For many people Fabian Holland’s eponymous debut album was a bolt from the blue, or should that be blues. It unquestionably announced the arrival of an abundantly talented guitarist and singer, who seemed to have been beamed in from nowhere. Produced by Mark Hutchinson in his own Rooksmere Studios, the album simply, but very effectively played to Fabian’s obvious strengths and as he said at the time, “”I think Mark and I both agreed from the start that simplicity would be the key to this album, with guitar and vocals being the main focus. We decided on a concise album and picked the tracks carefully. Most of my songs are stories influenced by people I’ve met along the years and I’ve travelled about a bit so I’ve met all sorts of interesting people.”
On reflection, what also shone through were the stories and Fabian’s gift for grasping a narrative is another real strength and in that respect his follow up second album, A Day Like Tomorrow, doesn’t disappoint either. Songs about the after life of a tobacco tin, the ubiquitous phones held aloft at gigs, making to-do lists and the joys of spring, mixed up with a little social commentary, a gospel-blues number and big ballad create another compelling mix. But there’s more to it, with a subtle change in sound and also a clear sign of his recent life creeping into his work.
Fabian has continued his wandering ways, but these days they are largely confined to the English waterways and a narrow boat, drifting on from temporary mooring to temporary mooring. It’s canal-side that I catch up with him, things have become a little complicated, as he’s in the process of taking the engine out of his boat. Thankfully he’s got some help, but this also means limited time. Then there’s a slightly dodgy phone connection, which doesn’t make things any easier, although that, typically, is at my end. When I do get through, however, he’s surprisingly relaxed and there’s even the sense that he’s really rather enjoying the immediate challenge, which has become just another new thing to learn about, in what has now become his daily life.
Fabian is not the only folk musician that I’ve spoken too recently who is living the life aquatic, or at least on the waterways of England. Another recently featured act, Apple Of My Eye, rehearse on the narrow boat owned by their bouzouki player Chris, Will from Cocos Lovers was also talking about the same thing the last time we spoke and Folk Radio UK interviewed Steve Folk about his life on the water back in 2013 (read it here). For Fabian, however, the initial impulse was something of a necessity as he reveals, “I was trying to find somewhere to live in London that I could afford. I’d been living on my sister’s sofa, but all of the rooms that were coming up were out of my budget. Then I came across this advert for a room on a 38ft narrow boat. It turned out the guy was actually renting out his own bedroom and sleeping on the lounge floor, which made things kind of cosy, but I’m happy to say we’re good friends now.”
One thing led to another and Fabian continues, “Within about a year I’d managed to save up enough to buy my own boat, which was a steel narrow boat, but one that had been more or less abandoned for years and was half sinking. I had to completely gut the interior and start again, which was interesting, because I didn’t really know anything about carpentry or even DIY, I wouldn’t call myself a practical kind of guy at all. If I’m honest I didn’t really appreciate how much of a commitment it would be, but I’m glad I did it.”
Fabian admits that the whole thing has been an adventure and also that the project will never really be finished, but the main work is done. He also admits, however, “The main things I’ve got to do are the engine room and to fix my boiler. I’ve been living without hot water for the last four and half years, but that’s the sort of stuff that you have to put up with. It’s a labour of love, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t really like living on the river. I’ve made a lot of friends, who’ve helped me, which I’m really grateful for. But I’ve had to learn carpentry and all about the various pumps that I need, plus the 12-volt electrics too. Part of the difficulty of course is that you have to learn about it before you can do it.”
I suggest to Fabian that it perhaps reflects the level of dedication he has had to make to his guitar playing and he agrees. It’s reasonable to say that you don’t get to be as good a player as Fabian is without serious amounts of practice, so there’s probably a similar mindset involved. He seems to be genuinely happy, although continues to paint a picture that a few might turn away from, with the late night returns form gigs only to find the firewood wet, the gas has run out and the battery is low, so there’s no chance of getting warmed up.
There are other aspects of Fabian’s river life that we talk about as he’s so obviously enthused, notably the pressure of finding moorings around London. There are so many people now on the rivers, perhaps for very similar reasons to Fabian, that you have to keep moving and can’t stay put for more than a couple of days. He also sings the praises of his current stretch, Hackney Marshes, although confesses, “it’s so green and beautiful that you forget that you’re living in London, which is probably why I like it so much.”
I’m happy to talk like this as the life is clearly influencing his music, but it runs deeper than the couple of tracks that are specifically about river life. He tells me, “For this record I literally locked myself in the boat for weeks and forced myself to write and all of these songs came out that are influenced by the river. It really is an alternative life style that does attract all of these characters.”
He mentions it might be ideal for the retired, who have few other pressures, but the new album makes it clear that as beautiful and peaceful as the canals and rivers can be, it’s far too easy to see the whole thing through a rose tinted glaze. He makes the point on the song The River, which documents a few of the characters, or “River Rats,” as he calls them. There are people with their problems, the same as anywhere. But still he seems to have found his home and the delightful instrumental, Morning Mist, suggest the other side of what he’s found.
We focus on A Day Like Tomorrow and Fabian admits that the creative burst of writing was important as he tells me, “I wanted to release something soon after the debut. I’m not really sure why, but I was really hungry to get back in the studio. But it was also important to do something different, I didn’t want this just to be an extension of the first record. In some ways though I do work best that way, if I knuckle down then it produces songs, although I’m always writing in one way or another just at different paces, even now for example, although there are no more recordings planned just yet.” Again it suggests the disciplined approach as he continues, “I literally sat down and told myself, ‘Right, I’m not going to move until something happens.’ Admittedly, there are days when nothing does and I’m still sat there with a blank piece of paper.”
The biggest change, however, was the introduction of percussionist Fred Claridge and Fabian confirms, “because I was after something different, I thought I couldn’t get very much more different than introducing drums and percussion as there aren’t really any on the first record. That was a connection that Mark Hutchinson had and he introduced us. Mark sort of new it would work because Fred is a very creative and subtle drummer. When he plays the drum kit, he approaches it like a percussionist. I think his sound really compliments the music, it doesn’t drive through, but it’s always there.”
There are some standout moments for sure and the way that they work together on the gospel blues of Nobody’s Fault But Mine is little short of a revelation. Fabian agrees, but does admit, “I was a little nervous about how people would react. Also having been solo for so long I had to get used to working with another musician, but was lucky that we were able to find the time to jam loads, which really helped to sort out the arrangements.” Fabian obviously works well with Mark too, whose production adds piano and bass into the mix and really fills out the songs, with what feels like a natural progression from the debut.
Speaking of which we turn to the opener, Four Inch Screen, which Fabian admits is a bit of an age thing telling me, “I guess it’s the generation which comes after me. I mean I didn’t have a phone at school and I didn’t get what you’d call a smart phone until into my early 20s. But for those a few years younger it’s all about social media, whereas it’s not natural for me to get my phone out and start filming something if I want to remember it. At the same time it is really useful to have one as a musician and as a one man business in effect, it’s great to be able to share stuff and reach people so quickly, but then that’s something that I have to force myself to do.”
Fabian has doubtless just encountered the latest wave of that on his recent tour, which ran through April. I’m sure it will have delighted and infuriated in equal measure, but the song makes the point with a gentle humour and he’s keen to talk up the shows enthusing, “So the recent tour went really well, we played at some amazing places like the Electric Palace Cinema in Harwich which was a beautiful old Cinema built in 1911 also an amazing Convent tucked away in the Cotswolds.”
Although Fred wasn’t available for all of the shows, the new partnership is also working well and again, he’s really positive, telling, “Playing with Fred has been great, we’ve actually been playing together for a while now so we’re pretty good at communicating musically on stage. Fred’s such a good drummer, his subtle style of playing really compliments my guitar and the overall feel of the songs.” There’s more to come too and Fabian confirms, “For the future is just more gigs and festivals, Cambridge Festival, Shepley Spring Festival, New Forest Folk Festival to name a few.” But for now there’s an engine calling and his ‘River Rats’, lifestyle to return to and the small matter of an engine and engine room to fix, but then if his carpentry is half as good as his guitar playing, it’s a sure bet his boat will look a picture when it’s done.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Upcoming Tour Dates
16 June – Sofa Sessions, Kettering (supporting Chris Wood)
Out now via Rooksmere Records
Available via ProperMusic (Ltd Autographed Edition)