Translating the Language of Love – the Boo Hewerdine interview

While many artists are raring to get back out on the road again, soon as it’s deemed safe to do so, it seems that treasured Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine is happy just where he is for now.

The former frontman of The Bible, having written for a multitude of artists in recent years – not least Squeeze co-founder Chris Difford, ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader, and 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year Kris Drever – has got along fine in his home studio these past 12 months.

In fact, Boo – recently turned 60 – is as creative and productive as ever, having swapped those long hours zipping up and down the roads of Great Britain for a little quality home time – writing, recording, and producing other artists.

And while live dates will follow, he’s staying put for now, overseeing the release of new collection, Select Works, and working on a follow-up to 20126’s splendid Swimming in Mercury.

The new 20-song compilation album was sequenced by Tom Rose, Reveal Records’ owner choosing the tracks himself, delving deep into an extraordinary catalogue.

His choices include a fresh recording of ‘The Village Bell’ with label-mate Drever, new single ‘The Language of Love’, and a few more tracks only previously available in digital format.

Boo, who has recorded a track-by-track online radio stream with DJ/presenter Adam Wilson discussing the album and songs in depth, was multi-tasking when I called … but remained engaging.

I regret never catching The Bible live in their initial 1985/89 period, their brief 1993/94 return, and more recent reunion shows. I was also slow to pick up on Boo’s solo career … until he came to me – my first sighting in May 2007 at St Bede’s Club, Whittle-le-Woods, a mere five mile round-trip from my adopted Lancashire base.

“Where was that? I can’t remember that. What did it look like?”

A discussion followed about that location and an area I got to know so well from news and sports reporting for a decade-plus from 1996. In fact, I think it was previously missing the legendary Frank Sidebottom in the same setting that made me more determined to get tickets for Boo.

Strange as that may seem to put those acts together, there are similarities, even if Boo’s head is not made of papier-mache, the comedy value of Boo’s between-songs banter often worth the entrance fee alone, as was the case at his Mr Kite Benefit fundraiser in aid of the Arthritis Research Campaign.

I don’t recall a right lot now, and as I paid my own way I was probably reluctant to scribble anything for the local paper, but have it in mind that his other half drove him there that night.

“Possibly, we were probably staying with her sister in Lytham. Yes, my missus is from Lancashire.”

When I asked friend of this blog Jim Wilkinson what he remembered about that occasion, he succinctly replied, ‘Just seeing Boo on the bandit having a fag, pre-gig’.

“Oh, I don’t smoke anymore. That stopped about 10 years ago – all forms of pleasure! I don’t drink or smoke.”

Was that a health consideration?

“I think I thought I’d give myself a break for a week. Being on the road, people give you free booze all the time. And I never missed it and haven’t thought about it since. But if you want free drink, be a musician!”

My most recent live sighting was in April 2017, Jim and I joined by fellow ex-reporting pal Tony in the inspired setting of Wigan’s All Saints’ Church, my review reminding me that Boo was ‘even foregoing the PA system at one stage to make the most of the sonic possibilities’.

This time he was supported by The Huers, joining the North West folk roots scene regulars on their version of ‘King of California’, then inviting them back later for a combined take on the sublime ‘Bell, Book and Candle’.

“That’s right! Very nice people, and a lovely show. And they’ve done a really nice version on one of their records.”

Incidentally, Boo told us in Wigan – just two days after playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – that song had been used in no less than seven TV shows where characters die, including Tricia Dingle’s death by chimney-pot one stormy night in Emmerdale, adding a deadpan, ‘So if you don’t make it through this song, thanks for coming anyway’.

Boo’s set also included afore-mentioned number ‘The Village Bell’, one of two contributions to the Ballads of Child Migration project, helping shine a light on one of the more shameful chapters of recent UK history.

“This is a new version, Kris (Drever) and I recording in our flats then sending them off to our friend Chris Pepper in Huntingdon. And I really like it. I think it’s better than the original version.”

I’ve only had chance to hear the new album a couple of times so far – late last night and this morning …

“And you’re still awake?”

Indeed. I’m loving it, and ‘And’ was one of the first songs to jump out at me, a new one to me.

“I think there are six new songs on there, and that was the first after we got locked down, the first we did remotely. It was done here and with my friend in Copenhagen, Gustaf Ljunggren. I’ve worked with him nearly 20 years now. He’s a multi-instrumental genius. I also sent him some files yesterday that I want him to work on.”

Perhaps with that history of remote collaboration, you were ahead of the curve with regard to sharing files online, mid-pandemic. 

“Yes, we’ve been doing that because of where he is for a while. And I’ve produced quite a few records for other people from my flat. When you’re on the road, you have good intentions, but … during this last year I’ve done so much.

“I’ve also written an album with Adam Holmes, which is fantastic. Then there’s another with Lady Nade, which I’m working on right now while I’m trying to concentrate! Yeah, I’ve been working more than ever before. I’ve been out doing up to 200 gigs a year – my record was just shy of that figure. But I just love being at home.”

In fact, his last live show was on March 11th, 2020, at Edinburgh Folk Club.

“That was the day before the first Scottish lockdown, I think. It sold out, but the room was empty, a lot of people already very nervy. I’ve done telly since then, and online gigs, but that was the last proper one.”

Boo has been living in Glasgow for the last two years, having been based close to his old roots in Cambridgeshire, from where The Bible sprang, last time I caught him live.

“I’d worked so much in Glasgow, particularly with Eddi Reader, and also with engineer Mark Freegard and my friend Findlay Napier, who I do workshops with. I had so many friends here that I just thought, ‘Why don’t we give it a go?’. My wife has a fantastic job, working for the Scottish Refugee Council, a fantastic, involving job.

“We both love it, and I’d made albums here, spending up to a month here at times. It was a place I knew, so didn’t feel like a big wrench, moving here. We’re on the southside of Glasgow, which has got loads of parks, and it’s just lovely.”

I knew a couple of The Bible’s near-hits first time around, but didn’t truly appreciate them until the end of their first spell together. In fact, I can place my Road to Damascus moment with Boo’s breakthrough band to somewhere just off the A143 – the Road to Diss really – during a weekend in Norfolk in May 1989, when I was 21, staying with a friend – and visiting a few local hostelries – who ran a farm nearby, something which seemed apt for this fan of Norwich outfits Serious Drinking, The Higsons and The Farmer’s Boys.

Actually, the farmer’s dad was celebrated author, screenwriter and University of East Anglia lecturer Malcolm Bradbury, who just happened to be hosting the visiting Arthur Miller that weekend, but that’s another story. What is relevant though is that our host, Matthew, played an alternative, more organic take of ‘Graceland’ as he drove us to the pub in his Isuzu that first night, me rolling around in the back. And I loved that raw acoustic version, in a sense perhaps a taster for what we were to get from Boo’s solo years.

“I think that was when our second record came out – we did some acoustic versions for promo purposes.”

I was impressed enough to splash out on retrospective collection The Bible on vinyl on my return, but clearly didn’t learn from my slow appreciation of the band, later finding myself playing catch-up with Boo’s solo career too, a state of affairs his writing partner Chris Difford admitted as well when we spoke in 2015, when I asked if he was aware of Boo in his days with The Bible, the Squeeze legend also confessing to catching up retrospectively.

“I work with him all the time, but I’ve never assumed he listens to me. Ha!”

Well, I can confirm he’s definitely a fan, I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“Actually, I get my guitars from Atkin Guitars, where you can buy a Boo Hewerdine model … and Chris has bought one, designed to my spec … although all that really means is it’s got to have strings and stuff – I’m not a guitar nerd, at all. I do love Alister’s guitars though, and I was recording something using one before I spoke to you.”

While this was my first interview with Boo, he’s popped up now and again in conversations with other interviewees in recent years, not just Chris Difford and Eddi Reader but also US songsmith Dean Friedman.

“Oh right. I did his festival. We had a really nice time – it was a very lovely affair.”

Getting back to Boo’s initial Bible era, how about his own link to Norwich label Backs Records – who put out their self-produced 1986 debut LP Walking the Ghost Back Home – were those happy days?

“Yeah, and I’ve been so lucky with people I’ve met. Actually, I was speaking with them this morning. I’m still working with Backs, now called Shellshock and still distributing records for me. I also have the label I set up with them, Haven, and was speaking earlier about releasing my son’s new single.”

That’s Cambridge-based Ben Hewerdine, 26, who goes out under the name The Entertainment, and co-wrote the impressive title track of Boo’s last LP, David Bowie tribute ‘Swimming in Mercury’, a version of which also appears on the latest collection.

“There’s two songs on this album with his name on. In fact, he wrote one by himself, to be honest, but gave me a credit … which was very nice of him, thinking of his old man. He’s also in a band called Simon and the Astronauts, who’ve just got a record deal in America and made an album.”

What he didn’t add there was that he also features in Simon and the Astronauts, an outfit led by Simon Wells and also involving the afore-mentioned Findlay Napier and Chris Pepper, plus Karine Polwart and Darden Smith, Boo having made an album with the latter in 1989.

With regard to the family line, Boo told me his own ‘old man’, who died last year, was a ‘very good musician, but never did anything with it’. Did he encourage his son’s talent the way Boo does Ben’s?

“Well, he didn’t think I was any good, so I had to go and practise by myself. He gave my sisters piano lessons, but not me.”

Do you think that drove you?

“It kind of did. The moment when he decided perhaps I wasn’t wasting my time was when he was watching Howard’s Way and ‘Graceland’ was playing in the background of a scene. He rang up and said, ‘You’ve cracked it’. I didn’t know what he meant at the time. Once that happened, it was okay.”

Will Boo be publicly celebrating his recent 60th birthday back on the road with live shows later this year?

“Possibly. I’m not really accepting it. I don’t feel it at all. It’s all very weird. I suppose it’s because of what I do. I speak to people younger than me, making first records, and don’t see myself as anything different. I think it’s perceived that age is important, but within it, it isn’t. I remember being at folk festivals where guys of 80 were sharing ideas with new musicians of 16, and that’s a great thing.”

When you made Walking the Ghost Back Home, could you have imagined still being so involved in music at this grand age?

“Yeah, I guess. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s where I feel at home. And in my mind … I may be deluded, but I’m still trying to make the perfect record. I’ve some friends who look back on things with nostalgia, and I love doing that a little, but I don’t really do that.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so good working with Eddi Reader, because it’s always about the next thing. The other thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever had real success. I’ve sort of pottered along. I haven’t really got a glory era to look back on.

“What I’m doing now always seems to be the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with. I mean, this Adam Holmes record is one of the two or three best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Talking of just pottering along, I love your live between-song banter, not least the self-deprecating, unlikely rock’n’roll anecdotes, for instance the premise that your ‘big hit’, Patience of Angels – which grazed the top-40 in 1994 for Eddi Reader – helped buy you a shed ‘big enough for the mower’.

“That was true, yeah.”

Boo says it was a spell working for The Beat Goes On record shop in Cambridge – his work colleagues including Bible drummer Tony Shepherd, who co-produced the first LP with him – that turned him on to so much great music, irrespective of genre.

“Yeah, you just hear everything – the really cool, good stuff – and that makes you less interested in genre. On a release day you might get Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, Motorhead, and listen to it all, saying, I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’.

“Musicians don’t always tend to think about genre. I remember hanging out with Manic Street Preachers at one point, one night in a little B&B, just chatting about music – nothing tribal. And that’s really great with my kids – they’ve no concept of the peer pressure we were under in the years before.”

Ever listen back to The Great Divide, your first band, and think, ‘I wish we’d tried this’ or ‘I wish we did that differently’?

“I have a Patreon page, so while I’ve never really dug back before, I now try and put something up every day, whereas most with a Patreon page tend to do something once a month, but every single day I’ll find something.

“I put work in progress up sometimes, but yesterday put up a song I wrote with Chris Difford, ‘On My Own I’m Never Bored’, which was in the Squeeze set for a while, and was thinking how 17-year-old me … his head would have exploded if he knew that!

“So I can go back, but it’s normally just to entertain people. I’m not like Norma Desmond, watching my old movies!”

Do you remain in touch with bandmates from The Bible?

“I spoke to Neill (McColl) yesterday. There’s a lady who plays harp and does these mash-ups, and as his Dad (Ewan MacColl) wrote ‘I First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, I told him about her doing that – singing the words while playing the harp to the tune of ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John. I had to send that to him to cheer him up. And the great thing was, I knew Ewan but also know Graham Fellows, who played Jilted John, so it was like a perfect storm! And she does it really well, deadpan.

“I don’t speak to the others so much, but not for any other reason than Neil is still very active in music.”

And who remains on the dream songwriting collaborations list?

“Oh, I don’t know! That’s a really good question, but if I was to say Tom Waits or Paul McCartney or somebody, I’d just freeze. Chris Difford talked about nearly writing with Paul McCartney and just feeling terror. And I like finding new people.

“I’ve found some amazing people to work with over the last year. There’s a really nice guy who lives in Bratislava, a young guy in a really cool band in Slovakia. And all my friends are songwriters – it’s a good way of making friends when you’re a bit shy.”

As for the new record, Boo’s taking very little credit for the way it’s turned out.

“It was all put together by the record company. It was Tom Rose’s ideas. I’ve had nothing to do with it apart from approving the mastering. That was the first time I heard it, and I really liked it.

“And I was surprised how much I’d done. I’m working towards the new record, and he wants me to hand that in in October. He’s like a teacher, making sure I hand my homework in!”

I look forward to that, and it was good to finally track you down for a proper conversation, rather than just share snatched exchanges, like when you signed my copy of Swimming in Mercury in Wigan.

“Was I polite?”

Of course, although I probably gushed something in a forlorn bid to say something witty on the spur of the moment in that strange situation, lining up in a church with fellow fans. Actually, come to think of it, I may have mentioned how I expected you to finish with ’Holy Water’, rather than ‘Murder in the Dark’.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played that song. That was the album where Richard Thompson was my guitar player. That was the producer’s idea, but I just felt … I mean, he’s such a hero. Whatever he played, I’d just say (adopts a high-pitched voice), ‘Oh, that’s nice’.”

So you became a fan-boy, like so many of us in those testing situations.

“Yes! And with Danny Thompson on bass, it was all a bit overwhelming!”

For more detail about Boo Hewerdine’s Selected Works, visit the Reveal Records website here or head to his Bandcamp page. You can also keep in touch with Boo via his social media platforms on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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