Jim Causley – More than simply a folk-singer, talks to the Filing Room Sessions Interview.
Why did you start playing music? What got you into music?
I don’t know “why” exactly, I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, it was all around me at home and at primary school. Although my family aren’t musical or musicians, they all had their individual tastes and so I had a healthy mix of different musics whilst growing up, from mum’s taste in 60’s singer/songwriters and country, Dad’s love of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Jake Thackray and the Beach Boys and my sisters love of 70’s/80’s pop music and also singer-songwriters of that period, it all fed into me!
Then singing the songs from ‘Come & Praise’ at primary school (I really missed all that when I went to secondary school and there was no more singing in assembly!) and I also joined the village church choir whilst in primary school too. Later on I played in bands in secondary school with friends and also joined a gospel choir and a folk / world music choir.
Then at Exeter College I played in more bands with my friends around the pubs in Exeter which was great training. Whilst at college (and studying Jazz & Popular Music) I also discovered that there was actually folk music from Devon(!) and spent a lot of time in Exeter Library reading through books of Devon songs collected by Sabine Baring-Gould and it all went downhill from there!
Name your top 5 musical influence’s?
Blimey! That is so difficult! Well, everything I have listed above for starters! A lot of music influences you and you don’t even know what it is, you just absorb it by osmosis. Like all the music I have ever heard in a pub singaround or morris dance musicians playing in the street. Right I’m going to pick five randomly off the top of my head and it won’t be an accurate representation because five is an unrealistically low number(!) to sum up 40 years of musical influence but…. John Denver, Norma Waterson, Ani Difranco, Ian Giles and… Cyndi Lauper!
What is music? What does it mean to you?
Music to me is an art form that speaks in a language that cannot be described with physical words. It moves us and communicates with us on a level beyond words and yet also from my experience of setting poetry to music,
I’ve witnessed music’s power to take words and make them 100 times more meaningful than before. On the other hand, the power of music can also distract from the words if you’re not careful! I find music to be a deeply spiritual or magical thing in many ways, and wielding music can be a bit like being a sorcerer casting spells on an audience, depending on how in tune they are!
Do you still have the first musical instrument that you brought or were given? What was it and do you still use it?
There were probably early instruments by Fisher Price but the main real first instrument I had was an orange melodica with coloured buttons called a Panarmonica and yes, I still have it today!
That was incredibly prophetic because it is of the free-reed instrument family and now I am all grown-up I play the accordion so it was clearly meant to be! I also have a big melodica collection, mainly of vintage Hohners and I also have a very lovely accordina which is similar to a melodica but it uses the chromatin button accordion system and has mouth-organ reeds so it sounds more like a mechanical mouth-organ!
Name 5 of your favourite songs?
I have enough trouble choosing 18 songs to play in a 2 x 45 minute set list so this is going to take me a while!! I’ll definitely change my mind about this a gazillion times but off the top of my head: Subdivision by Ani Difranco, Vincent by Don McLean, Gold Dust by Tori Amos, The Cottager’s Reply by Chris Wood, Mountains O’ Things by Tracy Chapman.
How would you describe your music?
Folky, soulful, moving at times, daft at others! Big on melodies and also keen on annunciating – what’s the point in writing lyrics if no one can hear or understand them right?!
What do you think about the current music industry/business? Big question I know, so a short answer or more in-depth long answer is fine, either way.
Well, I feel rather outside of the BIG music business so I don’t feel very qualified to comment. This government seems to have no respect for the music industry (or the arts in general) despite the fact that the UK music industry is one of our biggest exports and breadwinners. I suppose I am a small cog in the machine but very much on the periphery. The BBC Folk Awards, which is probably not going to return now after covid, was kinda of on its way out anyway – that was probably the closest I came to experiencing anything to do with the “industry”.
A lot of back-slapping and arse-kissing and keeping the favourites and the ruling classes in the comfy seats of power that they have become accustomed to! I couldn’t imagine anything more further removed from the roots music that it was allegedly representing! A complete load of eyewash and I’m not just bitter because I never won a gong! A folk award doesn’t mean anything to the outside world anyway.
I was presented with an even more obscure award that meant so much more to me: the Gorsedh Kernow gave me an award for my album of musical settings of poems by the Cornish poet Jack Clemo. “The Mike Hartland Award for work which engages people in Cornish culture”. That really felt like an award for doing something useful and worthwhile and I am chuffed to bits with that.
What do you think will happen with music and the music industry/business in the future? What would you like to see happen?
I have no idea what will happen but I strongly hope that the over commercialisation will encourage music fans and makers to turn the tide and long for the human aspect of music once again and “take back control” for want of a better phrase!
Tell us about your best gig so far?
Hmmmm so many great ones for different reasons, some have been with people I massively admire, some have been hilarious nights in folk clubs, some have been on massive stages, some have been moving and intimate… one of my favourites was in September 2012 when I first performed the Charles Causley poems I had set to music in the small church hall of St Thomas in Charles’ hometown of Launceston. It was before I’d made the album and it was the first time those settings of the poems had been heard by anyone in Launceston and pretty much anywhere to be honest. I was quite nervous about how they’d receive what I’d done with the poems but they loved it and were so appreciative. It was a very warm and magical and memorable evening. And quite a one-off too, not part of the festival they have there every Spring, just a random, short notice concert that sowed the seeds of a much bigger project, we just didn’t know it at the time!
Tell me something that really helped you on your musical journey?
There have been a lot of those moments, from inspiring music teachers, to encouraging friends and fans. The biggest and easiest one though is when I was at uni and in a vocal trio with two of my fellow students. We were massive fans of Waterson:Carthy, a family of folk legends and one year they were doing their Christmas tour and were doing a gig at the Sage in Gateshead. They asked the leader of our course; Alastair Anderson, (a legend in his own right, he played concertina on a Kate Bush album!) if any of his students would be up for joining them on stage and he recommended us! We were over the moon. The next year they asked us if we’d fancy joining them for the whole tour and it got bigger each year from then and we ended up joining them on that tour for seven consecutive years as well as recording the accompanying album with them too! That really did give a massive boost to our careers, we really could not have received a higher seal of approval on the folk music scene.
What do you think about Spotify, Youtube, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms? do they benefit your music? Are they good for music and musicians?
They are a mixed blessing! Anything that helps spread your music to new fans is excellent BUT they are also run by massive, evil, corporations who hoover up all the profits and don’t fairly pay the music creators which is unacceptable. Which is why I’ve begun making and self-releasing albums which are only available directly from me or my website. Some complain but I figured that if I’m giving all my hard work for free to Spotify or Apple, just for them to profit off and give me £0.00000000000000001p in return then that’s a mugs game! So I just save my more important albums for those platforms – things that I really want the whole world to hear or perhaps when I’ve squeezed as much profit out of a homemade project as possible, then I’ll allow it to go for streaming! But the whole commodification of music is deeply depressing and completely the opposite of why I love the music that I do.
What do you think of the South West music scene?
Well in a funny sort of way, I don’t really know the South West music scene! Being someone who primarily performs on the folk scene, there are only a handful of folk clubs in the South West and so if you are booked at a certain club, then they will wait at least two years before they book you again as there are so many acts on the folk scene to book. And that is true of the entire country. I don’t really perform on the pub scene and again, the only festivals I get booked at are folk festivals so it quite closed in that sense. I perform a fair bit in village halls but that is mainly to an audience of a certain vintage if you get my drift and so I am not really known on the “scene” if you know what I mean. It’s a funny term anyway isn’t it, I mean, what does it actually mean? There are several scenes within the South West that unless you take part in them, you have absolutely no idea that they are going on! And so, as I am not a singer-songwriter in the pop sense, I don’t get booked in pubs or clubs or festivals or the band circuit and so to that “scene” I kind of don’t exist! And there isn’t a “village hall scene”, people from one village hall don’t go to concerts in other village halls across the county! I was quite popular on the WI scene at one stage!
How has Covid 19 and lockdowns affected your music?
Well, all of my gigs were cancelled obviously so that affected me in quite obvious and immediate ways! But creativity wise, it’s been brilliant as I’ve had a lot more time to walk and wander and wonder. I have also gained a new skill as you will read in my answer to the home recording question shortly!
What do you think about the X factor and the Voice?
I don’t watch things like that, I find them revolting and vacuous and a world away from my relationship to music and the music I enjoy listening to and making. My Nan used to tell me that I should audition for those shows, bless her! She had no understanding that they would not have been interested in the type of music I make one little bit. I wouldn’t have even made it anywhere near the audition process!!
Do you like today’s mainstream music?
I do love good pop and a good hook. So, I am often powerless to resist but it is incredibly vacuous! But I think it’s fine to enjoy that. I just hope there are enough people out there who realise that that is not ALL music!
What is the best music festival/event you have been too as a listener?
I used to steward at Exeter Phoenix when I was a student at Exeter College in the late 90’s. Through doing that I got to see loads of amazing musicians and people I came to admire. Eliza Carthy was someone who made a big impression on the young me and yet she was only five years older! I also was lucky enough to attend the very last National Folk Festival in Loughborough in 2005 and got to hear many wonderful musicians and singers who are no longer with us. I also love Whitby Folk Week and the English Country Music Weekend for hearing superb traditional singers and musicians.
What musical instruments do you play? Are you learning a new Instrument at the moment or plan to in the future?
I play piano accordion, chromatic button accordion and also keyboard/piano. I picked up my first CBA about five years ago as became fascinated with the system and wanted to give it a go as I’ve never got on with melodeons and wanted to see if I could play a CBA and it turns out I love it and a a couple of them now. You can basically get a much wider range of notes under your fingers that you can with a piano accordion, you have three octaves in the space that would only be two octaves on a conventional keyboard. I have since indulged in an accordina which is a sort of French melodica with buttons in the CBA system and it has harmonica reeds instead of accordion reeds so it sounds more like a mechanical mouth organ and it’s great fun to play. I love guitar and fiddle but I’ve never got on with stringed instruments, my brain cannot compute them! But I don’t think there are many instruments I don’t enjoy the sound of. I also have a couple of synths and an electric piano synth which I mainly play for personal pleasure but I may unleash them on the public one day!
What’s your favourite venue/festival/club/pub that you have performed at?
Again, so many! I do have a particular soft spot for old seaside theatres, you know the type, and if they’re on the end of a pier then that’s even better! I played in Hyde Park with The Band of Love in 2018 and that was awesome and spectacular as a life experience but I didn’t move me like an intimate gig does, when they audience is right there with you and you’re totally in sync with them. Often, it’s the audience who make a venue and not the other way around. Although a crap venue does not help the atmosphere! Often a nice posh arts centre can be hard work because even though it’s a lovely venue, you’ve still got a bunch of strangers lumped together who are unsure of each other whereas some well-established folk clubs are a dream to play because nearly everyone knows each other and they’re up for a good time from the offset! That makes it sound like I’m a lazy performer! Honestly, I’m not!! Sidmouth is definitely my favourite festival and I’m not just saying that because of my East Devon bias! I’ve played at a lot of folk festivals up and down the country and it’s definitely my favourite. The sadly now closed Ram Folk Club in Thames Ditton was always a joy to play and with such excellent organisers who made everything run smoothly and a compere who was like a dream warmer-upper of the audience and put everyone at ease. Clubs like that are treasures and real hen’s teeth.
Have you performed music outside the UK? If so where and what was it like?
I did my first International gigs in December 2019 in Flanders, Belgium. I had a super time and every one was so welcoming and appreciative. I was blown away because I felt kind of rude not speaking their language and the assumption that they must understand mine! But the Flemish audiences were just lovely and I didn’t want to come home! I think because they don’t know so much of the cultural baggage that comes with the music, they might appreciate the music more or perhaps in a different way. I have also performed music in an unofficial/unpaid sense in Ireland, France, Germany and Finland and enjoyed myself in those countries too, I really hope I get to perform abroad more in the future. I found it gave me a fresh enthusiasm for my own music.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a musician? Or yourself when you first began on your musical journey.
Firstly, don’t listen to careers advisors! Few people outside of the musical world see being a musician as a viable career choice because they simply don’t understand the business and have no idea what goes on. The general public seem to think you’re either massively famous and on television every day or you play in pubs or busk on the street and there is nothing in between that massive gulf! When in reality there is an entire world of jobs in music that every day folk have no idea exist! And believe it or not you can function quite happily and make a decent living being neither famous or anonymous! I know this is trite but it’s so true and important: believe in yourself and strive to be as much of yourself as possible. The world needs more individuals, not copycats and regurgitators!
Tell us about a less known underground band/artist that you really like and have been listening to?
Well, that’s a funny question for someone in the scene that I exist in because to many, the entire trad/grass-roots English folk scene is underground and hidden from mass media! Some of my favourite singers/musicians are people who aren’t professional performers, just local, traditional singers. One of my favourite singers is a chap from Oxfordshire called Ian Giles who sings solo and, in a band, called Magpie Lane. I listen to quite a strange mix of musics from European folk to pop, German hiphop (whose artists obviously aren’t known here but are massive over there) female singer song-writers and I enjoy most classical music apart from opera singers which I still can’t stomach no matter how much I try! I think than when you love and appreciate the real, genuine voices you hear in trad folk music then it’s very hard like something as artificial as a classically trained voice!
Do you have a home studio or a recording set up for writing and recording new music ideas? If so, tell us about your set up?
Well, recording and the technical side of music has never been my strong point so I have always left that to the experts but during lockdown I was kinda forced into it because a group I am in are making some demos – which have actually now morphed into a proper album – and I had to learn how to record my parts on my computer and send them to my friend in Derbyshire to be mixed together.
I invested in a decent, mid-range USB mic and Scarlet box to plus my accordion mics into. As luck would have it, I had invested in a reconditioned iMac in January 2020 so that all worked out quite well and I began by using GarageBand and then progressed to Logic. Once I had gotten the hang of it, I decided I would like to put down some songs that I had been want to record for ages and now I had the ability to do it for myself – obviously not as well as my engineer friends would do it – and I made my first lockdown album!
To make a bit of dosh and keep costs low, I literally hand drew every individual CD cover and burnt off the CDs one by one on my computer! It was quite a retro affair and I loved it and people were very supportive and bought copies despite how low-fi and homespun they were! That one was completely solo. Then later into lockdown a friend of mine who is an expert of old Devon songs, particularly of the music-hall/Edwardian era, lent me a suitcase full of sheet music he’d collected over the years and I set about recording a load of these old songs, many of which hadn’t been heard in a hundred years and many have never been recorded commercially. For this project I got a few musician friends involved who sent me their parts over the internet and I even got our village shanty crew to sing on it! They all recorded themselves on their mobile phones at home, then their leader mixed them together for me and I added that to the mix, the final effect sounded great and some listeners are convinced I recorded it all live in a pub or village hall! The wonders of technology! So, my set-up is very basically but just that little bit of kit has opened up a whole new world for me creatively and has also made me some money and no doubt saved me a tonne of money too!
Are you working on any new music or songs at the moment?
I’m always working on something new! I’ve actually got two projects on the boil at the moment; one is a project in collaboration with an artist friend of mine and it’s going to be a suite of songs about modern rural life, calendar customs, the plight of the rural working class, building developments and other rural issues, I’m very excited about that one. I also have a body of ten more contemporary songs which I am growing that about more personal, political and worldly topics which are quite un-folky. From sexuality and addiction to perfumery, stalking and Brexit!
When is your next single or album due out for release?
Good question, we’re hoping the rural themed album will be out next year at some point! But I’ve actually made three lockdown albums and recorded 60 Devon songs and 18 poems set to music so I’ve definitely done my quota!
Where can we find out more about you and your music?
My website: www.jimcausley.co.uk