Saturday, 13 June 2009

Nigel Mazlyn Jones - Sentinel

I’ve commented before how both Bridget and I have identified one of the great things about doing our Festivals book has been the fascinating characters that we’ve encountered on our journey through the history of free festivals. I’d highlight here a particular instance where we’ve received encouragement and support from a free festival regular, who has brought a lot of value to the project and that is in our contact with Nigel Mazlyn Jones. I’ve been lucky to meet Nigel on a couple of occasions, most recently in the last week when I was able to visit him and not only chat festivals but spend an afternoon looking through his archive of festivals newsletters and associated ephemera. I came away enlightened and enthused about our project, and also clutching a number of Nigel’s CDs including Kissing Spell’s reissues of his seminal works, Ship To Shore and Sentinel; on a previous visit I’d also been kindly given a copy of Nigel’s Planet For Sale album, which is highly relevant to this blog and which I’ll write about in its own review at a future date.

Sentinel is the latest reissue of Nigel’s work from Kissing Spell and I’ll be reviewing it in the music press before the summer is over, so I’ll not comment about it in-depth here, but it was an opportunity, sitting around Nigel’s kitchen table with the warm Cornish sunshine brightening the day, to ask him about an album that he considers one of the pinnacle’s of his output.

Sentinel was my second album,” Nigel explained to me. “Most of the material was written on the road in 1977/78, a few bits early in ‘79, and then the album was recorded and released in ‘79. I’d been a professional musician for eight years, my first album, Ship To Shore, had come out three years earlier. I was at the top of my game, because you tend to be at the top of your game when you’re in your twenties, as a musician on the road. My career was going up. I was being asked to support various famous names, because of Ship To Shore. I’d saved all the money off the first album, which was independent, put it into a better studio in Cheltenham, Dick Cadbury’s studio, who was the lead guitarist for Steve Hackett and various others. Dick played bass and some lead guitar on Sentinel, I had Johnny Coppin [on piano], the folk world all know Johnny Coppin, and I bumped into an engineer called John Acock, who used to work with Steve Hackett and was an acoustic expert.

“We were working on the world’s first production model of a SSL desk, which went on to become the name for recording desks. So it was great musicians, in a great studio, with great equipment, and there was a lot of care and attention towards my music from the great people who were working with me. There was a lot of commitment, a lot of camaraderie - as you only get in your youthful years - and I’d matured in my twenties as a song-writer and as an experienced musician travelling on the road. I look back on it now and I hear its technical quality is superb, by virtue of other people’s engineering and the playmanship of the other musicians, which was very sensitive to the material and the songs. Because they’d known me for a few years they all supported my writing and my ethics and stance, so the overall effect is that of a lot of very happy people and the synergy of that gave it some of its strength.

Sentinel, as a solo musician, it was a band album in a way so it put me in a strange league in so far as the folkies weren’t too sure about it, because it was very electric and the rock world wasn’t too sure about it because it was a bit acoustic-ish. By then, the Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span thing were very much folk-roots-electric, so Sentinel fell into an odd bag and didn’t really get publicised or pushed so it never got masses of coverage but it seemed to strike a bell with my core fans who loved that sort of singer-songwriter thing. It’s been hailed through the years, lots of people say to me, “Oh, we love that album, it’s our favourite.” I’ve looked back on it over the last year when I’ve been selecting tracks [for the reissue] that didn’t make it onto that album. I mean, you couldn’t put everything on it because there was a time limit on vinyl of about seventy-minutes and most LPs would be forty or fifty minutes, which I still think is a good amount of time for any album. I’d demo’d every song in my home recording set-up in Port Isaac, not terribly professionally but pleasantly. When I was in the studio with those demos, so people could be rehearsing the next track’s harmonies, or whatever, the engineer heard them, said “That’s really good quality, let’s put it through the big monitors and listen to it and what a shame you didn’t put a bit more treble and clarity on it because we could have transferred the lovely vibe of your home recordings onto the main tapes and worked on those to maintain the vibe you’ve already got.” But out of the songs came a short-list and some got left, and the ones that got left were the ones where at the time, as a new parent, I kind of felt some of the writing was deeply personal to me and my family and friends and I felt rather protective about that and that they weren’t as suitable as other tracks to put out for public listening.

“What I’ve done, thirty years later, is searched those tracks out and found them in remarkably good condition, remastered and tidied them up, and selected my favourite six tracks that weren’t included from about ten or twelve tracks that didn’t make it. I picked them to actually do the opposite of what I was trying to do thirty years before; I picked those six tracks to demonstrate who I was, what I felt and what was around me in my life at the time. I feel braver about them now; they’re historical – and I probably feel a bit more confident about what I was espousing back then. Most of the values I was espousing thirty years ago, they’re still my values. There were some interesting downsides to it, it’s not particularly healthy, as people will know, to go intensely trawling through your life of thirty years ago and bring back anything you were worried about or angry about, things that were happening that were negative, that quantum leap of moving from your twenties to your thirties as though you’re leaving your youth behind. There are some issues in there, so I found it quite revealing, because I trawled through all my scribbles, my on the road writings, poetry and ideas that came flooding out in all those hours you have to yourself uncluttered by daily activities. It showed me where I thought I was at, what I hoped for... and of course that made me look at what didn’t work out, what dreams weren’t achieved. That brings up why they weren’t achieved and leaves you with some emotion; measuring where you are in your fifties by looking at where you were in your twenties is quite intense but all I can say is its very positive and therapeutic if you can handle the truth!

“I fell off the end of my career in my thirties, in 1980, the year after, because I wasn’t prepared to... I supported a huge, well-known, band on a European tour for three and a half months and I got sight of what the real rock industry was like and realised that it wasn’t for me to swim in without getting eaten alive or losing my heartfelt writing.

“I love Sentinel, it’s very buoyant, very technically accomplished; I’ve now been looking back, from reissuing it, and realising technical things about it that account for its pristine, crisp and transparent sound, so Sentinel has set the benchmark for my next recordings. But I’m really chuffed that it’s out. We went to a lot of trouble to find all the artwork that was done by Julian Russell, who did the Ship To Shore cover. We found lots of wonderful black and white photos that he’d done, so the reissue has a lot of previously unseen artwork and sleeve notes, and we went to a lot of trouble and effort to make it a seriously professional, respectful, good deal, rather than just sling it out. We’ve set the bar very high for future releases.”

Nigel Mazlyn Jones Official Website

No comments: