London-born minstrel Rory McLeod’s wanderlust has taken him up-and-down the UK countless times, as well as out into the far reaches of the wider world – across the US’s Southern States, to the Middle East, via Africa and South America.
As a result, his music is infused with a myriad of influences, from the blues and folk, to flamenco, Latin and calypso, stirred together with a measure of punk (and some would say also hippy) attitude, enabling him to play with artists as varied as Townes Van Zandt, Michael Franti (Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Spearhead), Michelle Shocked, Ani Di Franco, Kathryn Tickell, Ali Farka-Toure and Taj Mahal.
Solo, Rory sings a cappella, with guitar, harmonica, beating out a rhythm with tap shoes, spoons, percussion, telling stories of roads travelled, hearts broken, and life.
His latest album is The Glee And The Spark for which Rory has teamed with The Familiar Strangers.
Featuring Bob Morgan (clarinet, saxophone), Diego Laverde Rojas (Columbian harp) and Richard Sadler (double bass), their 2016 tour officially started in April in Dundee, and concludes on August 29 at Towersey* in Oxfordshire – where he’ll be joining the likes of The Young’uns, the Urban Folk Quartet, Roy Bailey and Fara for the final day of the four-day festival.
You’ve been performing with The Familiar Strangers for some years now – how did you all come together?
I have known Bob for some 35-40 years, Richard for 20, Diego for six years whom I met through Bob. Bob played with a band called The One Band, a band who played with Joe Strummers pre-Clash band The 101’s, also reggae band Stepping out and various blues outfits. Richard now often plays Jazz and blues bass. Diego first came to the UK with [a] Columbian folklore ballet group.
You’ve been on the road for a few months already – any stand out gigs so far or good war-stories?
Many…. I don’t know where to start, we all have our own stories from different sides. I have enjoyed the time when Diego and myself arrived early at a meadows festival, and we started to play tunes around a blazing campfire till 5am. Many other musicians went away going to bring their instruments and joining us till there were some 20+ playing together … listening and dancing with the rhythms, plenty of logs to keep the fire blazing. The next day, late afternoon, we all played a two-and-a-half hour set from 5pm till 7.30pm, then again sat around the fire again that evening. But this time blethering, chatting and passing bottles of Oak Leaf rum, brandy and cider around. Playing in a friend’s garden one sunny afternoon between gigs, south of Leeds … half-practicing a couple of tunes, and an older neighbour leaning over the fence and offering us a gig … sometime [while] handing us his card. Jamming in Sheffield with a Balafon player the night before our scheduled gig. Mostly catching up with lovely people here and there… old friends, including two sisters who used to babysit Bob. It’s been lovely for me to share my friends with each other in the band and see them enjoying each other, the camaraderie is sweet and strong. Many twilight moments, too many to [recount] here.
The Glee And The Spark, your 10th album, was recorded live in the studio (with no over-dubs) – is that your preferred way of recording?
Yes, I have found that more and more – recording to capture a moment, not to falsify a moment, one needs to be able to be tight in order to record live like this. In the past, on early albums, I have played all or many of the instruments and sung all of the harmonies – being most practical and possible by layering, adding spoons, banjo, drum, bells, etc., though still performing the songs live in the studio initially, then adding instruments, harmonies, textures … colour. But I prefer capturing the live performance, which is what playing is all about for me, knowing the songs and tunes inside out together till we all inhabit them … as a group of musicians. My favourite records are all live.
How many takes did some of the tracks take?
Some first takes, others three takes, sometimes the tempo was too slow or too fast, or there’d be a technical ‘hiccough’, so we would go again, or someone might forget the arrangement. It’s always a relief and an adrenalin rush to get through to the end of a song or tune with out too many mistakes. No recording is perfect, sometimes you have to let things go … and some you can live with, others you can’t, and a track might make you wince – [but] only you will wince, whether it is an out of tune harmonica reed that I used because I had no other in the day. I will have to learn to live with. Or the way one suddenly phrased something very suddenly different on that day. Many old jazz recordings of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong contained many different takes, they were also all playing live around one microphone, and trying to achieve a good balance of individual instrument volumes. That liveliness I like, I need to hear. That moment lived, that second, that 4-5 minutes truly captured.
What are some of your favourite songs on the album?
Between this album and [2010 solo album] Swings And Roundabouts … there are many I like! When You Were Born [from Swings…] is a successful arrangement, the interplay of double bass and clarinet, locked together provides a beautiful melodic muscle shaping the songs story in such a full warm and poignant way; the space left for the voice to breath, when the instruments drop out and so magnify that moment n the story, the songs narrative.
Applause [also from Swings..] is a roller coaster rhythmically, Diego’s harp, his hands dampening the harp strings make it really funky, a wonderful stuttering rhythm, cutting through the song and a couple of his solos really tear up the songs emotionally, especially on [The Glee and The Spark’s] Black And Blue, which is also a difficult challenging and taboo subject and story to sing about. And Diego’s harp works well very lyrically on [Swings’] Imperfect World, where he goes from half-time to double-time, arpeggios lifting the songs soul, the harp’s particular colour on that song sometimes reminds me of the wonderful electrifying zither in the theme music of the old black and white film The Third Man.
[The Glee’s opening track] A Different Church On Sundays, my song about ‘skinship’ also feels quite complete and evocative because of the harp and clarinets shapes, the lyrical entrance of the double bass, and my tap shoes push the rhythm tightly, like a drummers rim shot would, but in a very simple direct way leaving enough space for the song to breathe. It rolls gently and the cascading bells at the end are wistful. My tap shoe feet don’t begin to annoy me at all on this song, like they do on some other songs, where I feel they become too insistent, like water torture. I wish I had dropped them out in various places, as I do on some of my other songs, when playing live, to give more defined shapes and dynamics to the rhythm of the piece.
Diego’s Colombian harp adds much colour, texture and momentum to the sounds and rhythms. Columbian harp has much drive, and the particular song arrangements are getting Diego to try ways of playing that he might not approach when playing Columbian traditional tunes. His big wide two-handed chords have also added to the way the clarinet phrases and plays certain lines and harmonies.
As someone who is regularly touring, do you write on the road? Or wait ‘til you’re at home?
Both. Although I started composing on an old piano last winter as we inherited an old one from the removal company who had a piano in their warehouse for years. [It’s] tuned a semi-tone lower, so I would need to be at home to use the piano. With my piano attempts, my songs are purposely more melodically driven than rhythmically driven, and my voice, much more intimate, or ‘sweeter’ and tuneful, because I wasn’t pushing it, as I mostly do, spitting out my words in a rhythm. So my voice was more heady, more intimate, and these are much slower songs, tempo-wise. Not being a piano player, at all, I found it very relaxing to whittle away on a piano, finding melodies for ancient unfinished scraps of abandoned lyrics of mine I had lying around, the melodies unfolding, as I chose or sought the note I wanted to sing, to make the melody interesting in a quirky way, not predictable. I wasn’t considering any chords in these pieces yet, but perhaps bowed bass and cello harmonies with the voice. These were also shorter songs, some very short. Just a verse or two.
I have been collaborating a couple of times on some song/ story pieces with friends, lovely fiddler Gavin Marwick and Nyckelharpa player Ruth Morris, both of Bellevue Rendezvous living in Dumfriesshire.
You’ve played many countries over your career, are there any places you’d love to play that haven’t yet?
Georgia in Russia, Madagascar, the Middle East, with the band … Columbia, St Kilda, Papua New Guinea, Iceland, Lapland.
What are your plans for the rest of the year, after Towersey?
I hope to tour just with the band and for us to work more creatively together from a smaller seed of an idea. Rather than me bringing my songs and half arrangements … for us to collaborate more together, from the early musical and lyrical idea. I don’t want the band to be the Rory McLeod Band, just playing my songs, that is boring. I want each of us to feel that we own the band, and try new ideas, from tunes songs, to composing together and playing for a silent movie in a cinema, or theatre piece, or even an arrangement of an opera tune, Guiseppe Verdi, Joseph Green, or … ? I made an a cappella arrangement of a Bizet song some 10 years ago or more, layering my voice and singing all the parts. I imagined the whole thing with just voices and many drums.
Hopes and plans, practical or impractical.
I also have two long stories to finish writing, which also contain music and song. A challenge I am looking forward to. I need much time for to finish these – I feel more of a need or wish to work on these, to finish these writings before touring and making any more songs. These writings are related very much to music, storytelling, language, and travel. I just want/ need enough money to give myself the time to do these, to pay my rent, so that I don’t have to tour to finance these creative projects. I’ve never received a grant in my life. Apparently it takes as much time applying for these funding grants that I could have spent that ‘wasted’ time writing and finishing my stories! So, I will try to finance the creative time myself … somehow.
The Glee & The Spark is Out Now. Order it via Amazon
* Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival runs from Friday 26 to Monday 29 August 2016. Acts include Billy Bragg, Kate Rusby, Tom Robinson, Edward II, Kris Drever and Ian Carr, 9Bach, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Tilston and Lowe, and Nizlopi. Also appearing are The Wonder Stuff, Midge Ure, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and RoryMcLeod And The Familiar Strangers. Details: www.towerseyfestival.com