Photo from the Bert Jansch website
interview by Robin CookIf any performer represents folk music's timeless, intergenerational appeal, it would be Bert Jansch. Though rooted in British folk, the Scottish singer, songwriter, and guitarist has been one of the genre's most versatile figures, beginning with his 1965 self-titled debut album. By 1967, he'd joined forces with fellow guitarist John Renbourn, gifted singer Jacqui McShee, and jazzmen Terry Cox and Danny Thompson in the legendary Pentangle. During the group's six-year history, they prove themselves equally adept at traditional material, blues, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." When Pentangle disbanded in 1973, Jansch returned to his solo career, one that would have some surprising turns, including an album with Albert Lee and collaborations with Johnny Marr (Smiths) and Bernard Butler (Suede).
Jansch's latest record, The Black Swan, finds him on Drag City, collaborating with a new generation of folk musicians, including Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart, and Noah Georgeson, who also co-produced the album. There's an eerie take on the traditional ballad "Katie Cruel," the topical "Texas Cowboy Blues" (guess who that song's about), and the soaring "Watch the Stars" among the highlights.
Muchas gracias to Leslie at Drag City
PSF: I read in an interview where somebody asked you about this renewed interested in folk and you just said, "You know, we've always pretty much kept on doing it irregardless of whether or not it's fashionable." Would you say that is indeed the case and are you surprised by this renewed interest in freak folk or whatever it's called?
BJ: Well, I don't know what it's called. (laughs) Not really. Folk music's always been at a certain level in Britain, anyway. Can't really speak for the States, but here it's always been at a certain level and it's only in the last two or three years that it's actually begun to appear on TV over here.
PSF: Why do you think that is?
BJ: Well, I think there's just been an interest in folk music—BBC producers, and most of the digital channels in this country have sort of taken to the idea of promoting British folk music.
PSF: Do you follow any of the new artists like, say, Eliza Carthy?
BJ: I know Eliza, but it's not whether I follow her or not since I know her very well, and her parents. I know her parents [guitarist Martin Carthy and singer Norma Waterson] better than her.
PSF: What about Beth Orton? I think some of the best tracks on The Black Swan are your collaborations with her. How did that come about?
BJ: Well I've known Beth for about two years now. We met each other on a gig and just got to know each other since then. I'm very proud that she's actually consented to do some tracks for me... which fantastic.
PSF: And the new album is out on Drag City, which is more traditionally known as an indie rock label. How did you come to work with them?
BJ: That was through Noah Georgeson, who produced the album... through contacts he had that introduced us to Drag City.
PSF: Do you think you'd want to continue to work with the label in the future?
BJ: I presume so yeah. They seem all right to me.
PSF: I noticed also that your son Adam plays keyboards on the record.
BJ: Yeah. He's a bass player but he doesn't play bass on this record. He did the cover.
PSF: I did notice also that a couple of the songs seemed to touch on current events, for example, "Texas Cowboy Blues."
BJ: Well, certain events I can't let go by without making a comment about.
PSF: It's sort of a very jaunty song. It's not necessarily vitriolic. It's a much different approach.
BJ: Well, it seems quite appropriate for the song. I dunno what style it's in, but (laughs), it's like a blues.
PSF: Well, definitely the lyrics have sort of this wit to them. "He's like a cowboy that's lost his horse."
BJ: (laughs) That's true.
PSF: You can say whatever you want to about him. I'm not too crazy about him (George W. Bush), either.
BJ: Well, it just seems a shame he let certain things go by.
PSF: That kind of carries over into "Bring Your Religion," too, the part about the environmental issues.
BJ: Well that's a song by me and my wife. Just a little comment that maybe the religions of the world should all get together instead of fighting each other. We're basically all saying the same thing anyway.
PSF: Would you consider yourself to be a religious or a spiritual person?
BJ: Well, I have a religious side to me, but it's personally not any of the current stuff of religions that we have at the moment.
PSF: Devendra Banhart also appears on this record. Had you met him before the collaboration on The Black Swan.
BJ: Well, we met him over here because Geoff Travis of Rough Trade... we were looking for somebody else to help produce the album, and he suggested Noah Georgeson, and then Noah plays in Devendra Banhart's band. We went along one night when he was playing in London. We went along to the show and met the whole band. It was a fantastic gig and from that moment on they all agreed they wanted to play on the album. And Noah took over that whole side of it. We've met him at several gigs since then. His band seems to be made up of two or three other bands. (laughs)
PSF: You've also worked with Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler. What was that like?
BJ: That was great, fantastic. They were both on Crimson Moon (2000), the first one, and on Edge of a Dream (2002). I've done quite a few live gigs with them, and I'd like to do some more, actually, for the future.
PSF: You seem to be somebody who's just very comfortable working with different musicians. Would you say that's true?
BJ: Yeah, I mean... I like all kinds of music. I'm quite open to all musicians basically. And I hope they get along with me. That's what it's all about.
PSF: Do you consider yourself to be a singer/guitarist or do you consider yourself a guitar player who sings?
BJ: I think I come under the singer/songwriter badge. I've always written songs right from the very beginning. Because of my style of playing people tend of me more of a guitar player than a singer sometimes.
PSF: I understand early on in your career you were considered to be sort of a "British Bob Dylan. How did you react to that description? ‘Cause I know at one point a lot of people were being considered "the next Bob Dylan."
BJ: I never thought that applied to me. It applied more to Donovan than to me. I think I was the furthest out singer/songwriter on the scene at the time. Whereas I mean... Bob Dylan is a very essential pop musician whereas I definitely wasn't. (laughs)
PSF: Going back to your musical beginnings, how old were you when you first started playing guitar and did you ever have any lessons?
BJ: I'd always had an interest in guitar from about seven years old. But I first actually had lessons when I was about fifteen in Scotland, in Edinburgh. There was a folk club there and a girl called Jill Doyle taught me the guitar, who happened to be Davey Graham's sister. Davey Graham is one of my heroes and always has been. Fantastic guitar player. And he's had a strong influence on me all the way through.
PSF: I'd heart that he was one of your influences. I understand that Anne Briggs was another one.
BJ: At the same time and at the same club, there was a lot of traditional singers. True traditional singers. And Anne came through the younger generation--my generation of singers--she was coached by Bert Lloyd, a famous folklorist.
PSF: I understand she's retired now, isn't she?
BJ: She has been for many years, yes.
PSF: Which is strange.
BJ: [There have been] many attempts by various people to coax her back into the singing world, but so far, I think only Martin Carthy has actually succeeded in getting her to play once.
PSF: I remember hearing a story about... she didn't like the sound of her recorded voice.
BJ: I think there's a lot more to it than that. I mean, her recorded voice was fantastic, actually.
PSF: Have you ever recorded a song where everyone said, "Oh, that's genius, Bert, that's great, and then you thought, "Ah, I'm not too happy with this"?
BJ: (laughs) Every single album. To me, each album has its own merits. There's usually about two or three songs on an album that I really love and the rest I tend to forget about.
PSF: What about the current album? Which songs are your favorites?
BJ: I quite like the version of "Katie Cruel." Also "High Days," which is a little song of remorse, I suppose you'd call it.
PSF: When you began playing, were you performing your own songs alongside the traditional material?
BJ: Well, when I first started, I performed my own material and then about the third album in (Jack Orion, 1966), I actually had a lot of... In fact, it was totally traditional British/Irish stuff. I think there's not too many like that. Ever since then, there's always a sort of traditional one thrown in there.
PSF: I wanted to ask you about Jimmy Page's version of "Black Water Side," which he's sort of calling "Black Mountain Side" and credited to himself. What was your reaction when you first heard that? When I heard your version, I thought "Page's version is an exact copy only without the vocals."
BJ: Well, that's what people say, you know? (laughs) It is very similar. Not much I can say about that one.
PSF: You're also one of these folk musicians who, for lack of a better word, there was always sort of a "rock" sensibility.
BJ: (laughs) What does that mean?
PSF: You covered a lot of ground doing your own songs and, say, traditional British folk, but when you were in Pentangle, that band drew from jazz, from spirituals, all these different things. Your material was never purely folk.
BJ: I suppose so. As far as I am concerned, all music is folk music. That's how I see it. It's only people putting names and tags. Rock music... the background of it is blues and blues is American folk music. And most American music draws heavily from early European music. It all goes round in circles. You see what I mean?
PSF: I also wanted to ask you about Pentangle. What was it like, after performing as a solo artist to be performing with these other established musicians?
BJ: Well, we all came from different backgrounds. John (Renbourn) was playing (by) himself, doing clubs with occasionally singing with Jacqui McShee. And myself doing much the same thing. And Danny and Terry had come from the jazz world as they were backing mostly American jazz styles at Ronnie Scott's club- (they were) sort of the resident band. And we met in a club in London and it all happened. The Horseshoe Club.
PSF: Were there any other musicians at that time whom you considered kindred spirits?
BJ: Well, Fairport (Convention) definitely were. They were actually just a little bit... about a year behind us in forming. And they had several different changes in personnel. I mean we were all fairly on the road all at the same time.
PSF: When you were playing with John Renbourn, did you feel like you actually learned something from having another guitarist in the group to play with?
BJ: Well, it's hard to say, really. I mean, there's lots of guitar players around, it wasn't just John... Me and John, we actually first shared a flat together in London with another guy called Les Bridger. We were all separate working musicians. But because we shared a flat, we would play a lot together. And in fact, one album, Bert and John (1966), album came out. That was pre-Pentangle. So we knew each other quite well.
PSF: But, for example, would he ever say to you, "you should check out this style of music" or "you should check out this song"? Would you ever sort of bounce ideas off each other?
BJ: We were doing that sort of thing all the time, whether you were in his band or not or he was in my band. We all frequented the same clubs. I think one of the biggest instigators of other music or from other sources would be Martin Carthy.
PSF: Father of Eliza Carthy.
PSF: Do you keep in touch with the other former members of Pentangle?
BJ: Jacqui. We see each other every now and then. And occasionally we'll do tours together. That's about it, actually.
PSF: I heard this story about Pentangle that was on Jacqui McShee's web site. You were playing at a folk festival and halfway through your set, someone announces, "Oh, guess what? A man landed on the moon!" And there were people in the audience saying, "No, no, we want the music back on!"
BJ: (laughs) Yeah I think that was Newport Festival, at the precise moment a man did land on the moon. And we were beamed across the world on British news programs of what people were actually doing at the time of the man stepping on the moon. It's quite a true story, yes.
PSF: I also remember on her web site that there were stories about you meeting some of your musical heroes at that festival.
BJ: Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thorton, yes. Quite a few stories go around.
PSF: Does it ever overwhelm you when you have different characters from different styles and genres say "this guy's my hero, this guy's one of my influences."
BJ: It's okay, it's fine. I've gotten used to it. At first, I thought it was a bit strange but I've got well used to it now.
PSF: Are there any current musicians whom you're eager to work with? Anyone whom you might admire?
BJ: Well, I admire a lot of people, but I could never imagine actually working with them. It's hard to say. I'd like to do more work with Bernard Butler. I think because the shows we've done live in the last two years have been really great. I really enjoy them and musically it works well. Maybe do any album together.
PSF: What is it you particularly enjoy about working with him?
BJ: Well, it's just the music itself. The music, it's like when you add two different styles of music together you've never quite sure what the outcome's going to be. With Bernard and myself, it really becomes quite a strange mixture which really works.
PSF: What about Beth Orton? Do you think you'd want to record with her again?
BJ: Well, I'm doing a show with her next week, actually. Here in London. We're going to do a few tracks we've done on the album. And (we've got) about another six tracks we've got ready to play. If hopefully that goes well, there'll be a lot more of it.
As with Beth and with Bernard and all these other musicians and everything, they've all got their own careers and their albums and all that. For me, it's quite nice to do just one of two shows with them.
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