Jon Boden needs no introduction for most of the people reading this blog. Front man to Bellowhead, with whom he sold somewhere around a quarter of a million albums, and bagger of 12 Radio 2 Folk Music awards, he has also knocked up a string of accolades with bands and projects that have included Spiers & Boden and The Remnant Kings.
And yet, it says quite a lot about the state of English folk music that someone with that kind of CV is not yet a household name. I must admit that, until the folk music bug bit me, I had assumed Spiers & Boden was a chain of hipster barber shops, and mentioning his name to non-folk friends asking about the next Grizzly Folk interview has, more often than not, drawn blank looks. It therefore says even more about the good nature of the man himself that he’d happily sit through questions about his own introduction to folk music that he must’ve answered a million times before.
Afterglow itself could go a long way towards building on his already formidable reputation. It’s a fascinating recording that, on first listen, does not obviously hark back to the folk tradition that he grew out of. That will inevitably divide longer-term fans, of course, although those that caught on to what he was doing with its predecessor, Songs from the Floodplain, will enjoy the continuity. Taking the listener on a passion-fuelled night out through a dystopian street carnival, newcomers to Jon Boden himself will likely find a whole lot to get excited about. It’s one of those albums that really rewards repeat listens, the songs slowly get their hooks into you and then refuse to let go, and it’s extremely well crafted in the same way that many of the great concept albums of the 70s were. If atmospheric, epic storytelling is your thing, then slap this album onto your playlist and hit the repeat button.
For the sake of newcomers and diehards alike, this interview takes the form of a rambling conversation – a mixture of album chat and ‘introduction to’ – that works its way through the background to his new collection, Afterglow (released on October 6), the ways in which a musician goes about stringing together a concept or narrative album, a wander down the Winchester streets of his youth, and further on into Bellowhead territory – how his relationships with his former band members continue to blossom onstage and in the studio.
We caught up with him on a Tuesday morning in late September, just as the studio recording of ‘Bee Sting’ – a track from Afterglow – had been unveiled to the public…
‘Bee Sting’ went out as a preview to various music blogs and publications this morning. Do you look forward to those moments, or do you still get apprehensive?
[Laughs] Erm, I’m excited… yeah. As soon as you’ve written something, your first instincts are to want it out there. It’s actually frustrating how long it takes from finishing writing a song to getting it out there, so I’m always excited when stuff is finally put in the public domain.
How long would it be, then, since ‘Bee Sting’ was actually written?
I wrote the whole album last June, pretty much – so, June 2016. It kind of all came together around June or July. Then we finished recording it in June of this year, maybe May. So it’s a long process.
Do you take time out, putting weeks aside to write an album, or is it more of an organic process?
Yes I do, but I have to have quite a clear plan before I do that. I haven’t done that thing where I say, “Right, I’m going to have a completely blank canvas and go and spend two weeks trying to come up with ideas.” Generally the ideas come unbidden, usually whilst driving or washing up [laughs]. Because this album, as with the previous album, is concept-driven – or in this case narrative-driven – the idea was actually the narrative. After that a few smaller ideas came along unbidden, and after that I got to the point where I knew actually what I wanted to write, what I wanted the album to be, but didn’t have any actual songs. That’s the point at which I have to force myself to sit down for three or four weeks and everyday come out with a new idea and finish off other songs. That was about three or four weeks of solid songwriting.
I’ve often wondered how a concept album gets written. I’ve always imagined a lot of post-it notes on a wall somewhere, with the writer trying to fill in story gaps.
Yeah, well because it’s quite a simple idea – a love story taking place on Bonfire Night – once I had that idea, that was it. When I did start writing the songs, you’re right, I did start jotting down a narrative arc and populating that with rough ideas for songs. There was a certain amount of that.
But I’m quite interested in the idea of narrative albums anyway, and I think one of the great things you can do with an album is leave a lot more space for the listener to fill in than you can do with a novel or a film. I think it’s important to do that really, because the difference is that you want people to listen to an album 50 times, ideally over and over and over again, whereas that’s not really your aim if you’re writing a book or a film. Then, you want them to enjoy it the first time, and if they watch or read it again after that then that’s a bonus, but it’s not the goal. So I think it’s a lot more important to leave that space, especially when you’re trying to tell a story. If you tell it too clearly or didactically, then it’s kind of less interesting from a listener’s point of view. The interesting bit is working out your own story from an album – even albums that aren’t specifically written as narrative albums. I think that’s how I generally listen to albums – I sort of start making strange abstract stories that link the songs together, even if there’s no intention there from the writer.
Right, and I guess – even though you’ve become synonymous with traditional music – you must’ve grown up listening to the classic concept albums.
Erm, I didn’t actually. It’s funny, when I sent this album to a friend of mine he said, “Oh, there’s a bit in it that sounds like one of the songs from War of the Worlds. Was that deliberate?” And it wasn’t. I’ve never listened to War of the Worlds. I’ve never listened to Tommy. So, in a way, the answer is no, but in another way it’s yes because I was very much drawn to bands that had a strong atmosphere.
My musical awakening, if you like, was getting obsessed by Led Zeppelin IV, which not a concept album and certainly not a narrative album, but I found myself really wanting it to be. In my head I was trying to resolve the lyrical differences between the songs – trying to build some kind of narrative structure around it that would work in my own head. So I was certainly drawn to albums with an atmosphere and a sense of place in them, and a sense of a narrative even if it’s sort of a subliminal narrative.
I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I found the album quite glam in some places. To me, there were elements of Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music… the kind of thing Tony Visconti might’ve produced. Is that just me hearing that?
Well, glam isn’t something I ever really got into. I suppose prog, a bit. One of my guilty pleasures is listening to Jethro Tull albums, and there’s quite a lot of prog influence in there, although they’re not a kind of classic prog band.
I suppose the intention with it all was to be led by the songs. Once we actually got to the point of arranging and recording the album, I very much tried to be led by the atmosphere of the songs as to what kind of sound I wanted to make. I didn’t want to be imposing a particular set of genre archetypes on it, but I think you’re right that there’s a certain 70s or 80s feel to it. And I’m sure that does come from me and my listening over the years. But also, it just feels like it chimes with the story. It’s that strange thing where it’s set in the future, but at the same time it’s set in a world that more resembles the past. Musically, that’s an interesting territory to explore.
Was that something that you sat down with your producer, Andy Bell, to discuss?
Yes, we had that conversation quite early on in terms of reference points and different albums. A lot of it comes down to what instruments you use. Putting strings on made quite a big difference to the tone of it all, and I think the way I tend to arrange strings is quite similar to the way rock bands arranged strings in the 70s – again, because I think I just listened to those kind of string arrangements. I think that’s part of it. We had touchstones, I suppose, that we returned to when creating textures.
I interviewed Andy a couple of weeks ago, and he was saying that he couldn’t really recall the use of any traditional folk instruments on this album. Was there a conscious effort to distance yourself from what you’ve done before?
Well… [laughs] there’s quite a lot of concertina on it, and quite a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s even a little bit of bouzouki if you listen carefully!
[Laughs] So, no – it wasn’t conscious. If anything I’m always trying to get the concertina more front and centre. I love the sound of the concertina! The problem with the concertina is that it’s a very piercing instrument, which makes it very difficult to get right in the mix. So, if anything, I was quite keen to retain some of those folk textures, not least because it’s the second album in a trilogy, the first of which was Songs from the Floodplain, so I did want it to share some musical territory.
Have you started work on the third part of the trilogy, then?
Yes. It’s in very early stages, but I’ve got one song that has kind of come together. Again, that’s unusual for me as I tend to not write anything until I’ve mulled it over for a while. But it’s good. It’s going to be a while but it has started.
This is going to sound like an odd question given that you’ve been known for so long for what you do, but I’d love to know a bit about your background as a folkie. How did you get bitten?
Well, I guess my early experiences were bounded by my parents’ record collection. They weren’t folkies, my parents, but they did have a few folk records. Particularly my mum, to a certain extent, was a Steeleye Span enthusiast. There’s a double album, kind of greatest hits, called Original Masters, which I remember getting pretty obsessed by at a pretty young, pre-teen age, and then coming back to it later on having got into Zeppelin and Tull and stuff. That’s probably where my enthusiasm for traditional song first originated.
That was the starting point, but then I stepped off into discovering Martin Carthy and The Watersons, as well as Irish traditional music. I became pretty obsessed, as a teenager, with Planxty. I adored Planxty and the Irish pipes. I learnt the pipes for a while, in fact.
But it was a very different world back then, in the late 80s, early 90s. We’re talking pre-internet, so actually being a 12-year-old interested in folk music at that point was a very solitary thing, whereas these days there are so many online communities of enthusiasts, you can find people pretty easily. I didn’t realise there were other people who were into folk music until I was 21, when I went to Sidmouth Folk Festival for the first time and realised I wasn’t the only one! It was quite a revelation! There was certainly a much bigger youth folk following than I ever expected to find.
So there wasn’t much of a folk scene around you growing up in Winchester?
No, there wasn’t really. There was the Winchester Folk Festival which I only went to once. I didn’t get into English traditional music until quite a bit later on, so the whole Morris dancing thing I wasn’t very interested in. It wasn’t until John Spiers banged my head against a wall [laughs] and got me to take it seriously and realise what the great value of it was. So I think the Winchester Folk Festival was quite a Morris-based thing, which I think I somehow managed to blank out. When I got into Irish music, there was a bit more going on in Basingstoke and Southampton, so once I could play a bit and was old enough to get into pubs, there were a lot more possibilities.
No, it didn’t exist at that point. I played at The Railway, in rock bands, several times as a teenager. But I remember the Tower Arts Centre had some great gigs when I was growing up, so I remember seeing people like Dick Gaughan playing there. My parents very kindly bought me tickets to go and see things at the Tower. And now I remember, they did have a few sessions at the Tower on a Sunday, which I used to go to.
Well, if you’re ever back in town, the Hyde Tavern is the place to go for folk music these days.
Oh, really?! You know what, I once tried to set up a singing session at the Hyde Tavern when I was back from university. I ran it for about three months because that was quite near where I grew up. It was my nearest pub.
Well, I’m sure you’re welcome back any time. Just to return to the album again – you played it fully at Cambridge Folk Festival, didn’t you?
More or less. We didn’t play two of the songs.
You must’ve been conscious of how the audience was going to respond to that. Was that a sort of nerve-wracking thing? Does it take a certain amount of balls to do something like that?
No, not particularly. We’d been rehearsing it a lot, so I think we were just kind of fired up to get it out there and to get it played. I think, because I was there as part of a package for the whole weekend, I was just really excited about it.
There are members of Bellowhead and The Remnant Kings on this album, and they regularly join you onstage, as they did at Cambridge. Do you see yourself continuing to work with them? Is there a sense of comfort from being around those old musical friends?
I’d love to keep working with them, absolutely. Sam Sweeney has been in The Remnant Kings since day one, and that partly came about because one of my original ideas for that band involved a string quartet. I love string quartets, and I liked the idea of having a rock band that could turn into a string quartet and then back into a rock band. We’ve done that a bit, but it moved away from that very quickly. But, you know, having a fantastic drummer who is also a fantastic fiddle player is kind of the perfect combination, really, because any songs that you don’t want drums on, you’re quite likely to want fiddle on!
Similarly, Paul Sartin‘s flexibility… I mean, I love the oboe. From early on, I wanted oboe front and centre on Afterglow. Lots of oboe hooks going on. And Paul offers that flexibility to swap between oboe, vocals and fiddle, so it’s brilliant.
They’re both friends as well, and I love touring with them, but they’re also both extremely busy so I’m also aware that they have other commitments. So, as much I can I’ll work with them, knowing that I’ll have to dep them out if they can’t make it.
Is Sam capable of drumming and fiddling at the same time?
[Laughs] Yeah! There have been a few things where he’s played kick and hi-hat and fiddle at the same time. It’s always good fun.