We recently caught up with Jonathan Day who is currently touring his forthcoming new album Vagabond Language. Those of you that follow Jonathan will know that he is very much the seasoned traveller. He shared a guest blog with us in 2015 covering his travels from China to the Hebrides as part of his Atlantic Drifter tour (you can read it here). His current tour takes him via Australia, Hong Kong and some UK dates (see below).
Jonathan is very much a storyteller, as well as painter, singer and musician so when I asked him how the new album came about, he began deep in forests, on the cliffs and quiet beaches of winter Wales…but before that, listen to him performing an early version of one of the songs on the album…it was recorded in Fingal’s Cave in the Hebrides.
The cave is carved by the ocean into columnar basalt. The six-sided columns reaching from the sea into the vault overhead create the most wonderful acoustic environment. Magical. I talked with an ancient man on the road from Tarbert to Hushinish on Na Hearadh in the Hebrides. He told of me of the tiny whaling ships sailed by local people as they worked to raise a living from their demanding Northern place. It chimed with 7th-century Gaelic poetry I was reading – about the wild, wide world as seen through that tiny-population, long-ago eyes. A recent Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust funded study shows that the Minch and Sea of the Hebrides Orca families are genetically distinct from the wider population. Unlike the sea eagle, the great auk, red squirrels and so many others the Orcan ancestral lines survived the arrival of men. It is a deep joy for me to think on that. So there is the chorus – a dreamed of and awaited healing, when we can again walk in harmony with the world that is ours – and theirs – the animate and inanimate, that belongs to us and them, as we belong to it and each other.
Jonathan Day on Vagabond Language
After the last two albums and the extensive often international touring I took a much needed period to reflect and recharge. I had no agenda and was totally open to what might present itself. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time deep in forests, on the cliffs and quiet beaches of winter Wales, and in mountains. A stormy season it was, and I was on the Pillar of Elixir in verglas, the Berwyn ridge in blizzards and on the cliffs of Cantr’er Gwaelod for Storm Doris. I was asked to perform for the Songwriter’s Research Group and at the same time contacted by collaborator Gavin Monaghan who has been working hard lately with the likes of the Sherlocks and was moving into a new (and amazing ) studio. It’s an early Victorian nail factory complex with iron columns and a weighing floor outside the control room – a giant analogue scale tells you what you weigh as you walk in. He proposed a barter – recording time for me with him producing in exchange for me painting some murals on his live room walls. So, reasons enough to engage with a new album project. One of the mural pieces is a quote from Evelyn Waugh. Although Gavin works with luminaries and musicians across the genres now I remember decades ago when he worked out of a building at the bottom of his garden, hence the studio’s name ‘Magic Garden’. His place then was a haven for singers and writers living in the grim, post-industrial immensity of the midland’s conurbation – his studio was a refuge, a place of wonder and of dreams, spun out of bits of vintage gear, a hobo sense of decor and a beautiful intention. So I chose a section from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:
“I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”
It summed up what Gavin’s place meant to me and so many other musicians. Reading the novel again led me to another sentence “Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones”. This seemed to chime with the experience of songwriting and playing songs for people. : )
So I had an album to write, and at the same time I felt it was time to completely change my live set – out with the old : ) Bookings came in for gigs in Australia (Paris Cat Jazz Cafe as part of the Melbourne Jazz Festival alongside Bill Frissell and others) and Hong Kong (More Than Folk with local heroes MAD, Luna Wong and others at Hong Kong City Hall) so I wanted to take a set of new music. The songs grew out of a number of different moments and fascinations. I’ve been inspired for a long time by Mallory and Irvine, the Everest mountaineers who were tragically lost on the expedition. I wondered how it must have been for these men who most probably summited Everest in no more than leather boots, tweeds and cotton windproofs. How would it feel to be so high, in so wonderful and remote a place? Having had exposure once while surfing in February, I knew there to be a wondrous kind of mystical aspect to it. I floated out to sea on my board completely blissfully, absorbed by the web of late orange sunset light spread like a net over the Atlantic. Friends came and pulled me in wondering what on earth I was doing… As TS Elliot wrote ‘until Human voices wake us…’
Another song grew out of a meeting a while ago with a very old man on Na Hearadh, the Island of Harris. He ran a tiny shop on the road running from Tarbert to Hushinish and told me of the times he would watch the small whaling boats come in when he was a child. I am a life long passionate opponent of whaling, but for a moment I saw the localised, sustainable nature of their actions – something so far removed from the factory ships and greed of current activities. Even small scale, I struggle to understand how someone can look into those intelligent eyes and violently attack these in the most part very peaceful creatures. His story of the hardy people coaxing and carving a living from these Northern shores seemed to chime with some 7th-century Gaelic poetry I was reading (sadly in translation as my vocabulary is very limited) and the song grew from that. The vision of the world as those ancient writers saw it… I support the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and was moved to actual tears reading a study they funded. Local pods of Orca in the Minch and Sea of the Hebrides are genetically distinct from the wider populations, showing that these family lines pre-date the arrival of humans there. Unlike the magnificent sea eagles which we drove to extinction and have now re introduced, these Orca ancestral lines have survived us. It moves me even now as I write. Ans so there is the chorus – a dream of healing that surely one day must come, when we can walk again in harmony with the world that is our birthright – as it is theirs – that belongs to all of us animate and inanimate alike, as we belong also to it. I was in Fingal’s cave in the summer and bringing the words and the place together just seemed right. Or maybe the place brought together the words and me…
So rehearsing today on a brilliantly clear deep blue and high brilliant white sky day, on a small tenor guitar adapted for me by luthier Ken Powell and an Indian harmonium bought for £27 from a charity shop with the most astonishing tone. Soon the songs will be breathed into life for new people, and places I can barely imagine.
Vagabond Language Tour
12/5 – BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL (with Folk Ensemble) www.thsh.co.uk
27/6 – APOLLO BAY (South Australia) www.ajirn.com
19/6 – LORNE (South Australia) www.ajirn.com
2 – 4/6 – PARIS CAT JAZZ CLUB (Melbourne, Australia) www.pariscat.com.au/your-night-out/
6/6 HONG KONG T.V.(RTHK Folk Show) www.rthk.hk
8/6 – HONG KONG (More than Folk, CITY HALL) www.facebook.com/Morethanfolk2017
23-24/6 – ART & SOUND, CUBE THEATRE (Leicester) facebook.com/events/1236058506490308
25-26/6 GLASTONBURY FEST (Poetry & Words stage) facebook.com/GlastonburyFestivalPoetry
7/7 – WORKHOUSE FESTIVAL (Y Dolydd) www.the-workhouse.org
10 – 13/8 – PHOENIX FESTIVAL (Llanfyllin) www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/phoenix-alternative-festival-2017-tickets-27456951481
19 – 21/8 – LANDED FESTIVAL (Rhayader, Wales) www.landedfestival.co.uk
7/9 – SHREWSBURY POETRY (OPO, Milk Street) www.facebook.com/events/1896241980599681
Find out more here: http://jonathanday.net/
Main image photo credit Giselle Ryan
All others Photo credit Niimi Day Gough