From The Vault: The Woodford Files 2014-2015 – John Smith (UK), January 2015

Image courtesy of John Smith

Originally posted on Timber and Steel blog:

John Smith is performing at Woodford Folk Festival, and at the time of writing has just finished his last show at The Duck.

While that’s bad news for anyone on site who missed his gigs, or for anyone who got along and just wants to see more, the good news for John is that he can now find a shady tree and try to keep cool for the rest of the festival.

“This weather is too hot for my blood!” he observed to the lunchtime crowd of Duck Eggs, as he referred to them, in a friendly way.

While pumping up the nachos at The Chef’s Table and their other gastronomical delights.

Bill Quinn was phonetically challenged….

I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.

Bill Quinn was challenged in terms of phone access which left John with some extra time to enjoy the shade of the Coopers Bar, but they eventually caught up for a chat:

*** Audio file will be deleted by end of March 2020 ***

*** Audio file will be deleted by end of March 2020 ***

Image courtesy of John Smith

Text of the interview with John Smith:

Bill Quinn: I’m talking with John Smith. Now, I’m going to tell you something first about festivals and telecommunications are like. Poor old John Smith has been sitting here in the Coopers Bar for the last half hour, and we had a little mishap in terms of getting togetherness.

We fixed it up. All I can say is, if you’re wandering around a festival precinct looking for someone with dark hair, you need to know that: using a black and white photo, red hair doesn’t always show up in black and white photos!

With all that as a way of background, we are in the Coopers Bar on a very muggy afternoon. It’s New Years Eve. Hello, John Smith.

John Smith: Hello, how’re you doing?

BQ: Very good. John, I don’t know a lot about you. In fact, your name came up in correspondence on Twitter two nights ago when somebody said, “Unless you see John Smith, your festival has been a waste. He’s peerless as a guitarist.”

How would you respond to that?

JS: I’d say that was very nice. I’d find whoever wrote that and buy them a drink.

BQ: Deborah, if you’re listening, you’ve got a drink coming from John Smith.

John, to go back a ways, tell us about your roots, your influences in music.

JS: Always from the start it was Led Zepplin, Ry Cooder, Paul Simon. You know, Americana, always Americana in the house. And my dad also had a huge classical library, so we were always listening to Ravel and Debussy, Tchaikovsky. And then I got into Nick Drake and Bert Jansch and just went from there.

Now I listen to anything.

I went through a huge heavy metal phase. Anything with strings, you know? Guitar strings, banjo strings; I’ll play it and I’ll listen to it.

Image courtesy of John Smith

BQ: And do all of those diverse influences come out in your music? The heavy metal and the classical?

JS: Not so much the metal! It can be kind of cringe-worthy when you work that into folk music.

But yeah, I like string arrangements, I work a lot of string arrangements into what I do. But mostly it’s guitar, acoustic guitar. Rumbling finger-style acoustic guitar.

BQ: At what point did it go from hearing it in the house to: I’m going to do this for myself?

JS: Well, I moved away; I went to study music. At that point it became clear that I really wanted to perform. So, I was at university studying music in Liverpool and I started playing around Liverpool, playing open mics. I went from there to playing gigs, got spotted by an agent and went and did some supports for a famous singer called John Martin who was huge in the folk and jazz scene.

And from there, suddenly I had a career in music and I didn’t look back. That was in 2006, and I’ve been touring doing a couple of hundred gigs a year since then, just doing what I can.

BQ: I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that your accent is not particularly Lancashire; did you travel far to go to Liverpool to study?

JS: Yeah, I was born in Essex and grew up in Devon.

BQ: So you’re almost a contemporary of Billy Bragg then!

JS: Yeah, well, he’s a bit older than me. C’mon, I’m still ginger. He’s grey!

BQ: I should have said ‘geographical contemporary’.

JS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

BQ: I’m guessing there’s a fair bit of competition in Britain for your style of music. I know that Americana is extremely popular. What was the tipping point where John Smith is going to make a living out of this?

JS: It was really early on, I got an offer for a guitar festival that paid in one gig what I would have earned in a month in the part-time job. I was working three part-time jobs and I figured in one day I earned what I earned in a month in this cafe.

And the next day I went self-employed and went out on a limb. I was dead broke for a couple of years, but I just kept it going and kept going and kept going. As long as you’re not stupid with money; you can survive on very little when the going gets tough.

BQ: Oh, I can empathise with that! Only all too well.

Image courtesy of John Smith

BQ: John, it’s taken you to Woodford, where else does your musical career take you to?

JS: Well, I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been all over, really. The first long trip I had was to Mexico, the British Council of Mexico wanted me to go there. I’ve been to Japan. I’ve spent all of 2014 in America and Canada. I’ve been all over Europe.

Yeah, wherever there’s work I’ll go, man. If there’s gonna be people who’ll listen, it’s worth it.

I flew into Australia on Christmas Day. I didn’t know much about the festival. I befriended this Australian agent who took me on and I just liked the sound of it. It turns out it’s been great; the audiences have been just some of the best ever.

BQ: I was talking to a Canadian who said there’s not much in Canada to compare with Woodford. Is that a fair thing to say [in comparison] about England?

JS: There’s a lot of folk festivals in England. It’s not really true of England because we kind of invented the folk festival.

BQ: I’ll rephrase that. They style of Woodford being so diverse.

JS: Well, we don’t have spiders the size of ham sandwiches and it’s not boiling hot the whole time, and it’s not full or really sound Aussies. In a lot of ways, it’s a lighter experience; everyone’s drunk on sunshine and drunk on Cooper’s ale!

It’s different; it has a different feel. I’m just really glad to be here, man, it’s like a treat. Because normally when I play a folk festival, if it rains then it gets muddy, then it’s cold. At least here, if it rains, it gets muddy, it gets hot.

BQ: That’s the beauty of Woodford: you get wet, but you can dry out again.

JS: Exactly, yeah.

BQ: It’s not Glastonbury.

John, you’re going to go on from Woodford and you’ve got a few gigs to go.

JS: I’ve got Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and then I’m going down to Cygnet Folk Festival in Tasmania. Then I’m going home to join the trans-Atlantic tour in the UK with Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas.

And then I’m back on… doing something else. I just keep going, man. You stop? That’s it.

Image courtesy of John Smith

BQ: Well, I venture to say that when you get down to Cygnet, you might not get the same temperature as home, but you might get more of a look and feel of what you have back in England.

JS: Yeah, buildings with bricks and stuff like that. Miserable people everywhere?

BQ: Not quite!

Just one more question I’ve got for you which I’m always interested in. You’ve got an Americana style. When you go to America, is it a bit like taking coals to Newcastle?

JS: No, they love it. Because I really love American guitar music, I come from a heritage of guitar players through Richard Thompson and John Martin back to Bert Jansch and Davy Graham, I consider myself directly influenced by that sacred line of guitar playing. And I love it and I worship at the throne of Davy Graham, or the altar – whatever it is I’m trying to say.

It’s too hot for this kind of analogy!

Anyway, I take on the American influences, but when I go there I reckon they realise I’m not one of them – especially when I open my mouth and start talking. I don’t know.

English folk with American influences: I started really digging into that vein and then out of London suddenly burst this London scene that really did it times ten. Mumford and Sons were suddenly all over the place, and it’s great because now you go to America and so many of these guys have pioneered that work already. It’s like American audience – and everyone around the world, really – people are more willing to listen to someone with a guitar or a banjo because it’s been done so much and people respond well to it.

It’s easier to get in there. Sell a few CDs.

BQ: Yes, it’s not bad, is it, to follow a bit of a worn track?

JS: Oh, absolutely. I was trying to pioneer the track and then some people came along and smashed it for me. Now I’m just walking in the dust; it’s lovely.

BQ: John, I am sorry to leave you here before we could catch up, but if anything I’ve given you half an hour in the shade, so that’s not a bad thing at Woodford, is it?

JS: No, it’s wonderful. I’m very grateful. Thank you.

BQ: John Smith, thank you so much for joining us.

JS: Pleasure, Bill.

Image courtesy of John Smith

Gig dates for John Smith’s 2015 Australian tour:

Saturday 3 January – The Junk Bar, Brisbane, QLD
Wednesday 7 January -The Melbourne Folk Club @ Bella Union, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 8 January – Django Bar, Sydney, NSW
Friday 9 to Sunday 11th January – Cygnet Folk Festival, Cygnet, TAS

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