Interview: Roy Harper

45 years in the industry, 20 classic albums featuring the likes of Paul McCartney on backing vocals, a good friend of Pink Floyd, inspiration for Led Zeppelin and countless new musicians today, Roy Harper has just turned 70, and to celebrate, is finally releasing his music digitally worldwide. Prior to this, you could only buy his music from his store, in his preferred CD format.
“You get to put on a sleeve what the record’s about. You get to write sleeve notes and add (credit to) the  musicians. You get to put it in a format that you can enjoy holding – a whole package. Songs 1-12, and songs 1-13.” says Roy, on his preference of CDs.
Over the next year, Roy will release four albums every three months until 19 studio albums and a live album are all available on the largest digital retailers globally, from Amazon to iTunes, and beyond.

We spoke to Roy about his upcoming venture…
Was it a difficult decision to release your work digitally?

It was, and I thought I was doing the right thing, you know. But actually its very tough. Its been taken apart and dumped. It gives potential for a new audience to hear, but not necessarily how I want to be heard. People are going to buy single songs, or you’re going to listen to a sample and say ‘No, no, no.’
Do you think 30 seconds is a good enough representation with iTunes previews?

I think you should have one chance to listen through – if you like it, buy it and if not, you don’t have access to it any more. Instead of it being two albums which I slaved at – two albums with dynamic range – instead of that its a collection of songs. Instead of being 1-12 and 1-13, in two dynamic themes, there’s no thought about it being albums at all. Its 1-25. You listen to songs out of context.
That’s not to say Roy is anti-Apple by any means. A confessed user of the iPhone, he sees the benefits of digital retailers, despite his disdain for his music being seen as individual songs and not a collective piece, and welcomes the upcoming release.
On the harder times, and why he moved to Ireland, Roy remarks…
The taxman was chasing me in the 80s. He thought I was as rich as I was in the 70s, and they don’t take no for an answer… At the time, I’d fallen out of civilisation, you know. The punk thing had taken over completely and we (singer songwriters) were all virtually unemployed and unemployable. Nothing was being earned, you were just on the scrapheap. The record companies used to take most of the cash anyway – I ended up at the finish with EMI, owing them £82,000, which was a fortune in those days… 1980, and unfortunate.
Is that why you created your own label?

That was the start of it. I had to fight for ten years to get them (his records) back, because they thought that they were useless. All of my records were useless because most of the scene wasn’t really alive anymore. Nobody had a view of them because the executives changed seemingly on a whim. A load of young execs came in every three years, so the turnover was high, and nobody knew you. Everybody thought “Oh no!”, even though you were thirty odd, everybody thought you were over. Gone. It doesn’t change. Unless you’ve cracked through and gone triple platinum, you’re in trouble, basically. As soon as the fashion changed, you’re in trouble.
And the better times – We briefly discuss Roy’s presence on YouTube, which hosts hundreds of videos uploaded by fans, and turn to whether or not the show that he is playing in November will be filmed, what his audience is expected to be and if he will have any guests joining him.
There are some that I’m kind of keeping under my hat at the moment, because you know. It sold out in six days. We were really surprised. We thought ‘Put it on sale in June, see how it does, and it’ll be gone slowly by November’, and i t was gone in six days. I was very encouraged. It was like the 70s again.

Do you expect to see familiar faces – your original audience – or a mixture?

Oh no, the constituancy’s are now 2-80. You get the odd 2 year old there and you get a few 80 year olds. Mainly, you will see the young Americans being influenced by me now, and there are quite a few like Will Oldham, Jonathan Wilson, Joanna Newson and Fleet Foxes, who pay tribute. And its very heartening, because you’re reminded that its not a complete waste of time and that you do have longevity if you have the right kind of material. The right kind of songs. And a good song is always going to be a good song.
I’m really grateful to the young Americans and some young Brits for bringing it back. For giving me a currency, of course which I always think I have. You know the younger generation doesn’t necessarily but now that this has all happened, I really do.

With the growth of folk music and singer songwriters in the last five years, the Laura Marlings and Avett Brothers making it popular to do what you do.

Yes. I wouldn’t call myself folk music – I never did. I mean, I knew the meaning of folk back in the day. The point of all this though, is the Festival Hall filled up in minutes. So the audience is going to be mainly 30s, 40s and 50s. The ones who listened to me when growing up and the ones going to see Fleet Foxes. Its that mix.

And will you film, perhaps release a DVD of the show?

 I am thinking of filming the show now. It all costs.
What does music mean to Roy?

What it used to be – you’d hear it on the radio or you’d hear it on the jukebox or something. You’d think “this guy is good”, and it’d drift for a while and you’d think “I’d love to get this record actually”, and you’d buy it. And you’d own it. It’d be 12 inches by 12 inches, taken home and loved.
But that wasn’t the first thing that happened. When I was very young, we suddenly discovered because of Lonnie Donegan, because of Skiffle, all of us suddenly discovered that those songs were Blues songs. That’s why Blues took over in the late 50s and early 60s. A whole generation of people here discovered it. I was 12-14, the most impressionable age, and it hit me like a sledge hammer. It was music that was saying something. It was left field. It was completely unknown to us that there were people who were singing like this. Because what you had, at best, was Frank Sinatra. Now Frank’s good, and he was great in his day. But actually, that’s just the surface of what’s going on. Underneath there was a whole litany of torture and indulgance that you could access.
They started because of the demand, importing the records from the USA, and it was a different language. Everyone got into it. All of my contemporaries. Picking up a guitar – how do you do that? Some became very good at it.

Do you remember the first thing you learned how to play guitar to?

It was something Spanish. Something Flamenco. But as soon as that came, it was songs you could really sing. Really simple. The first two of Donegan’s hits – John Henry’s Got His Hammer (a rail road song, really. Breaking rocks.) and the Midnight Specials. It bowls along, and you strum. It was easy to do. And those were the first of that genre that I played. I’ve often wondered what the first thing my contemporaries played. It was a different age, and you owned your music, and you treasured it. You only had the one thing. And you built up your collection and when you were in your mid-twenties you had perhaps a hundred records. If you were a collector. Music you would want to listen to that you would treasure. They would remind you of moments. They were portals of reminiscence. All those first memories.
People like John Peel and Bob Harris would now have thousands legitimately. Nowadays, you can download thirty thousand years of music in a week. You can download a song from a film’s soundtrack to your phone. Its now past the stage where anybody should be doing that.
The moment you make music free, nobody gets paid for the music they’re making and the industry dies. That’s it in a nutshell. You have to pay for it in some way or another. If you don’t, that’s one of your hobbies cut out. You’ll be able to get local music from local people but you won’t be able to get the original voices coming through. Breaking through on a National and International level. Its very important that piracy stops, and I think the young are beginning to recognise that. Its on the cusp of realising that you can’t get anything out without putting something in.
Do you think the increase in accessible technology’s made it easier for new musicians to break into the industry?

I think it has, but music is so profuse now, its sort of everywhere. Reaching saturation point. Its long been reached. You were saying to somebody here’s my cassette, which for someone would be a treasured item. But with the proliferation of thousands and millions and billions of tracks, you’re now just putting a drop into the ocean.

So how do you think new artists are going to be able to stand out?

The only way to do it, is to do it live. If you can prove to people that what you’ve got on tape doesn’t matter that much, its just a souvenir of what you are, but as a live entity you’re really dynamic and you get there and do it, I think that’s what people are looking for again. Because who is good and who isn’t among the manufactured stuff? That’s a leading question because people can hide behind technology and have done since the 80s. But you can’t hide live. You can have a drum kit without having a drummer, drums that are brilliant through the PA without a drummer in sight. At one time it used to be a one man band with a bass drum on his back. I don’t think young musicians like that any more.
Jonathan Wilson – I was absolutely amazed at how good he was – how good a guitarist he was. That’s got to count.
We talk about the use of Loop Pedals in performances, from people like Ed Sheeran and David Ford, and how it enables them to make use of their guitars in certain ways to provide a backing band when doing a one man show, without using pre-recorded music.

It’s an old technique. We used to use an echo-plate. A repeat echo to give you the entire band really. The rhythm you could lie inside, a bit of lead and I guess I was doing that in the late 60s. Playing the entire band is one step removed from that. I can’t imagine I’d ever be a keyboard player but I’d have had a go at drums, and bass is easy because its the same as guitar.
When asked about the infrequent shows, Roy confesses he prefers writing music to playing live shows.
 Do you still find playing live shows enjoyable?

I do, but its very hard to write, which is what I want to do. I see the value in writing. I see the longevity. That’s what I really want to do, but rehearsal interupts it, so that if you’re gigging, six nights of the year’s wasted in which you can’t write. I can’t write on the road any more. I used to be able to do it but its not really… I’ve got different energies now. I’m not lacking any, I just have different ones. As you get older you lose short memory but your character remains. You broaden and join more neurons throughout your brain. It may be more disperate but its in a lot more different places. Recall can be torturous but you find as you’re older there’s a lot more to use. Perhaps that’s what wisdom is part of. A victim of growing older. You gain a whole lot just by keeping yourself busy, keeping connections going. That’s what I do with my life. Its very different for rehearsal and gigging, than for writing. I’m trying my best to get the next record together. I’ve got six or seven different things but they’re scattered. Nothing really in the same place, just snatched moments.
Something can be happening in the studio, the living room, the kitchen…
Is inspiration still coming from the same sort of places?

Yes, absolutely. And it’ll never end. But there’s another component that’s a real mess and that’s the business. We’ve had to become our own business. If you could’ve told me that I was ever going to become a business man at all, I wouldn’t have believed you. Its just totally unbeievable. But you have to be. And you have to think about who you’ll get to do certain things – are the current manufacturers of the sleeves, the discs, publishers – is this job right for this person to do. All of this means we get to write less than we’d like to. At the end of a working day, an office day, there isn’t much time to do this.
And this is a benefit, perhaps of digital release. We’ll run low on physical CDs after a performance or media focus, and they can still get the music online. One less thing to worry about.
Does inspiration keep you from sleep?

Roy: I’m better at stopping it now, than I used to be. Its very disruptive and I’m distracted by that process – the business, the writing and such. Of all the other things you have to think about, writing comes last because the others are imperative. I don’t like the imperative nature of business.
You didn’t get into music for the business, did you? But to express yourself.

It presents an emotional door. To deliver. I got into writing songs because of what music was giving to me. I don’t want to turn into an accountant. Its not where you think the music’ll go.
The first four albums to be released will be Stormcock, Flat Baroque and Beserk, Bullinamingvase and Sophisticated Beggar on October 3rd, following the June 6th release of Songs of Love Volume 1 and 2.

Jon Barker
midtea.com