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.
“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.”
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: