Interview: Ian Prowse on Attitunes and the holy River Mersey

The Scouse Springsteen and Strummer explains his musical convictions and inspirations.

Ian Prowse is that rare commodity, a conviction musician, following in the footsteps of his first musical heroes Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello and Paul Weller. To this mix he has added his love of his home city Liverpool and its inherent Celtic influences, and it has been a constant inspiration to the singer-songwriter who formed his first band Pele in 1989 followed by Amsterdam in 1999. People who have heard his music tend to become fans, but if the name is new to you the fact that Elvis Costello and Christy Moore count themselves as fans of his music should be enough to prompt a listen to his songs. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with Ian Prowse over Zoom to discuss the re-release of the debut Amsterdam album after twenty years, how lockdown helped re-energise his musical career and he provides a deep insight into his approach to songwriting.  A key part of being a good songwriter is the ability to tell a good story, and Ian Prowse demonstrates his storytelling ability in this interview. To get full value, readers should try and imagine Ian’s Scouse accent and lilt with its Irish heritage to try and get a fuller experience. Finally, just so there can be no charge of favouritism, the fact that AUK Towers is based in Liverpool has not influenced this interview in any shape or form, honest.

How are you? I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?

I had a good pandemic, haha. I did like a Facebook Live Friday night gig every Friday, and it was a big success, so I discovered early on that I was going to be able to keep earning money being a musician. That alleviated the worry which was really good, and it kept me busy because it took a whole week to organise the gig I was doing. The worst part was getting COVID.

I did it because we were on the road with Elvis Costello, and we had done ten of thirteen dates and we felt this cloud closing in with the disease, but we thought we will get to the end of the tour and maybe things will be different. We got to Hammersmith Odeon, and you could feel it in the atmosphere in the country, but Elvis wasn’t getting any direction from the Government, or any authorities, and because half his crew were American, he came in and said the last shows will just have to be put on ice, we will all just have to go home. He sent us all home, but I still had loads of merch, loads of vinyl and t-shirts and stuff, because I had another tour booked after that. I just thought get a Facebook Live show booked, get the fans to pick the songs and see how they are all doing because it was a Friday and the first day of actual lockdown. It was such a huge success because people wanted a point of connection, and it just took off from there and we did forty in the end. I felt like I was performing a public service, haha.

We all need music.

That was the thing.

You had released a greatest hits compilation ‘The Story Of Ian Prowse’, hadn’t you?

Yeah, because we knew we had the Elvis tour and we were going to be playing to a lot of people, and while a decent proportion of them may have heard of me they may never have even investigated the music, and some certainly would never have heard of me, and then there were others who were diehard fans. We thought we would do like a story of Ian Prowse which is basically a best of as an introductory thing to anybody who had never heard Pele or Amsterdam, or something. The record company did a really beautiful booklet, and it was fabulously presented, God bless them. It was really just for the Costello tour, but it ended up being really useful for loads of people who had found me online because of these Friday night shows. We were getting a thousand people a week and it was great, and the big thing was it never went down it kept up. I realised early on when I was doing it that for me just to sing into my iPhone would be boring and it wouldn’t sustain any interest, so what we did on the Friday nights became like a variety show. My nine-year-old would get up and sing a song, and I didn’t even know she could sing until I heard her humming one of my songs around the house, and it was like you’re on, you’re on, haha. I told stories about meeting Shane MacGowan or Brue Springsteen, or whoever, and we also had a segment about the worst-behaved public figure of the week. It was just live a variety show, and everybody loved it. It was really about the audience, not me because they were really engaged with it all and engaged with each other. I got so many emails telling me this is the one thing that I have got to look forward to while we are all locked down. They would get a drink in and put it up, and it really was a lot of fun and one of the loveliest things I have ever done in life, never mind my career. It was OK, I got through it that way.

You are touring again, what is the difference between your live show as opposed to the Facebook Live Friday?

If I’m doing an acoustic show with the fiddle player or the flute player or whatever, I always tell stories anyway because that is what I want to see when I go to an acoustic setting, I want to hear the stories, and because I would take an entire week to build the Friday night show I would think about things I thought people may be interested in, like tales from the past, tall rock’n’roll tales or just stories about your life and how you were brought up or whatever. I have them all to hand now and they all come out, mind you, I don’t tell them all in a gig, but I will tell some, haha. I am one of those people who feel really, really fortunate because off the back of the Elvis thing and the Friday shows all my gigs are sold out. We did a re-release of an old album, which I had re-discovered on the Friday nights hardly anybody knew, and the re-release just flew out. I feel fortunate, and actually going out to play now people have been hungry for it, and so now they are feasting on live music. I spoke to Damien Dempsey yesterday, and Damien is a friend of mine and he has just sold out four nights in Dublin, having not played for eighteen months. I messaged him with congratulations brother, I hope you have done well. He came back with the poor fuckers were hungry, haha. I just love that, it’s how it feels.

The re-release was the first Amsterdam record ‘Attitunes’, wasn’t it? All those years ago it was an internet-only release, if only you knew then what you know now.

This is one of the lovely things about it. After I finished Pele and we started Amsterdam I was just considered damaged goods, yesterday’s guitar strings. Trying to get Amsterdam off the ground was a nightmare because it was just like it is the guy out of Pele, he’s having another go, it didn’t work out that time, whatever. We couldn’t get arrested, but the standard of the songs was really good, and we play a lot of them to this day. We recorded them all and we had an album to go, we punted it around everywhere and nobody was interested. We just made it available on our website, and websites were a new thing twenty years ago. You had to send your postal order or cheque for £10, I must admit you could click on it and listen to it, but you still had to buy the physical copy. The address was where I lived, haha, and we sold about 250 copies, and that is all we could afford to press. It took about six months to sell through and that was it, that was its entire lifespan just those six months. The marketing was just me putting my address on the website, haha, in the contact section, and that was it, it was dead in the water after that.

When we came round to doing these Friday night shows and I was searching for songs to sing, interesting songs to cover, old songs of mine, people were suggesting to we why not do that first album, and in my head, I’m the only person who could remember those songs. I learnt that a lot of those 250 people who bought it not only did they remember them, but it was also one of their favourite records they had ever bought. I started to do some of those songs in the Friday night sets, and when it finished people were going, well where do we get copies of this album. I thought well we should just put it out for the first time proper. I negotiated with the label I’m on, and we put it up for pre-sale and we sold 250 copies in the first three minutes, haha. It was lovely that the misery of not being able to get anywhere at the start of the century meant that it was eventually able to find its home twenty years later, it found an audience to listen to it. That is a relief and a circle being made, so I’m really glad about that, haha.

Why do you think it has had those legs?

It was my first set of songs that I put out in something like six or seven years since the second Pele album. I had amassed a really strong set of eleven songs, and I feel my career is like an Aesop fable, the tortoise and the hare, haha. I just keep going, slowly but surely climbing that mountain and it is the songs that keep you going. I knew they were a good strong set of songs because anybody who ever heard it when it was just mail-order just loved it, but we didn’t have the finance to take it any further than that. Once it started to find its audience on a Friday night, I wasn’t surprised they took to it because they were good songs. It was just the political machinations of the music industry that prevented them from coming out, it wasn’t the standard of the music. As we all know, the music business doesn’t know its arse from its elbow, haha, and it is always kind of guessing at it, what, which how should it. They think they know, and they keep having to rejig the way it all works in the last twenty years with the collapse of physical music and the rise of digital and vinyl. It is great for me though because I was on Polydor in the ‘90s and we never made a penny because they would give us advances and pay for the recording and everything. Now when I put out a record, I get to keep every single penny, and so I’ve made much more money from the new model than I ever did from the old so I’m not going to complain.

You’ve mentioned Pele and Amsterdam, but is there any difference between those two bands and Ian Prowse?

Nah, haha. It is my vehicle for my songs, it is exactly the same thing. It is funny because it is only the way the music industry is that I used a different name. Pele ended kind of naturally because we had fallen out with the label, they brought in a new A&R man and he didn’t like us, so we parted ways, and that was it and it was the right thing to do. When it came to what am I going to do next, because there is no question of ever stopping, the people around me said, well the music industry will never sign Pele because they are considered to have had a go and failed, you’re are going to have to do a new name. So, I was like, OK that is the way it is, and that didn’t work either as it happens so we might as well stayed as Pele. It was only when we did ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside’ and John Peel started playing it that I got another deal. So, the whole thing, Pele, Ian Prowse, Amsterdam, it is all exactly the same thing, it is just a vehicle for whatever songs I write at that time.

You’ve mentioned that song, what do you think of that track now, are you sick of it?

It has been very good to me, and I’m not sick of it and the reason I’m not sick of it is because I have to treat the song with immense respect even if I sing it to four or five people at a party, and the reason I do that is because of the end lines, the lines about the Bulger murder and Hillsborough are so important, not because of my songwriting, but the two subject matters are so important to the city. I have so many friends who were survivors of Hillsborough because there were 24,000 people who did come back, as well as the 97 souls who didn’t come back. The survivors didn’t even realise they may have PTSD. I am always aware there might be one of those survivors in the audience, and I always know that there are because I have become friends with lots of survivors down the years. I always take a deep breath before I sing it and treat it with absolute respect. I don’t get sick of it, and you know what, I wrote it, so it is great it has gone on its own journey. When Christy Moore phones you up and tells you he is going to do your song, haha, I mean Christy for God’s sake, it is just an honour, a real honour.

What is your approach to songwriting, are you disciplined or is it simply a matter of when the muse hits?

I’m the slave to it. Whenever the song, or songs if they come in batches, are going to happen they come out, I have no power over it and I am completely the slave to it. It is mystical, I have no idea how it works, and I’ve never done that thing where your publisher says you have a meeting at 3 o’clock with someone and you are going to do some writing. That is just bollocks to me because you can’t say at 3 o’clock on Wednesday week you are going to write a classic it just doesn’t work like that. Maybe it did in the Tin Pan Alley days or whatever days, but for me, if I sat down and said I’m going to write a great song it wouldn’t happen like that. I have to wait for the song to tap me on the shoulder and go I’m here now, and it will usually arrive in the form of a good melody and a set of chords and sometimes as a lyrical idea on its own for me to build it all up from. I feel like I am a slave to the muse and sometimes it doesn’t come for a year, and you think OK maybe that is it, it has gone for good. When it is happening it feels different, and I know songwriters often say they feel they are just a conduit for it and they are channelling something that is out there, and I definitely subscribe to that thought that it is not you, it is something that is just coming down through you. I wish it would happen more often and it is just mental whenever it happens. It is a strange old thing.

How much does your music owe to Liverpool?

A lot. I think Liverpool operates like a kind of silent band member really, it is in the air and the water of the river and the city. There are so many songwriters here, and it is small as well, you can walk around the city centre in ten minutes and then you are into the outside of it. It is small, but because of its position as a seaport and because of its intense Irishness as well, I mean Ireland is the only country in the whole world that has a musical instrument as its national symbol, and we definitely feel the benefit of that. I am kind of competitive as well, I always listen to whatever is going on around me like what my contemporaries or new songwriters are doing, which is part of the culture. Liverpool definitely acts as that silent band member and muse, I’ve written ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside’ and ‘The Ballad Of North John Street’ which is off the last album, and I’ve written a new song called ‘Holy, Holy River’ about the Mersey itself and the people who put their ashes upon the Mersey when they have passed away. It is an endless source of material as well because it is such an amazing place and such a tragic place as well.

How much does fellow Liverpudlian Elvis Costello mean to you?

We were both on an album for EMI in 2001 called ‘Liverpool Girls And Mersey Boys’ and there was just one track from all Liverpool artists, I think there were eighteen on it, and they used an early Amsterdam track called ‘And It Hurts’ and there was an Elvis song on there, there was a Wings song on there, all of the bands, China Crisis and everybody. We were lucky enough to get on there, and when they had a launch party for it both Elvis and I were on the bill and we got introduced to him, and I was made up because this is where I came in with Paul Weller and Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and everybody, John Jacques Burnel and Chrissie Hynde. I was thrilled, and I said like we are on at whenever and he said I’m on before you, but I will watch one song and then I’m going to see me mum. We got towards the end of our set, and I could see at the side of the stage this familiar face and glasses and he was still there. We came off and went to the dressing room and he came bursting in and goes that was fantastic, I couldn’t go I had to stick around. Since that moment we just became friends, and we’ve released duets together, I’ve been in his band, we’ve supported him on many occasions and I’ve kind of done everything you can do in the music industry with him. He is really funny, he is immensely knowledgeable, and I often feel I am learning when I’m around him, either watching him perform or having a chat. He can yap about politics, music and football, what else do you want, haha. He has been a great friend down the years, and I love him.

What are your views on Liverpool in 2021?

It is definitely coming through a renaissance, the city centre is a completely different place to what it was twenty years ago, and a lot of people come to Liverpool. I’ve been in all the cities in the last few months, and they are all clearly not fully back on their feet, London included, after COVID. However, Liverpool was back on its feet the day after they opened up, there is something in the town and in the water, this is a party town, and even if we can’t afford it, we are going out tonight, haha. When the first lockdown ended it was the same thing, people came out on the streets and in the boozers, talking to each other. Liverpool is very firmly back on its feet in that sense, where other cities are a bit more tenuous, a bit more we are not quite sure yet. Liverpool isn’t like that, it is live every day as if it is your last.

The renaissance I spoke about is great and the city centre is a wonderful vibey place to be, but you just have to walk out to Kensington where I was today, or the Dingle, which is a five-minute walk outside the city centre, and it is still immense grinding poverty. Those places need to be reached as well, it is no good just having a place for the tourists to come into. This city is a survivor, and I’m really enjoying that. I’ve lived in the city centre for fifteen years now, and it is grand fun. It is a funny old place.

You have released a twenty-year-old album and you are touring again, have you got any other firm plans?

We are going out with a full band next year, a full six-piece band. It would have been out a year ago but obviously, the worldwide pandemic put paid to that, but we have just finished and mastered a new record of ten brand new songs called ‘One Hand On The Starry Plough’ that is released in the first week of February, and I think the first single is out on December 10th. I think it is the first record I have ever made where all the songs were written at exactly the same time. There is normally at least one song on an album which is kind of leftover from a different era, or something like that. This is just ten songs I wrote, there are lockdown atmospheres about it, there are songs about going to way too many funerals, there are songs about people’s mental health during it all. But there is optimism in it because we have all lived through all of this, and we are still here, and we ain’t giving up, and we are going to still enjoy ourselves. That is what the new album is going to be all about, ‘One Hand On The Starry Plough’. We are taking it on the road in March, April and May, and we are playing places I haven’t played in years like Brighton and Hove, haha, Cardiff, Jesus I haven’t played Cardiff for years. It is really exciting, everything to me feels it has gone up a few notches, which is lovely at my age, haha.

Where did the album title come from?

I was writing the second song which I mentioned, ‘Holy, Holy River’, and an old hippie friend of mine who I’ve known for years always used to say to me the hippies in their communes out in North Wales call the Mersey the Ganges of the West. He always used to say the Mersey is a holy river, and it must have lodged in my mind, and I was reading a beautiful online thing that was an invite for people to go to a little ceremony that is happening on the Mersey ferry, a public transport service. I didn’t realise this is what they did, but if you want to spread the ashes of a loved one in the middle of the river, the river bus stops in the middle and they turn the engines off, which I found really touching. There is a little ceremony and the loved one goes into the river, and then they start the engines, and the vessel continues on its way. I read this, and I found it really touching, and the reason why this particular person was having their ashes put on the Mersey was to retain an eternal link with Liverpool and its tides because the tides are so powerful that whatever is in the Mersey goes all the way around the world, and then eventually comes back. That idea, and when I was writing the song, I was here in the city centre and we have a balcony, and there in front of me was the plough, the starry plough, which I never normally think about. It was like a celestial cosmic thing, and we live near the river as well, so we have the river, the plough, and this person going all the way around the world and then coming back. The last verse goes some like:-

In a month or so you will be good to go on your ascension
I forgot to mention your time in Vladivostok
And you make my world rock
Holy holy river draws you home

There is nothing more elemental than the sea and the stars.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists,  albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Let me look at my phone, haha. I have been listening to a lot of music I don’t usually listen to. I was listening to Anne Briggs’ ‘Blackwater Side’ and that is an amazing song and the atmosphere around it is so beautiful. I was also listening to Damien Dempsey because I was talking to him, and we have actually been writing a song together but that is another story for next time, haha, and the song I was listening to was ‘Aunt Jenny’ and I absolutely love it. It is about his long-ago aunt who fought in the Easter Uprising in 1916. Damian Dempsey is amazing, worth checking out if you haven’t heard him. Me and my daughter play songs to each other when she goes to bed, and I’ve realised she is playing better songs than me, haha, it is mad, just mad. I was playing Bruce Springsteen’s version of ‘Dream Baby Dream’ to her because there is a beautiful video that goes with it.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

When I came in it was Paul Weller, Elvis, and Joe Strummer and so it is conviction music to me, I am still attempting to change the world, so if you do come and see me you do get 100%, it is 100% passion. I am the Scouse Springsteen, haha, and Joe, if we play you a love song it is because my heart was properly broken, I ain’t just writing a love song as an exercise, it is straight from the heart. It is the same with politicians, if I am going to listen to any politician, they have to have conviction, especially in the modern world. So, if you come and watch us you get that 100%, and you will get a damn good singalong and there will be a bit of joy as well as a bit of fun, and a sense of community. You won’t get short-changed.

Amsterdam’s Attitunes is out now on Kitchen Disco Records

About Martin Johnson 359 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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