BRIDGET ST. JOHN
Photos courtesy of Cristy St. John
Article/Interview by Michael Freerix
In 2016, a pair of Cherry Red re-issues of Bridget St. John's early records (Dandelion Albums & BBC Recordings; Fly High: A Collection Of Album Highlights, Singles And B-Sides, Demos, Live Recordings, Sessions And Interviews) have revived an interest in her music, and her musical career. Being involved in the world around John Peel in the late 60's St. John made many friends and worked with many known and soon-to-be-known musicians who would later rise to fame. But despite releasing an album on Chrysalis Records in the mid -70's her career floundered. After moving to Greenwich Village and the birth of her daughter, she dropped out of the music world for a while. Since 2001, she is back on tour and recording again. She can be heard covering "Fly" on MOJO magazine's Nick Drake compilation album, Green Leaves: Nick Drake Covered (March 2018). With a new record out on Shakrat records in August this year, it is time to have a fresh look at one of the best lady singer-songwriters in the country," as the late John Peel said once.
The late sixties must have been a marvelous time in London. Music and fashion scenes would meet at the same places, inspiring each other. Musicians spiraling around American producer Joe Boyd and British Producer Peter Jenner of Blackhill Enterprises, and playing at the shows both had organized. Blackhill managed bands like Pink Floyd, Marc Bolan, Edgar Broughton Band. Bridget St. John was on their rooster too. Although she did not have a recording contract and only played only live shows, her songwriting and singing had stirred up some attention: As she explains in a recent email interview:
"Before I started performing, when I was a teenager and listening to music on the radio, I was aware that there were less women singers who got airtime. I was also aware that very few of these women sounded like me meaning I always had a deeper voice and I would say that Helen Shapiro and Dusty Springfield were two singers who I could relate to. Listening to Helen Shapiro in a way I felt reassured that it was OK to sound like me, write as I wrote and be myself. It probably wasn't until I started singing professionally that I was more aware that there were fewer women singer-songwriter/performers."
St. Johns got introduced to guitarist John Martyn in the summer of 1967 through Robin Frederick, an American singer-songwriter she had met in Aix-en Provence, where she spend some weeks to improve her French. Together with Frederich, she returned to England. "He (John) was always very protective of me and we remained friends and in touch until he died. We spent time in New York shortly before that and talked about recording together again."
Around this time, it was the poet Pete Roche who brought a demo-tape, made on tape recorder owned by Al Stewart, to the attention of John Peel, who was hosting the BBC 1 program "Night Ride." "The BBC accepted the tape (there was an audition process in those days) and John invited me to come to the show as he listened to my work for the first time."
With "Night Ride," Peel was experimenting with live-radio, as he had done with his previous broadcast "The Perfumed Garden" on the offshore radio station Radio London in 1967. He played classic blues, folk music and psychedelic rock, with an emphasis on the new music emerging from Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also read poetry and invited on musicians, whose music he played and he would chat with them on the air. Bridget St. John was one of his first guests on the show. But even with the support of Peel, she could not find a label. So Peel started Dandelion Label (named after his pet hamster, given to him by Marc Bolan) in cooperation with Clive Selwood from Elektra-Records and released her debut record, Ask Me No Questions, which he also produced. On one of his shows, Peel described her as "the best lady singer-songwriter in the country." As she recounted to Dave Freak in an August 2018 interview, "I had twelve songs I wanted to record; he never questioned my choice but guided me through the sessions. The whole album was recorded in 10 hours two five-hour sessions."
During recording, he had the idea that the title song needed an atmosphere of birds and church bells in the background. He rushed to the BBC sound archive and found the right sounds. After the album was released in August 1969, many people asked Peel where he had recorded these birds, because they were from totally opposite parts of the world. Peel and Selwood then helped her to get gigs. Looking back now, she explains "I did start to play more and more with the release of the records. There was a promotional European tour for the initial releases on the Dandelion label, which was the beginning many more performing opportunities. At that time, there was a thriving college gig circuit that I played extensively. I did many BBC sessions not just for John's Top Gear' programme but also for other BBC DJ's.. There were music papers like Melody Maker and NME, and many more local newspapers that would write reviews of albums and gigs."
Without John Peel, St. John says, "I don't know what my path through music would have been. I describe him as my umbrella he took me on his DJ gigs when I had little live performing experience gave me the opportunity to make records and above all that, with his wife Sheila and their family, there was true friendship."
As she told Chickfactor in a 1999 interview, with Nick Drake, she "used to play at "cousins," which was a little club. Paul Simon used to play there when he first came to England. John Martyn played there all the time. There was a Greek restaurant upstairs and it was owned by Andy the Greek Nick and I played there a lot. We were very much alike we tended, if somebody's talking, to be kind of quiet. I didn't need to say much with him."
Her second record Songs for the Gentle Man was released in 1971, produced by Ron Geesin, who had worked with Roger Waters from Pink Floyd and was also managed by Blackhill Enterprises. As she explains now "I am friends with Ron and Frankie Geesin to this day Ron has always been supportive and encouraging and positively critical."
Kevin Ayers was also a close friend of hers. She had met him in 1969 at a CND Benefit at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London in 1969, and with whom she sang "The Oyster and the Flying Fish" on Ayer's second record Shooting at the Moon (1970), and sang background on others. But basically she was following her own path, as she recently recalls. "When Dandelion was created, John always said he believed in letting the artist do what they wanted. Dandelion definitely gave me time to grow and room to explore. I had a lot of help from other musicians those who played on my albums and those I would listen to and learn from."
As she recounted to Dave Freak, "after Kevin moved to France we were not much in touch but I cherish the work we did together both on my songs and on his records. I now have a deep friendship with his daughter Galen." As it turns out, Galen got in touch with her because she wanted to have some memorabilia from her father."
John Peel and Clive Selwood where helping her to get gigs in the beginning, in spaces that were called "quiet rooms." As she recounted via email, "once I was with Blackhill Enterprises, they managed my bookings but I managed the logistics involved in getting to and from gigs etc.. I did not learn to drive until I was 24 so took trains everywhere, which often meant getting the last train home from some distant place."
The Dandelion label folded in 1972 due to its artist's lack of commercial success after Bridget St. John released her third album Thank You For . In 1974, she signed a one record contract with Chrysalis Records. After Jumblequeen was released the year, she remembers "(it) did not do as well as they hoped and so there was no second record with them." But she always could be heard on records of others, like Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn (1975) and Amarok (1990), as well as much later reuniting with Kevin Ayers on The Unfairground (2007), singing "Baby Come Home."
St. John moved to Greenwich Village in 1976. "I had never been there before and knew very few people. I slowly got to know people and Chrysalis Music, my publishing company at that time, allowed me to make song demos through which I met up with some New York musicians. I did my first gig opening for John Martyn at Kenny's Castaways and that was the beginning of a long relationship with that club playing there and working there. I also played the Bitter End and the Bottom Line as well as some East Coast college gigs. And in 1978, I played Carnegie Hall and was on the bill at one of the Central Park concerts at The Wollman Rink."
Things changed for her as a new decade dawned though. "Getting towards 1980, it was clear that the music business was changing and singer-songwriters were less in vogue and there were fewer opportunities to play. When my daughter was born in 1983, I did play a little but quickly knew that I needed to focus on her. So for several years I stepped back. I still worked in the nightclubs Kenny's Castaways, The Bitter End and The Cat Club behind the scenes." She also played sporadically in New York. In 1995, the small UK-based label The Road Goes On Forever, run by broadcaster John Tobler, released Take the 5th, a collection of unreleased songs from 1975 to 1982.
Over the 40 years she has lived in New York she took on other work though she never gave up on her music. "There were definitely times when I wished I was onstage but I didn't have a clear path to doing that at the time. By the 90's, I decided to do other work and basically took on helping people, mostly elders in the sense of organizing things that had become challenging for them. All the while I never felt I had stopped making music or being involved with it my focus was necessarily elsewhere."
Then as the new millennium dawned, St. John was back on the road thanks to an invitation from Asia in 2001. "I was invited to play in Japan, and since that tour I have steadily toured more and more 4 times in Japan, and several tours mostly in the UK with Michael Chapman, plus some solo tours, and gigs in New York and in Europe."
The touring also led to a new album coming out now. "In 2017, I played a gig at The Betsey Trotwood in London which was recorded and which has become the LP Live at the Betsey Trotwood, co-released by Shagrat Records (UK) and Feeding Tube (US) in August of this year."
The live album might also be a lead-in to a release of new material too. "Hopefully, this will be the beginning of more I do want to do another studio album I just have to figure out the details of how!"
Also see Bridget St. John's website
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