TUNING IN WITH BRIAN WILLOUGHBY
Interview by Lindsay Sorrell, Feb 2006
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Waterloo Station concourse, under the enormous clock at midday to be precise, I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Willoughby on 16th February, 2006. No carnations were required for recognition purposes (by me at least), as Brian was just as instantly recognisable with his smiling, Irish eyes as the last time I saw him, which was on tour with Cathryn Craig (well I did actually bump into him very briefly at a recent High Society gig and he had smiling, Irish eyes then too, nothing to do with the empty Guinness glass in his hand, to be sure). I was smugly congratulating myself that highly organised preparations had paid off handsomely as we both arrived at our destination within seconds of each other; however, I rapidly discovered that my own meticulous planning, which had involved taking a pen with me to scribble down notes, this being an interview, had fallen apart as my pen had been left on the kitchen table! I intended to nip into W. H. Smith's and grab a biro but Brian came to my rescue by lending me his precious, inscribed, rosewood "Fender" pen. Together with a beautiful "Custom Shop" Stratocaster, used extensively on "Fingers Crossed", his solo album of delicious instrumentals released in 2004, the pen had apparently been given in return for an article on alternative tunings which Brian wrote for Fender's "Frontline Player's Guide" magazine in 2000. I thanked Brian, who was looking extremely hale and hearty, and together we ventured across the road to a very pleasant café-bar which lived up to its name, "Azzurro", with walls adorned by numerous attractive pieces of blue artwork. As we relaxed into our comfortable surroundings I told Brian I, along with many others, was intrigued to know what he had been up to of late; he obligingly enlightened me in his usual friendly manner as we spent the afternoon chatting about a great many subjects.
Brian began by describing to me a new hard-disc recorder he has recently purchased which makes recording infinitely more simple than previously; good news indeed as he told me he has been spending a great deal of time recording, following a period of prolific writing of late. Apparently this new piece of technology is so small and convenient it can easily be transported, and Brian intends to use it to make live recordings on his forthcoming tour with Cathryn Craig. Within their songwriting partnership, Brian told me, he normally records various instrumental pieces which Cathryn then sifts through, picking and choosing whichever parts she feels she would like to add lyrics to, and thus their songs are generally created (although for the title track of Brian's "Black and White" album, a great song in my opinion, Cathryn apparently wrote the lyrics prior to Brian supplying the music). If Cathryn considers a guitar piece too difficult for her to do it true justice, yet believes it may represent good song material, Brian generally then passes the piece on to Michael Snow, a wonderful musician and gifted lyricist in Brian's opinion. Incidentally, it was a chance meeting in Nashville with Michael in 1993, following a tour of US folk clubs with Dave Cousins, that lead originally to Brian's partnership with Cathryn. Brian had been visiting an old friend from England while in Nashville, met Michael along the way, and at his suggestion Cathryn supplied vocals as a demo singer on a song Brian was working on. So impressed was Brian with Cathryn's vocal talents that he subsequently invited her to England to help with his recording of "Black & White", and so the Willoughby Craig partnership was born.
Chatting with Brian generates enormous energy; no sooner had we discussed one project with which he is involved than he was telling me about another, always with a zestful enthusiasm so wonderful to encounter. No jaded muso here! One project of many to be discussed during the afternoon was a recording Brian is currently involved in with the aforementioned Michael, who shared writing credits with Brian on several tracks from "Fingers Crossed". I confessed I knew very little about Michael Snow apart from having seen his name on Brian and Cathryn's albums, and was intrigued to hear that although he hails from Liverpool he now lives in Nashville and, while frequently known for writing the 1970's hit single "Rosetta", Michael has, during an illustrious career, worked with an enormous diversity of musicians including Doris Troy, Colin Blunstone and Dennis Locorriere. Apparently the song he and Brian are currently working on, "Amsterdam", has something of a reggae feel to it. Michael Snow's ears must have been burning as Brian proceeded to answer a call from him on his mobile phone, following which his enthusiasm for their current recording again began to bubble. I ought to mention that over our first cappuccinos of the day Brian told me that too much coffee can make him slightly hyper; to be on the safe side therefore we stuck to alcoholic beverages after that. We chatted further about "Fingers Crossed" and Brian told me what a great pleasure it had been to work with his old pal Dave Williams while recording the instrumentals on that album. (Dave Williams wrote and produced the single "Driftwood" in the early 1980s, by the band of the same name, with a line-up familiar to Strawbs' fans: Cronk, Fernandez, Richards and Willoughby).
A diversity of musical projects, past, present and future were discussed throughout the afternoon and my memory soon reached full capacity, though among many other interesting pieces of information I recall Brian telling me his greatest recording moment, at Jack's Tracks in Nashville, where he played lead to Skunk Baxter's rhythm. While speaking of current projects, Brian mentioned demos he and Cathryn have recently recorded with Hud and Terry Cassidy; Brian then surprised me somewhat by saying that, in his opinion, though Hud has spent the majority of his career as an absolutely superb drummer, his natural feel for guitar playing is quite outstanding. John Ford, too, he considers an excellent guitarist. In fact, Brian is exceptionally generous with his praise for other musicians, including his former companions within Strawbs, and we moved on to discuss his twenty-six years with the band and the fact that over the years he has worked with the vast majority of its members. Another Strawb for whom Brian told me he has great admiration, and whom I unfortunately encountered only fleetingly, was keyboard player Don Airey; Brian considers Don to be an exceptionally talented musician. (I feel I ought to point out here on Brian's behalf (he'd never do it himself – far too modest for that!) that he has himself recently been on the receiving end of recognition for his own musical talents; only this month he was the subject of an article in "Guitar Player" magazine).
I asked Brian about his early encounters with Strawbs and received a comprehensive reply: he told me how he started going to The White Bear, in Hounslow, on Thursday nights when he was about 15. He'd get his homework done, call on his friend Tom Kelt, and they'd go and get front seats to watch The Strawberry Hill Boys - Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman. Brian played electric guitar at that time and when he saw Dave, Tony and their various guests playing steel-strung acoustics, Brian sold his electric, went unplugged, and didn't resume playing electric guitar until his early twenties. During that period he recalled giving Dave Cousins a tape of instrumentals which he had recorded in his parents' front room; he will be eternally grateful to Dave for passing that tape on to Mary Hopkin when she was seeking a guitarist a few years later, resulting in Brian auditioning for her on his twenty-second birthday. Brian is absolutely delighted that a recording of a gig which, he declared, remains the most memorable of his career, with Mary at the Royal Festival Hall in 1972, has very recently been released on cd to much acclaim. While reminiscing, Brian also recalled earlier times, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he played in folk clubs along with Ron Chesterman and Maureen Kennedy-Martin. (He told me that Ron, who now lives in Chester (yes, honestly), is unfortunately unwell at present and that he very much hopes to get the opportunity to visit him.)
During his late teens Brian had run his own folk club at The Crown & Sceptre pub in Feltham, and booked The Strawberry Hill Boys, having previously been impressed by what he had seen. Dave Lambert came along that night and the rest is now well-documented history; he and Brian met through their mutual friend Dick Dufall, the bass player with Fire (completist information here - apparently early-teenage Dave L. and Brian had the same bicycle milk-round in Hounslow; Brian used to do his stint before Dave L. as he attended a school which was further away, then Dave L. would turn up and jump on the shared bike, the saddle having been duly warmed by Brian!).
Discussion of Brian's rather better-known partnership with Dave Lambert continued, and I like to think I grasped Brian's valiant attempt to explain to me how the fact that both he and Dave Lambert are numerate individuals had aided their understanding of the mathematics of Dave Cousins' music, creating Acoustic Strawbs' distinctive sounds as they were instinctively in harmony with one another.
Having spent many years as a dedicated guitarist within Strawbs and other bands, however, Brian decided in 2003 that the time had come for him to strike out on his own more; he had reached a stage in his career when he realised it was his own material he wanted to be playing to audiences. He was delighted to see his long-time mate and Strawb from former incarnations, Chas Cronk, drafted in as the third acoustic Strawb at his suggestion, not as his replacement as the sound Strawbs set out to achieve altered considerably, but rather adding an entirely different dimension to the previous acoustic sound. Brian and Chas have played together with numerous line-ups over the years, not only within Strawbs, but also with other bands including the Steve Whalley Band, Willy Finlayson and The Hurters. Chas was also the mastering engineer on "Fingers Crossed" – I gave up on my scribbling at that point!
I enquired about "Rumours of Rain", the single written by Cathryn and Brian and released in aid of the Folk for Peace Children's Charity in 2004. Brian recounted the wonderful times, involving much laughter and the forging of new friendships, which Cathryn and he had enjoyed whilst organising and producing the song. Recording took place in a wide diversity of locations - Nashville, Milton Keynes, Houghton-le-Spring, Washington DC, Cardiff and Acton to be precise! I found it heartwarming to hear that everyone involved was incredibly generous with their time and a pleasure to work with. The impressive line-up of artists included both Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk; unfortunately Dave Cousins pledged his support and wanted to contribute but was unable to do so, having suffered an injury in a nasty fall shortly before recording took place. Brian told me that Hypertension, the German record company, were kind enough to release the single in the UK and hopefully it will soon be released worldwide. (It appears that "Rumours of Rain" is still available to purchase via clicking on a link at the official website, www.rumoursofrain.com).
Amusing and occasionally hilarious memories of Brian's time spent in different bands fascinated me throughout the afternoon, while his wonderful gift of mimicry had me in stitches. One particular recollection which amused me greatly and which springs to mind is of the time he was touring with Strawbs and decided to visit a guitar shop which he had noticed close to where the band were staying. As he approached he could hear someone practising the opening riffs of "Down by the Sea"….Brian quickly guessed who could be responsible and, opening the door, found his hunch was correct as a certain Mr. Dick Greener was caught in the act!
Recounting other occasions with electric Strawbs' line-ups, Brian told me that his fondest memories are of the Cousins/Hooper/Hudson/Demick/Parren/Willoughby line-up; they ate, drank and laughed a lot, possibly sometimes to the detriment of the music, but he considers that particular line-up, augmented by sound engineer Terry Cassidy and "ever-faithful" friends and fan club organisers Denise and Sandy, constituted a great touring team. Brian feels that for him personally, however, playing Strawbs' music within the Cousins/Willoughby incarnation was the period he found most satisfying, though he enjoyed the "guitar wall" of acoustic Strawbs, and the electric line-ups with which he was involved also undoubtedly "had their moments". He added that, in retrospect, while working as a duo prior to the inception of acoustic Strawbs (when two instantly became four, including both the addition of Dave Lambert and Neil Byford as tour manager), he and Dave Cousins spent a great deal of time enjoying relative freedom with lots of laughs along the way, not to mention various forms of liquid refreshment. While shocked by this revelation, I managed to ask Brian to clarify whether he has a preference for performing as part of a band or half of a duo. Brian mused that he does sometimes miss being part of a band set-up (and proceeded to recall days of immense fun spent working with Turkey Leg Johnson); however, he told me his favourite combination is within his duo working with Cathryn, performing their own material, being able to play what comes naturally, using a variety of guitars, and "even getting to tell the odd joke!"
With a substantial Craig and Willoughby UK tour due to commence in March, Brian is therefore immensely thankful that the debilitating problem he recently encountered when his left thumb seized up now appears to be behind him; the digit in question is apparently "almost back to normal". He commenced acupuncture sessions with a Chinese doctor who refused to believe the Western diagnosis of Carpo-Metacarpal Osteoarthritis; Dr.Ye diagnosed deep ligament damage which Brian believes makes sense, given his unorthodox, self-taught, guitar style. The improvement is obviously of great relief to both Brian and Cathryn, who are both looking forward to the tour enormously (details at www.brianwilloughby.com) following an annus horribilis in which they both suffered close family bereavements. I told Brian I hope to make it to the second gig of their tour, on 14th March, at Dartford, where I had seen them play once before. Mentioning the warm, welcoming atmosphere at their gigs led Brian to tell me of the many wonderful friends he has made through music over the years, too many to name, but each and every individual act of kindness and friendship encountered along the way clearly means so much to him.
By this time the sunlight which had been blinding when we first entered Azzurro had long disappeared, to be gradually replaced by candlelit darkness. We both realised it was time to head off on our respective journeys home, me to the Shangri-La that is Essex and Brian to Shepperton, his home since he moved a few years ago from the Twickenham area which he had inhabited for many years. (Brian's family moved to England from Northern Ireland in 1957). Though he now lives six miles further west than previously, Brian told me he likes to keep in touch with pals in Twickenham, an area with a great tradition of music, including Eel Pie Island and several other music venues. He mulled over the possibility of stopping off at his local to see if any friends were about for some socialising; if not he'd head off home he told me. I thanked him both for giving up his time, and for the interesting and enjoyable afternoon I had spent in his company.
Being someone so obviously dedicated to music, so utterly enthusiastic about every aspect of musicianship, I imagined the heaving collection of cds and recordings Brian must possess, and wondered what he might listen to on his return from the pub. Would it be something from his favourite music period, the sixties, such as the Beatles, the Stones, the Searchers or Chuck Berry? Or would it be one of the great electric guitarists he cites as having exerted influence on his playing, possibly George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchanan, Pete Townshend, The Carpenters' Tony Peluso, Steely Dan's Skunk Baxter, Ry Cooder or Jackson Browne's lap-steel player, David Lindley? Maybe it would be one of his acoustic influences, such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Red Shea (Gordon Lightfoot's lead guitarist), Mike Taylor, from John Denver's early band or Jim Croce's accompanist Maury Muehliesen. "What would he choose?", I wondered. "Well ......", he replied, "I do play classical music in the car occasionally, otherwise my stereo remains practically virgin………"