Dave Whetstone talks about returning to The Resolution

Dave Whetstone

“Why did I stop?” asks melodeon player Dave Whetstone, as he prepares to return to the stage for only the second time in twenty years. It’s a fair question.

Dave had been a key player in the 1970s folk/ dance scene, who’d been turned onto “the notion of a dance band” after his band, Hemlock, visited Towersey village’s vibrant folk club, on the Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire border. As a result, the band changed direction to become The Hemlock Cock And Bull Band, and then simply the Cock And Bull Band.

“When we first went [to Towersey’s folk club] Jean-Pierre [Rasle] was not playing the bagpipes and I didn’t have a melodeon. I didn’t know what a melodeon was! I sent off from one and got it in the post – that was around 1977/1978, and Jean-Pierre knew some chaps in France [with pipes], so we started playing tunes with Dennis [Manners] calling,” Dave recalls. “At that time there were the New Victory Band, The Old Swan Band, doing variations to the repertoire.”

Dave went on to The Albion Band/ The Albion Dance Band, formed the well-regarded Waz! with Maartin Allcock (Fairport) and Pete Zorn, and released a well-regarded solo album, The Resolution, in 1996, with Allcock, Zorn, Dave Lockwood and Simon Nicol.

Dave WhetstoneThe Resolution was surprisingly very well received,” reports Dave. “It got reviews in Q and various other magazines, it was very well received, and we did a few ceilidhs with that line-up, but not with Simon as he was so busy with Fairport Convention, so we got in another guitarist.”

But within a couple of years, despite mounting acclaim for Waz!, Dave simply felt it was time to move on.

“I can’t remember the exact sequence,” he says. “The Resolution came out and I did the trio thing (Waz!), which was a short lived thing, maybe a year or so getting work. I didn’t really enjoy it enough. I’d been doing music and tunes since the mid-70s with Jean-Pierre, music has always been with me, music courses through my veins, but I like to do other things – like riding a bike, family …

“There’s a difference between a musician and a performer and I considered myself a musician – with a small ‘m’; I don’t read music, I feel it – I’m not a performer, though some of the most enjoyment I’ve had from playing has been at ceilidhs.

“I haven’t done a great amount of music, but there’s been Cock And Bull and with Jean-Pierre with melodeon and bagpipes. I quite like the idea of singing, but that’s not me. I put a lot into it for a long time and it was all very interesting … but I didn’t want to pursue all that.

“Why did I hang up my melodeon? It felt like I’d lost interest in it, there was a feeling of being overly constrained by it.”

So he stopped.

“I make decisions like this. I’m not a hoarder – if things need to change, I’m not scared. I did the Albion Band for a time, and I knew that was not me and I stopped. I didn’t shirk from making the change. Either it fits or it doesn’t.”

He continued to play at home, in private – mandolin and guitar – but then in 2014, Towersey Festival, scene of many fondly remembered performances, invited the Cock And Bull Band to reunite as a one-off. The show was a huge success which Dave enjoyed, though didn’t feel the need to repeat. But the idea of performing The Resolution in full was something different. He pitched the possibility of a Resolution show to Towersey who were excited, so Dave called on Martin Brinsford (Brass Monkey, Old Swan Band) and Benji Kirkpartrick (Faustus, The Transports, Bellowhead) for assistance, who were also enthusiastic.

“I haven’t played out since Towersey 2014, and before that, not since 1998, since The Resolution. I play a lot more freely now … so I’m looking forward to playing now, in a more expansive way,” he says. “I like playing but playing is only part of it. I like it simple. With Martin and Benji, it’s something very specific, for a very specific thing, and that’s easy.”

As the trio to prepare to make their one and only performance at Towersey Festival on Friday 24 August 2018, Dave reports that things are “sounding good” and that the set-list, though focused on his solo album, will span his career.

After some thought, he picks a few of his personal highlights.

“The tune ‘The Resolution’, I s’pose it was intended to be, not square the circle, but something like that. It’s a waltz tune – I can go to it and it’s a very calming tune. I think they all do different things, but there is some kind of fulfilment with The Resolution.

“There are simple ones, ‘like Hotfoot 2’, which in on a row, no chords, it’s so simple you can go just on and one. It’s very deceptive … good for dancing.

“And there are more recent ones, like ‘Mind Your Manners’, which is a Morris jig I concocted for Towersey in 2014. It’s simple, efficient. I wrote it for Dennis [Manners]; it’s only ever been done once, so this will only be the second time.

“There are also some tunes that pre-date The Resolution, like from The Albion Dance Band’s Shuffle Off – ‘Frog Is For Jumping/ Beetle On The Wine’. They are tunes I concocted around 1983 and are the opening tunes on the album.

“I think they’re tunes that are played in sessions now. Brinsford said I had to play it, ‘… that’s one of your hits!’ They may have entered the repertoire now,” he says proudly.

As Dave prepares to take his leave, there’s just one question: why Towersey?

“Towersey is special … it always had a feel about it – there was something homely, safe about it,” he says. “Towersey always held a special place.”

Dave Freak

* Whetstone Brinsford Kirkpatrick play Towersey Festival, Oxfordshire, on Friday 24 August 2018. The festival runs from Friday 24 to Monday 27 August 2018 and also features appearances from Richard Thompson, The Proclaimers, The Shires, Big Country (Acoustic), Sharon Shannon, Fisherman’s Friends, Peter Knight and John Spiers, Roy Bailey, and The Pink Weasel Big Band (a one-off team-up of Tickled Pink and Whapwesel). For more information and tickets see: www.towerseyfestival.com

‘Donkey Riding/Buffalo Girls’ by the Hemlock Cock And Bull Band all those years ago:

Adrian McNally talks to Dave Freak about The Unthanks and Molly Drake

Molly Drake
Photograph by Sarah Mason

The songs of Molly Drake have been slowly seeping into public consciousness for the best part of a decade. There was a fleeting glimpse of her home recordings on the Nick Drake-and-co compilation Family Tree in 2007, followed by an album of her home recordings in 2013. Tracey Thorn and Eliza Carthy are among the artists who’ve since recorded cover versions, but it’s arguably The Unthanks’ The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake which really pushes Molly into the spotlight.

Released last year as the fourth in The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions series, the project (spread over two albums, the second billed as Extras) was created with the direct input of Molly’s daughter, actress Gabrielle Drake, and has been described by the band as some of their best work.

For many, Molly – who passed away in 1993 – has been simply the mother of treasured songwriter Nick Drake whose reputation, based on three previously obscure (though now ridiculously popular) albums, continues to grow. And while her influence on Nick has been acknowledged, the arrival of the private demos tell us she was more than a footnote, but an equally rare and impressive talent in her own right.

“Certainly I think that an element of Gabrielle’s motivation to release her mother’s music was to show the world that her brother, the troubled troubadour, who we are often encouraged to think was born into a stuffy upper middle class English family, with parents who didn’t understand him, in fact had a mother with as much emotional introspection and poetic articulacy as he,” says The Unthanks Adrian McNally. “We can see now that Nick was from a close and loving family, with inspiration and talent passed down.”

When it came to arranging Molly’s starkly recorded material the band explored two approaches.

“On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created totally different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time,” says McNally.

“Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a Molly song unaccompanied. I work to that only, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song – because of course, a melody can be given a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms.

“Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals.

“This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised.

“In all cases, it is the song that comes first,” he stresses. “If we rework, it’s because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, it’s because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.

Touring the album last year, McNally and the band were touched by the way audiences connected with the material.

“The show is very subtly lit, so it was more possible than normal, to see faces in the audience, and quite how many tears were being shed!” he says.

“Molly’s writing is the very essence of bittersweet. In defence of her mother’s leanings towards darkness, Gabrielle has said of her mother that ‘happiness was something she understood profoundly – the more so, because she was so conscious of its opposite – sorrow.

“It’s the understanding and acceptance of both as part of life that brings about the condition of yearning that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, and it’s the equality between beauty and tragedy that breaks our hearts, I feel.”

And while the songs have been the main focus for many, as The Unthanks’ album rightly pointed out, there’s also Molly’s poems too, which were recorded for the project by Gabrielle.

“It’s not just the songs. Her poetry too, through Gabrielle’s performances, is incredibly effecting. Every one of Gabrielle’s performances caused a strong emotional reaction in me on first listen, be that tears or laughter – both of which were caused by the same ingredient – beauty.

“Molly’s messages are profound, but the joy I feel is towards the brilliance and precision with which the truth of that message is articulated. The success of any art should ultimately be judged on how successful the artist has been in conveying what they intended to.

“On those terms, Molly’s writing is amongst the best I’ve ever heard.”

Dave Freak

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

The Unthanks perform The Songs Of Molly Drake at Lunar Festival (26-29 July 2018) in Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire (the home of the Drake family) on Friday 27 July 2018. Other artists appearing at the festival include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, Amadou and Mariam, Songhoy Blues, and Jane Weaver.

For more information, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Promo video:

Joe Broughton talks about The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble

Conservatoire Folk Ensemble

“Things often get out of hand when working with the Folk Ensemble,” reckons founder and leader Joe Broughton. “You just mention an idea and before you know it it’s ten times bigger than what you intended – I guess because the band is ten times the size of a normal band.”

With fifty members, The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble has never been a ‘normal band.’ A perfect example of that in action is the band’s latest release, ‘Sleepy Maggie’. It began life as a one-off, stand-alone track, before ideas of an EP took hold, and it eventually spiralled into a ten-track album!

“The ideas started flowing …” explains Joe of what soon became Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities, and features a succession of radical revisions of an already radical take on a traditional track, calling on chunky guitars, EDM, beats and Chinese grooves, and more. If Joe told you there was a kitchen sink in there – you wouldn’t argue.

The arrival of ‘Sleepy Maggie’ coincides with the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s own mini-festival, the appropriately named Power Folk 5. Taking place in their hometown of Birmingham and featuring such special guests as Will Pound, Threaded and the Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar Trio, along with DJ spots and appearances from many ensemble members, it regularly sells out in advance – and this year is no exception.

“Power Folk really is a unique event,” says Joe, who founded the group 21 years ago. “With almost 100 musicians playing over the course of the day and the evening in such an intimate venue, it’s powerful and really exciting.

“I always make sure that there are brilliant new bands that nobody has seen before, as well as established acts that everyone wants to see. Everyone playing has some kind of link to the Folk Ensemble, which gives it a really close family vibe.

“Even though it’s just in a pub, it’s the best pub in the world!” he says of The Spotted Dog, in the city’s Digbeth area. “Added to this is, we still keep to high production values with great sound and a slick show – where appropriate!

“There’s a BBQ and a few other interesting little things to do while you are there too. I think it always sells out because it’s just how a gig should be – friendly and laid back, but with a well organised killer show and a good bar!”

To cope with the increased demand for tickets, Joe’s expanded the event, increasing capacity, but believes the relative intimacy of the venue is very much part of the appeal.

“Well, we have sold more tickets and added an hour to the programme since last year, but I really don’t want it to change too much,” he says. “If it got too big I think it would spoil what is good about it.”

Last year saw the band, based at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, celebrate their 20th anniversary with a Birmingham Town Hall concert featuring as many former members as they could fit on stage, a studio album (the Folking.com acclaimed Painted), and a lauded summer tour, which concluded with a storming Shrewsbury Folk Festival set.

“It was just an incredible tour, everywhere we went felt like a huge party to me. I’m so pleased that everyone got on board with the 20 year anniversary theme because really it’s only me who has been doing it for that long! It really meant something to me that everyone celebrated …”

As fifty members squeeze into a tour bus over the summer, taking in Green Man and Kendal Calling, as well as several headline dates, Joe is already setting his sights on 2019, and keen to keep the momentum going.

“Looking further ahead we have plans for another full album – but I really want to do a live album, because I love live albums. There’s also a rumour that we’ll be making our first trip abroad…”

Artists’ website: https://www.joebroughton.com/the-folk-ensemble

 

FINDLAY NAPIER talks to Folking

Findlay Napier

Findlay Napier doesn’t look like his publicity photographs. That is to say, he does but that dour, unsmiling image you see above isn’t him. In person he’s affable, chatty to the point of indiscretion and often very funny but also thoughtful, considering some of his answers carefully. He was born in Glasgow where he again lives but his parents moved to Grantown on Spey when he was very young.

“My parents and my grandparents bought a house there.  I couldn’t have been a month old and they took all safety precautions – wrapped me in a blanket and put me in a wash basin in the passenger foot-well – and drove me up the road. Nowadays you’re not even allowed to leave hospital without a baby seat! I didn’t come back to Glasgow until I was seventeen for college and spent my childhood and teens in Grantown.”

Of the two places I know where I’d prefer to live but, from a musical perspective more was going to happen in Glasgow.

“That was the problem with Strathspey. There was stuff going on but not like there was in Glasgow. I was going to university and went to Glasgow to study traditional music. It was the first year of their traditional music degree course at the RSAMD, which is now the RCS [Royal Conservatoire of Scotland]. I’d love to live in Grantown but I don’t know how it would work. The interesting thing is that my brother, Hamish, has just moved back.”

Clearly, the Napiers are a very musical family. Hamish plays piano and flute and composes music of a rather more pastoral style than Findlay’s songs.

“My mum went to music school in Edinburgh, then to Glasgow University to study music and ended up with Scottish Opera. It was when Scottish Opera first went full time and you probably think of opera with grand sets but they went round in a small bus and would do schools during the day and an opera in a venue about the size of this. It was before Scottish Opera became a huge behemoth – it was like a little folk band that sang opera.”

Findlay’s first band was Back Of The Moon which also had brother Hamish in its ranks.

“That started because I met my wife, Gillian Frame, at the RSAMD. She entered the Young Tradition Award and she, Hamish and Simon McKerrell also entered the Radio 2 Folk Awards and got through to the finals. They didn’t win but we’re not bitter and by that point I had joined Back Of The Moon.”

Gillian’s prize for winning the Young Tradition Musician of the Year competition was to make an album. That was Gillian Frame And Back Of The Moon, the band’s first record.

“The band went on to be pretty successful but, strangely enough, it was successful north of the border, a tiny handful of gigs in England but we were busy in Germany, America and Canada and that was enough to keep us going. We did so little in England, which I was always really disappointed about. We never made it across the border and I’m not sure why – the band was a good folk club band; would have been a good festival band. There were four people singing, and tunes, so we were always very confused about that.

“One of the things we found out at the end was that we were a band that needed a manager. The reason we broke up was because Gillian and I were managing the band on the hoof and, actually, we needed professional help and we didn’t understand that we needed it. Hamish left and instead of replacing him we folded the band. We decided that we couldn’t do it [without Hamish] and couldn’t agree on how to do it. He probably didn’t need to leave but he wanted to study music. We could have worked round it, had we had a manager to give us advice.

“Just before the band broke up I started writing with a guy called Nick Turner of Watercolour Music. I’d written since I was 14 or 15 but I’d hit a dry patch probably because I was so busy trying to manage and be in a band. On the first night together we wrote three songs and another two the next day so I went back to Glasgow with five songs and we kept writing and I realised that was what I needed to do.”

Together, Findlay and Nick were Queen Anne’s Revenge, a name later appropriated by a new England rock band, and released two albums. While Back Of The Moon were a traditional band, Queen Anne’s Revenge was essentially a song-writing vehicle.

“I needed an outlet and Nick, who was in the recording studio, also needed an outlet so we found each other at the perfect time. Nick had the studio and access to a lot of musicians so it worked out really well. We were able to put together the project and it was a lot of fun. We couldn’t get Queen Anne’s Revenge to work as a band but I could get some of the songs to work and that’s why I started The Bar Room Mountaineers.”

The Bar Room Mountaineers
The Bar Room Mountaineers

The Mountaineers saw Findlay performing again with his wife plus Douglas Miller and Euan Burton together with a selection of drummers. “It was grand idea that almost worked. We released the CD, paid a lot of money for publicity and got absolutely nothing. I think I know the reason – we were too folky for the indie/singer-songwriter crowd and too indie/singer-songwriter for the folky crowd and fell smack-bang in the middle. Some people got into it and we had more success with the second album because we were a lot clearer about what it was we were doing.

“The solo thing happened because Simon Thoumire said ‘What are you going to do to follow up File Under Fiction?’ and I put my head in my hands. I hadn’t a clue; I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anyone who was particularly interested and I was all for packing it in.”

Simon pointed out that Findlay’s situation wasn’t unique and suggested that he should apply for a mentoring grant from Creative Scotland. He was successful and was looking for a singer-songwriter who could also teach. Boo Hewerdine’s name came up.

“We supported him at a gig in Edinburgh once and it was one of the best gigs I’ve been too. We’d arranged to go to the pub for a session after we’d played and decided to stay for one or two songs – the next thing we knew it was the encore. We went up to the merch table and bought everything. It took me a while to settle on Boo as a mentor but there couldn’t have been a better person.

“We wrung every last penny out of the funding and that’s how VIP came about and the new album, Glasgow, came about through working with Boo. He sets constraints and the constraint about VIP is that it’s all songs about real people and we said that we would record them live in the studio. On one song we multi-tracked guitar and vocal but apart from that it’s like a gig. There is one note we had to tune on my voice which is something I’m quite proud of. We used autotune the way it’s supposed to me used and the rest of the album is out of tune!”

Photograph by Dai Jeffries

By now there is more laughter than the sensible answering of questions. “One of my mates called up about Glasgow and said ‘It’s a really great album. A brave album, I would never leave all those out-of-tune notes on it’. I was like ‘what out-of-tune notes?’. ‘Oh, sorry, man.’ I can’t hear them but his pitch is perfect.

“I guess Boo wanted to set my stall out as a guy who can write songs and the idea of Glasgow was ‘this is a guy who can sing and play guitar’. In between times I went out gigging and the purpose of that was going to the wider folk audience – this is a guy who can stand up in front of a group of people and entertain them. We have to decide what we’re going to do with the third album; we haven’t planned that yet although I’ve got lots of songs. I like the idea of themed albums but I’m starting to think that the audience might start to think that it’s wearing a little thin.”

With an album like Glasgow in front of us I had to ask whether, as a song-writer, Findlay feels that location is important. There was a long silence.

“It depends what kind of stuff you’re writing. I don’t really like writing songs about me so most of my songs will probably be rooted in a place because they are stories. They’re not musing on my sad, boring life. There is this whole ‘sense of place’ thing but every time I think I’ve grasped what that means, it’s away. I’m a massive fan of Michael Marra and there’s Dundee in some of his songs but not all of them. There’s definitely Scotland in there but my favourite song of his is ‘Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson’ and that’s full of Shetland words. So sense of place is important but more important than that is having a clear story to the song.”

With Glasgow, Findlay seems to have encompassed every aspect of the city from the bawdy to the poetic. “There’s a song called ‘More To Building Ships’ and when people write songs about Glasgow shipbuilding is a place that they touch on but it’s not a particularly old industry in Glasgow. There’s a lot more to the city and there’s a lot more than Rangers and Celtic and Billy Connolly and I wanted to make sure it was all in there. That’s why I covered the Blue Nile song, ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’, which I think is just beautiful and conjures up a very specific set of images which Paul Buchanan probably has no connection with at all. There’s a chunk of my life in Glasgow in that song.

“We wanted to do covers and I think that was a very good idea and it was part of Boo’s thing. That was fun because I had to choose them and then I had to work them out and that was a really interesting exercise. I’d run an open mic with Louis Abbott [Admiral Fallow] and I’d been doing lots of covers so I know how to interpret a song and I learned a lot from listening to The Blue Nile.

“It wasn’t until I started doing solo gigs that I got as brave as I am now with being on stage. One of the things I did was an eight-week stand-up comedy course at Strathclyde University because I knew that there must be tricks that I hadn’t learned just by osmosis and that made a massive difference to my confidence It was scary having to stand on stage for five minutes trying to make people laugh – a lot harder than I thought it would be – and it gave me massive respect for anyone who does it.”

Findlay isn’t going to morph into Jasper Carrott any time soon but…insomniacs with access to BBC Alba can see him in a show called Fonn! Fonn! Fonn! which I watch in fascinated disbelief whenever I catch it. I hoped to learn some of the show’s mysteries.

The regular cast of Fonn! Fonn! Fonn!

“One night at the Traditional Music Awards a friend told me he was doing this show and wanted someone to play lots of bits of songs. It was going to be a bit like Never Mind The Buzzcocks, an irreverent Gaelic panel show. I said ‘I’ll do that’ so I did.”

Findlay never says a word during a show and puts on his stern face communicating with the host via shrugs and raised eyebrows. I began to suspect that it was covering the fact that he doesn’t speak Gaelic.

“That’s exactly what it’s doing and that’s why I don’t laugh. I didn’t know what was going on most of the time but it got tricky when we started series two because I started to laugh at the jokes. I was picking up little bits and I also heard them writing the jokes the night before. If someone tells a joke really well you don’t have to know what language it’s in because it has all the rhythmic information to make you laugh.”

For southerners the show is subtitled but I’m convinced that the subtitles don’t tell the whole story and for Gaelic speakers the joke is in trying to translate into Gaelic words that have no business being there.

“I loved it and we wanted a third season. It was Marmite TV – absolutely hated by some people and some absolutely loved it and one group who really loved it were people learning to speak Gaelic because they knew what it was about; they knew about music and modern culture.”

So there you have him. Findlay Napier: singer, songwriter, performer, TV straight man and possibly a future stand-up comic. And he played Katy Morag’s uncle Sven, too, but only in one episode. If he comes to perform anywhere near you I urge you go and hear him. It will be a great night out.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://www.findlaynapier.com/

‘Young Goths In The Necropolis’ – live:

Korby Lenker – Thousand Springs

For many artists, stepping into a studio to record an album can be challenging enough. But when East Nashvillian Korby Lenker began working on his seventh album, Thousand Springs, he decided to skip the studio altogether and head to his home state of Idaho to record in places that held particular meaning for him. Venturing forth with his guitar, some recording gear and a tent, he captured his vocal and guitar parts in more than a dozen locales, including the edge of the Snake River Canyon, a cabin north of Sun Valley and his undertaker father’s mortuary.

Then he spent months driving around the country to collect vocal and instrumental contributions from nearly 30 of today’s finest folk talents, among them Nora Jane Struthers, Anthony Da Costa, Carrie Elkin, Amy Speace, Molly Tuttle, Kai Welch, Angel Snow, Becky Warren and the Punch Brothers’ Chris “Critter” Eldridge. In Madison, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin and Nashville, he recorded their work in backyards, hotel rooms and even a bookstore, then went home to edit them into Thousand Springs.

Lenker plotted his plan for Thousand Springs after Nashville-based Turner Publishing Co. released his first collection of short stories, Medium Hero, in December 2015 – an experience that, he says, helped him find his “true voice” (and earned him high praise not only from book-world luminaries including Kirkus Reviews and National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, but Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak).

“For me, the two most important qualities of good art are originality and meaning,” Lenker explains. “You’ve got to tell your own story and not try to borrow someone else’s.”

When he moved to Nashville, he quickly discovered singer-songwriters were about as common as pickup trucks. And most of them were about as original.

“It forced me to really dig in and figure out what I did that was different than what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I spent my first three years in town parking cars at a hotel and taking a bunch of chances, creatively speaking. No one really cared about me, which turned out to be very freeing.”

During that period, he wrote many of the stories in Medium Hero, and focused on writing songs that meant something to him rather than worrying about hit potential.

“Along the way, I discovered there was an audience for this approach to telling my story,” he says. It was a thrilling, and empowering, revelation.

In the years since, he’s played everywhere from small listening rooms to Seattle’s world-renowned Bumbershoot festival, delivering what American Songwriter magazine called “huggable folk-pop” on stages shared with artists from Willie Nelson, Keith Urban and Chris Isaak to Susan Tedeschi, Amy Grant and Nickel Creek. Along the way, he’s earned nearly a dozen songwriting awards, including first-place wins at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, 2012’s Kerrville Folk Festival and 2006’s Merlefest. He also placed second in the 2017 Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest for ‘Friend and A Friend’, a beguiling Thousand Springs track co-written with Molly Tuttle, who sings harmony. Allowing life to imitate art, Lenker also has been conducting a one-man campaign of sorts, engaging strangers for conversation and shared selfies in an Instagram-hosted exercise he calls #MakeAmericaFriendsAgain. (He also touches on that subject in a new song titled ‘Let’s Just Have Supper’. Written and performed with Struthers, it’s not on this album, but the NPR-premiered video, is worth checking out.)

Ironically, while recording Thousand Springs (and making friends), Lenker lost his voice for nearly two months.

Addressing the loss of a dear family member, Lenker wrote the affecting song ‘Wherever You Are’ while his voice was gone. He also visited the Vanderbilt Voice Center, where doctors immediately started him on physical therapy. Soon, he was recording again. He did ‘Wherever You Are’ solo, in one take. It’s one of five songs he penned alone; the other seven are collaborations with a variety of musical friends including Speace, Tuttle, Robby Hecht, Jon Weisberger and Liz Longley.

Coincidentally, the song that precedes it, ‘Mermaids’, has an understated lightheartedness, almost a softer ‘Magical Mystery Tour’/’Yellow Submarine’ vibe, that would easily appeal to kids. Throughout the album, Lenker deftly shifts through a wide range of moods. He captures his love of literature with charming playfulness in ‘Book Nerd’. The opener, “Northern Lights,” is a spare, contemplative tune containing just a couple of verses, but Lenker’s vivid imagery and forlorn voice are all he needs to speak volumes about lost love.

There’s a delicacy to most of these songs, due in part to Lenker’s gentle delivery; in ‘Nothing Really Matters’, he sounds as if he’s whispering in your ear – in a voice that somehow suggests both James Taylor and Michael Franks, delivered in an Afro-bluegrass style. Driven by Jon Reischman’s outstanding mandolin, it’s reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland; Lenker cites both the artist and the album as major influences.

The hardest-rocking track, ‘Last Man Standing’, was written about Chief Sitting Bull after Lenker read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He recorded parts of it at Standing Rock, near Sitting Bull’s grave, a month before the Dakota-Access Pipeline protests began. Musically, the song more or less references his own roots; Lenker started studying piano at age 7 and picked up guitar in his early teens, playing a lot of Neil Young and similar artists before joining the obligatory high-school rock band (his was Clockwork Orange).

“There weren’t a lot of people around me making music,” he says about growing up in Idaho’s isolation. “I had to go out and find it.” His search included attending college in Bellingham, Washington, where he studied music theory – and Phish. Reading about jazz led him to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller – and to an understanding that, as he puts it, “music had a story, a thread that went from musician to musician, through time.” “The idea of finding my place in that timeline has become more and more important to me,” he notes, adding, “Every time I play a show, I think of it as an audition for the next show. Everything for me is a slow build.”

That might explain another of the album’s delights: ‘Late Bloomers’, in which he sings, Here’s to the late bloomers/Holding on till their time arrives/Some people might have gotten there sooner/But for us, it’s gonna be right on time … No matter how hard the path was/We always knew/No dream can outlast us/When it’s coming true.

For Lenker, as for any of us, some dreams come true and some don’t. That’s just life. But on Thousand Springs, he shares those highs and lows as only an artist with a “true voice” can. And that voice, he’ll never lose.

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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+ Saturday August 18 Purbeck Valley Folk Festival

Artist’s website links:

www.facebook.com/KorbyLenker

KEITH JAMES talks to Folking.com about forty years in music

Keith James
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

This year sees Keith James celebrating his fortieth anniversary as a professional musician. He has followed an unconventional, one might say unique, career path but didn’t always make it easy for himself. Keith took up the guitar at age twelve and formed a school band called The Velvet Haze. “We were The Orange Lantern but had a name change and went for something a bit more racy. It was mostly blues – I was listening to John Mayall, Peter Green; the British blues movement – and just copied it. That didn’t last very long and I was more attracted to the acoustic guitar and started listening to Dylan, Paul Simon – I really liked Paul Simon – and I really liked James Taylor.” The head boy at George Abbot school was John Renbourn and as Keith says “we all learned guitar together”.

“I quickly put a set together on acoustic guitar and I was invited to take over from a couple of chaps who were playing a wine bar in Guildford so I sat in with them and learned the ropes. I got a job playing a couple of nights a week and then was head-hunted to play in another couple of bars. Looking back now, in terms of playing what people wanted in the Home Counties, middle-class Liebfraumilch-drinking crowd – now desperately un-hip and unfashionable – I was really in the right place at the right time but from the music business point of view it couldn’t have been worse.

“I came home from a holiday in the Greek islands having missed the opportunity to go to university because I stayed out there too long. I completely ran out of money and began playing live in Pugh’s wine bar in Guildford as a matter of needing to get through the next week and it just organically grew from that. That was in the mid-seventies and I built up a circuit in a completely parallel universe just prior to punk breaking. The folk scene was quite healthy but I didn’t seem to have anything to do with any of it. I didn’t feel that I fitted with the folk world at all and never have done but I built up a fairly healthy following for the best part of a decade in the wine bar era, which went really well.

“So, from coming back from a Greek island with a guitar and a handful of songs I built up a circuit which also funded the production and release of three or four vinyl albums. I was really bookable and, in fact, I won the Wine Bar Entertainer Of The Year award in 1981. I could have played every night of the month and I was in my own little universe.”

I’d always imagined that playing that scene was a bit soul destroying. Keith disagrees.

Keith James
Keith James on stage in 1982

“I had a brief foray into folk clubs and I gave it a good try but I felt like a real fish out of water. Playing the wine-bar circuit I think that I was probably good enough to keep their attention and people would come along specifically – I had loads of bookings on Mondays and Tuesdays because people would come along and share an orange juice and listen to me but that wasn’t profitable for the proprietor. That ran of steam and I went off to South America.”

Keith visited almost every country in South America, spending most of his time in Brazil and being influenced by the country’s writers and musicians and he seems very at ease with the rhythms that he uses on the Lorca album. “I don’t know why. I like odd rhythms; ‘The Mask’, for example: everything is strange about that. It’s in five time, it’s in a strange guitar tuning, it’s played on a flamenco guitar and it’s in Spanish but I really like it. I find it adventurous and intriguing and really exhilarating. If I’m playing a Leonard Cohen concert, for example, because there is a long-standing Lorca-Cohen connection I’ll put that in and it wakes the audience up.”

His travels have taken him to Spain several times, the first time partly with the aim of meeting Chris Stewart, the author of Driving Over Lemons. “Because we used to play Charterhouse when I was at school I was convinced that somewhere down the line I owed him a kick in the shins but I was also there to do a proper study of Federico Garcia Lorca. There is an area south of the Sierra Nevada where Lorca spent a tremendous amount of time particularly around his book Romancero Gitano. I went to a town called Órgiva and into a pizza bar and the first person to walk in after me was Chris Stewart. He told me a huge amount about Lorca.”

 Had he made it to university Keith would have read for a literature degree and his life has, in some ways, also been one of study.

“I’ve always found, even in music, everything to do with the prose far more important. If you’re learning an instrument, particularly the guitar, you realise that the parameters that you can work with in terms of the accompaniment to a song have limitations, which is why they often sound similar. If you start with C, G, D and F they are going to sound similar. It’s the intent and the lyrics and the poetry behind what you’re doing that’s the most important thing so I’ve always been drawn to a set of words that would really, really make me cry. One of my great loves in life is poetry

“Having said that, I dismiss a tremendous amount of poetry – the world is full of poetry or things that people write that they think are poetry. It all is, I suppose, and I can’t be the judge and if T.S.Eliot is, to me, like bathing in asses’ milk then it may not be to someone else. People may like things that are more domestic: I really struggle with Larkin, for instance, because quite a lot of his poetry is based around domesticity and a really small world, nothing expansive.

“I did a huge study for about a year of Dylan Thomas. I was given a commission by the Arts Council of Wales to set a collection of his poetry to music and his poetry is unbelievably wonderful and he’s not scared of anything at all. He’s not scared if it doesn’t scan right or if nothing makes sense.”

Following his return from South America, Keith’s career took another turn.

“There was a period of about ten to fifteen years when I started a recording studio in Reading where I worked as a sound engineer and record producer. It came out of necessity: I came back with a virus which affected me to such a degree that I couldn’t really sing properly but I really began to enjoy the work. This is before the days of computers and we were recording onto big analogue tape. I built up a clientele and I made an album called Tomorrow Is Longer Than Yesterday which, listening back to now, is quite disturbing. I think I felt so upset about humankind and the way things were that it’s almost an album’s worth of philosophical protest songs.”

That album surfaced at the beginning of the 90s and from it Keith got lots of requests to produce albums from “the folk/singer-songwriter world” and some jazz – “anything that had something organic and real and acoustic about it”. He reckons that he made ninety-nine albums for other people but out of that period grew another love.

“Various people came in to record Nick Drake songs. They would say ‘I’ve got eleven of my own songs and I’m going to do a Nick Drake song as well’. I did what I normally do in a situation like that – I really fell in love with his music – and I did a huge amount of research on him as person. I’ve internalised it and thought ‘where would I be if I were Nick?’.

“More or less at the same time I’d come to the end what I thought I could give to sound engineering. The business was changing dramatically – we were coming to the end of the analogue era – and it was a bit of a dark age for recording studios and for the business. I wanted to do something different so I did a pilot Songs Of Nick Drake concert at Windsor Arts Centre which was full and I sprang into action to do some more.”

Lorca followed The Songs Of Nick Drake. “The original Lorca album is mostly material from The Gypsy Ballads of the mid-20s and that went so well that the Lorca estate were keen to do another one. So I was really keen to do Poet In New York but, believe it or not, they had on the table a project that had been put together by a Spanish composer and Elvis Costello and they were about to do Poet In New York. The Lorca Foundation is run by his niece, Laura, and I think they’d been waiting for the Costello project but it never did surface so I was called in and told ‘let’s do Poet In New York’.

“There was a lot of time spent doing the first Lorca album and touring it twice and then Poet In New York and touring that twice – taking up most of 2007 to 2010 – but it’s proved to be a very worthy thing to do.”

Keith once observed that he doesn’t get to play his own songs very much but that is slowly changing. “Yes. During all this I’ve been writing songs which, for some strange reason, I still feel timid about. I feel safer doing a tour which has a concept, where it can be a bit third person. The projects that I’ve done where I’ve set poetry to music are really enjoyable; it’s almost like working with a team member – a long dead team member – but there is someone else bringing something to the table and it’s extremely inspiring.

Twenty years on from that first pilot concert Keith is still performing Nick’s songs and, with both Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen in his repertoire, is playing about a hundred dates each year, split into two tours. They rotate and Keith is currently touring The Songs Of Leonard Cohen again and toying with the idea of a Pablo Naruda project. Captured, a best of collection is out now and it will contain some new original songs – something we don’t hear enough of these days. I’ll leave Keith to sum up where he is now.

“I absolutely love it. I have to say that, particularly with The Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour, I feel completely and utterly blessed. I feel completely honoured to be doing this tour because some of his material is just unimprovable. I live inside a bubble where I get to play all that lovely material in lovely places and all the people who come to my concerts are lovely.”

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/

David Harley’s review of Captured: https://folking.com/keith-james-captured-the-best-of-keith-james-hurdy-gurdy-hga2927/

‘The Mask’ live on the radio: