When listening to Joe Topping’s Vagrant Kings album, one of the most apparent things is the easy drift of styles, as Joe slips from folk, through blues to Americana and whilst that won’t suit everyone, I’ve long had a penchant for music that isn’t necessarily easy to pigeonhole. Many of the very best singer songwriters down the years, have played fast and loose with style, totally unconcerned by any attempts to confine them.
Besides, there’s nothing seismic going on here and Joe, although probably regarded as part of the English folk scene, has been a member of both Ashley Hutchings Rainbow Chasers and Home Service, neither of whom can be said to have a purist approach, so in truth is simply sticking with form. What’s also true is that The Vagrant Kings are a talented band that makes a virtue of drawing on various roots and folk styles without being a slave to any of them.
I know Joe has spent some time in America, so I’m curious as to how the experiences have shaped his music making. Sure, there are the obvious uses of pedal steel, Dobro and banjo on the album that affirm his Americana leanings, but there’s much more to it than that and it turns out there’s one hell of a story to be told.
[pullquote]It’s a strange feeling being in a foreign country without any money and without any trousers.[/pullquote] When Joe first headed across the Atlantic he started off in Canada and as he explains, “My first American adventure was when I was about 23. I saved up my money from working as a labourer and flew to Vancouver and then on to Victoria. Stayed there for a bit until I had my trousers stolen along with my wallet whilst I was asleep in a youth hostel. It’s a strange feeling being in a foreign country without any money and without any trousers. A kind stranger took pity on me and leant me his jeans and I went down to the harbour and busked with my guitar (which thankfully hadn’t been stolen). I made enough money to buy some more jeans from a charity shop. I continued busking in Victoria, which introduced me to so many great people, some of whom I’m still friends with and it was then that I realised how music can open so many doors for you in life.”
He continued his adventures south of the border as he continues, “I then made my way to America (after having replaced my bank cards) and bought a huge 5.8 litre pickup truck which was my home for the next 10 months or so. I travelled around playing music and seeing the country. Busking is not an accepted cultural thing in many parts of America and is just seen as begging, so other jobs I did included cleaning toilets, landscape gardening in Arizona (which mostly consists of putting in sprinkler systems) and shoring up a wooden house from the crawlspace underneath with car jacks (health and safety was not considered a high priority!).”
It sounds like things got a little out of hand as he reveals, “At one point, there were five of us living in my truck and driving across America and we were a very strange bunch. There was me, the musician, Arthur the Native American “Shaman” who made jewellery, John the ex American football star who had dropped out to become a hippy and write poetry, Blue the cockney gangster who couldn’t return to England due to “Some stupid mix-up involving guns” and Lane (born in a bowling alley) who was a big goofy looking red headed con man with a fiery temper and an insatiable appetite for women.” It’s clearly all left its mark and he’s on the money in saying, “One day I really must write a book!”
Joe returned to England, but still had the bug, although it would take a huge catastrophe to inspire him to go back. As he recalls, “One of the few big places I didn’t go in America on the first trip was New Orleans and it was somewhere I desperately wanted to see. When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, I thought that maybe I had missed my chance as there was talk of it never recovering. But I decided that I would go anyway and try and do something to help.”
With some charity work already under his belt, the course of action seemed obvious and he explains, “The previous year I had walked across the Namib desert in Namibia to raise money for a landmine charity and I had fallen in love with walking. It occurred to me that you could pretty much go wherever you like on foot, it just takes longer, but sometimes that can be a good thing. So I decided that I would walk to New Orleans starting from the north of the country. I planned my route so that I would take in the great music capitals of Chicago, St Louis, Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale Mississippi, Baton Rouge and ending in the Crescent city.”
It was one hell of an undertaking but all the more so as back then as he remembers, “I wasn’t really able to plan an exact route as I couldn’t tell if a road was suitable until I saw it, but using a map (the days before sat nav on your phone) I muddled my way through. It’s illegal to walk along the interstates but the back roads and highways were ok although you have to walk in the long grass along the side of the road (which was more of a problem the further south I got as I had to stop every few miles to pick the ticks off).
[pullquote]I started on Route 66 from Chicago to St Louis with a 1950s Gibson acoustic on my back and a backpack on my front.[/pullquote]“I started on Route 66 from Chicago to St Louis with a 1950s Gibson acoustic on my back and a backpack on my front. They had obviously re built route 66 at some point alongside the original, so for long stretches I was able to walk down the middle of the original road. At one point I did try and take a shortcut along a trail next to a canal but I was mauled by mosquitos so badly that I stuck to the roads after that. From Memphis to New Orleans was almost entirely on Highway 61 (The Blues Highway).”
He was lucky to be able to count on the kindness of strangers and admits, “The biggest danger I faced along the way was from dehydration. The temperature often reached 100F and humidity in the 90s. Luckily, the Americans were curious about me and would pull over to ask what I was doing and to make sure I was OK. Usually they were able to give me water which was quite literally a life saver. People were universally nice to me but were often surprised that everyone else was nice to me! They were always warning me about walking through such and such a place, saying, ‘You won’t make it out of there alive,’ but when I ignored them and went there anyway, I was welcomed with open arms and a disbelief that I’d just made it out of the last place alive!”
[pullquote]Cotton fields and corn fields go by very slowly when you’re on foot, but it did give me plenty of time to think and daydream which are things that I don’t think we have enough time for in our busy modern lives.[/pullquote]Mind you it wasn’t just the ticks and he also reveals, “Most of the time I would sleep out under the stars or in a little bivy bag. When I came across a motel I’d stay there and often people would invite me back to their houses to stay with them. There were times when I was stuck in a motel for days on end because I physically couldn’t walk any more. My toenails turned black and I had blood blisters from chaffing in unmentionable places!” And then there was the boredom, “I have to say, most of the walk was quite dull. Cotton fields and corn fields go by very slowly when you’re on foot, but it did give me plenty of time to think and daydream which are things that I don’t think we have enough time for in our busy modern lives,” which I guess is one considerable compensation. Besides he brightens a little telling me, “The cities were exciting though because I was able to hear some of the best music you could wish for. From the electric blues in Chicago and St Louis, the country and bluegrass in Nashville, Blues and Soul in Memphis, the juke joints in Mississippi and Louisiana. New Orleans was something else though, it’s full of musicians making music for the sheer joy of making music.”
As for the results of his labours, Joe explains, “The charity I had chosen to try and help was the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund (NOMRF) who gave money directly to musicians to help pay their rent, they help musicians who were displaced by the storms return to the city and replace lost instruments etc. I’m not sure how much I raised personally because I was doing interviews along the way and people would then donate to the charity directly. People were donating money, instruments and even a van which was put to good use getting musicians to their gigs! When I arrived in New Orleans I was marched into town with a second line brass band.”
Still it’s left a lasting legacy as Joe reveals, “The whole trip had a profound effect on my music although hopefully not an all consuming one. I mean it would be easy for me to say, ‘Right, I’m now going to be a blues musician,’ or, ‘I’m just going to play folk music.’ I am inspired and influenced by American music but I don’t pretend to be American and that is very important to me. I like music to be authentic, which some people assume means that if you want to be a blues singer then you have to put on an American accent. For me, authenticity is honesty.
“Using all the influences that have been working their way into your psyche, whether they be global or local influences and making them your own without pretending to be something your not. I’m also inspired by British and Irish folk music, traditional and contemporary song writing, Indian, African, Cuban. Just good music in general, I try and not block anything out. It all goes in the pot.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
The Vagrant Kings is out now via Fellside