‘Fame would have been fun, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure…’

It’s been a busy year for English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard. He’s published the second instalment of his autobiography, Illusions of Happiness, and released his latest album, the brilliant To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection.

The new record – his seventeenth – is a collection of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sings lead and backing vocals and plays all the instruments.

To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio –  he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain –  during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020.

Howard, who is 67, grew up in Lancashire and trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven – he started playing when he was four. His debut album, Kid In A Big World, featuring the single Goodbye Suzie, was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple studios in 1974 and came out the following year.

“The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers

“I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.”

Q&A

During the summer, you published the second volume of your autobiography, lllusions of Happiness, which goes up to 1986. There’s a third and final instalment planned in the not-too-distant future. How have you found writing the books? Has it been cathartic? What have you learnt from the process?

John Howard: To be honest, I didn’t know there’d be a second volume when I wrote the first one, Incidents Crowded With Life. It was intended as an online chapter-by-chapter series of events in my life up to my accident, when I broke my back, in 1976. I was astonished when Fisher King told me they wanted to publish it. But reviews were excellent and Fisher King asked me to write a second instalment.

Originally, it was going to go from 1976 to 2000, covering my recovery from the accident through to returning to recording with Trevor Horn and Steve Levine and my move into working in the music business in A & R and Licensing through the ‘80s and ‘90s; meeting my husband Neil, leaving London for Oxfordshire, and finally in 2000 for Pembrokeshire. But Fisher King suggested I split it into two books. So I decided to end Illusions of Happiness in 1986, just before I met Neil, having split from my then partner of eight years, changed jobs and moved into my own apartment. It seemed a good narrative point to finish the book.

‘I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang’

I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang. So writing the book felt very natural, and yes, a little cathartic. It sounds silly in a way, but quite a few members of my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s, so being practical, I wanted to get as much of my life down in writing now just in case there comes a time when “I can’t even remember my name”, as a line in the song Injuries Sustained In Surviving [from the new album] goes.

I didn’t really learn anything from writing the book, as I knew it all already! But it did help put some things into a clearer view in my mind. What I never did, in either book, was comment or judge, I just told what happened – as I saw it – and let the reader decide on who was right or wrong, on whether I, and other people in my life at the time, made the right decisions. What was, was. What happened, happened. There’s no changing that. I just wanted to put it down on paper.

Hopefully, the third book will be published sometime in 2022 – there were two years between books one and two being published, so I’m guessing there’ll be a similar gap before the third is out there. It’s more or less written – there’s just some tweaking and editing to do over the next weeks and months.

The new album is very reflective, nostalgic and melancholy at times. What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the songs? It has a lot of reminiscences on it… Do you think writing your autobiographies made you write more songs about your past?

JH: I think writing the two autobiographies – so far – certainly put a lot of things in perspective. I have an excellent memory but actually writing stuff down that happened 40, 50-plus years ago captured those memories for good and finally gave them placement and sense.

As I say, I’m not one to look back most of the time, but being ‘forced to’ when you’re writing your life story – or a bit of it – did remind me of people, events, experiences, and that would automatically seep into my songwriting. The two processes sit side by side.

Getting older too, of course, one remembers and reflects, rather than anticipating a whole lot more! It is a strange feeling knowing I have probably – if I’m lucky and healthy – another 20, or 25, years left, whereas in my twenties that was indeed a lifetime, with 60 years ahead to look forward to and plan for. It isn’t being maudlin or morose admitting that – it’s a fact.

The album has a pastoral theme – there are a lot of references to nature in the lyrics and also the title…

JH: Yes – the album does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.

The album title is taken from a line in the song Water, which is the closing track on the record and features the sound of crickets on it. Why did you choose it for the name of the album?

JH: Water is based on a dream I had, floating above a lake like a watching spirit. I wrote the lyric as an observer of a scene in which he/she is gradually drawn in until they’re completely part of it. I wanted the track to have an atmosphere of stillness, of silently watching something develop before your eyes – something you don’t understand at first.

Our skies here are very dark at night, so there is always a sense of connection to ‘the beyond’, being able to see the universe above us, watching the shooting stars, listening to the crickets all round us every night, and feeling a kind of wonder about it all. As a songwriter that must affect me.

Once I’d finished the album and needed a title, the line in Water’s lyric, “What’s that beam of light on the lake, to the left of the moon’s reflection?” described for me the vibe of the album –  the second part of the line especially. It also lent itself to a sleeve design very well too.

The song My Patient Heart is about living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where you and your husband, Neil, used to be based, and also references Murcia, in Spain, where you live now. Can you tell me more about your inspiration for it?

JH: It’s one of my scene-setting songs, describing life here in the village, which is still very rural, families working in the olive and almond groves, the local church ringing its bells every day on the hour – usually about ten minutes slow!

Our neighbour gives us bottles of his homemade olive oil, others bring us home-grown spinach and various vegetables, and a chap in his nineties gives us jars of his home-made honey. When we had hens we gave people eggs and every summer families from the village come and collect fruit from our Chinese Meddler tree. They seem very pleased to have us as part of the village, which is heart-warming.

But the song also looks to Wales and our life there, which was also very rural. Though no one worked in the fields any longer in Pembrokeshire, everyone had an orchard, cherry trees, gooseberry bushes, wild berries growing in hedgerows. And seasons!

That’s what I miss the most – the seasons. They were definite, expected and regular as clockwork. It’s November here and in the mid-twenties. Sounds great, I’m sure, but my Northern English psyche still expects it to be minus two! I’m not sure I will ever lose that natural expectation. Neil and I do intend to return to Wales, someday, hence My Patient Heart. Everything is about timing, when it’s right. We’re very lucky to be in a position where we can decide when that is.

Let’s talk about Injuries Sustained In Surviving. It’s a great song – quite folky – and I love the title…

JH: Thanks. It was the first song I wrote and recorded for the album. I had Marrakesh Express in my mind when I wrote it, and carried that through to the vocals, where there are no ‘backing vocals’ per se, more three-and-four-layered harmony lead vocals. I became Crosby, Stills & Nash for a day!

The narrative covers childhood, youth and ageing all in one. I have memories of the railway lines behind my parents’ house in Heywood in the ‘50s and going out on day trips as a family in an old Austin jalopy. We went all over the place in that old car until finally one of its wheels fell off and dad abandoned it in a garage, getting ten quid for the scrap value!

The song develops through to more recent thoughts, “Yes, kid, I remember the fire burning, I recall every song I was singing” – I’m talking to myself really.

There’s a bit which is a reflection on my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s, “Don’t wait until your body is a shell of a stranger locked inside a lonely cell, with a thousand silent tales he’ll never tell.” But it ends on a higher note, “Sometimes good things come along you’d never planned, somebody might just sprinkle stardust in your hand.” There’s always a chance.

I think Echoes of Pauline sounds like a standard, or maybe something from a stage musical. What inspired it? Who is Pauline?

JH: Pauline is a real person. I was at school with her in the ‘60s in Lancashire and we were very close, like brother and sister in many ways. She introduced me to artists like Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.

I’ve written about her before, in The Flame on Kid In A Big World, and in Pauline’s Song, which I wrote in 1970, but only recorded in 2009. She also gets a mention in a line from Small Town, Big Adventures… “I was Toad, Eniluap was Mole”, referring to when we were both in the school play Toad of Toad Hall in 1968. We always called each other by our names backwards. Don’t ask me why. We were young and did daft things!

We fell out badly in 1970 and our friendship didn’t recover. I can’t actually remember now why we had a row, a really bad argument, but I’m sure it was my fault. I think of her still and hope she’s okay and happy. She was a great person. I did try finding her on Friends Reunited years ago to no avail. Echoes of Pauline is my way of offering her a way back to our friendship if she ever hears the song, which she’s unlikely to do of course. That’s how the lyric began really, a letter to a friend, which will probably not be read.

I wanted the track to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie, keeping the piano quite restrained, not using it to drive the song along with rhythmic chords, but as an occasional texture, letting the song develop slowly without driving it. I used a simple string wash and sparse percussion to build to its more rhythmic end.

‘I wanted the track Echoes of Pauline to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie’

I think that track took me the longest to get right. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound – I listened to Cilla’s track several times before going into the studio – but it was a new way of working for me. I also wanted the lead vocals to be multi-tracked and very smooth, with just occasional harmony lines, using no backing vocal ‘oohs and ahhs’.

I also developed a different way of singing for it, keeping my vocal restrained, not ‘soaring’ which is my usual style, singing from the back of the throat – more soulful rather than a dramatic pop style.

Your latest album is your seventeenth and, this year, it’s 45 years since you first started your recording career. How does that make you feel? You’re in your late sixties now. As a young man in his twenties, did you ever envisage you’d still be making records when you were a pensioner?

JH: Yeah! Who’d have thought it? But in some ways 17 albums in 45 years doesn’t sound that many!

Of course, I had a 20-year break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I worked ‘on the other side of the desk’, in the music industry. In the ‘70s I only made three albums – and two of them went unreleased – so 14 new albums since 2004 sounds much more impressive! The ‘70s and all that went on then feels like a lifetime ago, as though I’m watching it all happen in a movie in my head. I guess 45 years since my debut album came out makes me feel…in my late sixties!

The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious. And yes, I did imagine I’d still be recording now, but I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.

John Howard in Vienna. Photo: Robert Lettner

What have you learnt during your career? What have been the highs and lows?

JH: What have I learnt? I guess not to look back too much. I always try to look forward to the next project, the next album – though that’s sometimes difficult when people still – of course – want to talk and reminisce about Goodbye Suzie and Kid In A Big World. Nostalgia is very comforting for people, though my memories of those days are not so rosy. It was a very frustrating and disappointing period for me on the whole, in terms of what eventually happened in my career anyway.

The other thing I’ve learnt is not to have regrets. I’m still in one piece, physically and mentally – most of the time – thank goodness – which many of my contemporaries when I was starting out are not.

‘The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world’

Fame would have been fun, of course, I would’ve loved it, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure about that! Leaving that world of recording in the mid-‘80s and ‘getting a proper job’ in the industry gave me a different perspective – a security I’d never had before.

Also, working as I did with so many established artists over those 20 years and hearing from them how their careers and the music business had treated them, often not well at all, gave me a view of life from the top. I saw it from a different angle – someone else’s experience of what fame can do to you. I think I became less selfish during that time than I had been as a recording artist, when my everyday had been all about “Me, me, me”.

Having to think about and be responsible for other artists’ careers and record releases taught me to be more considerate, more measured. It was my job not to have a meltdown when something didn’t go quite right. I became other people’s buffer, which is quite strengthening.

Now I’m a recording artist again, I happily don’t have the pressure I’d had the first time round from managers, promoters, big record execs and, deadlines. Recording now is done on my own terms, when I want to, how I want to. It’s much more relaxing and no longer about ambition. Being largely unknown does have its plusses! ‘Niche’ is good.

John Howard at The Lexington, London, in 2019. Picture by Melani.

As a professional musician, in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, are you worried about the future of gigs, tours and venues? Will things ever get back to normal? What are your hopes and fears for 2021 and beyond?

JH: I don’t actually gig very much at all – never have. I love performing, but the opportunities haven’t arisen very much in recent years, just the occasional gig in London whenever I’m invited to perform. The last one was at The Lexington in 2019, with Vinny Peculiar, Simon Love and Rogers & Butler, which was really enjoyable.

I gigged a lot in the early ‘70s when I lived with my parents in Lancashire, but once I got to London and signed with a management and record company, recording became my way of life – and it still is.

But yes, I do feel for musicians and bands who can’t gig now. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums. So a whole income stream is cut off straight away.

Who knows where this will all end? Certainly, there will be venues which close and can’t afford to open again. It’s really sad. My husband is a retired actor, and he too has seen friends in the theatre who haven’t worked for months, with no sign that things are going to change for the foreseeable future. Pretty grim.

‘I feel for musicians who can’t gig. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums’

Home shows have helped some musicians, in terms of being able to perform and staying connected to fans, and some artists have monetised their performances, which keeps some income coming in at least. Who knows when we’ll be able to step back onto a stage in front of a live audience again?

What music – new and old – have you been listening to recently? Any recommendations?

JH: A lot of the music I listen to now is old. I will always love and enjoy hearing The Beatles, The Searchers, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Judee Sill, Barry White, Paul Simon, Kate Bush and Roy Harper. They never grow old in my mind – the albums still sound as fresh today as they did when I first bought them, though my vinyl collection was sold off before we moved to Spain, I’m sad to say. Finding room for over 40 boxes of LPs was no longer viable. But I replaced all my favourites with CDs, and that’s still how I listen to music most of the time.

We recently bought a record player, simply because some of my albums, new and old, were being issued and reissued on LP and I wanted to hear them in that format. That led to us buying some of our old favourites on vinyl again. Also a lot of my friends were releasing their latest albums on vinyl – Robert Rotifer and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge, for example – so I wanted to hear those on LP.

More recently, I’ve become a big fan of the band Ex-Norwegian – they have a lovely Syd Barrett psychedelic-pop vibe. I’ve also fallen in love with the music of the French singer-songwriter Olivier Rocabois, the highly talented Joel Little and John Cunningham, whose album Fell, is gorgeous. The Norwegian singer-songwriter-pianist Cecilie Anna, who my friend, the poet Robert Cochrane introduced me to, is also remarkable. I have two of her albums and they’re beautiful.

Finally, you’re a very prolific songwriter? What’s on the horizon? Another album? Any other projects you can tell us about?

JH: ‘Prolific’ is my middle name! Though I do often take months of doing nothing between albums, once I have a project in my head I work for weeks on end until it’s finished. I’ve been having a lovely time recently recording vocals and piano for various friends’ projects, doing tracks and writing occasional songs for them. They’re all hush-hush at the moment and due out next year, but they are very diverse!

‘The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one!’

What I can give you a heads-up on is a very exciting project for me. Kool Kat Musik in the States, which issued To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection in August – my first US release – will be putting out a 2CD ‘Best of JH’ next spring. It will be my first commercially-released Best Of! Edward Rogers (of Rogers & Butler) is curating the collection, Ian Button will be mastering it and doing the artwork, and Ray Gianchetti will be releasing it on his Kool Kat Musik label. I’m very excited about it! Edward has put together an intriguing collection of tracks from across my career, some of them never released commercially on CD before. Watch this space for more details early next year.

I’ve also been sketching out some new song ideas over the past few weeks, which I will start recording probably at the end of this year, or early next. The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one! The story is set in my head, the characters are developing in my mind and, the narrative is growing, I just need to sit at the piano and see if it sounds any good! It will be a challenge, but I love a challenge. Otherwise I might discover what boredom feels like. I can’t have that. Put the pipe and slippers away!

To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection by John Howard is out now on CD – in the UK, it’s released on his own label, which is also called John Howard. You can find out more information at his website: http://kidinabigworld.co.uk/

The album is also available in the US – on CD – via Kool Kat Musik, and can also be purchased from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos, which has released several of his albums already.

His latest book, Illusions of Happiness – the second volume of his three-part autobiography – is published by Fisher King Publishing. 

 

Best albums of 2016

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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. 

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The Hanging Stars

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…

  1. The Hanging Stars Over The Silvery Lake
  2. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
  3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key
  4. Peter BruntnellNos Da Comrade
  5. Vinny PeculiarSilver Meadows
  6. David Bowie – Blackstar
  7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  8. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  9. Ben Watt – Fever Dream
  10. Quiet Loner – The Battle For The Ballot
  11. Britta Phillips Luck Or Magic
  12. Nick Piunti Trust Your Instincts 
  13. Cotton MatherDeath of The Cool
  14. Robert Rotifer Not Your Door
  15. Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
  16. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  17. The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
  18. Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
  19. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  20. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  21. Wilco – Schmilco 
  22. Dr Robert Out There
  23. The Explorers Club – Together
  24. Cool Ghouls – Animal Races
  25. John HowardAcross The Door Sill
  26. The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
  27. 8 X 8 – Inflorescence 
  28. Ryan Allen & His Extra ArmsBasement Punk
  29. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
  30. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
  31. Paul McClure Songs For Anyone 
  32. The Monkees Good Times!
  33. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  34. Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [Japan only release]
  35. The Hosts – Moon

‘These stories needed to be told’

Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering
Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering

Austrian-born, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is his most personal and autobiographical record yet, with songs about growing up in Vienna and the death of his grandmother, a Jewish communist and resistance fighter in the Second World War. I speak to him to find out why he felt the time was right to tell these stories and how they’re more relevant than ever in the current European political climate…

I’ve been listening to the new album a lot – it’s a great record…

Robert Rotifer: I’m glad and I’m grateful that you like it because I sometimes find it pretty hard going to listen to because it’s very intimate. People have been telling me they like it, but it was really hard for me to let go of some of the stuff. It’s quite intense and there are just ten songs – I felt that if I put 12 songs on it, it would’ve been too much. Also, these days, you want it to sound good on vinyl and the truth is, the less you put on there, the better it sounds.

I think it works really well on vinyl because, thematically, there are two distinct sides to the record. The first half of the album deals with contemporary subjects, including immigration and the smartphone generation, while the second half is a song cycle about you and your family’s experiences of growing up and living in Vienna. 

RR: The songs on the first side give you the background to where the second side comes from. Side one should open your mind – ‘what is this guy talking about?’ – and on side two, you can see where I’m coming from. It has a dramatic curve.

I like the details in the lyrics and the stories that you tell in the songs…

RR: They’re compelling. I couldn’t take into account what people might make of it and I felt there were things that I just needed to write about, which should always be the case. I couldn’t edit myself accordingly to what was going to work with an audience, which was a real self-indulgence, but I’m aware of that.

It’s arguably your most personal and autobiographical record and it’s a Robert Rotifer album, rather than one by your band, Rotifer. Although the guys from Rotifer play on the record, was it always going to be a solo album?

RR: It just happened that all sorts of things conspired – Mike Stone, who plays bass, was very busy and Ian Button (drummer) was busy with Papernut Cambridge. I just felt that I had this personal stuff to get rid of and it seemed right to do the record by myself. Mike and Ian were absolutely fine with it – there was no animosity.

Some of the songs – the title track and Irma la Douce – are about your grandmother, Irma Schwager, who died last year. She was a Jewish communist who fled Austria to escape the Nazis during the Second World War and joined the French resistance. The title track sees you standing outside her old flat in Vienna…

RR: My grandmother died when she was 95. She met my grandfather during immigration, while they were part of the underground Austrian resistance in France – they were both Jewish – not religiously so – but by birth. My mum was born in France when she was in hiding during the Second World War.

My grandparents came back to Vienna in 1945 and moved into a flat that was right next to the Danube Canal – it’s the bit of the Danube that goes right into the city of Vienna. That was one of the last strongholds where the Nazis had hidden.

When my grandparents moved in to the flat, part of the outside wall had collapsed because the Russians had lobbed grenades into the building. Until the very end, you could see bullet scars in the doors and there was a hole in the wood panelling where they’d looked for hidden weapons. After my grandmother died, my mum found pictures of German soldiers in uniform having a jolly in the flat. It had belonged to a Jewish family and was taken over by a Nazi general.

When my grandparents came back, they were offered the flat. For me, it’s a symbolic place and has more to say than just my personal history. With the way politics is going in Central Europe at the moment, I think these stories need to be told – it’s essential to explain to people was it was actually like.

On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, there was a big do, because she was a little bit of a celebrity in leftie circles. I was invited to sing and I sang a song called The Frankfurt Kitchen, which is about a kitchen design from 1928 that was the daddy of all the Ikea kitchens. It was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was a friend of my grandmother’s.

I played it as a tribute to her friend, who had died, and as I was on stage and my grandmother was standing next to me, I said to her that I was glad that she came back to Vienna, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I asked her why she’d come back and, like a shot, she said that it was because they’d won. I thought that was the best reason ever.

When she died, it became obvious to me that that idea of her coming back had gone – I can’t rely on other generations having fought for me. It was really emotional for me and I felt all these songs about Vienna coming out. While they might be about me, they also say something about where Europe – and the world – is at the moment, from Trump all the way to Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer [the far-right Austrian presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated earlier this year].

I don’t want to get too political about it because it’s emotional for me, but it’s about feeling safe.

One of my favourite songs on the album is the opening track, If We Hadn’t Had You. It’s a very personal song that’s about your daughter and mentions an anti-war demo in Hyde Park that you took her to. Can you tell me about the background to the song?

RR: My daughter said I always writing depressing and sad stuff – she asked me to write something nice and I thought that if she’s said that, then the most obvious thing to do is to write a nice song about her. But I wanted to write a song that wasn’t mawkish.

I’ve tried to explain that parental happiness is also withdrawal from what happens around you – you’ve got the luxury of something which is so much more important… But I also wanted to make it clear that because you have kids you don’t have a higher calling. My daughter absolutely loves the song.

You’ve recorded two versions of If We Hadn’t Had You – the one on the album has a guitar solo by you, but the version you released on a EP earlier this year features a saxello solo by 80-year-old Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe, who played on John Martyn’s classic album Solid Air. How did you get him involved?

RR: Living in Canterbury, I was aware of Tony Coe – I’d seen him play at jazz gigs. He was around in the Ronnie Scott’s scene in the ‘50s.

He says that Solid Air was just a session for him – that it wasn’t a very exciting afternoon, but, for the rest of us, it’s good enough!

I got him to play on another album that I was co-producing with Andy Lewis and at the end of the session we still had some time, so I asked him to listen to If We Hadn’t Had You, which I thought could do with some saxophone on it. He really liked the song and I loved what he did.

When I’d mixed my album I knew that, thematically, If We Hadn’t Had You had to be the first song on it, but with the sound [of the saxello], you would expect the rest of the record to have that aspect to it, but it doesn’t – it’s like opening a door to a room that you then don’t use anymore. After thinking long and hard about it, I tried a guitar solo on it and, all of a sudden, it got a different flavour that fitted the rest of the album. I decided to do an EP with the Tony Coe version on it to give credit to it and not lose it.

Picture by Stephan Brueckler
Picture by Stephan Brueckler

 

Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s pretty stripped-down in places – there’s plenty of room for the songs to breathe, with acoustic guitar, organ and horn, but then there’s also some freewheeling electric guitar, heavier sounds and some psych-pop and jazzy touches. It’s a hard record to describe and nail down – it’s almost as if the songs are led by the lyrics, rather than the music…

RR: Yes – completely.

What were you aiming for with this record?

RR: I’m a big fan of French records from the ‘60s and ‘70s – what I like about them is the way the vocals are mixed right upfront, so you can hear what Jacques Dutronc or Serge Gainsbourg is telling you. That’s the opposite of what’s happened in the mastering wars of the zero years. This was the first time I’d ever mixed a record myself and I recorded almost all of it myself.

Writing-wise what I was aiming for with this record was that I wanted to get away from that guitarist’s thing of ‘here’s four chords and let’s sing over the top’. I wanted to write it more like a piano player would. I wrote some of the songs on piano.

I’d like to ask you more about your musical influences. You moved to England from Vienna just over 19 years ago, in early 1997, but you first visited England in 1982, as a 12-year old. What music were you into when you were young?

RR: My parents sent me to Canvey Island in 1982, when I was 12. Before then, I had been terribly Anglophile. It was a formative experience – in 1982 in Essex you saw second-generation mods running around and the look was magical to me. I was such a Beatles fan as a kid and I’d got into The Kinks and The Who.

So when you were growing up in Austria, you didn’t listen to local music?

RR: There was local rock music…. The case for Austrian indigenous pop music, whatever that means, because it’s a multicultural society, is quite important for me. I’ve been the co-founder and curator of the Vienna Popfest, which is a huge thing – it’s an annual festival where tens of thousands of people turn up. It’s anything that you could possibly describe as ‘pop’, but one of the great things about Vienna is that people are very schooled in the avant-garde – they keep an ear open for music that is odd. So at the Popfest you can have people playing something that in no other place in the world would be considered pop.

I like Austrian pop music, but when I lived there, there was this thing called Austropop, which was complacent, stolid and boring pop music. There were people with horrible hairdos and DX7 keyboards… As a teenager, I tried to get away from it as much as possible.

Then there was the Austrian version of Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave thing. It was a mixture of what the Germans did and Austropop, which was even more fake to me.

I sang in English and I always played in very Anglophile bands – there was a mod and ‘60s culture going on. I became a music journalist in ‘91/’92 – I was studying, but I was offered a job because I wrote an article about Billy Bragg that people liked. I then went freelance and got into radio, which I still do today.

I ended up being the Britpop correspondent – I went to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury and hung around the hospitality area. If you were accredited, you could stick a microphone in Jarvis Cocker’s direction and he would talk to you.

0007570611_36

Your new album is being released on Gare du Nord Records – a label that you’re heavily involved with.  Any other new records and projects in the pipeline?

RR: This is an exclusive. There’s a new Papernut Cambridge album already finished. One afternoon, we decided to try and organise something like The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus – it’s called The Cambridge Circus! I’m really looking forward to that.

 

Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is released on July 1 on Gare du Nord Records – CD/LP and download.  For more information, go to http://www.robertrotifer.co.uk  & http://robertrotifer.bandcamp.com

The album launch party takes place on June 30 at Servant Jazz Quarters in London: tickets are available here.

‘I don’t even know if I’ve seen any of the Bond films all the way through’

With the new Bond blockbuster Spectre around the corner, indie label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (wiaiwya) is releasing a James Bond tribute album called A Girl And A Gun, featuring covers of 007 songs and soundtracks by contemporary acts including Papernut Cambridge, Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long. 

I asked Ian Button from Papernut Cambridge about his groovy garage-rock take on Lulu’s The Man With The Golden Gun…

Ian Button

How did you get involved with the A Girl And A Gun project?

Ian Button: I can’t quite remember when I first heard Jerv (wiaiwya) mention the idea – I think it might have been when we were all at The Union Chapel when Papernut Cambridge played a Daylight Music show at the end of 2014.

I probably muscled in just as much as I was invited. The idea fitted in really well with our ‘lost year of cover versions’ – the Nutlets album and our soon to be released EP of John Sullivan theme songs – so I just said yes without thinking.

Jerv is a great friend, and was also a great advisor to us when we started the Gare Du Nord label – the links between all the bands and players on the labels in our little circle are too complex to go into – but suffice to say I’m involved on a couple of other tracks on the album too – drumming, recording etc on Ralegh’s and Darren’s tracks…..and the Papernuts are going to be a sort of ‘house band’ for some of the show on November 7th at The Union Chapel.

(Papernut Cambridge)

Why did you choose to cover The Man With The Golden Gun? What were you trying to achieve with your version?

IB: I went for it because I thought I knew no one else would. It’s one of the real underdog themes. But of course Mark Williamson (Crock Oss) went and chose it as well, and did a brilliant electronic/location recordings version of it too. At the show on Nov 7th we’re going to do a kind of amalgamation of both our versions, which is going to be great fun.

(Crock Oss)

I remember Lulu doing The Man Who Sold The World and being in a sort of Bowie phase in the early/mid ’70s, and The Man With The Golden Gun was definitely the same kind of thing/look/era.

When I got to grips with the music I realised how cool it is – not really any chords, just dark monophonic lines and dischords etc…it took me a while to work out those really Bond machine gun cluster notes at the start. They are very clever!

Like all our covers, I wanted to try and make it sound sort of like the original – not an oblique post-ironic re-work – but I also liked the idea of a bloke singing it instead of Lulu.

It was recorded the way pretty much all of the Papernut Cambridge tracks are formed – I start at home with a basic structure, in this case a sort of synth bass line, a couple of guitar lines and a drum machine.

I used Mellotron sounds (M-Tron Pro) to layer up the brass/strings/harp etc. Then I went to a little rehearsal room to do the vocals and real drums. The drums were recorded with just one mic, but there are three takes all playing at once.

The next step normally is to send the track to the rest of the Nuts so they can add bits – but in this case it didn’t quite happen as usual.

Robert Halcrow was the only one who sent anything back by Jerv’s deadline (bass, real horns, and backing vocals) – everyone else just said they couldn’t add anything – even though I meant for them to replace the programmed parts with real guitars/keys etc. So it’s really ended up just me and Rob Halcrow on this one. But Ralegh Long came up with something maybe better than any music – the video, which is taken from a spoof Bond movie that he and his mates made when they were at school – Blackeye. It’s genius.

Are you a Bond fan?

IB: Not really, I must confess. I kind of liked the ‘60s and ‘70s ones because they were a bit light hearted. Christmas afternoon fodder.

I haven’t seen the Daniel Craig films, but I hear about torture scenes and I kind of don’t really like the idea of them being dark or too scary.

What’s your favourite Bond film and song – and why?

IB: I couldn’t name a movie that’s my favourite, unfortunately. I actually don’t even know if I’ve seen any all the way through – but my favourite song is You Only Live Twice. That strings riff is the cold suburban sunshine of the 1960s, bottled. I also especially like the reggae bit in Live and Let Die.

Who is your favourite actor to have played Bond?

IB: Roger Moore – not least because he and Dorothy Squires used to live near me in Bexley…

What do you think of Sam Smith’s song for Spectre – Writing’s On The Wall?

IB:I had a listen and it didn’t really grab me. But then neither did the Spectres one [Bristol band] that got a lot of attention in that stupid mix up of reviews. I usually don’t like music that tries to be all dramatic, minor key and portentous, although I do make exceptions!

I’m going to use Sam Smith’s lyrics in a university lecture next week, to see if people recognise them by reading a verse in isolation. They sort of don’t say anything about the movie really do they? Not like Lulu, who actually said what’s in the film, totally!

A Girl And A Gun is released digitally on October 23 (wiaiwya).

https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/album/a-girl-and-a-gun

http://www.wiaiwya.com

For more on A Girl And A Gun, read my interviews with wiawya founder John Jervis  and musician Robert Rotifer