Two years into his 6th decade as a recording artist, Ralph McTell, 74, Kent born, Croydon raised, much travelled, unassuming, English musical legend, continues on a course that has always served him well.
In the time honoured fashion of an artist who has always defined his own artistic terms, new album Hill Of Beans is a work of grace; experience and learning, natural poise, deep substance, the core of its harmonic and melodic riches contained in voice, songs and six stringed guitar glory.
The album reunites McTell with producer Tony Visconti, who was there right at the start of McTell’s recording career, providing arrangements on the Gus Dudgeon produced debut Eight Frames A Second (1968). Visconti returned to produce McTell’s landmark 5th album Not Till Tomorrow (1972) and the pair worked together on records with Tam Paxton and Mary Hopkins. Those formative lessons had helped set the scene for their diverse respective careers. The latter day reconnection came when Visconti sent Ralph an email, after a chance meeting on London’s Marylebone Road earlier this decade.
“It was just lovely to see hi,” reflects McTell. “One day I’m at home and
the email arrived. It was such a great email to get. It said, “Dear Ralph, I’m working with that old reprobate, you remember him?” Visconti was referring to David Bowie – a figure who looms as large in the producer’s career, as the song ‘Streets Of London’ does in McTell’s. “He said, “I just found a copy of our album in a second hand shop and I’m listening to us in glorious low-fi on the train into New York.” I thought, how sweet because I always thought that ‘Not Till Tomorrow’ was probably the album I had wanted to make in the first instance – not the kind of slightly syrupy version of the first album.”
That first album was nonetheless successful enough to call for a follow up, Spiral Staircase (1969), where ‘Streets of London’ first appeared. Timelessly relevant, delicately balanced between melodic beauty and cold hard truth, ‘Streets Of London’, covered at last count 212 times, became an anomalous hit single.
With Hill Of Beans, Visconti’s production has allowed McTell to find the measure of songs gathered from the past 10 years but including one written in 1978, another in 1988. “All the time if I’ve not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I’ve got bits of ideas jotted down on computers here and there. I’m self-motivated. And that sometimes means there’s a five or six year gap between albums because I’m not happy with what I’ve got,” he explains. Nothing was originally written for or with Visconti in mind, but the effect of working with an old acquaintance proved sustaining and affirming.
“Tony is a wonderful producer, he treats all his artists with the same consideration, courtesy and respect. In some cases he has to nurse you, other times he has to be firm with you, he may push an idea in a direction you’re not sure about, but he’s got this lovely mixture of authority, pure class, fantastic track record and an empathy with all the people he works with,” says Ralph, sounding like a well satisfied man.
Family plays a big part in McTell’s musical makeup, deeply embedded in potent and poignant Hill Of Beans’ offerings ‘The Shed’, mediating on his uncle’s sanctuary of maleness and Brighton Belle, driven by the real life experience of both his grandfather and war veteran Father (who left the family home in childhood).
It has been an eventful life and career – a hitch hiking ride to the coast with Rod, then known as Mod Stewart, a slot on the Isle of Wight Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, a crap game with Tom Waits in LA, an Ivor Novello and numerous Folk Awards. A singular figure, McTell continued to play Belfast while most avoided the city during the troubles, became a successful radio presenter, had an easy and lucrative day’s work composing a lager advert, followed in the footsteps of key early influence Woody Guthrie when he originated two sets of children songs for TV.
En route he maintained often collaborative friendships with ontemporaries such as Fairport Convention, the spur for Hill Of Beans tune ‘Clear Water’, and the late Bert Jansch and produced a now extensive extended family with wife of over 50 years, Nanna Stein.
Forthcoming tour dates as follows…
September 8th 2019 – Ludenscheid, Kultur Haus
September 26th 2019 – Kendall, Brewery Arts Centre
September 27th 2019 – Newark, Palace Theatre
September 28th 2019 – Bromsgrove, The Artrix
September 29th 2019 – Tring, Court Theatre
September 30th 2019 – Runcorn, The Brindley
October 4th 2019 – Ennis, The Glor
October 5th 2019 – Dublin, The Helix
October 6th 2019 – Cork, The Everyman
October 10th 2019 – Berwick, The Maltings
October 11th 2019 – Musselburgh, The Brunton Theatre
October 12th 2019 – Stockton, The Arc
October 13th 2019 – Pocklington, Pocklington Arts Centre
October 14th 2019 – Leeds, City of Varieties
October 17th 2019 – Milton Keynes, The Stables
October 18th 2019 – Southwold, Southwold Arts Centre
October 19th 2019 – Holt, Auden Theatre
October 20th 2019 – Stamford, Stamford Corn Exchange
December 13th 2019 – London, Royal Festival Hall