Monday, 30 June 2014

Beerjacket - the 10th anniversary interview

Beerjacket in action at King Tut's for his 10th anniversary

Beerjacket, AKA Peter Kelly, has just celebrated his 10th anniversary with a career spanning show at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, complete with special guests.

I first stumbled across Beerjacket back in 2009 and I have followed his music with interest ever since; admiring the poetic, emotional and descriptive lyrics, the melodies, invention and the independence that has been clearly displayed. 

The personal touch is sadly missing from many things in life these days, so a nice hand written note to accompany an album bought from the Beerjacket Bandcamp page was a lovely gesture.

I thought it would be a good idea to catch up with Peter to look back at his career to date and just as importantly, to look forward to the future.

I am very grateful to Peter for taking the time to answer my 10-questions for his 10th anniversary. It is a fascinating interview that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone reading this blog to follow the link above, or to click on the links to Peter's personal 10-song selection at the end. But don't jump ahead just yet! Read on and find out about Beerjacket's extremely limited edition first album, what Peter thinks is the best Beerjacket song, a metal band with an indie legend and lots, lots more!

1. 10-years and 5-albums (I think it is more but there are 5 on your Bandcamp) is quite prolific and consistent by many artists standards. Can you share any memories about how, why and when you first started writing your own music? Did the music or lyrics come first? Were any of those songs recorded and released?

There have technically been eight, although I would only really speak of the past three being proper albums and especially the past two as they are studio albums. Up until then, I was a self-recorder and I basically released everything I ever wrote in that period. I certainly wasn't any good at recording my own music and I think a bunch of songs were really stunted by poor home production.

By the time I went into the studio to record The White Feather Trail - my first recorded with producer, Stuart MacLeod - I had managed to refine what Beerjacket is meant to sound like and I think it's a really good album as a result.

My writing has changed a lot over the past ten years. I always wanted to write songs even before I could play a musical instrument and before I had anything to write about. I was only about seven or eight years old when I first started writing 'songs' and compiling them as 'albums'  with artwork and all the rest. These, by the way, were blank C60 tapes with covers drawn with felt tips and accompanying lyrics about WHO KNOWS WHAT.

Initially, I hadn't much direction about what Beerjacket was other than acoustic music influenced by Will Oldham, Lou Barlow and Bill Callahan, amongst others. That said, I still released everything utterly rough around the edge. Truthfully, it was probably live performances that brought together a following for Beerjacket - recordings were not a strong point until I recorded my last homer, Animosity. I thought that was probably the best I could manage until I went into the studio with Stuart in 2011 for The White Feather Trail and now I couldn't even think about doing a record with anyone else, let alone by myself.

The White Feather Trail

2. Has your writing style changed through the years - if so, how? How often do you write and have you ever had the dreaded writers block?

I used to write very traditionally, albeit taking the unorthodox approach of recording and releasing everything! The turning point for my writing came when I stopped adopting that 'songwriter-mode' and just wrote in a stream of consciousness style for Animosity. I would step onto a train and just write continuously in a notebook and revisit it when I next held a guitar, taking the same approach to the music. That was pretty revelatory for me as it removed any anxieties about writer's block and made me feel much more creative. I think the truth is that everyone is on the edge of being creative all the time and we put the block in the way through trying too hard.

I don't write continuously and I can't decide it's time. I just have to respond to it when it's on the way and record what appears. I never write anything down in a notepad now and I'm never in the process of writing something. If I'm writing it, I've written it. For me, writing it just means I listened to what appeared in my head, followed my hands and captured it in a recording.

3. Tell us about the lead up to the release of your first album. How were you recording, what shows were you playing and what ultimately made you feel ready to release an album?

There was no lead-up to the release of the album! My first Beerjacket gig was with Roddy Hart at Brel and it was supposed to be the first and last one. I wrote and recorded an album at home on 4-track for the gig, called it Oh My Head and burned 5 copies onto CD-R with cover art made on Microsoft Word! Every copy sold and there was no going back!

Beerjacket's first show at Brel, 10-years ago

4. What lessons have you learned since your first release? What advice would you give to any artists self releasing?

I have learned that it is best to record songs properly! Whether you record yourself or with someone else, whether you are solo or in a band Whatever the case, its a myth that having technology or a machine of some sort means you can release an album! It took me five years to realise that and I managed to make Animosity sound respectable. Even then, I wish that I had recorded it with Stuart in the studio.

Self-releasing is absolutely something I would recommend though if artists can be organised enough to do justice to what they produce. 

The traditional idea of a record label as a stamp of quality is still relevant where were talking about the likes of Sub Pop or Bella Union and its certainly not the case that we dont need labels because of the Internet. 

Nevertheless, its definitely got definite plus points in that you dont have to negotiate (probably hopelessly) for complete creative control, you control everything by default! Nowadays, word of mouth is all the more powerful online as it spreads worldwide rather than being limited to a small circle of mix-CD swappers.

Im really proud of what Ive achieved despite not being attached to a label or management company and there are most definitely advantages to being truly independent.

5. Have you been approached by any labels to release through them? If so, why have you chosen to continue the DIY approach?

I have been approached by labels in the past and Im always really honest with them. Im not available in the way that other musicians might be: I have a family and a job I really care about. Its in the situation I am in that I can be creative and leaving that would not only make me unhappy, it would stall my writing.

Being DIY (although Im not quite anymore, I work with a number of other folks now in recording and performance) is advantageous as I can decide what works for me. I feel that no-one can care as much about an artists music than the artist. I respect the industry though and there are good people working all over it. As long as you are doing what suits you best, you cant go wrong.

6. You have collaborated with a number of other artists on your releases and had a number of guests at your 10th anniversary show. If you could choose a local, national or international artist to collaborate with on your next album who would you choose and why?

Collaborating is great as it not only encourages a fresh voice in your music, its just very friendly and human. Ive been really enjoying that over the past few years.

The people Ive collaborated with have brought a lot to Beerjacket songs (roll call: Julia Doogan, Louise Connell, Ross Leighton, Emma Pollock, Stuart MacLeod, Rachel Sermanni and Michael Cassidy) and these collaborations have come about very naturally.

Beerjacket with Rachel Sermanni

I would love to work more with Kristin Hersh, who I invited to sing on Darling Darkness when we were playing shows together. It didnt happen, although I think well certainly do more together more over the years. Maybe well get our metal band Mildred together one day!

7. You first came to my attention in 2009 with your gorgeous cover of Springsteens Dancing in the Dark, which, if memory serves me correct, was picked up by Rolling Stone magazine. Was that a breakthroughmoment for you? Or do you feel you have had a breakthroughmoment(s)?

That was weird. I recorded that in twenty minutes on a 4-track and having sent it to a pal, it made its way to an American blogger and then a Rolling Stone journalist. There was quite a lot of fuss made about that and, in retrospect, I now wish I had spent more time on it! It was the only cover I had done amidst all these Beerjacket songs and it was, in some ways, a little bittersweet that it got so much attention.

The funny thing was that it was never supposed to be a cover. When I started playing the riff, I thought I was writing something new

8. Youve just played a special 10th anniversary show at King Tuts. Does it feel like a landmark? Are you ready for the next phase (so to speak)? What are your future plans/ambitions?

That was an amazing night. It was the longest set Ive ever played at one hour twenty minutes! The nature of the occasion meant I really had to play all night as old school members of the audience 
expected it. There were so many songs and yet still some inevitable omissions

In a way, it was both a retrospective evening and a hint of the next step. Ill be going into the studio with Stuart next month to begin recording an album of ten of the best Beerjacket songs from the past decade when I was still home recording. There will hopefully be some more guest turns on there too

9. Could you list 10 of your all-time favourite bands/artists?

This is impossible. Here are ten I love:
Nirvana. Kristin Hersh/Throwing Muses. Neil Young. Jeff Buckley. Simon and Garfunkel. Leonard Cohen. Bonnie Prince Billy. Elliott Smith. Bruce Springsteen. Cat Power.

10. Youve been approached by the BBC for a special TV show to celebrate your 10th anniversary and you have to play a 10-song set. What do you play?

Intriguing and quite unlikely scenario, Murray! (Murray - You never know Peter!)

The first song I ever wrote or could even play on ukulele. The ukulele is a fairly divisive instrument and some people really, really hate it but I probably dont play it too much like a ukulele. Personally, I think its a really beautiful instrument and this song has served me very well, especially when I play it first in a set. It sets a tone and asks for quiet but best of all, its a strong song about weakness.

There are lots of things I love about this song. I wrote it on the train in 2009 and the words just fell into my notebook. This was when I had a notebook! Now the words fall into my head instead, which is fun and strange. It's a song about the destructive potential of passive aggression and how damaging it is to relationships.

This song is based on the image of having one of my children on my shoulders and their arms making it look like I have antlers. I make no apology for writing about my kids and fatherhood in general as that's real and the most important part of my life.

Lay your weight upon me
Your lungs make me breathe

The last thing I wrote before I recorded The White Feather Trail and absolutely inspired by the sound of Louise Connells voice, who agreed to sing on it and who was subsequently grabbed for lots of other Beerjacket songs on that album and Darling Darkness.

The first Beerjacket show opened with this song and its the only song Ive played at almost every other gig since.

As much as it surprises me, this is the favourite Beerjacket song of many folks. Its really a pretty sad song and yet people always ask for it. Maybe its the appearance of eggs in the lyrics, a pretty common theme in my songs bizarrely

Volcano, you melt me
I'm devastated by your grace
Make me pass on my living love
Through hysterical destructive haze
The witches that watch you just wilt and then with away
For no riches or fortunes could ever lay claim to your face

This is the superhero song. Its another song about being a Dad but it could relate to any protective relationship really and is about human failings not getting in the way of everyday heroism.

For my money, this is the best ever Beerjacket song. It has every element of the music Ive been writing over the past ten years and perhaps thats why its been so successful. I love hearing it on the radio, I love playing it live and I love hearing people sing along. I just love it.

This song was inspired by my own home but also Cormac McCarthys The Road. I refuse to wait for everything to be destroyed before appreciating it.

My first big tune! I was totally honoured to have the opportunity to play this song completely live on BBC 2s The Review Show when The White Feather Trail came out in 2011. Paul Morley was a guest on the show and Ive always been a huge fan of his writing, plus everyone I knew was watching along with half a million others. Monumental for me and one of my happiest memories of playing Beerjacket music.

Tied like courage to the mast
But losing to an undead past
Tired, discouraged by the act
Of choosing the bruised old path

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