1) You’re out working hard to promote your current album, “If Peel Street Could Talk”, and although it nods to Seegar and Hays, songs like “Ghost Of An ‘83 Ford” give it a very distinctive Northern twist. Is that the essence of your music?
To me they’re all just folk songs. Narrative storytelling goes right to the heart of folk music and I’m just following that tradition. I don’t necessarily make ‘folk’ albums as such, but then I think The Clash’s first album, or The Arctic Monkeys debut are folk albums in that they paint a picture of the times with a storytellers eye for detail. I write about what I see, about stories I’m told, about things I see happening in the world and I see myself walking that very same road Hays, Seeger, Woody Guthrie et al walked 80 years ago….just with some music from my punk days and a new century to write.
2) Is it true it was recorded in a shed in your back garden?
I do all my recording out in the shed. It’s not a studio or anything, but it is a BIG shed and it suits me just fine. It means I can work quickly and cheaply and the idea of just sticking a mic in front of myself and hitting ‘Record’ appeals to both my punk leanings and the thought of AJ Lomax and his travels.
3) I know you’re fiercely independent as a musician. Do you find the Internet to be a leveller for you, or does your recent nod from the likes of Mike Harding at Radio 2 carry more weight?
The internet is great for some stuff, less great for others. There’s a whole culture of bedroom musicians layering songs with two dozen overdubs and releasing an album then flyposting the internet with “hey, check me out…”. I prefer to get out there and play, but then maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Mike Harding playing my song has given me a real lift, to be pushed by someone you respect on national radio was brilliant. But then you still have to get up and go to work the next morning, and finding yourself lying under a washing machine with one foot in the dogs breakfast and the other in a cat litter tray soon brings you back down to earth I can tell you!
My independent streak comes partly from the old punk ethic, and partly from the fact that I just don’t trust any of the scoundrels involved in music above a certain level. At grassroots the people are brilliant, very helpful and supportive. Once you start reaching the big bucks level a whole bunch of new ‘friends’ appear, and they’d stab you in the back as soon as say ‘hello’. Thankfully you can be a working musician and not get involved with any of them. You just have to work harder and be very patient.
4) Alongside the regular albums, there’s the First World War project, “Potter’s Field”. I assume the interest comes from the human aspect of the stories? What’s the aim of the project?
To write a kind of ‘People’s History’ of the last century through the eyes of soldiers and their families. The First World War for me marks the beginning of modern history, and so it seemed the logical place to start. Vol I covered the war itself, Vol II which I’ve just finished recording, covers the immediate aftermath and those left picking up the pieces. Vol III is due in 2015, and it’ll cover the inter-war years and the Spanish Civil War, I’m researching that one now.
5) You worked with Andy Wilson to produce a book of short stories to accompany the CD. Was it a challenge to work in a collaborative manner when you’re used to the freedom of being a solo artist? Which comes first, the story or the song?
Well I’ve known Andy for as long as I can remember, so it was pretty easy for me. It was probably harder for him as I was in charge of editing, and no writer likes to be edited as I’m sure you know! In the case of Vol I the songs came first. With Vol II it’s been a bit of both, we discuss what we think would be a believable path for the characters to take and then lead them down it. Though Andy has a nasty tendency to kill characters off as fast as I create them…..
6) Clearly, your music respects the past, but it retains that contemporary feel. Which musicians do it for you? What’s your favourite record so far this year?
I love the new Gillian Welch album, that’s probably my fave. The song “Dark Turn Of Mind” is as good as it gets in my opinion. I love Bright Eyes too. Conor Oberst is the kind of fearless songwriter that is sadly largely absent from modern music, always twisting and turning, clever with rhymes, never working to a formula. Then it’s the stuff that you’d expect me to like: The Clash, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan….no point in ticking boxes.
7) What’s on the agenda (and I use that word deliberately…) for the future?
Well “Going Home: Music From Potter’s Field Vol II” is due out in January, and I’ll be gigging that with Andy in stories and songs. I’ll be starting to record my next album soon after, I’m writing it at the moment under the working title “Songs From The 121”, and between that and gigging and working and trying to raise a family it should be enough to keep me out of trouble in 2012……at least as out of trouble as I ever get……
6th Aug : Acoustic Bistro, Scarborough
7th Aug : The Sun Inn, Stockton-on-Tees
12th Aug : The Fulford Arms, York
13th Aug : Hillside Music Festival, North Yorks
20th Aug : The Waggon & Horses, York
27th Aug : The White Hart, Mickleby
3rd Sept : Hollywood & Vine, Hull
9th Sept : The Greystones, Sheffield (w/Otis Gibbs)
10th Sept : Elphin Drift, Husthwaite
Further dates can be found via Joe’s website above.