JOHN FORD – ON THE RIGHT TRACK
An interview with John Ford by Lindsay Sorrell - 18th December 2004
Having recently had the pleasure of listening to John Ford's latest album Backtracking, I thought it would be interesting to have a chat with John, who now lives in New York, to find out a bit about what makes him tick. The album includes fresh recordings of a wide mixture of songs from several eras in John's musical career to date, spanning Strawbs, Hudson Ford, The Monks and Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera, together with his more recent solo works. He very graciously agreed to answer a few transatlantic questions which went vaguely along these lines, interrupted only occasionally by children, cats and sneezing fits at my end of the line.
Lindsay: You've never shied away from treading new musical paths and as a result your career has encompassed many different genres - can you tell us a bit about why you selected the particular tracks you did for your latest album, Backtracking?
John: Various reasons really - the majority of the songs on the album are ones that I've been playing live over the past 10 years or so. I hadn't actually heard "I Don't Understand" and "Revelations" [from Hudson Ford's album Nickelodeon] for a long time - they've never been released on cd. and I don't have a record player, so I played them from memory. I didn't consciously decide to put a new album together - it all started with me being dissatisfied with my original recording of "Love is a Highway". I was under a management deal at the time and wasn't happy with the sound of that song so I decided to re-record that one and "When Did I Ever Let You Down" in my own studio at home. Dave Cousins asked me to sing "Witchwood" on the recent UK electric Strawbs tour and that seemed to go down well, so I've included it on the album – this recording was actually taken from a Classic-FM live radio show hosted by Gene Godfrey earlier this year. I'm really happy with the sound I've achieved on Backtracking.
Lindsay: "Heavy Disguise" is a Strawbs classic - what inspired you to write that song?
John: I was listening to the radio and heard a track by Jethro Tull – I can't remember the name of the song - and loved the rhythm, which was my original inspiration to write "Heavy Disguise". Lyrically I was trying to write songs which I felt would fit well with Dave Cousins' distinctive style of writing. I remember seeing a news report of a Vietnamese demo at the US Embassy which led me to write the opening couple of lines. I'm very pleased with this new recording of the song, which was also taken from the Classic-FM radio show.
Lindsay: How did you come to cover Dave Lambert's "Cold Steel"?
John: I'd listened to "Deja Fou" and thought "Cold Steel" was an excellent track, a really clever tune. I've played it live with my band a few times and it's always gone down really well. On my own recording I decided to change the odd chord here and there and gear the production towards a slightly heavier edge, a bit like Dave's "Heartbreaker" on Burning For You. I must add how much I love the banjo on Dave's version though.
Lindsay: What's the set up of your live band at the moment?
John: I play in a variety of set ups, sometimes solo, sometimes with a four-piece called the John Ford Band, and also as John Ford Acoustic with my lead guitarist Joe Cesare. My son John, who's only 15 but already plays guitar really well, has started joining us occasionally.
Lindsay: It can be very difficult for musicians to reach their target audience; is your new album likely to receive airplay in the US?
John: Not national airplay, that's only possible with a major record deal unfortunately, plus radio controllers are usually about 26 and don't give you much of a look in if you're over 20. A few things have been played locally on Jill Morrison's WSUB radio show at Stonybrook University - I've heard "Nice Legs, Shame about the Face" and "Suspended Animation" and I was happy with the way they sounded on radio. Dave Lambert did a half hour interview for the same radio station a little while ago and both Acoustic Strawbs' version of "Cold Steel" and my own were played. I'm thankful for the internet; having a website has helped me reach a much wider audience.
Lindsay: "Summer's Gone" is a lovely, gentle track previously recorded with Richard Hudson according to the sleeve notes - why was it never released in the past?
John: A year or so ago Hud and I were talking about the possibility of getting Hudson Ford back together, though it's never happened for a variety of reasons. Anyway, Hud sent me an old demo which had some interesting things on it including a different version of "Part Of The Union". It included a verse I'd written about a fight in a factory or something like that. "Summer's Gone" was on the demo, although I'd originally called the song "Four Seasons", and after playing it I kept humming it to myself and thought it deserved a reworking. Glad you like it.
Lindsay: For all the spec. junkies, could you tell us a bit about what equipment was used in the recording of Backtracking?
John: Takamine acoustic guitars, Fender stratocasters, Fender amps and 24 track recording gear.
Lindsay: On the sleeve notes to Backtracking you thank your father, who recently passed away, for exerting his musical influence on you - would you like to elaborate on that?
John: My dad played the piano and our house was always full of music - I have three sisters and two of them love to sing. Jenny, my middle sister, was a professional singer and actually sang on some High Society recordings, whilst Irene sings with a choir in Derby, which is near where my mother now lives. I used to be so excited as a kid every time my dad brought home new records, like Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley, and I still remember being really young and singing pop songs in front of the other kids at school. My very first ever recording was actually made at Southend-on-Sea - I remember my aunt taking my sister and I to the boat with the waxworks on the seafront [The Golden Hind replica, no longer there] and then taking us into one of the amusement arcades where we recorded "Heart Of My Heart" in one of those little recording booths. I was about 7 I think. Don't think I've still got the record though!
Lindsay: Music obviously runs in the Ford genes - some shots of your son, John Ford Jnr. playing guitar were shown on your website a while back - has he contributed to this album at all?
John: Yes, it's him playing the opening to "Nice Legs" and he plays on several other tracks as well. He loves music, he sings, plays electric and rhythm guitars and has his own band now. Recently he played bass alongside me in the John Ford Acoustics.
Lindsay: You have been writing rather prolifically over the past few years - where do you draw your inspiration from, and what usually comes first - the lyrics or the music?
John: Anything and everything inspires me really. I'm not a poet like Dave Cousins though - I have either to work around a title or start off with a tune with the lyrics usually getting added later.
Lindsay: So, do you already have plans for your next project?
John: Well, I'm half way through recording a new version of "New World" which I'm very happy with. It'll probably appear on my next album, although I've got no real plans for another album at the moment. I have got a lot of ideas for new material though, so the next album will most likely be original material like the three prior to Backtracking. John will be playing guitar on the next album quite a bit I expect - he's really into bands like Green Day so it may turn out slightly heavier than my more recent recordings.
Lindsay: You're obviously a highly versatile musician, having played a variety of guitars, keyboards and drums amongst other instruments on your recent albums; how did you come to choose bass guitar as your main instrument when you were starting out?
John: I actually started off playing rhythm guitar, then whilst I was with Jaymes Fender and the Vulcans the bass player left. My dad bought me a Paul McCartney Hofner bass and amp on hire purchase and that was that.
Lindsay: What's the strangest gig you've ever played?
John: The most bizarre has to be the garden party where I played with High Society one beautiful summer's evening. We often laugh about it still - there was Hud, Brian Willoughby, Terry Cassidy, Judy Bailey and myself - a guy came over with little sausages on cocktail sticks and started stuffing them into our mouths whilst we were singing and playing!
Lindsay: Tell us a bit about the Rock4Xmas Gig you played earlier this month.
John: I was really pleased to be involved in that – it was actually in aid of the Fire Rescue Widows and a Coalition for the Homeless, and was great fun. Lots of well-known American musicians played, like Carmine Appice and members of Orleans and Blue Oyster Cult.
Lindsay: You were born in London - what do you miss most about living in England?
John: I miss the chocolate - Roses, Quality Street, the lot. We can buy Cadbury's over here but it doesn't taste the same. One reason I love touring the UK is so I can bring back lots of chocolate. I've bought my son John a huge load of chocolate for Christmas but I've already pinched the Cadbury's Bourneville. I think if it were possible my ideal would be to live in England for 6 months of the year and here for the other 6 months. Chocolate aside, I really miss my family members in England and wish I'd spent more time with them when I had the chance.
Realising that nearly three hours had flown by as we chatted we both had to dash – he was rushing off to play a gig somewhere, and I had to cram in my usual last minute Christmas shopping before getting ready for the M25 trek to Twickenham to see Cry No More. John wished me a Happy Christmas and asked me to send his best regards to both Dick Greener and Chas Cronk at tonight's Cry No More gig, which I fully intend to do (John had been most impressed when he saw Cry No More play at Strawbs 30-year reunion concert at Chiswick). He also sent Season's Greetings to friends and fans everywhere.
Happy Christmas John, thanks for your time, and for paying the phone bill!