Feature: Blair Dunlop
I want to make my own mark apart from my lineage
They say that second albums can be the most difficult, but that doesn’t seem to be something that’s hampered Blair Dunlop. House of Jacks, his follow-up to the excellent Blight & Blossom, was released in May and Shire Folk caught up with him in early April, not long after he’d returned from Australia.
SF: Last time we spoke was after the Albion Band’s performance at Wallingford Bunkfest last year. You’ve now parted ways with the Albions. What was the reason for that?
Blair: Firstly I’d like to say it was an amazing time with great musicians and there’s nothing to say that we won’t get together in a different guise, or the same guise, in the future – the Albion Band have been through so many changes, they’ll probably come back in some form. At the minute all I’m focusing on is my solo career and I knew that I couldn’t give both of them my full attention, while I’m fresh, while I’m young and I’ve really got the chance to crack on and forge my own path. I suppose some of it is because, although I’ve shirked 90% of it, there’s always going to be a few comparisons with my dad [folk legend Ashley Hutchings]and his success, so it’s nice to really consolidate my own path, through my own channels, before I explore other things. Make my own mark apart from my lineage and I just thought it was the right time. With everyone else in numerous bands we just thought it was the right time to let it lie for a bit. We’ll see what happens in the future – you just never know. I’ve learnt so much from them and come on as a musician from working with the Albion Band.
SF: I love Blight & Blossom, but House of Jacks feels like a real step forward. You must be very pleased with it?
Blair: That’s great to hear. I haven’t had much feedback yet as I’ve been out in Australia, so it’s really nice to hear that – thank you. What made the step forward, I suppose, was letting off the shackles in terms of instrumentation. I think I saw a ceiling in what I was doing with my guitar playing – the way I was playing for Blight & Blossom and the subsequent tour. To purely freshen it up and explore different songwriting avenues, I started playing in more standard tuning and I started playing more electric, and envisaging bigger production I suppose – a wider scape. And from there to pull it back if needed, as I’d still be happy to tour it solo, but they stand up as bigger band pieces. Specifically, for me that opened the doors up to writing something that still had the narratives that people would see as a constant in my songwriting, but moving it forward in terms of instrumentation and outside of the box really, compared to the scene I’m in, the folk scene I suppose. That’s really nice and some of it must have come from playing with the Albions and playing electric guitar with them, but also from listening to lots of music and not sticking to one genre for too long. I just think it’s really important to have a broad listening palette.
SF: Your guitar playing on the album has shades of Richard Thompson. Was he an influence and who else has influenced your work?
Blair: Yes, I can’t deny that he’s a massive influence – he’s a master and I love his stuff and I never get tired of listening to it: any Richard album, from any era. I could listen to him all day – mainly for his songwriting to be honest, but perhaps equally for the guitar playing [laughs]. Aside from Richard I’ve been listening to a lot of people. I’ve been listening to a lot of Kathleen Edwards. Her guitarists, Colin Cripps and Gord Tough, I just love the fact their playing complements the songs, nothing to detract and only to feed the lyrics. I love their playing, and on the acoustic tracks there has to be some Nic Jones in there. A lot of his and Carthy’s work goes around in my head.
SF: I love Kathleen Edwards too. Her last album was produced by Bon Iver, of course.
Blair: The last track, ‘For the Record’: I love his playing on that. I actually got to sing with The Good Lovelies, a Canadian harmony singing group, who know Kathleen and sang backing vocals on that particular track, my favourite song possibly ever; they came up and sang ‘Black is the Colour’ with me in Australia, which was really nice. It was like coming full circle.
SF: The two ‘45s’ tracks are about a fictional Soho club in 1969 and the present day. What was the inspiration for that? Did you have a specific club in mind?
Blair: No, I didn’t have one particular club; I just envisaged a club that would fit the paradigm of the songs I wanted to write. I didn’t base it on a specific place I knew, but I definitely drew on my experience, especially in the second one, of me living in a student house and going out clubbing, and I drew on the worst examples of those for the modern-day one. In terms of how I got the idea for it: there’s a lot of creativity in the hip hop world. A good friend of mine played me a lot of the experimental and concept albums from people in the hip hop world and I really got into it over last summer. It was the kind of thing they were doing: linking two songs together with social commentary, which is really prevalent in that scene in America, not in the mainstream so much, but in the kind of arty scene. I thought, I’d love to do that because it’s intrinsically folk isn’t it? It’s through the ages, it’s a narrative, and I just thought it would be perfect: the parallels are there. I have to say they’re a couple of the tracks I’m most pleased with. In terms of what they’re saying, but also what people can relate to. My dad can relate to the first one and me and my mates can relate to the second one.
SF: You won the Horizon award at the BBC Folk Awards in 2013. What do you think the award has done for you? Is it a bit of a millstone if you want to break away from folk a little?
Blair: You’d probably have to talk to my manager about millstones [laughs]. I’m very lucky that I have good people to be concerned about perception and where we place the album, but for me it’s just lovely to be recognised. I’ve been to a few Folk Awards and to be up there with people that you grew up listening to and idolised – it’s really nice to be accepted by a scene like that. I suppose I must have got some work from it. It pushes you up the festival bill, that kind of thing, but it’s not the be all and end all in any kind of way. There are no rules. One month you can win an award, then you release an album and no one likes it, so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t win it, I think.