"They needed somebody who, convincingly, would be slumming it in a subway - which is where my name came up!"
Interview and gig photos by Dawn. 'Fiddle Icarus' photo by David Angel.
The last time I saw Jon Boden was back in April, also in Sheffield, but at the City Hall. Then, he was onstage with the other ten members of Bellowhead and partway through the band's farewell tour. Tonight, however, he's going it alone at a sold-out Greystones for the second consecutive evening in preparation for his solo sets at Cambridge Folk Festival and Sidmouth Folk Week, and before his 14 date November tour.
"I have done solo gigs occasionally over the last 13 years," says Jon, "but I've not really ever committed to it if you know what I mean, so this is the first time that I'm going out there and saying 'this is actually what I'm doing, this isn't just a sort of novelty one off this is actually me now'. So that's a bit scary really because there's nowhere to hide once you commit. Even if there are just two of you onstage, you look out for each other musically. It's quite scary but it's good fun."
The setlists for the shows will be made up of Bellowhead songs (adapted for one guitar or fiddle) and songs from Jon's two solo albums, and while Bellowhead's songs were all traditional arrangements, Jon's solo songs are his own work. "I find it harder to start writing my own songs, but easier to finish them," he says. "When you're looking for traditional songs to do you just skim through books and you think about songs you've heard, so in a way it's a more immediately accessible resource than the blank page of your own brain. But having said that, once you start working with a traditional song you've got a lot less freedom to pull it around into a place that you're happy with, whereas when you get the beginning of an idea for your own song then you can finish writing it in whatever form you like. So they're very different processes in some respects but there are lots of shared things between them as well.
"I suppose I've done a lot more of the traditional arrangements so far in my career than the songwriting and I kind of started off being primarily a songwriter – that sounds rather grand because I'm talking about when I was a teenager - but I was into being a songwriter before I was into arranging traditional songs, so it's nice coming back now to a bit more songwriting - and I've started writing a new album as well which is quite exciting."
Before that, on 30th September Jon will release a tenth anniversary version of his first album Painted Lady featuring some newly recorded bonus tracks. He also recently relaunched his website to accompany his new solo venture and it features some striking 'Fiddle Icarus' publicity shots of him perched high on a hilltop against a spectacular sunset sky, his outstretched arms displaying 'wings' made from fiddles.
"I should say 'oh it was just a blinding flash of inspiration'," Jon smiles, "but actually it came from a rather pragmatic thing which is that it's good to have instruments in the photos because people want to know what they're coming to see. It can look rubbish if you're just holding or pointing at the instrument and it's quite difficult to think of interesting photo shoot set-ups, so I was just thinking of an interesting way to get a fiddle into shot. I started thinking that you could strap it to your arm, then it hit me that if you got a whole lot of different sized ones it would look like wings. I couldn't put my arms down of course once the fiddles were tied on and it took quite a long time to get them on and off, so my friend Fraser had to run in with some poles when the pain got too much and I could at least rest my arms on those. I'm really pleased with the photos."
Jon has always been a man with many musical projects on the go all at once and, alongside his touring, recording and theatre compositions of recent years, 2013 saw him not only contribute to the score of the Richard Curtis film About Time, but also make a cameo appearance as a busker singing the Waterboys song How Long Will I Love You (accompanied by Sam Sweeney and Ben Coleman). Jon says that Richard Curtis knew he wanted that song to be in the film, but that his own involvement came about in a slightly unusual way.
"As I understand it Nick Laird-Clowes, who was the music consultant, said they initially wanted Mike Scott of the Waterboys to do it. So they looked at that but they thought it would distract from the scene if you actually had Mike Scott there busking in the subway - it would be a bit unconvincing. So they needed somebody who, convincingly, would be slumming it in a subway," he laughs, "which is where my name came up.
"But also Nick said they were looking for someone with a similar kind of timbre to their voice. Before he said that I wouldn't have put myself in the same bracket as Mike Scott, but when you think about it actually if you take the accents away the timbre is maybe not that different. Anyway he found me on YouTube – you know, he searched 'English folk singer' I think and I popped up so that's how that happened."
Before he discovered folk, Jon first got into rock music as a teenager via the much missed medium of mixtapes: "I used to go camping on a thing called Forest School Camps and when I was 12 one of the staff on that sent me a mixtape – this is back in the early 90s I suppose, when people still had cassettes - and that was a great thing. You'd spend hours doing these mixtapes. I remember doing them for people I'd met twice. Anyway, he sent me a mixtape and it was loads of stuff that I'd just never heard before. My parents liked music and I suppose I grew up listening to Dire Straits, the Eurythmics, Paul Simon's Graceland - all that sort of tasteful middle class 80s kind of record collection essentially.
"So I'd never heard Led Zeppelin until this guy, Jody, sent me this tape - Led Zeppelin and a bit of early Fleetwood Mac - and that really got me hooked onto that early 70s pre-prog rock aesthetic. So it was Led Zeppelin that got me into the whole thing and then from there I got into Led Zeppelin IV, and then kind of picked up on the folkiness of it and started listening to Jethro Tull - which my parents did have, and they also had quite a lot of Steeleye Span. So they were kind of folkies in so far as the fact that they liked Steeleye Span and a few other bits and bobs. So I then started plundering their record collection and seeing what they had back in the dark corners of the record shelf and that's how I started getting into it. And someone gave me a Martin Carthy tape when I was about 14 and I started listening to that so yeah it kind of all grew from that.
"But also Tom Waits was the other big discovery. I stayed up late watching telly one night when I was probably about 13 and the Tom Waits live concert Big Time came on at about 2 o'clock in the morning and that was quite a big eye opener. So Tom Waits has been the single most important non-folk artist I suppose."
With big thanks to Jon and to Harriet. Visit www.jonboden.com for more information on Jon's upcoming gigs and visit http://www.mygreystones.co.uk for more info on the Greystones pub.