An interview with C. Joynes

Couple of days ago I wrote couple of words about the brilliant new record by C. Joynes. I hope you had the time to go and listen to it.

I sent Joynes couple of questions as a short interview, and while he’s on the road, he was kind enough to find the time and answer.
My questions were :
1. Tell us a bit about your influences
2. How much time it took to record the new album?
3. Many guitarists these days fall to the ‘Fahey trap’ of doing nothing new, but recycling the past.
How do you manage to keep Fahey as an influence and not a main motive in your music? where’s
your originality coming from?
4. Who are the interesting guitarists in the ‘American Primitive’ genre (if I may generalize it) and what
are the most outstanding albums for you, in recent years?
5. What are the plans for 2011?
6. Ask yourself a question and answer it

And here’s Joynes answers, it’s long but worth reading all the way!

An Open Letter To Yair Yona

Dear Mr. Yona:

Many thanks for your kind words, particularly about the new album, and for your interest in my activities in general. I am both surprised and encouraged to make contact with people who have encountered my work in some context, and who consider it worth investigating further. You have asked an interesting range of questions, and I will attempt to answer them as fully as possible.

Firstly, like many people with an interest in music and in the process of making music, I succumb to a broad and shifting range of influences, and frequently go through phases of being influenced by some very specific recordings. Solo instrumentalists, rather than a song-writer or a musician in a group setting, probably find it easier and more possible to accommodate and explore a broad range of influences.

But in general terms of influence, I listen to a lot of classical music, jazz, and traditional music, both from the UK and US and from elsewhere in the world. While there are many favourites who I return to again and again, it is probably easier to name a few of the musicians and composers who have directly influenced some of the specific pieces I have recorded.

These would include late romantic or impressionist musicians from the western classical tradition: Debussy, Vaughan-Williams, Arvo Part; classical experimentalists like Steve Reich and John Cage; and Early Music composers such as John Dowland and Hildegard Von Bingen. From the field of jazz, it would be worth mentioning Thelonious Monk, Alice Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. From traditional music, or music from around the world, there is a range of familiar or unfamiliar names including The Copper Family, Sam Larner, Harry Cox, The Carter Family, Blind Alfred Reed, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Safida Ayub, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, Sanneh Kuyate and Abdul Gadir Salim. Finally, in the context of the various traditions that have sprung up around pop and rock, off the top of my head I would include Will Oldham, The Incredible String Band and The Gories.

Meanwhile, I’m currently listening to a lot of early electric guitar music from up and down West Africa, mbira music from Zimbabwe and Congo, and working my way through the recordings of John Coltrane at the same time as reading a recent musical biography of him. However obliquely, I suspect these will all be creeping into the mix over the months to come.

However, there are also more general non-musical influences to consider, who have contributed to what one could term as an artistic ethos. In my case, this would take in the activities of figures as diverse as Harry Smith, Wild Billy Childish, William Blake, Iain Sinclair, Edward Thomas, J.L. Carr, Ivor Cutler and Jeffery Lewis.

Since it may well be difficult to identify precisely how these people and their work has contributed to my guitar tunes, I could go into a great deal more detail as to why I’ve included them. However, it would probably be much more rewarding for those who are interested to seek these names out in their own time.

Moving on to your next question, it’s hard to be specific about how long it takes to record an album, because there’s this habit of accumulating recordings made in different settings and circumstances, which may sit around for years before they’ll get used. In addition, I may have pieces that were originally written with a particular release in mind, but which didn’t get used in the end – often they will get used on a subsequent release. But in short, it probably takes me about a year to record any new pieces, put them and the archived material together and finish off an album.

On completion of the latest one, ‘Revenants, Prodigies & The Restless Dead’, it then sat around for eight or nine months before it had an official release, which was an unusual experience. But with hindsight, it was useful in that the whole thing was given a bit of distance. When I came back to it after two or three months, I decided to remove a couple of tracks and shift a couple of others around, and now I think it’s a better album as a result – less flabby, more concise.

But in terms of coping with shadow of Fahey, this is a very difficult one to answer. The extent and pervasiveness of his influence needs to be acknowledged and accepted by all: only once one recognises the Beast can one tackle him. In terms of the modern conception of steel-string acoustic guitar music, Fahey pretty much created the blueprint. In addition, he had an incredibly distinctive style of playing that is both familiar and therefore attractive to the budding acoustic guitarist, but which also offers listeners and acolytes the potential for a route out of the traditional folk idioms on which it is based. Both factors have served to establish his dominance for many exploratory guitarists.

The trouble is, of course, that this distinctive style becomes a trap all of its own. I have to be honest and say that, even to this day, almost every time I pick up the guitar it is a conscious struggle to avoid the Fahey sound. Many would feel justified in saying that I fail to do so.

But in attempting to escape becoming a copyist, one answer might be to use Fahey’s template for working with the guitar as a series of action-points, rather than regarding his work as a range of specific musical references (e.g. country-blues; ragtime; Indian classical music; early 20th C. European classical) to be drawn on. Any would-be guitarist maybe should concentrate instead on what was distinctive about his approach rather than his choice of content: combining and deconstructing selected elements as a means of creating a highly personal musical language. In doing so, the Fahey template might better operate as a ‘machine’ into which the individual feeds his or her own unique personal elements – both musical and emotional – which are then processed via a series of abstract instructions: ‘now change the tempo; now reverse the chord progression’. It all sounds kind of cold and analytical, but of course it’ll be an ongoing process, and the results will be more heartfelt and unique than, say, an immaculate rendering of ‘Sunflower River Blues’.

I feel that the most interesting guitarists in the ‘American Primitive’ genre are those who seem to have done this. To be frank, I don’t listen to a great deal of solo guitar music these days, mainly because I’m a sucker for falling under their influence, and also because there are so many players the quality of whose work shames me into silence.

But it’s only recently that I’ve heard much stuff from the first generation of players, those who had stuff released on Takoma and such like. Of these, Robbie Basho is obviously the most extraordinary. The first thing I heard of his was a live bootleg recording (Bonn Ist Supreme) that was recorded in 1981, and came out on Bo’Weavil a couple of years ago. I really liked that – a lovely joyous uplifting set. I’ve heard a couple of his early Takoma albums since then, and while it might be heretical to say so, I’m less sure about them – there seems to be a lot of formless flailing around going on. I recently heard an LP by Sandy Bull, which was really really great, and I’ll definitely be looking more into his recordings. Was recently some stuff by Suni MacGrath as well. Still haven’t heard any Leo Kottke…

In terms of contemporary players, when I first started playing solo guitar I was massively influenced by Sir Richard Bishop. He’s not really in the same American Primitive tradition, but his approach has the same world-gobbling potential that many of the best exploratory players have.

Other than that, I remember when I first heard Jack Rose – it was on the John Peel show, in 2004 I think. I’d been living overseas for a number of years and it was there that I’d started playing and composing solo guitar pieces. I’d just got back to the UK and hadn’t really much idea what was going on musically, but then I heard this guy doing something clearly out of the Takoma tradition, like I’d been, but taking it away into new territory. I knew there was something to be investigated here, so I went down to London to see him play an instore at Rough Trade records, and Glenn Jones was playing as well. That was an eye-opening show from the pair of them. For those looking for records from these guys, my favourite Jack Rose one is probably the ‘Two Sides Of…’ disc. Unlike many contemporary players, who seem to go for extended jams, Glenn’s is more based on strong melodic form and content, which is something that really appeals to me. Of his albums, ‘Against Which The Sea Continually Beats’ is probably a good starting point.

In terms of influence, I think James Blackshaw is probably as significant as any other contemporary guitarist. Again, an incredibly distinctive style, but one which is closer akin to minimalist composition than the Takoma tradition. He gets lumped in with Fahey followers, but to my ears that’s only lazy journalism. I don’t know all his albums, but I think ‘O True Believers’ would be the most representative.

However, for the most part I’m more drawn to guitarists that exist on the peripheries of the current wave, or who are more know for operating in a completely different context. Of the latter, my personal favourites are Marc Ribot and Derek Bailey – both extreme examples of solo guitar work, but individuals whose playing can completely transform your whole approach to making music. The rest of us are just paddling in the shallows compared with what they get up to. With Marc Ribot, my favourite album of his solo stuff is ‘Saints’. I wouldn’t know where to start with Derek Bailey, but ‘Ballads’ would be one for the uninitiated to get warmed up with. Once you’re there, ‘Music And Dance’ is a must-have document of, erm, something…

But for contemporary albums by others that I’ve really enjoyed, I really rate Keenan Lawler’s work – quite extreme, but definitely ‘American Primitive’. ‘The Strange Tale Of Eddy Westport’ is a good nugget, and ‘Music From The Bluegrass States’ definitely has the fire. Similar in approach and origin, though less ‘out’, is ‘The Legend Of Vernon MacAlister’ by Richard Leo Johnson, a current avant-folk guitarist who seems to have been completely and unfairly bypassed by the current revival.

Over the last two or three years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the recordings of Wooden Spoon, particularly ‘The Folk-Blues Guitar Of…’ album, which merges the British solo guitar tradition through the organic lo-fi experimentalism of early Krautrock. There’s a lovely murky domesticated feel to this work. I also really like Tom James Scott’s first album ‘Red Deer’ – beautifully poised minimal guitar pieces, again closer to a European contemporary classical mode than American primitivism, but which maintains a link with the traditional. Finally, Cian Nugent has yet to release a full and proper studio album, but when he does it will blow the opposition out of the water. Heads up for that one…

As for my upcoming plans, I’m currently working on a series of collaborations where other folks are contributing to new arrangements of some of my older tunes. It’s not a done deal yet, but I’m hoping these’ll get released as a series of singles through The Great Pop Supplement over the next year or so. In addition, I’m hoping start releasing more on Leith Hill Recordings, my own CDr imprint: field recordings; hill recordings; officially-sanctioned bootlegs; spoken word; people and places that have taken my fancy.

Finally, things are slowly drawing together for the next album. It’ll probably take longer than I expect before it’s finished, but we’ll see. I’m getting more and more interested in arranging pieces for a number of instruments, so while the solo guitar will still form the core any upcoming stuff, there may well be other things going on as well. It’s all an organic process though, so I can’t really say what the end product’ll sound like – or even when it’s finished.

Now, asking myself a question, as requested:

Q: What other instrument would you like to play?

A: The Baritone Saxophone. Or a Viola.

Thanks C.

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