1. You describe yourself as a 'song-poet'. Do you understand that as something distinct from the conventional term 'singer-songwriter’?
Yes. I’m not too keen on the term ‘singer-songwriter’. I think it tends to suggest a person who performs only or mostly solo with an acoustic guitar. I enjoy doing solo acoustic gigs, and of course write many songs on an acoustic guitar, but I am equally a rock musician who enjoys playing electric guitar in a band. Many of my songs I perform both solo acoustic and full-band electric and I like being free to do that. Another reason I use the term ‘song-poet’ though, is that it expresses my sense of my own vocation. A song-poet is someone who is expressing their lives fluently and fully through their song-writing. Examples include Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Among younger musicians I’d include Thom Yorke, Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and Elliott Smith. I write songs constantly and am trying to build up a catalogue that records my experience. I have, as it happens, written several volumes of what I call page-poems. But I always have a feeling that, in our era, poems without music are dry music. Songs are the form in which poetry is culturally central now. And I feel I express myself most fully in music with words.
2. Your albums all credit the 'Lord of Lights' or 'Father of Light'. How does faith inform your music, if it does?
Why and how we make the things we value is a mystery. Why does someone want to build a ship, a garden, or a family? Why do painters paint, or poets write? Why does it feel good to be kind? We value creativity. And I’d describe that as the desire to bring something good into the world which wasn’t there before. And for an artist (in any art, including the arts of living) that’s likely to be a matter of following your sense of beauty. But goodness and beauty aren’t things we ourselves have made. Every time I write a song, or give what I believe to be a decent performance, I don’t think it’s down to me. I think the impulse to write the song is a gift, which I’m trying to honour. So for me, being a musician is a creative collaboration between myself and the source of the creative impulse. Some people, including me, think that this source of creative energy is an echo of the divine. That’s why I do whatever I can to protect my own creativity, such as it is, and thus keep it going. I’m grateful for such light as I’ve been given and I try to follow it.
3. You're based in Cambridge. Is it a good place to make your kind of music?
I think so. Obviously it’s a town (pretty small but growing) dominated by a famous university. The presence of the university means there's plenty of tolerance of people like me who walk around, and sit in cafes. dreaming and writing. I’ve been blessed with the friendship of some very fine musicians who appreciate the kinds of thing I do and want to do. Kimberley (Walking on Sunshine) Rew very generously played on my first solo album (Signs and Wonders). His wife, Lee Cave-Berry, played on the second (Deliverance). Rhys Wilson, Andy Cross and Phil Bryant, also Paul Richards, have been steadfast supporters, playing many gigs with me and on subsequent albums. Cambridge has one big venue (the Corn Exchange), one medium sized venue (The Junction), an excellent hireable club (The Portland Arms) and a truly acoustic venue (CB2), often beautifully run by John Meed. The Boathouse has a weekly session, run by John Wright, at which you can hear some of the finest musicians for miles around free. My wife Judy is a painter and can (just about) afford a studio here. In some ways, Cambridge is a suburb of London. Often you’ll hear people talk about towns as if they ought to have dozens of good venues. But the truth it seems to me is that a town is base, and musicians need to tour.
4. In songs like 'Jukebox' and 'Billy The Kid' you recall how your parents' generation dreamed of America even if they never left the valleys (?) Do you think you're carrying that project forward in your music, with its blend of blues, Dylan, etc.?
Well as it happens, ‘Jukebox’ is about my mother and ‘Billy the Kid’ about my great-uncle, who was also my guardian, so that’s two generations and I’m a third. You’re totally right about the dream of America. My great-uncle was a steel-worker in the valleys and the most eloquent man I’ve known in everything but words. He never told me he loved America. But he read hundreds (yes, hundreds) of what he called ‘cowboy books’ from the local library. And he passed on to me that love of imagining hobos, rustlers, settlers, drifters in wide open spaces under burning skies. My mother, who left the valleys for London when she was in her twenties, loved modern US cities. I recently went to New York for the first time. Needless to say, it felt like home-coming. I’m part of Cambridge Americana, a four-band project. But really it’s through Neil Young and Dylan that I feel myself developing the musical language that carries my Welsh and London heritage forwards.
5. What's coming up next for you?
At the moment, I very focussed on getting ready to record my fourth solo album, Backstreets of Eden. It’s got a strong blues-element in it, but as usual with me, it will get its feel and character from the songs I’ve written in the period leading up to it. I don’t usually set out to produce a ‘rock album’ or a ‘country album’, though of course I might do in the future, if that is where the Muse leads me. As the title suggests there is a foundation of songs which see the world we’re living in as having vestiges of some better place we’re always trying to get back to. In practical terms, I have a few definite ambitions. One is the desire to get signed. Another is the hope I’ll soon come across a sympathetic person, who believes in me as an artist, who will have the practical know-how to help me plan tours and publicity. I’m awkward about the need for self-promotion these days, but in the meantime will get on with doing that. Once the new album’s recorded, there will be a run of gigs. My current album, Wanted Alive, could do with a promotional boost, though the response of those who’ve heard it has been hugely positive.
6. Does being Welsh affect your writing and performance style? Is there any relation for you between being a song-poet and the quality called 'hwyl', sometimes attributed to Dylan Thomas?
I grew up in the valleys, in a place which was entirely English-speaking. I was of course used to seeing Welsh place-names and certain Welsh words - such as cwtch, meaning ‘cuddle’ and duw, meaning ‘God’, but always answered no if asked whether I spoke Welsh. What I didn’t realise, however, was that in my local culture certain forms of feeling were embedded which have names in Welsh but not in English. One example is hiraeth, a strictly untranslatable word meaning roughly, ‘longing for the idea of Wales’. I wrote a whole book of poems expressing this feeling before I realised it had a name. Hwyl, means literally a sail. When a speaker speaks with a driving passion, like a full sail driving a boat, that’s called hwyl. I think I must have some of this quality of passion in my singing since people comment on it pretty often. It’s part of range of qualities - emotional warmth, energy and drive - which are highly valued in Wales and I hope I’ve got it. I have a strong drive to make and play music and hope I do so with a passion that touches other hearts.