Living Tradition Feature - Debbie Koritsas
Napper and Bliss joined forces just over three years ago, though they'd known each other since the early 70s, when both had arrived in Leeds as students before their careers took them in different directions. They remained friends, and when Bliss told Napper he was seeking a musical collaborator and a platform for his song writing, Napper saw real potential: "I thought it would be a really interesting project to try and tackle".
Since then, they're constantly on tour, and have been favourably compared to another music partnership - Show Of Hands. Songwriter Bliss is a natural wordsmith and born storyteller (talking to him bears this out!), though his early musical career couldn't have been further removed from the folk scene. Napper is a musician steeped in tradition, and is the natural lead of the two players with his superb mastery of a range of stringed instruments, including tenor banjo and octave mandolin. To date they've recorded two acclaimed releases -The Silverlode, and, just recently, The Kelping; these are albums that amply fulfil their desire to record finely crafted traditional tunes and original songs (collected from and inspired by all four corners of the United Kingdom and beyond) in fresh, imaginative arrangements.
Tom Bliss was born in Guildford, though he feels that his real roots lie in the Channel Island of Alderney - he's been a regular visitor there all his life and has a home there. He now divides his time between Leeds (where he combines his music career with his freelance media production company) and Alderney. He studied landscape architecture in the early 70s, but his subsequent career in that was short-lived - the same goes for his brief spell at Yorkshire Television, which incidentally is where he met Steve Fairholme, longstanding organiser of Otley Folk Festival. Bliss was brought up with a folk music background, but turned his back on it in the late 70's when he picked up electric guitar to play in a succession of new wave/punk bands, including Agony Column and Pearl Divers, Back in '95, though, Fairholme invited Bliss along to a Bay Horse session in Otley, and this rekindled his love of traditional music. He returned to the instruments he'd neglected for years: fiddle, whistles, harmonica, accordion, and more besides. He says he became a singer-songwriter because he wasn't good enough to specialise in either discipline: "I decided to wear a boot on each foot!"
Tom Napper hails from Finchampstead, Berkshire, and was a regular at the now defunct Wokingham Folk Club, which he describes as a "formative period in my development as a musician." He's entirely self-taught, and began playing guitar at around sixteen years of age, but never really got on with the instrument, preferring mandolin and tenor banjo. He arrived in Leeds back in 73, describing the city as a "hotbed of traditional Irish music. Those days are long gone now. Back then, you got old guys playing spoons and singing in pubs on a Sunday lunchtime - there was a real bond that kept the Irish diaspora together. And yet the older generation still deferred to the younger musicians - they thought they played better, faster than they themselves ever could." Over the years, Napper has been involved with bands like Dab Hand (with Tom McConville, Gordon Tyrrall and Jez Lowe), a duo with Alastair Russell, and latterly with Ciaran Boyle and Dave Kosky in Irish-music trio The Idle Road - "we've been so idle we haven't released a recording yet!" He makes his living full-time from his music.
Napper and Bliss are frequent visitors to folk clubs all over the UK. The best clubs, according to Napper, "are the ones that are run with a real sense of dynamism and enthusiasm - you very quickly pick this up as a visiting artist," Bliss says he enjoys gigging the clubs around the Leeds area, "particularly when I've written a few new songs I want to try out." Favourite haunts are The Grove in Leeds, Korks in Otley, Friday 13th Folk Club at the Empress, Harrogate, and the Topic in Bradford. The duo is happy to play unplugged, though feel they perform better with PA, "Being able to hear yourself lifts your performance", says Bliss. The duo are happy to match the performance to the venue, so are equally at home in the small upstairs venue at the Black Swan Folk Club in York, or at the Star in Glasgow, "where the acoustic is so supportive and engulfing - we love to sing there".
That's the pair's background. What about their music, and their approach to it? Bliss, who writes highly visual and memorable original songs, full of striking visual images and relishes researching traditional song, says: "The folk world is full of knowledgeable, committed people," freely admitting that his own rock/pop background means he's not been as immersed in the traditional culture as Napper has. He seems to have difficulty with some of the 'rules' that he's encountered in folk music - and his approach is often to simply 'bend' those rules. Napper occasionally acts as 'quality control', or arbiter: "Yes, in the past, without being too brutal of course, I've said when I don't feel a song will suit the duo or when I feel we're stretching the boundaries too far".
Bliss cites the musicians who've influenced his song writing most strongly: the likes of Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, and the Incredible String Band. He seems to invest a lot of himself in his material - "I often make a song far too personal". A powerful lyricist and wordsmith, he isn't averse to changing or embellishing the odd line of a song and employing a bit of artistic licence - the nostalgic element of a song isn't nearly so important for him. For example, he changed a couple of lines here and there in The Unquiet Grave and Lady In The East, He found a few words a bit weak, so strengthened them; and he also compressed a couple of verses: "I like to take a risk, within a reason. I'm quite prepared to be criticised". Equally, he's happy for someone to take one of his songs and to adapt it: "I've no problem with someone adapting my songs, as long as they credit who wrote it".
Napper agrees with this. In the past, he has noticed tunes going uncredited on album sleeve notes: "A musician should always acknowledge the source of their tunes". Bliss turns to the aims of the English Folk Dance and Song Society: to preserve folk dance and song; to promote knowledge of these; and to promote research and study into their origins. "Some people say we should only sing a song the way it was collected. My view is that you can't preserve something unless it's dead!" He feels it's vital that songs are preserved in both audio and written formats, to show the listener or researcher how they sounded in their original state (and acknowledges that the collector was simply protecting songs in the only way they knew how). But he challenges the modern generation's reluctance to move on, to interpret or change a song for a new audience: "You could hardly ask a roomful of artists to open up their paint box and recreate Constable's Haywain, faithful to every last detail, could you?
The same goes for folk song. You just can't expect folk musicians to reproduce songs nowadays exactly as they were collected - that's simply impossible in the oral tradition." For Bliss, the key driver is whether an audience likes a song or is moved by it in some way. "A song can only ever be a snapshot in time. Works of art of any description - say paintings or books - they sit on shelves or walls to be admired exactly as they were created. They're static art forms. The oral tradition is different, it relies entirely on word of mouth, therefore it cannot possibly be preserved or ossified - all the emotion is lost if you do that to a song!" He feels that the true test of a song lies in how it performs when sung today. "The instinct is to revere. We should be willing to shine a bright light on a song, be prepared to knock the odd corner off".
He offers up another nice analogy - "We admire the antique table because it's old - if its antiquity is all that's important to us. But let's not forget that the table might not be that well made, that it might need a bit of work doing on it!" Napper's views are more tempered; he feels you need to keep a respect for the antiquity of your source material, and that "it's not always a good thing to go off at a tangent." He views things more from an instrumentalist's perspective: "I have a lot of respect for someone who likes to come along and hear a song, join in with the singing, and hear it sung in a form they know and love. The sound of a song is as important to me as the story in the song." Wryly, he says: "A sweet voice carries a lot - but Bliss and I try not to disagree too violently with each other!" Napper has never detected a problem among audiences with their slant on interpreting traditional song, but he does feel it's good to apply the brakes at times, and to maybe stop and look back at how the premier revivalists such as Harry Cox interpreted their music, their influences. Our conversation led to the subject of the output and creativity of the contemporary fusionists.
Napper's views struck me as surprisingly liberal, and a contrast to his more cautious approach to the duo's own source materials: "The most successful fusionists are the ones that don't take things too far. The best fusion is when it doesn't sound like a pastiche of its traditional sources". Obviously not wanting to put his head on the block by naming bad fusionists, he was happy to cite bands like Salsa Celtica, Capercaillie, and La Bottine Souriante as exemplars of how to get it right. He also quoted earlier bands like Moving Hearts, and The Easy Club as making really exciting music, combining rock beats, jazzy swing arrangements and the like with traditional music. "The key thing is respect. You have to work carefully with your material."
Referring to his own love of traditional music (huge influences were Mick Moloney, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Boys of the Lough, Nick Jones, Martin Carthy and others), Napper touched on the need for music to endure, not to serve as some throwaway, ill-conceived or easily forgotten commodity. "Some tunes really stand the test of time, they become standards to be covered by other musicians". Others will be "from the Ernie Wise school - here's five plays (tunes) what I wrote earlier, and all that!" You get some great analogies when you talk to Napper and Bliss! He seems to suggest that some music is produced too quickly, with too little care, effort and expertise, and risks compromising its longevity. He also feels that some younger musicians are running before they can walk. "You find people in the session scene who are drawn to try and cover tunes and recordings before they've gained adequate technical mastery of their instruments. For instance, Gerry O'Connor has such a unique style, a whole roomful of musicians couldn't even begin to emulate him. Things move a bit too fast sometimes". Napper clearly recommends a more judicious approach. He's obviously drawn to the Irish music tradition, something that's reflected in his own playing - "It's wilder, more flexible and expressive. Irish tunes seem freer, whereas Scottish tunes are sometimes more disciplined. Maybe the link between the bagpipe chanter and the military tradition accounts for this?"
One thing Napper found it hard to adjust to as a professional musician was tuning into Bliss's rock/pop approach to song writing. "At the beginning I found it a real challenge to try and hold an arrangement together, particularly in songs where the story being told is as important as the tune". At odds, then, with Bliss, the consummate wordsmith, a man who sees his songs as films, three act plays even, crammed with visual imagery. Bliss says: "For me the real strength of the trad scene is the storytelling element behind a song - in its purest, simplest, most direct form". I get the feeling that for Bliss, the story is equally as important as the music.
Both Napper and Bliss (along with so many traditional musicians) enjoy introducing their songs at gigs, using a bit of banter or humour in so doing - "Sometimes we talk for as long as we play and sing!" The duo seems to have reached a compromise at their gigs. Napper says: "We try to offer a good balance of lyric/story-based songs, and instrumentals. We also like to perform songs with a more sentimental or emotional touch, such as The Snow Goose,or Turn And Face The Wind." One thing Napper and Bliss had to do with their studio recordings was to compensate for the lack of emotion, that 'human touch' achieved through their storytelling and singing at live gigs. "We asked Phil Snell, our producer, to keep it simple, but to try and capture that power. Phil has a great musical ear, and gave us a big, bright sound - we think he's succeeded in capturing that energy".
Both musicians feel the oral tradition in Scotland or Ireland is much healthier than it is in England. "Music just isn't handed down as much here. Traditional music is still part of everyday life in Scotland and Ireland - the link with tradition is all but gone here - or will be if we let it happen." However, they're pretty upbeat about the northern folk scene, quoting Newcastle based organisation Folkworks, or Sam Pirt's recently established Ethno England project, based in North Yorkshire: "Sam's out there, and he's actually doing something about it!" However, both feel "there's a hole in the heart of the UK folk industry - it needs something to unite it, to work to bring together the musicians of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and raise its profile".
Talking to Napper and Bliss, you get the feeling they have a few irons in the fire, a good few ideas bubbling away on the back burner, so keen are they to spread the word and to try and gain kudos for what's undoubtedly an under-recognised British art form. Maybe we should just sit back, relax, and 'watch this space'?