Allan Taylor has spent his life making music. His immediate career aim on leaving school at 16 was to run a folk club. After a decade honing his craft as a songwriter, singer and guitarist, he made his recording debut with Sometimes which featured members of Fairport Convention, with whom he also toured at the time.
Although his early albums were clearly influenced by English traditional music and the current medieval vogue, he rapidly cast his net wider drawing inspiration from Europe (which increasingly became the focus of both live work and recording) and America, which was the direct inspiration of two mid-seventies albums. Forty-odd years and 18 albums down the line, Allan has just released All Is One, a CD that has been glowingly reviewed in both roots and rock magazines on the continent and is arguably the finest album of his career.
We met up on a bright Yorkshire winter’s day to discuss the album and a few other matters. We started, logically, with the sleeve, which shows Allan as a lone figure in a vast furrowed field beneath a bright blue sky rendered sombre in monochrome. There is a sense of timelessness about the image.
“That was taken in Germany,” says Allan. “It was a colour shot but it was too pretty. It needed to be stark, very real. It’s dominated by the sky and the earth, so I am quite insignificant in the middle. That’s the way I wanted it. We’re all alone, one, a single speck. It’s also outdoors and in a place that’s impossible to identify.”
Before talking about the album’s individual songs, I remark on the critical acclaim it achieved immediately and add my own opinion that it is his masterpiece - a term which causes a simultaneous raised eyebrow and smile of acknowledgement.
“It’s not for me to say how good or bad an album is. I can say when I achieved what I set out to achieve. I also know when I didn’t quite get it right – though that may not be obvious to anyone else, of course. There’s an important difference between achieving what you set out to and producing something that works anyway. My wife loves the album – and that is certainly not always the case. She says the same as you; that it’s the best thing I’ve done. That is very gratifying to me because she was integral to the process of creating the album - that’s particularly true of the way I sang – she was a great help to me. That’s the thing. I suppose: it doesn’t matter how good I think an album is; it’s what other people make of it, people whose opinions I value, whether it’s my wife or someone like you or a fan who regularly comes to a concert. What I will say is that I have listened to the new album right through, at least eight times. That is more than I have ever listened to one of my own albums in the past.”
The masterful production is one of the elements of the album which has captured the attention of rock critics. Like the image on the sleeve, the album’s sound is crisp, open, uncluttered and clearly delineated. It has a sound that is full of space.
Allan agrees: “Absolutely. I had this idea right from the start. Because Stockfisch Records are so good at capturing an aural environment, I knew they were the ideal company to create the sound I had in my head, a kind of wide open landscape with lots of space between the sounds. There’s a difference between space and emptiness: it’s possible to have a very spare or sparse sound – very few instruments – and yet the final record can still sound full. That’s precisely what I was aiming for when I started making the record. Each sound can count for much more when it has space around it. It’s as if it allows your brain to take in more of the implications of what’s going on in terms of both the sounds and the lyrics. That’s starting to sound a little pretentious, but it’s the best way I can explain what I set out to do with these songs and this album.”
Allan has certainly achieved it. I mention the soprano sax heard off in the distance playing along to Let The Music Flow, the second song on the album.
“Interesting you should pick that one out, because it came about quite differently from most of the album. You know me; I like to plan well ahead. I need to know in advance what I am trying to achieve so I can communicate it to the other people involved – singers, musicians, producers, engineers and so on. Sometimes they might not agree and we can discuss it. They might have a different view and that’s fine, but I need a definite starting point and a fixed objective. It’s the way I like to work.”
“In the case of Let The Music Flow, the saxophone part came about by accident. It was very much a spur of the moment thing. When I played the long introduction to the song on guitar, I thought how great it would be if Beo Brockhausen was playing on it. He is one of the most fantastic musicians I have ever met; he can turn his hand to almost any instrument and play it well. He knows when to come in and when to back off. He’s both inventive and tasteful. So that wasn’t thought of until we started recording. Next day he came in. He chose to play soprano saxophone and you hear the result on the album. Simple as that. The difference between a good musician and a great musician is that a good musician will play well and know when to play (even if he tends to show off a bit); a great musician will also know when not to play. Beo is a great musician.”
If that is the exception to the way Allan works in the studio, what’s the norm?
“When I go into the studio, I make sure every musician who is going to play has a copy of the text. That’s because I guarantee any musician will play differently when he’s read the text. That’s not just what the words say, but things like tone and, of course, ambiguities. Some writers are genuinely poets and what their words say is far less than they mean. A good musician will bring that out.”
“I’m not by nature a team player. The career I’ve chosen in a way requires and dictates that. I’d never be a good member of a group, though I have been in a group and asked to join others. It doesn’t suit me temperamentally and I accept it’s my fault. However, when I am working with other musicians, so long as we all agree what we are trying to achieve, I know it works for me and for them. If it’s my album, I take on the responsibility of briefing people clearly, without restricting their individual creative input which is not only important to me but is actually why they are part of the project. When I have worked on other people’s projects, they’ve done the same for me.”
Despite the fact that the songwriters belonging to Allan’s generation are generally passing beyond what most people think of as retirement age, not many have genuinely tackled the issue of growing old in their songs. But, like Dylan’s Tempest, the stage of life at which Allan finds himself is a recurrent theme of All Is One.
Allan explains: “It wasn’t a policy or, even worse, a concept. However, you are right, one reaches a point in life where you look back down the road you’ve travelled – the good things, the luck or success, the missed opportunities, the diversions, the places you’ve visited, the people you’ve known – and at the same time you look at the road ahead and start wondering just how much of it is left. After all the signs you’ve passed along the way, you know somewhere up ahead will be the Exit sign, so to speak. Some events remind you of that, of course.”
“Then you look at the new generation that’s coming up and you recognise that fire in their belly and the spark in their eyes. Maybe you can even use experience to guess which ones are going to make it. They’re the ones who need to be writing the equivalent of the young men’s songs we wrote years ago. You meet them along the way, shake their hands, wish them well and know they will travel further along the road than you may be able to. It’s handing it on to the next guy. There’s a young Danish songwriter, Jacob Dinesen – he’s 18 – whom I called on stage last year to do three songs with me. He is terrific and I’ve suggested we spend some time together next year, meet up in Paris, sit outside some cafes, try writing a few songs together, see what happens. It’s pretty much what Derroll Adams did for me when I was much younger. We ended up spending time in Brussels and Antwerp. There were people back then who were not happy to hand on the baton – and I am sure there are people like that around today. It’s really a matter of how comfortable you are with who you are and what you have done. But if songwriting and folk music generally is about anything, it’s about sharing and passing things on, so it seems the most natural thing in the world to me. Ultimately, I care less whether someone will be singing one of my songs in 10 or 20 years time than whether someone will be writing their own songs and having the faith in themselves to go out and play those songs to other people.”
“You’ve got everything to gain from helping and supporting people who are just starting out. How can you work in a scene that you know and love for 50 years and not wish that it would continue and develop? It can’t do that without people. I think some people forget the help and encouragement they received when they first started out. It’s easy to sit back and be admired for all you achieved, but it’s pretty worthless unless you can help someone else do the same. If the new people who are coming along are going to continue the tradition that you are part of, you owe it to them and you owe it to yourself to help them along. Of course, if they’re anything like I was when I was 17, they won’t think they need any help. It took me years to realise how much I could learn from the other guys. I’m glad they were still there and willing when it dawned on me.”
I remark that Allan’s sleevenotes – considered and detailed as one would expect – not only identify the performers and writers of each song but also specifically identify where each song was written (often with multiple locations). Is provenance important to Allan?
“Actually, the place a song is written is not in itself important but it may be interesting and it’s something a lot of people like to know and ask about. It’s true that a song written in Amsterdam may have a different feel to one written in Berlin or Paris or Leeds or wherever. People like to know because it is part of the process of how a song comes into being: to some people that’s the most natural thing in the world, so natural they can’t begin to explain how it happens, to others it’s an absolute mystery.”
“It’s an insight into a creative process. Imagine sitting at a table outside the iconic Parisian Café, Deux Magots in St Germaine, watching the world go by: most people can picture that….and from there they can imagine how the song written there happened. Maybe I was watching a couple on the other side of the bar or something happening in the street. It’s not so much about location or context as stimulus.”
“For example, Let The Music Flow was written in Leeds and Styria. I started writing it in Leeds and I added the chorus in Styria, because that’s where I was hoping to meet up with Vlado Kreslin. (It’s about a hundred miles from Lubijana where he lives.) He’s a great songwriter and a good friend. A few days before I was about to leave, I phoned him and asked him to meet me there, but as it turned out he was recording in Vienna all that week. I arranged to meet him in Vienna instead, though I still had to go to Styria. I was sitting there, in a great little place on Wienstrasse, thinking how great it would have been if Vlado could have been there. The chorus just came to me: so that’s how it came to be written in two places. I then arrived to see him in Vienna, with a newly finished song which we ended up recording for his album (2010’s Drevored). He added a Slovenian verse. So, two years later, when I came to do my album, I thought it would be a good idea, using a different approach to recording, to do it again, with Vlado singing his Slovenian verse which is now very much part of what the song is about.”
One song in particular, Plenty For The Few, has a very precise beginning – Leeds General Infirmary, 2010.
Absolutely,” says Allan, “but one has to be very careful there, because it could seem melodramatic to say I wrote it while I was watching someone die. I was in hospital too. Again that was the stimulus of the song, but it would not be right to say it’s about either of those things.”
Allan’s sleevenotes for that track link the thoughts his situation inspired to a much wider world – a homeless man on a Paris street, the Cardboard City of New York’s West Side, the neglected poorer quarters of most major European cities. A paradoxical juxtaposition of ideals and reality; wealth and poverty, hope and despair, encapsulated in the paradox of the song’s title.
“The German songwriter Wolf Biermann (he’s a songwriter and poet and East German political activist - I’ve met him a few times in Mamburg) said: ‘A good cause does not necessarily make a good song.’ He’s right: you can repeat facts, data, statistics, but that is just journalism. A song should have focus: that’s how it provokes a response when somebody hears it.”
And on the evidence of All Is One, Allan has certainly mastered the art of provoking a response with his lyrics and music. He talks more about his songs, what influences him, the writing process and what he thinks makes a good artist in Issue 101 of The Living Tradition.
All Is One, continued - part 2
Allan Taylor has spent his life making music. His latest album, All Is One, is arguably his finest recording yet. Allan continues his conversation with Nigel Schofield (begun in LT100) about the album and the songs therein.
All Is One, the album’s title track, is a seven and a half minute epic. (It’s not the longest track: The Sky is a minute longer, but much of its playing time is instrumental.) Images and impressions are used with a cumulative effect that puts me in mind of Leonard Cohen at his best.
“I take that as a great compliment,” remarks Allan. “I regard Leonard Cohen as one of the four best writers in the world. He wasn’t a conscious influence. It was only after it was recorded and mixed and literally at the point of being released that it struck me it had Leonard Cohen overtones. Of course, when you realise that, you also realise that you are inviting a very daunting comparison. Luckily, it was too late to do anything about it by then.”
“It’s often true that when you’re influenced by something, you’re not aware of where the influence is coming from or even that you are under the influence. It’s certainly not a case of copying someone else’s style or approach deliberately – that merely ends up as parody or pastiche. For example, I know I often write under the influence of English traditional music; it’s very much part of who I am as a writer and performer, but what I don’t do is to try to write some kind of faux folk song – and there are those that do – and the point is that the people who wrote most of what we think of as the great folk songs didn’t do that either.”
“For me, that song works precisely because I wasn’t aware, in all the time I was writing it, of its similarity to a Leonard Cohen song. It’s difficult to say, but maybe if it had struck me, the song would never have been written. It’s interesting that you use the word cumulative. The song was written over a period of 10 years in which time I kept returning to it, adding lines, changing things, removing an image here or a phrase there. It was a long process which is not typical of the way I work most of the time.” Significantly, it is the only original track on the CD not to be annotated with place and date of composition.
“I am particularly happy with the song, partly because it’s enigmatic. I just added lines, couplets, phrases as they occurred to me. Then later I’d look back and see how they worked with what was next to them. I don’t mind admitting I didn’t know what I was doing; I had no plan behind it at all. Why put these disparate, iconic images together? It does create a kind of unity in which everyone can find something that they can relate to.”
I then raise the ambiguity of the song’s refrain, “When one is all and all is one” and ask about the play on words (one/won), less obvious on the page than when one hears Allan perform it.
Allan replies: “Again, that’s something that never occurred to me. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong – music is always a multi-dimensional process with the writer, performers and listeners all bringing something to the process. I didn’t consciously incorporate a play on words. It may have been subconscious; who knows. The thing is, now you have mentioned it, I will always be aware that it is there. I should say that I really am not sure if it’s a case of win or lose. It can happen that sometimes you go back to an old song and seeing it with a perspective of a few years and a lot of experience, you find things you know weren’t in your mind when you wrote it. That’s fine. People do it with paintings, books, poems and, of course, songs. So long as a song isn’t being misinterpreted and misrepresented, that’s nearly always a good thing.”
We discuss a couple of famous examples of songs that have acquired new levels of meaning in the course of events (Drive by The Cars, Candle In The Wind etc.). Then Allan offers a remarkable example from his own experience.
“Nana Mouskouri, the great Greek singer, recorded some of my songs, including a couple I wrote for her. As you know, for a long time she was a political exile from her homeland, during the right-wing junta. When she eventually returned after many years, she gave a concert in Athens. She chose to begin by singing my song It’s Good To See You. Hearing it performed the way she did it, in that context, was bound to make me rethink what the song is about. It’s still about what it was always about, of course, but she found other meanings in it. The performance is on the internet and it is remarkable and always emotional to watch.”
Speaking of interpretations of songs, we turn to the songs on the new album that Allan didn’t write. As one would expect, the album is dominated by his own compositions, including some of the best he has ever written (no mean feat!) but he has also chosen to include his versions of a couple of songs by other writers – Tom Paxton, Derroll Adams and (in Allan’s translation) Santino di Bartolo.
Allan tells us more. “The Tom Paxton song – I Followed Her Into The West – is a song I’ve always loved. It must be over 40 years old. I am happy to say Tom is a friend of mine and we meet up regularly. I remember saying to him when I was making the album that I was a couple of songs short. He replied: ‘No problem – take two of mine.’ The problem with doing a Tom Paxton song is figuring out a valid way to do it. Quite simply, if you play a Tom Paxton song on guitar, it sounds like Tom Paxton. That is, of course, one sign of a great songwriter. That’s why, when I decided to do that song, I wrote a piano arrangement. I wanted to evoke those vast Western landscapes; endless sunbaked plains, the whole Aaron Copeland thing, you know. He had these shimmering sounds from the orchestra which create exactly that fantastic feeling of open space. What I had in mind was a Western movie; the bleak empty street, bleached wooden buildings, the sagebrush blowing across in the wind and the lone person standing there. That’s what inspired the arrangement. The thing about that song is that you can play a rolling clawhammer guitar on it; it rolls along nicely; it finishes; you move on to the next song - all of which means people miss what a great song it is.”
It’s a song that a lot of people had recorded and many more have sung, often to its detriment, turning it into a kind of Marty Robbins western ballad. It’s actually far more subtle than that, with whole sections of narrative hidden behind a single word and complex emotions masked by larger gestures. Some recordings have even altered the words and turned the song’s protagonist into a kind of stalker, which he certainly isn’t.
“Exactly,” says Allan. “I wanted to come up with a way of doing it that would make people see this chap standing there in the street without even the nerve to walk up to a door and knock on it, despite having travelled so far following her. I wanted people to stop and think about him, to realise what’s going on in his head. I need them to realise that he doesn’t realise that all the time he is being watched. That’s the essential poignancy of the whole song. Play that with a rolling clawhammer, a thumping bass, maybe a mandolin or a fiddle and it all gets lost. That’s true of so many of Tom’s songs.”
Far from those obvious instruments, Allan’s version features piano and a bowed psaltery.
“Another result of working with Beo Brockhausen! We can be sitting in a studio together and I’ll look at some instrument we have in the studio – some unusual percussion or a Chinese instrument with very low strings – and say: ‘What do you think? Would that help the song?’ If he agrees, he’ll pick it up and maybe give just a little tinkle: that’s it – that’s all it needs. That’s the advantage of taking time to explain what you are trying to do and having people on the same wavelength; they get it and they’re thinking the same way you do. It’s a great way to work.”
The track opens with an unusual and very distinctive sound… “Quite simply, they’re shells on a string - ten or a dozen shells on each string, with five of those on a rack. Probably a very ancient instrument. It has a very natural noise. You just move your hand slightly and you get that wonderful percussive sound.”
Though he denies that there was any plan to provide continuity, Allan uses the same sound to close the album’s other “cover version” (a phrase he would probably dislike with its pop music overtones).
“The Derroll Adams’ song,” Allan explains. “I felt it needed something to round it off and that sound, again, just worked perfectly. People may read something into that, like the fact the sound frames or puts quote marks around a section, as you suggested, but that was not conscious. If that works for people, adds to their appreciation of an album in some way, then that’s fine. Everything’s there for a reason. Nothing is there by chance. Take the harmonics on the guitar, very simple, very easy to do, with the shells in the background. That’s all you need. Ian Melrose, who is wonderful on low whistle, produced that sound almost like a Native American flute which was exactly the sound I wanted. Again, it’s an iconic image: a Native American dancer, the sound of the flute, the bone rattles on his legs, rather like a Morris Dancer’s bells - it has nothing to do with the lyric of the song, but it’s an image that felt relevant and I wanted to evoke it in sound.”
“As for the song itself, Derroll was a great friend of mine and a great man. I wrote Banjo Man for him years ago, of course. I recorded The Sky for a tribute album a good few years ago. I decided I’d like to do it again, with more time and attention to detail than had been available to me on that previous recording. It fit in with the album perfectly because once again it has that sense of openness, of tiny individuals dwarfed by a vast landscape – the lost – rather like the Okies heading over to California. Derroll had echoes of Woody Guthrie; he was not known as a great songwriter but he was able to capture the whole atmosphere in just a very few words. He wasn’t too bothered about the technical aspects of songwriting but he told it like it was. He’s a bit like Woody Guthrie, whose songs may not be technically perfect – some of the rhymes don’t work.”
Woody himself crops up in Allan’s autobiographical opening song, The Endless Highway:
“I found it in the songs of Woody Guthrie
Of the lost and the dispossessed”
“He played a big part in my thinking when I finally got to hear him,” says Allan. “I started out when I was 14 or 15 listening to Joan Baez and Peter Paul & Mary, which doesn’t have the same rough edges as Woody. I knew some of his songs, of course, through skiffle if nowhere else. So I’d be 17 when I first heard him. There’s a thing about great artists – and you have to include Woody in that – and that’s the fact that it’s easier to be attracted to their lifestyle than the work they create. The Beat Poets are a case in point – the lives they lived, their intellect, their attitudes are all fascinating; then you read one of their poems and think, ‘What the hell was all that about?’ I tended to think of Woody like that: his life and of course the issues he took on board are fascinating. Some of the songs I found raggedy, almost unfinished. I was missing the point, of course, because they are meant to be like that. That’s why they work. That’s why they are iconic songs. They will last forever.”
Allan makes no secret of the people he admires. What is it, I ask, that one should expect of a great artist?
“What we want from an artist is something personal. Of course, it used to be the great complaint hurled against singer songwriters, that what they wrote was too personal. But the thing is, ‘personal’ needn’t mean writing an autobiography or an account of your private life – you know, ‘my wife has just left me’ and all that kind of thing. That isn’t art, it’s journalism. What should be personal in art is the point of view. An artist (of any kind) shares a view of the world from their perspective. You don’t have to agree with it but it always opens up another way of looking at things. You could, for example, go to a place that you’ve seen in a painting or heard described in a song and when you see it, you think, ‘Well, it’s not like that at all’. The thing itself isn’t any different, just the way of seeing it. So the person who portrayed it for you is offering you an alternative and even if you don’t agree, the two things needn’t be mutually exclusive.”
The Endless Highway is the album’s opening track. Its title is ironic because it’s written from the point of view of someone aware that his personal highway has a limited number of miles left; on the other hand he can “pass the dream to someone new” who will continue the journey. Written in Venne, Germany, the first of a series of wide-ranging locations (in the cinematographic sense) on the album – Styria, Vienna, Puglia, Stockfisch Studios in Northeim and New Zealand. Each coloured the songs begun there in its own way, each is the situation of an experience.
Allan explains further. “Being there. That’s what’s important to me. That’s how I write. I’ve finally realised that’s the only way I write effectively. It’s not the same for everyone. Tom Paxton, for example, writes at home. He wrote Last Thing On My Mind in the kitchen with kids running round. He can literally decide he’s going to write a song and sit down and do it. I admire that. But it’s something I really can’t do – at least not in a way that produces something I am satisfied with. I have to be there. Then, if I am lucky, something will come to me. A phrase, a couple of lines, sometimes a complete song.”
So do you always travel with a notebook?
“Wish I was that organised! It’s a good question, though, because I really can’t keep something in my head. So notes tend to get written anywhere – back of a train ticket, scrap of paper, inside a book (I’m always reading, so normally have a book with me), any available space. There’s always a way.”
From The Living Tradition Magazine Issue 100 and second part from LT Issue 101