Folk on Tap Feature - Summer 05
When two already respected musicians decide to work together, our hopes and expectations as an audience are justifiably high. In the case of Tom Napper – perhaps best known for his work with Jez Lowe, Gordon Tyrall and Tom McConville in Dab Hand – and Tom Bliss – who, until recently, fronted the Leeds-based band, Slide (UK) – there has been no cause for disappointment. “Perfectly complementary talents,” is how fRoots described them, and I couldn’t put it better myself.
“Part of the complementariness comes from the fact that we have similar voices,” says Tom Bliss. “When we sing in harmony, there’s a sympathy there which fits together very well, but that’s just a piece of luck. As far as complementing each other as musicians goes, my main creativity lies in the origination of new tunes and songs, whereas Tom Napper’s contribution is in the constant reinterpretation of that material. Once I’ve written a piece, I tend to stick fairly rigidly to one arrangement, but every time Tom Napper plays something it’s fresh. His little touches of decoration bring my work to life and add sparkle to it in a way that is very gratifying for a songwriter.”
“My roots are more in traditional tune playing,” continues Tom Napper. “I’ve never been a composer, partly because I feel that there’s so much wealth of music out there waiting to be interpreted already. Once I’ve learnt the basic form of a piece, I just can’t help trying to reinvent it in various ways. To have to play exactly the same thing every night would be my idea of hell. Obviously, some ideas work better than others, and I’m very aware that there are many points in each piece which simply cannot be dropped. However, I still find even the most common traditional tunes interesting because there is that room to make them fresh each time you play them. That’s why they endure.”
I wondered if Tom Bliss’s background as a freelance television scriptwriter and director had influenced his approach to the craft of song writing in any way.
“There’s probably been quite a lot of influence there actually,” he says. “The words are just as important to me as the tunes, although that’s only part of it. Above all, I like to tell stories. In fact, I think our live performances have as much to do with theatre as they do with concerts. My own recent songs, and even the traditional songs and the introductions we do, all tend to be in a storytelling style. I like a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. I like it to have characters and a sense of place. I like it to be something that’s both familiar and new to the audience. That way there’s something they can hook into straight away, so that I can then take them somewhere they haven’t been before. These are all things that you would consider if you were writing a film script or a novel or something, which is quite different from the process of writing the sort of simple love songs that many people write, and which I once wrote myself.”
Mention of the theatre leads to a discussion of the duo’s approach to stagecraft, a rather neglected subject as far as much of the folk music world is concerned, and something which sets truly professional musicians like Napper and Bliss apart.
“I generally work out the running order of our sets,” says Tom Bliss. “It’s almost part of the writing process as far as I’m concerned. Folk audiences can be quite hard to please, so we tend to do a few pieces that are musically strong in the first half to win people over and show our credentials. In the second half, after people have gone out and got another drink, they tend to be more relaxed and there’s more opportunity for banter. In the past we’ve tried putting our more lighthearted material at the beginning of a performance. The evening then goes off down a comedy route and, whilst that’s fine up to a point, we can’t get back into the more serious material after that; it’s missed its chance. We now tend to start by keeping things fairly steady, not in terms of tempo but in terms of emotion. We then loosen up a bit, before returning to something a little more serious at the end of the night.”
“Another important consideration,” continues Tom Napper, “is how a set will work logistically in terms of instrument changes, re-tunings and so on. I play tenor banjo, mandolin and octave mandolin, whilst Tom Bliss plays guitar, mandocello, fiddle, concertina, accordion and whistle. We always aim to make things flow smoothly without any awkward breaks in the continuity of a performance.”
“We carefully work out who’s going to be doing the introductions,” says Tom Bliss. “That way, if I have to do a major re-tuning for a particular piece, I can do it whilst Tom Napper’s talking, and vice-versa.”
Inevitably, in parts of the folk music world, such attention to detail is not always fully appreciated.
“Some people actually prefer it if you’re not too professional,” says Tom Bliss. “If you come on a bit strong, as we sometimes do, people can think you’re a bit flash. We don’t mean to be, but if we’ve recently honed our act for an Arts Centre audience, it might not be what people want in a small, intimate club. It’s just a matter of getting the balance right.”
On the subject of professionalism, Tom Bliss is happy to acknowledge the influence of Show of Hands.
“In our early days, I remember reading an article on Show of Hands in which they gave a tremendous amount of very good advice to people like us. However, I wouldn’t say that they’ve had any influence on us musically, although I do love the way Steve Knightley writes narrative songs.”
Tom Bliss’s own songs explore a wide range of social and historical themes, but a recurrent interest - particularly evident on the latest album, “The Kelping” - has been island life. This has even led to the development of a themed show, “Island Slices”, intended initially for inclusion in the various rural touring schemes around the country.
“Although I was born in Guildford, Surrey, I’ve been a regular and frequent visitor to Alderney in the Channel Islands since I was two. Islands fascinate me in general and this interest is naturally reflected in my song writing. In fact, the core of our folk club set is largely about islands, so it wasn’t very difficult to develop the themed show from that existing material.”
Even the titles of two Tom Bliss tune compositions have island links, namely “The Casquets Light” from the first album, “The Silverlode” – which refers to a group of vicious rocks near Alderney – and “The Swinge” from the latest album, dedicated to the race which surges between Alderney and Burhou.
“Tunes occur to me as frequently as songs do. I know they don’t fit into any of the genres they’re supposed to, but when you’re an ideas person like me you simply have to let the ideas out; otherwise they just jangle around in your head and make you go mad. I did originally envisage ‘The Swinge’ going a bit faster, but it was never going to be a reel. It’s mood music really.”
Which brings us back to storytelling.
“As a television director, I’ve learnt that there are times when you can tell a story simply with music. For me, the whole arrangement of a song is telling the story, not just the words. You can have a musical interlude during which the audience can reflect on the story so far, or you can set the scene and atmosphere with music. Such instrumental breaks are not just there because they sound nice; they actually contribute to the narrative of the song.”
Arranging pieces is very much a shared process for the duo.
“Neither of us insists that the other should play any particular ‘right’ chords,” says Tom Napper, “although it is necessary sometimes to say, ‘I think that’s a wrong one.’”
“Things get interesting when I decide to change keys for singing purposes,” continues Tom Bliss. “I usually just have to shift my capo position a fret or two, whereas Tom Napper is often forced to completely rethink the whole arrangement. As long as this happens fairly early on, before things get too bedded down, it can be a very healthy part of the creative process. Breaking things up again before they settle can ensure that we really get the best bits out of the ideas that have been presented by either side.”
When it comes to recording, the duo like to aim for an “as live” sound, with just a few minor additions, “because passion matters more than perfection”. But why not keep things completely live in the studio?
“It’s partly because of the need to mix the recording at the end,” explains Tom Napper. “Also, the few, subtle things that have been added are intended to compensate for the fact that people cannot see anyone when they are listening to a CD. There are certain things that you can get away with or put across live that get lost with a straight recording. A bit of subtle extra bass can make all the difference.”
“The trick is to get just the right amount of polish and no more,” continues Tom Bliss. “Phil Snell, who’s produced both our albums, as well as my band albums, has been absolutely tremendous in this respect. He’s actually encouraged us to leave some imperfections unaltered, like when my voice cracks due to emotion, because such things actually add to the power of a piece. And I’m convinced that more than anything else, we musicians are selling emotion.”
To second that emotion, check out the two albums mentioned above, available at the duo’s extensive website: www.napperbliss.co.uk.