FOLK MINORITY - AN INTERVIEW WITH MEIC STEVENS
"I always thought it was important to record in Welsh. A minority language. It's a minority race too. There aren't many of us. The Paddies are all Catholics, they don't have any birth control so they're all shagging away and we're basically being told not to shag. The Welsh are weird you know!"
Richard Marshall interviews Meic Stevens
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3AM: You started way back, '68 was it?
MS: '65. The first stuff I recorded for Decca was '65 with John Paul Jones who ended up in Led Zeppelin. He did the strings. I like a bit of strings. I've got a string section tonight. The new album is just out this week. It's called 'ysbryd solva' -- the 'Spirit of Solva', -- it was recorded in my fiddle player's house in four days. It's a momento really. We've had a lot of fun with this acoustic band Six string bass, female vocalist Heather Jones, Dave Reid on bass, Billy Thompson whose absolutely brilliant on violin and me on guitar. There was another guy on guitar but it didn't work out too good and most of it was edited out -- his name's Anthony Griffiths, he's absolutely brilliant and has been playing for years as well. There's a three box set thing as well -- 'disgwyl rhywbeth gwell I ddod' -- but it's the new one I'm interested in.
Anyway, I stared off going to Manchester. I'm originally from Solva, just down the road from here. There was quite a few things happening. I mean, I've been around such a long time -- Patrice there, he's arguably the best guitarist in France. Didier Lockwood, he was with him for some years helping him arranging his records and so on. I don't often see him because I haven't been in France for a long time…
3AM: So what got you into it at that time. There was Dylan and American influenced folk at that time.
MS: No, no, no. When I first heard Dylan I laughed. Bob Dylan is probably one of the greatest modern poets but things had been around a little longer than that. I'm a year younger than Dylan. He's the same age as John Lennon. 41 they were born. I was 42. War bambinos. I was always interested in folk music. I always sung them. I always classed myself as a folk singer anyway. I know I can play rock, I play jazz, I play blues. It's all sound to me. It's all music. I drifted into this jazz when I was seventeen and blues -- before the British Blues revival. And then just kept on going on and on. Just kept on going. So I'm still here!
3AM: How have things changed, developed since that time?
MS: Oh God, look, the druids are coming. I better hide this beer. You're not supposed to drink here. They're just about to crown the bard. You need to watch these guys. They're all in the masons! Another dubious organisation. How have things changed. Well, music has always been music to me. I just hope I age gracefully. I certainly have had a lot of fun then. I met and worked with a lot of people who were in the forefront of modern music like Reggie King of The Action, Gary Farr, Cat Stevens, Steve Winwood, they were all sympathetic to each other. We were all knew each other and stuff. And other people. We were everywhere. We did a lot of good music. We all went our separate ways but I think we still make good music.
3AM: How important was it that you are Welsh? I mean, everyone's aware of Irish folk music, the Irish Celtic sound. But the Welsh is less well known.
MS: Well, it's not important beyond the fact that I happen to be Welsh, that's all. The guy that everyone should bend the knee to is Alan Stivell -- the thing had gone really flat and he started this new Celtic wave of Celtic revival music. There's no doubt about it. I went to Brittany just to see what was going on. There was nothing happening at the time in Ireland. Very little happening here. So that's where it was happening. I stayed there to check it out. Then I came back here. I always thought it was important to record in Welsh. A minority language. It's a minority race too. There aren't many of us. The Paddies are all Catholics, they don't have any birth control so they're all shagging away and we're basically being told not to shag. The Welsh are weird you know! I'm one of those passing by us now, with the green hoods. I wouldn't dream of going around bloody dressed like that though! Good luck to them though. I'm looking forward to tonight. They won't have heard anything like us before. We've got a great band together. The bones of the band I've been with for years. The drummer and the bass player, and Didier is quite new. Billy, he's only been around a few years - he usually plays with Barbara Thompson but she's got MS and so is more or less finished. It's very sad. That was the last tour she'll do, the last European tour last year. And we've got this fantastic French guitar player. He's great.
3AM: You like playing live?
MS: There's nothing like playing live. Recording now -- I said to Bill who engineered this last digital album -- I hate recording like this. I like recording ensemble. This last one, it's the first one I've done like this. It's been done on a computer and heavily edited. That is not my ideal way of recording music. I've not heard it yet. I've not heard the finished sound. I haven't got a clue what it sounds like. That's why I was asking you whether you had a copy earlier. Everyone says they like it, so that's something. But I prefer the live work. I don't do big tours round the country though.
I'm unknown. I'm a loner. I've never been involved with agents or anything like that. I don't push it. I've never pushed it. It's just a localised thing you know. It's about keeping it away from showbiz really. I keep on telling people, I've been telling them for years and years, I don't want to get involved in that. I'm sure people don't believe me. I could have made millions and millions from Warners in the sixties. I could have been up there with Van the Man and Neil Young and people like that. A lot of good guys. Jim Thompson, John Sebastian, Tim Buckley, a lot of good guys. It's not for me. I knew all those guys. They used to encourage artists.
And Joni Mitchell. She was beautiful. She was my favourite girl. A beautiful voice. She never compromised. She's all out. She's full out. All those disappointing love affairs she had. She needn't have done that. But only a very open person can fall into those situations. That's part of the art. Being open. She's the best. Nancy Griffiths I admire as well. She knew Joni. She's a great writer. Joni Mitchell has this tremendous charisma and she can convert with vocal sounds into magic. Kate Bush in a little way but not like Joni. Now Van Morrison. Bernie used to play with him, still does from time to time, and he'd tour with Van the Man and I asked him one day - Is it true that he's really tight fisted and he said, man, he wouldn't even let me smell his shit!
I don't bloody care. I don't care a fuck. Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, they can't sing any more. Their voices are fucked. I don't know why they bother, especially Morrison. They're multi-millionaires. What are they doing it for? Dylan and his never-ending tour, it's just a bloody excuse. What else is he going to do? But I really don't understand. I know one thing. They're upsetting a hell of a lot of die-hard fans by not being able to come up to scratch anymore. And what do you expect? They're old. The mileage. I wouldn't go on stage unless I thought I could cut it. Now singing in Welsh. It's been detrimental to me. It's been an impediment because hardly anyone can speak fucking Welsh. They can hear the sound. This is the thing. The Irish did this. All the successful Irish singers and groups sang in English. Or they did instrumentals. But there's some tremendous music.
It all goes back to Stivell. I think everyone should put in some money for his funeral. He's a tremendous guy Alan Stivell. He's so humble. I think humility is a great bonus. A great asset in this greedy, gaudy, ego-centric world which most people approve of. There's a sixties magazine in New York -- 'Ugly Things' -- doing articles about the sixties, -- they're bringing me over to do two gigs, one in New York and one in Boston, so either I'll make it or I won't. I don't know. Maybe I'll not make it tonight!
3AM: Do you get the sense of there being young people following along for the right reasons?
MS: Yes there are. I know a lot of young people who busk in Cardiff and some of them are very good musicians and very good singers. Some of them come to my house in Cardiff and they're into all that old stuff, they respect it, that finger picking stuff. They love Bert Jansch and those guys and of course, I was around before those guys and I was around when they were around as well. I was around with David Graham, I hit London when he was in London -- a tremendous guitar player. It was great playing with these guys. Of course, Jansch got his head together and is playing now better than ever. It's a different kettle fish than that Fairport Convention stuff and Pentangle.
He's much better on his own. I haven't seen him for years. He's taken up with Anne Briggs who lives on an island off the coast of Scotland. No body ever sees them any more. I was reading his book and she made a great contribution to that. She was turning up in every bloody chapter. Him and Anne Briggs were so fucking out of it, those people. We used to smoke so much dope and drink so much booze. They can probably not remember the half of it! Tremendous stuff though. And there were the American guys as well, they were all around Bert.
Donavan was always around. He used to follow him around like a bloody dog. Unbelievable. He was a nice chap, a nice young fella, but he didn't know fuck all. He couldn't play a guitar or anything. Jansch would always be asking when he came round - what the fuck does he want? - early in the morning and Bert'd be wanting an early morning shag or hair of the dog and Donovan's at the door! Darren Adams was another one. He used to live in this horrible flat with this stripper.
But with me, its like, a prophet in his own land… you know that old adage? There was this time I was taken into protective custody. I was wanting to sleep off the booze, was climbing and was going to sleep on the mountains. But they didn't know that. So they took me in because they thought if they left me there I might freeze to death on the mountain. It was a very cool night. A diamond night. Fantastic. You can see the air on the mountains on a night like that. It's so clear. One o'clock in the morning and the moon is shining down and it reflects off the rocks of the mountains. A wonderful place. If you know what you're doing. Anyway, they took me in. But I got away with it. I hadn't done anything wrong. I had to go to court. All the way from Cardiff to this arsehole of nowhere. It's well up in the mountains and no one would ever go there. Never mind. A pain.
Anyway, do the Welsh appreciate me? Well here, on my home ground, I was very surprised that they asked me here to do this. They're very strict and straight you know. It proves that they're coming round. There's not a Christian in the band. None of us go to Church. We're all bloody eccentric. We read stuff and play jazz. So it's surprising they asked us.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
A native of Solva in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, Meic Stevens has been an integral part of the Welsh music scene since the beginning of the 1960s. He was a member of a group called Y Bara Menyn (Bread And Butter) with Geraint Jarman and Heather Jones, and also sang with a backing band called The Cadillacs. In 2002, coinciding with Meic's 60th birthday, Sain released Disgwyl Rhywbeth Gwell I Ddod, a triple CD anthology of his songs recorded between 1968 and 1979. There is also a forthcoming album featuring Welsh artists singing his classic songs. Artists contributing include Big Leaves, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Anhrefn and Dafydd Iwan.