Comparisons with Al Stewart, John Martyn and a whole host of other acoustic troubadours along with a rave review for his latest recording, something’s brewing in the far corners of Devon. Phil Thomas was dispatched to locate and question Greg Hancock.
I recently had the pleasure to review Greg Hancock’s new album ‘Architecture and Archaeology’ which impressed me greatly for the quality of the songs and of his playing and singing so it was a pleasure to speak to Greg from his home in Devon to talk about how he got to this point in his musical life.
You could say that Greg is a relative latecomer. He spent a large part of his working life in the Middle East and Spain and eventually found himself back in England in 2012. A lifelong guitarist and self-confessed bedroom songwriter he followed a path many of us would recognise, namely beginning with tentative spots at local open mic nights before progressing to gigs in pubs and clubs as his confidence in his ability and his songs began to grow.
During this phase he became involved with the Exeter Folk Project with Helen Jones (daughter of Nic Jones) which Greg describes as ‘buzzing’ though, sadly, he feels that scene has declined somewhat for the reasons we all know about. He recalls his admiration for many talented young singers writing great songs and is grateful for having had the opportunity to help and mentor some of these youngsters.
Greg writes all his own songs and we talked at some length about his philosophy and approach to song writing.“For me, songs usually start with chords…they often come from mistakes. My songs usually reflect things that have been on my mind but mostly the music comes first. Some come along quickly with few revisions. Some take longer and change over time.” He has sometimes struggled with the fact that his songs have a storytelling element which requires the song to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Nowadays he says he is better able to say “OK that song is finished.” The chords and melodies come from an unusual approach to guitar playing that had its genesis in a conversation with Dick Gaughan in a folk club back in 1979 when Dick took the time to show him the famous DADGAD tuning beloved of so many guitarists. Greg remembers the occasion well. “I remember thinking when I put my fingers in those positions my guitar doesn’t sound like that. In the bar during the interval I asked him about the guitar and he re-tuned the guitar to show me. I remember saying to myself…I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.”
Since that time Greg’s approach to guitar has evolved to a point where he now strings his guitar as much as a tone below concert pitch with a modified form of DADGAD tuning and judicious use of a capo to accommodate a guitar playing style that combines intricate fingerpicking and a slapping technique made easier by the lower action on the guitar. He acknowledges the influence of Nic Jones and Joni Mitchell on his playing.
His idiosyncratic approach to guitar is not without its problems. He confesses that he often doesn’t know the musical theory behind the chords he is playing and so chooses to collaborate with other musicians who have knowledge of such things. He says that his regular collaborator, Lukas Drinkwater told him: “…you know, there are rules, Greg. It’s OK to break them to an extent, but there are still rules!” Maybe that somewhat anarchic approach is because “…I have always enjoyed listening to jazz. Even the jazz I don’t like has always fascinated me. I don’t really like a style like Be-Bop but I am awestruck by the virtuosity of it and I love the idea that they know what they are doing even if I don’t!”
Greg’s inclination to explore sometimes sends him in strange directions. He positively eschews writing topical songs because he feels they date easily. However in these recent strange times he has begun to feel the need to comment on aspects of life as he sees it and for these songs his weapon of choice has been the ukulele, albeit played with his own distinctive fingerstyle. He claims these songs are “…little throwaway things. I’ve written them and now they’re done…” but there is an EP called ‘Uke OK, Hon? – Some Bees In My Bonnet’ on Greg’s website if you are interested. A selection of short, wry commentaries on life to which the ukulele lends an unusual perspective and that I found delightful. Clearly Greg is not resting on his laurels.
Greg checks the Tardis for recording ambiance.
The current album ‘Architecture and Archaeology’ is his third full release. Others have referred to his albums as a ‘trilogy’ but Greg feels it’s more a question of coming to the end of a phase of narrative songs written to “…mine a theme concerning loss of memory and maybe the fact that we are all constructs based on our experiences.” An interesting idea.
For the previous album ‘The State of My Hair’ Greg talked to his mother about her experiences of childhood in the war years but when he asked for details they weren’t really there. The stories were constructs put together from a mixture of memory and longing. Greg says, however, that he wants his songs to be about universal experiences. He definitely doesn’t want to write about experiences only he has had, and I am here to say he is doing a good job.
On ‘Architecture and Archaeology’ there is a song called ‘Twisted Fingers’ that deals with an old piano player in a care setting and an old lady for whom meal times are a ‘Pas-de-Deux’. Maybe these are stories of Greg’s own family…maybe not. I found that the songs reflected back to me some of my own experiences to give me a higher different level of enjoyment.. Another song from the album, ‘Not Quite Ready’, is an emotional experience to listen to on any level, but particularly if you have experienced the death of an elderly loved one.
Having followed the well-trodden path of the folk singer from floor spots through to pub gigs and beyond, Greg doesn’t play covers any more. He has become confident and comfortable in his abilities and these days he wants to play to people who want to listen. He doesn’t believe in long introductions when playing his songs live, saying ” what’s the point of telling the story then singing the song?“
Over time he has come to enjoy the format of the Song Writing Circle where he performs in a relaxed way with other like-minded writers such as Alex Seel and Katie Whitehouse and hopes, in due course do more of that though for now he is enjoying a time where music is not all consuming. “I really like the format because you get to showcase your best songs and, apart from anything else, I get to hang out with other musicians, which doesn’t often happen when you are a solo singer.” The new album was originally intended to accompany a major tour of the Song Writing Circle that required a lot of self-promotion and marketing but which collapsed overnight along with live work everywhere. He took the decision to release the album anyway as part of the natural order of things and I think there are many who will be glad he did.
It seems the completion of ‘Architecture and Archaeology’ was very much the end of an era in many ways. “I didn’t write much after completing the album. I pretty much put the guitar away and didn’t pick it up again until [the spring of this year] because I really wanted to have a break. I am looking for something else to write about but I’m not sure what that is yet. I have a few lines and tunes forming now but I’m not putting any pressure on myself.”
In answer to my question as to how he is filling his time now he replies with a huge grin that he is dividing his time between crochet and gardening. He told me of the enjoyment he is getting from turning his little back yard into a ‘proper’ garden, but crochet? “You know, it’s one of the ironies of life…take Facebook… I posted a picture of a cushion I had made. 169 ‘likes’ within an hour…new album…6.”
Be in no doubt Greg Hancock is a man comfortable in his own skin and in his own songs and nothing but good things, and good songs can come from that.