Interview with John Blek

Folk and Tumble catches up with Irish songwriter John Blek to talk about the making of his upcoming album 'The Embers' and plans for the next year.

Ahead of the launch of his new album ‘The Embers’ and upcoming tour dates, Folk and Tumble caught up with John Blek for a quick chat about his music and new album.

FT: What were your earliest musical memories growing up and do you remember one specific time, song or genre of music that caught your attention and made you think I want to do that?

JB: As kids, we used to go on holidays in Toyota Hiace van that my father had converted into a camper. We had a pretty modest set of cassettes to choose from but the one that I would always choose was a mix of Willy Nelson duets. It had The Highwaymen, Ray Charles and bizarrely Julio Iglesias. I could sing every word of every song.

As far live music goes I remember being in a small bar in Dingle, Co. Kerry and a group came in and struck up an acoustic session in front of the fire. The song that stuck with from that was Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’. An English guy who was holidaying in Kerry just hopped up and sung it. Coming from a house that had no musicians I was in awe of these people just getting up to play a song. How did they know what the other musicians were going to do next? It was alchemy. It was an intense experience for me as a kid.

FT: To my ear, you appear to have a unique tuning on your guitar that reminds me of some of the Celtic tuning that Rory Gallagher used frequently. Is that a sound you developed over time or was it always there?

JB: It’s definitely something that I developed over time. I used to play in a band called The Rats where I was playing rhythm guitar. Just standard tuning. I didn’t really have space to do anything particularly interesting so when I started playing solo it was a shock to the system. I had so much more sonic space to fill. I started experimenting with tunings as they allowed me to keep a drone note throughout the song while playing bass notes with my thumb and the melodies with my first and second fingers.

It really is the basis of what I do now and how I perform. I find it to be more expressive and it allows a guitar resonate come alive a lot more. Using different tuning and modes opened up to a whole new songwriting vein.

FT: Your last album ‘Thistle and Thorn’ received critical acclaim and won you an IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) award. As an independent artist, what does that recognition mean to you?

JB: 2019 was a really good year for me. I gigged more and received more coverage than I ever have. My music has, in the last few years become my full-time job. In a time where lots of people complain about how hard it is to earn from original music, that’s a pretty big deal.

Things like the IMRO Award are nice. I’m not one who seeks constant validation from my artistic piers but as a business person or a sole trader, it’s pretty great to get a pat on the back from an industry body. The plaque looks good over the piano too! Thistle and Thorn’ has done me well.

FT: One of the things that I like in particular about your music is that each song seems to contain its own story. Is that how you approach the process as a writer?

JB: Most definitely yes. When I write for an album I write around a loose theme but each song will have its own narrative. There are two types of songs for me. There are songs that are a relatively obtuse selection of images and ideas which just fall out of your mouth onto the page and then you have the songs that seem clearer and involve a theme or pre-determined idea that you work at.

Both are fun to work on. The former being a flow of ideas that you analyse after to realise the meaning and the latter being the songs you begin with meaning and endeavour to explain yourself.

I love to draw on old folk song and story themes and try to bring new life to them.

 FT: ‘Thistle and Thorn’ took a lot of inspiration from the natural world.  What would you say the inspiration is behind your new album ‘The Embers’?

JB: So ‘The Embers’ is part three in a series of four albums that I have been working on. The first was ‘Catharsis Vol. 1’ and concerned itself with songs of the sea and water, ‘Thistle and Thorn’ made reference to the joy and life we get from the earth, ‘The Embers’ uses the flame to talk about lust, some love and political and personal change.

Next year I will release the final part entitled ‘On Ether and Air’. Each album has a similar aesthetic and will come together to form a final piece.

FT: You had a few guest musicians join you in the studio for ‘The Embers’.  Who were they and how did the collaborations come about?

JB: I recorded this album at Wavefield Recordings, Clonakilty in West Cork. I’ve recorded all my solo stuff there. Brian Casey (producer) and I make a really good team. I had my friend and long time collaborator Davie Ryan in to play percussion. He also plays in the all-star prog trad group Atlantic Arc Orchestra with Aidan O’Rourke, Donal Lunny and Pauline Scanlon to name a few.

Matthew Berrill played clarinet and bass clarinet on this record, such a beautiful breathy instrument and he plays it so well. We met at a gig on Inishboffin a few years ago. It was a collaborative show but none of us had met before. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it was one of those rare instances where it took off and we floated two foot off the stage for the duration of the show. We’ve stayed in touch since.

Finally, fellow Cork man Mick Flannery came in and added his distinctive voice to the record. I have also admired his songwriting and his singing. A unique voice and an ability to blend the classic and contemporary in his writing. It was more than pleasant to hear him sing my lyrics. I got a kick out of it.

FT: Will you be touring the album as a solo musician or with a band?

I will be doing shows in Cork and Dublin with a small band which we’re calling “The Embers Ensemble” and the rest of the gigs will be solo. Plans are already afoot for some more ambitious band shows next year!

John Blek plays The American Bar, Belfast on 13th March 2020. Tickets available via Ticketsource.