There’s really no doubt that Fairport Convention is as English as tea, fish and chips and bowler hats.
As the band celebrates its 45th anniversary culminating with its annual Cropredy Festival on August 9-11, it’s interesting to consider how American songwriters have influenced the band. Founder Ashley Hutchings and early members including Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick turned to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Byrds for inspiration.
The band quickly established itself as a major powerhouse – the album Liege & Lief is widely cited as the recording that launched the electric folk rock movement. Many of the band’s songs – including “Meet on the Ledge,” which was just covered by Counting Crows on its recent release Underwater Sunshine – are some of the most loved in contemporary music.
But Fairport Convention is no band that rests on its past successes. The members pride themselves on reaching into new musical dimensions due in large part to multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, the band’s primary songwriter, and Ric Sanders, the band’s fiddler who contributes instrumentals to the band’s legendary catalog.
Sanders recently spoke a bit about what brought him to Fairport, what songwriters and musicians influence him and just how he keeps his writing fresh.
I know your band mate Chris Leslie was a fan of Fairport Convention when he was very young. Was it the same for you?
The first music I really got into when I was in school, apart from the Beatles and the Stones and the obvious ones, was the Grateful Dead. I used to listen to them play “Dark Star” and these long improvisations. And then I got into Frank Zappa’s stuff and then the wonderful violin player David LaFlamme who played with the [San Francisco-based] group It’s a Beautiful Day.
I heard David LaFlamme, Don “Sugar King” Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty and that got me into older jazz players like Stéphane Grappelli. Then I found my way quite quickly, in the early ‘70s, to the guys I connected with that were Miles Davis and those that came from Miles, which would be proper musicians such as John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Jaco Pastorius, Chick Correa, and Herbie Hancock. I was like, ‘Whoa!” Those are the kind of musicians I was into and still am. So I was coming from that era but I always loved folk music.
What was it about folk that attracted you?
I always loved folk music, [essentially because of] the nature of the instrument I play, the fiddle. It’s kind of hard to play solo jazz fiddle. It can be done but you need back up because it’s so often a harmonic form, you need harmony to play against. With folk you can play on your own on the fiddle. If you play Irish or English or Celtic tunes, they are kind of autonomous on the fiddle. They have a life on their own [on the fiddle].
I learned to play Fairport songs because I just loved folk. I never had any aspirations to play in a folk band. Also I am from Birmingham and Fairport was based in Birmingham for quite a number of years. So there was a lot of Fairport activity around there. [Legendary fiddler] Dave Swarbrick lived in Birmingham so I kind of knew [him and the other musicians] anyway.
Were you surprised when you were invited to join Fairport?
I was shocked! I had no idea that Swarb and the other guys had decided to go their separate ways. It was a big shock to me and a very nice shock.
How would you say playing folk is different from playing jazz?
There is quite a different technique for playing folk as opposed to a jazz technique. Jazz is much more bluesy, much more legato with these long sweeping notes. I wanted to sound like Miles; I heard a trumpet or soprano saxophone in my head. So folk was a different style, especially with those jigs and reels and dance tunes. It was good for my fiddle playing, trying to play in that style. It was fun. It’s funny how things work. I got the call in 1985 and here I am 27 years later and Fairport has become my life.
But you still play jazz with other groups. Do you still identify very strongly with that format?
I always used to think of myself, even in my early years with Fairport, as a jazz-blues player. Over the years, that changed. Now if someone asks what I am now, I say I am the fiddle player in Fairport. That is what defines me.
Chris Leslie is primarily the Fairport Convention songwriter these days, but you contribute a good number of songs too.
I have only written about two songs in my life if you think of songs with words. I co-wrote “Ukulele Central” [on Fairport Convention’s album Festival Bell] with Chris and that was a great collaboration. So I’ve co-written a lot more than I’ve written. But I’ve always written instrumentals for the groups [with which I played including Soft Machine].
When I joined Fairport, the guys very generously gave me the opportunity to compose for the group. So over the years I came out with two different sorts of compositions; I had never really written that much in the folk style before. I wrote a whole string of romantic instrumental ballads, which were kind of folky with a bit of jazz in them (“The Rose Hip”). That’s my romantic side. And the others I provided were very exuberant and not entirely serious. They are sort of imitation folk dance melodies (“The Bowman’s Retreat,” “Canny Capers”). So those are kind of fun to do and written very much with the Fairport line up and include good stuff for the rhythm section to do.
Most recently I’ve moved away [from those styles] and found a new kind of [writing style]. I wrote a couple tunes on “Festival Bell” [including] “Danny Jack’s Chase,” which were different sorts of tunes [that are accented with jazz and rock]. It’s taken me years to get into this new form.
It’s challenging to write for a band like Fairport. It’s got such a history of fantastic instrumentals. Before I joined the band, Swarb had done arrangements of actual traditional tunes. I don’t have Swarb’s vast experience. I am no expert on folk music. I am sort of an enthusiastic amateur as a folk musician.
What instrument do you grab when you write?
Sometimes the fiddle, sometimes a keyboard. In the modern way, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night – I sometimes dream about tunes – and I sing stuff into my iPhone. I have endless voice memos, mostly rubbish, but every now and then there is one that will work. We might be sitting down and playing uke or anything really. I don’t have any set method.
I listen to a lot of stuff . I think the idea [that resulted in the songs “Danny Jack’s Reward” and “Danny Jack’s Chase,” both of which reviewers called “marvels”] came when I was awake in the middle of the night watching a program. There was [the California-based band] Queens of the Stone Age doing one of their iconic songs and there was this one chord change, G major to a B major, a simple thing [basically] dropping back to a minor chord. I thought ‘Wow, I love that.” It’s a different chord sequence I use but the germ of the idea came from the Queens of the Stone Age. That might surprise some, but they’re a great band.
You always hear people talk about “original” compositions. Is it even possible to be truly original?
The great [London-based composer] Vaughn Williams said as a proficient composer, he just steals ideas. And I know exactly what he meant by that. It’s very hard. You really can’t be totally original. To write something you always end up using something that has been used before. There is a trick to use it in a different way.
I was watching a pop singer do an interview on TV and she had no idea how unoriginal she was. There was no originality at all in what she was doing except in her own head.
You are certainly a gifted player and don’t need to write at all. What keeps you motivated to do that?
I’m not always. Sometimes I waste a day. As I get older I feel less guilty when I’ve done that. Sometimes when I want to write [and need inspiration], I open a bottle of wine and watch a movie. It’s probably a problem for anybody who works in arts or whatever. We don’t have a boss or have to clock in. The problem is your work is based on self-motivation. That can, of course, be difficult. But when you think about it, ideally the work makes you feel good. Very good. And that’s a privilege.