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Pianos, performance and Peter Gabriel: an interview with Will Lawton


Playing Arlington Arts Centre on Thursday 11th February, Will Lawton is a pianist and songwriter of outstanding quality. We chat to him about family legacy, bizarre instruments and his one man quest for the perfect sound.

1) I’ll admit, I had to google “hang” when you first mentioned it as one of your key  instruments. It’s a rare concept, a “rare” instrument. [The hang was produced by a company in Switzerland who were only producing around 80 a year, you had to write directly to them to explain why you wanted to buy one. They are no longer in production] What drew you to it, and how would you describe the sound?

The look of the instrument first drew me to it.  I saw one hanging on a friend’s wall in his house.  I didn’t get the chance to play it but was so intrigued that I ordered one before playing it.  I knew it was both melodic and percussive and played by fingers and hands so my piano skills would hopefully be transferable.  It had a very mystical feel about it.

The sound is vaguely similar to that of a Caribbean Steelpan perhaps mixed with an Indian Tabla.  I play the central bass note in a sort of African Djembe style.  It is a very unique sound.  The tuning is roughly in Dm but not in perfect pitch and there are a couple of notes in it that you wouldn’t usually associate with a Dm scale.

2) In a beautifully written recent blog post, you credit your Grandmother, Mary Louise, with the beginning of the musical legacy in your family. What effect did she have personally on your musical journey, and how do you think she felt about your work?

The most significant thing she (and her husband) did was to buy a new, upright piano in the 1950s and then encourage my father to learn how to play the piano.  She used to get him to play the new songs from America, published in ‘The News Of The World’ on a Sunday so that family and friends could sing along to them.  As a result, my father learnt how to play the piano using his ears and by chords rather than from scored music.  This talent was passed to me during my early years.

My grandmother used to sing a lot to the classic, wonderful tunes from the wartime era.  They are very simple songs, with simple messages and lovely chord progressions – something I try to bring into my own compositions with varying degrees of success.

She was always very supportive of my music work.  She didn’t question it, just accepted that that is what I did – like she did with my father too.  She understood the power and importance of music.


A “no frills” tribute Will recorded for his Grandmother when she passed away recently. 

3) What would you say have been the highlights of your career so far?

I love playing real pianos.  So performing on a real grand piano in a venue with good acoustics is my perfect gig.  I opened the show for my friends ‘Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin’ a couple of months ago at The Chapel Arts Centre in Bath playing a beautiful grand piano.  That was a real treat and it was an honour to open their first gig touring a new album – they are two musicians that I really admire.

My recording highlight must be recording an album in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Real World Studio’ in Box, Wiltshire.  My band, ‘The Home Fires’ secured funding for the album through an online crowd funding campaign which in itself was a huge achievement.  The reward of then spending a week at Real World was pretty special.  We recorded an album that I am very proud of and I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to record in such a magical environment with such a professional sound engineer as Patrick Phillips.

4) You bring your own upright piano to gigs – what do you feel this adds to the performance?

Ha!!  I DID bring my own upright piano to gigs for a number of years.  Unfortunately I recently cracked the sound board on the back of my upright gigging piano.  I think I dragged it through one too many fields and up one too many sets of steps.  Pianos are not really designed to be treated as roughly as I treated that poor thing so alas I now tour with an electric stage piano when the venue does not have the real instrument in-house.

When you sit at a real piano, you are totally engulfed by the sound.  The piano vibrates as the hammers hit the strings and it makes the wooden casing sing.  This is a lovely space to be.  When I sing, my voice locks into these vibrations and I give a more natural and enhanced performance.  When I play an electric piano, the monitor mix is often several meters from me and is often quite trebly which feels less natural to play and sing along with.  However, I just have to accept that many venues do not have real pianos these days and if I only play real pianos then I limit my opportunities of performing live.

5) Is there anyone you’d really love to collaborate with?

I have been blessed to play with some amazing musicians, almost all have been pretty unknown and undiscovered as there are many seriously talented musicians around that don’t really venture in the limelight.  I have always enjoyed collaborating with Bethany Porter (Cello) and would like to work again with Phillip Henry (Slide Guitar).

In terms of someone new, and well known, I would love to work with someone who can add beats, drum and bass to my music – such as LTJ Bukem or Nitin Sawhney.  This is a direction that I am yet to properly experiment with taking my music in.

You can book tickets to see Will Lawton on Thurs 11th February, 8pm by clicking here. Or you can call the box office on 01635 244 246 between 10am-4.30pm Monday-Friday.

 

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Interview with The Rails

Kami Thompson & James Walbourne took some time out to answer some questions about their experiences as BBC Folk Award Horizon Award winning band – The Rails. They’ll be playing Arlington Arts Centre on Friday 2nd October 2015.

“Fair Warning” combines the traditional and contemporary, do you have a vision of how folk might continue to develop?

Folk is developing all the time. It’s in everything from Grime to top 40. It’s all just telling a story. In terms of ‘traditional folk’, i’m not sure. A lot of it is extremely twee these days and not to our tastes. You still have the Eliza Carthy’s of this world pushing the envelope though.

Island’s Pink Label handled arguably some of the most formative folk acts of the 60’s and 70’s (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, John Martyn). Do you feel any particular pressures or expectations as the first artists on this newly resurrected label?

No. It’s just a label.

You both seem to have been exceptionally musical from a young age, did either of you ever consider, however fleetingly, a career outside of music?

James – Never.

Kami – I consider my options daily.

Do you feel the comparisons drawn between The Rails and Kami’s parents are accurate, or inevitable?

We set out wanting to make a classic sounding folk rock record so it was inevitable, really. It’s as much a pop record as it is a folk record – much like Kami’s parents, I think.

What about your family James – are there many creative types to be found there?

My dad was a major influence. He doesn’t play a musical instrument but took me to see everyone from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Ray Vaughan  when I was a kid. I attended more gigs than days at school. My brother is also a great all rounder and has played with me for many years.

Speaking of family, your support act is Zak Hobbs – Kami’s nephew- could you tell us a

Zak Hobbs
Zak Hobbs

little bit about his style?

Sort of barber shop Raga…..no not really. He’s a great guitar player – definitely one to watch. He’s sort of in the mould of Bert Jansch and the 60’s guys. You saw him here first!

Thankyou, Kami + James!

Tickets to see The Rails are £12 and can be brought via the Box Office on 01635 244 246, or by clicking here.

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John Elliott of The Little Unsaid chats to Ellie Reynard about making music and how to drink Tequila

Arlington Arts’ Duty Manager Ellie catches up with John Elliot in advance of his show here on Thursday 5 March.

Often compared to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and Nick Cave, online magazine Dots & Dashes recently referred to The Little Unsaid as:

“A giddying conflation of folk, electronica and lavish orchestration… one of the genre’s grandest successes thus far”

This is what happened when Ellie met John:

Let’s start off with a classic, what got you into music. Your Dad’s a pretty impressive artist; does creativity run in your family?

Yes it does really, my dad has always been very artistic, he’s a great blues guitarist too. He was sort of like my personal DJ from a very young age, he has the most eclectic taste of anyone I know. I had piano lessons from a young age, but I think I was more excited whenever I heard him playing the guitar. I especially remember him playing me a lot of his records when I was learning to play drums and I’d bash along to them on my practice drum machine thing in the living room. ‘Get Back’ by The Beatles was always a favourite to tap along to.

You make a big point of posting your lyrics on your website – what comes first, the words or the music? Or do they grow up together?

It changes song to song. I’m one of those eejits with a notebook in their pocket all the time, scribbling away on trains and such, making fellow passengers paranoid that I’m sketching them. So I pretty much always write words, and then when some musical ideas appear I have a book full of gibberish I can sift through to pull out the usable fragments.

Any tips for memorising all those words?

I tend to labour over the lyrics for so long that by the time they’re finished they’re just embedded into my brain already.

You’ve described your latest album “Fisher King” as a “pretty outrageous mix” of instruments – exactly how many different ones are involved?

I’m counting on my fingers as we speak…piano, guitars, drumkit, bass, toolbox, saz (a Turkish stringed instrument), metal shelving hit with many sticks, sousaphone, alto horn, trumpet, viola, cello, violins, whistle, bagpipes, glockenspiel, various synths and electronic samples, a choir of primary school kids…and my weird little voice. I’ve probably forgotten something but that’s the core of it. We didn’t set out to include so much, we were just grabbing whatever and whoever was around us at the time, going ‘NOW LET’S MAKE NOISE WITH THIS!’ It’ll be a strange-looking ensemble if we can ever afford to recruit the full lineup for a gig.

Can we be evil and push you to pick a favourite?

I’ve really enjoyed playing piano on this album. I don’t have a piano of my own these days as I’m moving around too much, and when you don’t play an instrument often enough to be well-practised it changes the way you write. I enjoy feeling a bit like I’m wrestling with an instrument, it makes you a bit more reckless and I quite like how human and raw it can sound. (Or at least that’s my excuse for being a shoddy pianist.)

With all that talent working on one project, how smoothly do all the ideas come together?

This has been the most enjoyable and natural experience I’ve ever had making an album, and that’s because so many other great people were involved from the start, beginning with my producer and friend Michael Griggs, who got the whole idea of making another album into my head. Some of the previous recordings have mostly involved me spending months in a dark room on my own, recording myself and weeping with loneliness into the night. That process was right for back then as I was a bit more of a solitary Hobbit-man, but now that I’ve learnt how to properly collaborate with others I’m getting so much joy out of working with lots of wonderful people. It feels like we’re closer to making The Little Unsaid what I wanted it to be when I started out on my own five years ago; not a solo project, but instead this ever-growing community of musicians, artists and filmmakers who come together for different projects and who enjoy hanging out and making things together. I’m still learning how to do this all the time, but if you can somehow create an atmosphere of shared creative freedom and excitement when you invite new people in to collaborate, that’s half the job done and the ideas just flow. Like gallons of fine wine. Come to think of it, wine also helps sometimes.

What’s been your favourite live performance memory to date?

I really enjoyed playing at Glastonbury last year. We did one gig where the power cut out just before we were about to start because of an electrical storm. We were stood on stage waiting for the all-clear from the sound engineer for about twenty minutes, just kind of smiling and shrugging at the audience. There was a really strange atmosphere of tension, impatience, thunder raging outside the tent, rain leaking in onto all our gear. It was wild and kind of frightening, but those are the kind of gigs where something outside your control just takes over and I remember going a bit unhinged when we finally started to play.

Yorkshire or London?

I love going back to Yorkshire for some headspace and silence, and to go running. But I do enjoy spending time in London and have lots of good friends there. So I’m sitting on the fence with that one, and the fence is probably somewhere midway. Like Leicester.

Pints or shots?

I like tequila, but proper, decent Mexican tequila, which most bars don’t stock sadly. Hefty shot of that, but sipped rather than knocked back in one. Excellent. Then I get on the table and dance like an idiot.

Folk or Electronica?

I will always listen to folk music as that will always be where I sort of started, but right now I think the most inventive new music being made is electronic. Maybe someone should combine the two genres? Bet no one’s thought of that yet…

Thanks very much!

Anytime!