When you’re credited with being the instigator of electric folk then it’s hard to shake the attendant reputation, the legend’s fine but what do you do when you want to try something different? Ashley Hutchings a hundred albums to the good – intends to change stations but still use what’s gone before to create new music. Taking a compass along Simon Jones talks with him about direction, purpose and determination.
Ashley Hutchings is perhaps the most careful, precise and thoughtful person I’ve regularly interviewed in all the years I’ve been doing this music writing lark. Ask him a question and you never get an off the top of the head response, this is someone who thinks about what he says and who answers with gravity, honesty and plain candour. He doesn’t strike you as someone who does things without planning or at the very least thinking things through from a number of angles, he is an individual who knows the benefits of organisation and management. His achievements speak for themselves, we could list them here but that’s just repetition for it’s own sake, suffice to say his work earned him an MBE in 2015, some of us thought he deserved a knighthood, and the fact that he’s recently issued his 100th album equally speaks volumes. Another thing you should know about Ashley Hutchings is that he creates associations which last, amongst those who currently play alongside him are friends from twenty, thirty and in the case of Simon Nicol fifty six years standing. Sit down with him for just a few minutes and before long you realise how reassuringly English he is. That feeling puts much of his endeavours into context and seems fitting for a conversation with the man who no less than Bob Dylan described as ” the single most important figure in English folk rock.” He’s very modest about the accolade though is obviously pleased it came from one of his heroes.
Unavoidably a lot has been laid at his door, the trouble is that leads to one way thinking amongst the cognoscenti and wider public. Expectation and familiarity can be a double edged sword, as far as I know Ashley Hutchings has never taken to being pigeonholed and he’d tell you creativity should be as wide and diverse as the artist wants it to be. You can’t always find inspiration exclusively in the folk music and traditions of these islands, searching elsewhere has to be an option. So as we settle to begin I ask him if he would define himself as a restless individual.
“I would say that for me change is a creative spur. It’s not in my make up to rest on my laurels. I finish a project and immediately start on something else. Holidays don’t exist for me.”
So how does change come about for you?
“I’d say it’s a combination of me finding change and change finding me.”
Change is in the air, if you’ve been paying close attention to Ashley’s recent albums you’ll have noticed a subtle increase in the use of theatrical elements readings, poetry, film clips and an atmosphere of cinema verite. Why? Well, his latest stream of work has foundations in personal experience. ‘Paradise & Thorns,’ is a reflection on a long ago love affair, originally chronicled on the superb, ‘By Gloucester Docks’. To explore the tangled web of emotions and the whole bittersweet episode it was important to him to make the work as relevant, yet subtle, as possible; it delves deeper with a second disc which explores the concept of love. Further both discs have music at their core but add weight and gravity to selections from Donne, Pushkin, Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as snatches from the movies ‘Casablanca,’ and ‘Charge Of The Light Brigade.’ That was album 98. Then came 99. It gives a glimpse into the quicksilver like thinking of the man.
“The ’99 Impressions’ album is a separate entity to anything I’ve done before. Yes I’ve often used spoken word on an album but this is almost completely a spoken word piece. There is very important and wonderful accompanying music as well but the core of the album is my voice and my choice of words. These are a combination of my writing and my selection of wonderful words from other writers that I’ve gathered together over a long period. The only link I will make with this album and the proceeding ‘ Paradise & Thorns,’ is that the two are very personal, although I hope that people will embrace my visions.”
Ashley smiles when I venture that some of his followers might raise an eye brow at such a bold move.
“There’s no doubt that my audience will find ’99 Impressions,’ very left field. However I think it may be good to stretch their collective imagination and open new windows.”
Yet coming after ‘Paradise & Thorns’ should anyone have really been so surprised, he had clearly signposted the direction of travel on that release. The list of poets, writers and thinkers on ’99’ is long, too many to list they range from Camus to Wilde, Cocteau to Goddard, Renoir to Nin – and that only scratches the surface. You can’t easily describe the recording it’s a bit like a lucky dip.
“I want different people to take different things from it. I love it when the audience come up with various reactions and responses to the album. There is no earthly reason why there should be uniformity in the way people relate to the album and its contents. I love variety and I want the listeners to be eclectic in making links and understanding what it all means. Yes, it’s my selection but I’m not here to say it’s any better than anyone else’s, what I am saying is I hope it’s entertaining and sparks further investigation or debate.”
Music’s still there if only as support.
“Again with this album I always imagined music would be an essential part of the work. I worked very, very closely with my son Blair, (guitar) Sid Peacock, (guitar) Jacob Stoney, (keyboards) and Ruth Angell, (violin & vocals,) to get exactly what I wanted. We composed and recorded this across 2021… which meant we had to mostly work from home. I loved that, everything was just there, no trips to the studio, it was a very rewarding way of doing things.”
It must be very pleasing to you working so closely with Blair.
“Of course it is very rewarding to work with my son, both as a father and as an artist. We share many tastes in music which is surprising given he is 30 and I am 77. He has a very good knowledge of music from the past, particularly the 1960s, when I first started. He was always a good guitarist as a young boy but now is an extremely good guitarist and now has added a great song writing ability and a lovely voice to his talents.”
Ashley with an extremely good guitarist. Notice any similarity?
You’ve worked hard to justify ’99’ and taken real pains to explain it’s importance to you.
“The album was extremely satisfying to bring to fruition. For me it is totally successful and as such is one of my very favourite albums (out of 100).” He pauses a moment. “It’s been many years since I started using spoken word and a sense of theatre on my albums – ‘Rattlebone and Ploughjack’ and ‘The Compleat Dancing Master,’ were both recorded in 1973. (Issued through Island on their Help label. SJ.) Interesting for me to think that came well before my work as music director at the National Theatre (1977 to 1981). This period was to colour all my future work. I think I’ve always been a bit of a showman, stretching back to school days.”
How much difference had there been in preparation after all you’ve used to working with a band on most of your records?
“I would say that there’s really no difference in the time that it takes to prepare a record, be it alone or when I’m working with a band. You’ve still got all the sourcing, the writing, arranging and usual background things which have to go on like cover art, sleeve notes. After 100 albums I’m pretty used to it all.”
And speaking of album 100, it’s recently unleashed into the racks of your nearest music emporium. ‘ More Songs From The Shows,’ picks up and dusts off the title of a run of cassette tapes Ashley originally put out back in the 1990/91, later released on CD by Road Goes On Forever.
“Unusually for me the idea of releasing ‘More Songs’ came from the head of Talking Elephant Records, Malcolm Holmes. I was happy to go along with this and when it became apparent that it would be my 100th album it seemed a very good choice to be number 100. It highlights some the shows I’ve created in the past few years. There’s stuff from ‘Psychedelia To Sonnets,’ which I suppose you could say outlines what I’ve done over my career, we celebrate the legacy of Fairport Convention with ‘Beginnings,’ ‘Crazy Man Michael,’ I’ve always been fond of and Becky Mills does a great job on the vocal. The next two begin with ‘Dylancentric’ material, I’ve always followed Bob, he’s one of the musical constants in my life somehow he spoke to me on those really early albums and he speaks to me still on his later and latest releases. We did a lot of Dylan’s songs in early Fairport of course and Steeleye used to sing ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune,’ acapella which is one selection on ‘More Songs.’ Whilst ‘Paradise & Thorns’ has my two romance themed albums at their core and are very much based in what we’ve already discussed.”
In it’s entirety yours is a pleasingly eclectic path Ashley. I suppose it’s natural for people to prefer some phases to others.
” I don’t think the audience for my work need to know all my history and influences. In fact that may in some ways be a set back for me. Throughout my career I have become known as a folk or folk-rock person – full-stop. In recent years I’ve become an all- round artist, with a capital A, at home with films, poetry, theatre and music from many genres. ‘Paradise & Thorns’ illustrates this. Maybe I’ll start to get phone calls from arts programmes on radio and tv. That’d be good! ” He smiles with pleasure at the thought.
Ashley Hutchings on the BBC’s ‘Imagine’…. no where near as fanciful as it might seem. In fact start the petition now! In the meanwhile no doubt he’s already planning album 101. Did I say planning?
“101? That’s is already recorded and ready to go. It’s the new Albion Christmas Band offering “All Are Safely Gathered In.” It’s on Talking Elephant as well, yes, it’s the same steady line up we’ve had for years now, Simon Nicol on guitar, Simon Care on melodeon, Kellie While on vocals and me on bass and readings. I enjoy the relaxed pace of the band and of course it’s a great time of year to tour in the run up to Christmas, the audiences are so jolly and receptive.”
The Albion Christmas Band. Seasons Greetings!
So there really is no stopping Ashley Hutchings then?
“I don’t work at quite the same pace I used to, I’m happy to admit that Simon. For the future I have no intention of giving up writing, performing or recording, however I don’t plan too far ahead because I am older and not as fit as I used to be, so with age you do slow down. If people of my age tell you they don’t think about what’s coming then in my experience they are lying. Make the most of what you’re given and use it the best you can. I like to think I’ve led a fulfilling creative life.”
With a history of releases which match a decent score in cricket it’s tempting to use such well worn cliches as 101 not out or talking about Ashley still batting away – fill in your own sporting analogy – it pays to remember that his determination remains undimmed and his enthusiasm is equally robust. His mind as mercurial as it ever was, you can be sure that his adventures yet to come will be fascinating and stacked with unpredictability. Be honest now, we wouldn’t have him any other way.
English, eclectic and exceptional equals Ashley Hutchings.