The Oysterband is the coolest 40-something around. Any doubters need only listen to Diamonds on the Water, due to be released Feb. 17. It’d be easy and understandable if four decades left the Oysters a bit stale. But John Jones, Alan Prosser, Ian Telfer, Dil Davies and Al Scott (now on bass and mandolin) show they still have artistry to create songs that range from wistful (“A Clown’s Song” “Lay Your Dreams Down Gently”) to downright rocking (“No Ordinary Girl”) and beyond.
John Jones took some time out of the band’s ever-growing tour schedule to talk about the how the band regrouped after Ray “Chopper” Cooper’s departure, when they might again collaborate with June Tabor, and how the Canadian Rockies inspired one of the band’s best new songs.
Diamonds on the Water is full of your own songs, of course. When you began to write, was there a theme in mind or did one emerge as you wrote and recorded?
There was no specific theme but we had a strong sense of finding our own identity again through the songs. In time we had the feeling that our own autobiography would play a part and a sense of time and place. I can’t tell you just how important this creative journey has been for us.
Where was the album recorded and how much did the atmosphere of the studio impact the songs?
We started writing in a small coastguard’s cottage in Portland overlooking Chesil Beach and did much of the early demoing in my village hall on the Welsh Border, finishing the album in Metway Studios, Brighton. We don’t have just one home any more but we have to be inspired wherever we go. And the tea, biscuits and beer have to be good.
Choose any song from the new album and tell us the story behind it. Where did the genus of it develop? What journey did it take to formation?
“The Wilderness” was inspired by a wild walk in the Canadian Rockies, when the whole band and crew trekked up to Stanley Glacier on a day off from Canmore Folk Music Festival. I had walked in the area before but to get all of us up there was amazing and caused great consternation amongst our hosts. It really is wilderness and there are bears, wolves, mountain lions. They were worried about losing the odd guest artiste, but armed with little bells and rattles, and with the words of an experienced friend in our ears (”Remember guys, you are not the masters here!”), we set out. It was an epic effort and that night the beer flowed and the sense of achievement grew. Ian must have stored that phrase and when he came with the lyric it brought everything back. Together with Alan we had the melody and the song together in 2 hours in a hotel room.
There was great excitement over Ragged Kingdom and your band teaming with June Tabor. Were you tempted to try to expand that collaboration further with more traditional songs?
Working with June was great and it will remain part of what we do, but it is best kept “for special.” Traditional songs are close to our hearts but…..think of it as sculpture: you can’t keep re-shaping and re-fashioning the same ancient piece of rock indefinitely, especially when you find beauty often lies in simplicity. Writing and building music is our lifeblood, and because it is the most challenging thing we do, the rewards are so much more. It was time to become ourselves again, but I hope we carried some of that narrative, story-telling element into Diamonds.
Do you have any plans to work with June in the near future?
We’re playing Rudolstadt Festival in Germany with June on July 6th this year…..but I’m sure there will be other shows in the future.
When fans listen to Diamonds, what do you hope the take away from the experience?
A sense of a band at ease with itself and its music. A band that has a strong sense of time and place, even beauty, and that is now able to say through its music what it loves about living here as well as what it finds socially or politically amiss.
Did you use any new instrumentation in this album that perhaps you didn’t use or only used minimally before?
What grew out of the stripped-down band that remained after “Chopper” (left for a solo career) was a tight unit, with Al Scott coming in on bass, and a very powerful one. The playing, like the singing and the songwriting, just had to re-focus and be ‘on it.’ As we grew in confidence during last summer’s festivals, vocal contributions strengthened and harmonies evolved. When we started to invent instrumental lines and arrangements for the new songs, we realised a cello really was an important part of our sound, so we brought Adrian Oxaal in. Rowan has sung with us before, of course, she’s very intuitive and musically sympathetic in the studio. And there are splashes of brass on the album for colour –– trumpet/French horn/euphonium rather than trumpet/trombone/sax. If a song needs a certain sound, we will find it.
What is it that has kept the Oysterband together and creating new music, that is so well received? Not many other bands of your vintage can claim that, certainly.
Luck, chemistry, writing songs that interest us, trying not to repeat ourselves, playing live, love of travel, the tolerance of others, anger, a supportive network around us. And sheer bloody-mindedness…
Find out more about the band and the upcoming tour via the band’s website.
— By Nancy Dunham @NancyDWrites