In retrospect, there was never really any doubt that Chris Cleverley was going to pick up a six-string.
“Dad was heavily into the Birmingham blues scene,” says Chris of his old man, who cut his teeth in various West Midlands blues bands during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and still gigs today. “He has thousands of records and played music all the time – ‘60s bands, Joni Mitchell, The Kinks, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, so there was music always on. He’d be playing all kinds of guitars around the house too.”
Inspired by his father, Chris started early – “I was playing school classical guitar recitals as a young boy,” he says – and a splurge of noisy metal and rock bands formed naturally in his teens. But then a light bulb moment changed Chris’ musical world overnight.
“A dear friend at uni’ played me John Smith and Martha Tilston and straight away I wanted to play guitar like them,” he recalls on first hearing the acoustic acts whose roots rested not in US blues or rock, but British folk. “I then saw John Martyn on his last tour, and his playing was brilliant.”
Chris describes hearing contemporary acts Smith and Tilston as his “folk music epiphany”. It marked a turning point that led him to re-evaluate his own playing, and as he delved deeper into the genre, he quickly identified a string of great musicians whose styles he admired, absorbed and adapted.
“My style of playing stems from the players of the ‘60s folk revival and beyond, like Nic Jones, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and Martin Simpson too,” says Chris.
“Those ‘60s acts, like John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, a lot of the appeal to me is their musicianship. There were so many great guitar players on that scene and they spurred each other on. There was almost this expectation back in those days that you had to be a great guitar player, so they had to be exceptional, world class musicians. That was the golden era of tunings and fingerstyle guitar playing.”
He pauses briefly: “It would be great to be held in that esteem … to be considered an exceptional guitar player, championing those approaches.”
Just five years since his epiphany, Chris’ smart mix of traditional folk guitar and contemporary singer-songwriter has seen him rack up considerable support based just on word-of-mouth. He’s opened for the likes of Spiers and Boden, Martha Tilston, Steve Tilston, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, The Wailin’ Jennys’ Cara Luft, Eleanor McEvoy, Luke Jackson, and Ewan McLennan. There’s also been well-timed slots at a string of UK festivals, such as Moseley Folk Festival, Lunar Festival, Stroud Folk Festival and, most notably, Bristol Folk Festival, were he scooped the Isambard Folk Award 2014 – following in the footsteps of such previous winners as the fast-rising Josienne Clark and Ben Walker.
“That was phenomenal,” he says of his win, which many people consider as a precursor to the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. “The Isambard has been a stepping stone into the rich, abundant folk scene of South West – an area of the country which has massive personal resonance for me with its traditions and coastlines.”
Since the Isambard, Chris has been steadily piecing together his presently untitled debut album (due out spring 2015) at Rhythm Studios, in rural Warwickshire. The track listing is very much a reflection of the songs he’s been playing live, including American tunes ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ and ‘O Shenandoah’, alongside a selection of original songs which demonstrate his impressive guitar technique (The Dawn Before The Day), and personal approach to lyric writing (Missing Persons). There’s also the odd banjo tune (“my secondary instrument … playing it like a percussive instrument in the 19th century Appalachian frailing style fascinates me…”), and band arrangements.
“Though it is a genre I have a strong affiliation with, what separates me from the traditional folk genre is that when I write, I’m not storytelling in the same way, I’m not talking about historic incidents … it’s that personal approach to songwriting. The stories I tell are analogies. I always come back to that.
“Lyrically it’s very important to be honest. The artists I admire most are those that a brutally honest, like Elliott Smith,” he continues, referencing the troubled Nebraskan songwriter who died in 2003. “Hearing his songs, it’s comforting, in a way, though I don’t relate to Elliott’s plight directly. It might be uncomfortable sharing these brutally honest ideas with the world, but you can see other people identifying with it. That’s vindicating…”
- Chris Cleverley plays Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre on Monday 1 December 2014. Read the full press release for more details.
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