Necessarily, and without apology, this mini-series of articles concerning Jez Lowe is dominated by the North East of England. That is where Jez is from and, but for the first few months of my life after my birth on the Sussex coast, where I'm from, too.
Much as I treasure the time I spend in France, and appreciate London, scarcely a day passes without thoughts of my home region and especially County Durham. Nearly half a century after I left it, the North East still means family, friendship and football (Sunderland was still part of Co Durham when I moved away).
Jez writes and sings about the region, its people, its places and its life, past and present. He has done so to great and widely respected effect in song for many years and is now drawing on his roots, instincts and knowledge in fiction, with a part-written third novel to add to the two you see (and available at this link).
His new album Crazy Pagan is another fine piece of work which I shall review later. First, I shall publish a two-part interview starting with this series of questions and answers, mostly the result of e-mail exchanges. but reinforced by a phone call. That conversation also led to a quickfire Q&A which will appear here in a day or so ....
Question: I once got into trouble with your record distributor for describing you as a superb chronicler of North-eastern life, or words to that effect, though I didn’t intend to suggest that was all you did. The new album, however, is overwhelmingly influenced by your region. Please explain the thinking behind the recording.
Jez: All the songs I’ve ever written have been from the point of view of me being from North East England, looking out into the world. In the case of this album, it seems that perhaps I didn’t look as far afield as I have done in the past. All of these songs are about specific parts of North East England - Tyneside, Wearside and my hometown of Easington in County Durham, all places where I’ve spent a great deal of quality time over the years.
But they were written over a period of about three years, so there was no overall plan for the album itself to be so focused. I think perhaps having spent time writing fiction – third novel currently in the works! – that is based strongly in the North East, at the same time as writing these songs, has influenced me and made me look at local things in a different way.
How challenging was it to record the album in the midst of the pandemic?
It was technically a challenge, in that I had to master the recording programme, Pro-Tools, which was laborious, but actually playing all the instruments myself and layering sounds and voices on each track was very enjoyable.
I could have asked my usual band the Bad Pennies to play on the recordings remotely, on-line from their respective lockdown lairs, but I decided that doing the whole thing myself was more appropriate in the current circumstances, as a sort of lockdown statement.
And how bad for you professionally and personally was lockdown one, and how have you managed to keep sane (and fed)?
Personally it has been OK, though frustrating and boring at times, but I’ve managed to avoid any health issues so far. Professionally, it’s been quite a blow – I’ve lost around 160 gigs between March and December, including two or three overseas trips that had taken a lot of organising.
Financially it’s been a problem, like it has been for the whole arts sector, though I've been fortunate enough to benefit from the Government's measures to help the self-employed.
Your boyhood hero, mine too. How did your meeting with Jimmy Montgomery come about and why did you suddenly decide to write a song about him?
About 10 years ago, I was asked to become an “Ambassador” to the city of Sunderland, along with other so-called “public figures” who were born on Wearside, so every so often I get invited to special events. One of these was a reception for Jim Montgomery, when he was awarded Freedom of the City, so I went along and stood in line, and shook Jim by the hand.
It was a big thrill, as I’d seen him play when I was a kid, and of course the whole 1973 Cup Final celebration is still a vivid memory for a lot of us. Quite a long time afterwards, it came into my head to write a song about him, and the fact that I’d shaken the hand that had saved so many goals. Rather than make it a reverential homage to the great man, I decided to make it a bit more “fan-like” and exuberant, and tried to make it more accessible musically to people who wouldn’t necessarily know who Jim is. I sent him a copy of it. I hope he likes it!
Have you been an active Sunderland supporter at any time (albeit, remembering a great line from an old song of yours, with a soft spot for Hartlepool United)?
Not active no, but instinctively, certainly. I’ve never seen a game at the Stadium of Light, I’m ashamed to say. Leaving Roker Park was a big blow for me, as I lived in a student flat right next to it in the mid-‘70s. But it’s the result I always look for on match days, and Lord knows I’ve suffered for my loyalty, such as it is.
Which other songs on Crazy Pagan are special to you, and why?
LOUISA’S CHOOSING is special, because it’s a difficult subject, gender change, and the subject of it was a friend of mine and a huge influence on British folk music – Louisa Killen from Gateshead.
LOON IN THE MOON is also special, if a bit more obscure, as it is so specifically about Easington Colliery, and how a very famous rock band were secretly photographed there for the cover of one of the biggest albums of all time [The Who's recording, Who's Next?; I had to look it up - Ed]. Even though we all had that album when we were kids, none of us knew that the cover picture was taken at the bottom of our street!
Going back to my first almost Robert Peston length question, can you nominate a few of your songs that have nothing to do with the North East and of which you are particularly proud?
I wrote about 70 songs for the BBC series The Radio Ballads between 2006 and 2018, with a wide range of subject matter, which really helped me widen my perspective as a writer. A few of them became quite special – THE MIAMI, about the massacre of The Miami Showband in 1976 in Northern Ireland, and which is now part of an exhibit in The Museum of The Troubles in Belfast.
JESSE OWENS’ SHOES – about the Olympic gold medallist who experienced a life of prejudice because of his colour. That song has been taken up by a few other singers in the USA, including an African-American singer that I know.
THE WRONG BUS was written for the World War One series of programmes, and is now very widely sung at Armistice Day concerts, because I managed to take an unusual view of the subject, perhaps.
I genuinely had no idea Lou Killen had become Louisa Killen near the end of his life since I was abroad when (s)he died and missed the obits. I feel not a scrap of disapproval but was surprised, if only because I remember his young days when he always struck me, for want of a better description, as a bloke's bloke.
Well, yes, he had women falling at his feet and married three times. I know he looked into going through the procedure when he was living in Seattle but it didn't happen until a few years before his death in 2013. The great thing was everyone just accepted it [see last answer where Jez mentions his song in tribute to Louisa Jo Killen - Ed].
I seem to recall Cherish the Ladies covering a couple of your songs. Which other artists have given your work their own treatment?
Fairport Convention did LONDON DANNY back in the mid-1990s, and that was a thrill because I’ve been a big fan of the band since I was at school! Likewise The Dubliners (BACK IN DURHAM GAOL) and The Clancy Brothers (THE BERGEN and FATHER MALLORYS DANCE).
Some of the newer names on the UK scene, like The Unthanks and The Young Uns have also recorded my stuff. Hundreds of cover versions! I once started a list and got up to 160-odd.
Image: from Sidmouth Folk Festival (c) Jez Lowe's own website
Which singers, musicians and writers given you most pleasure?
Bob Dylan remains a constant inspiration – I’m just a fan, there’s no logic to it, and I have been since I was 12 years old. The McGarrigle Sisters from Canada, and Canadian music in general, has a deep resonance with me, as it has the pace of American music with a natural Celtic flavour I guess. Celtic music in general is close to my heart, especially Irish stuff. I grew up with pop music and soul music, and I think a lot of that has influenced and informed my song writing, even to this day.
Easington, your home town, has been a constant inspiration, to you and others (I am thinking of Billy Elliot). Do you still live there and, post-mining, what is life like there now?
I still think of it as home, but time hasn’t been kind to it. Once that bond of the mining culture had been ripped out of the community, the town simply withered away, and any sort of identity went with it. My generation is really the last with a link to its industrial past, and there are people doing a great job of trying to maintain some sort of heritage.
Hopefully it will come out of the other side of things with a new lease of life. I still have a place there but live outside York.
I still listen a lot to the album that came out of your project with the council on the Durham Miners’ Gala. I thought it an important piece of social history. What did the project mean to you?
It was clear then (around 1994) that we were commemorating a sense of community that was under threat, and that big changes were coming, so I had to mark those changes and still remain optimistic about the future. That wasn’t always easy.
But it was a great community project – bringing together such talent, folk singers, colliery bands, rock and rollers, choirs, classical players, artists, all from within East Durham, and shoe-horning them into that one piece of work. We were being asked to take it to music festivals and events all over the country, but sadly the local council, who had instigated the project, suddenly got cold feet and dropped the whole thing, so it ended with the sour taste of politics in my mouth. Still, the album did very well – someone from Louisville, Kentucky emailed me just last weekend, asking where he could get a copy!
You've plenty of admirers Across the Pond
From 1983 I'd go to the USA twice a year and started playing in Canada from the early 1990s. I fall between two stools, my own songs and the Celtic music scene. From 1999 I played on and off as a duo with the Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan. I've had some great times over there.
If we can dare to look to a post-Covid era, will live performance and the musician’s life ever be even nearly the same as before?
For folk musicians, things were already changing before this, mainly due to the nature of the scene and the age of both the audience and the organisers of the gigs. Perhaps this current situation is the final straw, but alternatively, the folk scene blossomed from very small, amateur beginnings, so this could be the very thing that it needs to start again from the grass-roots. But it will take a long while, and so much else will have changed in the meantime, so it will be interesting to see how the next incarnation of the “folk scene” will develop.
Do the state of the country and the troubles of the world, depress you. By the time you reply to these questions, we should know the outcome of the US presidential election so your thoughts on that would be appreciated.
It’s both worrying and frustrating how things are in the world, and how divided things are globally. The political system in the west seems to be failing, with little attempt with those in power to do anything about it. It certainly gives writers like myself plenty to kick against, but the casualties along the way are paying a heavy price.
My American work permit ran out at the end of October, and no matter what the outcome of this election is, the USA has been left so bitter and fragmented, I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to renew it.
Tell be about your writing. When did you first decide you had novels in you and can you describe your writing regime?
All the novels (I’m currently writing my third, but I’m not sure if and when this one will ever be published…) are very much based on the folk music and traditions of North East England, and it was a worry for me that if I focused on prose writing, that I might lose the need or even the ability to write songs. Thankfully that hasn’t happened.
The first novel happened almost by accident and was just something I toyed with for a year or so, and once I’d finished it, I just put it to one side.
Then after a while, I found myself writing a second one, so I thought I’d better do something positive with the first, and so I put it out and thankfully it was well received.
The writing process in all its forms is something I really enjoy, so I find I can apply myself very easily to the task, wherever I am, and just get lost in the world of my characters.
There’s a strong historical basis to all of the novels, set in mid-19th century North East England, and I’ve relished the whole research process, which has been extensive. It has involved both a semi-academic approach, searching out books and songs and historical documents, and also actually travelling to the places where the stories are set. The whole process has definitely informed my song writing too, as I said earlier.
Jez at the Fylde Festival 2010, with the Bad Pennies: Folkimages.com which has previously granted permission for the use of examples from its fabulous archive of photos
Looking back over a long career, what has given you most pride or satisfaction?
The fact that I have been able to make a decent living out of doing this for so long amazes me, and that it has taken me all over the world is just astounding. To stand on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC and Edmonton Festival in Alberta in front of 30,000 people and sing songs about Easington Colliery is a source of some satisfaction to me.
And do you have any lingering regrets?
The whole writing and touring thing has been a bit of a solitary pursuit, and I think perhaps friendships and relationships have suffered over the years. There’s also been a few opportunities that I’ve not followed up that I look back upon with some regret, but I always feel I did the best I could at any given time, and it’s healthier to look to the future rather than dwell on such things.
Finally, your advice to any young man or woman who aspires to a career in music?
I’d advise them not to try and be in a vacuum of their own making – listen and learn from everyone and everything around you, especially musically and performance-wise, and always play to the audience, whoever and wherever they are.