He’s describing 100 Years of British Song, a performance taking place on 20 November at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival. The show is the acclaimed singer and songwriter’s ambitious attempt to condense the last century of music into a single gig. The list of collaborators is long but for now, it’s something Ian is keeping under his hat.
Ian is well versed in the power in the song – he’s been pushing the envelope with his voice and writing across 13 studio albums (the most recent being A Ghost in Every Bar: The lyrics of Fran Fran Landesman) while busying himself with a weekly radio show and stand up gigs. M quizzed him about the challenge of performing 100 years of Great British music in two hours…
What’s the idea behind the 100 years of British Song performance?
1914 – 2014 is the premise I have worked with, which neatly fits around the Great War and today.
Putting it together was like writing a short story. There is masses of information and material from those 100 years all spilling into each other across different styles – from vaudeville to early British blues. I’ve only got two hours of performance, a major concert hall, a great band and whole bunch of singers. What do we do? How many Beatles songs do we include?
It’s an enormous project. You really have to think about it like a theatre director. If asked do your favourite play with your favourite actors what the hell would you choose? As a curator, that’s what I’m tackling.
What’s been the most reoccurring theme?
War has appeared so many times, all the way through from First World War pub songs to the protest music of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and Primal Scream. Conflict plays a huge part.
Was it daunting trying to condense 100 years into such a space of time?
When I was asked to do it for the festival, I thought it’d be easy. But I keep forgetting the validity of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – or some of the skiffle songs which changed the whole face of British music. As a jazz singer I’m a conduit, interpreter to all that material.
Was it a challenge covering many different styles?
Yes but the singers I’ve chosen are not going for pastiche. I’ve deliberately avoided actors who can sing as they will put the songs into their era. I think 80 years later the songs should still be relevant for people today. If a song is good it will stand up across any style.
The whole thing is community based too. I’ve asked people that I like to come along and perform. So in a sense we’re turning the Queen Elizabeth Hall into a late night lock in at the pub.
Were there any genres which you were surprised by how much you got into during the process?
Yes punk – I spent a whole day listening to my old punk records – the Stranglers first LP – the songs are great. But I’ve also got to pay homage to the fact it’s a jazz audience. They’re not going to be able to tolerate one type of genre for too long or if anything challenges their concept of a well written song.
A lot of the stuff I’m going do is based on memory and what I heard when I grew up with. The first stuff I heard was jazz but it was Radio 2 on Sundays, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
I was classically trained but it was David Bowie which really got me going. It was everything. I had Aladdin Sane and I used to just stare at this creature and think fucking hell. I was in tiny north wales. My dad was great, he really acknowledged the music and kicked me out when I was 17 to go to London to discover the bright lights. He was a great musician who almost lived through my music. Years later I recorded a Bowie song and also did backing vocals for him so in that respect it’s been quite an extraordinary journey really all through the power of the song.
What else is keeping you busy?
I’m working on a new album with my trio which is a really cross section of sounds. I’ve done three quite contrasting albums recently – one was highlighting the songs of beat poet Fran Landesman. The next album is getting back with my trio to do more edgy material. It’s really out there stuff. I’m a really lazy songwriter so when I do write a song it means a lot to me.