Provided by Linn (HarperPR) and used with kind permission.
NICK HARPER EXCLUSIVE MYSPACE INTERVIEW
During the latter part of 2006 I caught up with Nick at various points around the country to harangue him with a few burning questions.
Linn Branson: Okay, Nick, let's begin with the guitars themselves. How many do you own and what are they?
Nick Harper: I've got six…or seven, maybe. My main guitar is a Lowden. An 023, which I've customised and tuned down to baritone tuning with a 66 on the bottom. That's like a piano tuning which gives me great depth and a low resonance which marries up with my voice quite nicely. Then there's another Lowden; an Avalon – which is sort of a Lowden copy; a Takamine 12-string; a Yairi – which is good for recording; a baritone Jerry Jones electric guitar, and a round-top guitar called, I think, a graviola?….No, claviola. That's a Brazilian guitar and which was originally Dad's and was the one I learnt to play on. I only use one guitar though at any time.
LB: Do you play electric guitar, seeing as you own one?
NH: No, not for fun! It's the whole rigmarole involved of plugging it in.
LB: So what was it about the acoustic guitar that appealed?
NH: Well, there were always guitars around at home, and they were acoustic, so it was something that I grew up with. That and assuming that that was what Harpers did – played guitars!
LB: Is the guitar for you just more or less a 'tool of your trade', or do you see it as something more – a piece of living art, say?
NH: Well, in a way, yes…A guitar for me isn't for hanging up on the wall and polishing. It's for playing and for the enjoyment of playing and using; not necessarily abusing, but stretching…and pushing, until, you know, you find the limit of it. I love it for itself. I love the expressive qualities that it has and being able to explore what it has to offer on its own; possibilities seem endless. It's a good vehicle for a solo guy as well, so it's yes to both those statements.
LB: Do you play every day, aside from when touring and recording?
LB: You don't practise at all?
NH: I pick up a guitar most days, but probably only for fifteen minutes. But if I've got the guitar there, the kids are out and I've got the space then I could get carried away and end up playing for five hours. But family life doesn't usually give up that amount of space. I tend to do most of my playing on the road really, when I'm alone in hotel rooms or something.
LB: What strings you use?
NH: The best in the world – Newtone.
LB: And how about gauge and tuning? - do I sound like I know what I'm talking about here…!
NH: (laughs) Er, no, not really…! A heavy gauge would be a 52 or 56, I use a 66 on the bottom which means I can tune it very low, but get the right amount of tension and right tone. A normal guitar player's bottom string would be an E, but mine is a D – a string lower than anyone else's –
LB: – is there a specific reason for that?
NH: Well, it started when I was touring with Dad years ago. He tuned his guitar down to go with his voice, so I tuned mine down to play lead guitar to his songs. Meanwhile, I was writing songs with this guitar…and then I was lumbered with it! I couldn't sing these songs in a different key, but the guitar itself didn't really cut it so I had to get a proper acoustic guitar and get it into the area where my voice was comfortable with the songs I'd written. That has left me sort of marooned from other musicians in a strange area, but it's also given me my own little island which people kind of look to and wonder how I got there, which is quite good – a bit different.
LB: You're known, of course, for being a guitarist, but are there any other instruments you play?
NH: No. I can't read music; I don't have any formal training. I do stuff occasionally on my albums – I played mouth organ on Big Jim And The Twins and the fiddle on Building Our Own Temple, and on that it took me weeks to learn one little part – but I can't play Moonlight sonata or Chopsticks even –
LB: - I thought everyone could do Chopsticks!…
NH: ….I can't! I can't play I Wanna Hold Your Hand on guitar either!
LB: Well, you're never too old to start learning….
[For awhile we interrupt seriousness for a brief interlude of quick-fire Q&As before resuming normal questioning]
LB: What makes you cry?
NH: Onions! (laughs)
LB: Come on…be serious now!
NH: What makes me cry? Er, well, the birth of my children did.
LB: Which of your songs would you say reveals the most about you?
NH: Reveals the most? I don't know…you can look at all of them and see me in them. Blood Song shows that I…I don't know, they all say something different, don't they. I mean, some songs are locked in the moment that they were written in and don't reveal a lot about the person in a wider context, like the songs of loss I wrote while I was single. Imaginary Friend…I suppose that has a wider view to it, but that's about my mum dying so it's a very narrow view in a song. But there are songs like Blood Song and My Little Masterpiece that show my view of how we're all connected and how everything you do has an effect on other people.
LB: What would your desert island luxury be?
NH: Chateau Margaux 1989 –
LB: - was that a good year?
NH: (laughs) Actually, make that Dom Perignon '66.
LB: Which song would you like played at your funeral?
NH: (there's a 20 second pause while he ponders this one) Siegfried's Funeral March from Gotterdammerung, Act 3 – a Wagnerian opera! (laughs loudly)
LB: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
NH: I'd be ten years older (laughs) and I'd like another arm so I could be the first three-armed guitarist! Seriously? I'd like a singing voice that is impervious to abuse and damage and come out like velvet whatever I did to it the night before.
LB: Name your best qualities?
NH: My best qualities? Er, I'm, er, I don't know…unpredictable –
LB: - you see that as a positive quality?
NH: I think so, yeah.
LB: So, your best –
NH: - alright then, I'm honest, loyal. I'm true, a bit of a fool…
LB: Right. Okay. Next: if you had to give up one of the two which would it be: sex or singing?
LB: So, getting back on track...the songs that you segue into, like Buckley, Blur et al, are they just songs you like and think would work?
NH: It's all different really. The full covers I've gone and learnt – like Guitar Man, Titties & Beer, The Galaxy Song. I've learnt the words, how to play them and then played them at a gig. But the others that I segue into longer songs of my own are usually…well, I'm improvising on a guitar on my own during a gig and it suggests some song I've heard and then I try and work it out in front of an audience. Some nights I get a bit of the way, then give up and go back, and then the next night I'll remember again and develop a little more of it. Then by the third or fourth gig I'll probably start singing along to it, and then it becomes part of the song.
LB: So it's not a case of thinking to yourself that a certain song would fit into one of your own quite nicely?
NH: No. I love the juxtaposition of putting Kylie or Liberty X in there. I think it's quite entertaining – quite stupid; a sort of shooting yourself in the foot move really as it takes away all the credibility of what's gone before and just brings it down to earth in a self-deprecating quick nod and a wink way to people, just in case they think I'm taking myself too seriously. Self-deprecating – that's another of my god qualities! And modesty – I'm incredibly modest. God, I'm great – at being modest! What I'll do is go into the song, sing a couple of the lines that I can remember then I'll go and work out what the lyrics are. It's the lyrics that I can't remember; it's ways the tune that comes first.
LB: You're known as something of a human jukebox for the number of songs you can do…
NH: I'm not that good.
LB: But you know quite a few!
NH: Glenn [Tilbrook] much better at that than I am. I'm no way near as good as he is, but I like to drift off and improvise.
LB: Can we talk a little about the new work? You're about to go into the studio to start on the next album –
LB: Run us through a few of the songs and the inspiration behind them.
LB: Field Of The Cloth Of Gold.
NH: That came about from reading about the young King Henry VIII of England and the king of France, Francis – I don't know what his number was – in 1520, who came together to talk about making treaties. They both had burgeoning empires at the time and both tried to outdo the other in a field outside Calais. They ended up bankrupting each other; each trying to impress with the amount of wealth they had – so much wealth in fact was on display that is became known as the field of the cloth of gold. I like history: history matters. There's a famous quote of Santayana which says 'those who do not know their history are doomed to relive their past'. It's an important area. It's exciting too. It's full of real stories – some stranger than fiction! – and they make up the world we live in today, and our children tomorrow. I get into history books more than science fiction. When I read this story, it just jumped out at me and I thought, 'yeah, that's the title for a song…'
LB: When we've talked about this song before you've said it also has a parallel reference to music today…
NH: Well, I tried to correlate it with the modern world and say that history is NOW; that this field of the cloth of gold exercise was really just a case of spending a lot of cash having a god time in a field somewhere. There's nothing wrong with that, but it rang bells with me with music festivals that go on now. Not that they're a flagrant waste of money – and I say at the end of the song, 'on the whole I'd rather be, on the field of the cloth of gold'. But the start of the song, the line, 'I followed my father's baggage train –', well, it's pretty obvious, I think. But yeah, you're right. So I am rather pompously putting myself in the middle of the field of the cloth of gold and giving it relevance and modernity by making it into a music festival – but tinged with a mediaeval edge: a parallel world going on between 1520 and 2006.
LB: Blue Sky Thinking.
NH: ….um, it's about looking outside the box really. Believing that your dreams can come true if you go for it.
LB: Evo Morales.
NH: Again, someone I read about – in a newspaper this time, so I don't just read history books (laughs). When I see someone like Evo - the president of Bolivia - who, the first thing he did when he got into office was to halve his pay and then refuse to wear a suit when he met the king of Spain…I thought, yeah, this is a good man, this is the sort of world leader we need: an honest, down-to-earth, transparent person who is trying to help his people.
LB: Merrie England.
NH: That's about travelling up and down the road, meeting people, getting drunk and having a good time.
LB: Here Comes The Gun.
NH: That's sort of my retort to George Harrison's Here Comes The Sun – a negative, cynical look at guns coming into Britain and how they are so easily available. That is another subject that resonates strongly within me and I feel I need to speak up about. It's probably too negative to put on an album, but I'll probably do it anyway
LB: Are these all finished works?
NH: Well (hesitates)…none of them are finished, not even Field of the Cloth of Gold. The ideas are there, but none of them are set. Merrie England will definitely change again; Blue Sky Thinking probably will; so will Evo Morales. There are another three or four half-done – Pocket Billiards is one – and um, there are a few pop songs in there as well.
LB: Do you have any idea of when the new album will be out?
NH: Yeah. I'll be recording over the winter and there album will be out on May 3, at seven o'clock –
LB: - you sound pretty definite about that..!
NH: Definitely! May 3. 2007.
LB: That will be something to look forward to.
The album – hopefully with all songs complete – will be in the shops from June 4 2007. Advance copies will be available during the preceding weeks, on Nick's UK tour.
© Linn Branson