It took me a long, long time to take the idea of being a professional musician seriously. From the moment I first held a guitar, maybe before, I was told that there’s no money in music. My first guitar teacher had been in a band with a singer who went on to be a world famous pop star, and appeared to feel nothing but bitterness about his old buddy standing on stage at the Live Aid finale. My second guitar teacher was in a band that got ripped off by their manager, who skipped the country with all their money. He perhaps spent more guitar lesson time warning me about the dangers of the music business than he did teaching guitar. (He also used affectionately shake his head at me when other people came into the room, and sigh: “James,” he’d say, “I taught that boy everything I know and he *still* knows nothing…”) My parents, my teachers, everyone told me that you couldn’t really make a job out of it. And frankly, I didn’t need much persuading. It was just assumed: being a professional musician was equivalent to winning the lottery. Eric Clapton might be a millionaire, but all the other ones were barely able to pay the bills.
And ironically, that was when there was still tons of money in the music business. It hadn’t even reached its peak, at that point.
I had lots of musical heroes, but in a strange way the band that probably influenced me most was Spinal Tap. A spoof band. The whole idea of music seemed ridiculous to me. I loved it; loved it to death. But I was the sort of child that needed an intellectual explanation for everything. I couldn’t explain why it made me feel so good, so I assumed there was something trivial about it. It couldn’t save your life if you were hit by a car. It couldn’t end poverty. It was never going to cure cancer. There was something narcissistic about it: all that big hair and sunglasses and leather trousers (this was the late 80s). It was just jumping around on stage holding a plank of wood, I used to tell anyone who’d listen.
So when Britpop swaggered onto the scene, with its media-savvy cynicism and its hyper-self-conscious ‘irony’, I was in the right place at the right time. I dropped out of my popular music course at Liverpool University and went back to Oxford to take part in Sound City 1997: a BBC Radio 1 festival aimed at finding the Britpop stars of tomorrow. I had a band with both my brothers, my best friend and a seriously talented drummer from school. We were called ‘Lurve’. There were bands at the time called ‘Curve’, ‘Verve’ and ‘Swerve’, and so that was our little pop-culture joke. Very Britpop. But obviously a terrible, terrible name. That said, the name neatly summed up where my head was at at the time. I believed deep down that music was somehow inherently cheesy, automatically clichéd… and the only interesting thing to do with it was to put it in inverted commas: to laugh at it, sometimes sarcastically, sometimes affectionately. Looking back now, I think the real irony was that I made music that was substantially more ridiculous and cheesy than whatever it was that I thought I was reacting against.
Basically, I was too young and, frankly, too impressionable to realise how beautiful – and important – music could be. And I was too frightened of what my peers might think of me to be sincere about anything.
I wasn’t always like that though. The first music I listened to was soundtracks to films I loved, and pop compilations like ‘Now That’s What I Call Music Vol.10’ and ‘Hits Vol.3’. My brothers and I would then pick out any songs we liked and buy the albums they were released on. Queen, Dire Straits, Clapton, the Thompson Twins, Eurhythmics, but particularly Queen. I idolised Brian May. (I still do, actually. Although he does seem to be a bit obsessed with badgers these days.)
My older brother started playing electric guitar when I was 12, and within 6 months I started learning too. I remember just looking at it: a cheap, bottom-of-the-range Stratocaster copy borrowed from a friend. It was just the most exciting, fascinating, infinitely sexy thing I had ever seen (at an age when I still didn’t really understand what ‘sexy’ actually was). I just couldn’t believe I was in the presence of a real-life electric guitar.
I learnt all the riffs I could from the big stadium rock bands of the time. And then I started hunting for music with great guitar players: Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and then Stevie Ray Vaughan, Django Reinhardt, John Williams.
I was never that interested in the indie press – Melody Maker and the NME – because the magazines I used to religiously read were Guitar World and Guitar Player. And I’d get immersed in the endless debates of ‘who is a better guitarist: Steve Vai or BB King?’ “BB King can say more with one note than Steve Vai can say with 1,000” the letter pages would roar. My brothers and I would joke: Christ, imagine if BB King learnt to play as fast as Steve Vai! The audience would die from sensory overload…
And then my brother came back from visiting relatives in New Zealand, and introduced me to the work of my new hero: Neil Finn. “There’s this band called Split Enz…” he said. And with that, and Crowded House’s first album, I fell back in love with songs. For a couple of years I could listen to almost nothing else. To me his songs sounded like ordinary pop music, but just one degree off course. And yet the more you listened to it, the further that one degree took you, until I found myself in a musical world quite unlike any other I’d been to.
What made Crowded House so unusual was what I would call ‘the glamour of the ordinary’. These were not songs about some fantasy world of rock star excess. These were songs that took everyday experiences that I recognised, and turned them into something startling beautiful and infinitely mysterious. (Every album somewhere made a reference to kitchens.)
So it was out with the 4 minute guitar solos, and in with this strange world of ordinary beauty.
Until the next big hero came along: the one that perhaps kindled my interest in folk music. When he started out in the early 1970s he was packaged as a folk singer, like his hero Bob Dylan or his nemesis Neil Young. But before long he was wriggling out of that mould, and reinventing himself as a Jack Kerouac-quoting beatnik.
Despite this, Tom Waits is still the most covered artist on the British folk scene today, as far as I can tell. I might be wrong about that, but everyone from Martin Carthy to Spiers & Boden to Lauren McCormick & Emily Portman have done versions of his songs, because each one sounds like a traditional classic from long, long ago.
So for me out went Neil Finn’s glamour of the ordinary, and in came Tom Waits’s glorious fantasy world of petty crime, prison slang and friends in low places. Film Noir in colour.
But Tom Waits should really come with an artistic health warning for very middle-class North Oxford boys. Because before you know it we’re singing in gravelly voices about our criminal and sexual exploits, and really just making idiots of ourselves. The bastard makes it look so easy. But underneath that shabby chic there’s an extraordinary artist at work. The breathtaking imagination of his music, the deep deep understanding he has of a wide wide variety of genres. But above all, under that faux-tough guy schtik, there is a great big river of compassion running through everything he writes. More than just warmth, there’s a kindness to it – a genuine caring about the suffering of others. That’s the thing that all the little wannabes like me have always tended to get wrong.
Quentin Tarantino came blasting his way out of this Tom Waits world in 1991, and for most of the rest of the decade British youth culture was infatuated the world of the small time crook. It sat very comfortably with the Britpop cynicism, and that competitive sport of being cool. And so it was a good preparation for the mind-set that took me to the Fuggle and Firkin outdoor stage, for Sound City Oxford 1997.
If memory serves me correctly, Lurve was one of the first acts of the festival. And we bombed. We went down like a lead zeppelin, and not in a good way.
We kept playing for a few months, with some of the glib cynicism stripped off us, but after a while I realised that my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to be a Britpop superstar. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I just knew I didn’t belong in that world. It was just jumping around on stage, after all, holding a plank of wood.
I did a little bit of playing at an acoustic open mic night on the Cowley Road, and then I just stopped performing in public, for about 6 years. I just got on with my life.
But I never stopped loving music, and I never stopped listening to it, or writing it. During that interlude my mother got very ill, and I lived once again in the attic I grew up in above the garage, and I helped with my mother’s medication. It was a life that seemed a million miles away from the gilded world of the stadium rock gods, or Tom Waits’s rogue’s gallery, or even Neil Finn’s settled domestic life. It was a world of hospitals waiting rooms, and family crisis meetings in the middle of the night.
My career prospects withered into almost nothing, and my social life evaporated completely. I was making a little money from teaching guitar, but not as much as I would if I was signing on. And even after my mother died it took me a long time to get a job as a junior junior office temp. Before that, I genuinely felt that I would never be able to get a proper job, no matter how hard I tried.
I felt that the adult world was a spinning wheel that you had to balance on and work your way slowly to the centre, where you would find success and money and status. And if you didn’t work hard enough at it you would be pushed out and out to the edges, and eventually thrown off into a strange nether-world of misfits and ‘undesirables’. The chronically ill, the chronically overweight, the chronically poor… often people who lead isolated lives with hardly any human contact, ignored by society except for occasional bouts of collective pity, guilt or contempt. I was also painfully aware of the fact that we all start off at different points on this wheel, and many find themselves starting so far out that I think it’s an act of heroism to stay on the wheel at all. But I started my life pretty much right at the centre, a mere golf putt away from whatever career I wanted, and the one thing that made me different from the rest of society’s misfits was that I really did have no one to blame but myself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this experience changed how I saw the world in a fairly profound way, but this is supposed to be a brief musical history rather than a full blown autobiography (and I have the literary equivalent of verbal diarrhoea as it is), so I’m going to stick to how it affected my musical tastes.
At the height of Britpop I had watched a documentary on Suzanne Vega, in which she talked about how she wrote the song ‘Luka’. And I made a little note in my notebook: ‘What about honesty? As a way of writing songs. Why haven’t I always been doing that?’ And then perhaps I forgot about this note.
But now, in the twilight agoraphobic world I was living in, I rediscovered it, and became utterly obsessed with her work. And not just her songs, but also a book she wrote (now out of print?) called ‘The Passionate Eye’. This was, to a certain extent, the same ‘glamour of the ordinary’ that Neil Finn had done with such skill. (Indeed, Suzanne Vega and Neil Finn shared a long-time album producer: Mitchell Froom, and she went on to marry him.) But somehow she seemed to make it even more beautiful, and even more mysterious.
When I wasn’t obsessively listening to Suzanne Vega I was listening to Ben Folds and Elliott Smith. Songs like ‘Fred Jones Pt. 2’ seemed to perfectly capture this world of forgotten people, and songs like ‘I Didn’t Understand’ summed up exactly how I felt about the state of my current love life (or lack of it).
And I actually started writing songs that I enjoyed listening to. Suddenly I didn’t find them annoying anymore. I enjoyed writing them more and more, and was about 98% happy with the results.
It was around this time that I also thought about having a stage name. If (and it seemed a ridiculously big if) I was ever to perform music again, I didn’t want another ironic persona. But I didn’t want to use my real name because I felt that the moment I got on stage, or started singing into a microphone – the moment I started performing – I became someone different. At times I’ve doubted that conclusion, and found it pretentious and a bit daft. But time and time again I end up agreeing with it. When we perform we show only the part of ourselves that we want to show. And, without thinking, we try to filter out the parts of ourselves that we’re not so happy with. Which is fine, I think. Human nature. But the curse of the professional performer, I believe, is that they start to believe that they are their onstage persona. And they get a little bit neurotic. I wanted a persona that was as close to the real me as possible, but still something that I could take off and pack away as soon as I got off stage.
After perhaps a couple of years of ‘finding my voice’ in songwriting, I started to wonder whether I shouldn’t start playing them to other people at some point, and perhaps even start gigging again. And maybe… maybe even try to make some kind of career out of it. After all, I spent so much of my spare time writing and recording songs. If I was going to do that anyway, I might as well see if I could make a living out of it.
Because by now my view on being a professional musician had totally changed. It didn’t need to save lives, fight poverty and cure diseases. (There are a lot of people who are already working on these things, and music wasn’t a very efficient way to achieve them.) Music is needed so we can squeeze the most enjoyment out of those moments when we’re not fighting these battles. And some of it may involve jumping on stage holding something that was once a plank of wood. But it’s actually a lot more complicated than that.
I started gigging again, and just generally getting organised. And as I started thinking about how to promote the music that I wrote, I realised that I needed to tell people what genre it was.
This wasn’t immediately obvious.
I’d tried to write music in many many different genres: from pop to guitar rock to jazz to country to indie to techno to classical. But when I thought long and hard about it I realised that if I was going to commit to one genre above the rest it would actually be folk. All of the songwriters I loved most had folky leanings, and albums I had loved in my teens by artists like Richard Thompson and Clannad made me want to learn more about folk, in a way that say jazz or country albums hadn’t. But perhaps the biggest appeal of folk was that it didn’t require me to pretend that I was from somewhere else in the world. I didn’t feel the need to put on an American accent to sing jazz, or a Jamaican accent to sing reggae, or an Italian accent to sing opera. Folk seemed like something I could grow into.
But by ‘folk’ I meant the ‘contemporary folk’ of Suzanne Vega, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen. I didn’t really mean traditional folk. I wanted to like traditional folk, but it was just too alien, strange and inaccessible.
That changed at the Oxford Folk Festival in 2006, when I saw Bellowhead live for the first time. It was something of a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, because they were playing traditional music – much of it from Oxfordshire – in a way that made the whole of the Town Hall dance around like lunatics. It was accessible, catchy, and infectiously upbeat. I realised that there was nothing strange and alien about the music itself; only the way that I had heard it performed.
So I came to traditional music fairly late. Many on the folk scene had grown up with folk music, having gone to folk clubs and sessions since they were in nappies. I had no personal connection to the folk scene up to that point. So I felt I had some catching up to do, and so threw myself into learning as much as I could about anything relating to local traditional music.
And from quite early on I started to have problems with the word ‘folk’. Suddenly it didn’t seem traditional *enough*. What did it actually mean?
Well, if you’ve read this far then I assume I haven’t bored you unconscious yet. If you have another half an hour to kill, here is 35 minutes of YouTube summing up my 8 years of asking that question:
So here I am, doing more music than ever. I’m generally spending half the time researching and performing old songs and tunes, and the other half writing and performing my own songs and tunes.
Although the two often overlap. Some of the old material I adapt is so fragmented that adaptation is basically composition. And most of the new material I write takes elements from the old.
There’s a danger that you can spend all your time arranging and promoting gigs and not have time to make new music, never mind have a life. In fact, I fall into that trap a lot. Writing, adapting and recording music are, for me, the most enjoyable parts of being a musician, and I get so much pleasure out of doing them. But I’m much quicker to decide to do some kind of admin instead of writing, because then it feels like I’m doing a proper job.
Part of me still feels I can’t really justify doing something that’s just so much fun.
James Bell (October 2014)