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It's a Newbury thing

Blowzabella’s Paul James prepares to launch his new band here in his hometown

Picture: Jez Prout
Picture: Jez Prout

LOCAL musician Paul James is best known as a member of the legendary folk band Blowzabella, who celebrated 40 years in 2018 with gigs all over the UK and Europe. Taking a break from Blowzabella duties, he’s bringing his new band – Paul James and the Drowned Lovers – to ACE Space in Newbury for their first-ever gig on Saturday, March 23 (8pm). “Being a local boy it was important to me to do my first gig with the new band in front of people I know, in the town where I’m from – although that is always way more terrifying than playing in front of strangers.”

As well as touring all over the world playing folk music in Blowzabella for four decades, his solo projects have
all used rock, jazz and world music influences as well as folk. “It’s important that the music you make has roots in your own culture. I absolutely love pop and rock music and as a teenager in Newbury I heard jazz, Early Music and English folk singers such as Shirley Collins. “I was lucky enough to have lunch with Shirley the other week. She’s in her 80s now, but is as funny and entertaining as ever. She had a huge influence on me as an impressionable teenager, which made me realise that there is folk musiceverywhere on the planet, including in the southern counties of England. Delving into that for inspiration is a good way to find original ideas and connect with the history of the place you come from – wherever that may be.”

In 2016, Paul got a call out of the blue asking him to compose the music for a production of Comus – A Masque In Honour Of Chastity by John Milton at the Globe Theatre, London. At the time he’d also started on his solo album The Drowned Lover And Other Dark Tales. “Both projects draw on my love of history and bizarre stories. Working at the Globe with theatre director Lucy Bailey and writer Patrick Barlow was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience and it meant that I had to compose and arrange music that was true both to the production and the style of early 17th-century music.

“At the same time I was working on my album with only myself to answer to, so I was free to experiment without any boundaries or expectations. I don’t think it’s possible to make music with the aim of pleasing others. All you can do is to try and please yourself. If anyone else likes it it’s a bonus. Getting great reviews in the national media for Comus was way beyond what I expected and it gave me the confidence to push on and try something different with the album.”

Is it easier making an album on your own rather than as a member of an established band? “It’s daunting. You start with silence and fill it with ideas until you have something you think works. There’s nowhere to hide so you have to come out of your comfort zone. The theme of the album is quite dark. There’s death and disappointment, anxiety and things that go bump in the night ... and some happy things too. You enjoy the good things in life more if you understand the down side.
“There’s bagpipes, loops and samples, soundscapes made by manipulating home-made acoustic sounds into new digital sounds, a band playing with the amps turned up to 11, hurdy-gurdies, real string and horn sections, Balkan drums, toy pianos, a schawm, a reed instrument from Catalonia called a Gralla and a tin whistle. I’ve always been fascinated by drones and there’s a lot of them too.”

It isn’t all inspired by folk music though is it? “Apart from contemporary interpretations of traditional English songs with strong stories that are as relevant now as then, there is one cover on the album – the late Desmond Simmons’ song Big Corn. It’s about selling out and disappointment. Des was an old friend from Newbury and an incredible songwriter. He died suddenly in 2013. Big Corn says a lot about growing up around here. So, all the songs on the album tell stories, but I wanted the instrumentals to be about something too. “Wakeful is about insomnia and the long wait for the dawn – something I know a lot about. Once There Was a Lone Wolf is inspired by the idea of emerging from the wilderness to be confronted by a modern technological city for the first time; Falco e colomba is about the historic landscape and the view from Combe Gibbet near where I live and Dulcinea de la Mancha is about remembering a train journey across the hot, arid plateau in central Spain.
A lot of the album is me playing all kinds of instruments and singing, but I also got in touch with people I’ve known at
different points in my musical life, in England, Europe and Australia, and asked them to collaborate.”

What sort of sound are you trying to make with the new band and how do you find new people to play with?
“I wanted to bring some of the variety and sonic complexity of the album into the band so it was about finding
musicians who would enjoy that challenge. They build on that sound-world, drawing on folklore, world music, indie rock, funk and jazz and they know how to veer from quiet acoustic textures to full-blooded rock and electronica.”

The band includes bassist Joanne Wadeson (who has played with the Waterboys, Beth Orton, Grace Jones and Thea Gilmore) as well as some of Paul’s regular collaborators including guitar virtuoso Victor Nichols (Evening Star, Scarp), keyboard player Chris Moore (who used to play regularly with Desmond Simmons), violinist Fiona Barrow (who worked with Paul at the Globe Theatre) and Bristol drummer and filmmaker Emma Holbrook. “I’d worked with everyone in the band before, except bassist Jo Wadeson. I’d heard of her and one day I was nervously hovering over my laptop keyboard
plucking up the courage to contact her when a message from her popped up on my screen saying she’d heard I was trying to contact her. Spooky!”

So what will you be doing at ACE Space gig? “I love ACE Space, particularly as it’s run entirely by volunteers who are passionate about it. At the gig we’ll play everything on the album and a few surprising cover versions about life, death, joy and disappointment.
“Apart from two classic songs by the late great Des Simmons, there may be a nod to Neil Young and The Smiths too. Local duo Maia Hendrickx and Calum Roy agreed to do the support slot, which I’m really pleased about. Calum and I go back a long way.

“It’s a Newbury thing...”

Tickets, £12 or £10 early bird, (includes a free copy of the album which you can pick up on the night) from:

• Hogan Music (cash only)
• WeGotTickets.com2
• 078911 76940
• events@acespace.org.uk

Listen to the album free on: www.pauljames.eu/new-album

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