In the second half of a two-part article called It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, which is on May 24, Say It With Garage Flowers speaks to writer and broadcaster, Spencer Leigh, about his new book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues – an impressive 450-page biography about the legendary singer-songwriter, which was published by McNidder & Grace in October last year.
For the book, Leigh, who has been broadcasting on BBC Radio Merseyside for over 40 years, and has written biographies on acts including The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel and Elvis Presley, spoke to more than 300 musicians, friends and acquaintances of Dylan.
“Journalists are very fond of saying Bob Dylan is an enigma,” says Leigh, “but that word is flawed. It’s as good as saying you don’t know. I have determined that I will not call Bob Dylan an enigma at any point in the book and I’m trying to find an answer for everything.”
With that in mind, we asked him to tell us why, after all this time, people are still writing and reading books about Dylan, and if there is really anything new left to say?
“The main reason for the fascination with Bob Dylan is that he has changed popular culture in a significant way for the better,” he says. “He has rarely explained what he is doing, so there is an air of mystery about him, and this is one reason why he is studied at universities.
‘I hope there is something new on every page, but that’s for other people to say’
“What I think has been overlooked is that from time to time he has shown he can be a straight, down the line commercial songwriter, with If Not For You, Lay Lady Lay, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Make You Feel My Love. This has enabled him to have a significant role in the everyday commercial market. This is different from Zappa, Beefheart or Lou Reed. You couldn’t have got them to write commercial songs.”
He adds: “I never thought Bob Dylan was a hoarder and now he has sold his archive to the University of Tulsa. That could change our perception of things.”
Why did you decide to write another hefty tome on Dylan and how did you ensure your book was different to what’s gone before?
Spencer Leigh: If people are good enough to spend time reading it, I don’t want to waste their time. I hope there is something new on every page, but that’s for other people to say. Over the years I have interviewed a lot of people for my BBC Radio Merseyside shows and so I had many quotes about Dylan, often from people who were there, like Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Hunter Davies says that when you move to a new chapter, you have to ask if the readers are still with you – it’s a good tip.
‘The most surprising thing is that I couldn’t find an interview with Dylan’s former wife, Sara’
Was it a difficult book to write and research? How long did it take from start to finish?
SL: I once asked Charles Aznavour how long it took to write a particular song and he said, “Twenty minutes and 20 years.”
What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learnt from writing and researching the book?
SL: The most surprising thing, I suppose, is that I couldn’t find an interview with Dylan’s former wife, Sara. Was that part of the divorce settlement? I would guess so, but then again Jane Asher never talks of her time with Paul McCartney. It’s an angle of the story that we may never have.
Interesting is too bland a word for someone like Dylan. He is a good example of someone who is off the scale. I was intrigued to discover his affection for Liverpool. All the bits and pieces added up to that. I had thought that he might feel the same way about Birmingham or Edinburgh, but no, every couple of years there is some little remark or action to show he loves the place.
‘I’ve spoken to quite a lot of Dylan authors and this may make my book unique’
You have spoken to an impressive amount of people for the book. Who were you most happy to have had access to, and why? And, apart from Dylan biographer, Robert Shelton, was there anyone you’d have liked to have spoken to, but couldn’t?
SL: I did have a long conversation with Robert Shelton about how he wanted £50 for an interview. That was around 1985. I should have paid and not said, “The BBC never pays for interviews.” I’ve spoken to quite a lot of Dylan authors and this may make my book unique.
Dylan turns 80 on May 24 this year. Any thoughts on him hitting that milestone?
SL: Well, I’m surprised he’s got that far, but you could say that about any rock star. I like his artwork a lot, but I would like more songs.
In the book, you touch on his epic 2020 single, Murder Most Foul. What did you think of the album it came from, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which wasn’t out at the time you’d finished the book?
SL: At the time I did the book, three tracks had been released. I’ve put a review of the rest of the album on my website. Dylan has now found a way of half-speaking, half-narrating his songs, which works very well. Okay, his singing voice is shot, but his speech is fantastic.
Do you have a favourite Bob Dylan song?
SL: I went to Liverpool recently for the first time in a year and bought the [new] Bob Dylan-1970 CD set. Although I’ve got many of the tracks on bootlegs, I am looking forward to hearing these cleaned-up versions.
A favourite song would be Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, on the ‘Judas’ tour of 1966. I was there in Liverpool and it was just as rowdy as Manchester. I had never seen an artist alienate a lot of his audience before and I am convinced, now that I have researched the book, that he was loving every minute of it.
Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues by Spencer Leigh is out now. It’s published by McNidder & Grace.
In the first of a two-part article called It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, which is on May 24, Say It With Garage Flowers speaks to writer K G Miles, co-author of the new book, Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales, a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.
“We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long,” he tells us. “I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear.”
Great, as we’d have no interest in reading about it, whereas his book is right up our Positively 4th Street…
There’s a line in Bob Dylan’s 1964 song, My Back Pages, that says: “Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.”
It’s been interpreted as being about his growing disillusionment with the ‘60s folk protest movement that he was a part of, and his desire to move in a new musical direction, which he did, by ‘going electric’ a year after it was written. Dylan was in his early twenties when he wrote it – now, he really is so much older, as he turns 80 on May 24 this year.
The title, My Back Pages, also seems very fitting, as, in the run-up to Dylan’s milestone birthday, there’s been a glut of books published on him, as well as revised and updated versions of existing biographies. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them.
Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans alike – even more so in the wake of last year’s extraordinary 17-minute ‘comeback’ single, Murder Most Foul, released during lockdown, and its accompanying late-period masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways – his 39th studio album.
‘Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them’
One of the best recent books to join Dylan’s back pages is Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which was published by McNidder & Grace in February of this year. For once, it’s a new Dylan publication that has a different story to tell – it’s a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.
As soon as you’ve read it, you’ll want to embark on a rock pilgrimage to explore the numerous London locations that are listed in the book, from The Troubadour Club in Old Brompton Road, where Dylan played in 1962, to the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Savoy Steps, where the iconic promo film for Subterranean Homesick Blues was shot, and the north London streets of Camden and Crouch End, where Dylan hung out in the ‘90s.
Rather handily, as Bob Dylan In London: Troudadour Tales is a paperback that’s only just over 100 pages long, it’s easy to carry when you’re on the move. In 1962, Dylan wrote the song Let Me Die In My Footsteps – thanks to the book’s compact size, it means you won’t die from sheer exhaustion if you’re following in his.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to one of the authors, K G Miles – aka Keith – who tells us: “There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.”
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
K G Miles: Jackie and I are both first-time authors – we’re just fans. We met at university in 1979 – on the cusp of Dylan’s ‘Christian’ era. We didn’t realise that we were both Dylan fans – it wasn’t until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature [in 2016] that we both came out of our closets, if you like, and decided to do a pilgrimage.
We knew there were stories about him playing London, but we didn’t know the whole truth. The project began as a pilgrimage to places like the Savoy Steps, where the world’s first music video was filmed – Subterranean Homesick Blues – and to the Troubadour Club, in Earls Court. We went into the Troubadour – Dylan played there in 1962, on his first trip to the UK, as did Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon.
It’s a fantastic place and a wonderful piece of musical history, but there was nothing on the walls, so you wouldn’t know that. There were pictures of Arctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton – we thought that was wrong. We asked the owners if they would let us put a picture of Dylan up, but, to their credit, they gave us a whole room to kit out! Until lockdown, we were getting tourists visiting from all over – it’s a great venue for people to meet.
We also looked at putting a blue plaque on the Savoy Steps and other things we could do.
We found out a lot of stuff along our journey and we had all these tales gathered together, so I said to Jackie, “Why don’t we put them out as a book, as people would be interested in them?”
It’s a love letter to Dylan and London – a real project of passion from two Londoners. There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.
When I look back at the classic Dylan biographies by people like Robert Shelton and others, he has a tiny cursory paragraph about Dylan’s first ‘62/’63 trip to London. He writes that Dylan played at The Prospect of Whitby pub. I know that pub – there wasn’t a folk club there. I think he’s mistaken it for the Pindar of Wakefield. There’s a famous picture of Dylan playing the London Singers’ Club Christmas show, in which you can see the wallpaper behind him. If you compare that picture with one of the folk singer, Anne Briggs, which was taken at the Pindar of Wakefield, the wallpaper matches. Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London [Foley Street, Fitzrovia] – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage. There’s a tiny picture there, but I’d love to have more.
That time was a critical one in Dylan’s career, but it’s been passed over. When Dylan came over for the Royal Festival Hall gig in 1964, it was so important, and in ’65 and ’66 you’ve got Don’t Look Back and that tour – rock ‘n’ roll Dylan. It’s still only a matter of weeks in Dylan’s history, but they’re disproportionately important to his development and musical history.
‘Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage’
In the book, you reference biographer Clinton Heylin’s point that Dylan’s month in London in the winter of ’62 was almost as influential as the previous two years he spent in New York. I think your book is brilliantly researched – you’ve crammed so much into the 100 or so pages. How did you go about doing your homework?
KGM: When the Bob Dylan Archive was launched, in Tulsa, I was lucky enough to go there and talk at a conference about Dylan’s time with [poet and novelist] Robert Graves – it’s a footnote in Dylan’s history, but it’s very important. Dylan puts a tiny quote about meeting Graves in London in his book, Chronicles: Volume One, but he gets it wrong – it’s the most beautiful autobiography, but it’s not to be trusted in any way. He talks about walking with Graves, after a party, in Paddington Square – if you look it up, there wasn’t a Paddington Square at that time, but there is now.
We’re doing musical archaeology – we’re putting two and two and two and two together. You can work out where the party, the house and the square were. We wanted to put right a lot of things that were incorrect. I loved doing the delving. Jackie and I are huge fans of London. In the book we also wanted to cover the buildings and the locations – the tourism side – so it could be a guide for people. We also always intended it to be fun. I would love to go to the back of the Savoy and see queues of Dylan fans with their cue cards, videoing and photographing each other. If I can persuade any number of tourists to go to the Savoy Steps, rather than Oxford Street, I would’ve done a wonderful job for London.
‘We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear’
And you’ve included some social history too, haven’t you?
KGM: Exactly. We’re delighted that Dylan fans have enjoyed the book, but we’re also delighted that music fans have too, and people who have a passing interest, love London and love the stories. We wanted it to be very accessible and easy to read – the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear. Just go and enjoy the music – it’s wonderful.
You talked earlier about your passion for Dylan. You first saw him at the Isle of Wight Festival, in 1969, didn’t you?
KGM: Yes, but I was too young to appreciate it at the time – I was seven or eight. I was old enough to take it all in, but I wasn’t interested in the music.
‘Dylan’s first trip to London, in ’62/’63, was a critical time in his career, but it’s been passed over’
So when did you start getting into him?
KGM: I was that kid who, as a teenager, had posters of Dylan on the wall. I was too young for the ‘60s – I missed all that time – but, for a lot of my generation, the key album was the double one, More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits – it was such an important introduction to Dylan’s work and it had all different types of his music on it. It was a record that led you to explore other albums of his, but, also, it had tracks like Tomorrow Is A Long Time and songs from The Basement Tapes – songs we hadn’t heard. I’ve seen a picture of Marc Bolan with that album in his hand.
Have you seen Dylan play lots of times?
KGM: I haven’t seen him loads. In 1978, I queued overnight on the streets of Hammersmith to get tickets for his Earls Court gigs – that was a key moment for lots of people in this country. He hadn’t been over here on the mainland, if you like, for 12 years – we had a bit of Dylanmania at the time.
‘I’d like to write Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there’
Are you planning to write any more books on Dylan?
KGM: I’ve been asked by the publisher to do some further guides, like Dylan in New York and Dylan in Japan. I’d like to do Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there. I’m going to be keeping myself busy. There are still many stories to tell.
You could have a whole series of Dylan travel guides and call it Lonely Planet Waves...
KGM: That’s good – I might nick it!
Finally, Dylan turns 80 this month. Any thoughts on him hitting that milestone?
KGM: I think that 80 is a fabulous milestone for any human being, but for one that has lived life at such a breathtaking creative speed, and did so throughout the delicious excesses of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s a joy and a miracle.
Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which is published by McNidder & Grace, is out now. For more information, visit https://mcnidderandgrace.com/.
Look out for the second part of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), in which we speak to author and broadcaster, Spencer Leigh, about his new book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues (McNidder & Grace). We’ll be posting the article soon, ahead of Dylan’s 80th birthday on May 24.
Emma Swift’s new album of Bob Dylan reinterpretations, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, is one of the best covers records we’ve ever heard.
The Australian-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter has put her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she’s remained reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.
“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”
Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.
She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
Swift even reinterprets one of the songs from Dylan’s latest record, Rough and Rowdy Ways, on hers – the reflective and stately ballad I Contain Multitudes. Her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.
“Like many of the great Bob Dylan songs, I Contain Multitudes is a magnet, a fly’s eye view of the cultural miasma in which we wander,” says Swift. “It’s magnificent and heartbreaking – a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and all that might be redeemed. To me this song has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”
Blonde On The Tracks is a record that was born out of crisis, as Swift explains: “The idea for the album came about during a long depressive phase – the kind where it’s hard to get out of bed and get dressed and present [yourself] to the world as a high-functioning human. I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively.”
She adds: “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but this period was especially wordless. Sad, listless and desperate, I began singing Bob Dylan songs as a way to have something to wake up for.”
Work on the album began at Magnetic Sound Studio, Nashville, in 2017, but it was the Covid-19 lockdown that brought the rest of the project to fruition. Swift worked with Sansone over email to polish up the six songs that had already been recorded, but her versions of I Contain Multitudes and Simple Twist of Fate were laid down in April and May this year, at home, and overdubbed via correspondence.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Swift during lockdown in Nashville, to find out why Dylan’s music means so much to her, why Blonde On The Tracks, which can be purchased via Bandcamp and from record stores, won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites, and her plans for her new independent label Tiny Ghost Records.
How has lockdown in Nashville been for you? How have you coped – both personally and professionally?
Emma Swift: I have been in lockdown and haven’t left the house since the beginning of March, so although I am technically in Nashville, it feels, in a way, like I am on an island. I don’t see any of my friends or colleagues or even venture to the supermarket. All communication – for food, for friendship and for work – has been done online and it’s definitely weird.
The idea of “coping” is one I struggle with because, in many ways, we’re still deep in this Covid experience, so it’s hard for me to have perspective on it. Am I coping? I don’t know. Right now, the virus is worse than it’s ever been in Tennessee. Each day brings new challenges. On the one hand, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work from home, on the other, my primary source of income is as a touring musician and all that work is not going to return for a long time, so that weighs heavy on my mind. I am constantly seeking distractions. I read a lot.
I have insane, one-way conversations with my cat [Ringo]. “Who’s a good boy? Yes, Ringo’s a good boy! Oh, Ringo you’re such a good boy. Ringo have I ever told you what a good boy you are? Look at your little face! You’re such a good boy.” There’s a lot of that.
How did you first get into Dylan’s music and what does it mean to you?
ES: I’m not from the generation that grew up when Dylan began making records, so for many years most of my discoveries were made well after that – through albums I bought at record fairs and charity stores and songs I heard on the radio. My first memory of hearing a Bob Dylan song is The Byrds version of Mr Tambourine Man, which got played a lot on the golden oldies station I listened to as a kid.
I can remember watching clips of the Traveling Wilburys on music TV – I adored Handle With Care, though Roy Orbison was the one I was drawn to at the time. My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde, which I must have acquired when I was 17 or 18. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ever since. My love of the artists that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t exclusive to Bob Dylan though. I’m just as influenced by Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Gene Clark and Lou Reed to name a few. I’m a kid of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m quite old-fashioned really.
You’ve recorded a version of I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t it brave to tackle a brand new Dylan song?
ES:It didn’t feel brave to me – it just felt like a song I was utterly magnetised by and compelled to do. For me, it’s a love song to all that is great about music and art and poetry. It’s a confession, a hymn, a celebration. Like many of the Dylan songs I am drawn to, it’s a little bit funny and a little bit sad. I laughed out loud the first time I heard him sing: “I paint landscapes/ And I paint nudes.”
As for my interpretation of it, it’s very lo-fi. It was recorded in the lounge room at my place on a Zoom recorder, with Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, and then sent to my producer, Patrick Sansone, for overdubs. Patrick’s a brilliant man who can do a lot with not very much. I’m lucky to know him.
Interestingly, on your versions of the songs, you haven’t changed any of Dylan’s lyrics to make them sound like they’re being sung from a woman’s point of view. What was your thinking behind that?
ES:They are being sung from a woman’s point of view – mine. I just haven’t changed any of the gender pronouns to make it sound like it’s coming from a heteronormative context. It’s not how I view the world.
You’ve said that you can learn a lot about melody by singing someone’s else’s songs? Can you elaborate on that? What has making this album taught you?
ES: I’m pleased that the record is coming out because historically it hasn’t always been easy for me to put music out. I can be apprehensive. I can be scared. I can be very self-critical. People can be brutal. And you have to feel safe enough in yourself to be able to say, ‘I like it and no-one else’s opinion matters’, to be able to release music. It took me a while to get to that point.
As for learning about melody, every time I put a record on I become a student. My ears are primed. For that matter you can learn a lot about harmony too, if you let the recording take the lead and try to find a different part.
Which other singers / artists do you admire, other than Dylan? Who inspires you?
ES:Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power, Sandy Denny, Nick Cave, Billie Holiday, David Berman, Robyn Hitchcock, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, Patti Smith, Johnny Marr. Even though it’s music, I guess what inspires me musically is artists who really love words. Artists who read books. Artists who care about the world.
Am I right in thinking Blonde On The Tracks won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites? You have strong views on streaming and royalties / payments to artists, don’t you?
ES: Blonde On The Tracks is available as a digital download, vinyl, CD and cassette. I’m selling it through Bandcamp online and it has distribution, so folks will be able to go and pick it up from their favourite local record store as well. There’s never been a better time to support small business.
You are right, I’ve been quite outspoken online about wage exploitation from mainstream streaming services. I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that these outlets are good for “exposure”, while some of the best musicians I know find themselves now out of a job due to Covid-19. You can’t eat exposure! You can’t pay your rent with exposure. It’s just another bullshit argument for trickle-down economics – an argument which fails to take into account that the music industry is bigger than its bigger name stars.
‘I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that mainstream streaming services are good outlets are good for “exposure.” You can’t eat exposure!’
What’s the latest on your planned album of original songs, Slow Dancing With Ghosts? Have you been writing any new material? Is there another record in the offing?
ES:Slow Dancing With Ghosts is all set for release in January 2022. I have recorded eight songs so far, but they are not quite finished as all the overdub sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19. There are some really lovely people playing on this record. I’m pleased to say that once my depression lifted I was able to write new songs, and that will be what is on offer here.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently and how do you listen to it?
ES: I listen to music through digital downloads, the Bandcamp streaming app, vinyl and CD. Though it’s been brutal on other fronts, 2020 has been a great year for new music and I’ve been enjoying the recent albums from Marchelle Bradanini, Luke Schneider and Becca Mancari.
I just bought the Prince Sign o’ The Times 7in singles collection that Third Man is releasing and I’m excited about that. And I’ve got the new Dylan album, plus quite a large vinyl collection that goes back decades. I come back to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira probably more than any other record.
What are your plans for the rest of the year when things get back to normal?
ES: I have big plans to play this album – and my own new songs – live. I’m just not sure when it will be safe for me to make that happen.
You’ve started your own label,Tiny Ghost Records. Any plans to sign any other artists to it and put out their records?
ES: One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence. I couldn’t find a record label in 2020 that was artist-friendly enough for me. Even the cool ones are still in bed with the streaming services, so that wasn’t really an option. The new Robyn Hitchcock album will come out on Tiny Ghost in 2021. I’d love to sign other artists eventually, I just have to get the business off the ground first. I’d also encourage any artists who are looking for a label to consider starting their own. If it works for Gillian Welch and Courtney Barnett, it can work for you too.
‘One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost Records was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence’
What are some of your favourite cover versions of Dylan songs?
ES:Okay so what’s wild here is that I could list versions of just one song and it would go on for pages. I could talk about Joan Baez’s Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind for days. Betty Lavette’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, particularly when sung live, is glorious. Robyn Hitchcock doing Visions of Johanna is pure heartbreak. I have to say, with this project, I couldn’t really listen to other people’s Dylan songs for a while because I needed to just be with the source material. I’m also not too interested in a rigid list of favourites – the list is ever changing.
Finally, did you ever think about calling the new album Blood On The Blonde? Maybe that could be your next record – reinterpretations of Dylan’s murder ballads?
ES: [laughs] No, I didn’t…
Blonde On The Tracks by Emma Swift is released on August 14 (Tiny Ghost Records).
Three years ago, West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski released his second album, Alex.
One of our favourite records of 2017, it was a collection of stripped-down, raw and bluesy, autobiographical songs, recorded in Berlin with Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and it reminded us of Bob Dylan singing The La’s.
Now he’s back with not one, but three new singles! Jigsaw is a haunting ballad – imagine Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game crossed with classic ’70s Neil Young; Everyday is a cover version of a Buddy Holly song – Alex has slowed it down and added some gorgeous, Richard Hawley-style, twangy guitar – and Hurricane is a re-recorded, full-band version of one of the standout tracks from his last album, with a jangly 12-string sound, organ and a wailing, Springsteen-esque sax solo.
In an exclusive interview, we sat down with Alex for a chat to get the lowdown on his new songs, and find out how his next album, which is being recorded this year, is shaping up. He also found time to tell us about his crazy dreams and a scary mushroom trip he once had…
Hi Alex. How are you doing? The last time we spoke was in 2017, after the release of your last album, Alex. What have you been up to since then?
Alex Lipinski: I’m good, thanks. I’ve pretty much been playing all over the UK and writing songs since we last spoke. I’ve played a bunch of festivals, which were great. More recently, I’ve been playing some shows with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale), which have been fun.
Late last year, you released a new single – Jigsaw. It reminds us of Chris Isaak and vintage Neil Young…
AL:I wrote most of Jigsaw one morning at my friend’s house, in Washington D.C, where she was living at the time. I picked up a guitar that was lying around and the chords and melody instantly came out – it’s always nice when it happens that way. I actually heard Neil Young’s Harvest-era drums in my head when I was picturing how I wanted it to sound.
The song is accompanied by a mysterious video, in which you walk around a deserted coastal town, bury a briefcase on the beach, get picked up in a car and bump into a strange masked character. What does it all mean and where did you film it?
AL: The idea for the video stemmed from a mushroom trip I had at some point over the past couple of years – Hawaiian cubensis mushrooms, to be precise. I was in the middle of the trip and going through a bit of an ordeal. I can laugh now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time.
The scenario I was in kept repeating itself – I was stuck inside this loop and couldn’t work out how to break out of it. With the video, I wanted to make something weird.
Around the same time I had the idea for the story, I had watched The Wickerman, so that may have had some influence. The video was filmed around Sand Bay Beach in Weston-super-Mare. We had quite a few confused and concerned stares from dog walkers and nosy neighbours when myself and my nephew, who was wearing a rubber rabbit mask, were digging and burying a suitcase! I don’t think anyone called the police. The large white building is a psychiatric hospital. The video was shot completely on an iPhone 11 Pro.
Your new single is a cover of Buddy Holly’s Everyday – you’ve slowed it down and the guitars have a Richard Hawley feel…
AL: Everyday came about from a jam at a soundcheck. I had been playing around with the song previously, slowing it right down – almost crooner-style.
Graham Nicholls, the lead guitarist, was setting up and he had this Richard Hawley- style tremolo sound he was trying out, so I started singing and playing the song and he joined in. Adam, my brother, sings the other main vocal on the recording, so it gives it that Everly Brothers feel. It was the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, so we thought it would be a fitting tribute to release the song as close as we could to that date, to mark the occasion.
There’s another new single on the way soon – a re-recorded, full-band version of Hurricane, from your last album. It has a much bigger sound than the original, with jangly guitar, Springsteen-like sax and some organ….
AL: The new version of Hurricane is how I actually heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head. It wasn’t until I slowed it down and lowered the key at a gig, almost by accident, that I decided to record that version on my last album. I wanted this big Clarence Clemons/Bobby Keys-style tenor sax solo during the instrumental.
‘The new version of Hurricane is how I heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head’
We recorded the new songs at Canyon Sound Studios, in Bristol. Nic Dover, who runs the studio and engineered the sessions, is also a great sax player, so he stepped up and nailed it in two takes. The latest recordings act as a kind of bridge between the last album, which is completely stripped-down, and the next album, which will be recorded with the full band.
Let’s talk about your next album. Is it written? If so, when do you plan to record it and release it?
AL: The next album is written, but there’s always new songs that are being added to it, so it’s a case of working out which direction I want to take it. I’ll be recording it this year and, hopefully, it will be out by the end of 2020, however it may be an early 2021 release. Making a body of work to be proud of is more important to me than trying to rush it out.
You made the last album with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, at his studio in Berlin. Any ideas about how you’re going to record the new one? Who are you going to work with?
AL: Working with Anton in Berlin was a great experience. He’s a ridiculously talented guy and also a great person. The album was completely stripped-down – the songs were presented in their raw, skeletal form and recorded live.
Myself and Adam [on guitar] were set-up facing each other, almost in a circle, with a bunch of mics around us and a giant RCA ribbon mic in the middle – the same microphone they used to use on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.
‘The next album will be heading in a different direction. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and country’
Adam was kind of learning the songs as we went along – I’m left-handed and he’s right-handed, so it was easy for him to see which chords I was playing. In eight hours we had the main nucleus of the record done.
The next album will be heading in a different direction, as I’ll be recording it with my band. The singles that are coming out were recorded at Canyon Sound in Bristol, with Nic Dover, and he’s also great and easy to work with. He has a great ear and the studio has great gear. So we’ll see what’s possible and figure it out.
What’s going to influence the sound of the new album?
AI: Recording with the full band immediately gives the music a new direction and approach. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and country – all these small glimpses of influences that seep out and merge together. That’s down to each individual player who brings something to the band.
Jon Whitfield (drummer) is a top jazz player, so he has his style, which allows us to take a song dynamically wherever we want it to go. Paul Quinn (keys/organ) and Graham Nicholls (lead guitar/lap steel) are both great players that sprinkle their magic dust, giving each song what it needs and, more importantly, knowing when to allow the song space where it needs it. And myself and Adam have been singing and playing together since we were teenagers, so we have this weird brotherly connection and understanding. So everything gels nicely.
Lyrically, the next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than that last album, which was quite a personal record. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous, leaving it up to the listener to think for themselves, and not spelling it out.
Some of the songs could mean various things for different people and I guess that’s the beauty of creating something.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, it’s highly unlikely to not have been affected by what’s been going on politically in the UK, and if what’s been going on doesn’t make you angry, then you haven’t been paying attention. So I guess parts of that anger and frustration have slipped into some of the lyrical content.
Some of the themes also stem from dreams I’ve had over the past couple of years. I’ve been having these really vivid dreams, which are centred around a kind of post-apocalyptic town that feels both alien and familiar at the same time. A kind of blend of the future and nostalgia, and the line between reality and fantasy. I have absolutely no idea why I’ve been having these dreams, but I’m keeping a note of them.
‘The next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than the last album, which was quite personal. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous’
What music are you listening to at the moment – new and old? Did you have a favourite album of last year?
AL: I’ve been listening to Townes Van Zandt quite a lot recently, especially the Live at the Old Quarter album. It’s a great live recording from 1973. The audience is crammed into this tiny venue. You can hear the cash till and the beer glasses – you can almost smell the sweat and cigarette smoke coming off the record. It reminds me of the 12 Bar Club, on Denmark Street in London, where I used to play a lot. Full of character and characters, and a great jukebox. Sadly developers moved in and the venue is no more, but it used to be a magical place.
I’ve also been listening to Gene Clark’s No Other album, which was re-released at the end of last year, and Andy Shauf’s latest record [Neon Skyline], which I’m enjoying.
There were some great albums that came out last year. I thought Michael Kiwanuka’s record [Kiwanuka] was a masterpiece. Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars was great – Moonlight Motel is one of the best songs he’s written over the past few years. I loved Wilco’s Ode To Joy. The Purple Mountains album [Purple Mountains] was amazing and also tragic, due to the circumstances. I loved Devendra Banhart’s Ma and I thought Bill Callahan’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest was beautiful.
I played Son Volt’s Union a lot. I also really enjoyed Sharon Van Etten’s last album, Remind Me Tomorrow. I saw her live at the Green Man Festival last August and she blew me away. Her song Seventeen, from the latest album, is a killer.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
AL: The plan for this year is to record the new album. I also want to play live as much as possible. Since the last album was released, I’ve been playing all over the UK and in Europe, and, even now, people are still discovering the record, which is great. So I’ll be playing shows, both solo and with the band.
Last year I helped my sister arrange and put on a series of gigs to raise money for the Save The Children Yemen Crisis Appeal. The first set of gigs were ‘Songs of Dylan’ – we invited a bunch of local, and not so local, artists to perform a couple of Dylan songs each. The first gig was in Hebden Bridge, and we also arranged concerts in Bath and Bristol. We’ve had some great musicians come and play at those shows and the response has been amazing – we’ve managed to raise over £2,000 so far. We’ve also hosted ‘Songs of Simon & Garfunkel’ and ‘Songs of Joni Mitchell’ concerts in Hebden Bridge, too. The situation in Yemen is horrific and we’ll be arranging more Songs For Yemen gigs this year, with a big one in London being planned in the coming months.
‘If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want?’
I’ve also started a night in Bristol with my friend James Maclucas. It’s called Wolfmoon. It’s an evening doused in the spirit of the New York coffee houses of the 1960s, set in the intimate setting of Friendly Records Bar, on North Street. Three artists play a 30-minute set, completely unplugged. There are guest DJs and plenty of ale on tap. The next one is on Thursday February 27.
If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want? I haven’t been paid to say that by the way…
Jigsaw and Everyday by Alex Lipinksi are out now on A Recordings. Hurricane will be released on March 20.
Alex plays The Water Rats, London, on February 12, with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale) and Sadie Jemmett. Tickets are available here.
I first heard West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski in November this year – he kindly invited me to the launch of his new album, Alex, at the Pretty Green clothes store in London’s Carnaby Street.
With his brother Adam on guitar, he played acoustic versions of several tracks from the record and I was really impressed – so much so that I bought a copy of the album on vinyl. Since then, it’s been on heavy rotation on my turntable and is one of my favourite albums of 2017.
Recorded and produced by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre at his studio in Berlin, it’s a raw and bluesy album and it sounds like Bob Dylan meets The La’s.
Dealing with the darker side of life, the songs are stripped-down and lived-in – the moody Dandylion Blues has a cool organ and electric guitar groove over which Alex warns of ‘dark skies on the rise’ and tells us that he’s ‘got to keep on keeping on’.
The folky strumming of Carolyn lightens the mood, but those dark skies soon return with Hurricane – one of my favourite songs on the album. Recalling Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams and Dylan circa Blood On The Tracks, it’s a stunning country ballad (acoustic guitar and harmonica) that’s a vicious put-down of an ex-lover: “You had it all worked out. All you do now is scream and shout, spilling worthless words from your mouth.”
I spoke to Alex to find out how the album came together, what it was like working with Anton Newcombe, and to see what his plans are for 2018…
Q & A
Hi Alex. It was great to meet you a few weeks ago, when I saw you play at Pretty Green, in Carnaby Street. Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed the gig.
Alex Lipinski: It was good to meet you, Sean – we had a really cool night at Pretty Green. It was a nice, intimate space to showcase the new songs and the guys there looked after us.
How does it feel to have the new album out there? It’s your second album – your debut, Lonesome Train, came out seven years ago. Why the big gap between albums?
AL: It’s a good feeling to finally have this album out. After Lonesome Train was released, I was working on the follow-up album, then I started a project with Bonehead [Oasis] called Phoneys & The Freaks, so that kind of took over for a year or so, then by the time I was ready to start the second album, I was working on a new bunch of songs that I felt were stronger. That was when Anton Newcombe contacted me…
How did you come to work with Anton?
AL: He saw a live video of one of my songs and contacted me saying he wanted to produce me and put my next record out.
We met a couple of times after Brian Jonestown Massacre gigs and discussed the direction. He had in mind these old ‘60s folk recordings, in essence, capturing the songs as stripped-back as possible – the bare bones – letting the voice, the songs and the performance come through.
We recorded the album in about eight hours in Anton’s studio in Berlin. My brother Adam [guitarist] joined me in Berlin and we set-up in Anton’s studio one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.
“We set-up in Anton Newcombe’s studio in Berlin one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings”
We bought some beers from the local shop, went back to the studio and recorded a couple of takes of each song, all live with no click track. We added some minimal overdubs later, but the nucleus of the record stemmed from that one night in Berlin.
Anton’s a pleasure to work with. He would give us enough space to let us do our thing, but he’d also suggest things that I would never have thought of, and taught me how to accept perfect mistakes. He’s also arguably the funniest person I’ve ever met.
Are you pleased with the new record?
AL: Yeah – I’m really pleased with it. Going into the recordings, this was the kind of album we wanted to make – the collection of songs work well together.
Some of the songs had been hanging around for a while, whereas a few others were a lot more recent. I think Carolyn may be the oldest song on the album. The lyrics on some of the older songs evolved over time to the point when we recorded them.
When I first heard the album, I described it as ‘Bob Dylan meets The La’s’. How do you feel about that description?
AL: It’s funny you say that because quite a lot of people have come up to me and said a similar thing. I guess it’s the kind of juxtaposition of both British and American influences you can hear in the songs.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on your album. Hurricane is a highlight and it’s one of the darker songs on the record. What can you tell me about it? It’s a heartbreaker and it doesn’t pull any punches…
AL: From what I remember, Hurricane was written very quickly. It’s one of those songs where you pick up a guitar and everything – the lyrics, melody and chords – all seamlessly fall together in about 30 minutes. It is really lucky when that happens. I guess you can say it’s pretty autobiographical. Everything I felt I needed to say about that particular situation is in the song.
Dandylion Blues is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? It’s another dark song, isn’t it? I like all the depressing songs on the album. I’m not sure what that says about me…
AL: Dandylion Blues stemmed from the groove and the lyrics followed to suit the moodiness of the track. Again it deals with the darker side of things. The lyrics in the verse especially are quite seductive and almost manipulative. It could be interpreted as two people having a conversation, or it could be seen as the voices within someone’s head.
The album is quite a dark record and it’s raw and bluesy – a lot of the songs deal with the darker side of relationships and life, don’t they?
AL: Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general, which completely works with the nature of these recordings. Capturing these songs in their rawest form gives them a greater power because the song and the performance are laid bare.
Like me, you’re a huge Dylan fan, aren’t you? He’s a huge influence on you, isn’t he? What do you like about him? Do you have a favourite Dylan album – and why?
AL: I think any singer-songwriter out there who says they’re not influenced by Bob Dylan in some way is lying through their teeth. His work is embedded in popular music in so many ways it’s difficult not to be influenced by him in some shape or form.
My brother gave me copies of Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks when I was 14 and it sparked a fuse and changed the way I listened to music – it opened my mind to a mystical world. I couldn’t pick a favourite record; it changes on a daily basis. The trio of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde are pretty hard to beat. The lyrical content on Freewheelin’, Another Sideof Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ is untouchable.
“Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general”
Can you tell me some of your other musical influences?
AL: I’m the youngest of four and I grew up in a house where music always seemed to be playing. My parents grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so it was generally always rock ‘n’ roll – mainly The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Those early rock ‘n’ and roll records and ‘60s British bands had a huge influence on me from the start.
This developed into singer-songwriters, as I grew up and started taking songwriting and lyrics more seriously – specifically people such as Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan and Ryan Adams. Wilco are one of my favourite bands over recent times. The musicianship in that band is incredible. Richard Hawley is another of my favourites.
You grew up in Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset. How was that? You then moved to London… That must’ve been a big change for you – all that musical heritage to explore…
AL: I had a great time growing up in Weston. It’s a small seaside town and as a kid I enjoyed living by the sea. I was a bit of a daydreamer – I had these great visions and big ideas of getting out and making a footprint in the world.
Growing up, my life was completely absorbed by music, and the music I listened to would take me to a different world and spark my imagination. I think growing up in a small town can give you that hunger and desire for something greater, which is a good thing.
I lived in London for five years, which was great. I knew had to get out and start playing. The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street was my first point of call and I used to regularly play there. It’s a tragedy that venue no longer exists. And, of course, all the rich history that London had was amazing to an impressionable 19-year-old.
Where are you based now?
AL: I turned 30 last month and I’m currently living back in the West Country. The last year I lived in London I was pretty much out all the time, having too much fun, and I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be. I moved back to Weston, where there’s not a great deal happening, and I’ve been far more productive. It’s a strange mind-set but it works creatively.
It’s almost the end of 2017. How’s the year been for you? What are your plans for 2018? Can we expect another album and, if so, what’s it going to sound like?
AL: 2017 has been a productive year and I’m glad this album has seen the light of day. We’re in the process of booking dates for next year and the plan is to be on the road for most of it. I’m currently working on demos for the next record, which I’ll be recording with my full band.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you enjoyed this year?
AL: I tend to go back when searching for new music – there’s so much to discover. There’s a great Dion album produced by Phil Spector – Born To Be With You – that I heard recently and it’s amazing. Scott Walker’s Scott 3 and Scott 4 are both late discoveries. I was also late to the Big Star party, but what a band.
To be honest there hasn’t been a great deal this year that’s really excited me. I thought The Shins album was really good and the new War On Drugs record is phenomenal.
Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.
The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.
All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.
Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.
I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”
When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.
On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.
I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.
Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe.
My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars.
Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.
It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute.
Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.
The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list…
Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.
This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…