Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas were at their Fulham flat watching the test match when I arrived to tape the talk-in. England’s terrible plight was temporarily averted as the TV was switched off and the tape recorder, blaring the skeleton of Sandy’s new album (produced by Trevor), was turned on.
Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson, Jerry Donahue, Richard Thompson, Alan Skidmore, Diz Disley – the featured musicians on the new album – are a fairly typical assembly for Sandy, but there was evidence of at least a few surprises.
We retired to the front room, talked about America and then debated how Sandy could possibly have got her giant grand piano into the house. “They must have built the house around it,” I challenged, but Sandy proved with the aid of geometry and a vivid imagination that this was not necessarily the case.
We haven’t seen much of you in this country – do you still enjoy gigging?
“Yeah, I do – I enjoy actually doing concerts, and when I’m at home installed in my house I quite miss not being on the road but being on the road is actually a lot more strenuous than you remember, though in fact I like doing gigs. That to me is probably the nicest part of any work like that – it’s worth going to America and Australia and stuff just to work.”
Do you find it difficult in organising situations with other musicians for touring or recording?
“Ideally – and this is the truth – I’d like to be in a band so that I didn’t carry all the responsibility. It’s not that I’m shirking, it’s just that when you do have a band that’s literally working for you, it’s quite a responsibility especially if you’re using musicians that you really respect, like telling them what to play and everything.
I think the ideal situation is being in a band and everybody having their own ideas and calling it something else. Like for the past two years I’ve been “Sandy Denny” or it has been “The Sandy Denny Band” or something and I kind of miss the slight anonymity of just being a member of a group.”
Even with Fotheringay it tended to be the Sandy Denny/Trevor Lucas band, though.
“Yeah but at least it was all spread out over everybody. It was nice in that band, I think.”
Why didn’t things work out in Fotheringay?
“Oh, I dunno. I’m easily swayed by people with strong opinions. It was a funny band and when I think of it now I wish we’d kept it up, though it’s silly to say that, because when I think back I’ve learnt an awful lot and I’ve written a lot too, and I think that my writing’s getting better.
You forfeit one thing for another, and musically I suppose I’ve developed along a certain line though whether it’s the right one or not is irrelevant to the amount of knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of years.”
Do you feel now that some of the pressure has been taken off you? I mean there was a time when so much was expected of you after topping polls and so on.
“Oh, right – but all that was really weird. I’m constantly feeling the pressure because I’ve got to keep at it, and even though I haven’t worked in England for a long time I’ve still been working a lot and really it’s all happening, it’s just that one doesn’t hear about it always over here.
As far as I’m concerned the pressure has never really been off, and if it completely disappeared I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I mean, if there really wasn’t any pressure for me to do anything I’d think, ‘Oh God something terrible’s just happened and I’ve become totally talentless and nobody wants to hear anything anymore’.
But I shall be working a lot more here – I shall be starting to work in October, and I’m really looking forward to it. I really am. I’m going to be playing with Pat (Donaldson) and Gerry (Conway) – just them to start with until we get something else happening. We just think it’s fine as it is, just as a trio to start with. I don’t know whether it’ll be a band or me with Pat and Gerry backing me, it’s all in the air at the moment.”
Will it be in the form of a tour?
“Yeah, because I think that’s what we need to do – we really need to do a lot of work before we go back to the States. I mean, I went over to the States last year with Pat playing and Timmy (Donald) and Richard (Thompson) and we did fairly well, but we hadn’t rehearsed enough and the pressure is so much more over there to be really tight and professional, otherwise it’s just not on, and I’d like to work around all the places here and then we’ll go again to America.
I’m not putting America first by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel it’s easier because the pressure is less and we’ll be able to relax more over here.”
I don’t know if you’re able to draw parallels, but how has your music been accepted by American audiences in comparison with the reaction here?
“This time I went over on my own, and I think the reaction was extremely favourable. But I still feel that I work better with musicians and a lot of people in their reviews were quite favourable about what I was doing and a few said it would be nice to hear me with a band. And actually, when I was at the Troubadour, Fairport were in town (Los Angeles) and they got up on stage with me and did five or six of my songs and we did some looning about and stuff and I felt a sudden sense of relief when they started playing. It was just really nice to have them all behind me – you can’t play that many bum notes when you’re on your own.
I’m not looking for excuses for playing bum notes, but if you do play a rotten note there’s no one behind you – so you’ve got to be good in every way.”
Do you tend to be bound to the piano these days?
“It’s just that I love playing the piano much more than I like playing the guitar.”
And presumably you write far more on piano.
“Well, as a matter of fact, that one thing you just heard, ‘The Carnival’, I wrote on guitar. But there’s one I really like on this next LP that was written on piano and there are quite a few on piano. But the trouble with me is that I tend to use the same chords re-arranged and with the tempo a bit different. But I really do like playing the piano.”
If the piano situation was such that it could be possible, would you like to be back in a band with Trevor? I know he’s been producing your new album, but his life has been changing musically since you went back on the road with Fairport.
“Yeah, well I would, I really would because obviously we’re away from each other an awful lot – I mean, he’s off on the road again for a couple of months at the end of September, then he’s off again after that, so it’s obviously a bit of a strain. But he’s really got into it – he really likes to be up on the stage and it’s good for him, I think.
But if he wants to get another band together after a while, I think we might do it. I miss that really warm feeling we used to have with Fotheringay. We’ve all got a soft spot for Fotheringay.”
You’ve always been fairly close, too, to Fairport and the musicians involved through the respective bands.
“Well, right, but it’s a very peculiar thing because everyone always uses the same musicians and…”
Let me ask you how you’ve seen the development of Fairport since you left.
“It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I’m obviously going to be slightly biased in favour at the moment and I think that since they’ve become more solid – I mean this particular lineup has been together for about a year now – and at the beginning of that year when Rosie came out there was this element of them not staying together and it was all on the brink of disaster.
But since then they’ve stuck together and had this one goal to stay together, really work hard and try and to do it properly instead of looning around all over the place. And I think because of their tenacity they’ll probably be a good band again.
I think up until now they’ve had slight material problems because of elements like everyone’s going to leave and you can’t write songs because you’re so uptight and their sets have been really thrown together because they’ve just had to work to live; I think you’ll notice the difference now anyway.”
People still talk about Liege & Lief as being the pinnacle of Fairport’s achievements, which of course you were featured on…
“I don’t think it was the best record at all, of the ones I was on. If you’re going to do an all round thing… there are numbers on every album that I like and ones that I really don’t, but in general the one I like most of all, except for the recording of it which wasn’t as good as it should be, was ‘Unhalfbricking’, I think that was the nicest one… and next to that I like ‘Full House’. Then it started to crumble around a bit and everyone was being schizophrenic and one even wondered whether Fairport would continue at all.”
How have you managed to keep sane through it all?
“I really don’t know. I think I have this mechanism which just clicks off when it’s really like disaster. I don’t believe it really would be. I know it is but I won’t admit it and I think that’s how you get through any heavy traumas or changes. You have to think things are going to look up tomorrow.”
Since we’re talking about your past, are there any songs you’ve written over the years that still hold a very dear place in your heart – going back to the period of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ for instance?
“I like that one sometimes, and there are occasions when I’m really in the mood to sing it and audiences quite like it if I do – but I can’t get it together to do it a lot.
It was one of my first songs, and I just wish people would listen to some of the other ones, although some people still maintain it’s the best song I’ve ever written. They can’t all be wrong, although I don’t agree with them – I’ve written lots more songs that I and they too prefer, but at the moment I’m too into the album to think which ones they are. I think I’ve done my best stuff on this record that’s going to come out.”
On your earlier solo albums you seem to have had a preoccupation with sea…
“Everyone’s asked me that question. I dunno. I just love things like that. When I write songs I often picture myself standing on a beach or standing on a rock or a promenade or something. I just put myself there sometimes and without even realising it I find myself describing what I’m looking at and often it’s the sea. I keep promising myself I’ll put myself somewhere else when I’m writing songs but I really can’t think of anywhere that’s nicer than that.”
Have you tended to write this album in one burst or has it come together over a long period?
“What’s tended to happen, funnily enough in the last couple of months, is that I’ve written a song in my head and I’ve written the tune down and I’ve known what the song is about, but I haven’t written the actual words until recently. Not that I don’t do that every time I go into the studio – I’m usually writing the words as I run up the street to the studio but I’ve really worked on a lot of the songs more than I normally do.
I’ve really thrown out things I don’t like very much and started again. I’ve used up reams of paper on this album just because I don’t want to waste record space.”
I mean, are there any songs that are out of your head the minute they’re down on wax?
“No, it’s not fair to say that because the songs are about things… a lot of my songs are really about specific circumstances and people that I know but whether I’ve put it better is the thing.”
Is there any sort of definition you can give in words to describe the new album? I mean, you’ve recorded a Fats Waller song for instance.
“No, and I’ll tell you why – because it hasn’t got its fur coat on yet, it’s still very basic. I say this every time, but it’s more positive than the last record – I just feel it’s stronger in some ways, but we haven’t gone through the dramas of mixing it and adding things on like orchestras yet.”
When’s it due out?
“October 12, but it’s really going to be a rush getting it out by then.”
So who’ve you heard recently that you’ve really dug?
“Interesting question. Well recently the person who I’ve been most knocked out with is Randy Newman… you see, I haven’t been to all that many places in England and I haven’t heard very many people, which is a drag. But I worked a lot with Randy Newman and I just couldn’t believe it; he was so amazing and so incredibly pertinent in his songs. He’s so cynical about the whole thing and I really got amazed – that was one of the nicest parts about being in America, the fact that I did five or six gigs with him.
Then there’s Dick Gaughan on the folk scene. I mean, he’s always been great, but I’ve only just realised it. I met him at the Cambridge Festival this year…”
You turned up and did a surprise spot during John Prine’s set…
“Yeah. Well, I did a gig with him in the States and I met him and his manager and everybody and I was looking forward to them coming over. So I had to go along and see them anyway… and Steve Goodman as well, all from the stable.
It was the first time I’d been to the Cambridge Festival ever and John just asked me if wanted to, and I said, ‘I only came to see you’, and he said, ‘You can play my guitar’ and I said, ‘I haven’t got any picks,’ so someone rushed off and got me some picks… so I got up and did a couple of songs but I was pretty nervous. They were really nice, actually, the audience.”
Aside from the folky people you use on your albums, the folk revival as such appears to have disintegrated somewhat, don’t you agree?
“Yes, it has a bit. Everyone seems to be gradually retiring or disappearing into oblivion. I should think worth hearing would be John Martyn and Danny Thompson.
There don’t seem to be any folk clubs like they used to be. Since the Cousins closed down it was almost like a nucleus was taken away for some reason, for one part of it. In those days there was always a John Snow for the tradition people and then Cousins for the folkies with the harmonicas and it has always buzzing around, the trads against the contemporaries.
It’s still going on, but it’s such a sophisticated feud now and one doesn’t enter into blatant ignoring of people. But there are these staunch ones left like Pete Bellamy.”
Do you get bored?
“Yes, I can’t think of anyone I want to go and see and there isn’t anywhere to go and see them – not like a folk club with the same kind of feeling. The Chieftains I like, but who doesn’t, really?”
So what are your fondest remembrances?
“I suppose when everybody used to go down the Cousins when it was open all night and everyone would be on – Martin (Carthy) and Swarb and all kinds of people like Alexis Korner would do an overnight thing and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn would be there and the Watersons and Les Bridger.
Davey Graham would do the all nighters as well and those were really good days. John Martyn used to do it too, and Jackson Frank. There were so many visiting American people, Paul Simon used to go down there; then there was Mike Seeger, Tom Paxton.”
Do you think that the placidity of your music is a sign of the general laid back feel that seems to have taken over since the days you’re talking about?
“Yes, a lot of the things I write are slow, because I find it difficult to play the piano fast and I think that restricts me a bit, but even so I don’t mind that very much because I really don’t like to be disturbed by my music – I like to take it easy.
I suppose I’m quite influenced by the folk songs I’ve sung in the past, and I suppose I sing a bit in that way so you’d always call me a kind of a folk singer because the way I sing is a bit folky – it’s a style rather than an actual definition of what folk music is. I love some folk tunes but there are people who spend most of their time getting the traditional stuff out and reviving it in a really pleasant way and while people are doing that I quite like writing my own stuff.
I like doing it because I think I do it well and a lot of other people are into a lot of different aspects of folk music and like to do it authentically and properly. And why not?”
Do you collaborate very much with Trevor during the writing stages?
“No, not at all. I’m a very peculiar writer. I don’t like writing with anyone around at all. I have to be on my own. I am quite secretive about it all, because I don’t like anybody to hear anything until I think it’s really good. So consequently Trevor gets used to the idea that he can only go on what he can hear, which is usually just the backing track. It’s very tense but it works out alright in the end and I don’t know what I’d do in the studio without him.”
Did you ever miss Joe Boyd in an artistic role when he went to the States?
“I dunno. I just kind of plodded on, really. I don’t remember it specifically, but yes, it was a bit higgedly-piggedly after he left, but it sorted itself out. I mean afterwards, Richard (Thompson) and John (Wood) and I just said, let’s have a bash at doing this record and it was a very laid back album to say the least. But at least it was a try.”