Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Chris Brain talks new album Steady Away, Nick Drake influences and rise of contemporary folk

Chris Brain settles in for a chat with Ewan Gleadow, and talks the recent release of record Steady Away. Brain’s collection of works is the latest in a series of contemporary folk-oriented releases, which has seen the likes of Henry Parker and Katie Spencer release materials channelling the Yorkshire and Humber area in their music, while paying tribute to the greats who paved the way for them.

Ewan Gleadow: I just finished the album about 20 minutes ago. Very well done first of all, it’s a cracking album. Your first record came out last year, just shy of half an hour in length. Is that intentional? To keep it short and sweet, a calm introduction to your work?

Chris Brain: I just found myself writing really short songs. I don’t know why. I always gravitate towards short and sweet things. So maybe that’s why. Or maybe I don’t. It’s easier to close a book on something if it’s short sometimes. Yeah. I dunno. It’s not intentional. I just like songs that are quite short I think. Yeah.

Ewan: Your second record, Steady Away, with Tawny, for example, there’s a very autumnal feeling to it and the record.

Chris: Yeah, definitely an autumnal feeling. I pretty much wrote it all last Autumn. That’s the difference between this record and the first one. The first one is probably written over about six years and it’s just a culmination of songs I’d written in my early twenties and then I put them all together. Whereas this one, it’s all written around a certain period of time. It’s cohesive, and definitely written around those periods. Tar is about when I saw an owl last year.  That would’ve been two years ago in autumn, but, oh no, a year ago in autumn. Yeah. When I saw an owl.

Ewan: Like you say there, six years for the first record and just one for the second. Has this been a new challenge or transition for you? Seeing if your new works came on quicker, sharper even? 

Chris: You know, I’m always writing, so I don’t find it challenging at all. I recorded it a year ago, so it’s a while. In the meantime, I’ve been emailing people and sorting out deals and stuff. I could’ve written another record. I think I want to get on and do another one now. 

Ewan: That must be a strange feeling, to have it done and finished on your end for a while but have to wait for people to appreciate and hear the work. Is the distance for projects from completion to release a strange time?

Chris: Absolutely. It’s hard to be excited about it, isn’t it? I’ve heard some tracks about fifty times. It’s hard to be as excited, but I never thought, when I was a youngster starting to learn, I didn’t think that was the process. But I guess you learn. It does make sense as to why it happens but it is frustrating in a way. It’s worth doing it properly this way, with a tour starting in October. We’re looking forward to that. 

Ewan: How has the preparation been for that?

Chris: I’m just practising the sets at the moment. I played at a folk festival which was good. I’ve been doing a fair few shows in between but I’m just promoting the tour at the moment. The hard work is emailing, sending posters over, getting into places and stuff like that, and letting as many people know as possible. That’s where the hard work is. Playing is the dream. I think of it as being paid to drive somewhere, and then you play for a break. You drive a ridiculous amount of hours but it’s all made worthwhile since you get to do a gig, and you get that euphoric feeling on stage. I feel absolutely at ease on stage. All the nerves go. I’m just ready to give it a good time. 

Ewan: You’ve also contributed to Henry Parker’s collaborative piece dedicated to Michael Chapman.

Chris: Yeah, we’ve not pushed it too much yet but Tompkins Square, a record label in America, approached Henry. I don’t know the complete logistics. But they approached him and asked if he could curate a Michael Chapman tribute album, gathering local Yorkshire musicians to play. There are some solid names on there and some great tracks, I’ve heard them all already. It was a pleasure to be involved. I’m the last track on there, as Jim Getty was originally going to do one. But he couldn’t do it because he had to head over to Canada, and Henry asked me. I had two weeks to get a track done. I learned the song and then did it in an hour or so, just an acoustic cover. I’ve gone far and wide in terms of experimentation. Mine is just fairly authentic, learning the song over a couple of days and playing it. 

Ewan: Collecting Yorkshire folk musicians sounds great. Is there a sense of growth in the genre and location at the moment? Is there a folk boom and a shift in motion on the way?

Chris: Absolutely. It feels like a revival almost. I run two folk shows, one run like a gig and a touring app where two slots are given to local musicians. Ever since I started running that, it’s booming. There’s so many people that want to play. It packs the room every single month. I’m noticing all my friends starting to do really well. It’s just growing so fast and radio is starting to cover it and it’s getting played on TV shows and stuff. 

Ewan: It’s great to see. With Katie Spencer for instance opening for Richard HAwley last year, there’s a delightful crop of musicians coming through. I think in the sense of, you know, record collecting has come back into fashion recently too. Do you think there’s space now on streaming for shorter records? Pieces like The Beach Boys, whose shorter works were a tight half hour of strong material. 

Chris: That’s true actually. I’ve never thought of it like that. I’ve not thought about streaming too much. I don’t see it as the devil, I just don’t even think about it because I don’t consume that much via streaming. I tend to listen to records. I look at streaming figures, Katie’s for instance, she turns out everywhere she goes, gets loads of people to watch her, but doesn’t get too many streams on Spotify. I’ve got some friends who are bedroom musicians, recording contemporary pop or indie folk and they get millions of streams but can’t get anyone down to a gig. It’s really hard to put your finger on. 

Ewan: I saw comparisons between your work and that of Nick Drake, does that come as a compliment or is it all part of being compared to preceding musicians?

Chris: You just have to take the compliment, don’t you? I sing in a similar tone to them and have been open about how I was inspired by Nick Drake, so it makes sense. I write a lot of music with a finger style too. It’s really hard to get away from, I mean, I’m not trying to play like him, but I’m massively into his work. I really don’t want to be him, certainly not. It seems like he didn’t lead such a happy life. I get lots of people commenting on it, but it has done well. It’s worked for me in some ways, I guess people can put their finger to it somewhere, straight away. 

Ewan: That’s the fine line between influence and beyond influence. Like when Sam Fender found himself compared to Bruce Springsteen after his second record. People can place works now, they have it tucked away in a similar spot in their mind but it feels like a detraction to strike a likeness. 

Chris: Everyone’s got influences. You can’t get away from it, can you?

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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