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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The continuing adventures of the Magic Band, the Mothers of Invention, and the Muffin Men – the Denny Walley interview

Muffin Men: Denny Walley, right, and his bandmates, all the way from Drury Lane, Liverpool … maybe.

Do you know the Muffin Men (‘the Muffin Men?’ I hear you ask. Yes, the Muffin Men), presumably based in Liverpool’s Drury Lane or Mulberry Place?

Chances are that you might. They’ve been doing the rounds for more than a quarter of a century now, often featuring past members of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention as guests. And this April’s no exception, when Denny Walley will be joining them on the road.

It just so happens that Denny also featured with further avant-garde art-rock success Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, recording and touring with both experimental outfits in the ’70s. Yet he goes much further back with the charismatic duo – to the same Lancaster high school in fact.

That’s Lancaster, California, by the way, although it turns out that this Atlanta-based 74-year-old – nicknamed ‘Feelers Rebo’ by Don van Vliet, aka Beefheart – clearly has an affinity for the North West of England too.

Denny, now 74, was born in Pennsylvania and raised in New York, yet his family’s later West Coast move proved pivotal, his folks settling in the same housing development as the Zappa clan, initially becoming friends with Frank’s younger brother Bobby.

He’d already discovered the blues and taken to the guitar by then, a move that in time led to him going on the road with his two illustrious high school buddies turned bandleaders. And while both are long gone, Denny is helping to keep their legacy alive, not least through his on-stage commitments with a Liverpool band who first got together to mark Zappa’s 50th back in 1990, performing his music as a tribute, along with their own Frank-infused originals.

Until his death in 2008, the band often featured guest vocals and percussion from MoI drummer/vocalist Jimmy Carl Black, and often included a number of Beefheart covers. In fact, they’ve featured no less than several more Zappa band members, also performing with Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Mike Keneally, Ray White and Robert Martin. Yet rather than play note-for-note covers, this is a band more concerned with the Zappa spirit, working to the strengths of a particular line-up, often involving a different slant on the original versions. And that suits Denny fine, as I found out when we talked via Skype before he flew over to join the latest tour.

Guitar Man: Denny Walley aka Feelers Rebo in action … way back.

That schedule starts with a date in Corby, Northamptonshire, the conclusion of two nights of Zappa music at the Moo-Ah Festival on Saturday, April 1st, paving the way for 13 more shows, starting at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on Thursday, April 6th, and winding up at The ferry in Glasgow on Sunday, April 16th.

And while we’re in geographical mode, home has been Atlanta, Georgia for more than 20 years for this treasured guitarist and his beloved ‘Janet the Planet’ (they have one son and three grandchildren, one of whom plays bass and has featured for the Grandmothers of Invention spin-off and also the Project Object band Denny regularly turns out for). Yet there remains plenty of affection for past haunts, including The Muffin Men’s Liverpool. So, born in Pennsylvania, raised in Brooklyn and nearby Long Island, New York, then moving to the West Coast before settling in America’s Deep South … Why the affinity with our own North West coast?

“Well, you know, part of my heart is in Liverpool, part in Brooklyn, and California too. I’ve got great friends all over the place.”

Why Liverpool in particular?

“The people there seem to have the same sense of humour and directness as people in New York, especially Brooklyn. You don’t have to guess what they’re thinking. I like the straightforward approach – no bullshit.”

Was there always music around the house when you were growing up?

“Yeah, records. Dad was a big country and western fan, but I found a couple of blues records in his 78 collection, which I was surprised at – Big Bill Broonzy. I was shocked. That was when I first heard that stuff.”

Magic Band: From left – Don and Jan Van Vliet, Denny Walley, Bruce Fowler

A generalisation, I know, but I get the impression lots of Americans first properly registered the blues through hearing The Rolling Stones, then going back to the original artists.

“Yeah, that’s true … and really sad.”

Was that the case for you?

“Not at all. In fact, when I heard the Stones, I said, ‘Oh man … these guys!’ I thought it was great but was also pissed off that it took that for people here to wake up to what we had right under our noses. I’d been collecting blues since I was 13 years old when I was living in Lancaster.”

Has Denny ever passed through Lancaster in the north of Lancashire?

“Yes, I have”.

How do they compare?

“Well, I’m telling you, it was probably just a blur. For one thing though you don’t have any desert there, so that’s one big difference … a drastic difference.”

Lining Up: The Muffin Men, coming to a town near you, somewhere between Corby and Glasgow

You moved to Lancaster when you were 12, in the mid-’50s. Was that a big change for you?

“It was unbelievable. It was like Cowboy and Indian country. I’d never seen the desert and to see jack rabbits and those types of things running all over the place was pretty cool.”

Those regular moves came about as his Dad was working for an aircraft company and often transferred between sites, Denny going to ‘13 different schools’ en route. Yet a love of music no doubt helped him settle, starting with an accordion at the age of seven.

“I was at a party with my parents and all the kids were sent down to the basement playroom, and I found this box and there was this small accordion, 12 bass. I asked the lady if I could play it, she put it on me and I started messing around, saying, ‘Man, I like the way this thing smells!’ It was pretty cool and I figured it out pretty quick. “

Do you think that gave you the affinity for guitar later?

“Not really. What did that was when I heard Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. That’s when the accordion went immediately under the bed. You’re not going to pull any chicks with an accordion when you’re 13!”

You made a bit of money though, playing for tips, I gather.

“Oh yeah. My father belonged to a fire brigade that threw an annual picnic and he’d drag me with my accordion to play polkas. People would put dollar bills and five dollar bills in the bellows. I’d make more money in that one day than he’d make in a week.”

That’s quite sad really.

“Yeah, it is, but it’s not that way anymore – try making money out of music. If you’re in it for money you’re in the wrong business. But I never have been in it for money.”

Mothers’ Pride: Denny Walley with the legendary Frank Zappa

Tell me about your first guitar, and how old you were then.

“I was probably 15.”

Did you put in a lot of hours to get to know your way around the guitar?

“I never considered it work. I wanted to get as close to the blues stuff that I could get, learning to play along with the record. That sent chills down my spine when I learned the first little things – to play along with Muddy Waters, the same notes he was playing! You know what I mean? And it’s still like that.”

Do you still have that first guitar?

“Unfortunately I don’t. I wish I knew what happened to it. I did see one at a guitar shop that someone had in for repair. I made an offer to buy it, but it was not for sale. But I still got my eye open for it.”

Were there ever day-jobs to make up the wages?

“Oh yeah, I had all kinds of day-jobs … and some of them only lasted a day!”

Norwegian Blues: Banned from Utopia in Oslo, 2016. From left – Albert Wing, DW, Ray White.

I guess you were never in any doubt that it was music that would be your true career path.

“Oh yeah, and I like to work. You don’t always do that playing but I enjoy working. I love carpentry and I love to sculpt, I’ve done a lot for film … But I’ve made money and that allows me to have the lifestyle I have – doing my passion.”

Becoming friends with Bobby Zappa at Antelope Valley High School, northern Los Angeles (where not only Don van Vliet and Frank Zappa went, but also Judy Garland, apparently) seemed to be key to Denny’s progress too. A few more years passed before he hooked up with them professionally, but the die was cast.

“It was unbelievable the way things happened. Frank’s younger brother Bobby became my best friend. A group of around five of us hung out. I’d be at the house almost every day, playing blues records and listening to Frank’s doo-wop stuff.”

Do you remember Don (Vliet) from around that time too?

“Oh, sure. He was a character. Everybody knew who he was.”

But first came Denny’s apprenticeship of sorts, plying his trade with his own band. As he mentioned Liverpool before, I put it to him that he was playing a few Beatles songs by night.

“Well, I started before The Beatles.  We’d play blues and rhythm and blues. We would learn a couple of cover tunes to get the gig at some club. But about halfway through the first set we’d be into all the shit we wanted to play. Sometimes we made it through the whole night… and sometimes we got paid too! We wanted to play what we wanted to play, and wanted people to hear it. We thought it was valid.”

And it just so happens that one night in the ’60s he was playing just a block away from Frank in Greenwich Village, New York.

“Yeah, they were playing the Garrick Theater. My three-piece blues band, The Detours, were on a break, I walked past and saw ‘Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – absolutely free!’ I said, ‘Oh man – Frank!’ and right next to the kiosk was Bobby. We had big hellos. It was great. It had been so long. I asked where Frank was and he told me he was down the street having coffee, so I went and saw him.”

I understand he was with a few friends, including the beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

“Yeah, a couple of those guys were sitting there with them. I think everybody knows that story though.”

Bongo Fury: Zappa and Beefheart, long playing cover stars in ’75

Fast forward to ’75, when Denny’s successful slide-guitar audition led to a spell with the Mothers, then later a role with Beefheart too, on Frank’s suggestion, carrying on with both bands for a while.

“My first with Frank was the Bongo Fury tour. Terry (Bozzio) was the drummer then, and Beefheart on that tour – the first time I’d seen him since Lancaster. We had rehearsals then went on the road with them. Then at the end of the tour Frank suggested I played with Beefheart. He was trying to get him to get his band together again.

“Frank gave me the Trout Mask Replica album to listen to, which I’d never heard before. I went home, put it on, listened and I’m going, ‘What the hell? Frank must be pissed off at me or something, man! Why’s he doing this to me? We’re friends!”

I’m guessing it took you a while to get your head around that?

“I think it took me until around the third time, when I really started to hear how deep the blues influence was. The most difficult thing for me was trying to find out where my guitar part was. What am I playing? Which way was up!”

Alex Neilson from the Trembling Bells recently told me that once he’d heard Captain Beefheart there was no way he could go back to the indie music he was listening to before. How about you, back then?

“After playing with Frank and after playing with Don, it’s really … I don’t know. What they were saying and the feel of their music had a real strong pull for me. I think they felt that. That’s why they asked me to be in the band. I fit in a certain box. That’s why Frank changed his band so much. That was great. He got guys who really represented the kind of music he was writing at the time. And they’d bring something of themselves to it.”

You’re credited with bringing a harder-edged bluesy feel to both bands.

“Yeah, I did. And Frank never told me not to play anything. I just played what I felt, and he trusted that.”

Fishy Tales: Captain Beefheart’s revered Trout Mask Replica album

You got to see a lot of Europe and the US during that period. Interesting times. Any specific memories of gigs in the UK around then?

“Oh man! A lot of it was a blur. Travelling with that large a band – and that popular at the time – you’re doing one night in one town and you see the airport, you see the town, you see the hall you’re going to play in for a soundcheck, you go back, try to eat something and next thing you’re back in the theatre. Next morning you’re there at 5.30, bags in the hall, and you’re off to the airport. So you don’t get to see a lot of days off. When you have 25 people on the road you have to pay for a day off.”

Do you make sure you have more time these days to do a little sightseeing?

“Well, it’s easier in the UK. This time we’re going from Glasgow to Bristol … or Brighton … (Denny shuffles his itinerary in front of him) … well, one of them that starts with a ‘B’. Where the hell are we going? I don’t know. I’m just going to get in the car!”

I think I saw Bilston on the list. That’s in the Black Country – Black Sabbath and Slade country.

“Yeah, playing the Robin 2!”

Did you stay in touch with Beefheart after leaving the Magic Band?

“Oh yeah, for a long time, until he was getting progressively worse with the MS. Then he cut off communication, which you know …”

It’s now six years since we lost him. How do you like to remember him?

“I remember him in so many ways. I play his music every day. In fact, I just played Steal Softly Thru Snow on the guitar.”

Feelers Rebo: Denny Walley in six-string action, looking contemplative

You stayed in contact with Frank too, and it’s now 23 years since we lost him.

“That’s unbelievable, isn’t it.”

I’ll ask you the same about him. How do you remember Frank Zappa, first and foremost? Through his music again?

“Yeah, but it was more than the music. If you had something to offer … but if you couldn’t cut it … it wasn’t easy. He wouldn’t hire you just because you were his friend. He did say if his mother couldn’t cut the part he wouldn’t hire her … which is big.

“For me it was like going to college for free, and being paid for it. It was really challenging, which was a great discipline for me. I learned so much about me in that band.”

Are you still learning now?

“Oh yeah, every day! If you’re ever satisfied with your playing, it’s over!”

And the Muffin Men help you with that continued learning?

“Yeah. They’re great. I love those guys. They’re my brothers!”

They’re celebrating more than a quarter of a century on the road around Europe with this tour. They say they’ve played nearly 2,000 gigs altogether. How many of those were with you?

“Probably a couple of hundred. It’s like a travelling circus when we’re together, and those guys are all mad! I love it!”

The Muffin Men play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Thursday, April 6 (7.30pm), with tickets £12, and full details here.

If you can’t wait that long, there’s Orange Claw Hammer plays Beefheart at the same venue tonight (Thursday, March 30th), a revered outfit re-interpreting classic Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band songs, with tickets £8 (£10 door), and full details here.

And for more details on the Muffin Men tour, try this link.

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Life beyond The Waves – the Katrina Leskanich interview

Shining Light: Katrina Leskanich in live action (Photo: Ulf Skjernbo)

Shining Light: Katrina Leskanich in live action (Photo: Ulf Stjernbo)

When Katrina Leskanich told me down the telephone line, ‘The sun is shining, finally’ in London, I took it with a pinch of salt, not least as earlier that day I revisited a grainy mid-‘80s promo video in which she was strutting around the capital in capped t-shirt singing about soaring temperatures, while her bandmates were wrapped up in overcoats.

You’ll no doubt remember Walking on Sunshine, the breakthrough Katrina and the Waves single, and 12 years later the same outfit had a second top-10 hit, securing the UK’s fifth (and most recent) Eurovision Song Contest win in the process with Love, Shine a Light.

While that debut chart success charted 32 years ago, royalties are still coming in for an instantly-recognisable feelgood tune, not least when the sun’s out and summer is on the mind for radio DJs all over. It was Katrina’s bandmate Kimberley Rew – who’d had a spell away with Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys – who wrote that track, a version appearing on the 1983 Katrina and the Waves debut album. But second time around a remix (and the video) helped break them. And just when they were in danger of being labelled ‘two-hit wonders’ – the hits drying up after follow-up Sun Street – came that Eurovision victory, which may even be our last following the UK’s move towards Brexit, making it even less likely that we grab ‘douze points’ from anywhere south or east of these shores.

While born and raised in Kansas, Katrina has been based in the UK since the mid-‘70s, with London her home since the late ‘90s. She’d moved around a fair bit before though, her Dad – a colonel in the US Air Force – having served all over with the US Air Force and the family – with Katrina one of six siblings – going with him.

“We lived in about eight different states in America, then Germany and Holland, then to England in 1976, and I’ve stayed here pretty much ever since, although I divide myself between here and America. I work there a lot but choose to live here. I often think through some of the winters I haven’t quite chosen right, but you got a beautiful day over here and it’s fantastic.”

My excuse for talking to Katrina is the Back to the 80s Live tour, in particular a show at Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, April 15th, also featuring Paul Young, Sonia, Hazell Dean, Tight Fit, and Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond). And bearing in mind Katrina’s transitory past, when the headliner sings his cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat, I tell her she has every right to tell him he’s stolen her song.

“Exactly. It’s like, ‘Paul, you’re singing my story here! It’s really great to be with him on this tour though. He’s a great entertainer, as is everybody else on this show. I’m going to be on tour with Paul in America in July and August too, going all over on the same bus. And you really get to know someone very well when you’re sharing a bathroom on a bus and it’s like a 32-hour drive from Colorado to Florida! There’ll also be Howard Jones, Men Without Hats, Annabella from Bow Wow Wow on the American tour. And there are a lot of shows – about 26 in a month.”

Looking Up: Katrina looks for live guidance (Photo: Ulf Stjernbo)

Mention Katrina and the Waves, and you’ll probably find people either namecheck that first hit or the third. Can that get a bit tiresome?

“Yeah, but I guess it’s better than them not knowing what to say. The name Katrina and the Waves probably has less currency than mentioning Walking on Sunshine or in this country Love, Shine a Light. People don’t always remember who did a song. I’ve had many people come and tell me how much they loved my song Echo Beach or how much they loved my song 99 Red Balloons. I get a lot of credit for stuff I never did, but that’s kind of where the lines are a little blurred about who exactly did what.

“There are so few women who came from the ’80s scene, yet proportionately to the amount of men still working from that era it seems there are more women than men out there now. It seems that everywhere you look there’s Carol Decker or Kim Wilde.”

Of course, she’s set herself up now, and I tell her I might come along to a show and shout for Brass in Pocket when she’s on.

“Ha! Oh, I get it all the time. Now I just go, ‘Thank you!’ In an interview a while ago someone said, ‘Now, Walking on Sunshine, that was like 1968, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, wasn’t I singing well for eight years old!’

While the band’s second and third albums somewhat flopped, there were a few hits that never quite happened, not least a further stand-out from chief songwriter Kimberley Rew, Going Down to Liverpool. I love that song, but – I admit to Katrina – it was The Bangles’ version I heard first and that made a bigger impression accordingly. That said, they never actually had a proper hit here with it either. It certainly deserved better.

“I know. The thing is that The Bangles covered that way before we were signed to Capitol Records, and did a really interesting video …”

Going Solo: Katrina Leskanich

I remember it well, with Leonard Nimoy co-starring, riding Susanna Hoffs and co. around in a cab, before the band had their big breakthrough with another cover, Prince’s Manic Monday.

“Yeah. Pretty weird. MTV were quite intrigued by that and then Columbia Records, who they were with, asked who did that song originally. It was relaid that it was this group with a girl. We were touring in Canada at the time, having a small deal with a Canadian label (Attic), and these guys showed up to a show and before we knew it we were signed by Capitol. So that was very much thanks to The Bangles’ covering our song, although it wasn’t really a big hit for them.”

So what about that Walking on Sunshine promo video, on location near Tower Bridge – was that filmed around this time of year? It looked like it was cold that day.

“It was bloody freezing! It was February 3. We had £1,000 to make this video with Chris Tookey, who had previously directed a TV show called Revolver. He’s a film critic now. It was the first we’d ever made and we didn’t have a clue. They told us, ‘We’re going down to the docks. I didn’t know where that was. At the time I was living in Norfolk, near the military bases by the Suffolk border. We came down to London and were walking around what is now an area of luxury condos and flats. At the time it was dilapidated and I don’t know how we got permission to jump around in that warehouse.

“I remember people saying, ‘Mind when you jump, the floor’s really rotten and you could fall through’. They also kept saying, ‘Act like it’s really hot, but there was steam pouring out of my mouth, so I was told to sing but don’t breathe! It was crazy but we filmed the whole thing in about an hour then did the inside shoot. I don’t even know where that was. I think by then the Jack Daniels had come out, and we didn’t really care. I was frozen to the bone. I just wanted it to be over. Of course, the boys are in big army surplus overcoats. They always had it so easy. I had to do all the dirty work, freezing my ass off!”

I get the impression the band were all good mates then, but _ I put it to her – there was a little animosity later, Katrina quitting in ’98 and a legal dispute following.

“Not really, no more so than you’d have in any normal divorce. We knew after we won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997 that everything was going to change. The perception of the group was completely different. It became all about me and that was a tricky thing.

“I went into BBC Radio 2, working there for a year, and did some musical theatre shows (playing the lead role in Leader of the Pack), wrote a couple of books and kind of did my own thing for a while. Now it’s kind of come back, with this enormous demand for ‘80s music and artists. I think people look back on it with fond memories of a good time, all the nostalgia and sentimentality involved with that.”

Eighties Days: Katrina and the Waves in 1989 (Photo: Michael Halsband)

Eighties Days: Katrina and the Waves in 1989 (Photo: Michael Halsband)

While Katrina will be singing live to track on this tour, I have to ask – is there ever likely to be a Katrina and the Waves reunion?

“Oh no, those guys were older than me and they’ve very much officially retired. “

Despite her Topeka roots, Katrina’s probably more European than most of us, with Irish, German and Czech ancestry and all those country-to-country moves. She certainly doesn’t come over as a great believer in closed borders and xenophobia.

“Well no. I don’t really belong anywhere and I’ve stopped trying to figure out where I do belong. It’s very time-consuming and doesn’t really lead anywhere. It became less and less important to be from some place. But London’s the best place for someone like me – it’s just full of foreigners. We’re all over the place here!”

Going right back, was her early spell in first band Mama’s Cookin’ her pop and rock apprenticeship?

“That was just a way to try and make it in the music business. I was coming out of high school and being put under a lot of pressure by my parents to go to Kansas University and go do the right thing. I put a band together and we played a bunch of cover songs to GIs and other military guys. We did all the RAF and USAF bases. At the age of 18 I was the band’s manager, phoning up these clubs, asking to speak to entertainments managers, saying, ‘Listen, we’ve got a band that plays American music, and the GIs will love it’.

“That’s how we got started, and then a couple of English guys in Cambridge heard I was a good singer and wanted to get a band together with a woman. At the time that was still a novelty. My phone rang and I dragged along my friend Vince (de la Cruz, Katrina’s ex and a fellow ‘USAF brat’ who sang and played slide guitar). We’d known each other since we were teenagers. That’s how The Waves got started.”

Sunshine Seekers: Katrina and the Waves in 1987 (Photo: Simon Fowler)

Sunshine Seekers: Katrina and the Waves in 1987 (Photo: Simon Fowler)

So who were your heroes at that stage? Who first inspired you to front a band?

“It was always Chrissie Hynde. There were so few women that played guitar, and I very much fashioned myself on her, with the hair and the Fender Telecaster. She was another American who came to England, so I took all of my cues from Chrissie. I loved Linda Ronstadt, and had the Patti Smith album. I was very interested in any woman who was making it in the music business. It was same with all the girl groups and writers for those groups like Ellie Greenwich. And I loved the Velvet Underground, fashioning myself after Nico for a while. It always goes back to Chrissie though. And she’s still going.”

Away from her life in music, there’s also Katrina’s publishing sideline, working on the Metropoodle photographic guide books with her partner Sher Harper, centred around their beloved pooch, Peggy Lee. And is that right that there’s an autobiography coming (for Katrina that is, rather than Peggy Lee)?

“I’ve been toying around with that for an awful long time. It’s a very challenging, difficult thing to do. It’s much more fun to work on Metropoodle, the new name for our Peggy Lee Loves London book. She has two books – a London guide and a Cornwall guide, and they’ll both be on Kindle very shortly. They’re photographic books you can use as guide books, full of my favourite aspects of London, where I live, and Cornwall, where I love.”

I was aware of her love for Cornwall through her most recent solo album, Blisland, its title celebrating a small village near Bodmin which Katrina fell in love with.

“Exactly. The Blisland Inn is one of the first places if you’re on your way into Cornwall. It’s great to hang a right there and go grab a beer! I also Iove going down to St Just and Cape Cornwall, very remote, with some fantastic pubs around there. Zennor too, with some lovely drives around there. Really cool.”

I smile at this point, Katrina putting the emphasis on the last syllable of Zennor, just as she had with Norfolk earlier, those tell-tale US tones still there four decades after joining us.

Love Shines: Katrina Leskanich , up close and personal (Photo: Sara L Petty)

And while the ’80s retro circuit continues to call, this May will mark 20 years since the UK’s last Eurovision success. So did Katrina get to properly party in Dublin back in ’97?

“It was insane! We had Prince Charles on one phone and Tony Blair on the other, and the President of Ireland (Mary Robinson), and everybody and their brother came out of the woodwork, offering their congratulations. It was a gigantic party, and what a great place to win. After the show we were sitting around with Terry Wogan drinking Black Velvet, smoking huge cigars, not even having a hangover the next day. When you’re celebrating something as truly magnificent as winning the Eurovision Song Contest when everyone said it couldn’t be done, you’re pretty happy!”

In fact, they won by a record points margin, becoming the most credible victors since ABBA with Waterloo in 1974. And Katrina’s had a hand in the competition since, helping out with various entries in Sweden, Belgium and Austria. She was on the You Decide UK entry panel here last year too. Has she heard this year’s UK entry by Cardiff’s Lucie Jones?

“Yeah … it’s okay. You have to bear in mind you have to come up with something incredibly strong and commercial. I don’t know if that’s it. The Swedes are very good at constructing hit songs and know exactly what they’re doing. There was a song called Euphoria by Loreen – the 2012 Eurovision winner – an amazing song, cleverly crafted, a global smash, one you heard everywhere, and that’s really the calibre we’re talking about.

“Forget about old school Boom Bang-a-Bang. Those kind of quirky novelty songs are never going to win again. People want important, big statements.”

The politics might not help either. We seem to be on a hiding to nothing, seen as a stand-off island wanting to be divorced from Europe anyway.

“Well yeah, there’s a really great excuse this year not to do well, called Brexit. Did no one think that when they voted out? I’m surprised Cheryl Baker didn’t stand up and ask, ‘What’ll happen to the Eurovision?’”

A fair point, if not delivered with a little humour. And is Katrina – set to release the 18-track The Very Best of Katrina retrospective in early May – tempted to head to Kiev for this year’s final?

“No, I’m returning my library book, and won’t be able to make it. Such a shame.”

Telecaster Strut: Katrina Leskanich in live action (Photo: Sara L Petty)

To catch up with this website’s feature/interview with Paul Young, from last December, head here. And for the most recent writewyattuk interview with Howard Jones, try here.

To keep up to date with Katrina, check out her website and stay in touch via her Facebook and Twitter links. There’s also the official Katrina and the Waves website

Katrina will be appearing at Back to the ‘80s Live at Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, April 15 alongside headliner Paul Young, Sonia, Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond), Hazell Dean and Tight Fit, with tickets £25 from the box office (01772 804444) or online via this link.

With thanks to Sher Harper for supplying the extra photographs. 





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