‘I was convinced I’d be an international superstar by the time I was 21!’

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John Howard at Sala Apolo in Barcelona: photo : Eva Fraile

Singer-songwriter John Howard – who turns 65 this year – is publishing his autobiography, Incidents Crowded With Life, has his 1975 debut album, Kid In A Big World, being re-issued on vinyl, along with a collection of ‘70s rarities, and is planning a new album this summer. 

Earlier this year, he put out a five-track EP, Songs From The Morning, on which he paid tribute to some of his favourite songs by ‘60s and ’70s artists, including Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Sandy Denny.

In an exclusive interview, he tells me why he’s looking forward to becoming a pensioner and why recording music keeps him young and agile…

John Howard - Songs From The Morning

Q & A

Your latest release, Songs From The Morning, is a five-track EP, which features your versions of songs by artists that you admired when you were growing up. The tracks are Morning, Please Don’t Come (Tom Springfield), You Get Brighter (Mike Heron), The Lady (Sandy Denny), Morning Glory (Tim Buckley/Larry Beckett) and From The Morning (Nick Drake).

Can you tell me why those songs inspired you so much? What do you like about them and what memories do they bring back?

John Howard: They all bring back different recollections really, and all inspired me for different reasons. You Get Brighter, written by Mike Heron, was the first song I saw The Incredible String Band perform in Manchester in late ’69 – when I was 16 – at The Free Trade Hall. It was the first concert I’d ever been to. The song completely hooked me as soon as Mike sat at the piano and began singing it, and has always stayed with me. I’d been planning to record it for years.

From The Morning by Nick Drake blew me away the first time I heard it, on his final album, Pink Moon. Nick’s version features just him and his guitar, as does that entire album, but I always felt it was a great pop song that would suit a full backing. Some people refer to Nick as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs.

The truly uplifting lyric of  From The Morning, written when Nick was at his lowest ebb, touches me deeply. What spirit that boy had. I tried to capture that innate, feel-good vibe of the lyric – Nick’s sense of wonder at everything in nature around him – with my interpretation.

‘Some people refer to Nick Drake as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs’

Sandy Denny’s The Lady impressed me when I heard it on a friend’s LP in 1972, but when I got a CD box-set by Sandy, a live version was on there and I loved that even more. Her introductory comment to her audience that “this song has a lot of chords” made me smile. She wrote it, and yet it daunted her. It’s the perfect pianist’s song, having as it does some very strange chord changes and progressions.

Morning, Please Don’t Come was a 1970 single by Dusty & Tom Springfield, which I heard on the radio at the time. I thought it was truly lovely, displaying Tom’s great songwriting skills, but by then the pop scene in the UK had radically changed and artists like Dusty, Cilla, Lulu and Sandie Shaw, who’d been so huge in the ‘60s, seemed to have lost their market.

I heard the song again only a couple of years ago, when DJ Rodney Collins played it on his weekly show – on ABC Oldies – and that inspired me to have a go at recording my own version.

I actually met Tom Springfield in 1975, at his flat, with a friend of mine who knew him quite well. It’s a visit he would want to delete from his memory I would imagine as, in ’75 – ’76, I was going through a heavy drinking period and behaved appallingly, like a really ranty queen, which makes me cringe now when I think about it. Tom very quietly asked my friend to take me home, which he did. If anyone who knows Tom reads this, please convey my abject apologies! Mea culpa!

The Tim Buckley song Morning Glory is on an LP I’ve had for years, Goodbye and Hello, and its lyric has always intrigued me. I’m still not sure what it’s about – and even the lyric writer, Larry Beckett, couldn’t fully explain its meaning in an interview a few years ago.

I interpret it as about the way some people can’t settle anywhere – they always have to be on the move, like a hobo, going from ‘fleeting house’ to ‘fleeting house’. I’m probably wrong but that interpretation does for me. It’s a wonderful song, whatever it’s about…

How did you approach the songs on the EP? What did you want to do with them? Is it hard to strike a balance between being respectful to the originals and also wanting to put your own stamp on them?

JH: Yes – that’s always a slight dilemma when recording other people’s songs, especially songs that are rooted deeply in many people’s minds and hearts by the original writers. I treat any recording the same way – I routine it on the piano until it starts to take shape, and then ideas begin pouring into my head for arrangements, vocal approaches and harmonies.

It’s never clear what I want from a song – whether it’s one of mine or someone else’s – until I begin the process of getting to know it really well, playing it many times until it feels like it’s reached the point of initial completion, before I start to build up the backings in my studio. I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions.

You actually can’t be too respectful when covering songs, or else you’d be slightly frightened of them, so you have to believe what you’re doing is working as a track. Once you’re in the studio, it’s no longer the song, it’s the recording you’re working on, getting the best out of a track that you can. What came before is what came before. You can only do what works for you now.

‘I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions’

How was it recording the EP? How did you play, arrange and record the songs? 

JH: As all the songs were already very dear to me, I felt extremely close to them, like old friends. And, of course, as I record usually on my own, I can change things as I go along and try other things quite easily, I often spend weeks on a track, living with it for a while, then going back into the studio and either building on what I’ve done, or starting again from scratch. Happily, it’s the former usually…

Let’s talk about Nick Drake – one of my favourite singer-songwriters. A lot of people only discovered Nick’s music years after his death, which was in 1974 – a year before your debut album, Kid In A Big World, came out. Were you a fan of Nick’s during his lifetime? Isn’t it such a shame that he only got the recognition for his talent after he’d died? Why do you think that’s the case?

JH: I was aware of Nick’s music when I was at art college, as people played his stuff – certainly his first two albums – in the common room, and I liked what I heard. Back then he reminded me a little of Colin Blunstone [The Zombies] vocally.

‘I remember seeing Five Leaves Left in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni Mitchell’s Clouds’

I never bought any of Nick’s releases, as funds were obviously limited at that time, and with the money I had, I was buying albums by my current heroes Roy Harper, The Incredible String Band, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and – belatedly – Dylan.

I remember seeing Five Leaves Left [by Nick Drake] in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni’s Clouds instead, which my school friend Pauline had played me a few nights earlier.

I think that was Nick’s main problem – when his albums had just been released, in terms of getting his music across to people, you never heard him on the radio – or at least I didn’t. He didn’t perform live – again, if he did, I wasn’t aware of it – and I’ve since read he hated doing live performances. If I wanted to hear his albums they were usually lying in a pile beside the common room record player. The artists I spent my money on were those I’d seen and loved on stage, heard on the radio or watched on things like the In Concert TV series.

In the ‘80s, I think it was, I bought the four-CD set of Nick’s albums and outtakes and fell in love with him. What a talent and what a waste of a talent – to lose him so young. His songs really touched me and still do. When you read his life story – his sister Gabrielle’s biography of him [Remembered For A While] is superb – you realise what a fascinating guy he was.

I loved how he performed impromptu for The Rolling Stones in Tangiers in the late ‘60s, and he was a huge fan of Donovan’s – when Mr Leitch was no longer very cool to Nick’s mates. He’d been a really happy ambitious lad until the ‘black dog’, as he called it, came to rest on his young shoulders. Very sad.

His music has now benefitted from social media spreading the word among a wide, record buying-public, and is happily now loved by a large slice of lovers of good music. Good songs will out. Talent will out. I believe that. Sadly, we can never predict how long that will take…
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I mentioned your ’75 debut album, Kid In A Big World, earlier. It’s being re-released on vinyl soon, isn’t it? How do you feel about that and how’s it come about? There’s also an album of John Howard rarities – from’73-‘79 – coming out, too, isn’t there? What can we expect? 

JH: Yes! You Are The Cosmos, a great and highly-respected Spanish label, run by Pedro Vizcaino, is releasing Kid In A Big World and The Hidden Beauty – a new compilation of demos, outtakes and singles from my ‘70s back catalogue, both on LP. I’m, to say the least, thrilled. For many years people have been asking me if Kid… would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is.”

Pedro contacted me last year about releasing Kid… on LP and then he suggested an additional vinyl album of some of the demos and stuff I’d recorded from ’73 – ’79. The LPs look really great – Pedro and his designer have done a stellar job.

‘For many years people have been asking me if Kid In A Big World would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is”.’

The Hidden Beauty is a very interesting compilation, with some fascinating tracks on there – recordings that, in most cases, have never been available on vinyl before. There’s a Trevor Horn production from 1977 called Stay, which has never had a proper release (apart from online about 10 years ago) – it was the first track I recorded with Trevor and features a storming guitar solo by Bruce Woolley.

There are some of the demos I recorded in 1973, when I arrived in London, at Chappell’s studios in Hanover Square. There are also some late ‘70s demos, too –  a song called Loving You, which I demoed in 1979, and which gets regularly downloaded, so that’s a great inclusion on the LP. Also, there are a couple of tracks I did with Trevor Horn in 1978 – Don’t Shine Your Light and Baby Go Now, which were released on a double A-side single in late ’79. Those two tracks feature the musicians who a year or so later formed Buggles and then The Art Of Noise (Geoff Downes, Luis and Linda Jardim, Anne Dudley, and, of course, Trevor).

Bruce Woolley is also on those two tracks, doing backing vocals with Linda. He co-wrote Video Killed The Radio Star with Trevor in 1979, and was signed to CBS when I returned to the label in 1980.

Kid… will have the original LP artwork, even including the same lyric sheet that came with the 1975 album. Pedro has done an amazing job – he’s showed a lot of love and respect for the recordings and that’s very nice to see.

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John Howard in Vienna – photo: Georg Cizek-Graf

It’s a busy time for you. … You’re working on your new album – your eighteenth –  which will be out this summer, and you’re already working on the album after that! You’re very prolific. What’s your secret? 

JH:  Ha! If I knew the secret I’d probably stop doing it. I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording. The fact is I love recording. I love the whole process, and working as I usually do on my own, I have all the time in the world to work on ideas and try things out, with no pressure from anyone.

‘I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording’

I’m not sure yet who will release the new album. If I can’t find a label to put it out, I’ll do a self-release. I did several self-releases – 2009 – 2014 – before the John Howard & The Night Mail album came out on Tapete. Self-released albums don’t get the same exposure, of course, but at least they’re out there if people want to find them. I’ll keep putting stuff out while people want to hear it and – bless them forever – buy it.

A label release would be lovely, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not always easy to get deals with new material, which is by its very nature, and lack of history or a back story, not as immediate or immediately recognisable as a back catalogue release. I was very happy with how my last studio album, Across The Door Sill, was received. I can only hope this new one will also appeal. But about that I can do nothing. Only hope!

So what can we expect the new album to sound like? How’s it going?

JH: The new album was completed about two weeks ago. It contains ten new songs, and is probably more instantly ‘accessible’ than the stream-of-consciousness material on Across The Door Sill, in that the songs are basically pop songs (i.e. with a verse/chorus structure in most cases), but of course done in the John Howard pop way.

People who’ve heard the tracks in progress so far – friends like Kenji Kitahama from Friedrich Sunlight, Robert Rotifer, Ian Button – who will be mastering the album – and my ‘70s producer Paul Phillips – have all commented how I seem to have a new sound with these tracks, a ‘new palette’ as Paul put it recently. I don’t really – I just use what I have in my studio [in Spain] in different ways, putting together different combinations of instruments and percussion.

I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita! I play everything – the drums, the percussion, the guitars, accordion, and keyboards, but as I’m not a guitarist, or a drummer, it takes me weeks to do just one track, slowly building up sounds. But I love this acoustic way of recording. It’s as old school as it can be using a digital recording set-up – a 15-year-old Yamaha AW16G workstation – and I mix everything in real time, too.

‘I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita!’

If a mix isn’t quite right, I scrap it and start again, I don’t ‘save’ mixes and just tweak things – it’s always instinctive and quite intense, often going to 12 or 13 mixes before I feel it’s right. It’s obviously very time-consuming – ask my husband, Neil, who hardly sees me when I’m in the middle of recording – but I love it and still look forward to trotting across our courtyard and opening the casita door. I say ‘hello’ to all the instruments and pieces of percussion sitting on various shelves, and begin the process of starting work on a new track, selecting this and that, trying them out, deciding what works and what doesn’t on that particular song. It’s a delight that I can still do it, still love doing it, and that people seem to like the results.

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You’ve written your autobiography, too. It’s called Incidents Crowded With Life. When’s it coming out? How was it to write and should anyone be worried? Is there any scandal?  

JH Oooh! Scandal, such a scandal! I don’t think anyone needs to be particularly concerned by Incidents Crowded With Life. My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay or situations from anyone else’s points of view. I also don’t comment. That’s for the reader to do as the stories unfold. So I haven’t said things like “What a bastard!” about anyone, I’ve just told what happened and leave the reader to decide what they think.

‘My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay’

The book basically covers my life working towards and preparing for what became the recording and release of Kid In A Big World, the build up to it, and the aftermath of its failure to make an impact, up to when I broke my back in an accident at home in late ’76, just as things seemed to be indicating a turnaround for the better.

The only chapter that is constructed as a third-party observation is where I discuss glam rock, its stars, and their career paths and how their music affected and inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether an autobiography needed such a chapter, but I decided that, as glam made such an impact on me and my music, then I should talk about that. It truly changed the way I wrote songs from ’71 – ’73, and how I saw myself in the scheme of things.

The book is due out in the spring, published by Fisher King. I’m pleasantly surprised that the book has found a publisher, to be honest. I never expected that, as I never considered myself well known enough to warrant a publishing deal. I’d been posting it online, chapter-by-chapter, for about 18 months when a friend suggested I should get it published in book form. My reply was “How?” and he duly sent the online links to the managing director of Fisher King, and the rest is my history in print! How fabulous is that? Will there be a second book? Well, I’ve just begun writing it, so we’ll see…

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John Howard in Vienna – photo: Robert Lettner

This year, you turn 65 and you’re showing no sign of slowing down – you’re busier than ever! How does it feel becoming a pensioner?

JH: My husband is thrilled that I’m finally going to be bringing in some proper money! Being a ‘niche recording artist’ means I earn very little from my music, so that monthly cheque from April onwards will be extremely welcome.

I’ll continue to stay as busy as I want to be. As long as my voice holds up – and it seems to have done so far – I’ll carry on recording. I’m physically aware that I’m older, I get tired more quickly, the usual 60-years-plus aches and pains are quite bad some days – due, in part, to my injuries in ‘76 of course – but when I’m recording, I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s. The higher range is not so stratospheric as it once was, but my lower range is much richer now. People tell me I sound very young when I sing, and that’s because I feel young when I sing. 

‘I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s’

Do you still have many musical ambitions left? Are there any songs by other people that you’d like to record, or anyone that you’d like to collaborate with?

JH:  Ambitions? I don’t really have any. Back in my teens, of course, with the arrogance of youth, I was convinced I’d be an international superstar by the time I was 21! That didn’t happen of course, and the realisation that things are not that easy was a big part of my ‘Further Education In Life’ from thereon in. But now, I have no expectations, no ambitions, I just enjoy what I do. Most things tend to happen while I’m busy doing other things.

Kid… was reissued on CD in 2003 because people were discussing it on the internet, which piqued RPM and Cherry Red’s interest. The John Howard & the Night Mail album happened because Robert Rotifer encouraged me to start performing in public again and have a think about us doing something in the studio together.

John Howard & The Night Mail

John Howard & The Night Mail

Across The Door Sill was issued by Occultation because Nick Halliwell told me he thought it deserved to be out on LP and that he’d like to release it. Kid… is being re-released on vinyl because Pedro contacted me to say he would like to do it, and the autobiography is being published because a friend sent it to a book publisher. I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing.

Robert Rotifer and I sometimes talk about recording another Night Mail album with Ian Button and Andy Lewis, and I’d love to, but getting us all together at the same time is the difficult bit!

‘I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing’

I did contribute backing vocals and piano to The Granite Shore album, Suspended Second, last year, which was fun, and I’ve also contributed piano to other friends’ projects over the last few years – Papernut Cambridge’s Nutlets, Alex Highton’s Nobody Know Anything, Darren Hayman’s Secondary Modern, and Anthony Reynolds’ British Ballads. That’s always a nice thing to do, especially when you hear the finished tracks and go “Oooh! That’s me on that one!”

I’m sure there’ll be more EPs featuring covers of other people’s songs. I quite fancy doing an EP of Rufus Wainwright songs – and even a Marc Bolan EP – gosh! That would be fun. We’ll see…

Finally, what music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

JH: I’m very into Judee Sill – I have been for months. I loved what she did back when I was a teenager in the ‘70s – Jesus Was A Crossmaker was a particular favourite when I was at college, but recently I’ve been given her lovely CD set by a friend and it’s gorgeous. What a superb songwriter and singer she was.

I still play Roy Harper’s astonishing Stormcock album – it still sends shivers down my spine. I recently bought the new version of Sgt Pepper… it’s very good. Giles Martin’s done a great job – he’s really brought the tracks to life again – though, note to Giles, Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite is far too loud compared to the other tracks. What’s that about then?

New stuff? Well, there’s a wonderful singer songwriter on You Are The Cosmos called Daniel McGeever – his album, Cross The Water, is one I play a lot. Excellent songs.

Daniel Wylie’s latest, Scenery For Dreamers, is fab, too, Ralegh Long’s Upwards of Summer is very uplifting guitar pop for the 21st century, and Alex Highton’s newie,Welcome To Happiness, is a synthesiser-fest of loveliness.

John Howard’s Songs From The Morning EP is available to download from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, etc, and to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and Rhapsody.

For more information, please visit: www.kidinabigworld.co.uk 

Kid In A Big World and The Hidden Beauty – 1973-1979 will be released on vinyl by You Are The Cosmos on April 20: visit http://www.youarethecosmos.com/ for more details.

John Howard’s autobiography, Incidents Crowded With Life, will be published by Fisher King on March 26: http://www.fisherkingpublishing.co.uk/

 

‘We haven’t got the budget for playing in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and Roger McGuinn wigs!’

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Late last year, jangle-pop project The Raving Beauties, the brainchild of Belfast writer Brian Bell, who is now based in Brighton, teamed up with Oxford band The Dreaming Spires to release Raving For Bap, a 10in limited vinyl EP dedicated to singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy, who died in late 2016.

The record features five of Bap’s songs, which The Raving Beauties have made their own. The opening track, Walk In Love, is a joyous, chiming guitar anthem that’s befitting of The Byrds, while Moriarty’s Blues is a gorgeous, folky shuffle. The Way I Love Her is infectious, organ-driven power-pop, Hard Street is a down and out ballad with a country feel and Lonesome Lullaby is another Byrdsian belter – 12-string guitars, heavenly harmonies and a life-affirming chorus.

I spoke to Brian to find out more about the EP and to clear up some confusion over how the mysterious ‘fictitious’ band, The Raving Beauties, came into being…

Q & A

Let’s talk about your recent five-track EP, Raving For Bap, which was a tribute to Belfast singer-songwriter, Bap Kennedy (Energy Orchard), who died from cancer in 2016. Proceeds from the record are being donated to Belfast’s Marie Curie Hospice. How did the EP come about?

Brian Bell: I’d known Bap since the early Noughties, when a mutual friend, James Walbourne [The Rails, The Pretenders] introduced us on the basis that because we both came from Belfast, we’d probably get on, which we did, very much so. Aside from being such a talented guy, Bap was a very genuine, kind person and great company – his self-deprecating wit and killer one-liners were something to behold.

Before meeting him, I’d been aware of his music and really admired it. I really loved and connected with songs like Sailortown and Sweet Irish Rose, off the first Energy Orchard album, and I’d bought his Domestic Blues album when it first came out.

In the years that I was seeing Bap most regularly, I’ve fond memories of his legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers. Everybody would be lapping it up and the craic was tremendous.

In more recent years, I’d kept in touch with Bap when he moved back to Holywood in Northern Ireland and always looked forward to meeting up with him whenever I was back home visiting family.

‘I’ve fond memories of Bap’s legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers’

When we lost Bap to cancer, in November 2016, it was obviously a very upsetting and difficult time for everyone who knew and loved him. In the months after his passing, he was on my mind a lot and I guess my appreciation of his songs had deepened, which is probably when the idea for a tribute record started hatching. Bap’s widow Brenda has been doing an amazing job of looking after his legacy and continuing to share and celebrate his music, so I hope we can add to that in some way. It was also important from the outset that the record would be a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast, as Bap’s family think the world of the staff there for the care they gave Bap towards the end of his life.

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The EP is a collaboration between The Raving Beauties and Oxford band The Dreaming Spires. What’s your relationship? How did you end up working together? 

BB: In 2016, The Dreaming Spires included The Raving Beauties track Arrows on the guest artist side of their Paisley Overground 12in mini album and we were on the same label – At The Helm – at the time. We did a launch gig for the record together in Brighton, which went really well.

My friendship with the guys started there and we ended up doing another gig together as The Raving Beauties at Truck Festival in 2016, which was a lot of fun. I’d chatted with Joe Bennett [from The Dreaming Spires] about recording some new songs together, but with Bap being on my mind so much, I felt a tribute EP was what we should do next.

Luckily, Joe and the rest of the guys – Robin Bennett, Tom Collison and Fin Kenny – were well up for it, so we all got together at Joe’s studio in Oxford last Spring to start working on it, with Joe producing. There was a great vibe and a lovely spirit of camaraderie, which I hope comes across on the record.

With the EP, you and The Dreaming Spires have put your own spin on Bap’s songs – there’s a US West Coast, ‘60s jangle-pop feel to some of the songs. How did you approach the tracks and how did you decide which ones to cover?

BB: Joe, wisely I think, didn’t want to get too swayed by listening to Bap’s originals – he just wanted me to turn up with the chords and lyrics, so we could try to put our own stamp on them. You’re right about the American West Coast influence, and I suppose the idea was broadly along the lines of imagining how Bap’s songs might have been interpreted by a Californian guitar band in the late ‘60s. I can’t be too coy about the likes of Spirit, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Love and The Youngbloods all being an influence.

In terms of choosing songs, it was a case of picking songs I particularly loved that I imagined could also lend themselves to being done in a different way. There are other Bap songs that I love just as much, but I don’t feel would necessarily suit being re-worked in that style.

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I want to ask you about the origins of The Raving Beauties. I’ve heard a rumour that the band doesn’t really exist – it’s fictitious… Can you clear this up?

BB: In the last 10 years, I’ve got into writing fiction – I did a Creative Writing MA and had a pulp fiction novella – Die Hard Mod – published under the pen name Charlie McQuaker.

One of my short stories that I’d read at spoken word nights in Brighton was called The Unsung Classic, which was about an ill-fated retro band of the ‘90s called The Raving Beauties. I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967 – that scene inspired the story. I then had the idea to make an EP of what this fictitious band might have sounded like and managed to convince Gordon Grahame – an incredibly gifted Scottish singer-songwriter/producer – to collaborate with me on some recordings.

‘I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967’

In 2015, The Raving Beauties released their debut album of ‘60s-inspired guitar pop….

BB: The original plan was to put a vinyl EP out as a ‘benign hoax’, purporting to be the lost recordings of some long-forgotten retro band called The Raving Beauties, but when I sent the tracks to Jim Walker, after his At The Helm label had just been launched, he said he loved the songs, but would only release something if we made a full album.

That gave myself and Gordon the impetus to go back into his home studio and, in a relatively short time, we came up with something that I’m still pretty proud of.

The finished album was a mix of my songs, Gordon’s songs and a few co-writes that came together really quickly. My abiding memory is of it being a huge buzz, like being a teenager again. We had this in-joke when something was going particularly well, when we’d just look at each other, do the double thumbs-up and say ”Brilliant!” in a comedy Scottish accent.

I knew at the time that Gordon was doing me a big favour by indulging me with this strange project and it was always pretty much with the understanding that it would be a one-off for him, but we’re still mates and it’s totally got his blessing that I’m keeping the project going. The plan is to make another album this year with the musicians from Raving For Bap and other collaborators.

The Raving Beauties have a gig coming up. You’re playing the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival in April (6-8, Bucks Students Union, High Wycombe). What can we expect?

BB: The plan is to do the Raving For Bap EP, plus some songs from the first album – The ‘Spires boys have kindly signed up to be honorary Raving Beauties.

I wish I could say we’ll be doing the set in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and we’ll all be sporting Roger McGuinn wigs, but, unfortunately, we haven’t budgeted for that!

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Any plans to hold a tribute gig for Bap?

BB: Yes – we’re hatching a plan and hopefully will be able to confirm something soon. Fundraising-wise, we’ve joined forces with Bap’s sister, Marian, who has already raised over £2,000 for the hospice, and we’ve set ourselves the target of raising a grand total of £5,600 by June 17,when Bap would have been 56

What does the rest of 2018 hold for The Raving Beauties?

BB: Some Girls from The Raving Beauties’ first album is getting another lease of life thanks to You Are The Cosmos including it on their next 12 String High vinyl compilation. which is due out in April/May. I always felt that song could make an impact if it reached the right ears, so fingers crossed, it will happen this time around… I’ll also soon be starting work with the guys on the new Raving Beauties album. We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too.

Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently digging?

BB: I tend to mainly listen to instrumental stuff, particularly ‘50s jazz, so the likes of John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis and Chet Baker are on the stereo a lot. For anyone who likes that kind of thing, I’d recommend the soundtrack to Listen Up Philip by Keegan DeWitt.

‘We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too’

Another soundtrack that I keep coming back to is The Hired Hand by Bruce Langhorne, which is such a sparse, haunting and beautiful piece of music.

I’m always hoping to hear a new killer pop song on the radio, but, to be honest, the last one that really jumped out at me was Mean Streets by Tennis from a few year back.

I think Fleet Foxes are probably the band that has impressed me most in recent years, closely followed by Temples. I’ve loved Nick Drake and John Martyn since I was a teenager and that’s something I’ve been coming back to a lot recently too.

Bap’s album The Sailor’s Revenge has been another constant. It’s his masterpiece and deserves to be in any ‘Top 10 Greatest Irish Albums of All Time’ list.

 

Raving For Bap by The Raving Beauties is out now on Farm Music – more info here.

The band’s self-titled debut album is currently available from At The Helm Records. 

The Raving Beauties will be playing at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.

More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

 

 

‘Our tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface…’

 

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Bennett Wilson Poole

Some things are meant to happen.
The coming together of Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’) to form UK Americana supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole is one such thing…

Fate led to a meeting of minds and musical talent – and thank God it did, as it’s resulted in a wonderful, self-titled debut album that will undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018.

Produced by Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).

High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.

I met up with Bennett Wilson Poole in a North London pub after their second ever gig – at Islington’s Union Chapel – to find out why this collaboration was always on the cards, how the record was made and why they love working – and playing – together…

Q & A

You’ve formed a supergroup. Are you the new Traveling Wilburys or Crosby, Stills and Nash?

Danny Wilson: Yes! The name Bennett Wilson Poole does kind of have a similar feel to Crosby, Stills & Nash. People have been mentioning the Traveling Wilburys quite a lot. The supergroup thing is mad…

Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s there was a trend for supergroups, but it seems to have died off…

Danny: Maybe we’ve brought it back. Howard [Mills – the band’s manager] said that us getting together was inevitable because of where we’re coming from – we all write the same kind of music and we’ve done stuff together before.

So how did you all meet each other?

Robin Bennett: When I had the band Goldrush, we opened for Grand Drive a couple of times and we were fans of theirs. That’s when I met Danny – I then played with Danny and the Champions of the World and on their first couple of albums.

Danny: I made a record with Tony – he produced Hearts and Arrows [by Danny and the Champions of the World].

Tony Poole: I know Danny through a guy called Peter O’Brien, who had a magazine called Omaha Rainbow and who was a fan of my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing. He was a teacher at Danny’s school. Starry Eyed and Laughing played at the school, in Wallington, but Danny probably wasn’t born then…

What year was that?

Tony: 1872! No – it was about 1974.

Danny: Rock photographer Tom Sheehan’s first ever professional photography job was taking pictures of Starry Eyed and Laughing at my school!

So, it was fate that brought you together – it was meant to be…

Tony: Yeah – it’s kind of weird. I was a fan of Danny’s and he asked me if I’d work on Hearts and Arrows. I couldn’t say no – at that point I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing. We did the Hearts and Arrows album really quickly and everything came together – it was easy. I loved doing it and I loved the music. It was a rediscovery for me.

‘I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing’

Robin: I was playing a Dreaming Spires gig in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Tony was there and we got talking.

Tony: I went to their studio in Steventon to listen to some tracks and they put an electric 12-string Danelectro guitar in my hand… I ended up adding some stuff and mixing some of the tracks – it worked out really well.

So what prompted the move to form a supergroup and write and record your debut, self-titled album?

Tony: I got a call out the blue from either Robin or Danny to say they’d been writing songs together on FaceTime – that’s the modern world, isn’t it?

Danny: I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good. We’d written some songs and we both said that Tony would be perfect for them – we rang him and he was up for it.

Tony: How could I not be? Everything was so fast – they’d written most of the songs and when they came to my studio, I had some bits of songs that I’d started. All three of us finished them in the room in about 20 minutes – that had never happened to me before. It was unbelievable. We did two recording sessions and then one for overdubs – the spirit of it is the live thing that we did. It’s like Crosby, Stills & Nash – we were sitting around with three guitars and three voices and we recorded it. That’s the meat of it.

‘I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good’

The cover artwork of the album is a nod to the first record by Crosby, Stills & Nash, isn’t it? You’re all sat on a sofa, outside a saloon at Truck Festival, and, just like the Crosby, Stills & Nash cover, the names of the band members don’t match the order that you’re sat in the picture… 

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Tony: The Crosby, Stills & Nash photo is by Henry Diltz – the picture was taken before the band had decided on the order of the names. When they went back to reshoot the pictures, the house had been torn down.

Robin: What’s even more appropriate is that the structure in our photo also no longer exists…

Tony: The saloon at Truck has been destroyed…

There’s definitely a whole Crosby, Stills & Nash vibe to the record – in more ways than one..

Tony: We didn’t do it consciously, but it seemed natural. When we on our way to do a shoot with photographer John Morgan, we passed the saloon… He took four or five shots and that was it.

Maybe for the next album, you could recreate The Notorious Byrd Brothers cover and replace one of you with a horse?

Tony: It will be me!

Is it fun working together?

Robin: I kind of pinch myself – I just love these guys’ music.

Danny: The same here.

Tony: It’s so natural.

[To Tony]: You produced the album. How was that?

Tony: I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like –  mostly anyway.

Danny: We love working with Tony. Not only are we all good friends, but me and Robin are massive, massive fans of Starry Eyed and Laughing and Tony’s production is so brilliant. He kept sending us stuff when we were working on the album and asked us for comments. We said ‘it’s brilliant – we love it!’

Robin: That’s not how things usually work…

‘I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like –  mostly anyway’

 

 

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. The first single, Soon Enough, came out in early February. It’s a classic jangle-pop tune, isn’t it? It’s very Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty and The Byrds. You filmed the video at the Didcot Railway Centre museum. How was that?

Danny: The video is a knowing nod to the Traveling Wilburys song End of the Line – we wanted it to be like that.

Robin: It’s also quite A Hard Day’s Night. Quite a lot of our songwriting reminds me of that mid-’60s thing.

The track Hide Behind A Smile is a gorgeous, soulful ballad, but, lyrically, it talks about coping with depression and anxiety… 

Danny: Me and Robin wrote that song. I think everyone will understand it – it’s something we all do. We all put on a brave face to mask things – a smile is obviously a facade at times.

The song Wilson General Store, which was written by Robin, was inspired by Danny’s family history. Danny’s grandparents had a shop in Melbourne, Australia called Wilsons Emporium…

Danny: That’s where my mum and dad met.

Robin: In the middle of our writing session, I went to bed and woke up with the idea – we’d been talking about the shop. By the time we started writing again the following morning, I’d already finished the song.

Danny: My folks are huge music fans. I gave my dad a copy of the album, but I forgot to mention Wilson General Store. When he heard it, he said, ‘Is this our song?’ He loved it – it’s his favourite on the album.

You’ve filmed a promo video for your PledgeMusic campaign in which you feature in a Two Ronnies-inspired comedy skit…

Danny: With that video and the one for Soon Enough, we’re quite happy to be humorous and have a laugh. I think it takes something to be removed from your ‘day job’ project and to give you the distance, so you can show your personality – there’s no trying to be cool. It just is what it is and it frees you up – it’s been a pleasure because it’s not too important. Sometimes the precious things that you hold on too tightly to can be crushed…

Hate Won’t Win is one of the songs on the album that has a darker edge. It’s a protest song and was written in response to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, in 2016. Musically, it’s a nod to Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s classic counterculture anthem about the Kent State University shootings in 1970, isn’t it?

Tony: Yes – when I heard the news about Jo Cox it was a Thursday [June 16, 2016]. I remember sitting in the garden with a guitar and I thought about the story behind Ohio. Neil Young had written the song, Crosby got them in the studio and the song was out a few days later.

My tune came from the same place – I wrote a verse that was kind of reportage and was quite vicious. I sent Danny and Robin a phone recording of it and when they turned up at mine on the Saturday, Robin had written another verse and we finished it off and recorded it – it was out on YouTube on the Monday [as Hate Won’t Win (Song For Jo Cox)]. It was an echo of the time of Ohio. What can you do? We can’t change the world, but we put it out there… On the album, we purposely haven’t used the subtitle (Song For Jo Cox), as it’s now universal, but it’s still a nod to her – she inspired the song.

With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface. But it’s not like ‘we’ve suffered for our art, now it’s your turn’ – we don’t do that.

Danny: Interestingly it’s the flip side of what I was saying about doing the videos. Working with these guys on a song like Hate Won’t Win is something that I wouldn’t approach in one of my normal projects – it gives me an extra dimension. It’s not a career move – it’s just something I really love doing. You can afford to be a bit more serious, or, like in the videos, a bit funny.

Robin: With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects.

The album closes with Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – another song that tackles a social issue. Tony, you started writing it after seeing a photo of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean adjacent to an article on selfies…

Tony: It was so vivid – the world we’re living in and the other world. I had the idea – picture yourself in that lifeboat. You can’t explain things too much – they just come out.

It’s a great song – with the heavy electric guitar, it’s very Neil Young-sounding. The lyric even mentions the phrase ‘on the beach’, which is the title of a 1974 Neil Young album…

Tony: We were sitting in the recording studio with a pad and it took five or 10 minutes.

Robin: I couldn’t tell what Tony was singing, so I just wrote down what I heard.

Tony: I was singing phonetic stuff and he turned it into words for the chorus.

‘With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects’

You’ve played a couple of gigs as Bennett Wilson Poole – one in Oxford and one in London, at the Union Chapel. What it’s like playing the album live?

Tony: It’s taken it to a new level – as we’re playing it, we grow into the songs. As we get further along, we’ll get right under the skin of them. It was quite a fast recording process, but it’s somehow like a record that was made by somebody else. I keep listening to it… Vanity, eh?

Robin: We are slightly distanced from it – it is like hearing someone else’s album. You’re not hearing your own voice all the time.

Danny: When I do a new album with the Champs, it’s so raw to me – I hate all of my vocals and the songs! It’s so difficult to listen to it, but with this album, I listen to it everyday! I don’t know what that says about me…

That you’re in the wrong band?

[Everyone laughs]

Tony: A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…

[To Robin]: I’d like to ask you about the song Find Your Own Truth, which you wrote. It’s not the first time one of your songs has dealt with the subject matter of looking for the truth. I’m thinking of the title track from the Dreaming Spires album Searching For The Supertruth

Robin: The evidence is piling up! I don’t know why… I wrote Find Your Own Truth in five minutes, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s one of my more cosmic songs.  I’ve been working on a solo album – I had a list of songs and that was one of them, but it really felt like it could be a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing.

Tony: Robin sent his home demo to me and we put some harmonies and electric guitar on it. The idea was for it to be a song like Helplessly Hoping [by Crosby, Stills & Nash] – that was my vision for it.

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Bennett Wilson Poole at the Union Chapel – their second ever gig

You’re launching the album with three gigs at the Betsey Trotwood in London – March 21-23. That’s a London residency…

Robin: When Danny suggested three nights at the Betsey, I thought he was insane, but they’re all sold out.

Can we expect a triple live album?

Danny: Good idea.

Robin: We are recording the shows – the Betsey is our spiritual home. We’ve all played there.

Tony: The lovely thing about doing three nights there is that even though we’re only playing to 30-40 people each night, it’s got the feeling of three nights at Wembley. Some people have bought tickets for every night, so we’re going to mix it up.

When you’re watching us, you can relax because we’re pals and you can see we’re all getting on. There are three times in my life I’ve had that happen – my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing; when I produced The Men They Couldn’t Hang in the ’80s; and with this band. Sometimes when you watch a band, you can see that they’re not getting on and it makes you feel bad…

So, can we expect a second album from Bennett Wilson Poole?

Robin:  I think we could do it.

Tony: Absolutely. We’ve got an extra track that’s not on the album – it’s really good. It’s like a rare Beatles track.

 

•Bennett Wilson Poole release their self-titled debut album on April 6 (Aurora Records).

For information on their PledgeMusic campaign, please click here. 

They will play three album launch shows at The Betsey Trotwood, in Clerkenwell, London – March 21-23. All three shows are sold out.

Bennett Wilson Poole will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.

More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/