Rome, Johnny Mercer, Johnnie Ray
An archive Terry Clarke Interview from an Italian publication, Late For The Sky
by Fabrizio Pezzoli, after a tour of Italy. (April 2001)
What is your first memory of music as a “call of the wild”?
Fifties rock ‘n’ roll and country music mixed with some pre rock ‘n’ roll - Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Kay Starr and Jo Stafford, Broadway show tunes. The radio was always playing when I was a child. ‘Tennessee Waltz’ by Patti Page and ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ by Kay Starr, I loved those and I guess in retrospect they had an obvious country music element. Then it would have been the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly. That music still means as much to me today as it did then and it is still a big source of inspiration. That big acoustic rhythm guitar sound of Don Everly and Johnny Cash mixed with their vocal sound just captured my soul and never let go. Those songs were the first I learned to play and sing and I still love singing them now. ‘I Walk The Line’ by Johnny Cash is almost like the bible to me. I really like what Rodney Crowell’s done with that song on his new album ‘The Houston Kid’.
Is performing about the need for communication or is there something else?
As a child and then a teenager I never craved the spotlight and attention for it’s own sake like some performers. When I started I was very shy, but when I closed my eyes and sang all those fears disappeared and I was in another world.
First came music or poetry?
Music and song. It’s flattering when people refer to me as a poet but I wouldn’t refer to myself that way. I'm a poetic songwriter, maybe, but poetry is a very different discipline. I rarely get a lyric idea without there being some melodic form or rhythmic shape in my head at the same time. Johnny Mercer said you can’t hum a lyric and I think the art of the popular song is a wonderful art form.
Your literary influences?
As a child I loved bible stories, fairy tales, family stories. Later it would be John Steinbeck, Malcolm Lowry, D.H. Lawrence. In recent years I’ve read Cormac McCarthy, Marina Warner, Bruce Chatwin, Stanley Booth and recently a writer from Martinique called Patrick Chamoiseau who is a wonderful storyteller. Les Murray, Michael Ventura, Michael Ondaatje, Louise Erdrich. As for songwriters: Laura Nyro, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Stephen Stills. Johnny Mercer I admire especially, even more so at this point in my life - The way he approached adult themes in a lyric like ‘Days Of Wine And Roses’ is very sophisticated, and ‘Skylark’ and 'Blues In The Night’ are in my opinion a perfect example of poetry in popular song form.
Tell me about your love for Texas and the consequent experiences in the Lone Star State.
Seems as if there was some mystic Texas groove playing in my subconscious for a long time - Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. All those wonderful 45s I grew up with …. Bruce Channel, Buddy Knox, Roy Orbison, Bobby Fuller …. Back in the mid 80s in England I met Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Flaco Jimenez. Those people were encouraging to me so it seemed the natural thing to do. I felt immediately at home there - the landscape, climate, the light. I loved all of it, now it’s a second home. I feel very lucky to be able to cross the world and record and play with people like Champ Hood, Merel Bregante, Jesse Taylor & Lisa Mednick and to have these people as friends. There are lots of people there who aren’t musicians who are very dear to me too, some of the best people I’ve known.
Your recent Italian tour was partly alone and mostly with a band. When did you enjoy the gigs the most?
I only played one show solo, which was in Trento, the others were with the band. I enjoyed all the dates - some would stand out for the locations. Asti, Ferrara were great shows. And Rome. Rome is my favourite city. I first went in 1990 when my friend Mike Cooper, who lives there, booked me some shows at the old Folk Studio with Giancarlo Cesaroni, that was in Trastevere where we played this time at Big Mama Club.
Rome: The tempo, rhythm, colour and light feels to me like the crossroads of the world, I never want to sleep when I’m there. This time was special because I was with Italian musicians, and drummer Merel Bregante’s father was Italian so he relates to Italy like I do to Ireland with my father being Irish. Also we all got to meet up with Mike Cooper and his partner Maria Galante. Mike is from my hometown of Reading, England and we’ve been friends for 30 years, so for all of us to be together in Rome was heart-warming.
Recording in a studio or performing live on stage. What do you like most?
I love the primal, simple thing of one man and a guitar, maybe a glass of whiskey and just sit around a table and sing and swap tales. But the world of late nights in studios finding new magic is equally appealing. Give me a big enough budget and I’ll turn into Phil Spector or Brian Wilson.
How do you relate painting and shooting photographs with your songwriting?
Painting is something I do very occasionally. I did the paintings for the ‘Mother Indigo’ album and ‘Lucky’ but they were the first I’d done for many years and they related to the music and songs. Photography is a more recent thing, but it’s become an absolute passion. I have a lot to learn but I’ve always been a fan of the medium. In Rome in 1990 I saw an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and the memory of that stayed with me. Butch Hancock is a great photographer, being around him inspired me too. I’m a big admirer of the work of William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Jim Marshall, William Claxton. Marty Stuart has just published a book of his photographs which has some great shots of a lot of the people he’s worked with.
Your latest purchase of records?
Laura Nyro ‘Angel In The Dark’ Johnny Cash ‘Solitary Man’ The Roots ‘Things Fall Apart’
Sade ‘Lovers Rock’ Bill Frisell ‘Blues Dream’ Dion DiMucci ‘Born To Be With You’ Audra McDonald ‘How Glory Goes’ Neil Diamond ‘In My Lifetime’ (Box Set) Filippa Giordano (same) Miles Davis ‘The Complete Birth Of The Cool’
Your projects for the future?
I’m working on an album at home in Reading, being recorded at the Wired studio at the Rising Sun Arts Centre. It features songs that relate to my hometown in some way. I’m doing it with Tim Hill’s Pandaemonium Band. Tim and I started working together due to our shared love of Nino Rota and Kurt Weill. The album has a big band - 10 piece with horns - Also we’re using found sounds, field recordings etc, and there will at some point be a book of some kind …. photos, art etc. I have an album finished here which was recorded through 96/97, called ‘The Honey Road’. It was originally intended as the follow up to ‘The Heart Sings’. I’ve just purchased some recording equipment to start working at home and I have plans to do an album of cover versions. My current favourite songwriter is Ronny Elliott from Tampa. We met on tour in Germany in 99 and became good friends. He’s just recorded my song ‘Irish Rockabilly Blues’ on his new album ‘Poisonville’. We are currently writing together via the internet, we have a lot of good things coming together and hopefully we’ll be able to record together at some point. Last but not least, I hope to return to Italy as soon as I can.
Photographs of Trento and Trastevere, Rome, by Terry Clarke