When I speak to Ian Carr it’s in the run up for Christmas and he’s typically busy with a number of gigs as part of Phil Cunningham’s Christmas band. He’s on stage with Phil, naturally, Kris Drever, John McCusker, Kevin McGuire and Eddi Reader and Karen Matheson. It’s perhaps typical of how Ian makes his living as the unassuming sideman, although his guitar playing has surely made him one of the first names out of the hat. As well as these shows, Ian’s still working regularly with Eddi, with many notable others on an impressive CV. Repeat bookings tell their tale and Ian in his fifth year of performing as part of Phil’s band as he ponders, “It’s probably the same audience coming back year after year. It’s become part of their Christmas.”
Ian admits, however, to a certain cynicism about the whole festive palaver, although he does concede, “We quickly get into our stride and it sound like a proper band. It’s that wonderful unquantifiable thing that happens when you’re used to each other,” he continues, “Sometimes when I look around the stage it’s like everyone has recaptured the Christmas magic from their childhood and that’s something special.” He also confesses that Eddi’s version of In The Bleak Midwinter overwhelmed him and made him cry. As a regular blubber at concerts, I sympathise, although there is a tinge of jealousy as I wasn’t there to experience it myself.
Still, it all suggests a special sort of empathy with his fellow performers. When we do get into the conversation Ian is bright and effusive, a very easy man to talk to. As we discuss his musical world there’s also a hint that he almost can’t believe his luck, although lets be clear, you don’t get asked back time and again to do the type of gigs that Ian does without having genuine talent.
The main subject of interest is Ian’s new album, which is wryly titled Who He? If there’s a certain self deprecating wit in that it extends to the band being christened Ian Carr & The Various Artists. As they are also booked to play Celtic Connections at the end of this month and I ask Ian if it’s same line up of musicians. He explains that circumstances dictate different personnel revealing, “It’s me and my wife Maria [Jonsson], we’ll be flying over from Sweden, then there’s another fiddle player Laura Wilkie, a piano player called Tom Gibbs and Kris Drever is doing it with us as well, with bassist James Lindsay.
“I’ve been grabbing a bit of rehearsal time with Tom and Laura while I’ve been over here now, so I’m sure we’ll manage a decent approximation of how the album sounds, although it will be a little different. Tom is really talented and plays harmonium too, so we’ll use that and Kris will add the electronic element with his pedal board.” He laughs, “To be honest it’s a shot in the dark, but I really wanted to give it a go.”
I start quizzing Ian about the record by exploring whether some of the songs are perhaps emblematic of his life as an itinerant musician. There are suggestions of that too in the video for I’ll Call You, which we also posted as our song of the day in December. Ian turns the question around and asks me whether I’m thinking of the song Road Drill, for which there is also a video, although confusingly one that isn’t so obviously evocative of globe hopping, although the lyrics are. We eventually alight on the same page and Ian confides, “The trouble is it’s hard to say where lyrics come from. I mean I’m not really a songwriter, so it’s a bit of a mystery. The words up for Road Drill are just made up, but seem to have captured something that means something to others.”
He recalls, “I’ve had the tune for Road Drill for years, Sharon Shannon recorded a version of it, which she called Diamond Mountain. I think even back then I had the line, ‘My shoes are green and they have seen the world.’ They’re just words that sound good when I sang them.” He chuckles again, continuing, “Then a few years ago I sent that line to a good friend, Simon Tarrant, a songwriter who lives in Newcastle and quick as you like he sent back, ‘They gathered moss, grew laces in my dreams.’ Then later I added, ‘The soles kissed the earth like birds of love we flew.’ I haven’t got a fucking clue what it means,” he explains as he once more dissolves into a fit of the giggles. He’s a little more serious, however as he continues, “Of course Maria’s singing is really lovely and it does really conjure up pictures, so I guess I’m enjoying working out how this songwriting lark works.”
He changes tack, “There are songs when you know the words are just made up nonsense, which can be really irritating. There’s that song by Oasis where they sing, ‘Today’s gonna be the day when they throw it all back to you,’ and you know straight away that it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a sequence of words that sound OK together, but were just written to fit a rhythm. Then there are other songs that I don’t even have to understand, but can be really moved by. The combination of the tune and the words will take the head and the heart to another place.”
Ian takes another tangent continuing, “I’m trying to work out my theories of lyric writing at the moment. It’s like the first track on the album, I’ll Call You, which includes the words, ‘I’ll eat you out of house and home.’ Originally I just wrote some words because I wanted to get the sound of a human voice onto the record, but it turned into a song about my mother and whether I’d been nice to her or not down the years. I didn’t set out to write a song about her, but it’s what it became. She’d been very ill and eventually died, so I guess I was thinking about her a lot and she found her way into the song. The fiddle player Laura got it straight away and told me it made her cry”.
I’ve met several songwriters who tell a similar tale of not really knowing what a song is about until it’s been written and recorded. There is a compunction to capture a feeling or a thought and a line will fleetingly offer itself, hostage to the creative moment. In the case of I’ll Call You, however, things are further obscured by a deliberately murky mix, when I tell Ian I’m still having trouble discerning what’s going on he giggles his way through telling me, “Yes it’s really unusual isn’t it. To be honest it’s just me trying to figure out how Pro Tools works,” he’s still chuckling as I query the vocal effect and he reveals, “It’s just the auto-tune. I really can’t sing and there was a note of mine that was horrible, so I added the auto-tune plug-in and it made me sound like a robot. Then I put Maria through it too and it sounded even better and I just thought, great!”
There’s more laughter and a sly nod to one of the biggest selling records of last year, “I think Daft Punk had a lot to do with that. They put Vocoder all over the album.” I suggest something more old-school like Giorgio Moroder and we both laugh as Ian admits, “I’ve done it now so I don’t think I’ll use it again, because that would just be repeating myself.”
He also admits, “It took a good couple of years to gather all of the material and get it recorded, but then it was a bit of a leap of faith to actually put the record out. In the end I just thought if I don’t I’m going to drive myself nuts, it will be my Albatross. I spent so may hours dreaming about it all, because that’s what it felt like as I went into another world in my little studio. The final hurdle was jumped when my wife and the two kids were away for a couple weeks and so rather than doing anything or socialising, I just went and mixed the whole album. But then it continued when they got back and I’d wake up each day with an idea buzzing around, some little detail that needed to be changed. After another couple of weeks I finally arrived at the point where I ran out of things to do, so I just thought that’s it. I then left it alone for a while and then when I played it again, finally felt happy.”
We talk a little more about the other musicians and their instruments as I point out to Ian that the violin family is particularly well represented and he agrees explaining, “ Yes, Maria plays the viola and viola d’amore moderna, which is a five stringed instrument that has these sympathetic strings that resonate when you play it, while Mikael Marin plays a thing called the violino grande and Carina Normansson plays violin on one track as well.”
Given their names I make a guess that the band are an extension of Ian’s Swedish circle and he replies, “Well, yes and no. I met my wife Maria when I was in a band called Swap, she was friends with someone in the band and we started playing together then. But the rest of the various artists I actually met in Glasgow in April or May. I had a couple of days off in the middle of a Heidi Talbot tour and I ended up staying with the tour’s sound engineer and when I arrived I heard someone playing this amazing piano. Later that night people started turning up for an impromptu session and something really clicked. I found myself thinking this is the band I’ve been waiting for.” He laughs heartily as he recalls, “They already knew a couple of my tunes, so I figured they were already my band. It’s all about me”
Through the giggle he admits that it’s nice to finally have something that he can get a band to play, although writing is an ongoing if slow process and mostly tunes rather than songs. He takes a slightly more wistful tone as he confides, “I’ve always been in awe of the people that I’ve played with. I loved the time with Kate Rusby and still love my time with Eddi, She’s so open to stuff, but I’ve always been a collaborator, so it’s taken some doing to get this body of work in shape.” He’s giggling again as he reckons, “It’s taken many years, 48 actually, so don’t get expecting another album anytime soon. I have already started writing again, but based on this one it might take another 50 years to finish. Kate Bush has nothing on me.” We both have a good laugh.
As a final thought I ask Ian about growing up and what set him on a musical path and he describes the family telling me, “Both my parents were quite musical but in a non serious way. My dad played harmonica and taught me how to play it. They’d been teachers in Canada in the late 50s and come across all of these popular folk acts like the Clancy Brothers, The Kingston Trio and so on and had all of these well worn records I loved. But the thing I enjoyed most was going camping, sitting round a campfire playing our harmonicas. My parents were unusually encouraging and even suggested that I start making up my own tunes from a very early age. I’ve just been a musician ever since, because it’s what I loved.”
I suggest that I have to ask because it’s actually quite hard to find any solid biographical information about him anywhere and wonder if he prefers it that way. We’re laughing again and he instructs, “Just call me an enigma. Mind you, it might be a very short article. The enigmatic Ian Carr, fullstop.” He adds, “The BBC called me a maverick once and I like that too.”
It’s been a great joy talking to Ian and despite his self deprecating streak, you know that he has great belief in his own ability, as we come back to the point that as a musician for hire, he’s much in demand by some of the best. I suppose when you’re that good you can afford to have fun and this seems to be his default setting. Our conversation drifts for several minutes before I realise, the man probably has better things to do with his day, so we say our farewells.
Almost immediately I realise I’ve forgotten to ask about Frances, presumably the voice on Talking Frances, and so fire off a quick email and he responds later that day, explaining “Right then! I was waiting for my friend to come and play mandolin on the first bit of the tune but he didn’t make it. So, I found a voice memo recording of my mother (Frances) talking about some of the events leading up to her birth, whilst chewing the remains of her dinner (pork chops). You can also hear her at the end complimenting me on my new shoes, and asking me if I’ve had enough.”
There’s also a tantalising hint that Piggy I’m In Jail is about a phone call following her arrest at Greenham Common. Figuring I’ve imposed enough I decide to let that thread hang. Besides, it’s a nicely enigmatic note on which to finish.
Interview by: Simon Holland