Interview with Joshua Burnell

We caught up with musician and songwriter Joshua Burnell to chat about his new piano-led record, life in lockdown, making music, and top secret plans!

In the last in our series of interviews detailing how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting musicians' livelihoods and leaving them facing uncertain futures, we talk with folk-rocker Joshua Burnell.

FT: You’ve recently released a new album of piano music. Has the COVID-19 situation had an impact on the release plans?

JB: Indeed I have released a piano album! The idea was to take a song or two from each of my projects to date – side projects included – and arrange them all for piano. The album is called ‘Satellites’, as I thought it was a satisfying little metaphor for all the various projects I have orbiting around my brain. It was recorded on a Steinway grand piano which sounds glorious. It has also been very rewarding to revisit my previous work in a different and – to be honest – a more accessible way. People have responded very positively to it.

‘Satellites’ is a side project – not an official release – so in this sense, the release plans have not been affected. However, without spilling any beans or releasing any bagged-up cats, plans for later this year have been somewhat interrupted. The strategy was to add ‘Satellites’ to my roster, then have it on offer at gigs and festivals beside existing merch to raise funds for the aforementioned project that I’m not allowed to talk about and is most certainly still a secret.

Watch this space folks. (But surreptitiously).

FT: What can you tell me about your inspirations behind the new album?

JB: When I’m not making my usual folky noise with the band or as the duo with Frances, I play the piano three nights a week at Betty’s Tearooms in York. It got me thinking I really ought to record a piano album. I’m also hopelessly in love with the piano. It can roar like an orchestra or carry you off somewhere mesmerically. It’s just magic.

Exploring the traditional tunes on the piano was really rewarding too, as I feel traditional material – especially English stuff – is rarely approached on a piano, and it just gives it an entirely different feel. Pieces like ‘High Germany’ sometimes run the risk of sounding a bit ploddy and worn-out, so I tried my best to make it sound like modern cinema music and I think I got away with it. It just goes to show, no matter which genre or era it comes from, a good melody is a good melody.

FT: Like many musicians at the minute, you are sitting at home having had your main source of income taken away from you through no fault of your own. How does that sudden loss affect you financially and mentally?

JB: I would like to prefix this by saying lots of people in the world are struggling in many different ways with the current situation. It is awful and seeing what the heroic frontline workers are fighting through at the moment offers both inspiration and a sense of perspective.

There has been lots of support offered by the government during this time, but during such unprecedented times as these, some folks are bound to slip through the net. The arts is one of the holes in that net.

Financially, I am fortunate not to be completely reliant on music to make ends meet. However, it has completely compromised my plans for later in the year, which in turn has been somewhat worrying and a tad demoralising. Making music is an immensely long process that requires precise planning and significant investment. The whole thing is so delicate. My next release (which I’m not telling you about, remember? It’s a secret) is part of a large plan that started mid-2019 and won’t be completed until late this year. It has required heavy personal investment – I’m halfway there – and to complete it successfully, requires further significant investment. With my income from music paused, this throws up a whole load of questions. People have been really supportive, though, and have bought CDs, vinyl, T-shirts and even made private contributions, which has reminded me there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re one of those people and you’re reading this, thank you!

FT: Did you have to cancel tour dates?

JB: Yes, though not as many as some others. My main cancellations were a handful of band shows, some duo shows, and the biggie – Costa Del Folk festival (the organisers have said they’re keen to re-schedule as soon as is sensible). The biggest loss has been my regular weekly gigs which pay for everything else.

FT: As a self-employed musician, are you aware of any government support measures?

JB: I am aware of the support for the self-employed, however, as this is based on net profit, not gross income, and as I have invested everything in my albums, I, unfortunately, don’t quality for any support. The Musicians’ Union is updating us on the situation every day.

The wonderful support packages that folks like Help Musicians, PRS and Spotify are rolling out are for those who are struggling to pay rent, bills and buy food, so quite rightly, these support packages should go to those people.

FT: What can people do to support musicians like yourself through this difficult time?

JB: If people are in a position to, the best way to support musicians during the current situation (and indeed during normal times) is to purchase merchandise directly from artists. This keeps the ball rolling.

For those who listen digitally, the best thing to do is to save songs into playlists you have created. This teaches the algorithms of platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music that users value the music, and it will push it out to a wider audience.

FT: Looking forward in time, will we see the ‘Seasons Project’ finally released in 2020?

JB: Hopefully. The short answer is, it requires further work and investment: firstly to get the audio ready and next, potentially CDs (if people want it in this format). I have been as desperate as anyone to get it all out there!

Here’s the long answer: since it is such a massive project, it has brought up some complications. The songs aren’t at a standard where I’d be anywhere near happy releasing them; it would be a shame to release them at a sub-standard level when they could be really quite good. I was blasting out these tracks every week, so I didn’t have time to get the technical side of things sounding as it should have done at the time.

If I had just whacked up a camera and filmed myself playing songs on a guitar each week, yes, I’d have just put it out there and drawn a line under it. In reality, it was multi-tracked in the way you’d record a studio album. Being me, the tracks became steadily more elaborate, until I ended up recording four, full-length albums, some featuring highly complex, highly layered prog-rock/folk escapades you might expect if Jethro Tull had a baby with Genesis.

This means each track has to be carefully treated. And when I say track, I mean each track (instrument or voice) within each song. Mixing such a monster is no mean feat, but thankfully Ed Simpson, who mixed and mastered ‘The Road To Horn Fair’, has stepped up to the challenge. What a legend.

There are some other obstacles: having to spend a lot of time and energy recording something else which certainly isn’t another album which I most certainly am not telling you about because it is top secret; funding the ‘Seasons Project’ whilst trying to fund another project which under no circumstances shall be named; and lastly what to do with it when it is done. If it were just downloads – simple. However, lots of people said they would prefer CDs, which I greatly respect as it will mean we can enjoy a printed version of Annie Haslam’s gorgeous cover paintings. However, this is yet another thing that needs the F-word (funding, not the other one) so hopefully one day in the not-so-distant future, I’ll set up a fundraiser/pre-order system to get the ‘Seasons Project’ made in all it’s folky, proggy glory. And let’s hope the timing doesn’t clash with another – very confidential – project which I think I’ve done a brilliant job of not mentioning throughout this interview.

FT: Thanks for your time. Stay safe and I hope to see you on the other side before too long.

JB: Thank you so much for getting in touch and giving artists a voice during this uncertain time. I look forward to seeing you at the other end, even if we have to stand at least two metres apart…