Paul James is a saxophonist, bagpiper and singer from Newbury, England, who composes, arranges and performs music influenced by English and other European folk traditions.
He is a member of the band Blowzabella, and also plays with his pan-European band Evening Star and the English folk dance band The Playford Liberation Front. Paul also leads band workshops designed to get groups of people playing spine-tingling arrangements of traditional and contemporary folk tunes.
Paul James has been playing traditional folk music since he was a teenager. Some of the tunes he’s composed are “standards” in the modern British/European folk repertoire and are played by people all over the world. Initially inspired by a love of traditional English folk music and songs, he joined Blowzabella in 1980 and toured all over the world. He formed folk / funk / new music band Scarp in 1991 with Victor Nicholls, Patrick Bouffard, Jo Freya, Martin Hughes and Luke Daniels. They won a French World Music award for their album and Paul’s composition “Goatkiller” was voted one of the top twenty tracks of the 1990s by the audience of BBC Radio 3’s new music programme “Mixing It”. Paul's acoustic / electronic / dance-ambient album project "Horse" (2001) with composer Mark Hawkins featured Sheila Chandra, Eleanor Shanley, Luke Daniels, Nigel Eaton, Victor Nicholls, Kenny Stone and James Carter. Paul was invited to participate in two mediterranean music projects led by Maurizio Martinotti - “Viaggio di Sigerico” about the cultural exchanges through the pilgrim routes across Europe - with singer Lucilla Galeazzi, Jean Blanchard (La Bamboche), Carlos Beceiro (La Musgaña), Maurizio Martinotti (La Ciapa Rusa), Gigi Biolcati (Riccardo Tesi's Banditaliana) and "Pau i Treva" about the musical and poetic influences of Islamic culture in Europe with Catalan singers Jordi Fabrégas and Toni Torregrossa, Occitan singer Renat Sette and others. He formed the band Evening Star in 2009 to play mostly new music inspired by European traditional music with Patrick Bouffard, Luke Daniels, Carlos Beceiro, Victor Nicholls and Gigi Biolcati. In 2012 he and Paul Hutchinson formed The Playford Libertion Front with Fiona Barrow, Karen Wimhurst, Victor Nicholls and Chris Green to put some fresh energy into the interpretation of the many fantastic English dance tunes published by John Playford in the 17th century.
Paul has also composed music for television, radio and the theatre and appears on albums by other folk, world music and rock artists.
Interview with Paul James by Simon Haines.
I’m from Newbury and proud of it, but it never had much of a music scene when I was young. I was born in 1957 and I remember there was always a record player in the house. My uncle gave us all his early rock and roll and blues 78s so I heard Little Richard and Ray Charles when I was very young. My dad was from Dorset and played piano (in a self-taught stride piano style) to relax after work. His dad played drums in dance bands when he was young. I'm old enough to remember a time when people would gather round the piano at family parties. My mum sang a bit in local amateur operatics and there were several professional musicians and dancers going back on her side of the family – the Yorkshire side - but no one took music seriously and it just crept up on me.
When I was 8, I was sent down the road to Mrs Dawes every Saturday morning for piano lessons and she took me patiently through the rudiments of music. It was because of her that I realised I could play well by ear. She died a few years back and I never did get the chance to thank her. By the time I was 15 I was well into Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Curved Air – remember them? – and early Bowie. They changed my world! Harder to explain is that I’d also got very heavily into David Munrow, Shirley Collins (who mixed folk with rock and early music in ways that were a strong influence on the young me) and the unaccompanied harmony singing of the Young Tradition - as well as various source recordings of traditional English musicians and singers. Me and my childhood friend Alan Lamb got into folk music just to annoy other people I think, we did so enjoy being different. School didn’t provide anything much to keep us interested so we played truant a lot and used to mess about with music when we weren’t digging tunnels in Alan’s nan’s back garden. We must have been the only teenagers in West Berkshire trying to sound and dress like Scan Tester and Rabbidy Baxter. My A-level art teacher used to play bebop records at us, and though it took a while to go in, that’s how I got into appreciating the saxophone and particularly the god-like genius of John Coltrane. Then, I went onwards, through Alan Stivell, Roxy Music, la Bamboche, Planxty, Patti Smith, John Coltrane, Television, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, whose original drummer Terry Chimes I got to play on Blowzabella’s 2nd album, the Smiths, Bjork, and on to this day, devouring every kind of music along the way like a ravenous beasty.
Basically I was a strange child. When I was 11 or 12 I bought a tin whistle, which I still have, and started playing along to records. In my early teens I used to hear voices in my head (which is quite common when kids are growing fast) and the only thing that seemed to shut them up was playing music. By 16, I was playing anglo-concertina in a failed attempt to imitate Scan Tester and William Kimber, but I always sang as much as I played. Then I got hold of a set of Galician bagpipes because Early Music pioneer David Munrow played a set, and that led me on a journey into European as well as English traditional music. The saxophone came a bit later and I have Australian musician Lynsey Pollack and the late great Lol Coxhill to thank for that, as they both encouraged me to have a go. Apart from Mrs Dawes’s efforts I’m completely self-taught, not least because the music teacher at school didn't want me in the class because I wasn't interested in classical music then. Ironic that me and Colin Newman of the band Wire were probably the only people from that school from that time who went on to become professional musicians - despite, rather than because of, the education provided. That experience made me rebellious and single minded. If someone tells me something can't be done, and I don't agree...form a band, organise a festival, tour abroad, make a record .... I just see that as a challenge. So in some ways I do have school to thank for that.
Moving on to Blowzabella, how did you come to join?
The band began in the Autumn of 1978. It was a college band started by Jon Swayne and Bill O’Toole with other students on the musical instrument-making course at the London College of Furniture in Whitechapel. I knew them because Alan Lamb and I had come up to the big city when we were 18 and he was on that course and I went to Wimbledon School of Art. Before Blowzabella formed, when I was about 16, I was playing pipes with Juan Wijngaard who was at the Royal College of Art. He’d made a hurdy-gurdy on his kitchen table, and it worked! And he had lots of European records such as Flemish folk pioneers ‘T Kliekske and Les Musiciens de Provence, which were full of great tunes to learn.
In 1980, I was sharing a flat in London with Bill O’Toole. His student visa ran out and he had to return to Australia. Jon had finished college and gone back to Somerset, where he’s from, to start up his musical instrument-making business. Like most student bands it would have just ended there and it almost did, if it hadn’t been for Dave Armitage, who asked me and Cliff Stapleton, who I knew pre-Blowzabella, to join. I just saw the opportunity, and was cocky enough to take over the organisation of the band and start to shape it into something that could, just maybe, go further. Why? It was a band playing funny instruments, the folk scene didn’t get the band at all in the early days, but the alternative music scene liked that we were different and it had potential and things started to gather pace.
Blowzabella has been going since 1978. Has the essence of the band changed in that time?
Yes, in the sense that at the beginning it was about playing lots of traditional tunes whereas now it’s a band that is very much about composing music – we all write tunes and have done for years - and our ability to arrange music has improved a lot. But the basic signature of the band is the same now as it was in 1978 – drones, strong, memorable tunes and the desire to play things so people want to dance. Years ago, I came up with the description: Blowzabella go to interesting places, meet interesting people and get them to dance. That’s as true now as it was then.
You, Dave Shepherd and Jon Swayne have been in the band more or less since the beginning and you have always managed to get wonderful musicians to replace those who leave.
Jon and I play the same instruments but we quickly learned a way of playing together where we instinctively give each other space without really having to discuss it. Dave Shepherd and I have played together in various bands for 40 years – since before Blowzabella. We just clicked from day one. I talk too much, he doesn’t say much. It’s perfect - for me. Dave has a deep knowledge of traditional music and dance and his influence in the band is consistently strong. I suggested that Jo Freya join in 1986 to bring something different and songs as well as music and dancing, as the band needed a kick up the arse at that point in my view. I didn’t know her and just wrote her a letter which must have come to her out of the blue … and she said Yes!
When you’ve been going as long as we have, people leave for various reasons. We’ve always been in favour of choosing people who can hold their own, who have something to say and can change the band, not imitate what has gone before. Andy Cutting was an unknown teenager when we first met him. He was clearly extraordinarily talented and I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t been snapped up by another band. I remember someone saying to me at the time “why did you get that kid to join” to which I said “you wait and see”. And he did the rest. When Nigel Eaton left it was fairly obvious that we were going to ask Gregory Jolivet, from Bourges in France, to be the next hurdy-gurdy man. Greg grew up playing our stuff. He was clearly developing into an extraordinary player with his own sound and style who was going to make a big impact - with or without us. He’s been in the band 12 years now, longer than any of his predecessors and he’s had a big influence artistically on the direction and sound of the band. When Ian Luff left in early 2004 we did audition bass players, and they were all fabulous but, again, it was kind of obvious who we were going to ask, as we’d known Barnaby Stradling since he was a kid and it just felt right because he’s a great player and we had some shared history and experience. It is a bit like a family: we don’t always agree, but we’re tight knit!
How does Blowzabella fit into the English folk scene? You’ve had a long history of playing at certain English folk festivals, but you don’t seem to be part of the clique of performers who play every festival every year.
I love all kinds of music but I always come back to traditional folk music as a source of inspiration and it’s helped me to love where I’m from, be comfortable in my own skin and appreciate the world around me as a place shaped by generations of people over thousands of years. But I’ve never had that much time for the English folk “scene”. It has improved a lot in recent years with lots of great young bands coming through, and I have many good friends on that scene, but I still find it a bit cosy and overly self-referential … without the edginess and unpredictably you can find in other kinds of music. Sometimes I think that the English folk scene - with its little hierarchies and accepted behaviours - is just a “thing” made up by people in search of cultural identity in post-1950s suburbia. What does that have to do with our folk culture exactly? Rob Young’s book “Electric Eden” nails it for me.... where he describes the many threads connecting arts, traditions and customs across a wider cultural landscape; that tells us something a bit more profound about what makes us who were are on this island off the top of Europe.
Personally I never wanted Blowzabella to fit in with anyone. From the outset I’ve made a point of keeping a certain amount of distance between the band and any “scene” or other, potentially restrictive pigeon-hole, for the very simple reason that it just narrows your options. We do have at least two darlings of the English folk scene in the band so you’d think more English folk festivals might be interested, and we do the odd one here and there and we always enjoy it, but we've always roamed further field. We’ve always been interested in European music and dances but I‘d like to see us getting a bit more credit over here for playing and promoting traditional English music over four decades and introducing a lot of people here and abroad to our rich folk traditions. I’ve never come across another English band that regularly gets thousands of people across Europe dancing the Cornish Four Hand Reel or the Norfolk Long Dance! We’re an independent band and we do what we do, more or less where, how and when we want.
The band started as a purely instrumental outfit. Why did you start including songs?
We love doing songs and these days we tend to find songs that you can also dance to, so there isn’t that – dance-to-this-one-and-then-keep-quiet-and-listen-to-this-song-now thing. I love Jo’s singing and she brought something to the band we didn’t have before. I sound like a dog barking by comparison! But I do love singing, it’s very liberating; actually I’m just putting the finishing touches to my solo album which has some classic English folk songs on it.
How do see the future of Blowzabella?
We operate within a rich English/European traditional music culture and people always love to dance, so there’s no reason why there can’t be a Blowzabella in 20 or 30 years time - with different people in it, of course. The band takes a lot of organising, though and if, in the future, there’s no one willing to get in the driving seat and push to make things happen, it’ll just stop. And that’s fine too. In the meantime we’ve written lots of new tunes and we’re trying to get around and play in parts of the country we haven’t been to for a long time. I do get asked why we don’t do more gigs and it’s true we don’t do loads. We’ve always tended to do more in Europe than here and everyone is so busy, but we do as many as we want and we look forward to being together and love it more as a result. I think we’re playing better than ever.
On the personal front, you’ve been involved in a number of other bands that I know of: Scarp, Evening Star, The Playford Liberation Front etc. How important have these bands been to you?
Yes, those and a couple of European band projects with musicians from France, Italy and Spain and music for TV. It’s very important to me to play with other musicians, many of whom are among my closest friends. I don’t want to have to choose, but I’ve played with Victor Nichols (Scarp, Evening Star) for 25 years pretty much non-stop and he’s the go-to guy when I have any kind of idea or project in mind. An amazing musician.
Are you involved in any other musical ventures or are there any others still in the planning?
I’ve just finished my solo album. All albums are personal vanity projects and this one is all mine! I spend a lot of time playing in or organising a band and it feels good to have some space to show the full range of what I do. I’m always writing and recording stuff so I set myself a goal to focus for 6 months on getting some of these things recorded and then get it out there for people to respond to. Some of it’s acoustic, some electronic, and, I hope, a seamless mix of the two. So there’s everything from bagpipes to loops and samples, to a live band playing in a studio, to toy pianos and recordings of the bells of our village church cut up and treated. Musical collage. I love the whole process. A lot of it is just me playing all kinds of instruments and singing but I’ve also contacted people who I’ve known at different points in my musical life, in various countries, and asked them to play. Everyone has been incredibly generous with their time and played their socks off. For example, I asked Italian guitarist Enrico Negro to play on a song and sent him a rough mix and he recorded a guitar part that took the song off in a direction I would never have thought of. When I listened to what he’d done I had tears streaming down my face. Everyone has been beyond helpful.
What would you say have been the highlights of your musical career? What has made you most proud?
With Blowzabella we’ve done some epic gigs over the years, such as the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival, but I’m most proud of our ability to write lots of memorable tunes that will outlive us because they’re widely played in the folk repertoire in lots of countries. In the early 1980s I thought that since most of our audience sing, play or dance we should start involving them, so I came up with the Blowzabella Workshop Festival idea - a weekend of instrument and dance workshops and a gig usually with a guest European band who hadn’t been to the UK before. We’ve done them regularly since 1984 and around Europe since 2012 under the “Blowzabella Day” banner. Its become an important part of what we’re about and people really appreciate us taking the time to work with them instead of just standing on a stage playing at them. As an organiser – running arts centres and festivals – I’ve been responsible for bringing many well-known European folk artists to the UK for the first time as well as providing lots of UK musicians with gigs while making sure that young musicians get opportunities to develop their art. I also quite like that I’m the only person on the planet who has played on every single Blowzabella album!
Finally, can I ask you whether you would class yourself as a professional musician? I mean how does your passport describe you?
There was a time when my passport said “Musician” but although I was making most of my living that way then, I always did other things in the arts – worked with theatre and dance companies, ran cultural projects, arts venues and festivals. For example, for 4 years, until January last year, I was running Halsway Manor (national centre for folk arts), where I did a lot of work to get the place on the map with a wider audience as a unique residential centre for the folk arts.
The reason I took to the organisational side is that, although it involves some admin, which bores me too, what it’s really about is thinking up ideas and then achieving them. For example, I said to the band why don’t we do a Blowzabella Day event in Italy? So I talked to friends over there, found a great venue, talked to the owner, worked out a deal, got our publicity translated, worked with our French agent to get some gigs on the way south, booked the tour bus etc. It’s hard work, but at the end of all that, we did one of the best Blowzabella Day events we’ve ever done and it sold out. Lots of happy people who were delighted we’d made the effort. My point being, you have to set goals and then work out ways of achieving them or you drift. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. Music is such a beautiful thing, you have to find ways to keep it fresh, so onwards and upwards!
(With thanks to Simon Haines and Living Tradition magazine. May 2016)
Contact Paul James EMAIL tel/sms: +44 78 87 94 88 53