When did you start playing music and how did you get into the psych/dark-folk your music is usually associated with?
I started playing music in folk sessions as a student in Oxford, England, and then I moved to Northern California after finishing my studies and started writing songs that then became my first album Beautiful Twisted. I hadn’t heard the label ‘psych folk’ then but liked bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. I sent my songs to Tony Dale at Camera Obscura Records and he loved them and offered to release them. He also put me in touch with US band The Iditarod, and they orgnised a tour of the US and Canada and we travelled together, becoming friends and also meeting other musicians like Fursaxa, Jack Rose, Espers. The term ‘psych folk’ was starting to be applied to their music and mine around that time – this was early 2000s.
Is there any artist you consider important in your musical training or at least someone you feel close to your sensibility?
There’s not really one artist, but lots of people I’ve learned from and been inspired by. I learned to sing by listening to recording artists like Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior, Joni Mitchell, but also the singers who used to sing in the local folk sessions I went to. I loved being in a room full of singers and singing together so loudly that the whole room reverberated. In terms of songwriting, Leonard Cohen is someone I’m inspired by, the way he wrote songs that are multi-layered – layering the personal, the mythic, the abstract – is something I aspire to.
It seems that the multiple nuances of folk music are growing and spreading widely among independent artists in recent years: what do you think about this return to simplicity and to (generally speaking) folk language?
I guess it can be a good thing when aspects of folk music connect up with different musical genres – that can make things more interesting. But there are some trends in music I find pretty boring – when mainstream songwriters decide to record in a stripped down, acoustic, ‘folky’ way because they think that makes them sound more authentic or honest, for example.
Your music has often been related to places and landscape: how important are the places where you play and record your music?
Some places inspire me to create music, and I like using music to conjure landscapes or ‘soundscapes’. When it comes to recording or playing, though, what’s most important to me is just being in spaces with good acoustics and with people I feel completely relaxed with – these are the things that enable me to make the best music I can.
Do you feel any affinity with artists and collectives also focused on the keeping rural stories from the British tradition alive, just like United Bible Studies or A Year In The Country? Is there some kind of connection between them and your music?
Sure, there’s a lot of shared references and starting points, and it’s nice to connect with other people walking on similar creative paths. When I first started making my own music I didn’t expect to find other people making music that intersected with mine and one of the things that is so great about making music is that it brings people together in tis way.
Your lyrics sound deeply felt and personal, yet they are often metaphoric and related to the natural world. Is this a poetic way to express your feelings or to hide yourself a bit behind the words?
I don’t feel any need to hide my feelings, but I think songs in which an artist just expresses their feelings are boring. If the feelings are conveyed in a way that other people can relate to or as part of a bigger picture or story, that’s more interesting. The way the natural world affects us and the way we identify with nature is a theme I explore continually, and also the way we can find parallels for the things that happen to us in our lives with things that happen in myths and stories. Songwriting for me is a way of coming to understand what’s going on in my life, and I do that by making these connections between my own feelings and experiences and something in the world at large.
In particular, your latest album “Joy’s Reflection Is Sorrow” is about both universal and personal themes: can you describe its writing process and your choice to build the album around such personal themes and feelings?
Over the last few years there have been dark clouds gathering over the political landscape, and at the same time for me there have been personal losses, including the death of my father. I wrote the songs on this album as a way of trying to work out for myself what light can be found in the midst of all this darkness. Death of a loved one is intensely personal and at the same time is one of the most universal experiences. In mourning my father it was important to find a way to banish the darkness, because he was such a joyful person. I refused to let Death win, so wrote about how as long as we keep loving and keep memories alive, death does not win. Similarly, with the darkness in the wider world, I wanted to write about things that enable me to remain hopeful.
How do you feel playing your music live? How do you choose venues and locations?
I always find playing live to be exciting, and mostly this is because no two performances are the same. I generally don’t choose venues and locations – they choose me. It’s part of the fun of playing live that when I go to a new venue I don’t know what to expect. Recently I was invited to play in an arts centre in a disused airbase. It was exciting turning up in this huge deserted-looking landscape and tryng to find the space where the gig was happening. With one project I’ve been working on – a collaboration with writer Justin Hopper – we performed on May Morning on Chanctonbury Ring, a beautiful hill fort in Sussex, because the collaboration is about Chanctonbury. That was very special: we walked up the hill just after dawn and arrived at the top just a the local morris men were dancing. When they finished we performed our piece together with a reading from a poet and a Druid invocation.
As a listener, what kind of music have you liked best over the years? And nowadays?
I’ve always liked listening to 60s psychedelia. Bowie and Eno are perennials, and I love Jethro Tull. In the realm of folk music, The Watersons, Frankie Armstrong, June Tabor and Shirley Collins are favourites. I’m always interested in hearing new music from Alasdair Roberts, and I’ve been enjoying the music of Stick in the Wheel, Lankum and Olivia Chaney recently. I got into really enjoying recorders a few years ago and like a lot of early music that features recorders and bands like Gryphon, Amazing Blondel. I just discovered Courtney Barnett and like her songwriting. Hawthonn, who I’ve just played a couple of gigs with, are great,
Your music production includes both a “folk side” and an “experimental side”: how can you describe the connection between tradition and sound research in your creative attitude?
I think the reason my music contains both of the elements you describe is that one of my main aims in performing and recording is to open up new worlds for my listeners to explore: I want my music to be ‘portals’ onto a kind of magical reality. Sometimes this is best achieved by a very stark rendition of a traditional murder ballad, and other times by layered drone-based pieces, or something that combines both of these elements along with other things. My sound palette has been moving in a more electric, less simple direction recently, because the songs I’ve been writing seem to require these elements in order to come alive. The important thing for me is to create sounds that draw people in and give them a glimpse of something strange and wonderful.
You’ve been involved in many different collaborations over the years: is there any difference in working on your own and with other artists? Do you feel that these collaborations have made your way of making music somehow more complete?
There are differences and similarities and even when I work on solo albums, I work in a fairly collaborative way. When I work on a solo album, my songwriting process is solitary and I enjoy being able to really immerse myself in the world I’m trying to create. This is a bit like the experience of reading a gripping novel and losing yourself in the fictional world. Once I’ve finished the writing, though, the next stage is usually playing demo versions to other musicians, playing together and having lots of conversations about what works and what doesn’t until we reach a point at whih the songs seem right.
When I work on a fully collaborative project, the main difference is that even the writing process is shared. The albums I’ve recorded with Gillian Chadwick as Rusalnaia have been collaborative in this way, with each of us bringing very rough ideas for lyrics or riffs and then from these starting points we’ve created songs together. With this kind of collaboration it’s important for each collaborator to be open to the other people’s ideas, not stubborn and set in their own ways. Also it’s important to be able to accept criticism without taking it personally. I think I’m lucky in that I enjoy this interplay with others and don’t find criticism difficult – I trust that it will help to create something better.
Is there any other artist you’d fancy working with?
Mostly the artists I want to work with are people I already work with!
Do you feel any difference between your early works and your more recent albums? Do you think you’ve put more attention on the song structures with the passing of the years?
For sure my songwriting has developed and improved over time and writing songs for different kinds of projects has led me to develop different songwriting skills and approaches. I keep trying to find new ways of working and if I start to feel that I’m falling into habits, I deliberately make myself do things differently. For most of my albums I’ve worked with non-standard guitar tunings and created quite dischordant sounds. For this one I challenged myself to work within standard tuning and that led me to think about chords and melody very differently. I also decided to try to write more songs with choruses, which is something I don’t usually do. I have no idea what kind of songs I’ll write next.
You’re American born but you’re definitely rooted in British folk: have you noticed any difference in reception between European and US audiences and artistic scenes?
I was born in the US, but grew up in Britain and have spent most of my adult life here, so it makes sense that my music is more rooted in British folk. I’ve noticed that ‘folk music’ is a looser category in the US than in Britain and that folk music is a bit segregated here, with people who are immersed in the folk scene not tending to be that interested in other kinds of music. My audiences in both Europe and the US tend not to be traditional folk audiences and I think it’s better not to be seen too narrowly as a folk musician – I think that categorisation could put off people who would like my music from listening to it.
You’ve released some of your recent records on label as Second Language and Clay Pipe Music, that are highly focused on keeping the physical side of music alive: what do you think about the way music spreads nowadays through the web? Do you think it is helpful for an independent artist like you?
I think it’s a good thing that music is widely available and for me it’s great to hear from people from all over the world who’ve found my music online. It’s easier to make contact with other musicians or artists too and that’s a wonderful thing. The downside is, of course, that it’s harder for independent artists to make money from their music.
With so much music floating around every moment, what do you think creating music and writing songs is still worth?
I think even if a lot of people listen to music without really paying attention there will always be people who engage with music in a deeper way, either by being driven to create and perform or by craving the experience of good live music. For me the process of creating music is one of the most exhilarating things I can do and even if no one wanted to listen to the music I make I’d still want to make it.
And, finally, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
In the near future there will be a single called ‘Something out of Nothing’ released on Ghost Box Records with a Belbury Poly remix on the B side. I’m recording my collaboration with Justin Hopper (also to be released by Ghost Box). This project is exciting to me – Justin’s work is very atmospheric and evocative and when we’ve performed together I’ve been creating a live soundtrack for his words. I’ll be gigging my new album with a band later this year and early next year and we’ll be playing some shows with Beautify Junkyards, which will give me a chance to meet my old friend Helena Espvall after not seeing each other for a long time. I never know what to expect from music, which is probably why it’s so much fun!
(Full English text of the interview published on the September 2018 Rockerilla magazine)