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FEATUTRE HEADING: blah blah balh

 

Feature Intro:After having won the Musician of the Year award at this year’s Folk Awards and playing with almost everyone from Jon Boden and Eliza Carthy to Hannah Ja

 

Feature Interviewer SF: Question

Feature Interviwee BH: answer

 

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Sam Sweeney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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White Horse Whisperers

John McCusker: ‘The phrase I use more than any other is: I feel very lucky’

 

Multi-instrumentalist John McCusker joined the renowned Scottish traditional group the Battlefield Band at just seventeen. He’s now marking his twenty-fifth year in the business with the release of his third solo album, Hello, Goodbye. During that time he’s played with all the folk luminaries as well as many of those from the world of rock and pop, such as Paul Weller, Teenage Fanclub and Graham Coxon, but as he told Shire Folk, he’s happiest with a group of mates just playing music.

 

SF: In an interview with Sam Sweeney I referred to him as the busiest man in folk, but I got that wrong, it’s you isn’t it? How do you prioritise things?

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John McCusker
Photo Louise Bichan

JMcC: I don’t know, is the honest answer. I’ve been busy for twenty-five years really. I’ve been busy since I joined the Battlefield Band when I was seventeen, but I’ve never complained about it because all I ever wanted to do was play music. Any musician will tell you if you get a call from someone you want to play with or there’s a record you want to make, you’re just delighted. I think one of the hard things is saying no because we come from a time … when thinking back to when I first started there weren’t that many people playing folk music and there weren’t that many opportunities to go and play on records or go and do lots of tours. I was lucky that I got the chance to do that. So whenever the phone rings then I just jump at the opportunity. So I think that’s one of the hardest things, saying no, because all I want to do is play music.

SF: You’ve played with a wide variety of people, many of them outside of the folk genre. Was that always an aim?

JMcC: I’ve been a fan of the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Paul Weller and Graham Coxon, so when they asked me to play on their records I absolutely jumped at it. It’s interesting because when I started getting the chance to play on famous people’s records or people from rock bands … my whole life has been since the age of twelve one week I’d play on a Gaelic record and the next it would be a band like Teenage Fanclub. It’s always been just music to me. My love of indie rock has always run parallel to my love of folk music and it’s always been just music. There’s no other way of explaining it really. It still baffles me today that when I get the chance to play with those people that I mentioned, the media or even friends say isn’t it amazing that Graham Coxon likes folk music. It’s great of course, but it never amazed me that Graham, Paul Weller or Mark Knopfler like to listen to uilleann pipes or great folk guitarists because we listen to them. The folk scene is thriving with amazing technical players, who play with such power and passion, so it never surprises me that rock musicians, or musicians from any genre, listen to or want to play with folk musicians.

SF: I’m glad you said that because that’s how I’ve always felt about music.

JMcC: Whenever I go to parties and it’s Teenage Fanclub or you hang out with Simon Fowler from Ocean Colour Scene, they’re not just talking about the sort of music that they play, they’re enthusing about Bert Jansch or they’re raving about Michael McGoldrick playing his uilleann pipes. When we play records to each other it’s just like my record collection. Like I say, it’s always just been music. One of the biggest and best things I’ve seen in the last twenty-five years has been more acceptance of folk or acoustic music. Accepted as a powerful genre of music and one that that can stand proudly side by side with any other form of music. It certainly wasn’t the case when I started out. It’s been just brilliant watching that. You’d never see a folk band on Jools Holland, you’d never hear folk music on what I call normal radio. We’ve still got a long, long way to go, but it’s not that uncommon to hear Julie Fowlis on Steve Wright in the Afternoon. That’s a massive leap for the music that we love and one that I’ve loved watching.

SF: Your new album, Hello, Goodbye, marks your twenty-five years in the business. Are you where you thought you’d be twenty-five years ago?

JMcC: That’s an interesting question. Twenty-five years ago I genuinely didn’t think I’d get the chance to play music for a living. Again maybe that comes from a time when, like I say, there weren’t very many of us playing or making a living playing the fiddle or the accordion or whatever; trying to make folk music your livelihood. As a way of paying your mortgage and your bills. The only thing I wanted to do was play music and I’m so lucky I got the chance. The Battlefield Band were a full-time band who could pay me a wage and give me a passport to travel the world. As a seventeen-year-old I couldn’t have wished for anything better to happen. It was my parents’ worst nightmare! I’ve got kids, I understand that nightmare – your son disappearing with a folk band to Germany for two months. As a musician you strive to keep what you’re doing fresh and exciting for the audience, but also to keep yourself happy. I think it’s difficult in whatever job you do to get job satisfaction and keep as excited as you were when you first started doing it. The phrase I use more than any other is ‘I feel very lucky’.

SF: It’s only the first twenty-five years, of course.

JMcC: That’s very true. I don’t really see twenty-five years as a milestone, but it’s been a lovely point to reflect on the past and I’m looking forward to things in the future. It’s time for taking stock. It’s the first time Heidi and I have been without a record contract. We’ve started our own label and built our own little studio for the first time – an old bothy attached to the house – we’ve spent a couple of years doing it. So it’s the first of lots of things, I guess, and the next chapter of my music life.

SF: Congratulations on Hello, Goodbye. Are these tunes you’ve had for some time?

JMcC: I wrote them over a course of six months while I was on tour with Mark Knopfler last year. One of the reasons I wrote the tunes was that Mark’s tours give the gift of having some time – usually with touring there’s no time, you have to drive to the next gig, but I found myself with some time to play. I tend to walk around these beautiful cities all over the world and sing melodies into my phone. So that’s what I did – everything was just la-la’d into my phone. I’d keep a fiddle in my hotel room and listen back and record it if it was any good. So I enjoyed the process. What was interesting for me was that I called each tune after wherever I was – Las Vegas or Gothenburg or wherever – and I would take stock after a few weeks and go back and listen to what I had written three or four weeks ago and it was amazing to me that I’d written a tune four weeks after that and it was exactly the same tune I’d written that I’d forgotten about. Exactly, note for note. I loved that there was something in your head that wouldn’t go away. On my new record all I wanted to do was … I didn’t want to make a hugely experimental record or try and break new ground or anything, I just wanted to write new tunes again. It had been thirteen years since my previous record and the lovely thing for me was when I made the first phone calls to get the gang back together we recorded the whole thing live. There were some overdubs for brass, but the band made a live record really. It’s not by any means perfect playing, but we tried to capture something rather beautiful and magical in the studio. Looking round at my pals – and it was the same gang that played on my first record – it was the same faces and playing music with them for over twenty years.

One of the hardest things to do that I’ve found … I remember Mark Knopfler said to me that all he wanted to do was make a good record and at the time that sounds like a throwaway remark or something that’s easy to say, but eight or ten years ago he said it to me and it’s stuck in my head more than anything that anybody has ever said because it really rings true for me. It’s such an incredibly difficult thing to do. You’re often in an environment that’s often quite sterile or you don’t have the feedback from the audience and you’re trying to create an energy or capture some beauty by sitting in a room. That’s why with this one, like I say, I wasn’t trying to do anything that was complicated, I just wanted to make hopefully nice music with my pals and enjoy the process. From experience of producing records you can mix away trying to make it sound good, but nothing beats people playing their hearts out. I loved the process, but I’m never going to listen to it again! website

SF: I’ve lived with the record for a while now and it’s been the perfect accompaniment to driving and so forth.

JMcC: I’m glad. Again my favourite folk bands when I was growing up were … it wasn’t the funky side of folk, it was … there was a Scottish folk group called Ossian many years ago and they’re still my favourite folk group, they just created this lovely music and ever since I was I was twelve and even though they don’t exist any more I still want to be in Ossian. They played this beautiful music, but it wasn’t over-complicated. There’s room for everything and the folk scene is so vibrant, there are so many people doing many different things, experimenting with electronics and there’s room for everything. It’s so exciting. I wanted to make a record full of nice tunes and the sound of a record that hopefully people could get the sound of a bunch of people having a nice time in the studio.

SF: It struck me that ‘Calendar Boys’, for example, is waiting for lyrics. Did you ever consider making any of them into songs, especially given you’ve got one of the finest voices in folk in your house?

JMcC: It’s a good question because most of the stuff I write on my phone are ideas for Heidi. I love playing tunes, but there’s no doubt that I love playing songs just as much. I’ve never been just a tune player, so you’re right, lots of those melodies could easily have been songs or could be songs. There’s one called ‘Jessica’s Lullaby’ that’s for my little daughter, that’s a song for Heidi’s new record, and you’re right, ‘Calendar Boys’: I think Heidi’s trying to put lyrics to.

John McCusker’s latest album, Hello, Goodbye, is out now on Under One Sky Records.

Jonathan Roscoe