acclaimed output these past few years.

I barely caught a couple of songs of London live circuit regular Tom, first on, but he proved a hit, as did alt. indie-folk outfit Sweeney Astray, vocals/guitar pairing Mike Kneafsey and Katie Ritson plus Anna Ashworth (drums) complemented for the first time by Atomic Rooster’s Shug Millidge (bass) and Jamie Brewer (electric guitar).

We had more of a folk crowd than the usual Tuff Life Boogie clientele, and when Jamie unleashed a little feedback at one stage there were more winces than knowing rock’n’roll nods. But this was no cable jumper, finger-in-ear collective, Mike’s approach suggesting King Creosote at times, the band at their best in more indie-folk territory for these ears.

Continental Flavour: Sweeney Astray. from the left – Shug, Anna, Mike, Jamie, Katie (Photo: Sweeney Astray)

Beguiling opener The Birds was just the first highlight from the main act, London-based Josienne’s subtly-powerful vocals captivating the room while piercing hearts and minds.

Something Familiar has become a favourite for this scribbler of late, and unconscious memories were duly pricked by a Proustian approach in a Prestonian setting.

This was already something of a greatest hits section, Dark Turn of Mind perfectly interpreted by Josienne – who reckoned Gillian Welch’s song was written for this self-styled ‘lugubrious bastard’ – in more bluesy territory, her partner’s six-string touches the perfect accompaniment.

I won’t get technical about Brighton-based Ben’s part in all this, save to say he did all his talking with superior picking and bridgework, switching between Les Paul and two acoustic guitars, seemingly effortless in his intricate attention to detail and virtuosity.

It may say ‘folk’ on the tin, but this pair readily branch out from there. They’d struggle to drop the next cover from their set though, Banks of the Sweet Primroses having gone down a storm at the Royal Albert Hall when they picked up the best duo award at the BBC 2 Folk Awards. Two years on, they recalled risking six years’ work in one sub-three minute live slot, but clearly needn’t have worried, great things following.

The title track of most recent album, Overnight, their first for Rough Trade, followed, one of many songs seemingly crafted in the wee small hours, with next offering The Light of His Lamp also by turns charming and thrilling.

Josienne went on to explain how she struggles to write anything ‘light and euphoric’, those sentiments voiced on Silverline, while new song Seedlings All briefly took us away from ‘songs about the passing of time’, trying to make sense of a Mad World also remarked upon in Sweeney Astray’s earlier surprisingly-rootsy treatment of Tears for Fears.

A tongue-in-cheek attempt at dividing the audience followed, Josienne gauging reaction with comment about the worth of Fairport Convention, post-Sandy Denny. Yet thanks to a spine-tingling run through Reynardine – one few could pull off so well – she was off the hook.

A song about teenage woes followed, The Tangled Tree something Josienne says she wrote ’10 years ago, when I was nine’. Yeah, right.

She returned to Sandy lane for Fotheringay, these graduates from the ‘Conservatoire of Life’ then tackling a little ‘pretentious rubbish’ – Josienne’s description, not mine – in an interpretation of late Victorian classical chart-bound sound As Torrents in Summer. And where do you go from Edward Elgar? Chesney Hawkes, of course. Well, sort of, Josienne wryly name-checking his 1991 No.1 before launching into new song Only Me Only.

Street Furniture: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker wait for a taxi back to the hotel

Our queen of self-deprecating humour also compared Ben’s loop-pedal work with a certain Ed Sheeran, although insisting her co-worker’s version was more ostinato really. Gotta love musical snobbery, eh.

Any such celebration of the more melancholic was bound inevitably to lead to the door of Nick Drake, and their take on Time Has Told Me was another highlight. Unfortunately though, an intermission followed, with genuine concern after an audience member took ill. Thankfully word eventually came back that he was on the road to recovery, a relieved Josienne and Ben given the green light to resume.

A touch of late-night poignancy followed, the pair giving us Jackson C. Frank and Sandy Denny married with a little jazz-soaked Autumn Leaves bar-room blues on Milk and Honey, Josienne expertly alternating between voice and saxophone, just when I thought the later was only there as a prop, Tommy Cooper style. And while she reckons she’s ‘more Ron than John Coltrane’, it was a love supreme for this punter.

There was still time for a fresh, heartfelt spin on Nina Simone’s For All We Know, and with the main exit still blocked courtesy of our earlier medical situation, we were afforded instead a bonus, recent set addition Chicago a quality end to a supposed ‘barrage of misery’ which still somehow left us with springs in the step.

Dynamic Duo: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, standing up to close live inspection

For details of their releases so far, and to keep in touch with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, try these Facebook and Twitter links.

For more information about Sweeney Astray, including details of their new single, Flow, head here, and for the lowdown on Tom Hyatt try here

Meanwhile, to see what else Tuff Life Boogie have in store over the coming months, try here

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Valley high – back in touch with Public Service Broadcasting’s J. Willgoose Esq.

Going Underground: Public Service Broadcasting, back for their third LP, Every Valley.

Commercial success doesn’t seem to have changed the pseudonymous J.Wilgoose Esq. Unless of course his excuse of not picking up his phone straight away as he was ‘carrying a cup of tea into the studio’ is shorthand for some rock’n’roll excess I’m unfamiliar with.

The relatively reticent yet amiable, Public Service Broadcasting frontman is heading towards the July 7th release of the band’s third LP, Every Valley, a (whisper it) concept album set against a backdrop of industrial decline and neglected, abandoned communities across the western world.

Every Valley centres on the plight of the mining community in South West Wales, but aims far wider. As the band put it, ‘In the current climate of cynical, populist politics, the tales told on the album feel more pertinent and affecting than ever. Every Valley is a powerful riposte in an age of apathy’.

The band’s first release on independent label Play It Again Sam is about community and what happens when an area’s lifeblood is ripped away, its theme a metaphor for a much larger, global, social malaise. It’s a story of dignity and social responsibility, ‘transposing the story of the South Wales miners into a 21st Century of ‘fake news’, populist politics and a total disregard for the voiceless’.

The track-to-track thread of the record takes us from a golden age when miners were ‘kings of the underworld’, via mechanisation, automation and the march of ‘progress’ to the downward spiral of the industry – to closures, the all-out conflict of the miners’ strike and its sad, lingering aftermath.

As JW (him with the bowtie in the publicity shots) puts it in on his blog, “I have no personal ties to mining, coal or otherwise, and no family links to the area, but something about the story drew me in. This is an album about community as much as it is about mining; it’s the story of an entire region centred around one industry, and what happens when that industry dies.

“Perhaps something about the romanticism of the valleys and their geography drew me in particular, perhaps it was their solidity during the strike of 1984-5. What’s certain is that this album isn’t just about mining, and isn’t just about Wales. It’s a story reflected in abandoned and neglected communities across the western world, one which led to the resurgence of a particularly malignant, cynical and calculating brand of politics.”

PSB have built something of a reputation in recent years for weaving forensic, historical research into evocative sonic storytelling, Every Valley following revered 2013 debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain and similarly-splendid 2015 follow-up The Race For Space, the latter peaking in the UK charts at No.11, going on to achieve ‘silver’ status.

The night before I spoke to JW, I saw for the first time the promo video for introductory single Progress, the band’s ‘playful look at a serious and pertinent topic, mechanisation, and its true place in the progress of humanity’. Inspired by 1960s’ Cold War films and filmed in a jet engine testing facility in Suffolk, there’s something of a nod to fellow innovators Kraftwerk there too, wouldn’t you say, J?

“I think so. I’m not the biggest fan but have enormous respect for them. And if you’re making a song about automation …”

Was it fun to make?

“Well, when they said, ‘Be as wooden and emotionless as possible’ I don’t think they knew that was our forte. I thought, ‘Finally, a direction I can fulfill!’

What perhaps characterises Progress more than anything are the guest vocals by Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell. Funnily enough, her band had been in my head all week after seeing Lloyd Cole at Preston Guild Hall, the gorgeous Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken springing to mind. Is he a long-time fan of the band?

“Yes, they’ve been on my radar for ages, back to around 2006 when somebody played me Let’s Get Out of This Country. I’ve dipped in and out, and listening again thought, ‘Hang on, that’s the voice I’ve been after for about a year!’ I’d been keeping my ears primed, ready to hear this voice in my head. When she started singing, I thought, ‘That’s it!’ I got in touch and said, ‘I’ve got this song and think your voice will be perfect for it’, and she was immediately very receptive.”

Then there’s James Dean Bradfield on Turn No More. Was that a further ‘pinch yourself’ moment for a musician first stopped in his tracks by the Manic Street Preachers as a teenage fan?

“Of course, it would be for so many people. They’re such an incredible band and have been for so long. It kept getting more and more unreal. First, Sean (Moore) spoke very nicely about us in the NME, then we got asked to play with them a couple of times, then again at Swansea last year, when I’d already started thinking about this album.

“So I decided to ask, thinking he can only say ‘No’. Even when he said, ‘Yes’ I thought he was being polite at first. I gave him ample opportunities to tell me ‘No’ for real, but he kept answering the phone!”

Did he feel self-conscious explaining the concept? After all, in lesser hands it could be viewed as a rather patronising project – these geeky Londoners telling the world about industrial decline in South Wales.

“I didn’t actually get a great deal of time to talk to him. We were backstage together just briefly. I collared him on the way back from watching the Super Furry Animals. I briefly told him what the album was about and as they’re such a fiercely intelligent band I was a little worried that fierceness might come out.

“But much like the rest of the people from that area we spoke to, worked with or had any dealing with, there was nothing but tacit support or beyond that, actual encouragement. I thought we might get a slightly reserved feeling that ‘we can’t talk to you about this’, but I don’t think that exists there. I’m not sure that’s in their make-up. They made us very welcome.”

Last time we spoke, for the Race for Space album, I asked what PSB had planned next, and JW told me he already had something in mind. Was this that idea?

“Yes, there was never really anything else that was a serious contender this time.”

So when we were wondering where they were heading next after reaching the heavens, we probably could have guessed ‘down’, yet not actually below us.

“I guess. I wanted to do something a bit more focused, or with a tighter focus. And I think we’ve definitely done that.”

At the time I was pondering whether it would be something Empire Windrush-related, tackling immigration to the UK from the 1950s onwards, starting with a part-ska, part-calypso soundtrack. I was clearly way off the mark though.

“Yeah, I’m not sure. It would be really good to play calypso properly. They’re great musicians.”

That said, when the makers of the Paddington film used Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place For Me I had the feeling you’d missed the boat, so to speak.

“I love that whole series by Honest Jon’s Records, and think I have all of them. That’s some of my favourite music in the world. I don’t feel qualified enough, but never say never. I wouldn’t have said we’d be making an album about South Wales mining either!”

So did this idea all come together fairly quickly?

“I tend to write quite tightly. It’s quite focused, but there are times when I start with a definite idea and I’m convinced that’s the way to go, but in a couple of cases that changed totally. The more you do this kind of thing and the more experienced you get at taking decisions when you’re writing, the more you learn not to be too precious about anything. Just listen to what sounds best. Don’t let your ego or preconceived ideas get in the way.”

Guests on the new LP also include local strings players, Abergavenny’s Beaufort Male Choir, PSB’s own brass section, and emerging acts Haiku Salut and Lisa Jên Brown of 9Bach.

Tell me more about Haiku Salut, who feature on They Gave Me A Lamp.

That’s a band I kind of stumbled across on the internet, as is my wont. I had this idea for the song we ended up working on, how I wanted it to sound and the instrumentation, and again wanted to work with female singers, as it’s a song about women’s support groups.

“As with Tracyanne, I was keeping an ear out for the right sound, then heard this song, Hearts not Parts, and realised that was exactly what I was after. I got in touch and we hit it off. They were great to work with, and very straight-forward.”

How about 9Bach’s Lisa Jên Brown, who features on You + Me?

“I heard her on Guy Garvey’s radio show, and thought, ‘Wow’. Such a rich, very pure voice, perfect for the song I had in mind. As with choosing a guitar for the sound you need, it was the same with the voices, deciding who to cast, and for which songs.

“She was a natural for the one she ended up on, and although we did three or four takes, we didn’t need to. We had it after one really! She was amazing. It’s a very personal song and she did it a lot of justice. “

It’s a bit late now, but as a fellow lover of archive documentaries, I love 1950s’ short film A Letter for Wales, following homesick Welsh actor Donald Houston as he posts a letter late at night at a London railway station, looking proudly back at many aspects of Donald’s homeland, not least industrial progress.

“Ah yes. I’ve seen that!”

It seems to fit the general theme, but I’m guessing the story you tell is more specific.

“Yeah, it’s an over-used term, especially in music, but it’s quite a journey, starting from a very rich, prideful, positive, optimistic position, but even with those songs the audience knows what’s coming. It becomes darkly ironic in a few places. It’s an interesting story but there’s no getting away from the fact that it has a sad ending. I guess ultimately the album is more about loss than anything we’ve done before.”

You also seem to be sending out a message about the way society is heading though, extolling the importance of community values over corporate greed. Do you think we’ve lost sight of those core ideals?

“The aspect of community came into it because of how solid the South Wales community was during the Miners’ Strike, compared to other areas of the country. But if there’s a message, it’s not so much about a need to go back to a better time as much as being about what happened to those communities and where it’s landed us now.

“How have we got from thriving valleys and industrial towns to those same places being so bereft of hope and ambition? Ebbw Vale, where we recorded the album, was one of the strongest areas of the country voting to leave the EU, even though they’re also among the highest recipients of EU funding. It’s all tied to this demise of the industry, the way they were treated at the time, and lack of opportunities there have been in the interim.”

In fact, PSB are set for two shows at the Ebbw Vale Institute a month ahead of the release of the album (Thursday, June 8th and Friday, June 9th), having used the venue’s former lecture hall to record the LP back in January.

Talking of the recording process, the band say they were aiming for an earthy, full sound, in keeping perhaps with the underground nature of the concept, while carrying some of the lilt and lyricism of the language. Or is this just an excuse to write something in which you can incorporate a stirring Welsh male voice choir and Richard Burton’s evocative voice?

“Well, we certainly put more into it than that, giving it a great deal of thought, care and attention. Whether or not that means anybody ends up liking it … I have little faith!”

The band also conducted interviews with ex-miners and their families as part of the project. Will they be passing them on to the British Film Institute, having admitted a certain amount of ‘plundering the BFI’s back catalogue’ in recent years?

“I’m not sure they’d be up to their standards, really! One snippet did make it on to the record though. But it’s still such a raw topic for so many people and so tightly focused that it felt wrong to just stay in a tiny bubble and not actually meet people involved directly.

“Interviewing people is definitely not one of my strengths, but it was a good thing to have done for this record, to meet people involved and hear it through their words, without a filter.”

I mentioned my love of archive travel and social history documentary films, with PSB clearly sharing that love and marrying it to great tunes. A few bands out there have taken a similar visual approach to their own recordings and live performances in recent times, not least British Sea Power and King Creosote for BBC 4 commissioned projects, and friends of this site, The Magnetic North. Has this approach to making music become something of a sub-genre?

“I don’t know. I think we sit apart from some of that in the way the content is so tightly wedded to what we do. We’ve taken bits from all sorts of bands, with British Sea Power definitely one of our inspirations. I can’t really speak as to if there’s a specific movement though. I feel very separate. We’re in our own little world.”

As a unit, PSB certainly seem to have branched out from the core of JW (guitar, banjo, other stringed instruments, sampling and electronic instruments) and Wrigglesworth (drums, piano, electronic instruments), the format I first witnessed at Preston’s 53 Degrees four years ago. By the time of May 2015’s visit to the Ritz in Manchester there was also Mr B (visuals) and JF Abraham (brass). So will that line-up expand again for the album tour that follows those initial Every Valley dates?

“I don’t see any further extensions for the moment. We might take a few more musicians if we can fit them on the bus, but it’s full at the moment! The idea is to scale up to play with as many musicians as practically possible, financially and logistically. Between the three of us and Mr B on the visuals we’re pretty good at covering most things now, because of the way we layer things and each of us can do a multitude of things at the same time.”

Incidentally, are you still in touch with that 2015 tour’s guests, Jessica and Katherine of Smoke Fairies?

“Yes, they’ve played with us a few times and appeared on the last album, and were at the Brixton show we recorded and released, and the Royal Albert Hall show we did in October. I certainly hope that wasn’t the last time we play together. They’re lovely people and it’s a pleasure working with them. They have an interesting edge to them.”

As for Public Service Broadcasting – not bad for a ‘band’ that started as just J, playing the Selkirk pub in Tooting, South London, barely seven years ago. To use the sporting cliche, has it all sunk in yet?

“It has and it hasn’t! It’s strange how quickly you get used to anything really. Luckily, I’m quite good at giving myself the proverbial slap round the face and not taking this for granted. It’s such a privilege to make music for a living. It far surpassed any of my wildest hopes. Everything we now do can be a bonus really, because Brixton was the Holy Grail and it’s come and gone. So what do you do when you’ve fulfilled your ultimate dream?”

Erm … you head to Ebbw Vale, I guess.

“Well, I did start thinking why we were doing this, and what we were going to get out of this. It’s about not changing things for the wrong reasons, trying to make an interesting piece of work and do something that challenges us and hopefully challenges and entertains those who end up listening.”

For this site’s February 2015 feature/interview with Public Service Broadcasting’s J Willgoose Esq., head hereYou can also seek out writewyattuk‘s lowdown on Inform-Educate-EntertainThe Race For Space, and PSB live at 53 Degrees in 2013 and the Ritz, Manchester in 2015.

Mine Herrs: Public Service Broadcasting prepare for July 7th’s release of their third long player, Every Valley

Meanwhile, for further information, background and insight on Every Valley, head over to J. Willgoose, Esq.’s blog. To check out the video to Progress, pre-order the new LP and find out details of where the band are heading this summer – with dates in Glasgow, Zagreb, Hull, Liverpool, Birmingham, Guildford, Talaton and Portmeirion already lined up – try the band’s official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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Boo Hewerdine / The Huers – Wigan Parish Church

Chapel Roots: Boo Hewerdine, flanked by support act The Huers at Wigan Parish Church (Photo: David Hiney)

I’ve encountered some impressive live music settings over the years, and All Saints’ Church, Wigan, must be up there with the best, however unlikely a venue.

It was clearly an odd call for Boo Hewerdine too, this Cambridgeshire-based singer-songwriter up in Lancashire (yep, few would thank me for suggesting Greater Manchester) just two days after playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Yet it was an inspired choice for the latest Acoustic Roots bill, and not only did it seem apt to witness the former frontman of The Bible in such surroundings, but he rose to the occasion, even foregoing the PA system at one stage to make the most of the sonic possibilities.

Whether you picked up on Boo in his Bible days or beyond through his work with and for various feted performers, there’s no disguising the surprise at hearing live that wonderful voice coming from an unassuming big fella with a beard.

There was a concern that the event was a tad too intimate at first, support act The Huers having to entice us into the Crawford Chapel for their set rather than hover awkwardly around the transept.

The Huers are Phil Caffrey and Ian Cleverdon, North West folk roots scene regulars, a likeable, talented guitar pairing alternating between their own songs and acoustically-arranged covers on this occasion.

Guitar Duo: The Huers opening the proceedings at Wigan Parish Church (Photo: David Hiney)

They finished with Broken Boats, inspired by a visit to Port Isaac, then Steve Tilston and Dave Alvin covers, joined by the main act on the latter, a rendition of King of California.

Boo’s initial seven-song set started in sober circumstances with The Village Bell and The Man That I Am, heartfelt contributions to the Ballads of Child Migration project, helping shine a light on one of the more shameful chapters in the UK’s recent history.

Shortly after playing that second track with a full band on a star-studded bill in South Kensington, here it was in stark voice and guitar format, but just as powerfully-poignant.

Lightening up the mood, his ‘big hit’ followed, Boo telling us how the royalties for Patience of Angels, a success for ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader in 1994, helped buy him a shed ‘big enough for the mower’, his congregation helping out with the chorus.

Beyond the touching Old Song we had a track from his most recent collaboration with Chris Difford, Cinderella, the lyrics about a cross-dresser penned by the Squeeze co-founder and the music by Boo, as he was quick to stress.

More understated name-dropping followed, telling us how newly-crowned folk singer of the year Kris Drever covered his next song, the wonderful Harvest Gypsies, before ending with a song from his youth, keeping up the cross-dressing theme with talk of having a ‘trannie’ under his pillow in ‘67 on first hearing The Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke.

Guitar Man: Boo Hewerdine giving his alternative Bible class in the Crawford Chapel (Photo: David Hiney)

After a bottled ale we were back, Boo setting off with Voice Behind the Curtain from his new LP, a lovely track he said he wished he could go back to the ’60s and offer to Dionne Warwick. And writing for other talents is clearly something he thrives on, as proved with the next selection penned for long-time friend Eddi Reader, Dragonflies.

Talking us through his first appearance on BBC talk show Wogan in the ‘80s (‘How many of you have been on Wogan twice?’ he added in mock surly tones, before a wry smile), he recalled safety-pin problems with poor-fitting, hired ‘television trousers’ while performing Honey Be Good with The Bible there. And the evidence is out there to see on the web, with Boo’s legs apart stance something to marvel at.

The Huers returned for the mighty Bell, Book and Candle, apparently used in no less than seven shows where a character dies, including Tricia Dingle’s death by chimney-pot on a stormy night in Emmerdale, Boo telling us, ‘If you don’t make it through this song, thanks for coming anyway’.

Thankfully we all survived, with 2009’s Muddy Water next, accompanied by a comic tale of how he played a live abridged version on Andy Marr’s BBC Sunday morning show that year, followed by the beautifully-melancholic Please Don’t Ask Me To Dance, another Eddi export, before his David Bowie tribute Swimming in Mercury, the title song of his rather splendid new album (more of which later on this site), written with son Ben.

Boo requested the power be switched off then, just that wondrous voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment in this special setting for the touching Sunset, performed ‘au naturel’, as he put it.

I expected the gorgeous Holy Water to finish, given our surroundings, yet the two encores didn’t disappoint, The Bible’s glorious near-hit Graceland followed by one more return for hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck 1999 solo offering Murder in the Dark.

Three’s Company: Boo Hewerdine with The Huers at Wigan’s All Saints Church (Photo: David Hiney)

The next Acoustic Roots show features London-based singer-songwriter Lucy Zirins at Wigan’s Old Court Room on Friday, May 17. For more details head here

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Banishing with love – in praise of Laura Marling’s Semper Femina

Femina Force: Laura Marling, whose sixth album, Semper Femina, is a typically intimate affair.

If expectation carries a weight, it doesn’t seem to concern Laura Marling, six LPs into a somewhat understated yet still stellar career, this super-talented artiste gracefully rising above genre labels amid major music press analysis and hyperbole.

I tried to get a ‘one-to-one’ with this innovative 27-year-old when news of her nine-date Spring UK tour and the release of new album Semper Femina surfaced, but word has it she’s super-shy when it comes to media intrusion. And who can blame her. Maybe next time, eh. Instead, what follows is a cobbled-together appreciation of the new LP and its creator, complete with quotes from the interviews her publicity people found me and a little background. You may have seen parts elsewhere, but I felt the strength of the album and Laura’s career to date justified a tad more web-space devoted to her recorded endeavours.

On the face of it a folk artist, Laura was always much more, her 2011 Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist followed by further nominations in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Meanwhile, three of her first four albums were Mercury Music Prize-nominated, including 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim and 2010 follow-up I Speak Because I Can.

It took me a while to catch on. I’d heard tracks here and there and the inevitable hype, but through finding a copy of the latter platter at my local library I got to realise first-hand the strength in depth, not least on stand-outs like Rambling Man and Goodbye England (Covered in Snow). From there I went back – drinking in the might of tracks like Tap at my Window – and forward, with so many gems unearthed, so much ground covered.

I’ll spare you much of the back-story, but the youngest of three daughters, Laura was brought up not far from my old patch, between Berkshire and Hampshire, learning guitar early, moving to London to make her name after her GCSEs. She featured in an early line-up of Noah and the Whale, but left after splitting with lead singer Charlie Fink before their debut LP, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, took off. And yes, It took me a while before I realised just who supplied those backing vocals on a great if not thematically-miserable album.

Work followed with The Rakes, Mystery Jets, and another innovative outfit at the vanguard of a new indie folk movement (for want of a better description), Mumford & Sons – including a relationship with front-man Marcus Mumford – but by 2008 Laura was defiantly striking out on her own. You’ll either know the rest or can find out for yourself, but less than a decade on there’s a mighty clamour surrounding her latest LP, a typically-mature set of songs by one of our more prolific talents.

Its title drawn from Virgil’s The Aeneid, roughly translated as ‘always a woman’, something she also has tattooed on her leg, apparently only deciding on the shorter version late on, rather than ‘Varium et mutabile semper femina’, which translates as ‘A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing’. That phrase about a woman’s prerogative springs to mind there, as does Kathy Lette’s assertion that ‘whim is the plural of women’.

Body-etching and changes of heart aside, Semper Femina seems a fitting title for an album seen as ‘an intimate sonic exploration of femininity and female relationships’. Written largely on the road during a tour for her fifth LP, 2015’s Short Movie, and released on her own More Alarming Records label, it was recorded in Los Angeles with much-feted session player turned producer Blake Mills, whose credits also include Alabama Shakes’ second LP, Sound and Color.

I’ve been living with the results of Blake’s work with Laura these last couple of weeks, and Semper Femina certainly offers that ‘compelling collection of songs’ promised, one ‘run through with Marling’s fierce intelligence; a keen, beautiful and unparalleled take on womanhood’.

I was hooked from the moment I heard the beguilingly-sultry, somewhat claustrophobic yet ultimately uplifting Soothing. That bassline certainly gets beneath the skin, those stirring string and keyboard touches hitting the spot while Laura rising above it all and banishes us with love. Yet there’s nothing like it on the album, and while the threads of the album come together so well, there’s so much scope within. The Valley is a perfect example, those glorious harmonies between Laura and herself highlighting her folk roots, and while Joan Baez comes to mind in places there’s far more of a Nick Drake influence for me.

Wild Fire offers a further gear shift, her American influences coming on strong, as if tackling New York era Lou Reed in a Chrissie Hynde style down in Paul Weller’s Wild Wood. Lyrically, it’s the old theme of ‘if you love something, set it free’, yet this is far removed from any Sting pastiche, the keyboard touches transporting us from country to Memphis soul.

The Pretenders-like vocal comes through again on Don’t Pass Me By, but again this isn’t straight-forward rock, carrying an ethereal John Lennon vibe, transported to Portishead maybe. After that we need the more straight-forward sweet if not mournful folk-country of Always This Way, and Laura reflects, ’25 years, nothing to show for it’. We’ve all been there, right? Yet she concludes with a more wistful, ‘At least I can say that my debts have been paid’. Yes, time to move on.

Wild Once is as nostalgic as she seems to get on this record. Her explanations suggest it’s about a ‘more masculine phase’ in her life involving ‘hiking and bouldering, scrambling up trees or whatever’, ‘running through a forest by Big Sur with no shoes on’. Yet for me there’s a quintessentially English spirit. The album notes further suggest The Valley is more of a nostalgia trip, but for me this nod to the ‘archetype of the wild woman and her unrestrained physicality’ is more so.

Next Time retains that sense of outdoor exploration, underpinned by a fitting acoustic strum yet again beautifully constructed and subtly orchestrated, retaining its ‘out on the porch’ vibe. Think Michelle Shocked’s Texas Campfire Tapes with Beatlish undertones.

Latex Love: From the stirring Laura Marling-directed promo video for Soothing

Nouel is lyrically the key to it all, but musically maybe the closest we get to Joni Mitchell here. This is no tribute act though. It’s every bit Laura, her ultimate ‘fickle and changeable are you, and long may that continue’ line a joyous celebration of pride in yourself.

Then we’re away with some glorious touches of blues electric guitar underpinning part-Dylan, part-Hynde masterpiece Nothing, Not Nearly, its searing six-string touches taking us to a climactic coming together, so to speak. Besides, ‘Nothing matters more than love’. Again, I hear it as a hymn of hope for the future, about making the most of the limited time we have here. ‘We’ve not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow. Once it’s gone, it’s gone’ she reminds us, then adds that final rider, ‘Love waits for no one’.

In short, Semper Femina is as intimate and personal as we’d expect from Laura, yet strewn with mature touches showing us just how much she’s picked up along the journey. The accompanying interviews go deep into examining the psychology and female psyche, but don’t let that guide you or deter you. For me it’s more about friendship, romance and everything we hold dear. But what’s Laura’s take on it all?

“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman, then thought, “It’s not a man, it’s me! I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy, or the way I’m looking and feeling about women. It’s me looking specifically at women, feeling great empathy towards them, and by proxy towards myself.”

The LP follows Laura’s Reversal of the Muse podcast series, ’10 conversations about what’s happening in music and feminine creativity and its relationship to one another’. From high-profile singers Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to female sound engineers and guitar shop owners, she sought to openly discuss female creativity, with no pre-conceived conclusions.

“I would say feminine creativity, the feminine part of the brain is in both sexes, but is inherently different to the masculine. For me, playing guitar has always been tied up with my identity, it’s always been involved in myself, rather than enticing people in. There’s a lot more to catch up on for women in this industry and I’m interested to investigate other industries, particularly visual art, film and television. The imbalance needs to be rectified so we can have a more balanced understanding of the world.

“I started the Reversal of the Muse before I started this record, although my interests in femininity and the origins of that fuelled both. I’ve been asked a lot to have firm opinions about felinity and feminism and still don’t know enough about either of those subjects. But what I really enjoyed was that it allowed me to keep asking questions. That’s what I want to keep doing.”

Wrapping Up: Taken from the Laura Marling-directed promo video for The Valley

Semper Femina too questions how society views sexuality and gender, although Laura offers no definitive answers, instead perhaps more concerned with expressing her own voyage of self-discovery while developing and learning as artist, performer and individual. Explaining further the concept behind the album, she tells us it came from a particularly ‘masculine time’ in her life.

“We’re somewhat accustomed to seeing women through men’s eyes, and naturally that was my inclination to try and take some power over that. But I quickly realised the powerful thing to do was look at women through a woman’s eyes. It was a little stumble at the beginning of the record – a self-conscious stumble.

“I read a lot of poetry. Gothic romantic literature used to play quite a big part in my vocabulary of emotional experience. Now I have my own emotional experiences I like drawing on them and delving into poetry as well as literary fictional and fantasy. My favourite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke, who was a bit of a hopeless romantic. He’s the reason I got to writing this record in some ways, as I was researching his life for writing the libretto for an opera. He was dressed as a girl until he was eight, which had quite a profound effect on his relationship to women and made him somewhat of an obsessive woman-fancier.”

Laura also directed the videos for the album, starting with the stirring, latex-lavished Soothing promo, taking on the dreamy premise behind the first track I heard off the album, still as powerful as on those early listens.

“I’m more comfortable talking about the directing than the music. The directing was amazing. I’d never been inclined to give visual representation to my music personally. It’s become the way music is released now to have a visual accompaniment. So to give my lucid dreaming quality to this, where I get a lot of imagery from, was an amazing experience.

“It requires a lot of people to be in that image with you, so you have draw so many people in to that image with you. That annoying extra prop that costs lots of money has to be there because it has symbolic value. I found it quite stressful, but that’s in my nature, and one of the more creative things I’ve ever done.”

If Short Movie gave a glimpse into Laura’s spell living in LA, the new album suggests further change since. So where does she go from here?

“I don’t know! When I wrote Short Movie it felt like I was writing about something I was going to experience rather than something I had experienced. Creativity has a funny way of being ahead of you. I don’t know where I am now, because maybe it’s still catching up to me.”

And while Short Movie was arguably more about landscape, this album is perhaps more based in thought, less grounded to one place, as befitting something written on the road.

“I was all over the shop. I suppose there’s a bit of English nostalgia in there too, because I was in America a lot lot last year and the year before last.”

Having produced Short Movie herself, why bring in Blake Mills this time, and how did that influence the album?

“I’d become accustomed to working with Ethan Johns, who – like Blake – is also an extraordinary musician. We made five records together so have a very established way of working. Working with Blake was quite a shock to the system. He has a very different way and is incredibly innovative. He’s not very far in age from me so we kind of met at a similar level.

“I’d go home every night from the studio and practice guitar. I wanted to be as good as him. Over the three weeks we were playing together my playing improved a lot. He’s someone who has spent a lot of time playing and it made me think I need to spend some more time playing guitar. He’s got an incredible tonal palette and a cool cat, so it was a great honour.

“I really enjoyed producing but it’s just not my calling. I’d love to do it for someone else, but for myself it was too difficult to play both roles. Making the podcasts I discovered I play off the vulnerability of being a solo human being, playing a very vulnerable song in front of a microphone with six people in a control room.

“It’s a weird dynamic, but has always worked for me. A lot of songwriters I know can’t bear to be overheard when they’re songwriting, but I quite like it — I write in venues or dressing rooms when there are eight people in the room. There’s something thrilling and weirdly voyeuristic about it. But I like the idea that it will be heard, whereas if I’m producing it feels like it might only be heard by me.

“I think Blake was very sweetly not sure what to do with an English girl. It took a week or two to shake off the very set image of what I was in his mind – a ‘romping through the countryside’ delicate character from Emma. I’ve had that so many times. In some ways you can keep that image of me, but in others I have to break it in order to get work done, because it’s a really heavy block between you and what you want to get done. Also, because I’d just come from producing a record myself I had to get rid of that idea of delicacy.”

As she now splits her time between the UK and California, how does Laura feel the US has influenced her?

“I love America and find it very infuriating for the same reason. They give a lot of value to artists and that’s quite nice if you’ve devoted your career to being an artist. It makes you feel good about yourself, but also gives a strange over-the-top reverence to people who have lived very self-indulgent lives and demand to be called artists. That represents my own constant inner tussle over whether something is an indulgence or a compulsion.

“America gave me a bit more freedom to indulge in that and I got pulled in again. In that way it gave me a lot of freedom to express myself without self-criticism that I should be doing something more important, or more useful.

“LA makes me feel very different to England. Now my love affair with LA is at a point where I don’t really leave my house and all my friends are English. It’s a great place to be, but it’s not an enticing fantastical adventure anymore. I think the election brought that home.”

Does she ever think about what her life would have been if she hadn’t chosen music as a career?

“Constantly, right now more than ever! I think I would have always had music in my life, but probably would have been a chef or a writer.”

And how have her recent experiences shaped the writing of Semper Femina?

“I’ve done a lot of travelling on my own and touring on my own. It can sound super-romantic and glamorous, but dragging three to four guitars around and throwing them in the back of a car constantly, it’s a big mental and physical exertion and it can be a little bit scary. Being alone, getting paid, doing all that stuff, I’ve been aware of that restriction of women traveling and that’s been the most relevant thing to me. I have this great fear of traveling alone now and that innate sense of fear is really quite constricting and perhaps more of an affliction to women than to men.

Empathetic Standards: Laura Marling takes a philosophical perspective on Semper Femina

“The falling in love you experience with friendship is so less defined than romantic or sexual love. I’ve been obsessed with that always. Because I have sisters maybe, and a mother. I think because of that there’s a high standard of trust and care that I place on myself and that I feel in my female friends as well. We have quite a high empathetic standard for each other.

“There’s a lot of that on this record, that trying to make amends for those sort of broken channels. The time and the political climate that we live in, we’re coming to a point where there’s no need for this sort of artistic expression that I’ve been a part of. Innocent creativity had a little flourish in the last 10 years. But I’m getting older and now think, ‘What use is that?’ It’s not rooted, not pointed, not political. For me right now I feel like it’s more important I have a practical use.”

To catch up with the videos for Soothing and The Valley, for all the latest from Laura, and how to get hold of the new album, head to her website.

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Lloyd Cole – Preston Guild Hall

Family Way: Will and Lloyd Cole in contemplative mode at Preston Guild Hall (Photo: Michael Porter)

We were two songs in on Monday night before our special guest deigned to talk to us, fixing us with something of a 1,000-yard stare while sussing out his audience before announcing, ‘You’re not getting any younger either’.

It was a defining moment, the ice well and truly broken. Perhaps this wasn’t the Lloyd Cole we thought we knew after all, that moody demeanour and ‘trademark frown’ suggested all those years ago maybe just a front.

Yet while any previous grouchiness was maybe a misunderstanding, the quality of the songwriting and delivery was never in doubt as we revisited the pick of the first dozen years of his recorded output over a magnificent two-hour double-set.

Initially it was just LC and guitar, our first reminder of a wonderfully-unique voice heard on the first Commotions LP’s Patience then Perfect Blue from the follow-up, before a fresh arrangement of that wondrous debut’s mighty title track Rattlesnakes.

A retrospective set was given further poignancy by his choice of ‘in memoriam’ covers, starting with Prince’s Sometimes it Snows in April.

Loveless from his 1990 debut solo LP was next, followed by a plug for a ‘mostly brilliant’ new boxset covering the first 10 solo years. His understatement, not mine.

Back in loveable grouch territory, he told us he’d happily sign anything after, but warned us against selfies, reminding us we wouldn’t know how to work our cameras without our children there. So true.

Solo Slot: Lloyd Cole during the opening set at Preston Guild Hall (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

From the last LP on parade, ‘95’s Love Story, came I Didn’t Know You Cared and Love Ruins Everything, Lloyd explaining how ‘trying to look neutral’ moodiness backfired and had him mistaken for miserable.

Lost Commotions track Lonely Mile showed that band’s strength in depth, while ‘85’s Pretty Gone‘s surging play-out was even better with its added nod to The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood.

After discussing his eyesight, ranting about how ‘small print is ageist’, there were neat solo takes on ‘87’s My Bag, ‘91’s Butterfly and ‘93’s You’d Like to Save the World.

He even built in Famous Blue Raincoat and a ‘Thanks for the songs, Mr Cohen’ line, before finishing his opening spot with plenty of audience participation on penultimate top-40 hit Jennifer She Said.

For the next set he was joined by son Will on second guitar. I say that, but his lad played most of the neat lines and is clearly no slouch in that department, complete with flamenco touches.

Getting going with third Commotions LP title track Mainstream and 1990’s Don’t Look Back, Lloyd quipped how hard it was to find a 24-year-old version of himself …. If he was in Echo and the Bunnymen.

While there is an Ian McCulloch look about Cole Jr., he’s clearly a chip off the old block with that seemingly moody persona, the pair at home picking up the pace on ‘87’s Mr Malcontent.

Perfect String: Lloyd Cole in retrospective mode at Preston Guild Hall (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

Lloyd let on, ‘Some of you may know I used to live round here’, before going all Doris Day on us, adding, ‘When I was a little boy, I asked my mother what I will be.’

Yet rather than Que Sera Sera we got another Love Story gem, Like Lovers Do, followed by the glorious Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? from a decade earlier and Cut Me Down from Easy Pieces.

The hits and near-misses keep coming, three more Rattlesnakes cuts – the lyrically-luscious Charlotte Street, breakthrough 45 Perfect Skin and pensive 2cv – reminding us just what a great album that was.

There followed an anecdote about George Formby and the Queen before traces of With Me Little Stick of Blackpool Rock and even mention of Lytham St Annes on 1990’s Undressed.

Four Flights Up worked really well thanks to Dad and Lad’s under-stated guitar duel, while 1990’s No Blue Skies took us back to the early solo years.

There was a reminder for the Polygram moguls of what they turned down on ‘96’s No More Love Songs, Lloyd adding a ’when I was 26 I knew everything’ rider before ‘87’s Hey Rusty, complete with built-in Bruce Springsteen Born to Run outro.

From there, Brand New Friend went down a storm, seguing into a stirring climax with David Bowie’s Heroes.

They came back, Lost Weekend having the joint jumping and a delightful Forest Fire the final flame, those subtle six-string touches from Cole & Son helping ignite an evening of so many great songs.

Cole Deliverance: Will and Lloyd Cole in liaison at Preston Guild Hall (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

For this website’s recent interview with Lloyd Cole, This One’s From the Hip, head here

Lloyd Cole in New York features all four solo albums released on Polydor and Fontana between 1988-1996 – Lloyd Cole (1990), Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991), Bad Vibes (1993), and Love Story (1995) – plus Smile If You Want To, an unreleased fifth LP (including one previously unreleased track) and Demos ’89-’94, 20 recordings from home and studio made public for this release. For more details follow this link.

For all the latest from Lloyd, including the final dates on this tour, go to his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter

With thanks to Danny Morris, Helen Roughley and all at Preston Guild Hall, and Michael Porter, of the Preston Photographic Society, for use of his photographs.  

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