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Come Write Me Down
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
Photo: Ian Anderson
S.R. Yet again, between the second album and the third, you seem to be playing a very much more rhythmic and percussive way, whereas on the earlier ones it was a more intricately fingerpicked thing. On the recent albums I would say that Billy Don’t You Weep
is probably the only one which actually fits that older style. Now, has that come about because you’ve become more interested in the singing of the songs than the playing of the accompaniment?
NJ. No. If anything it’s probably the other way round. With the guitar, if you’re working on intricate accompaniments, somehow it makes the song a rigid thing. Once you start thinking about the accompaniments, the simpler they are, the easier they are to play, the more fluid they are, the more separate they are from what you are singing, the easier it is to sing the song and the more spontaneity you can get into a song. So I started to think about doing accompaniments that stopped me from getting bored singing the same thing every time. Boredom with singing something that was dead rigid every night, so I’ve been trying to do accompaniments that have the element of flexibility in them.
But I think I’m a fairly inept guitar player in actual fact. What amazes me is that other people are infinitely more inept than me. What always staggers me is that people regard me as a reasonable guitarist on the folk scene and I think I’m fairly trashy as a guitarist and have a fairly low standard. What amazes me is the standard is as low as it is, that someone like myself can be regarded as a decent guitarist.
S.R. Yes, but is it possibly because there is a different set of values that apply on the folk scene? For instance, classical players would be very hung up on the technique of playing and the correct fingerings and that sort of thing, whereas the values that apply on the folk scene would be things like the end result. It’s not the way you produce that result, but the actual result in itself Part of being a good guitarist would be to leave out the right things.
NJ. I leave bits out? They’re the bits I can’t play! I don’t really know.
S.R. Because it’s an accompaniment for a song, rather than as an instrumental thing in its own right, then the better you get at it, the more it allows the song room to breathe. I think maybe people have got bored with flashy guitar playing that doesn’t actually do anything.
NJ. Well, I think that’s interesting. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s interesting to do, in the same way as passing exams is worth doing, but I personally don’t want to sit there, ten hours a day, practicing a ridiculous riff just so somebody’s going to gasp in a folk club. To me it’s as ridiculous as an Olympic swimmer bashing up and down 50 lengths of pool everyday just to knock 0.2 of a second off, to say he’s faster than some other bugger. I don’t see the point of it.
There are a lot of musicians who spend hours practising, but for what? They’d do better going out and getting drunk and getting a bit of experience and letting that show in their music. Someone like, for instance, Derroll Adams or Alex Campbell, their music lives far more than any technician’s does because they’re experienced in living. They’ve had more emotion in their lives. Their voices are like sacks of nails, or a bag full of sandpaper or something, but they live. It’s a sound that’s got emotion, feel, it’s got sensitivity, it’s got humanity in it, whereas technical singers are flat, boring, uninteresting people who have been sitting in some cobwebby attic somewhere, just twiddling their fingers all their lives. They’ve not done anything really.
S.R. You’ve said in the past that you don’t, on the whole, listen to traditional singers a lot, other than maybe as a source for songs. But surely with a lot of those old guys there would be that experience of life showing through?
NJ. Well, sometimes. A lot of the ones that people revere are just old farmers, they’ve spent a lot of their lives in a field or on a tractor or something. They haven’t necessarily got any more experience. For example, George Belton worships Alex Campbell. He thinks he’s a fantastic bloke. Alex has done things that George Belton’s never done. This business about traditional singers – people like traditional singers often for the wrong reasons. In folk clubs there is this desire, because a guy is old and grows potatoes in his garden and smokes some old pipe or something, they’ll do the same thing, they’ll wear a pair of old gaiters, they’ll wear some piece of leather leggings or something, or they’ll wear a pair of old boots with studs on because, in a sense, this old person, he becomes their hero because he’s so absolutely normal. They’re so incapable of being normal that when they see somebody normal they actually worship him. Really what people are doing is that they’re attempting something that they lack, and they’re trying to compensate somehow for an inadequacy that’s in their own life.
S.R. You were saying in the club last night about songwriters; writing songs from the point of view of almost being on another planet.
NJ. Well, they set themselves apart, they are apart. We all do. We sit there and it’s very easy to look at the world from the outside. You can look at the folk scene and say ‘This is weird, this is cut off from reality’, but you can also look at office people and say they’re cut off as well, they’re in an unreal world. You can look at any sector of society and say the same thing.
Songwriters tend to somehow project themselves above, in the sky somewhere, and look down on this, and all human activity. If you stood on Mars and looked at all the human beings grovelling about on the earth trying to grab themselves a living and fighting their silly wars and playing their silly football matches and listening to silly records and playing their silly guitars, it’s so stupid because you are outside it and not involved in it. It’s easy to look down on it all and say how utterly silly and irrelevant it all is. Anything you do can appear irrelevant, and it probably is, that’s the horrible thing. So you might as well just get on and do it if you enjoy doing it. If you’re involved in it the main thing is that you’ve got to try and enjoy it.
S.R. What were you attempting to do with Bandoggs, and what did you hope Bandoggs was going to accomplish?
NJ. With a group – there are plenty of acoustic instrumental groups, and there are plenty of vocal groups, but there is no acoustic group that I think combines in a reasonably intelligent and musical way both singing and playing. There’s odd groups in Ireland do this; Clannad are a good example of that, or that Fiedel Michel from Germany, or that Kolinda group, but by and large a group that was slightly less simplistic than the Spinners and slightly less introverted than Pentangle, somewhere in between Pentangle and the Spinners, I think would be a very nice group to have around.
S.R. Were you looking at it from the point of view that it would be nice to do that, and enjoyable to be part of it, or did you think that it was something that was needed and would be good for the folk scene?
NJ. I had a number of motives. I have always thought it would be nice to belong to a group again, so I was interested in doing that. I like music tunewise as well as singing, so I wanted to find a group that would be my ideal as well, for what I’m involved in, and also I thought it was a fairly rare commodity that would possibly make a little bit of money as well. So there were a number of motives, some of them baser than others’.
From Southern Rag No.2 (the original title of fRoots), October 1979
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down