Treading the line between the pastoral and the traditional: an interview with Henry Parker
Henry Parker’s ‘Silent Spring’ was amongst the best folk albums of 2019. The Bradford-based singer, songwriter and guitarist channels the spirit of people like Michael Chapman and Meic Stevens - those early 70s artists who emerged from height of the UK folk revival. Henry plays what would have once been called progressive folk, harkening back to an era where genre boundaries were not policed quite so fiercely and folk musicians were open to absorbing influences from the worlds of jazz, blues and rock . That’s not to say he’s an artist mired in the past: there’s a sprinkling of psychedelic magic dust in his music, an appreciation of the pioneering revival guitar playing of Jansch and Renbourn, but filtered through his personal musical prehistory. Reinforcing the contention that the best acoustic guitarists count amongst their number those who spent time in heavy metal bands, Henry Parker has a sound quite unlike anyone else making folk music in the UK right now.
Photo by Kurt Wood
NCP: Can we begin by talking about Silent Spring?
Henry: Silent Spring was my debut album and it felt important to me at the time to put out a full-length release. I’d been performing folk music for about three years at that point. I’d put out a couple of EPs, a single and a live recording, but I felt like I’d got to the point where I was happy enough with the sound I was going for to release something more substantial. On all my prior releases I had been very much finding my feet: I had suddenly dived into a world of folk music from what was very much a rock and metal musical upbringing.
NCP: Was the album a summary of several years’ worth of song writing or was it all relatively new material?
Henry: The ten tracks on the album were written across 2017 and the start of 2018, apart from my arrangement of Willie O Winsbury, which I had worked out very early on when I first started playing folk music, perhaps late 2015. The first song I wrote that appeared on the album was Drive East, which I think was the third song I’d ever written. From that point, I had an idea of where I might be heading with my songwriting, wanting to tread the lines between the pastoral and traditional, and between the personal and political.
NCP: With the title track, you’ve written a modern green anthem that conveys the issue powerfully, without it particularly coming across as an 'issue' song. Was this an important statement for you to make?
Henry: The song Silent Spring came about as a result of simply thinking it was an amazing title, the title of the renowned ecology book written by Rachel Carson in the early 60s. I guess it was a straight up pinch, but then I guess musicians have never been hesitant about pinching titles from books and films, so hopefully it’s all fine. The first chapters of the book are incredibly poetic and evocative and they really stuck with me. That’s where the song came from - just wanting to capture the bleakness of those descriptions and the heavy sense of loss for a world that has been irreversibly damaged. It did feel important for me to write a song that conveyed a sense of the environmental damage the world is suffering.
NCP: How do you feel about the positive reaction to the album?
Henry: The reaction was something I’ve been really happy with. I released it with no real idea if it was any good or not, so it was very encouraging to receive such positive reviews both from the traditional folk music press, as well as some of the more eclectic publications like Shindig and Terrascope. The fact that it has been stocked in Japan and that I’ve had a nice handful of sales across Europe, America and Korea has been really cool - I didn’t really expect it and I guess I’ve got Bandcamp to thank for that!
NCP: You do a couple of traditional songs on the album. Can you tell us more about your interest in traditional music? As a guitarist, are you concerned about how to present traditional folk song without retreading ground already walked many times?
Henry: I got into what I do now through very traditional influences, primarily Dick Gaughan and Martin Simpson, and traditional music is something that I’m very interested in. My current reading is Steve Roud’s ‘Folk Song in England’ a huge tome, but one that I’m really getting into. It’s interesting to read about the folk song collectors and to call into question their editing practices and the judgements they were making at the time about what folk song actually is. There’s more traditional music to come on my second album, another two tracks. I really enjoy the process of working with these songs and crafting them in a way that fits with the music I write. For me it’s all about the vibe I can extract from these old songs and the feelings that I can bring to life by singing them.
NCP: While there are clear elements of traditional folk and psych folk in your music, most strongly I hear the guitar playing, folk-influenced UK singer songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s - people like Meic Stevens, Michael Chapman, Dave Evans and so on. Is the music of this era an influence on your songwriting? It it difficult to absorb these influences without sounding retro?
Henry: Michael Chapman has definitely been a direct influence from early on. I guess to that list I would personally add Steve Tilston - I think his debut album ‘An Acoustic Confusion’ is an absolute gem of early 70’s folk-baroque songwriting. I guess with my debut album I didn’t have a problem with sounding retro, but as I continue to write, that kind of pillaging of the past is hopefully giving way to a more organic process of just writing what comes naturally. With all these 60s and 70s influences heavily embedded, mind you.
NCP: You're clearly an excellent fingerstyle guitarist. Which guitarists are your main influences as a musician? Are you prone to using different tunings? And are you tempted to bang out an album of instrumental solo guitar at all?
Henry: Thank you! If I had to run off a list of guitarists who have been a really strong influence on me it would include Nick Drake, Martin Simpson, Ryley Walker, Stuart McCallum – who was my tutor at university and an amazing jazz and acoustic guitarist- and Bert Jansch. Alternate tunings are definitely a big part of how I write, but I do also write in standard. It’s a way of thinking about the guitar that helps me get the sound I’m after, but it often involves a re-tune, most likely to DADGAD, but more recently I’ve been using open G too. None of it is particularly out-there, but it’s about what you do with it. Whilst the guitar parts are incredibly important with what I do, I don’t have any plans for an album of instrumental solo guitar, it’s something for the future, but I guess I wouldn’t want to bang out something for the sake of it, not when the standard has been set so high by John Renbourn!
NCP: Have you been embraced by the UK folk club scene and, if so, how have you found it? I remember talking to someone who compared the gigs they did in the wider world to the folk club gigs, complete with floor singers and raffles - and whilst valuing both, they described playing folk clubs as a bit like playing for your grandparents…
Henry: I enjoy playing folk clubs, floor singers, raffles, the whole lot. It’ll be sad when they all have to finally close up for good - and that day won’t be too far off because you’re right, it is like playing to your grandparents at a folk club. But I enjoy that, and you have to remember that most of these people are the original folk revivalists, so that’s cool. That being said, my music doesn’t quite fit in with what’s expected of a modern folk club, so whilst I play the clubs nearby because of local connections, it’s rare that I’m asked to play at any outside of Yorkshire.
NCP: You used to play in heavy rock bands, and I noticed that French heavy psych space rock monsters Slift found their way onto your best albums of 2020 list. Is your approach to folk music influenced in anyway by this grounding in metal? Are we going to see stoner rock and doom elements creeping in any time soon?
Henry: Slift are a great new 2020 discovery for me - fingers crossed for being able to catch them live in 2021! I’ve been working on an arrangement of the traditional folk song ‘The Brisk Lad’ and it’s definitely the heaviest thing I’ve done under my own name: Kurt, my producer, thinks it has a kind of Tool vibe. I’ve been working with musicians on a few of my new tracks who are really into heavy music too. ‘The Brisk Lad’ ends with a double tracked guitar solo, which feels like a nice thing to pair alongside some really stripped back acoustic tracks: I always like a varied album. Even on Silent Spring, I was allowing my taste for heavy music creep in. To me, the title track had a real Soundgarden feel, a band who I’ve loved since I was 15 or so.
NCP: How have you found the last year as a musician? You are very much a live performer, so how have you adapted to the world of streamed gigs?
Henry: I felt very fortunate to have had a busy start to 2020, when I got to play some amazing gigs, including my first London show, and a couple of dates with David Ian Roberts which were really nice. I played a handful of outdoor gigs in the summer and autumn which felt like a real dream, but apart from those, it’s of course been live streaming from the living room. It isn’t like the real deal at all, but I enjoy doing them all the same: it’s nice to have that in-the-moment connection with people who you know are listening there and then. It’s also very nerve-racking when you suspect the technology might not be working in your favour, but I think people are very happy to cut you some slack with that kind of thing.
NCP: What's next for you? Rumour has it there might be a new album later in the year? Can you talk about the plans for that?
Henry: Yes, album two is nearly fully recorded. As it stands now in January, I have one more song to finish writing and laying down and then do some final mixing to the other tracks, plus mastering and figuring out how I might release it: whether that’s via another self-release or whether a label might like to get involved. There’s a whole lot still to think about before it gets out into the wild, I’m afraid. It’s been a blessing to be able to record the bulk of this album in 2020 between the stricter lock-downs - it’s been great to have that focus there in a largely un-musical year.
NCP: How do you see it in relation to Silent Spring? Consolidation? Progression? Something completely different?
Henry: The sound is definitely a continuation of Silent Spring. Some of the supporting musicians are the same, but then I’ve also been recording with a couple of friends on electric bass and drum kit: we were rehearsing at the back end of 2019 and the start of 2020 and managed to squeeze in one band gig back in March prior to lock-down, which was a lot of fun. Those guys are playing on three tracks, providing a real tight folk-rock sound and then, like on Silent Spring, I have double bass and congas on a couple of tracks. It’s a varied album, both dynamically and texturally, and to me it feels like the right album to come after my first. Hopefully everyone who dug Silent Spring will be into this one too!
NCP: Are you a gear nerd? If so, do you want to talk about it?
Henry: I’m afraid not really, but for those who are, I can give a quick run-down. Personally I love nerding out over music theory - I could talk for a good while about modes and harmony with people. I play a Taylor 322e acoustic and an Ibanez AS153 electric. A few pedals I dig are my Electro Harmonix Cathedral reverb and freeze pedal, plus I like the Maxon overdrive, for when things get a bit rock. The freeze is really cool for folky stuff, as it creates drones which are great for playing traditional sounding lines over and building layers. I like how good ‘gear’ sounds, of course, and I am appreciative of it, but it’s not something I’m really into in and of itself.
NCP: What's on the turntable at the moment? Any recommendations, old or new?
Henry: Fretted and Indebted by Alastair Roberts is a really great Scottish traditional album from 2020, a mix of solo guitar jigs and reels and unaccompanied ballads. Plus I’ve been enjoying my Dick Gaughan LPs recently - revisiting his 1972 debut album ‘No More Forever’ was a real treat the other day, and I absolutely adore his ‘Live in Edinburgh’ album from when he was at his most biting, from both a musical and political point of view.