Interview: Christopher Rees

A delayed train meant I had a moment to use the ‘library’ on the platform provided by WH Smiths, and a rapid peruse of Uncut Magazine, in which I stumbled across a review of ‘The Nashville Songs’, cool title, by Christopher Rees, cool hat in the picture on the sleeve.  A brief exchange of emails later and his collection of songs co-written in Nashville landed in Yorkshire, almost as quickly as my train did.  It’s wonderfully sung, sharply recorded and must be one of the best British Americana records this year – it’s Cymrucana at its best.

Wales and country music, how does that happen, how come music of twang speaks to you?
The same way that any form of music or art speaks to anyone. In don’t think that geographical location necessarily dictates or influences what kind of music people connect with as much in modern society as it might have done previously. A 100 years ago it might have been more difficult to hear or experience music from different origins so people would have been more inclined to learn and perform the music that they heard within their own communities, but with all the advances in modern travel and technology we now all have the access to explore music from all over the world. But saying that, I can also pin point my first encounters with American music. I can vividly remember as a child being laid up on the sofa on a sick day from primary school when they used to run Elvis films on daytime television. I remember seeing ‘King Creole’ and being absolutely fascinated by Elvis and his voice. I also used to love the ‘Cowboy Films’ which would sometimes feature the ‘Singing Cowboys’ Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers. So, I guess you could say that the seed was sewn back then.

4 years between records is a while, how come?
A lot of major events happened in my life after ‘Stand Fast’ came out in 2013. My father died, I moved out of Cardiff after 22 years, up into the mountains of the Rhondda Valley, I got married, a key band member (the drummer) moved to Denmark, another retired from performing with the band. I just took my foot off the pedal in terms of pushing forwards with live touring and gigging and just wanted to focus on recording the new album. The problem was that I never really set a deadline to complete the album so I spent a lot of time experimenting with different arrangements for the songs (some needed more work than others) to get them to a place that I was comfortable and confident with the way they sounded.

How long have you had the songs?
The songs were all written between 2010 – 2013 during annual visits to Nashville. When I started the first writing sessions with Rick Brantley and Mando Saenz in 2010 I had no real expectations or plan to release the songs, but after returning the next year and the ones that followed I began to put the songs to one side (whilst I worked on other albums) but soon realised that they might form a good album. The songs were all written very quickly and I just had very raw reference recordings from the sessions. I slowly began to make my own demo versions in my home studio and eventually developed and produced them to the final versions on the album.

You’re a prolific writer?
I can be in the right environment. It ebbs and flows. I can go long periods without writing and then churn out several in a week if I can avoid distractions. I’m distracted very easily. For me it’s all about maintaining focus in the process and dedicating time and space to write. The more you do it the easier it becomes. Song writing can be like any exercise. It demands a certain discipline to be creative. I need to encourage and nurture ideas until they form something of purpose and value.

So, what’s the concept of the album? Inspired by Nashville, or a chance just to work with some great people?
There was no concept as such. I had never attempted co-writing with anyone before that point in time and had always written alone, but when the opportunity presented itself I thought, “Why not?” I had been to Nashville on a musical pilgrimage a few years before and was very aware of the musical history and the amount of very talented song writers and musicians the place had to offer.

How did it come about?
I was originally encouraged to visit Nashville by my former North American manager who helped to arrange a couple of writing sessions via Carnival Music Publishing. He had developed some contacts via another band he was working with called ‘Roman Candle’ who were signed to Carnival. So, after I had been to Austin, Texas for SXSW in 2010 where I had showcased and recorded with The South Austin Horns for the ‘Heart On Fire’ album (which came out in 2011), I visited Nashville to write and play a couple of solo gigs. I played at ‘The Basement’ where I met some great people including Shelly Colvin, Bryn Davies (bass player for Jack White, Justin Townes Earle) Kurt from The Deadstring Brothers – who I had toured with back in the UK – and even JD Souther (The Eagles) was there. It was clear that there was an amazing community of musicians and songwriters in Nashville and that co-writing was just something that everyone did there.

Who did you get to write with?
The first writing session was with Rick Brantley. I felt that we clicked immediately and we wrote ‘The Unfamiliar Road’ together in that first session, inspired by the idea of embracing opportunities when they come your way – like me being invited to go to Nashville. Then I wrote with Mando Saenz. He was a much more reserved character but somehow the songs always came very easily with Mando. I came in with the idea for ‘A Place Upon My Face’ inspired by the notion that the lines on your face reflect the life that you live. I had been on tour with Billy Joe Shaver not long before that and I remember looking at the poster of his face on the door in Edinburgh before the first gig and thinking, this guy looks like he’s really lived an interesting life – to say the least. Mando and I knocked lines back and forth and the song was written in less than 30 minutes. It just felt remarkably comfortable and productive so I thought that if I get the opportunity to return to Nashville again I should pursue this. The next year I returned for a few days after I had been to SXSW and wrote a couple more with Rick and Mando as well as one by myself. And again in 2012 and 2013 when I also worked with some different people like Vida Wakeman, Sandy Cherryholmes and Amy Speace.

Amy Speace is a friend and one of my favourite artists – what was that like?
I met Amy in Austin during SXSW 2013 when we were both showcasing at the same venue. We talked later that night and I mentioned that I would be in Nashville the next week to write with a few people so we arranged some time to write together too. Amy has a very different way of writing compared to the other people I wrote with. She is a very meticulous writer who pays great attention to the weight and meaning of every word. The initial idea for ‘Birds of Truth’ came from my own personal superstitions with Magpies and evolved into something about the various symbolisms of different birds that visit the story of a character with a heavy conscience. We worked on the song one afternoon but it was the only lyric from the album that was really amended, tweaked and refined afterwards via email correspondence.

Yet it’s recorded in Wales, not Nashville?
I had originally hoped to return to Nashville to record the songs with a select cast of Nashville musicians. Rick Brantley was going to co-produce it with me and we had all the musicians and the studio lined up and ready to go. Unfortunately, the funding I had hoped to secure did not materialise and the budget we needed to make it happen was far beyond my personal means. So, I had to rethink and retreat into my own studio and begin working on the songs myself.

You played pretty much everything as well?
Well, when I first started working on the songs, drummer Dan Tilbury was living in Denmark so, I had to start putting ideas down for everything including drums without him. I pretty much recorded the album in demo form at first playing everything including drums, bass, guitars, piano, harmonica, mandolin, violin etc, and then started refining and re-recording the songs once Dan returned to the UK. I also had a little help from Aaron Goldstein on pedal steel guitar. I had met Aaron when I opened for Daniel Romano in Cardiff and invited him to contribute to three songs. He’s an amazing musician and I felt that I really needed that sound on those songs. John Lewis also added his incredible rockabilly guitar picking to the song ‘Dance with Desire’. Otherwise it felt like I just wanted to explore and expand my own musical vocabulary and push myself a little. That might partly explain why the album took so long to finish.

I wanted to ask you about track 5, ‘Something about Nashville’, is it really that/do you feel that lonely?
That song was written after a night of crawling around the bars on lower Broadway. I had visited Nashville a few years earlier for the first time with my girlfriend (now wife) and explored all the same places. But this time I was there alone and although the bars like Robert’s Western World and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn were the same and in some cases even had the same bands performing, it all felt very different. Like I was more of a detached observer than a punter. I had a little bit too much time to myself and was feeling a little homesick and in every bar that I walked into someone was singing their heartbroken country blues. It may be a cliché but it was true. It’s the one consistent thing that runs through country music. Even when a song is upbeat you’ll get that lovesick sadness running through it. Sometimes a happy sadness. Just listen to Hank Williams. So, during my walk back to my accommodation I just began singing the first few lines into a hand-held recorder. I got curb crawled by the Nashville Police for a while. I think they may have wondered what I was doing, firstly walking the pavement/sidewalk across the freeway back towards the West End (which not too many people do – everybody drives or gets taxi’s) and secondly checking that I was walking in a straight line and not drunk – I wasn’t. By the time I reached my destination I had pretty much written the song. And that cheered me up tremendously. The next morning, I wrote ‘Dance with Desire’ with Rick Brantley which is probably the most upbeat song on the album.

What did you listen to as a kid? 
As a child, I suppose the first music that I got excited about was Elvis Presley via the films that were shown on TV. I also remember loving The Monkees TV Shows. I remember my brother and I were given an Elvis songbook one year for Christmas and we’d go through it and just make up our own melodies to the lyrics if we didn’t know the songs. I also remember my grandparents having an old PYE record player and we’d listen to Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran. We’d also copy the Elvis dance moves and wear out the carpet in the front room. Later on, I remember my Dad would always have a Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton tape in the car stereo but I wouldn’t say that my parents were really big music lovers. I think my passion for music really developed in my mid to late teens when my older brother and his friends started to buy records and we’d lend things to each other and make tape copies.

The alternative ‘indie’ scene at the time was all about The Smiths, The Cure, REM, The The, The Pixies and one of my brother’s friends was particularly passionate about music.  Some other friends also started exploring blues artists like Muddy Waters, BB King and Chuck Berry.  But I remember one friend lending me an Otis Redding ‘Best Of’ collection on tape and I fell in love with it. Me and my brother also adored Tom Jones. So, I guess I’ve always favoured big passionate voices. I was also a big fan of Neil Young and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale who had a very profound effect on me.

That had an influence?
Absolutely, but the one band that I really adopted for myself without anybody else’s influence during my late teens was Throwing Muses. I remember seeing a video for ‘Counting Backwards’ on Snub TV around 1991 and then went to see them play live in Liverpool Poly. They blew my mind. Kristin Hersh’s solo album Hips & Makers was particularly influential at the time and her album of Appalachian murder ballads ‘Murder, Misery and then Goodnight’ opened a door from the alternative rock music world into a world of American folk and country music that I was very drawn to. I also immediately connected with bands like 16 Horsepower who incorporated traditional folk songs and roots with an alternative rock edge. Once again it was the passionate voice of singer David Eugene Edwards that I connected with. They were the band that inspired me to pick up the banjo. From there I began to dig further back and became obsessed with the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, as well as the legends of ‘Outlaw Country’ like Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt.

It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned sounding record, I presume that’s deliberate?
The choice of instrumentation was deliberate in so much as, if the song felt like it needed or would benefit from a pedal steel part or a piano part I did my best to make it happen. I just wanted to serve the songs as best I could and not shoe horn something into the mix just for the sake of it. I tried to record and capture the best sound that I could without any major compression or post production and I wanted the songs to stand up by themselves whether it was just an acoustic guitar and voice or with a full arrangement. In some cases, I recorded several versions of the songs in different arrangements but would often strip things back to an arrangement that felt more natural if I had to perform it live in a solo capacity. In some cases, I did have to spend some time trying to make the songs my own, put my stamp on them and make them comfortable for me to perform solo. The songs could have been produced in many ways and I’m sure that if I had recorded it in Nashville it would have sounded very different, but I could only really follow my own instincts and produce them in the way that I felt was right for me.

So, this is album 7, how do you look back at album 1?
My first album ‘The Sweetest Ache’ which came out back in 2004 was probably the most demanding, intense and sonically ambitious album I’ve made. It’s a very different sounding album compared to anything that I’ve done since. I had a 7-piece band around me then including cello, violin, double bass, piano, electric guitar and drums. I’ve probably done everything a little bit backwards really. It was a difficult album and took a long time to finish, which was why I then went away to a 200-year-old cottage in the mountains outside Aberystwyth and recorded the stripped back and raw second album ‘Alone On A Mountain Top’ on my own in 7 days. That’s the album that really allowed me to enter the world of Americana and gave me the confidence to venture further down that road.

Can we expect another 4-year hiatus between records?
I really hope not. I have always got a huge backlog of unreleased material. So, it will just be a case of deciding what direction I want to go in next. I often get asked after solo gigs for the album that best represents what people have just seen live. So perhaps I should release a really stripped back, truly solo album with just guitar and voice. But I don’t really know where my instincts will take me. I might just start working on three and see which one gets finished first.

I love a bit of male millinery, who is the hat maker on the sleeve?
It’s a vintage ‘Westchester – Imperial’. It’s a lovely old American hat from the late 1950’s or early 60’s I think. It was in a bit of a state when I found it, but the power of stream can do amazing things to help reshape and restore battered old hats. I have a passion for vintage hats, shoes, coats and clothes in general which I usually find hunting through charity shops or car boot sales. It’s become a pretty obsessive hobby over the past 10-15 years. You just never know what you’ll find.

Author: Rudie Hayes

Rudie is the weekly host of the syndicated radio show – The Horseshoe Lounge Music Session – playing the best American Roots and hosting terrific live guests.

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