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:

KEITH JAMES – Captured: The Best Of Keith James (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2927)

CapturedIt’s hard to encapsulate a long, varied and distinguished career in two CDs. After all, Keith James is not only an excellent musician and producer, poet and songwriter in his own right. He also has a remarkable ability to set the verse of other poets – represented here by settings of Lorca, Dylan Thomas, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neruda and Blake – while his sensitive interpretations of songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and others attract enthusiastic concert audiences. The 33 songs here include most of the tracks from his recent Tenderness Claws CD and several from the previous album Always. Other tracks make up a good introduction to his earlier CDs, however.

‘White Room’ is a reinterpretation of the Cream song, with Pete Brown’s lyric benefiting from more space and varied pace than the Wheels Of Fire version.

‘Anthem’ is the Leonard Cohen song. While Keith’s voice doesn’t have the gravitas of the growl-y bass-baritone voicings of Cohen’s later performances – in fact, he generally sounds more confident in his higher register – the performance is true to the song.

‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is an accomplished setting of Jack Kerouac’s poem.

‘The Unfaithful Wife’ is a setting of Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘La Casada Infiel’: it’s a great example of Keith’s skill at adapting and setting verse.

‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week) is one of Keith’s own songs. A lovely combination of lyric and melody.

‘Always’ is a setting of Pablo Neruda’s ‘Siempre’, with Spanish-accented guitar supporting a lyric about love that transcends jealousy.

‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ is another of Keith’s own songs with an arrangement with echoes of Jobim.

‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems. Driving percussion underline a complex soundscape. Highly though I rate his settings, I’m also impressed at how well his own lyrics stand in the company of those other poets.

The blues-jazzy ‘Scatterland’ and the poppier ‘Brand New Jeans’ are Keith’s own songs, while the flamenco-ish ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Lorca. In ‘Floating Bridges’ Keith weaves another Lorca verse into a setting that makes the poem sound as if it was made to be sung.

‘New Face’, ‘Pantomime Horses’ and ‘The Water And The Rain’ are all songs by Keith, taken from his Always CD, which largely features songs derived from his own poetry. The last track on the first CD, ‘A Few Small Grains’, is another song of Keith’s, one of several songs here from his CD of the same name.

The first track on the second CD, ‘Fruit Tree’, is a song by the (still) much-missed Nick Drake. Keith’s vocals are particularly effective on this track. I really must try to get to one of Keith’s interpretive concerts.

‘The Mask’ and ‘Tyger Tyger’ are both featured on Tenderness Claws. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is an effective and appropriate setting of William Blake’s poem, but ‘The Mask’, based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death), is just stunning.

‘Diamond’ is a setting of Lorca’s El Diamante: like many of the settings here, it comes from Keith’s album with Rick Foot Lorca.

‘Blue Angel’ is an atmospheric setting of a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

‘Glory Box’ is a very different, more straightforward version of the Portishead song, while ‘Take This Waltz’ revisits Leonard Cohen’s take on Lorca’s ‘Little Viennese Waltz’. (One way or another, there’s a lot of Lorca on this album, but there are a lot of people out here who will be more than happy about that.)

‘There Must Be A God’ is another song of Keith’s with a relatively pop-y arrangement. Like Nick Drake’s ‘Three Hours’ (which proves again how effective an interpreter of Nick’s songs Keith is) it was previously released on the Outsides album.

‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ is an effective setting of the Dylan Thomas poem. ‘The Queen And The Soldier’ revisits a story song from Suzanne Vega’s debut album.

Two more of Keith’s songs, the ‘Lizard On The Wall’ and ‘Every Bond’, are followed by a chilling setting of Lorca’s surreal, disturbing ‘Sleepless City’.

Two more of Keith’s songs – ‘Run Before You Walk’ and ‘Only Occasionally’ – and finally back to a Lorca setting for ‘Nocturne’.

If you’re among the ever-growing circle of Keith’s admirers – especially if you’re acquainted with his most recent CDs – you’ll know what to expect: fine musicianship and lyrical intensity, leavened here with the occasionally more mainstream sounds of his earlier songs and versions of classic songs by other writers. If you’re not familiar with his work, this is a first class introduction to it. I look forward to hearing more about his current projects.

David Harley

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

‘Anthem’ – official video:

What we’ve said about Keith James:

KEITH JAMES – Always (Hurdy Gurdy Music HG2925)

KEITH JAMES – Tenderness Claws (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2926)

KEITH JAMES – Tenderness Claws (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2926)

Tenderness ClawsOn his web site, Keith James describes his career as esoteric and secretive, but he has actually attracted a good deal of respect for his sensitive interpretations of the songs of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, and his musical settings of his own poetry and that of well-loved writers like Lorca and Dylan Thomas. His new CD, Tenderness Claws, is almost entirely focused on settings of poetry: it’s the first time I’ve actually heard his work, but it’s finely crafted and played, exquisitely produced (mostly by Branwen Munn) and engineered, and repays close attention.

There can be a degree of implicit tension between the intentions of the poet and the composer when a poem is set to music. Housman took exception to the omission by Vaughan Williams of two of the verses from Is My Team Ploughing? Vaughan Williams responded that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense.’ (And made it clear that there were lines in the missing verses that he felt were best forgotten.)

Phil Ochs, though probably mostly remembered nowadays as a ‘protest’ singer, also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes and others. In his liner notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More he offered – if my memory doesn’t fail me – a sort of apology to John Jerome Rooney for his substantial changes to The Men Behind The Guns. (We’ll never know what Rooney would have thought about it).

Keith James clearly believes it appropriate that what Ochs called ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song. And the success of the settings here entirely justifies that belief.

Here’s the track-by-track summary:

  1. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is Keith’s setting of William Blake’s poem. This is the oldest poem set here, and the form is unequivocally strophic, by contrast with the freeform nature of the work of the ‘beat’ poets also represented here. However, it could be said that Blake’s writing was often a long way ahead of its time, and the arrangement is unequivocally modern, and in no way clashes with the more recent verse here. I particularly like Sarah Vilensky’s vocal work here.
  2. Although the insert and booklet state ‘All music composed by Keith James’, ‘White Room’ is actually the melody that Jack Bruce put to Pete Brown’s words on Cream’s Wheels Of Fire Though I remember the original with nostalgia, Keith’s is really rather a good version, benefiting from significantly more light and shade. The arrangement accentuates the dislocated tone of the lyric better than the in-yer-face wah-wah of Cream’s version – perhaps we’re just too accustomed now to the sound of frequency filtering to remember its impact in the 1960s – and Keith’s understated vocal compares well to Bruce’s.
  3. ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca with which I’m not familiar. It combines a rhythmic arrangement that recalls flamenco, though the percussion and some of the changes hint at Latin America. Keith’s vocal delivery, though, is all his own.
  4. ‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ slightly rearranges the poem by Dylan Thomas, but still feels through-composed. I don’t know what Dylan would have thought, but it works for me.
  5. ‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems, combining a wide range of haunting aural effects with a compulsive percussion track.
  6. ‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is set to an abbreviated version of Jack Kerouac’s poem. It works very well.
  7. ‘The Mask’ is based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death). This time the poem, though significantly shortened, is left in Spanish, apart from the couplet that begins and ends this setting. As with ‘Andalucia’, the guitar is steeped in flamenco feel, but Rick Foot’s bowed double bass adds quite a different dimension. Beautiful.
  8. ‘Blue Angel’ sets a poem by Allen Ginsberg to guitar arpeggios that give the setting a slightly folk-y feel.
  9. ‘Lizard On The Wall’ is a guitar-driven setting of Keith’s own slightly surreal words, punctuated by gentle flamenco-tinged clapping. I like it a lot.
  10. ‘A Third Place…’ sets another of Keith’s own poems, hinting at a tragic backstory. In some way I can’t quite define, it makes me think of Brel.

Keith’s voice has a fragility that might not be to everyone’s taste, but is entirely suited to the material here, and I can see (or hear) why it would be suited to the songs of Nick Drake, for instance. But then his settings here of his own poems make for compositions that stand very well on their own, even in the company of the other writers represented here. Highly recommended.

David Harley

Artist’s website: keith-james.com

‘The Mask’ – live on the radio:

Keith James releases new solo album

Keith James

Keith James has become one of the most active and inventive concert artists currently performing in the UK.

A very accomplished sound man with a BBC Maida Vale background, he worked for more than a decade as a record producer (1991 – 2004), working on albums with many of this country’s profoundly talented musicians and writers.

Realising his definite preference for live performance and following a detailed study, 2001 witnessed Keith begin a UK wide tour of concerts based entirely on his love of the songwriter, Nick Drake. As Nick’s music had never been heard live by today’s music audience (he died in 1974) these concerts soon became a huge success; over the course of 15 years, Keith has played over 2000 of these shows in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Spain, Italy and France, all of Nick’s Colleges and almost every British acoustic music festival including Glastonbury.

On from this, Keith has performed many different concerts over the past 10 years. Each one centres on studies and transcriptions of revered poets and writers and includes a significant amount of biographical material. The most notable of these are two CD Albums and two hugely successful tours featuring the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca set to music – The Gypsy Ballads 1928 and Poet in New York 1930. Other important projects are a CD album and concert tour featuring a collection of poetry by Dylan Thomas and an ongoing busy schedule of bio-doc concerts spanning over 6 years performing interpretive versions of songs by Leonard Cohen.

Keith is fiercely independent and therefore his career has for many years, existed in a parallel universe, almost under wraps, esoteric and secretive. He has enjoyed very little radio exposure, he doesn’t fit easily into any music category, he has never signed a recording or publishing deal. Despite this, he has released 13 CD Albums, all self-produced and self-published. The most recent from 2015 is entitled Always, a collection of his own poetry set to music along with one by Pablo Neruda from the 1930s.

He is about to release a brand new album, Tenderness Claws, all settings of poetry to music including work by Jack Kerouac, Pete Brown (1960s British beat poet) William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca and some of Keith’s own. This time, and rather unplanned, he has teamed up with the amazing producer / sound artist, Branwen Munn.

Keith lives in a writing retreat, way up in the hills of Powys, Wales and some months of each year in Andalucía. Since the mid ‘70s, his third home has been the Island of Naxos, Greece. He currently performs around 100 concerts per annum in Theatres, Arts Centres and other inspiring boutique spaces such as Galleries and Arts Cafes. He is currently compiling a volume of his own poetry to be published in 2017 along with some sporadic work on a rather surreal and somewhat comedic novel.

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

Not from the new album but we’re not counting. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ from the Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour:

KEITH JAMES – The Songs Of Leonard Cohen – live at Farnham Maltings

The Songs Of Leonard Cohen

No-one can accuse Keith James of opportunism. He has been touring The Songs Of Leonard Cohen for six years now. The set has changed sometimes and one iteration even included a documentary film but this was the show’s 305th performance. In the immediate aftermath of Cohen’s death one quote emerged above all others: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” from ‘Anthem’.

Keith opened his set with ‘Anthem’ and followed it with one of Cohen’s most cynical songs, ‘Everybody Knows’, one of many masterpieces from I’m A Man. The first set was particularly sombre, inevitably I suppose given that Cohen’s death is still an open wound for some. ‘If It Be Your Will’, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ and ‘It Seemed A Better Way’ from the final album set the tone. Keith skilfully segued into a piece from Cohen’s greatest inspiration, Federico Garcia Lorca, which also gave him the opportunity to stretch out on the guitar. Hearing it in this context you can believe that Cohen could have written ‘The Mask’ and Keith repeated the trick in the second set by following ‘Take This Waltz’ with ‘Going To Santiago’.

While not sounding like Cohen vocally and doing more on the guitar than Cohen did what is most interesting is Keith’s reading of Cohen’s middle period middle when he was using big backings. The early songs such as ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird On A Wire’ and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ are too well-known and “simple” to lend themselves to over-interpretation and fans need something to sing along with as Keith proved by asking us to join in raucously with the chorus of ‘So Long, Marianne’: an experience to be cherished. Keith brings a song from that middle period like ‘First We Take Manhattan’, a song of political angst, back to basics.

Having closed with ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – I was surprised to find that I remembered nearly all the words – Keith encored with ‘Hallelujah’. It always amuses me that Cohen’s original studio recording of the song was actually rather flat and dull and it has been cover versions over the years that have made it what it is.

This was the first date of this leg of Keith’s ongoing Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour and there are many more opportunities to enjoy the show. I left with the feeling that I really ought to get back to the original albums particularly I’m Your Man, Various Positions and The Future. Sometimes you need, not only new ears, but also a different voice to bring a song back.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.keith-james.com

KEITH JAMES – Always (Hurdy Gurdy Music HG2925)

KEITH JAMES AlwaysFor the past 15 years, James has been inextricably linked with the music of Nick Drake, performing well over 1000 of his ‘The Songs of Nick Drake’ concerts, and, more recently, ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’, a Spanish themed show featuring Classical and Flamenco guitar and the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende and Federico Garcia Lorca, their writing also forming part of ‘Time Let Me Play’, a concert built around the poetry of Dylan Thomas alongside that of Cohen and William Blake.

However, few, especially new admirers, may be aware that he’s also a songwriter in his own right, having released five solo albums of mostly original material as well as one with Rick Foot. This is his first since 2006 and serves to demonstrate that he’s not caught in anyone’s shadow. Written over the course of some thirty years, the earliest, the smokily sung finger-picked ballad ‘As Love Begins’, dating back to a 1986 BBC Session (and rather more optimistic than the desolately sad ‘The Water and the Rain’, written for another session the following year) and sounding reminiscent of Woodstock-era Iain Matthews filtered through an early Harvey Andrews gauze. Indeed, though it’s inevitable that you’ll likely hear the influence of Drake, there’s quite a bit here that reminds me of vintage Andrews in the phrasing and vocal timbre. That said, both the organ-backed opening track, ‘Waiting For A Miracle’, and the bass-heady ‘Melt Away (Post Festival Blues)’ echo the jazzy-blues style of John Martyn. Save for the choppy, itchy electric guitar (courtesy Jerry Playle) and organ blues ‘Imaginary Friends’ (which name checks ‘Come On Eileen’), their late night, mellow, smoke-curling groove pretty much characterises the laid back feel of the album, ranging from the lovely ‘New Face’, an arrangement of a bittersweet poem written for a friend accompanied by richly resonant acoustic guitar, and the flamenco styling of ‘Always’, based on a Neruda poem, to the watery Renbourn/Drake-styled guitar work of ‘Only Occasionally’ and the caustic vision of humanity that is the seven minute ‘Pantomime Horses’.

The album ends on the only cover, a tender reading and arrangement of Ralph McTell’s pastoral love song, ‘Girl from the Hiring Fair’, but it’s James’ own material – and the assured, masterful manner in which he performs it, that emerges as the most evocative. Maybe a concert tour of The Songs of Keith James wouldn’t go amiss.

Mike Davies

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

‘Always’ by Pablo Naruda and Keith James: