The Red Sky Interview
February 2001

Ralph McTell Interview 2001
The following is an interview I did with Ralph via email in February 2001, in which I asked questions about Red Sky and invited Ralph to comment on one or two of my favourite songs on the CD.

Andy Langran: You produced 'Red Sky' yourself. Was this an experience you enjoyed?

Ralph McTell: My first production was "My side of your Window" in 1970 and I have had a hand in almost all of the albums since then. The exceptions would be 'You well meaning....', 'Not till tomorrow', 'Slide Away The Screen'. Production is very hard when you are producing yourself because you can often persuade yourself that things are OK when they are not. My production problems are mostly based upon hearing more music all the time, especially when the other musos have made their contributions to the track. This often extends to the string parts, because I love the dark brown viola and cello lines. Harmony is so important to me and although the taste these days, seems to be for more pared down presentations, where there is beauty in harmony my weakness is to always want to point it out. A lot of orchestral arrangements are added to disguise bland tunes. I don't think we ever wasted a bow stroke with my own stuff, but I can see that sometimes these additions can appear to "soften" the oveall effect and I believe this has made it harder for some listeners to listen to the songs. The other factor in producing, is to get beyond the sheer excitement of hearing your work back after a take. What begins as a chorded guitar accompaniment, comes back at you with all the parts bigger and bolder. Its like looking at cinemascope rather than through the view finder, but the image still has to look just as good through the view finder as it does on the big screen. On this production (RED SKY), whenever we were about to do a take where I wanted a live vocal, (most of the titles in fact) I got the guys together, and once we had all looked at the chord charts, I would play through the song and then tell them what the song was about, and what I hoped the listener would get from it. This sounds obvious, but it is amazing how many pro musos do not listen much to words. By doing it this way, I felt I got real sympatico responses from them all. To answer your main question, I always enjoy the final playback, but the work itself is incredibly demanding and exhausting. I ask everyone that is involved, what they think but usually I go my own way. I am always extremely grateful to my recording engineers, in the case of my last two CDs, this has been Mark Tucker.

AL: Alan Parker believes only one person can be in charge on a film set and this is the director. Sidney Lumet sees film making as a much more democratic process. Are you a Parker or a Lumet in the recording studio?

RM: A bit of both as you can see by the first answer. My songs take me a long time to write, and I am a bit protective of them. As they emerge, I am often thinking about how they should be presented, when they are recorded. I usually know what instrumentation they should have, and because I know what I want from them, before getting into the studio, I am probably more a Parker than a Lumet.

AL: There is a lot of variety on the album. You appear to have used musical styles that have either influenced you or that you particularly like.

RM: My musical influences are the songs of the thirties and forties, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael etc. Some R&Roll, Skiffle, Elvis, Country Blues, (especially guitar techniques,) Old Timey music from the US. the great Woody Guthrie, his "Bobness", Randy Newman, the guitar of Ry Cooder and Mark Knopfler. I also like the darker side of some Latin American music, French Chansonniers, and a bit of trad jazz. Especially the originals like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, Bix Biederbeck etc. I also have developed a deep affection of our own and Irish trad music. Whilst in the States in the mid seventies, I found out what I was missing in good country music, as opposed to country and western. I would hope that all these styles are within all I do in subtle forms. I do not like opera with the exception of some beautiful arias. I do not like much modern garage style music. I like Bob Marley, but find a lot of reggae's two chord stuff boring. I also enjoy modern jazz!!! Because of most critic's inability to accurately pigeon hole me, I think that my musical loves may have worked against me.

AL: 'Red Sky' has its share of country influenced tracks. Country music has got quite hip in recent years, with the appearance of artists like the Dixie Chicks. If someone's only knowledge of your work was 'Red Sky', they would be surprised to find you in the 'Folk Music' section at HMV.

RM: I think, if we took the steel guitar or the country sounding playing off those titles, they would probably still sound country. I am glad about this, but the corollary is that some people don't get past the lap steel, before they say "I don't like country", sadly. I love the guitar playing of Jerry Donahue and Steve Turner, who have both played on my records, and there is more soul in these two guitar players technique, than thousands of three chord "blues players". Any decent guitar player would have to acknowledge the influence and debt owed to country guitar players, after all, it was for them that the instrument was designed, and by their techniques, they've defined what the instrument can do.

AL: 'Wagon on the Motorway' is a wonderful example of turning a fleeting observation into a full blown story-song? Have you ever wondered how accurate you were?

RM: This incident occurred exactly as reported, and it filled me with joy and optimism. The freedom of the road, and being unfettered, allowing you to have your adventure unravel before you, is more or less what happened to me . I still get an echo of those feelings every time I leave London for Cornwall. That is why I love driving West.

AL: I think there is a nostalgic feel to much of 'Red Sky'. Do you think the album was influenced by the work you undertook for 'Angel Laughter'?

RM: Possibly, but then there is nostalgia on every album I make. Some American critic observed that I am the true romantic, as I seem to enjoy everything more intensely after it has happened. I am constantly working to change this, and learning to accept the moment as it happens. This becomes more vital as you get older! Angel Laughter was a total labour of love, where I did not have to turn every moment into a poem, but could just tell the truth. Since the book's completion, I have remembered enough to write another book about the same period, but will refrain. Incidentally, part two will not now, be out until Jan 2002. It is already written, but the publishers are hoping to get more publicity on Vol. 1

AL: 'Saucers' is similar to your work on Dylan Thomas. The song is an evocation of your Mother's life, rather than you being direct about your feelings for her.

RM: Yes. On my last tour, I best described this song as a collage of images through which I hope a glimpse of her life, dedication, and character emerges.

AL: 'Bicker and Rue' is quite a contrast to 'Naomi'. It also reminded me of Randy Newman's 'Marie' . Both 'Bicker and Rue' and 'Marie' are not classic love songs, but they are certainly love songs.

RM: It may interest you to know, that I recorded "Marie" by Randy Newman on the "lost" album. It is a deeply moving song of a flawed person, who is still deeply in love. "Bicker and Rue" is not my story, but like Naomi it is someone else's. I had observed two close friends, who were standing in distracted silence, whilst they waited for me and some others to arrive. Once, we were all together they were as animated as anyone in the company. I added all the other little situations, as the story revealed itself to me. I have not yet performed it, but so many have mentioned it, that perhaps it will be aired this spring.

AL: Could you tell me a little about 'I'll Keep This With Mine (Leaving 'Liggan Woods)' which is one of my favourites from the album?

RM: 'Liggan Woods', is the Cornish abbreviation for Heligan Woods that surround two sides of Heligan House and the "lost Gardens Of Heligan". Two of my oldest friends lived in a tiny game keepers cottage hidden in the middle of these woods. At least two miles in any direction from the nearest road, the soggy winters and financial worries, slowly forced them out of the idyll. For years they had no electricity or running water, and everything had to be carried by wheel barrow to the house. We enjoyed long summer days there, but there were times when the woods, long overgrown with rhododendrons, were oppressive and conspired to reclaim the cottage. My friends split up, and the cottage was sold. Although they are still friends, part of us went with them on their departure. Still, I hope there is optimism as the last verse says "still looking to the stars to give a sign" it is a reference to hope beyond logic. That after all is what brought us all together

AL: I like the humour in 'Icarus Survived The Fall'. You have used humour in other songs such as 'Big Tree', 'Choux Fleur'. Loudon Wainwright and Randy Newman both use it a lot in their work. Is bringing humour into your work something you find easy?

RM: I love humour, I laugh a great deal, some of my best friends are the ones I laugh most with. Many of my friends are musicians, and we share a madness in humour. We need it, to take us through the various rejections and misconstrusions our work takes us. I always remember Spike Milligan saying, that if it hadn't been for the orchestra at the early Goon Shows laughing all the way through, they would have been axed as they got barely a titter from the audience. I am a lifelong fan of Peter Sellars, who has made me laugh to the point of tears more than any other comedian or actor, he is one of the few, who can put humour on disc and for it to be funny in repetition. I suppose I would be content to have written songs that might be thought to be witty or dry, rather than funny. This is a tough area in which to work. Jake Thackeray springs to mind as one who can, along with the others you mention. I am a huge admirer of the talents of these writers. The song was actually stimulated by an account of a man who had fallen from a ski lift many years ago, and some how, realising that he was unlikely to survive the fall, he was seen to perform somersaults and swan dives on the way to his demise.

AL: 'Up' seems to me to be a companion piece to 'Icarus Survived The Fall'. On one level, the first is about striving towards a goal against the odds and the other the importance of how you view such efforts.

RM: This is a very perceptive observation and one to which I can add little. "Up" is a song to someone extremely close to me. I have tried to offer advice about fear of failure, or worse fear of mediocrity through acknowledging, that fear is part of achievement and has a role to play.

AL: It is obvious you enjoy collaborating with other musicians in the studio. This appears true of your last two albums 'Red Sky' and 'Sand in Your Shoes'. Would you like the opportunity to perform the new songs from 'Red Sky' live with a band?

RM: As you probably know, I have had several stabs at band work, and they have all been fraught with problems. Mostly, this is my inability to remember arrangements, or to count bars and rests during performances. It is also a matter of confidence. My audience seem to prefer to see me work alone. I believe that all good bands, need a year or two on the road to get their live work sounding good, and I have developed a sort of concert act, which would mean, that I would never feel competent on stage, if under rehearsed. There is also the matter of expense, and I honestly feel at the moment, I am able to deliver the songs with more intensity on my own. This does not however, mean that I don't love to perform with a band. I look forward enormously to playing with my Fairport Convention friends, and this year I will be joining their Dylan Project on stage in Skagen in Denmark for a few numbers.

AL: Another favourite from 'Red Sky' is 'Easter Lilies'. Could you tell me about this song?

RM: Sometimes, a true story will already have its own poetry within it. All that the writer needs to do, is to harmonize the narrative, and make it rhyme and scan. In this case, I did add some detail, but the story is as reported. The natural poetry occurs with the symbol of Easter, represented by the daffodils, which signifies a resurrection and renewal. Daffodils herald the spring. Its as if they show triumph over the old enemy of winter. The earth is not dead, life is reborn and resurected. The woman in the story goes through an almost ritualistic preparation for an end. It is as if she is about to sacrifice herself to her sadness, but all the time, she is preparing to survive. However, triumphant this might appear, she is still in a vulnerable state. Dizzy in her triumph, she clings to the cushions and her fragile situation is symbolised by the daffodils amongst the alter like candles in her apartment, but survive she will.

AL: While you were unhappy with 'The End of A Perfect Day', your venture into cover songs on 'Red Sky' seems to have been a much more enjoyable. Are there any other songs you would like to cover, either in concert or on a studio release?

RM: 'The End of A Perfect Day', nearly signaled the end of an imperfect career. I was coaxed into a dodgy selection of songs, with the promise, that the album would receive national promotion. Unfortunately, the business parties fell out, and this promise was broken, even before Graham Preskett and I had finished the record. I had previously done an album of covers, which will probably remain in the vaults. There are dozens of songs, that fall into the category of those I would have liked to have written, and I would love to record some more, but there are no plans at the moment. I did actually try to produce a version of "Raining in my Heart" for Danny Lane (my American drummer) on the Streets tour, but it did not come out. I have always loved the song, and played the boys my arrangement in the studio. We recorded it in one take with live vocals. Maart and the Girls went on later.

AL: Last year BBC Radio 2 broadcast some of your performance from the Sidmouth Folk Festival, at which you did a wonderful a cappella version of 'Streets of London'. It must have been fun doing the old favourite in a way that surprised your audience?

RM: The a cappella version, was Steve Knightly's idea and he, Phil Beer, Chris While and Julie Matthews routined the song, whilst I was doing sound check. It was only performed once, and I am so glad the Beeb recorded it. These two duos, have become great friends of mine.

AL: Have you ever wanted to perform any other of your songs with a different arrangement? Bob Dylan does this a lot, sometimes to the horror of his fans. I thought it was interesting when Bruce Springsteen performed 'Born in the USA' as he originally conceived it during his concerts of the late nineties. It wasn't originally seen as the anthem it is best known as.

RM: Yes, but I am not brave enough yet, although they all sound different to the way they were recorded. I have just remembered the first time I was told off for changing the tune. It was at Exeter University in 1972. The young lady was in tears, and I was shocked that anyone should care so much.

AL: A feature of your concerts is your spoken introductions to many of the songs you perform. Is there any chance that a few of these will be included on future volumes of 'Songs for Six Strings'?

RM: I always wanted to keep the talking on the final production, but successive managers have persuaded me to edit all the intros off. I hope, there will be some new additions to the Songs For Six String Series, perhaps your readers would like to offer an opinion?

AL: "You don't have to hammer your chest to show you're tough" was how the late Derek Jewell described Tom Paxton's songs and concert performance. This strikes me as an apt description of your own work. You don't show out-and-out anger in your songs, but it's certainly there.

RM: Yes, I am angry about all sorts of things. Angry as opposed to grumpy. I like the observation made about Tom Paxton's work, and hope that applies to my own. Unfortunately, if these emotions are not overt, they fail to get noticed, unless you listen, and that seems to be beyond a lot of people.

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