An exclusive interview with Ashley Hutchings about his new album by Simon Jones.
In September 1987 Ashley Hutchings released a truly remarkable and strikingly personal album, By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down & Wept. Detailing a love affair with painstaking references to his own feelings and the ensuing fallout it was the last thing you’d expect from the architect of British folk rock. Over thirty years later he has returned to the original to shape a sequel and provide some kind of closure. Simon Jones met with the Guv’nor to ask why now and to put the albums in context.
It was the cover which first made me take notice. Sure the name said Ashley Hutchings but there was this clown with a huge tear on his right cheek staring at me from the cover. Was it Ashley Hutchings? Closer examination revealed that to be true. What was going on? I knew he’d dressed up in some crazy outfits for the Morris On albums but this album had an altogether different air. It seemed as if it was regretful, melancholy, perhaps pained. The illustrious roll call of musicians was as usual in ready order, some Albions and some newer names Mattacks, Taylor, Gregson, Collister, Zorn, Beer, Whetstone. Steve Ashley even popped up as did Hedgehog Pie piper Mick Doonan, Polly Bolton sang along with A.H. himself. The set was star studded to be sure. The label was new, Paradise and Thorns, opposites; maybe that said something. I had to play the record, so dropped it onto the deck.
What came from the speakers was remarkable, the bed of the album was folk and rock blended with spoken words, snatches of letters, inner thought and contemplation, everything was bold in intention and candid in its detail, yet none were ever named, no blame or bitterness attended. Yes, there was regret, there was guilt and feelings which peaked one moment and troughed the next, it was a roller coaster ride through a cycle of love, a love that in truth could never be. Ashley Hutchings had put it all in front of the listener, bravely saying yes I felt this, I did that, this is how it was, I hoped for different but…. when I’d played the album that but stayed. It lingered in the air somehow leaving unanswered questions and lots of what ifs. All this viewed through a Brief Encounter prism, musically the backdrop was country dance – and no I don’t mean the kind that wear Stetsons and boots- this was polkas, jigs and village hall hops. Before now folk rock artists had given us break up albums, John Martyn alternately raged and cooed about his ex-Beverley with Grace & Danger, Richard & Linda Thompson’s public spats were explored in growling depth on Shoot out The Lights. Both great albums, both birthed in tension. Gloucester Docks was the opposite of that, its interludes were romantic, its participants polite yet whilst growingly attracted also resigned to the inevitable, a bittersweet parting.
I forget when I first met Ashley, I guess it was around the same time he moved north, near to Stockport as I recall. There had been an Albion gig in Macclesfield, after that I arranged an interview in which we covered the whole gamut of his career, a career he cared deeply about, choosing his words carefully and precisely, no question was left unanswered. The pride in the bands he’d founded which shaped a genre, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, The Albion Band was obvious. It was when we turned to his solo activities that I relayed the fact I thought that By Gloucester Docks was his personal triumph, he thanked me and said it held special resonance as far as he was concerned. Down the days since I’ve written lots more about Ashley and the Albions, met lots of his musical compatriots and a heavy percentage of them hold a healthy respect for Gloucester. The album itself spawned a live tour featuring many of those who played in the studio, recordings from the gigs came out as a CD on The Road Goes On Forever label under The All Stars banner. For a while that seemed to be that until archivists at Talking Elephant gave Gloucester a second life in dual format in 2013/15. It became one of their best sellers remaining in catalogue ever since, it stands on its own merits and there for any to explore. And if you’re reading this still not having heard it, you know what to do at this point.
It was earlier this summer that I got a phone call from Ashley’s press officer, the excellent Stevie Horton, asking me if I wanted a copy of a special album and would I say what I thought. A mystery, intrigued I said naturally I would. When the package arrived I was pleasantly surprised by what I found, a CD which not only updated the story begun on By Gloucester Docks but included an extra disc of music, snatches of film, theatre readings and spoken pieces that widened the vision and landscape of the concept. Titled Paradise & Thorns again cryptic the notes inside were considered yet revelatory, matters had indeed moved on, it seemed opportune to speak again. Not only to ask about the new album but put the first release into perspective. I had a long list of questions, Ashley was amiable as ever.
Gloucester Docks must have been a hard album even to consider, let alone release given your personal stake in it.
“Initially, after falling in love, I was inspired to write poems, song lyrics, along with the letters and cards. After a while I realised that I had quite a lot of material which could make the basis of an album if programmed correctly and certain other pieces were added to form a coherent fairly chronological order. It was the artist in me driving this idea.”
They say pent up emotion does no good to anyone, was the original album a cathartic release or did it have a different impact on you?
“Well anything that was pent up certainly was given an outlet!”
How hard was it to balance when you came to writing and selecting the material, you had to keep an even hand when this was your life you were writing about?
“The process is – write/compose from the heart then edit, plan and record with an organised will. It wasn’t hard at all to put it all together. This convinced me that I was doing the right thing.”
Was it always going to be a mixture of sources?
“It was always going to be words and music. There are many instances of albums that I’ve worked on in the past that use this format. I found it easy.”
The original album stands as a complete whole, did you find that you had material left over or things you dropped for whatever reason?
“There was indeed material left over when I had put the complete album together. There were some writings which weren’t up to scratch and songs which didn’t quite fit. With my new Paradise and Thorns album I was able to use some recordings from the late eighties which truly belonged here – Trip to Bath, Kitty Come Down The Lane. Also Our Stolen Season from a 2005 live concert recording had found its rightful place.”
On the original album which are the key tracks in your thinking?
“Key tracks from Gloucester Docks are quite a few – I Dreamed A Dream, Ring On Her Finger, Brief Encounters, To Ireland I Made My Way – I suppose they’re also the best songs.”
The original musicians and readers for me were just the perfect blend for such an evocative album. Hand-picked no doubt?
“You’re right, the performers on the album were just perfect, to my way of thinking. Technically brilliant but emotionally true. I chose wisely. No “if only I had….”
The critical reception Gloucester Docks got was pretty positive but did you meet any resistance to it?
“There were some positive reactions to the album but it never had a chance for big sales because of the unsuitable record label and the lack of publicity budget. When it was re-released in 2013 it received a great reception. Of course I’m hoping that Paradise gets all the coverage I hope for and that people who missed Gloucester Docks will seek that out. It’s not an album that you can say isn’t very good. You can only say it’s not my cup of tea, it’s too emotional. Down the years I have had many, many face-to-face comments which have been very moving. If people take it to their hearts then they really love it.”
Was there ever the temptation to leave it as a glorious one off statement or did you always intend to tour the material later?
“I thought it was a glorious one-off and only with the passage of time did I imagine I might do a ‘revisited’ album though a lot of people encouraged me to do that.”
What difficulties did you find playing the songs live?
“There was an eleven-date tour in 1988 with a hand-picked All Stars band. The band – Dave Mattacks, Clive Gregson, Polly Bolton, John Sheppard, Pete Zorn – were great in every way but I found it really hard to present such intense material to a live audience. So technically no problem, emotionally though a massive difficulty.”
And there matters might have lain, Ashley had an admired creation and time heals or at least covers over any wounds, lets other things take precedence. It was the reissue by Talking Elephant which raised the album’s profile once. Not only did it come out on CD but they restored it to vinyl.
“Initially, after the 1980s, I believed that (as you say) Gloucester Docks was a complete work. Partly because I had put “everything” into the album and partly because the lady in question and I had gone our separate ways. Then, increasingly people would come up to me, usually at gigs, and tell me how wonderful the album was and how much it meant to them. About five years ago Talking Elephant suggested that they re-release the album with new artwork. Of course I agreed. I attempted to find the lady to tell her of the impending release but couldn’t make contact. Then the white cover cd and a little later vinyl, came out and this time received many very good reviews, followed by a lot more people telling me how much they loved – never “liked” – the album. I started to think seriously about a follow-up.”
It must have taken a lot of careful, personal thought, in terms of emotion and logistics.
“Last Summer it was 32 years after the first meeting with the lady in question when I had a cathartic evening/night. I had lost touch with her for some years and I suppose wanted desperately to make some kind of connection. That night I said to myself if I’m ever going to make a damn follow-up then now is the time! Maybe I haven’t got much time anyway. I started piecing things together and by dawn it was mostly mapped out.”
The finished product is a lavish presentation. Can you explain why you felt it important this have wider scope than the first album.
“One evening last July I put Gloucester Docks on (I’d not heard it for some time) and it affected me greatly. I went back to notes I had made, re-read diaries from the eighties, got out photos, re-discovered old recordings which hadn’t been used at the time of the original release, and much more. Through the night I started to plan a sequel, with the help of cups of coffee and a box of tissues. By daylight much of a new album was in place, on paper. In the following weeks it progressed. I was able to re-connect with the lady. I started to record new songs. Then the thought came to me that a second disc covering “other tales of love” could make the piece fully rounded. It took the best part of half a year of solid work to finish the album. Then the artwork developed and turned out as you say pretty lavish.”
Was it always going to be a mix of sources, I know you’ve always thought words as valid as music but here there are examples from screen plays, is cinema another of your interests?
“The idea to use aural film clips had been in my mind for some time and suddenly here was the perfect chance. I am a great fan of European films, mainly from the 30s, 40s, 50s and have a large collection of DVDs. I found that an idea or a song would lead me to choose the clips which made it on to the album. Why choose the French clips on the Gloucester Docks Revisited disc? They just resonated with me. So, the sources of the tracks are various. A few had been recorded in the eighties and fitted, some had been previously released but appertained to our time together and had thus found their rightful place. Some were completely newly written and recorded. ”
Did you decide against a fixed band approach early on? You kept some old associates on there though. Tell me something about J.J Stoney and Fred Claridge they’re newer names to me?
“I was very happy that my son Blair became involved in the album and his trio’s musicians seemed a good fit to use on some tracks. J.J.Stoney and Fred Claridge are respectively keyboard player and drummer. Like Blair they are in their twenties. The mix of musicians and singers spans all age groups. Singer/songwriter Kitty Macfarlane is starting to break through and Ken Nicol is a long trusted friend and wonderful guitarist.”
Whilst much of the story has links to folk I assume that you don’t want this to be seen as a folk album?
“I don’t want the limitation of expectation which a folk album usually brings. I would call Paradise and Thorns a work of popular art.”
You changed some lyrics to Kitty Come Down The Lane, why was that? Was there much tinkering with the previously recorded material?
“Kitty Come Down The Lane had many verses when I first wrote it in the eighties. There were a few versions recorded then. I assume you know that the title is an old country name for Cuckoo Pint. (Including a cracking version on the Albion’s Give Me A Saddle & I’ll Trade You A Car. Topic. SJ). This naturally brings me on to something I want to say. The album is littered with multi-layered information and meanings. Like with the Westonbirt Sonnet on the original GD album, for example. In order to get the most out of the poem the listener/reader needs to know something of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. An example on the new album could be Devil-May-Care In Our Dancing Shoes primarily draws on the legend about going down to the crossroads. In the blues the legend is that Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and made a pact that would give them their great skills. Research reveals that this is in essence a mythological belief that one went down to the “crossroads” to learn. I took this info and played with it in my lyric – with humour and with darkness and despair.”
A lot of the new additions concentrate on more optimistic elements was that on purpose or do you think they tell more, maybe keep things just as discreet?
“I’ve tried to be discreet with the new material. In fact I think I’m more discreet and also more mysterious with the writing. If I have a criticism of the original GD it is that I am too graphic in places. Her Catholic religion, her five children, etc.”
Thirty Two Years Is a Lifetime makes a lovely coda but it holds many instances which suggest maybes, did you find it easier to write about those times in 2017/18 as you did for the original release?
“I found it easy to throw my mind back and to write what I wanted to write. I still have very strong feelings for the lady as is evident. Although I have had a wife and many female partners she appears to be my only muse. The first disc is full of maybes!”
You write that you’re back where you first started, what are the positives you’ve brought forward?
“I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I should have learned!”
Why the second disc and how does it reflect the first?
“The second disc just grew and grew, without any pre-planning. I think it stands on its own and doesn’t have to be twinned with the Gloucester Docks revisited disc.”
This disc has even more cinematic references. I find a lot of West Side Story in Welcome To The World, are there snippets like that for people to connect with?
“ You’ve made the connection of Welcome To The World with West Side Story. I find this interesting and not one I have made, but perfect because I would love people to make their own connections, and not just with this song.”
You bravely put a lot of yourself into the second disc as well, especially Above The Angels.
“The song that I wrote with Blair, Lost In The Haze, is graphically about my first love but if it allows people to remember their first love then I am truly happy.”
How important was it to you to have your son along?
“It was wonderful to have Blair on the album. He plays quite a big part. Aside of being my son he is just about my first choice as a singer/writer/guitarist to work with. I love everything he does. I suppose it would have been pretty terrific to have say, Richard Thompson on the album but Blair is terrific in all kinds of ways.”
No touring or shows planned for Paradise & Thorns?
“No chance of a tour I’m afraid – the double-album is too complicated and expensive.”
What is your hope for the album?
“What is my hope for the album ? Well I have succeeded in making the album I was driven to make, and to my satisfaction. So I am content. Very content. Further than this I hope that a good number of people will enjoy it. There is certainly something for everyone who values love, in its many forms.”
The milieu of both albums is the world of English traditional dance, have you remained in touch with the changes and recent trends in that genre? The answer is perhaps obvious.
“No, I never kept in touch with the dance scene. If you are the right kind of person then dance can be a social and emotional experience.
When I was heavily into folk dance in the seventies and eighties there were many different kinds of dance experiences to be had.
There were vestiges of the approach that Cecil Sharp wanted to instil into society, there were young people who wanted to dance the Morris with new-found verve and knowledge, there were just social dances that people of all backgrounds wanted to experience because it was fun. Live and let live, eh?”
He smiles as if to say he’s found an ending to it all. As to what kind of ending I don’t want to pry or ask more, I’ve asked enough as it is. Instead as a postscript I hope Ashley won’t mind if I close this piece with his words from the penultimate track on Paradise & Thorns. ‘One thing is certain. We cannot re-live the past. Except in memory…or in dreams.’
Paradise & Thorns is out on Talking Elephant Records. www.talkingelephant.co.uk