By Brian Wise.
At just 26 years of age Blair Dunlop has certainly achieved more than most musicians. Just five years ago he won the prestigious Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and Richard Thompson was so impressed that he gave him a song for his debut album. He also quickly got an invitation to play at Glastonbury and he caught the ear of Ed Harcourt who has been working with him on his past few albums.
Dunlop’s latest album, Notes From An Island, is his fourth and accompanies two other EPs that he has released. Blair also took over his father Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Band for a couple of years before deciding to concentrate on his solo career.
When I put all this to Dunlop as quite an impressive accomplishment for one so young he said, “I suppose when you out it like that, it is quite a lot.”
Dunlop is back in Australia for the second time in four years. He started his tour at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and is also doing some concerts under the moniker of Modern Folk with Josienne Clark & Ben Walker.
While he might be s star of the BritFolk scene, Dunlop’s influences and musical loves include Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and the great Ry Cooder.
In fact, Cooder is the subject of one of the songs on Dunlop’s latest album, ‘Sweet On You,’ in which the singer muses on a past romance. This is what kickstarts our conversation kicks off.
I have to ask you if you like Ry Cooder, otherwise I won’t be able to talk to you.
Love it. Yes, I do. I’m a big Ry Cooder fan, yeah. Very good.
And are you?
You’re a good man.
He’s an amazing musician. In fact, I suppose we could talk for hours about Ry Cooder, and I’ve been lucky enough to interview him on a number of occasions. He was doing what I think they call world music a long time before the term world music, was ever coined, wasn’t he?
Absolutely. Well, that’s just what my dad says. You know, he saw Chicken Skin Music back in the day, and for him there’s so much world music that gets put together for maybe the wrong reasons. You know, quotas and political reasons.
For him, that was just the ultimate fusion, because it was so organic, and him seeing Flaco play with them…….I’ve stories of that, and I’ve lived through the records, but he’s a true artist who knitted together people from all kinds of backgrounds, and I’ll always love the ethos behind his music as much as the music itself, I think.
He was preserving traditional blues music way back then when it wasn’t really that popular and when he started doing it, and he always worked with incredible musicians, too, didn’t he?
Of course, I’m referring to the line in the song ‘Sweet on You’, which is from your forthcoming album.
No, I get it. It’s great that you’ve heard it.
Well, we’ll talk about that in a minute, but we’re looking forward to seeing you back here in March. Is it a solo tour, or are you bringing your band with you?
Thankfully, it’s a solo tour. I’d love to bring them over. But this is solo for me, this one, and I can’t wait, really. It’s been four years since the last time, I think, and that’s four years too long.
I’m absolutely ready for the new songs now, and it was nice to air them, to be honest, over the last couple of months
So, I presume we’re going to get to hear some of those new songs on your Australian tour, although the album won’t quite be out then, will it?
It won’t quite be out. I mean, I might have some copies. I might have some copies, but I couldn’t tell you for certain. I couldn’t tell you for certain. I think there might be one or two copies knocking around, but it won’t officially be out in England, I know that for sure, but I’m 100% going to be playing some new songs.
Do you play acoustic and electric guitar, or just acoustic? How does that work?
You know, I always used to tour with a couple of acoustics. I always used to tour, for different tunings and stuff, I was very technically minded with the guitars, and I would be precious about, you know, the different tunings on those guitars. But now, I go out with an acoustic and an electric.
On the last tour, which was solo, yeah, I went out acoustic and electric, and I loved it. I was bequeathed…. through odd circumstances actually, which is probably too much of a long story to go into….but I’ve been playing a Gretsch recently, and I’ve fallen in love with it, really, so that’s become the sound of the new record. I wrote a lot of the new songs on that Gretsch, so I thought I had to take it out. So I’ve been taking that and my trusty acoustic, and really enjoying having both of those next to me.
Now, the new album’s called Notes From An Island did you record it at the same place you did the last album?
So, we recorded the last record up in Manchester, which is near where I’m from, really, and I do love Manchester. It’s a great city. But I live in London, and my band mates live in London, and the producer’s based in London, so we recorded in North West London in a beautiful studio called Hoxa HQ in West Hampstead, and it was such a beautiful process. It’s a small studio, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Kind of boutique-y, and lovely gear, and just a great crew
The engineer, Dani, she’s been amazing. I’ve so enjoyed being down there. To be honest, I’ve really enjoyed just being able to hop on the tube and be home in, you know, 25 minutes. That’s been a real pleasure for me. But, yeah, man. Just recording down in London, which feels good, which feels really good, ’cause I’ve been down there a few years now, and I’m enjoying it down there.
Ed Harcourt is producing it. I’ve written with his wife, and I’ve known Ed since I moved down to London, I’ve kind of got to know him a little bit, and then we’re working on this record, but I’ve not recorded with him before. It’s been really fun, I think, because I grew up with his records and I’ve admired him as an artist for a long while. It’s been great to get inside … It’s great to work with another artist, another musician. We share lots of views of things. We also clash on things, but in the really healthy way, and he’s very open. We got a great dialogue going on, and he’s been a joy to work with. He’s a man of pedigree, you know, and his ideas are great. It’s just great having another artist to bounce off.
You toured with him as well, didn’t you?
No, I’ve not actually toured with Ed. We played Glastonbury on the same stage last year, and we’ve done very, like, you know, pops up and play, but we’re not actually toured together. But, no, it’s been great being locked in a studio with him.
So what does he bring to the studio that maybe other producers might not? Does he give it kind of a unique take on it?
He does, and he is really an artist at heart, and I love that. He has a very distinct character. He’s very open and honest, but he’s, you know, in a kind of quirky way. He has definite ideas about sonic palettes, but he values the integrity of the song and the lyric, and the energy in the song, and it’s all about me, the vocal and the guitar and everything around it kind of supports it. Obviously, I love that because, as the writer and the artist myself, that’s the way I see the songs, you know? He’s definitely brought a lot of value to it, to the record. He also has a good grasp on contemporary sound palettes and textures, and that’s great. That’s great, because you need to have that kind of contemporary age.
But I don’t at all feel compromised in any way on this process. I feel like he’s just, everything that we’re doing is supporting the songs, and I can’t ask for more than that. That’s ultimately the test as a song writer, for me, it’s like, that’s what it’s about, you know?
He’d be able to give you a few tips on the music industry, wouldn’t he, as well?
Oh, sure. He’s a proper industry head, so we bitch about the industry together. It’s good. He’s been down in the London scene for a long while, while I grew up very much on the roots circuit, on the folk circuit, playing in the middle of nowhere at folk clubs, playing traditional material and open sessions around a campfire. That’s kind of where I’m from. Although, I’ve, you know, listened to all kinds of stuff, and you’ve kind of got to be to be a rounded artist. But he’s definitely brought that kind of like, London-ness to the sessions. I mean, it’s been great. It’s been a really good marriage, you know? He’s a top guy.
The sound of the new single which we’ve heard kind of seems very much in the vein of the last album, Gilded. Is that what the sounds going to be like, or are you sort of moving in a different direction?
I feel like, in particular, ‘Sweet On You’ could sit quite easily on Gilded. It’s different in some ways. I feel like there’s a bit more space in a couple … Not actually particularly in that song, ’cause that is the lead single, but in a lot of the other songs, there’s a bit of space. A little bit more widescreen, if that’s even a term that’s applicable in music, but it makes sense in my head.
In many ways, it’s following on from Gilded. I mean, between Gilded and Notes From An Island, a lot of stuff went down in my personal life, which for me differentiates the record completely and totally. But I think sonically, I think Gilded was towards where I want to be, and Notes From An Island is where I want to be. I could see that, you could hear ‘Sweet On You’ on Gilded. That makes sense. They’re not a million miles apart, but I do feel like this is a slightly more rounded and complete vision of a record, and yeah, I’m excited by that.
There were a few more songs about your own personal experiences on the last album, but from what you’ve just said, I gather there are even more on the new album.
I started writing the album as much as a political … Not a political commentary. More of a social commentary, just because of the madness that’s been going on around the world, in particularly in our little island, I’m sure you’re all aware of.
I’m not the most politically active writer, because I just think there’s people better versed to put those views across than my little self, but it’s kind of hard to escape. So, I started the record as much in that vein as anything else, and as the record went on and certain songs made the cull and songs didn’t and fell by the wayside, it’s become more of a break it record than anything I’ve ever produced before.
So, make of that what you will, but there’s references to, you know, past as an island and our place in the world, and the pros and cons to being from this quirky little place. But ultimately, it’s housed within an album of introspective notes, to be honest, and I feel I am as much of an island in this. If we’re going to get metaphysical, I’m as much of an island as the UK is in the album, in the references in the songs
So, it’s a personal record, and to be honest, by the end of this cycle, I can envision myself just writing totally in the third person for a while. I have to write some murder ballads about some other people for a while after this one. But it’s been a really cathartic process for me, and it’s something that I needed to do. I didn’t sit down and go, “I need to do X or Y.” It’s just, these are the songs that came out, and hopefully people are gonna want to listen to them. So, we’ll see.
Well, there is a bit of a darker side on that new song, isn’t there? First of all, you express what a lot of music fanatics think. When you say, “If you don’t like Ry Cooder, I couldn’t ever be sweet on you,” but you also, there’s a twist at the end, where you say, ‘If I had to choose between you and your mother, I know who I’d choose.’ which is very dark.
It’s slightly cheeky, I suppose. Yes, I know. It could be misconstrued, really, but it’s just a playful song. Kind of a true story, as well. It is what it is. It is what it is. No comment on any further details you’ve got in that story, by the way.
You don’t have to reveal any of the personal details, but if it’s any indication of the new album, we’re really looking forward to it. The last album, I think you did a lot of live stuff, like you didn’t do too many takes, did you? Is that the same for the new one?
Yes. I think that’s pretty similar to this. I mean, there’s a few tracks that I just put down live. I can think of four or five that are totally live, and then a lot of others that were just pretty much track live, you know, and just the other overdub, and I’m really enjoying that approach at the minute. That’s something that we did in Gilded, and that’s something that we carried on with this record. I can’t say it’s gonna be the way that I work in the future, but when I play a lot … You know, I do play a lot live, and I play with the guys that have formed the backing band for this quite a lot, and I like music that breathes.
I think for the songs, they suit it. It works for Ed in the studio, and the vibe that we got down in the studio. I thought it would’ve been probably foolish not to explore that, and then that tallied with what Ed thought, and my manager, and the rest of the band, and we explored it, and I really liked the way that the music breathes. You do get certain intangibles that you can’t … You know, from playing live. There’s just a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s nice, man. It’s nice. I enjoy it. I enjoy it. Not to say that I don’t enjoy heavily produced, tight-sounding things and grid-like production. That works so well for certain things, but for these songs, and for where I am right now with this band, it just feels like the right place to be.
I’ve been listening to the new Bob Dylan box set and listening to all the different takes he does of the songs, and it’s interesting to hear some of the early takes that he does which are not necessarily the best. Sometimes, I guess you can overthink things and sort of kill a song if you play it too much.
Oh, for sure. For sure. Dylan’s such an interesting one with the way that he interprets songs and reinterprets them, because I feel like he probably got that for playing so many of his songs live for so many years, and now he just totally reinterprets them sonically, and the way that he phrases them every night. I’ve heard mixed reports from people who’ve gone to see him live. You know, some people are like, “I just wanted to hear Don’t Think Twice as is, you know, as it is on the record,” and other people are like, “It was genius. I wasn’t expecting to hear those songs reimagined like that.” But songs can get stale if you’re playing them all the time, so I appreciate his approach, for sure.
Well, it can frustrate people, as you said, but…..
Yes, and I accept that. I do understand that, yes.
But I guess if you’re a musician, you want to keep things fresh and make it interesting for you, if you’re touring all the time.
For sure. For sure. There’s a certain amount of self-preservation that goes on. You don’t want to let your audience down, but you don’t want to go mental, do you know? I don’t know.
In the past when we’ve spoken, you’ve mentioned Jackson Browne as one of your inspirations, and I can kind of hear some of the influence on the last couple of albums
Yes. Do you know, I was wearing my Saturate Before Using Jackson Browne T-shirt yesterday? I need to wash it, actually. But yes, absolutely, and I’m jealous that you were chatting to him, but he’s still a big influence for me.
I asked him about the fact that the songwriting seemed so mature, you know, on that album, and I’d heard stories that when he signed to Geffen, or to Asylum, that David Geffen sent him away for six months and said, you know, ‘Polish up all your songs.’ I was asking him about how the song writing became so mature, and he just said it was all the people around him that were also writing, and I can imagine that in L.A. at the time, and the competition was so great.
You had to come up with really good songs, which is important too.
I love that. That’s amazing, and it totally makes sense. I got really inspired earlier this year. I got to tour with one of my heroes, amazing artist called Aoife O’Donovan. Do you know what I mean? She’s one of those desert island discs kind of artists for me and my flatmate. We’re just all in on Aoife O’Donovan, and I’ve been a fan for years, and I got to tour with her in May. I briefly alluded to some personal stuff that went on in my life…It was the end of a tough kind of year for me, and it marked twelve months after that, and went out on the road with her. To play with her every night, and for her to we duetted a lot, and she was incredibly complimentary about my songs, which, it just means so much more than you could imagine.
To be inspired by another peer, and, you know, that’s what you can do. That’s the benchmark for writing songs and performing them. That just set me off on another kind of little spree heading into the start of summer. I can imagine like, that, but on a grander scale, L.A. in the early 1970s, with Warren Zevon and Carole King and James Taylor, and all of those … If they’re your mates, you’ve got to write some decent songs, haven’t you?
So, who are the mates that you hang around with that would sort of prompt you?
Well, you know, it’s always changing, and I’m just always meeting new amazing artists that I’m inspired by. I have to say Brooke [Sharkey], who I’ve just been on the road with, she is an incredible artist, and just an amazing person, you know? But that comes through in her music. It’s not like I’m looking favourably upon her because I know her and I’ve spent a lot of time in a van with her, but her personality really comes through in her songs, and that mystique, and the way that she writes. So, she’s one to watch out for, Brooke Sharkey.
A great artist that I was watching the other day, Megan Henwood. She’s just started working and I’m all in on her stuff. Then there’s a great Scottish singer songwriter, and the kind of John Martyn mould, who supported me on the London date that Brooke couldn’t do about a month ago.
I’ve been a fan of a guy called Rory Butler, who’s based in London but is from Scotland, and he’s just the most beautiful songwriter. He’s not got a record out yet, but he’s just the most awesome guitarist and songwriter. Yeah, so he’s actually supporting Aoife at Celtic Connections, she’s the star next year, which is a nice little link that I’ve just made.
But yes, there’s a few, but there’s so many more. There’s a great Australian songwriter who’s just moved over here, a friend of mine, Jack Carty, who I met at Blue Mountains and at Port Fairy. I love playing with him. He’s a great singer and writer. There’s people that just come in and out of your life, and I just love keeping my eyes open. Every month is new eyes, and you’re like, “Oh, they’re ace. They’re ace.” You know?
I suppose most, a lot of people, would call you a folk musician, but you mentioned John Martyn, and I suppose your background indicates that with your dad and everything, your mother, but folk music can be a very broad church, can’t it? I guess people in America would call you Americana these days, wouldn’t they?
I guess so, yeah. I guess so. It’s just, it’s all semantics, isn’t it? It’s just a way to pigeonhole, and in many ways it’s necessary. In many ways, I understand it and it’s necessary, but they can be shackles, you know, tags like that, when people have such vehement allegiance to one particular subset of a genre, do you know what it’s like, makes me laugh. But over here, you know, yeah, I mean, traditional folk versus folk roots, and the wider implications of that is … It’s a proper old debate, you know. People get very entrenched in certain views. But yeah, I don’t know. The words mean different things to different people. It’s objective. But I’d say, yeah, don’t know, folk roots. I mean, I grew up listening to ballads, and then traditional folk tunes that they still, in form, are writing now, even if that’s not … You can’t immediately tell that from listening to it
I still feel very much a product of traditional folk, even if it doesn’t sound like that now. Yeah, I was probably brought up on a diet somewhere between that West Coast Americana and traditional British folk. But then now, I listen to everything. I just try and listen to everything. You just have to try and be as rounded a musician as you are. You just start finding beautiful things in all kinds of stuff, and your tastes mature as you expose yourself to more of a certain genre. You get a taste for it, you know? It’s addictive, isn’t it, finding new things?
I remember a couple of years ago, seeing Richard Thompson receive an Americana award in Nashville, and he said, “I don’t know what I’m doing getting an Americana Award.” I suppose people would still call him a folk musician, even though a lot of his stuff has been electric. So, you can’t get hung up on too many labels.
Your last album was released on your own label. Is that still the case for the new album, and what are the problems involved in that?
It’s looking like it, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s been a great endeavour to get involved, and I have a lot of people around me who advise me and help move that. I’ve got a great manager, and a great … I’ve just got a lot of people who helped me come to that decision. It wasn’t purely my decision, but it’s great to have autonomy over your music, and ultimately, I have final say on stuff, and I think it’s a way that a lot of people are going now, with the digital age and the ease of different accesses to market, now. Just with the digital revolution, I think it’s more accessible to … It’s easier to distribute your music then it ever has been. It’s just that it may be harder to find a marketplace for it than it ever has been, ’cause it’s a saturated market, and no one buys records anymore, you know? But, it’s been great, and the only real downsides I can think is probably finding the money up front.
Did you have to do a Kickstarter campaign or anything like that?
I didn’t for the last one, and I’m not going to for this one, but it’s a root that a lot of my friends have taken, and it’s worked really well for them, so I wouldn’t be averse to doing that in the future, but, no, we’re just gonna put it out. Yeah, as I say, the main thing is not being answerable to anyone. It’s great. I’m not in particular a control freak, but it’s just lovely knowing that you’re ultimately in charge, and that’s lovely. And knowing that I can put out other people, you know, put a few singles of friends out recently, artists that I really enjoy. It’s good to have the option of having that forum.
I was interested in it because, you know, when I heard the last couple of albums, I thought, ‘Why isn’t this musician on a major label? Why hasn’t anybody signed him?’ But I guess you might have got offers that you’ve rejected and preferred to be independent, because it would seem to be, to me, to be a no-brainer, but maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere near running a record company is probably the answer.
Yes, probably not, going by the lack of offers, you know what I mean? No, I mean, of course you have certain offers, and you take them all on board, but it just, you know, it’s just been the best route for us has been putting it out ourselves. I’m always open to listening to offers and I always have been until this point in my career, but it just feels like the right point to do it, and it’s the decision that a lot of people are taking. It’s right for some people at certain points, and it won’t be right for other people, and it might not be right for me in the future. But right now, it’s absolutely the best way to go, and we’re sure of it. It is quite freeing, to be fair. It is very freeing.
BLAIR DUNLOP TOUR DATES
March 9 – 12 Port Fairy Folk Festival
March 14 – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne
March 15 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
March 16 – Blue Mountains Folk Festival
Wednesday March 21 – Camelot Lounge, Marrickville