“That’s a good question.” John Jones is responding to my enquiry as to how long it took to make Never Stop Moving, his second solo album, which is due for release at the start of September. “To be honest it’s taken about three years, but it was made at the same time as Oysterband’s Diamonds On The Water and that album naturally took over.” He explains how work on it had to fit in around band commitments, “Sometimes the momentum built and at other times fell away completely. I guess you’d have to call it a labour of love and something that I had to get finished and the culmination of me expressing my separate identity.”
John looks back on it as a period of incredible creativity. “I was writing all of these songs, some of which were obviously destined for Oysterband, but others that weren’t. Some songs were perhaps more folky, but also more personal and about me relating to the landscape and the countryside, telling tales that related to the walking we’ve been doing or about my home. It was this separate strand of my identity that I was filtering into this solo album.”
With the ebb and flow of the sessions it helped to be working with Al Scott and John reveals, “It was a good few years ago that we met Al, who was known then for the work he’d done with the Levellers. Oysterband started working with him and we’ve just carried on. So much so, that Al is actually part of the band.” He also plays a prominent role here, while his Metway Studio in Brighton is also an ideal base, given that several of the other featured musicians live locally.
John and Al clearly share a close working relationship. Whilst the familiarity of the studio set up helps keep things relaxed, John explains he’s thought about every aspect of Never Stop Moving telling me, “I know Oysterband is identifiable by my voice, so I tried very hard to find a different style here. I have a very strong top range, but it can also make the voice sound under pressure when I hit that. In many ways some of these songs had to be under-sung to get closer to the stories and the feel of the record.”
The two of them worked on different techniques as John tells me, “I recorded some of the vocals with just a drone to give a pitch reference. It’s something we first tried on the last solo record and have continued with. Without the usual chords as a guide, it frees up the melody and also changes the way I sing. There’s another advantage, in adding the instrumentation afterwards, we started using more unusual chords. Also I’d hum lines to Al and a part that might be taken by the cello in Oysterband, we’d try out on the far more resonant mandola.”
While John is keen to stress the care and attention and the thought processes, the most obvious point of difference, and the driving force behind his second solo album, is the Reluctant Ramblers. It started with the simple question, “Why not walk to a gig?” But several years, several hundred miles and many gigs and pub sessions later, it’s become something of a monster.
John recalls, “It started with just three musicians, none of whom really wanted to walk, so all of the gear went with them in a car. Rob Chalice from our live agency, gave me a few contacts and I did all of the organising myself, but it’s grown to the point where there can be 50 people walking. We have to find venues big enough and sell out tickets in advance.” John continues, “Tom Povey who runs BunkFest takes time out of his job to research pubs and Caz White, who does my publicity, also helps out, it’s almost got to the point where it’s too big.”
“It’s very hard to organise,” John admits, “I call it flexibility in adversity. There can be up to seven of us with Dil and a full drum kit, but we can also cut back to four or five. In some cases where there isn’t the room for a full gig, we just do a pub session. Free food and drink and preferably somewhere to sleep is all that’s required.” John is also keen to assure, “The songs still have to be delivered in a professional way though and some of the musicians will do their own thing as part of the show. To be honest we have a great repertoire of material. There are loads of different styles, humorous songs, songs that we cover. If it’s just a pub full of drinkers, we can get stuck in and have a good night.” He’s enthused and clearly enjoys the whole thing although confesses, “If it ever just becomes another band on another tour, then I’ll have to try something else.”
Thankfully, for the time being at least there seems little danger of that. The Reluctant Ramblers have solidified as a unit despite the necessary flexible approach. I ask John if it’s essentially the same group of musicians as appeared on his first solo album and he confirms, “Yes it’s essentially the same group although we have added Lindsey Oliver, our bassist, which is a really good thing as she’s such an effervescent and positive personality and has become an essential part of the walks. Rowan Gödel is such a fantastic singer and there’s the fabulous fiddler Tim Cotterell. Of course there’s Al and Benji Kirkpatrick, both on guitars and bouzouki and Boff Whalley. Sometimes Dil Davies from Oysterband will drum with us too. All in all a very talented bunch.”
He also acknowledges that despite their name, “You really have to walk if you want to be part of it. It’s really strengthened the bond between us and cemented the band together. Walking and talking all day, except when you find you’re struggling a little and go quiet for a while, is a great shared experience.”
Of course the walking is only one part of it and John continues, “You arrive at the venue, often tired and sweaty, but you’ve still got to perform, but you lose all of the artifice that goes with that.” Boff Whalley, a former member of Chumbawamba and regular walker, has a nice expression for that false divide between performer and audience calling it, “The Pope’s big hat.” John again admits “Playing the bigger stages gives you an opportunity to hide, and I’ve done that more than most.” The situation for the Ramblers is somewhat different and John laughs, “You’re lucky if you get a shower. We all eat together and then have to put on a show, which has to be right. You have to coax yourself through the tiredness.”
John points out, “You have to be far enough away from the place you played the night before to make it meaningful and fill a new venue with different faces. You also have to give people a good walk without killing them off,” he laughs, before recalling, “We did the South Downs, which is over 100 miles in six or seven days, but people are cottoning on that we’re doing it, so we might get phone calls asking us to play a village hall. You might get a morris side offering to do the food, if they can raise some money for charity or the community. Some nights we even did a ceilidh.”
One of the other advantages is the chance to road test the material and John accepts, “Different songs work in different settings,” returning to the point he made earlier admitting “We’ve played a beer festival and you have to just get stuck in. Some songs are better held back as mood pieces.” But he’s grateful that, “In many ways it’s helped me to realise what I had written. You always have doubts. Is this any good or not? But you soon find out if something is working and there’s the chance to play around with the songs change the arrangements and so on.”
John derives plenty of inspiration too. “Each walk or each adventure we go on, I try to write a song for. For example The Wanderer came out of the Ridgeway walk we did across the Berkshire Downs into Wiltshire. We were heading for The Village Pump Festival in Westbury and the last of the white horses that line the route. Just going past those chalk white horses you know you are on an ancient trail, so I just tried to imagine all of those people who had gone that way before. The path carried all of their hopes, getting a job, seeing a lover, perhaps not being forgotten as they moved away from people left behind. You feel a definite connection with that and at the same time reflect on your own hopes and journey.”
He takes it further, “I refer to the walking as my gym, but it’s also my drug and my church. What spirituality I have comes from out there. There are great natural cathedrals of landscape that you find and respond to. I have to say it’s a great antidote to sitting in a tour bus for hours on end, with all of the hanging around, just for that ridiculous burst of energy that’s all over in a couple of hours, followed by drinking the night away.”
Other songs come from closer to home, but as John lives in the Welsh Borders, these too draw breath from a rural environment. “Down By The Lake was inspired by the lake that’s four fields away from where I live,” John informs me, “It’s a place of great beauty in the daytime, but isolated and dark at night. I’m intrigued by that contrast. There was a tragedy there a while back and a woman drowned, although no one else was involved.” John has let his imagination loose and turned it into a good old fashioned murder ballad. As he admits, “Well I’m a folk singer at heart so I had to get a gun in there. ‘Just one shot, One stupid shot,’ kids get their first guns around here like they get their first bike or their first car. It’s like the songs I’ve been singing for years, Polly Vaughan, or Molly Ban or whatever else you want to call it. I suppose I’m also interested in the way that small communities deal with tragedy. They don’t open themselves up.”
Of course not everything is rosy in England’s green and pleasant land. Both the album’s title track and Ghosts Of The Village tackle the environmental and economic pressures. “For someone like me, it’s impossible to ignore things as I go round. I’m walking through beautiful Derbyshire villages, where the houses are lovely and every log pile is neatly stacked, but there are no children playing and the pubs have closed. It’s the same in the Cotswolds too. It’s a real contrast when you do walk into a village that’s alive, kids playing cricket, doing their nets and so on.”
I Will Never Stop Moving also mixes in the environmental consequences of building on the floodplains of rivers like the Severn and the Wye. As John points out, “Anyone who has ever walked up Plynlimon will tell you, it’s incredibly wet up there. It’s the source of both of those major rivers and all of that water has got to go somewhere. But when we get natural disasters we seem to want to look around for something to blame.”
Overall, however, John is keen to keep things positive. “I think when you’re out in the countryside walking, you have to surrender your cynicism. That can be hard for a British singer, to get away from thinking in irony and the kind of acerbic lyrics Oysterband is noted for. I think there’s less anger. At times you have to talk about what you love too and I think that opens up a warmth and an uplift to the stories even if some of them are quite dark.”
Perhaps the most shining example is She Wrote Her Name, a dark tale with a positive outcome. John explains how that has become almost like an anthem for the band. “That came from listening to one of those programmes late on Radio 4 that you don’t really know what it’s about. But this story emerged of this girl who had been found in a drug overdose induced coma and was in hospital. Her parents kept this vigil until one day they visited and the nurse showed them this slate that had been by her beside and said, ‘She wrote her name today.’ That line just flew out of the radio.”
It’s another song that’s really benefitted from the Ramblers involvement, however and John reveals, “I wrote it in 24 hours, but it seemed somewhat melancholic until the band got hold of it. Everybody just loves playing it, Benji can put those lines on, Boff loves the chorus. They put their mark on it and turned it into a celebration. It can often change a night because I think the audience really picks up on that.”
It’s tempting to think that John’s own illness has played a part in that. He admits that being diagnosed with a tumour was devastating. But with signs of his own recovery looking good, he’s quick to downplay that. “I want to move on. I can talk about it, but am more comfortable talking to others about their own experiences, because I can be positive about mine.” Apart from anything else, he’s determined, “This record has to stand up on its own. It’s not about how ill I’ve been or how many miles I’ve walked… Is it good art in its own right?”
The answer to that is a resounding yes.
Oysterband are currently still in Canada, but will return to the UK in time to play Beautiful Days (the Levellers’ family music festival which takes place at Escot Park in Devon) on August 23rd. Then they’ll be at Shrewsbury, where the Reluctant Ramblers will also perform. Oysterband have a couple of other festivals plus plenty of UK and European dates this autumn, while The Ramblers will also be at BunkFest and then in the Lake District this October. John laughs as he challenges, “Those brave enough might want to come and try Blencathra with me. You can’t guarantee how the weather will be, but I tried it back in June and it wasn’t great then to be honest.” For those less hardy, the music will be centred on the village of Threlkeld near Keswick.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Down By The Lake (Live at Shrewsbury 2014)
Never Stop Moving is released on 4th September via Westpark Records. Read our Album Review here.
Also available via: Amazon
In October 2015, John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers will spend 3 days in the northern part of the Lake District, based near Blencathra, just east of Keswick. For details on this and more visit:
There are also some great photos from many of John’s walks on his facebook page which you can find here: www.facebook.com/johnjonesoysterband