“It’s a real coincidence, really weird in fact, but no one lives more than a mile off the A6, if not actually on the road itself.” Ken is talking about the other musicians, who have leant their skills to his excellent The Fall Of Eden and explaining how the 50 mile section of the road between Rushden, where he lives in a converted hotel, and Leicester to the north west, played an important role in the making of the album.
He continues, “I recorded the basic tracks in my own flat and I have a big room, which used to be the hotel managers bedroom. I use a combination of tube microphones as the primary source, combined with some Shure mics to capture the ambience of the room. It all goes straight into this little digital recorder, a16 track Zoom R16, which is small but a great bit of kit that you can use to mix and master as well.” In the world of shrinking technology, it’s this that gave Ken the flexibility to take the recording to the other musicians, when it wasn’t convenient for them to come to him.
Talking about the other players, he tells me they are all people he has got to know one way and another, mostly from gigging on the local circuit. “I do a bit of promoting on the side and have done for some time. I have this travelling show, taking singer songwriters into village pubs around and about and it goes down very well.” Through that and going to see others perform, he has built up quite a network of musician friends, with others making themselves known at Ken’s own gigs as he explains, “sometimes after a show, someone will come and tell you they play this and that and so you make contacts all of the time.”
Others, like bassist Nye Parsons, Ken first saw playing with someone else and he tells me, “I first saw Nye performing with Jez Hellard and introduced myself. A short while later I was at a festival down near Brighton and Nye had this camper van with a marquee attached to one side and I wandered in and found him with his bass. He asked, ‘Have you got your guitar?’ Of course I had, so we just jammed for a while and we hit it off, so that’s how he came to be on the record.”
Nye was one of those who did make it over to the old hotel, but as Ken confesses, “Nye was only going to be on one song, but the first evening he came over we recorded his parts on three and it just went from there. He’s an incredible musician, with all of this jazz knowledge as well and he works so quickly. I think on just about all of the songs he plays on, he just had one run through and then we pressed record and that was the take we used.”
Some of the players are more regular collaborators, however, with JM Jones, Fran Taylor and Alan Tang regularly accompanying Ken at gigs, “Although it’s under my name, they have been regulars, playing extra guitars, adding backing vocals, violin and accordion over the last couple of years,” he reveals, continuing, “J and I have been close friends for many years, originally I was in his band. He’s great to work with because he has a real delicate feel to the layers he adds, full of soul but good at keeping the space. He is also a singer songwriter and along with Fran, both are part of Old Hotel Records which is a label we have set up to look after our own work.”
There’s quite a thriving local scene with several different bands and projects on the go simultaneously and Ken confirms, “Alan Tang, who plays viola, violin, accordion & piano, has been touring with me along with J and Fran for a couple of years now, he is also involved in various other projects, including Leicester’s most miserable band, alt rock heroes Echolocation.” Strangest of all though, Ken describes Mo Coulson as having this alternative musical life as a mermaid. Ken admits, “I can’t quite remember how I found out, but I discovered that she plays the harp, so asked her to contribute. She lives in this top floor flat of this big Victorian house, which is, guess what? Yes, just 100 feet off the A6 in Leicester. She has this small room which is full of these great big harps, it’s amazing.”
With all of this toing and froing it might have been easy to loose sight of the end result, but Ken was focussed, telling me, “I started with a very clear idea of how I wanted it to feel, I wanted space, soul, a classical feel, beauty, something that would relate to the meaning of the songs and something that would sound timeless. I also tried to concentrate on using traditional instruments wherever possible.” Even so he confesses, “With Mo I took the kids with me and we climbed all the way up the stairs into this tiny little room and I set the microphones up. Mo did the first take almost blind, but somehow, what she played lined up perfectly with a string section and finished right on cue. It was one of those happy accidents that you just have to keep.”
With everything recorded Ken then set about creating the final mix and master and he reveals, “I must admit the arrangements were the hardest thing to get right, stripping quality musicianship out is always hard to do, but I had to be ruthless. Also I took a year after recording the LP to live with it, and to make sure I was happy with everything. I stopped listening for two months all together after mixing it, gave my ears and brain a rest from being ultra picky. All in all, this LP took over 18 months to put together.”
Talking about his motivations for writing and recording, Ken is passionate as he asserts, “I love authenticity in music, real soul and emotion is what I connect with.” He relates that to his own music saying, “I find it easy to write from my own life, easy to connect all those dots, so that the end result is genuine. This is more important to me than anything else. I appreciate that some won’t get where I am coming from, but to be blunt, I make music for myself and if others get it then that’s good. What has happened though is that when people get it, it is because they can relate the songs to similar experiences they have had. I like to think that they can help those folk, and I guess that is the theme, dark but beautiful songs of redemption with a pragmatic view of life’s ups and downs.”
Ken continues, “Put simply this LP is a collection of my own love stories, The Fall Of Eden is the end of a perfect state of being, whether that relates to a lover, a relative or close friend. I’ve had some troubles in life, many have, but I decided to revisit mine and find some goodness in the bleakness of it all. Be it a happy memory, a thank you, a love letter or two, a remembrance for a lost friend and a personal tragic story of being an addict and homeless after falling from grace. I found my method of dealing with these things is to write them as songs.”
I ask Ken about the songwriting process and he admits, “Most of my songs really do come direct from the heart and are very personal, although I have recently been challenging myself to try and write about other things. I’ve recently written a song about the execution of the C18th Dragoon, Tobias Gill for example.” Ken is thoughtful as he confesses, “I do tend to write a lot, but when I do, I often reach back into some pretty dark places, so I’ve tried to contain that and just write when I’ve got some time away and can relax into it. Sometimes the dark place comes to me, however, and I just have to write there and then.” He continues, “Sometimes it can be a tune that comes first and evokes a feeling, but other times it can be a photograph, revisiting a place that I’ve been before, something that triggers a memory that I didn’t realise I was holding onto. I’ve always used to writing to express my feelings and used to write poems, but somewhere I thought why not turn them into songs and it’s just gone form there.”
He’s been honest about his own struggles and admits, “I used to write songs and change the perspective, but then I realised I didn’t have to. It was hearing Josh T Pearson’s The Last Of The Country Gentlemen, an album he wrote all about his break up. He’s a real hero of mine, but that record taught me that you don’t have to hide, you can just tell it how it is.” Again he’s thoughtful as he continues, “As long as something is honest and not derogatory about someone else then there’s a story to be told, but then for all of the hard times, the people lost to drugs, drink and depression along the way and my own struggles with all of that, there are still positives to grasp hold of.” Ken is more animated as he concludes, “That’s what the song Slow Burn is all about. It’s about someone who, despite the mess I was in, had the courage to stand by me and the faith that I’d turn my life into something good.”
We finish our conversation in an upbeat way as Ken enthuses about the music he grew up with revealing, “I come from a very musical background, my Uncle Ian Cruickshank is a legendary gypsy jazz guitarist and Django aficionado, although he came from 60’s R n B scene, including a stint with the Keef Hartley band, using the name Spit James. Another Uncle, Ken Brown, was a founding member of The Quarrymen until he had a disagreement with John over money. My Grandfather was a pianist who although classically trained could be found on an old pub Joanna in the East end of London before WWII. His mother was a concert pianist so I can only imagine her thoughts. My father brought me up listening to folk and country, buying me my first guitar when I was around 12 and I was soon in a rock-folk-blues band at school doing Bob Dylan covers. Then my DJing career took over, but my earliest musical influences comes from my Dads record collection, Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Tim Hardin & Bob Dylan to name a few.”
More positively still he is looking forward and he admits, “I’m just striving to get better and the more I write the better I get, so I know I haven’t written my best song yet.” Earlier, as an aside, he also hinted at another record and confirms, “Yes, we’ve just booked some studio time so that’s definitely going to happen. There are several songs on my last record, The Brewer And The Dealer that Fran and I’ve been playing live together and I want to re-record them, but more as duets, so we are both sharing the vocals, rather than with Fran backing me. Fran is also a really talented singer and songwriter herself and she’s also been writing some stuff for us to perform together, so we’ll be working on both my songs and hers. ”
He concludes, “Milestones, just keep occurring. When I set out on this singer songwriter path I wasn’t hungry for fame, having no more ambition than the recognition from fellow musicians that I was doing worthy. So with each new email from someone telling me how they found me and what my music does for them it’s another thing I count as a milestone. I can remember hearing a song of mine on BBC radio and being blown away, then doing my first radio interview, then signing autographs, although that still puzzles me though, I mean, why would they want me writing all over the cover of my nice new LP?” It induces a chuckle as he ends with a cheeky, “Obviously being interviewed by you guys counts as a very big milestone.” We both have to laugh at that.
Interview by: Simon Holland
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