The last couple of years or so have seen a real creative surge from Blair, as he explains, “We recorded the Albion’s album at the end of 2011, my first solo album in spring 2012 and the new record this winter just gone. I’ve recorded on a few projects and also produced a couple of EPs in that time as well, but it’s nice to be busy.” It should also be pointed out that this surge has been recognised with Blair wining the Horizon category at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards in 2013.
Perhaps it’s the impetus gained from that which means his second solo album has quickly followed the first. It’s impressive none the less, yet he makes it sound so matter of fact and natural, but then it probably is as Blair tells me, that given his family background, taking up the challenge of making his own music was probably inevitable and he admits, “Yeah I’d say so, but only through practical experience, never from a sense of duty. Musicians and instruments were always around me growing up… I also sat through an unhealthy amount of sound-checks as a boy!
His father is of course the Guv’nor, Ashley Hutchings, a musician, record producer and catalyst having been in on the start of three bands, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band that defined folk-rock through the late 60s, the 1970s and beyond. Many a talented singer and musician has passed through the ranks of those bands, especially the latter, who had a fluid line up over the years. One such was Blair’s mother Judy Dunlop, a fine singer in her own right.
Despite that, or quite possibly because of it, Blair’s own musical horizons were wider. He acknowledges, “There are all kinds of influences from different genres and pockets in history.” It’s still interesting that he admits to some California dreaming and reveals, “I can’t look past guys like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, and all the LA session guys. If I had to pinpoint a particular scene, that is it!” It makes sense and it’s easy to spot some of the same attention to detail with perhaps a similarly complex emotional terrain to Jackson and a little of Zevon’s gift for a story with the odd touch of humour too.
I ask Blair if he can recall when he first started to make his own music and write his own songs and he tells me, “I was maybe 13 or14… but it was a few years after that before I produced anything worthwhile. (He laughs.) Inspiration probably came from the transitions you go through in your late teens, a whole range of things.” But asked to define this a little more and he’s elusive, “It always changes for me, there is no formula and I like that. Writing has not become stale for me. I tend to write in patches, I enjoy taking time over my work so it’s nice to set aside time to focus. I wrote the bones of the new album in a week or two, but some songs changed a lot during the recording process.”
Pointing out that his first solo album is strikingly different to the Albion Band album released in the same year, I ask Blair if this was a deliberate point of difference? He tells me, “It was never intentional, I was just exploring different sounds and band dynamics. I was a still a teenager and I think you’re bound to be absorbing all kinds of sounds at that time. I’d like to think it carries on.” Surely it will. The Albion Band was after all a collaborative effort with a legacy to maintain, but it’s a mark of his growing confidence as a musician that he clearly wants to create his own sound and style.
Talking about the differences between Blight And Blossom and the new record, House Of Jacks, I ask Blair about the different sounds. The first is much more acoustic and a showcase for his finger style guitar picking and he explains, “Yeah I wrote the first album attached to my acoustic guitar. It was a bit of a bedrock for me but the open tunings dictated structure and chord sequences.” He continues explaining that perhaps House Of Jacks is more of reflection of his own musical style telling me, “I just needed to record the album that reflected my taste and provided the right base for the songs. I wanted to pick the telecaster up and try out a new band line up. It’s been fun, I’m pleased with the record and I’ve enjoyed touring it.”
It was the time offered by Mark at Rooksmere Records in the studio that helped him to realise this vision. Again he simply states, “Most of it evolved in the studio because I recorded the demos solo, more so with the electric songs with a broader sound pallet. It was nice though, organic.”
I ask Blair about his lyrical themes as well as there is a strong element of social commentary running through much of his work. There is Something’s Gonna Give Way, the opening track of the new record that looks at the tragic consequences of bullying in the playground. On Blight And Blossom there’s the acerbic Less The Pawn. Blair admits with a laugh, “The longer I live with the song, the less it reflects my beliefs. I think it’s easy to look at the past with rose tints… But yeah there’s lots of things regarding the way we consume music in the digital age that I hate. The world is always evolving though so you have to embrace it, and there is so much great stuff that digital technology has facilitated.”
It’s true undoubtedly and listening to his songs, you have to constantly remind yourself that he is still only 22 years old, such is the maturity that fill his songs both melodically and lyrically. Just take the two songs linked by the theme of a fictitious Soho nightclub on House Of Jacks. 45s (c. 69) recalls a 60’s heyday, while 45s (c.14) is a slightly more knowingly cynical take on the modern era. It’s sharp writing and I tell Blair how impressive I find it. He replies, “Thank you. I wanted to commentate on the clubbing scene and my generation, but it’s easy to fall in to crude, lazy lyrics with a topic like that so it’s nice that you like it. The song set in the 60s is definitely biased but my Dad grew up in those Soho clubs so that was always going to happen.”
Realising the new sound live has meant putting together a touring band and his blog suggested that the rehearsals had gone very well. He confirms, “I’ve just come back from the album tour with the band. We had a great time and we’ll be going out again later this year.” Whether solo and armed with his acoustic, or with the band that he so clearly enjoys fronting, Blair has demonstrated some impressive opening moves, make sure you catch up at the earliest opportunity.
Interview by: Simon Holland