As much as I love playing solo gigs where I get the chance to tell stories as I introduce the songs, there is nothing to beat the feeling you get when playing in a band, particularly when it’s with the calibre of musicians that I am lucky enough to call upon! Plus – when there is a great camaraderie between the people in the band – that you love being with each other as much when you’re off-stage as you do when you’re on-stage (and there is a lot more time off-stage than on!) it makes it the best job in the world. And the fact that they can all sing a harmony is the icing on a very musical cake.
So I salute the members of The Chancers: Jonny Miller (guitar); Dirk Forsdyke (drums); Jules Shevlin (acoustic guitar) and Thérèse Miller (keyboards).
You’re at a gig; the artist on stage looks down at his or her feet and reads from a scrap of paper. Scrawled on the scrap of paper is a list of songs. You think it was probably thrown together in the same way as a shopping list. You would be wrong. For this is a set list…
A non-musician friend called me up and asked if I was busy. I told him that I was. I said that I was writing out a set list for an upcoming gig. He chuckled and said, sarcastically, “Well, that will keep you busy all day!” In actual fact, he spoke the truth, for the set-list is not a thing to be taken lightly.
Here are some things to take into consideration when putting together a set list:
The musical pitch the songs are played in matters. A record producer once said to me that the running order of an album should always ascend in pitch, never descend. (Note – the album running order is the distant cousin of the set list and as once the record is mastered the running order cannot be altered, it is even more critical to get it right first time! I always think long and hard about an album’s running order and so loathe Spotify’s ‘shuffle play’ for this reason). The same goes for the set list.
Major and Minor Keys
Major keys tend to be happier, minor keys more sombre and sad. I like to mix it up to elicit different emotions from the audience. A rule of 2:1 should apply here – if you play two minor keys then play one in a major key and vice versa. If all your songs are in a minor key you should seek professional help or try and get out a bit more.
Most of the gigs I play tend to be to listening audiences in small clubs or at house concerts, which tend to be much more intimate so you can play a couple of slow songs one after another without losing the crowd. As with major or minor keys, however, I don’t ever play more than two in a row before offering up a medium or fast-paced ditty. As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. Of course, if I’m playing with a full band, particularly on a festival stage where people are seeing you for the first time, I tend to play the more energetic, upbeat songs. To watch people dancing to your tune in a field with a beer in their hand is a thing of beauty.
Most rock and roll songs are in 4/4 time. I have some that are in 3/4 (waltz time) that sway gently. You should never play two of these in a row. If you do Morris dancers will appear from nowhere.
Some songs you strum, some songs you finger-pick. Rule of 2:1 applies here, too.
I’m Irish so I like a good story. I once wrote a song just so I could tell a favourite story. It has been pointed out to me that the introduction to one of my songs was actually longer than the song it preceded. My rule is not to tell a story of epic proportions before every song. Sometimes it’s good to let the songs tell their own story.
It’s easy to forget that this is the music business. As much as I love playing gigs, when I’m out on the road I need to sell merchandise to make a living. Your set should contain a good mix from your catalogue (I currently have two albums and an EP available to buy). If there is a new album to sell, songs from that record need to be included in the set, tucked safely between tried and tested songs. But which ones do you favour and which ones do you drop from the list to make way for them? I try to swap like-for-like either in tone or rhythm, but sometimes it’s hard to let go of songs that have served you well. If you’re playing a repeat venue and you know that the bulk of the audience bought what you had last time you were there, you’d be crazy not to tempt them with newer songs that they don’t own.
I am often tempted to play some new songs that I haven’t yet recorded (you always love the last song you’ve written!) and, while it’s good to keep the set fresh and to see if it gets a good reaction (so you can put it on a shortlist for your next recording), I once nearly lost out on a sale at the merch table when a guy wanted to know which CD a song he had really liked was on. It wasn’t on any of them. Thankfully, he bought an album anyway.
Oh, the age-old question: whether to throw in a cover song or not? For me, it depends of the length of the show. If it’s just a 45-minute slot, I’d want all of the songs to be self-penned. If I’m playing two sets in a new venue to a new audience, midway through the second set, I might slip in a song that they know because an hour and a half is a long time to expect an audience to focus on songs that they have never heard before. In the US, this can work to your advantage thanks to the tip jar. I was playing in a bar called Swampers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the artists are expected to perform three 45-minute sets. I peppered the sets with traditional Irish songs and each time someone came up and dropped a 20 dollar bill in the jar, with a nod that said ‘my ancestors were from Ireland’. By the end of the night there was over a hundred dollars in the jar, which to a touring musician on a budget is four sleazy motel rooms!
The first two or three songs should let the audience know what they’re in for. You should come out all guns blazing, settle down and then gradually build momentum, “like an inverted Gaussian Curve,” said that same record producer (don’t worry, I had to look it up too!).
Now you’re probably thinking that you would need a NASA computer to help permutate the above criteria but believe me – you get a feel for it after a while.
So how do I go about it?
I type up a list of songs I want to play. I then print up the list and cut up the paper to contain individual songs. I lay the pieces out on a surface taking in to consideration all of the above criteria. I play through the set (some times I top and tail the songs) going from one song to the next to see that they flow nicely, complementing each other, and then I adjust the place order to suit.
However, the list should never be written in stone. The artist may need to adapt to the situation. I was once playing a place in Chicago which was split into two separate venues – separated by a brick wall that was no match for the volume that the metal band next door was playing at. I immediately ditched my delicate, introspective, soul-searching, finger-picking songs for up-tempo, loud, raucous ones where I could beat the hell out of my acoustic guitar. Afterwards, I said to the bar’s manager, you need to soundproof that wall. He sighed and said: “It is sound-proofed – you shoulda heard it in da room!”
So, while the set list should be as finely-tuned as the instrument that the songs are played on, it should also be a living, breathing thing.
The real test is out on the road. That’s the time you find out if your running order works or not. If it’s not feeling quite right, juggle the songs until it does. I was five days into a tour, on stage at the Barley Street Tavern in Omaha, Nebraska, when I thought to myself: I’ve got this! I knew what to play, when to tell a story, when to shut up and just play the song, when to finish, and what to finish with. It was a moment of zen-like enlightenment. The set list and I were as one.
So next time you’re at a gig, think of the effort that the artist on stage has put in to preparing for the show, and maybe think twice before shouting out that request.
As 2017 heads for the door marked exit and 2018 takes its first tentative steps onto the stage, it’s always good to look back on what has been achieved in the previous 12 months and take stock of what went on. Have the seeds planted in previous years borne fruit? Has momentum been maintained? Did I have fun?
Here’s what went on…
The year began with me putting the final touches to the new album American Odyssey – there were some harmonies needed which my sister Jules AKA Tiny Diva supplied in a couple of quick sessions – then the task of mixing began. Engineer Ian tends to do a mix after each recording session so final mixing was not an epic task to undertake. He did a mix of each track on his own where he seemed to sprinkle a little fairy dust, subtly bringing out elements in the recording that had maybe got a little lost in overdubs. I lived with the results for a few days, playing it on every audio device I have: from the quality hi-fi system in my music room, through headphones on a laptop computer, and on the CD player in the car, and I made notes on any changes I thought were necessary and Ian made those accordingly. We repeated this procedure until I was happy. American Odyssey was complete. I spent the next few weeks telling everyone I knew that I had made the best recording of my career.
Most of February and March was spent in the US. I spent time in New York, Kansas City and Nashville. The main event was being back in Kansas City for a music festival/conference called Folk Alliance International. Five days of workshops, seminars, showcases and gigs in the usually corporate environment of the Westin Crown Hotel. I was there as part of the British Underground – sponsored by the Musicians’ Union and PRS for Music. It was great to meet up with acts whose careers I’d followed from afar such as Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Sam Kelly and Gwyneth Herbert.
FAI is an excellent opportunity to be introduced to industry people it would normally be hard to make a connection with such as record label representatives, publishers, booking agents and artist managers. I was also able to be up-close with or interact with the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Darden Smith, Danny Kortchmar and Billy Bragg.
Of course, I also took the time to consolidate my relationship with KC with shows at The Dubliner and a farewell gig at Johnnie’s Bar, where just about everybody I know in town was present.
I then drove down to Nashville to spend a couple of weeks catching up with friends and people I had previously co-written with.
The next few months were spent preparing for the release of the new album. There were meetings with my label, PR companies, and CD duplication companies. I’m well aware that it’s called the music ‘business’ but this is my least favourite aspect of my career – albeit a necessary one. If people don’t know about the record, how can they buy it? If the logistics of making it available via digital technology or good old-fashioned CDs are not given due attention, people will not be able to purchase it.
There were interviews with radio stations and magazines. These were not a problem because the story behind the album was my three-month tour of the US in 2015 so there was a lot to talk about.
In between this, I managed a trip to Australia. I was hoping that I could develop a similar routine as I do in the States but the costs of just getting there outweighed any chance of making a profit from touring. This is a shame because it’s such a beautiful country; I loved being there, and would love to see more of it.
The single Travelling Man was released in late July. The BBC played it, saying: “You will be singing this for the rest of the week… It’s a great song.” While the folks at Folk Union said: “There’s something about that type of country that I love… it takes me back to 1979 and Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello et al.”
The album was released in August. VENTS Magazine wrote: “The trials and tribulations of life on the road are captured in a set of songs that draw on classic Country, gritty rock n’ roll, swampy blues rock and 60’s powerpop in equal measure.” The Daily Country called it “an outsider’s love letter to the United States.” Americana UK said it was “a sonic postcard”. The icing on the cake, though, was RnR Magazine saying: “It’s like listening to a musical roadmap and at each stop there’s a good song with something to say.”
During the summer I played some festival dates with my backing band The Chancers as well as solo house concerts up and down the country.
The last few months of the year have been constructive in preparing for 2018. There are a bunch of songs that have been written since the tour of 2015 that are finding their way into my live set, so I’m keen to produce another acoustic EP along the lines of Restless Celtic Heart (which started life as a ‘white label’ to sell at shows alongside Songs From the Last Chance Saloon). Recording on that should start in April.
I’ve also been researching and planning a return to the US for the coming summer. If I can get the stars to align I hope to be spending a month in the Midwest and then either a month travelling up the Pacific coast of California from San Diego to San Francisco or venturing into new territories such as Montana and Wyoming.
2017, you’ve been great, but bring on 2018! I can’t wait…
I thought I’d do a round-up of what press and radio have been saying about American Odyssey.
Up in Lancashire UK, BBC DJ Joe Wilson has played Travelling Man twice on The Country Show saying: “You will be singing this for the rest of the week… It’s a great song.”
Closer to home in Norfolk, the BBC’s Keith Greentree said: “He makes good music doesn’t he?”
Carl Spaul at Folk Union in Chelmsford said: “There’s something about that type of country that I love… it takes me back to 1979 and Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello et al.”
Russell Hill at Portsmouth Express FM has played Rambling Days and Tucumcari Sunset playing the latter song back to back with The Eagles’s Tequila Sunrise.
VENTS Magazine wrote: “The trials and tribulations of life on the road, are captured in a set of songs that draw on classic Country, gritty Rock n’ roll, swampy blues rock and 60’s powerpop in equal measure.”
Songwriting Magazine said: He’s been recommended for fans of Celtic-infused Americana, but we also think that those of you who enjoy Don Gibson and Marty Robbins (one of Shevlin’s influences) will enjoy Travelling Man
The Daily Country called American Odyssey “an outsider’s love letter to the United States.”
Pure M Magazine said “Eleven songs – one for every thousand miles of road – take the listener on a remarkable journey that is one man’s American Odyssey.”
Songwriter News‘s highlights were: “Eleven tracks of inspired creativity…a masterpiece that salutes Americana…. illuminates the talents of an awesome singer-songwriter… a touch of understated genius”
Americana UK called American Odyssey “a sonic postcard” adding:
“Santa Fe Sadness [is] a wonderful Tennessee type waltz while Ride The Mississippi is a very fine example of gusha gusha gumbo as cooked up years ago by Danny Adler. The album’s single, Travelling Man, is a breezy ride of a song lifted by its pedal steel and soaring refrain and there’s some Rockpile-like rambunctiousness on When Ginny Gets Her Wings while Mockingbird benefits from the female harmonies surrounding Shevlin’s voice over some fine guitars and mandolin.” They finished their review with ““Anglo Americana travelogue that hits the spot…”
The BBC‘s Stephen Foster wrote: “American Odyssey is as good a record as you’ll hear all year.”
RnR Magazine concluded “It’s like listening to a musical roadmap and at each stop there’s a good song with something to say.” And “Shevlin deserves to be much better known and this is definitely a trip worth taking.”
You never know when the Songwriting muse will tap you on the shoulder and say ‘how about this for a song?’
I was en route to Amarillo for my next gig. I had stayed the previous night in El Paso – at the El Paso Motel to be exact, my fondness for Marty Robbins getting the better of me. I suppose I hoped that I might find ‘Rosa’s Cantina’ where ‘music would play and Felina would whirl.’ As it turned out, it was one of the seedier places in which I spent the night.
Next morning, I was up at dawn. The cute girl with the beaming smile on reception remarked on my early checkout. I replied with a smile: “Oh well, another day, another town,” …
The line stayed with me. I had only been on Highway 54 for a short while when I knew there was a song stirring in my head. I reached for the digital recorder that I had sitting on the passenger seat in case of times like this and turned it on. I sang the first melody that came into my head and these words came tumbling out: “Another day, another town, on this road that I’ve been running down, I’m making music anywhere I can.”
I’ve written a lot of songs over the years but I can’t remember one that was not changed or edited in some way but I felt this one seemed to be perfectly formed.
By the time I stopped to look for aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, I had added: “I was born with the need to play to the rhythm of a lost highway”.
The final line of the chorus had been one that I had been using for a while on my trip across the US. In various bars and diners I had frequented, people would ask me if I was travelling with a band. “No,” I would say, “just me, a guitar and a car.” All that needed to be added was “I’m a travelling man.”
The verses would be written the following week when I was back in Nashville. A music publisher had asked me if I wanted to co-write with one of the artists on their roster, a young guy called Ty James. At the writing session I offered up the chorus I had and together we wrote the verses. My only stipulation was that if we mentioned US name places, they had to be towns, cities or States that I had passed through on my tour. A couple of hours later we had the finished song. Or so I thought.
A week later, back in the UK, I played it to my sister Jules. She is always the first person that I run new songs by. She liked ‘Travelling Man’ but agreed it needed ‘something else’. We settled on a musical change at the end of the song which reinforced the title. Job done.
I hope you enjoy listening to this song. More than any other song on the album I think it sums up the epic journey I undertook, which saw me drive 11,000 miles, passing through 17 States and 21 cities that made up my American Odyssey.
Travelling Man: drums – Tim Bye; piano – Adam Whyatt; electric guitars – Jonny Miller; backing vocals – Jules Shevlin; pedal steel – Nick Zala; bass, acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals – Tony James Shevlin
Recorded at Amblin’ Man Studios, Otley, Suffolk, UK by Ian Crow.
I am very lucky that I can call upon the services of so many talented musician friends to come and play on my records.
I have already written about the contributions from drummer Tim Bye, guitarist Jonny Miller, and pedal steel supremo Nick Zala; and when I needed inspiration for a bass part – Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears.
If my record label had said they wanted to put out the album with just guitar, bass, drums and a lead vocal, I would have been proud of what we had. But as I was writing these songs, I already had musical parts in my head, and I knew who I wanted to bring each part to life. And in each case, the guest musician said yes!
Always my first port on call for piano and Hammond organ is Adam Whyatt. Adam and I have played together in many bands. Sometimes it is scary how close he comes to coming up with keyboard lines I have in my head without me giving him any clues. Whether it’s the Country honky tonk needed for Santa Fe Sadness or the bluesy New Orleans romp of Ridethe Mississippi, Adam always has just the right set of chops the songs need. In all, he graces seven songs with his keyboard brilliance. On the re-recording of Kansas City Won’t Let me go, I said, just play what you did on the recording from last year (a US only single release). Adam said: “No, I can do it better!” And he did. When I played it to a Nashville session musician, he said, “Man that cat can play!”
There is one other keyboard on American Odyssey but it is masquerading as an accordion. I had decided I wanted a Tex-Mex accordion sound on Tucumcari Sunset. I had booked an accordionist but they had to cancel at the last minute. Thérèse Miller came to my rescue by playing the part on a keyboard using an accordion sound. But it wasn’t a case of just playing the notes; she thought through the way an accordion player would approach the part, where they would put little trills in etc. and captured it perfectly. It adds a very subtle but important texture to the track.
My song Set Me Down by the Singing River is a celebration of the music that came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s. Eta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all produced amazing sounds from Rick Hall’s FAME studio. And from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio came tracks from the Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many more.
I wanted the sound of a Gospel choir so I approached my friend Andi Hopgood who runs the Suffolk Soul Singers choir. I played her the almost completed song and hummed the kind of thing I was looking for. Andi scribbled down some notes and said, “Leave it with me.”
A couple of weeks later, engineer Ian Crow and his friend Gareth Patch who has a mobile recording studio, set up at the choir’s rehearsal room. Andi listened to the song on headphones and conducted the 30 voices through the final chorus, key change and outro. Looking on, I was both nervous and excited. The parts and the performances were everything I hoped they would be. Andi’s arrangement is wonderful and her charges did her proud.
One of my favourite performances on the album is the violin playing of Jan Rowe on When the Rain Came Down. It’s a folk song, finger-picked on acoustic guitar with just one vocal. I wanted to add a classical violin to it. Jan came to my house and I hummed her the motif I had in mind. She wrote down the notes and then on a violin that was made back when Beethoven was ten years of age, she played them back to me with such emotive playing, I nearly cried. We recorded the part on my digital recorder and she played along with that, adding another melody which perfectly complimented the original.
A few days later we met at Amblin’ Man Studios. Ian put a microphone up and we tested the sound – it was beautiful. “Let’s go for a take,” said Ian. So we did. When Jan’s final note had faded away, Ian and I looked at each other in amazement. “Er, that’s it, thank you, Jan,” said Ian. And that is the take that’s on the record. Jan then added the second melody (that too was a first take). She definitely won the prize for quickest session. As I said goodbye to her, I noticed that the bonnet of her car was still warm.
My sister, Jules, aka Tiny Diva, is my sounding board for all things musical. She is the first to hear new songs; the person whose opinion means most to me. She will counsel and cajole, steer and suggest. And when it comes to vocals, her word is sacrosanct. She chooses the keys the songs are recorded in, as quite often, the keys I write songs in aren’t always the best for my voice. I noticed that songs I wrote singing into my digital recorder whilst driving were often in the key of D; I was clearly influenced by the note that is sounded by a Buick LaCrosse cruising on the freeway!
Jules comes to the studio when I record lead vocals. If she says “sing it again,” then I sing it again. The session is not finished until Jules has signed off on my performance. Likewise, when it comes to harmonies, Jules is in command. If she decides that it would be best to have a male voice for a certain harmony, she will patiently school me in the correct notes needed – and she needs to be patient, believe me.
When she steps into the vocal booth, it’s another story. Jules is an incredible session vocalist. She can add layer after layer of great-sounding harmonies from ethereal and delicate on Robert Johnson’s Tears through to the full-on Gospel wail of Ride the Mississippi. An indispensable ingredient of a Tony James Shevlin record is Jules’s vocals.
Making an album is a collaborative process and being with like-minded people in a recording studio is such a rewarding experience. As a writer, it’s a wonderful feeling having musicians around you who can share in your vision for a song. I thank each and everyone of them for helping bring the songs on American Odyssey to life.
After the cold wind and snow of New York, it was nice to feel the sunshine on my face as I arrived at Kansas City Airport. My friend Doris picked me up. After a cup of coffee at her house in Independence, Missouri, we headed in to KC itself, to my favourite Barbecue joint – Bryant’s. Their burnt ends are to die for!
I met up with my friends Matt and Kevin and we spent the evening travelling round several bars including Johnnie’s (mentioned in my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go – head barman D-Rock very kindly had it playing on the jukebox as I entered the bar.
Next morning, Matt and I were up early. We drove over the State line from Missouri into a small town in Kansas. At a rather non-descript house, we met a man who had driven up from Biloxi, Mississippi with live crabs, shrimps and crawdaddies. Matt was cooking up a ‘Louisiana boil’ in my honour.
Most of the day was spent preparing for this sumptuous meal that would bring together lots of people I had met during my past visits to KC. The cook-up and subsequent party with poker, pool, and a jam session took place at Matt’s 7th floor loft apartment in a converted warehouse. By 3am the party showed no signs of slowing down…
It was decided that the only way to start a post-party Sunday was with a champagne breakfast. This was followed by liquid lunch at my favourite restaurant – The Genessee Royale.
We were on a roll, so a few more bars were visited until eventually we ended up at one of my favourite KC watering holes – The Dubliner. This was somewhat fortuitous as I had a show there that evening. There was a great crowd in – some who remembered me from previous shows and I picked up some new friends too. This was also my first chance to road test songs from the new album and they went down well.
The night ended at a party for the forthcoming Mardi Gras in a covered market.
My first visit to Kansas City, Missouri was as part of my US tour in 2015. During my time there someone mentioned the Folk Alliance International Conference and said: “You should go! You’d love it!” Again, when I was there in 2016 promoting the release of my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go, several musicians, 2 radio hosts, and a TV reporter all recommended I attend the yearly get-together. So I booked a place as a delegate at the 2017 conference.
The mission of Folk Alliance International is “to nurture, engage, and empower the international folk music community -traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional – through education, advocacy and performance”. Sounds good to me.
The event is held in the Westin Crown Hotel. For just under a week, this typically corporate-looking, soulless structure becomes a vibrant, colourful hotbed of acoustic music activity. It is somewhat incongruous to walk into the lobby of a building which you would expect to be wall to wall with corporate suits to find people playing banjos and fiddles and singing in sweet harmony.
The theme of this year’s conference was Forbidden Folk – putting the spotlight on the history of the protest song. One of the highlights for me was seeing Kris Kristofferson perform at the opening ceremony. His voice is now little more than a husky growl but I got chills hearing him sing Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.
The conference consists of workshops and panels during the day and then gigs during the evening. Many of the workshops were instrument-based such as ‘the Basics of Bluegrass Banjo’ and ‘Intro to Flatpicking’; others less so but still musical-themed such as ‘Songwriting – Getting Unstuck’ and ‘Finding Your Inner Groove – Rhythm Class for all Musicians’.
The panel discussions ranged from the more business oriented such as ‘Diversifying Income Sources’ and ‘PR Power’ to the more culturally embracing such as ‘Women in Music’ and ‘Global Roots’.
What the FAI is more than anything is a chance to network with people in the industry who you would never get to meet in normal circumstances. The place is teeming with managers, booking agents, radio DJs, labels and of course, like-minded musicians and artists.
Prior to leaving for KC I had contacted several industry figures with a cheery email saying “Hi, I’m going to be at FAI. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains for 10 minutes?” Most came back in the affirmative.
I was at the conference as part of the British Underground – a collection of UK-based acts who displayed a brilliant camaraderie throughout the conference, supporting one another at shows and at play. They were the nicest bunch of people you could wish to meet. And so, so talented! Because of my own commitments, it was impossible to catch them all performing but those I did included Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Blair Dunlop, Kirsty McGhee, Sam Kelly, Gwyneth Herbert, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Emily Mae Winters, Gilmore & Roberts, and the Jellyman’s Daughter. All worth checking out!
We were looked after by Crispin Parry from British Underground and Neil Pearson from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The pair were constantly around and available for advice, comfort, and tea and biscuits. I have no idea when they slept.
The early evening gigs are held in the various conference suites. These are the ‘Official Showcases’. One of my favourites was seeing Texan singer-songwriter Darden Smith. It was a master class in how to engage an audience and put across your songs. Another was Kortchmar, Postell & Navarro which features guitarist Danny Kortchmar – famous for his work with Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil young, and most famously – Carole King (checkout the solo on It’s Too Late from Tapestry).
For many people, though, the magic of Folk Alliance happens after 10pm when the rooms of 3 floors of the hotel become boutique venues. Some rooms just have the bed pushed to one side and an artist performs in the space; some of the bigger suites will have lights and a small PA. My first show was in The First Timer’s Room. It was something of a shock to find that I was to play to people sitting on the bed and a few chairs. But what the heck, it was nice of them to turn out, so you just give it your best.
My favourite gig was playing in the British Underground Suite (with PA and Lights). Sets are only 25 minutes long so you don’t really have time to settle in – you’ve got to go for it straight off the bat. With so much music to check out, it’s not uncommon for people to pop in, check out a few songs and then pop out again. Crispin and Neil had warned us all that this would happen and not to take it personally. Always remember, you never know who might be watching you. It might be just the person you need in your life right now.
One evening, when I was rushing from one room to another, down the hallway, coming towards me, I saw the aforementioned Danny Kortchmar. Play it cool, I thought. But then I lost it and took my first (and hopefully my last) celebrity selfie!
On the final night of the conference, guest speaker Billy Bragg gave a rousing speech to a packed auditorium, reminding us that with recent political events in the US and elsewhere “we need folk music more than ever. We need people to stand up and tell the truth about what is happening in society. Folk music has always done that”.
I had two days left in KC. On the penultimate day (a Sunday) I played an afternoon show at Johnnie’s Bar. The place was packed with just about everyone I knew from the city. However, four 18 hour days spent in the recycled air of the Westin Hotel plus shows at one o’clock in morning and some serious partying were starting to take their toll on my voice. Thankfully, someone suggested I drink whisky, honey and lemon. It got me through the gig and I now have a new favourite drink.
Matt and I spent my last day in KC canoeing on the Missouri River. It was quite windy but the sun shone and I found it extremely relaxing. Apart from when we moored up on the riverbank and shot at empty beer cans with an old Remington Colt revolver. But that was fun, too.
The next day I hired a car and drove down to Nashville…
It had been many years since I had visited New York City. The last time I was there I had admired the view of the city from the top of one of the Twin Towers. This time I visited Ground Zero and paused for thought at the memorial fountains.
There is something magical about New York. Thanks to the movie industry, so many of its landmarks are etched in our memories: The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Times Square. It’s a great city to walk round.
Despite the cold February weather, I walked up to Central Park. I visited the section dedicated to John Lennon called Strawberry Fields. There is a beautiful mosaic with ‘Imagine’ written in the middle. From there it’s a short walk to the Dakota Building where Lennon lived for many years, and of course, where he was murdered in 1980. I stood outside and cursed Mark Chapman.
Space is at a premium in NYC. So I was very pleased with myself when I secured accommodation in midtown Manhattan for just fifty dollars a night in a 7th floor apartment on a street just off Lexington Avenue. The blurb read “Private loft bed with office space.” Boy was I in for a surprise.
The one-room apartment had been divided into four ‘rooms’ with the strategic positioning of a series of canvas blinds. My loft bed was a bunk bed but where the bottom bunk should have been there was a space with a small table and chair; on the table was an office lamp. There was a small stepladder to gain access to the bed. After you had negotiated its three steps you then took a leap of faith up to the bed. The host’s bed was hidden behind similar blinds. And while those blinds kept her from view, it did not prevent me from hearing her snore the whole night through. The other ‘room’ was occupied by a man I never met, although I did hear him scurrying around like some feral animal late at night.
I spent very little time in the apartment.
New York moves at an incredible pace. If you try to slow that pace down New Yorkers will let you know in no uncertain terms. On the bus in from JFK, one of the passengers couldn’t produce his ticket for an inspector. The inspector said if he didn’t pay up (again) or get off the bus he would “shut it down and everybody would have to vacate the vehicle”. He knew what he was doing. The other passengers turned on the poor man and told him to “get the hell off the bus”. One man offered to ‘assist’ his exit. I told the inspector that I was behind the guy in the queue at the ticket office and saw him pay for his ride. He stared at me as though I was part of a conspiracy to defraud the New York City Bus Company: “Lemme see your ticket!” There was a moment of panic as I searched through the many pockets of my coat. And then a wave of relief when I found it and handed it over. The eventual hounding led to the man leaving the bus. This is a tough city. But often that toughness is laced with humour.
The next morning, I encountered the same impatience in the queue for a sandwich in a diner. I dithered over what bread to have (there are so many and they are barked out at you). A strong Brooklyn-accented voice from the back of the queue, said: “C’mon buddy, I’m missing my kids growin’ up, here!”
That evening, I hooked up with former Suffolk musician, Aaron Short, who now calls the Big Apple home. I watched him play at a restaurant called Tommy Bahamas. I was pleased to note that the young Aaron I remember just starting out in the music business had matured into a fine musician, a confident performer, and a really nice chap.
After his gig, Aaron accompanied me to a bar called American Trash to watch me strut my stuff. It was aptly named. This was not a place where you performed your most intimate, subtle, soul-searching, finger-picked folk ballads. Thrashing the hell out of your guitar was the order of the day. This is what I did and I have lived to tell the tale. Afterwards Aaron and I retired to a late-night bar and put the world to rights. It was good to see him.
The following day I met up with another musician friend – Sophie Jean Kim. We had first met on a Spanish Songwriting retreat, and then again in London where we wrote a song together in Regent’s Park called Watching the World Go By. Jean was still not over the result of the recent presidential election. We could have channeled her feelings of shock and desolation into a song but instead we decided to write a song of hope for the future called Never Give In. We filled it with positive affirmations, about coming together and healing. I didn’t have the heart to tell Jean that I couldn’t shake the image from my head of a little orange man with his tiny hand on a big red button.
After my meeting with Jean, I took a ferry across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey for no other reason than it was the birthplace of Francis Albert Sinatra. I found an Irish Bar with an Irish barman and had a very good pint of Guinness. They were playing Frank on the jukebox. My mother had been a huge fan, so as he sang One More for my Baby and One More for the Road, I ordered a shot of whisky, looked Heavenward and said: “This one’s for you, Mum”.
Next morning I woke to a city blanketed in snow. I left my host snoring and her roommate skulking about and headed out to play at being Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2. The streets had been cleared of snow, the detritus in the gutters forming little mountains ranges. From the warmth of a coffee shop, I watched the natives head out to work, battling against the falling snow and the biting wind. Nothing stops in this city.
Except the airports. They stop. Delta Airlines had informed me by email that my flight had been put back from 1pm to 8pm. No problem – a few more hours in NYC, that was okay. But when I arrived at La Guardia, the information boards read that my flight had been cancelled (it’s strange that Delta neglected to tell me this).
The desk jockey at the check-in counter told me that I was now booked on the 8pm flight the following night. Summoning up the spirit of a native New Yorker, I looked at him steely-eyed and said: “Not happening, buddy. Get me on an earlier flight!” I had been told that airlines always keep some seats back for more astute or assertive passengers that aren’t happy to accept long delays. He immediately looked at his screen and said, “Oh, look at that, someone has just cancelled on the 11 o’clock flight tomorrow morning. I can put you on that!” “Marvellous!” I said, “that is fortunate”. He smiled, weakly at me. He knew I knew, and I knew that he knew I knew but we continued our charade.
The problem now was to find a room for the night. With the amount of flights cancelled because of the bad weather, all the airport hotels were fully booked. I found a motel in one of the less salubrious areas of Queens (and that’s not easy) called Flushing. The Flushing Motel. It was pretty basic but it was warm, clean and dry. I have a ritual that comes from my US tour of 2015 that whenever I stay in a motel, I hole up with beer and pepperoni pizza. The concierge, a very nice Indian man, thought that I was crazy to venture out in the blizzard that had started up. No matter. A ritual is a ritual and has to be maintained.
Downtown Flushing is predominantly a Chinese neighbourhood. And it seems that the Chinese in Flushing have little or no interest in beer. Every store I went in to I was told “No Beer” by angry-looking ancient and inscrutable shopkeepers. So I wandered the streets of Chinatown on a quest for beer like a frostbitten Jack Nicholson. I doubt that that Oscar-winning movie’s protagonist, private eye Jake Gittes would have shown the dedication and determination I showed that night. Eventually, in the distance, at the top of a hill, I saw a neon sign advertising a well-known brand of American beer. With the resilience of Captain Scott and the thirst of Captain Haddock, I climbed the hill, entered the store, bought some beer, and headed back to the motel, stopping only to buy two large pizza slices on the way. That beer tasted very, very good.
The flight from New York City to Kansas City was only memorable for two incidents. The first was a stewardess who took umbrage at my wanting to bring my Martin guitar on board as hand luggage. I reminded her of Delta Airlines’ policy of allowing musical instruments on board, and because I was still in a New York state of mind, added: “Lady, this is a thousand dollar guitar – it’s not going in the hold!”
We had another run-in later on when she was serving drinks. She looked disgusted when I ordered a beer (it wasn’t quite midday). “What beer would you like?” she asked, smiling through gritted teeth. I smiled back: “It might be easier if you tell me what you’ve got.” She reeled off a list and I chose one. She rummaged around in her trolley. Without apology she said, “I haven’t got that one.” I smiled benignly, “Now you’re just playing games…” I think she withheld my complimentary packet of peanuts on purpose…
Sometimes when I am sitting at my desk, I will catch sight of a guitar out of the corner of my eye. I turn to look at it (mostly, it is my Fender Telecaster – absolute perfection – Leo Fender got it right first time). Often, there is an immediate urge to pick one up and start playing but every so often I just sit there and admire the beauty of whichever one has caught my attention. To me, a well-made guitar is a work of art. They can be just as easily impressive for their aesthetic quality as for the sounds they make. In fact, my friend Shane and I once started a band with the express intention of taking all the guitars we own out to a venue and then just having people admire them. For sure, punters would eventually come up and ask, “Well, aren’t you going to play them?” We would tell them, no – just look at how beautiful they are.
So when it came time to record guitars for the new album, it very quickly turned into a holiday outing for almost all my guitars. Well, I reasoned, what if I got there and didn’t have the right one to hand; how foolish I would feel. Best cover all bases and take at least one of everything.
On acoustics day, the Martin I purchased in Nashville in 2015 was the first in its case. Next was the Takemine; this is my workhorse guitar, bought in 1990, it’s been all over the world, veteran of over a thousand gigs and still going strong. For backup, my old Yamaha Folk guitar – for no other reason than it sounds different to the other two.
A surprise addition to the team was a very old Varsity Spanish acoustic guitar which lives in the bedroom (there is a guitar in most rooms in my house – you never know when the urge to play will strike!). I acquired this back in the early 1990s when I briefly worked in a musical instrument shop in Surrey. It lived by the counter and I would use it to write songs whenever there were no customers to attend to. When I left the shop, the guys presented me with the guitar as a leaving present. I still write songs on it. It came in handy for the solo on the Latin-inspired Tucumcari Sunset (more of which, later).
I love the sound of jangly acoustic guitars. Our default method was to record one track using the Martin; I would double track it and then record the Takemine using a capo so that I could play different shapes but in the same key. On some songs we added in the Yamaha, too (with the capo fixed at a different fret) making a total of six acoustic guitar tracks – it sounds awesome!
The Tak’ took the lead on straight-ahead rocking songs such as Rambling Days and Travelling Man but the Martin pulled rank on more delicate songs such as Santa Fe Sadness, Mockingbird and When the Rain Came Down.
When it came time to record electric guitars, I took three instruments with me. A Fender Stratocaster, a Fender Telecaster and an Epiphone Casino semi-acoustic. The last of these stayed on the bench and was not called into play.
I should qualify what the Fender guitars are. They are Fender ‘Squire’ guitars from 1982. They were made in Japan – Fender’s answer to budget copies of their guitars. The trouble is, they were so good that sales of American Fender guitars suffered (they had been of very poor quality since Leo Fender sold the company to CBS in the late 1960s). To combat this, Fender changed the logos on the Japanese guitars from a large Fender one and a small Squire one to a large Squire one and a small Fender one. Because so few were made of the first run, they have now become collectors’ items. Over the years, I have been offered a small fortune for both my Squires. I couldn’t sell them – we have been through so much together; great gigs, bad gigs (barely getting out alive from the Ad-Lib in London springs to mind!). I’ve even had them stolen (where I chased, caught and fought the thieves!). There have been some amazing recording sessions. And they still play like a dream and sound great.
The Strat was my main guitar on this session. I had re-strung it with quite heavy strings which helped the sound when playing slide on Rambling Days and a very bluesy riff on the Muscle Shoals-inspired Set me Down by the Singing River. The Telecaster came in to its own on songs with a more rock and roll feel such as When Ginny gets her Wings.
These were both put through my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier combo. I have only ever owned five amplifiers – three of which have been Fenders. I’m sure my bad back is a result of lugging a Fender Twin Reverb up four flights of stairs at a nightclub in Eastbourne in 1986!
In making a follow-up to the SongsFrom the Last Chance Saloon, I was conscious that I wanted the new album to be a continuation of the previous record but not a copy. A constant theme of the last album was that of redemption. However, I had deliberately ended that record with a song called Run Until We Drop – a song of hope. The album will start with Rambling Days which continues the theme of hope being found through change.
I felt I needed help in making the album sound different in some way. As I was already using the same studio and engineer as before, and had played most of the acoustics and the bass myself, I decided I needed some top notch fret-boarding that was beyond my pay grade. Step forward Jonny Miller.
I have known Jonny for many years; more than a decade ago, he was in a band with my sister, Jules, and I remember admiring his playing. In the summer of 2014 we bumped into each other at a music festival as I was coming off stage and he was going on. We chatted for a while and I stopped to watch him play. He has since become my ‘go to’ guitarist of choice and I was very pleased when he agreed to contribute to the new record.
Jonny is a good all-rounder – well he needs to be, as my musical directions to him tend to be varied and vague – “make it a cross between Chuck Berry and Albert Lee”; “More Tony Joe White and less Stevie Ray Vaughan with just a soupçon of Dave Gilmour thrown in”. At each Frankenstein-esque guitarist hybrid I conjured up, Jonny just nodded knowingly and produced precisely what was needed. I like to think it was my artistic vision that inspired him but I suspect he played exactly what he would have done anyway. There was blues on Set Me Down by the Singing River; rock and roll on When Ginny Gets her Wings; funky riffs on Ride the Mississippi. But my favourite of Jonny’s contributions was the Spanish guitar solo on Tucumcari Sunset. I told Jonny the story of how, en route from Memphis to Phoenix, I stopped the night in Tucumcari, New Mexico (picked because Tucumcari is mentioned in the Little Feat song Willin’). It was the date of my wedding anniversary and I was feeling a little homesick. I drowned my sorrows in a couple of beers and watched the sun go down at a nearby lake and wrote the song. My musical map to him was simply: “Marty Robbins”. Jonny played a solo of such extraordinary beauty combined with a technical brilliance that I was instantly transported to Rosa’s Cantina – the bar in Robbins’ El Paso, watching as Felina whirled. Then, just because he can, he added mandolin to Santa Fe Sadness and Mockingbird.
I have always loved the sound of pedal steel guitar. Its lonesome, haunting sound has always appealed to me. I once met pedal steel player maestro BJ Cole when he played at the tiny Manor Ballroom in Ipswich as part of Los Pistoleros. After the gig, I helped him carry his instrument to the back of his battered old car (they are heavier than you would expect). Just for something to say, I asked him if he was working the following evening. “Yes, I am”, he replied. Anywhere nice? I enquired. “In Barcelona with Sting”, he said, nonchalantly. Nice.
My friend Shane had worked with steel guitarist, Nick Zala and recommended him to me. We chatted on the phone and he sounded like my kind of guy. I sent him some mp3s of works in progress that I thought could use some pedal steel. He asked for a couple more tracks so that he could get the feel of the album, and therefore what I was after. After hearing five tracks he suggested he play on all five – not necessarily all the way through – just little bits, here and there. I agreed. However, when I booked Nick to play on the tracks, I assumed that he would come to the studio, and record as I listened to him play. Not so. It turns out that the way he works is to record remotely which means that you send him mp3s of the tracks you wish to add pedal steel to, he records the parts in his own studio, and then sends them back to you for your approval. This is a totally alien way for me to work. I like being in the studio as parts are recorded. So I was somewhat apprehensive when I learned that I wouldn’t be present as the pedal steel became part of my songs. What if I didn’t like what he played? Do you get the chance to send them back with correction notes attached? I didn’t find out because Nick nailed what I was after first time out. The two songs that I thought would benefit from his service were absolutely on the money. So was one of the three that I’d sent to him as a reference of the overall vibe of the album. However, while there was absolutely nothing wrong with his playing on the other two tracks; they just weren’t right for my vision of the album. Nick sent all of the audio files to Ian at the studio and Ian ‘placed’ them on the tracks. Job done.
Although this ‘remote’ recording worked this time, it is not something that appeals to me. I like the organic nature of the way arrangements come together; being an active member of the process. Saying, “Ooh, I like that. Do more of that” and “Can you make it a little less this and a little more something else?” This, for me, is when the magic happens.
I thought that that was it for guitars but right at the end of the recording process, just as we were about to get down to mixing, I felt that Robert Johnson’s Tears would benefit from some slide guitar. Ian had both a guitar and a slide to hand so I suggested it was about time he put his excellent guitar skills to work on this record. He didn’t disappoint. The parts he came up with were both subtle and complementary to the song. And, of course, having slide guitar on a song that invokes the great bluesman Robert Johnson seems somehow extremely appropriate.