Singer songwriter Roy Harper is a quietly understated luminary who has gently altered the English songbook over five decades with his lyrical integrity and masterful musicianship.
In the 47 years since his debut album Sophisticated Beggar, he has created 23 studio albums, collaborated with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom and more recently worked with West Coast folk rock legend Jonathan Wilson. In 1994 Roy set up his own record label, Science Friction, to curate and re-release his entire back catalogue, while in 2005 he was awarded the Mojo Hero Award. Earlier this year he also received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Roy’s 1971 record Stormcock is widely regarded as a masterpiece, standing testament to the era’s progressive musical leanings and golden age of songwriting. Devotees include Fleet Foxes and songwriter and production whiz Jim O’Rourke.
The timeless set carries all the hallmarks of his classic albums and sees Roy explore every facet of his songwriting expertise, from the 15-minute folk odyssey Heaven Is Here to the electricity of protest song Cloud Cuckooland, which features Pete Townsend of The Who on guitar.
We caught up with him to learn about his take on the roots of folk music. He also shares his thoughts on the art of storytelling and explains about his manifesto that’s shaped his musical output for 50 years.
You haven’t released a new album in 13 years – did you have a break from writing in that time?
No, it was two things: number one; wanting to retire but not really being able to do it, and number two; my catalogue was in such a bad state. I remember in the mid-eighties Stormcock was re-released by EMI in a paper bag for the discount bins at Our Price.
So the catalogue needed rescuing. All the old photos were lost and EMI just didn’t care – everything had been thrown out or destroyed. No one knew who I was really. A new wave of executives had come in and things were different. I don’t think the music business ever really recovered from that and now of course, it’s been totally pirated and music is free. It’s died at the grassroots more or less…
Don’t you think that the internet has encouraged a reappraisal of the older folk albums that people missed the first time around?
Absolutely. But the days of making money from recorded music have long gone. The only thing to do now is tour. And I really hate the rehearsals! Rehearsal takes away from my writing time and it takes away from life – it’s a form of stasis. Can I ask you a question? Do you think that I write folk music?
OK; do you think Leonard Cohen is folk music?
Yes definitely. Don’t you?
I think there is a big difference between contemporary folk and traditional folk. I guess the folk revival that happened in the sixties opened up a division between traditional and contemporary music. We didn’t think much of it at the time because the traditional guys used to play in the same clubs that we did. We were the interlopers, the newcomers, so in effect, they were their clubs. I remember a few times being literally thrown out of clubs because I didn’t sound anything like Nana Mouskouri.
Do you see that division now?
No, the whole thing is wide open now. You take what you need from the pantry and put it onto the cooker and that’s it. That’s what I always did anyway, so in that respect the world has come to me.
How do you think the new writers influenced the scene back in the sixties?
Well, going back to the fifties, Elvis Presley was a folk singer really – he was black and white. He just happened to wiggle his hips once or twice and that was it – he never recovered from that!
I think music has been becoming pasteurised since the fifties. Since then there has been a movement that has come with communication and travel. You can carry your scene to somewhere else in minutes – literally minutes. It’s easy to transplant elsewhere. For example, a lot of my influences are American.
How do you think folk music has changed since you first started out?
I think everyone is attracted to acoustic music in some way or another because it’s music of the people. You can get an instrument and play it anywhere and be heard. The acoustic instrument – whatever it is – spans almost all genres. It’s all blurred. You can actually say that back in those days there were different schools but not these days.
Do you remember when you first started really listening to music?
I remember I’d listen when my dad was tuning in to ice skating on the radio. How can you do that? But he did! All the skaters would use this beautiful classical music and I’d get into it. Everything was thrown in there and I started with that. But then the skiffle boom hit with Lonnie Donegan and Ken Colyer and those guys, and straight away anybody who was 13 or 14 like I was wanted to know where those songs came from. We discovered the source to a lot of them was Huddie Ledbetter.
So you’ve always been interested in the roots of music?
Yes definitely. Whether you were Jimmy Page or John Lennon or The Stones – all of those guys who were my age went through the same thing as I did. We came out the other side all slightly different because some had drifted into urban blues and some had stayed with country blues, like me. But then I went off into jazz, because I carried the whole gambit of American culture all the way through. Miles Davies is probably my single biggest influence.
How do you think your songwriting has evolved since your first albums?
It’s matured. Back in those days I was picking things that were spread out across all genres. On the first record, Sophisticated Beggar, you can hear that. The dipping in and out hasn’t stopped and it gives me a huge base from which to choose to write. Nothing has changed in that respect, although I do think I’ve matured as a writer. Mind you, I think my lyrics were fully formed when I started out because I’d wasted my teens playing snooker and writing poetry. I wasn’t much interested in anything else.
What’s the inspiration behind your new album Man and Myth? Did it come from a wider manifesto for life that you’ve spoken about in the past?
It did, yes. The long track on it starts in myth. Myth is an important component in cultural history. Aural storytellers of ancient times were very important for providing inspiration and embellishing traditional tales.
So musicians could be seen as the modern day equivalent?
Yes, in a sense. I’m dipping in and out of myth throughout the whole album. The first track is about the enemy. Who is the enemy, where is the enemy? It’s difficult to pin down the enemy now, they’re among us.
As I’ve said in the album notes; a malevolent hand comes out – whose is it? You’ll never see him again, he’ll never see you again, but you live in the same city. It’s alienation on a grand scale.
So do you think we’re suited to living in smaller communities?
Yes! Here we are, living in the middle of a massive bout of alienation, trying to control people. These days, kids will go off and commit suicide due to something that happened in the ether. These are the circumstances that this new record was written under. And it talks about those types of things.
Man and Myth was released on Bella Union on 23 September.
Roy Harper’s upcoming live dates are:
22 October, Royal Festival Hall, London
25 October, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
27 October, Colston Hall, Bristol