Q&A June 2011, Part II
7/2/2011 (updated 7/2/2011)
--To what extent do you think the listener needs to understand certain arcane references in your songs - for example, the "Old Ironsides" you've slipped into "Taking My Business Elsewhere" in recent years, or R.D. Laing in "Pearly Jim" - to appreciate them fully? Have you ever been urged by bandmates, producers, friends, etc., to change such references to make the songs potentially more accessible?
The Beatles slipped 'fish and finger pie' into Penny Lane, and what exactly does Jumping Jack Flash mean anyway? So I think a few obscurities are OK.
--Have you had the potentially squirmy circumstance of actually meeting a James Adie or a Sidney Wells or anyone else who shares the first and last name of one of your characters?
I never have, although a lot of characters seem to appear after writing a song, in personality if not in name. Coincidence, or the interconnectedness of all things.
--Has there ever been an occasion in which someone's suggestion that you write a song about such-and-such or so-and-so has led to your writing a song you deem successful?
I have followed other peoples' suggestions about songs, but I can't remember any positive results.
--These days, do you write more efficiently than you did in your youth? That is, does the wastebasket fill more slowly-or more quickly?
The destruction rate may be slightly down. I seem to be able to get into the process more efficiently, with less preamble.
--What is the most unexpected place (a place you've actually visited) that has shown up in one of your songs?
Well, I've written songs about places like Connecticut, but I moved the location to somewhere in Britain to give a more authentic voice to the song, which is cheating of course, and I'm not sure that qualifies as an answer to the question. Wheely Down is a tiny place in Somerset that ended up as a song title for a common reason, i.e. I liked the sound of the name.
--Thinking of "Meet on the Ledge"...I'm wondering how you had such a keen sense of the meanings of loss and comfort at such an early age. (There's such a fine line between universality and cliché; this song's on the right side of the line.) Was it based on other things you'd read and heard? Did you have specific personal feelings in mind when you wrote the song? Have the sentiments expressed in the song come to have special meanings to you at specific times during the 40-some years since you wrote it? And, if it's not too much to ask, do you believe "when my time is up I'm gonna see all my friends" and "it all comes round again"? Thanks much, Pam Winters
I wrote that when I was 19, and I have a hard time remembering the circumstances. I didn't have much worldly experience at the time, so I should probably blame the school English department for all those patients etherized on tables and stained stones kissed by the English dead. Do I believe I'll see all my friends when my time is up? Does it all come round again? (Hesitates before replying, realizing he may disillusion thousands of Cropredy chorus-singers). As far as I remember, at the time I had a vision or dream of being on a high ledge of a building, the classic suicide position, and everyone I knew had gathered below to watch. It seemed not to be about suicide, but about being exposed and vulnerable and subject to public scrutiny. Probably about life as a performing musician. And if you are sincere, you get to keep practicing your art, and it all comes round again?
Re: String noises!
I realise that you are more than aware of this but in response to Karen Duncan's previous post about "scritch", the sound she is talking about emanates from the fretting finger moving very, very slightly along the string before lifting off of it. The hand starts to move to its next position before the finger starts to lift off to wherever it may be going next. Since the finger is still in contact with the string before it lifts off, you end up with a "scritch". Quite understandable given the desire to move to a different position so that you can accurately fret the next note. It has frustrated me for years!! It is possible to minimise it with years of practise and astounding technique. I remember being amazed at a recital by Simon Dinnigan, the former head of classical guitar at Birmingham Conservatoire, who played with absolutely no extraneous noise at all - pure sound. So few people achieve it but it is becoming a requisite for classical guitar technique these days. I would however miss it in the setting of a steel string performance! I can't imagine hearing you or Simon Nicol play without a few such noises and your performances would be accordingly diminished.
Sharon Isbin is pretty quiet, now you mention it, but just a generation back, and John Williams is playing flawlessly but still squeaking a bit, and my own personal fave Ida Presti is scritching all over the place. I'm trying not to become too self-conscious about this whole business.
Whilst on the subject of musicians active in Oxfordshire, can I ask the maestro's opinion on the works of someone I consider to be one of Oxfordshire's finest songwriters, the extraordinarily talented Thea Gilmore? Also many thanks for a fantastic gig at Warwick Arts Centre earlier this year - a truly astonishing night's work and one of which you can feel justifiably proud! All the best, Martin Durnin
Like Thea Gilmore a lot.