It was back in 1987 that Suffolk-based singer-songwriter James Varda came to the attention of Roy Harper whilst performing at Clapham Folk Club. This turn of events led to his signing to Murmur Records with his debut album ‘Hunger’ following shortly after.
Following a lengthy hiatus he reappeared on the music scene in 2004 with In the Valley, shortly after which he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. No further music was released until 2013 when he re-surfaced with The River and the Stars.
His latest release ‘Chance and Time’ is, in my opinion, his best album to date and other reviews certainly seem to reflect that sentiment. I caught up with James recently to talk about his new album and to look back at his musical career alongside his diverse musical and non-musical influences.
Some artists can name the very date that they saw their desired musical path open before them. In Jame’s case his memorable moment started with a mixtape. “I played the guitar from a fairly early age and had written a few things. I went to university to study psychology and while I was there my roommate made a Dylan tape for me. That changed everything. Songs like It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) hit me so hard. That you could do that with a just a voice and a guitar. Writing songs became all consuming, so when I finished my degree I went back to London to see what I could do.”
An all consuming passion needs space to grow and James was aware that those songs needed to be heard in order to take him to the next level. “I was writing songs, but I wasn’t performing them” he explains, but it wasn’t long before such an opportunity did arise. “One of the other people in the house I lived in at the time used to go to folk clubs to play, so I went along. It was as simple as that. Anyone could play a floor spot, so that’s how I started. I had a small group of friends who believed in what I was doing and were very supportive.” I ask James about his influences, whilst there are many, he’s able to reel off his top list with little effort which range from artists to poets. “I had so many influences but the most important ones were Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, R.E.M, John Lee Hooker, Patti Smith, Television, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Ginsberg. “
It was whilst playing at Clapham Folk Club in 1987 that Roy Harper spotted James. Roy later passed on a tape to Andy Ware leading to him being signed to Murmur Records. He recorded Hunger in ‘88 which was produced by the legendary John Leckie. James is very humble in his recollection of events after I ask him how John became involved. “John had worked with Roy Harper and he came through that connection. Roy had seen me play at a folk club and I subsequently supported him on some live dates. John liked the songs and I got on well with him and we both felt we could do something interesting together. We recorded Hunger in Roy’s studio in Lincolnshire.” Whilst the significance of that album may have changed in James’ mind it did receive fantastic reviews, which led to TV appearances on Night Network (LWT), MTV as well as numerous radio appearances.
Although I’m not as familiar with James’ earlier music it’s only natural that your view of the world will change with age. When I suggest to James that his current music appears less bleak he responds, “If there is a bleak view on Hunger it comes from being young and looking at the world and perceiving it flawed. But those flaws have always been with us and I imagine always will be.” He adds “We are humans after all. I’m more interested now in finding the good in the world and appreciating what has been achieved over the centuries in creating the country we live in. “
It was in 1990 that James made his final live performance before disappearing off the scene, his biography states ‘it was as if he had said what he had come to say’. I ask him what happened. “As with most things there were probably a number of factors at work, but more than anything I just didn’t enjoy the life that went with being a performer”, he explains. “As Townes Van Zandt said, being a folk singer is 10% playing and 90% driving. I’m not a great traveller and I was often pretty ambivalent about performing. I was married with two young sons by this point and I got to stage where I needed to move on with my life and I couldn’t see how I could do that and carry on performing. Writing was always the main motivation for me, not performing.”
In the mid ‘90s James moved to the Easy Anglian County of Suffolk, when I ask what drew him to the area he states “East Anglia has always attracted me. I think it is the big skies. So when I got a chance to move there I took it.”
It’s clear from listening to his latest album and The River and the Stars that nature of the land is an important influence on his music, something he concurs with when I ask him. “The natural world is very important to me and that connection has influenced my writing a great deal.” He adds, “Certainly moving to Suffolk allowed me to live a different sort of life, but even as a child growing up in suburban London I was drawn to woods and parks where I lived.”
We discuss the move to Suffolk in greater detail as this clearly marked a transition not only in his life but also in his song writing. “In one sense Hunger is a ‘No’ to a lot of things” he explains reflecting back on his debut. “But we all have to find a way to live in the world. I moved to Suffolk with my wife Angela and our two sons and so my concerns were quite different. I needed to find a different way to write to reflect that. I’m a slow worker, it took me a while.”
It did take a while, as it wasn’t until 2013 that The River and the Stars was released, an album that demonstrated new influences both audibly and visually…“When I moved to Suffolk I lived in East Bergholt in the Stour Valley. It’s a very special part of Suffolk. Certainly the landscape there was a significant influence on the songs on the record. I was very fortunate to work with Tom Need who took the beautiful photographs that are in the CD booklet.”
I mention to James that the album gives the impression that he had found a new sense of place. He takes up the point adding “In terms of a sense of place I became interested in the importance of a physical place to root yourself. The importance of location, wherever that may be. And then after many years in Suffolk, Angela and I moved to North Norfolk which is where we now live.”
James also mentions other influences in his biography which come in the form of a poet and photographer which I’m keen to explore. Jane Kenyon is considered by many one of America’s best contemporary poets, she sadly died in 1995 from leukemia. I ask him what it was about Jane’s poetry that inspired him. “I think the combination of writing about the small details of her life at Eagle Pond Farm and the natural world where she lived, together with her sense of the suffering that living entails. She wrote with great clarity and honesty. And she wrote gardening articles for the local newspaper. It’s that sense of place again.”
Also mentioned is the photographer Robert Adams, James explains that there are a number of things that attract him to his work. “He’s a landscape photographer who has chosen to photograph landscapes in a small number of locations in America that matter to him. He hasn’t gone looking for epic sights. His work has a deep environmental ethos and he has photographed forest degradation for example, he hasn’t shied away from it. And like most visual artists he’s fascinated by how light transforms a scene, whether that is a small bowl of nasturtiums on his kitchen table or a Colorado street.” The description could easily be transposed onto James’ own music.
On his latest album ‘Chance and Time’ I was left with an enduring feeling that things had finally fallen into place in the most natural way possible, everything about the album works well. Whilst listening I was struck by James’ own vivid awareness of the beauty around him and how well he translated this, not just into words but also through intonation and melody which combine to accentuate those deep feelings, there’s a great honesty and openness to the songs. He went on to explain why this was such a productive time for him. “Not long after In The Valley was released (2004) I was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Some of that experience found its way into The River And The Stars. Before The River And The Stars was released in 2013 I found out that the cancer was still with me. Fliss and Bugs who were working with me on that album, felt that we should just carry on working together and make another album. It was a very special and productive time in terms of songwriting and recording.”
We talk some more about the musicians who play on the album as there seems to be a strong unity there which comes across really well on the album. James sets the scene explaining “The key people on the album are Fliss Jones who plays harp, accordion and piano and Bugs who plays drums but also engineered and co-produced the album.” He adds “Fliss has a wonderful sense of what my songs need. She plays those parts and nothing more. The piano part on Beside The Sea is a great example of that economy of expression. And Bugs is always totally committed to getting things right however long it takes. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with them. I think there was a collective sense of what we might be able to achieve together and we didn’t let go of anything until we were all happy with what we had done.
“Also on the album are Mick Hutton, a very fine jazz bassist who also played on The River And The Stars and Johanna Herron who was a real find on backing vocals. And Nick Harper who first played with me on Hunger plays on one song. Nick is such a remarkable guitar player, it was great to connect up with him again.”
The term outsider is used several times in James’ biography in reference to his musical career so I was curious as to whether he still felt like an outsider today. “I would regard myself as an outsider as far as the music industry goes because I have nothing to do with it. Occasionally I release a record on my own label and that’s it. I don’t play live.” He concludes, “If anybody gets to hear my music it’s a bit of a miracle.”
I ask James whether he has plans to release anymore music and he answers: “Unfortunately I don’t think so, but in the context, perhaps Chance And Time is an appropriate ending. People who know my work seem to regard it as the best album I’ve made and I would agree with that. Perhaps with a bit of luck a few more people might become aware of my work from this album.”
I do hope so.
Interview by: Alex Gallacher
Chance and Time is out now via Small Things.
Order via Amazon