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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

West Pier Serenade

IRR085: Bring Down the Moon

Robb writes:

This has to be the album that has been dogged by the most bad luck I have ever made (well, maybe the ill-fated "recording Love and Death and Politics in a cellar in Normandy" idea was also pretty disastrous too, but this album just seemed to have one thing go pear-shaped after another).

First of all it couldn't decide what it was going to be called, and after settling for Here Comes the Moon, (because it seemed calling it On the Road from Babylon sounded too much like Russ Chandler's album), Roger Stevens helpfully pointed out that George Harrison already had a song of that title, so I had to change both the song and the album title too. Then it couldn't decide which songs it was going to have on it; having asked people what songs it should have, there wasn't much uniformity in terms of popular responses, apart from a strong lobby for Anyday (which wasn't one of the songs I was asking people to choose from, and definitely seemed somewhat out of place with most of the other songs) and Him and Me. Despite trying the latter song several different ways, it just didn't seem to want to work, whereas other songs just didn't seem to fit either, or if they did, they overbalanced the mood of the album. We still hadn't really decided on the songs when we actually started recording, and one, All the Angels Miss You, George, didn't get written until January.

Initially the album was supposed to have been recorded over a weekend in Gent, and when for various reasons that didn't look possible, we rearranged the locale to Hove, which was perhaps just as well because that weekend John Forrester contracted food poisoning. So Arvin and I recorded drums and acoustic guitar tracks. We had hoped to be adding Bethan Prosser on violin, Linze Maesterosa on saxophone and Naomy Browton on cello the following week, but it seemed a bit pointless without bass; so then Christmas happened, we tried rehearsing the violin and cello parts by Skyping, which also didn't quite work, and then cheques started bouncing (thank you Santander), then it snowed so we had to postpone the mixing date, and by now I had given up any hope of getting it back in time for the first gig of the tour at The Square and Compass. However, along the way, the actual recordings became increasingly beautiful, thanks to Bethan (from the Bandanas), Linze (who John had met through The Singing Loins) and Naomy (who had played on The Ghost of Love album). Jo Chedgey, who had turned up at Hove Folk Club and seriously impressed me and John, came and added superb vocals, and Imo Bergonzi sang the "la la la la lala lala la la" chorus bit on The Rotweiler Man. Eight of the tracks have Arv playing brushes on drumkit very tastefully indeed, and John plays lots of superb double bass. I tried really hard not to put any electric guitar on the album, and only at the last minute a couple of tracks found the black Squire Stratocaster making a very surprise and relatively brief appearance. We are all very pleased with this album. Not sure how it will be received; don't think it fits easily into anybody else's genres or preconceptions. Not even sure who else it sounds like... a first mix was playing in the car one day when Arv got in. He frowned and said "Who's this? Is it Frances Cabrel?" Praise indeed, I say.

More details on individual tracks below.

 

TRACK LIST

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NOTES ON INDIVIDUAL TRACKS


Bring Down the Moon

I wrote this originally for my mate songwriter Mike Reinstein to introduce a gig at Hove Folk Club. It was first called “Here Comes the Moon” but then Roger Stevens, another of Hove Folk Club’s superb songwriters, pointed out that George Harrison had already written a song with that title. It’s about songwriting, and singing, not for shit television, and shit television corporate bosses, but for real, and for its own sake.

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On The Road from Babylon

I started this in Middlesbrough, and finished it in Grantham. The metaphorical mythical cities of Babylon and Jerusalem stand for the prisons and injustices we are born into and the freedom and justice we work towards (but you knew that already). The song features, along with William Blake and his favourite tricolour French Revolution cap, two other characters who crop up later on: Robert Tressell, author of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, and Alice Wheeldon, pacifist activist fitted-up by the state for a non-existent plot to kill Lloyd George.

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African Roses

Apparently we have to import roses from Africa nowadays. When I first sang this someone in the audience said: “What about Fair Trade roses?” to which my response is:  you can’t eat those either.

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Welcome to Mugsborough

I wasn’t going to write about the Olympics. However – thanks to being presented with a copy of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” at Tolpuddle – I was finally getting round to reading this great novel last summer. It seemed Mugsborough was very much still with us. www.raggedtrousered.com is a good place to visit.

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The Rotweiler Man

An entirely true story. I am particularly pleased to have got all the swearing in.

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Alice Annie Wheeldon

This is the true story of Alice Wheeldon, working class suffragette, vegetarian, pacifist and socialist. Thanks to Derby’s Keith Venables for first telling me Alice’s story.

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Franz Has Got a Plan

Another true story. Franz is the son of Kirstin and Christian, who organises gigs for me in Thüringen (it’s his kitchen on the cover of “Clockwork Music”).

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All the Angels Miss You, George

George is George Whitman, bookseller and Beat generation co-conspirator, founder of the wonderful “Shakespeare and Co.” bookshop opposite Notre Dame in Paris. At one time it was also called The Tumbleweed Hotel, and one of his guiding principles was the saying: never turn a stranger away, they might be an angel in disguise. He died aged 98 just before Christmas 2011. Sadly the place was already slipping into more efficient, business-like hands, a process that has since increased, along with the prices and the number of books and bestsellers you can buy everywhere else.

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Different for Al

Cornwall Folk Festival accidentally booked me again, and part of the deal was that I do a songwriting workshop. Unsurprisingly no-one turned up apart from my friend Malcolm. We grumbled about how undervalued songwriters are. Malcolm confessed a particular fondness for the work of Al Stewart; I admitted I have always been particularly fond of “Year of the Cat” … things were surely different for Al, we decided, and promptly wrote this song together.

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Looking for Blue Sky

We were on top of Maiden Castle, my sons and I, watching the clouds appear out of nowhere above us, when this song first got started. We headed off one step ahead of the rain, looking for the blue sky.

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Karl Marx City Blues

Chemnitz still has Karl Marx’s “Nischel” in the centre. Last time I was there, he was encircled by enthusiastically skateboarding young persons.

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Downhearted

I’m not sure now why or where I had started writing this because just when it was starting to take shape, I heard that my Glasgow friend Kenny Caird had got terminal cancer. His mates were going to give him his wake, a concert, before he died. They decided to use my song “Undefeated” as the concert title, because Kenny liked the song, and that’s how he felt about things. So this became written for Kenny. I sent Kenny the lyric, and he said he approved. He died the week before the concert.

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Call Me Tonight

I actually got accidentally booked for two proper Folk Festivals in 2012 (I mean, mostly I’m lucky if every few years I get snuck in the back door at Broadstairs). Warwick Festival was kind enough to provide me with a room opposite a Lebanese Restaurant, which not only had some splendid houmous, but also served my very favourite wine, Kefraya Red. After I’d played, I sat there steadily drinking my way through a bottle’s worth of glasses of it. My son Hari was having a sleepover with friends. I’d texted him to wish him goodnight, and he had kindly responded. I felt very lucky.  A few weeks later at the first Brentford home match I could get to, Clinton Donaldson scored a simply breath-taking goal, which seemed to fit better than the original, obscurer, line about Kefraya Red. It’s probably the sort of song I was hoping I’d write when I was starting out writing songs, before Thatch happened to my songwriting. It’s probably also the song no-one’s going to notice, cos – surely – no-one’s going to find anything political in it. I often think people usually only hear what they expect to hear – “politics!!!!” – on my albums. Probably of course having songs with “Karl Marx” in the title doesn’t exactly help matters. There we go, eh, us songwriters, never happy, always grumbling away about being misunderstood and neglected etc. etc. etc.  Things were surely different for Al…

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