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Garry Blakeley

Garry Blakeley

Garry Blakeley interview

Garry Blakeley has been described as a magical master fiddler, and local treasure – Sean O’ Shea talks with him about his journey in music and his views on the future of folk.

You are much travelled but have chosen to settle in Hastings. Why?

I was born in Hastings. I spent some time away at music college during my late teens and most of the 1980s travelling Europe playing Celtic music with various bands. I have two sons, both born in Hastings in the late eighties, and they are one of the main reasons why I have remained here, along with meeting my beautiful wife Rosey in 2000, family roots and the amazing music scene that exists in the Town. I am, and have been, very happy here and see no reason for living anywhere else. I have worked with some incredible musicians here, both in the past and present, too many to list, but they have all been very influential both musically and personally. Some of my most memorable musical moments have been realised whilst playing in local pubs and clubs.

Dartington College of Arts was your alma mater and had an international reputation for excellence until it was swallowed up by Falmouth University. What are some your memories of your student days at this prestigious institution?

I auditioned and gained a place at Dartington College of Arts, Devon in 1976 for a teaching qualification. I thought at the time, and still do, that it is one of the most beautiful places in the UK. I had a mixed time there really; I met people like Nigel Chippendale who was a huge influence on my music making, Ben Van Wede (fiddler) Roger Burridge (Fairport Convention fiddler during their Gottle of Geer period) and John Skelton (superb flute player). I studied under Malcolm Latchum, violinist with the highly celebrated Dartington String Quartet. He was always very encouraging; I remember on one occasion he said to me, “You will always be a player.” I returned to Dartington in the mid-1980s, but suffered a massive panic attack when I got out of the car in the visitors car park and left again immediately. I am pleased to say that more recently I have visited with Rosey and have been very comfortable wandering around the gardens and even entering the College building for a nostalgic look round. I think Dartington was a time when I was trying to discover who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and now that I am very grounded, I can deal with spending time there. In fact I look forward to visiting, always with Rosey and a packed lunch to eat in the beautiful gardens.

Garry Blakeley and Tom Leary

Garry and Tom Leary playing in Feast of Fiddles

Man from County Down

A fellow musician refers to the “Irish and Gypsy roots” evident in some of your song writing. Could you say a bit about your Irish influences and your musical background more generally?

My grandfather was from County Down in Northern Ireland. He first appeared in my life when I was about 7 years old. I think he had consumed a few pints and he brought with him two mandolins; I still have them both. He taught me to play “Scotland the Brave” and “Father O’Flynn”. I started violin lessons at school from the age of 8 years old and it was a huge part of my life, both educationally and socially. I did wobble big time when I was 16 years old, nearly stopped playing altogether. John Towner (the man who is responsible for getting me involved in the Folk Club scene in the early 1970s) loaned me an album of Sean McQuire, the renowned Irish fiddler, and that was so inspiring that I started practising with intent. Around the same time, I heard Peter Knight play on Below the Salt and Dave Swarbrick on Liege and Lief and this set me on my way. My mother’s family were travellers, many of whom were singers and poets, and I received much encouragement from them in my endeavours. I spent many a night around the campfire as a youngster, both in the hop fields and the cherry and apple orchards. Singing songs and telling stories was a big part of the entertainment.

You have worked with and supported some of the greats including Christy Moore, Steeleye Span, and toured Europe with the Celtic band Brian Boru. What has been your experience of collaborating with such musicians?

I have worked with quite a few established musicians in my time and I have to say that it has never been a bad experience. I have always said that my favourite position to be in at a rehearsal is that of the worst player in the room because I know that I will put in the work and raise my game to correct the situation. Working with really talented people has generally only served to improve my abilities and to inspire me to do better. I am also very open to learning and constructive criticism. I like the fact that music is a subject that I can never complete as such, it’s just not possible and for me constitutes an endless but enjoyable puzzle.

You are a composer, music arranger and lyricist as well as singer, multi-instrumentalist and master fiddler. How do you decide what time to devote to your different gifts?

My fiddle playing and my singing are at the very top of my priority when it comes down to it. I think they are my strengths and what I normally will find myself contributing to a performance. I can and do create musical arrangements, I play mandolin, bodhran, banjo, piano, viola, cello, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass and all of these instruments play a part in me creating the sounds that I want for my various projects. I don’t think I play any of these instruments badly (maybe piano) but on every occasion that I can bring to mind when putting projects together, there has always been somebody in the room who can do these things better than me. It makes sense to use their talents and the project benefits enormously from their input.

Garry Blakeley

Folk rock

Musical genres are subject to changes in fashion. How do you view the folk/rock genre nowadays, and how do you see the future of the folk tradition?

I have always loved folk rock ever since those early days in the 1970s when I was first made aware of its existence. I also love tradition; I used to play for the Morris quite often and was brought up on a diet of traditional music in the folk clubs and at festivals. People will always look to add to the tradition, sometimes with very modern ideas but you can’t stop that and I wouldn’t want to.

I have been on tour with the Feast of Fiddles; they play mostly theatre and festival gigs, nearly always sold out and leaving audiences fairly blown away by the power and energy of the show. There is plenty of folk rock included in the repertoire so it feels to me like the genre is as popular as ever. The term folk covers such a wide variety of music that it will always have a place in people’s hearts, there are plenty of amazing young talented performers on the scene so folk song is going to be around for a very long time in my opinion.

You are in popular demand as a teacher. How would you describe your approach to teaching and do you have any tips for the aspiring fiddle player?

Teaching fiddle has always been something that I have enjoyed doing. Particularly now as I feel that I have all the necessary experience for me to do it really well. The main thing for me is to establish what the student wants and needs from their playing because we are all different and one size does not fit all. I think that creating a good rapport is very important so I like to chat a little, it helps to create a relaxed environment and if I can get to understand a person, what makes them tick and how they think, it helps me to transfer information, even simple things like terminology can make all the difference.

I do see teaching as very much a part of my future. I am getting a little older and travelling around gigging all over the place isn’t something that I might want to do forever. I will be putting together some workshops later this year and I’m looking forward to that. If I had a tip for anyone who wants to play fiddle well, it would be to practise skill building exercises and techniques. You will achieve far more on the instrument that way then just attempting to play numerous tunes one after the other and give special attention to the bow, it’s of great importance. Aim to play one tune well and practise, practise, practise…

The Garry Blakeley Band

The Garry Blakeley Band - Phil Hudson, John Ewen, Garry and Edd Blakeley with Jane Downes and Rosey Blakeley

Musical family – a feast of fiddles

Your Wheel of the Year album and live show – performed with your son Ed, your wife Rosey and Jane Downes of the Catsfield Steamers along with your backing band – met with rave reviews.  Yet you are reputed to be never satisfied by what you achieve. So, what is your next project and what are your hopes for 2014?

2014 is going OK for me so far. I have been working more and more with my son Edd. We gig as a duo quite often now and we also augment to a trio or four-piece for corporate events and private functions. I have real confidence in the music that we produce; I think it’s energised and entertaining. Only the other night someone in the audience asked me, “Is this folk music?” I told him that it was, but he found it difficult to believe that he could have so much fun listening to that particular genre. People sometimes have a pre-conceived idea about folk, but it doesn’t have to be serious and arty in nature.  Also, The Tabs have reformed and we plan to play some dates later in the year; it’s very exciting for me to be working with Roger Flack and Roger Carey again. We are going to put the Wheel of the Year on this year with shows in Hastings, Rye and Broadstairs. I get to work with some great musicians and my wife Rosey; it doesn’t get better than that.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been on tour nationally with the celebrated Feast of Fiddles. I look forward to it every year and probably the best thing about it is that it is like getting together with your very best friends and having fun. It’s an amazing band, an incredible show with lovely, lovely people. Seven fiddle players in front of a rock band with not a single ego in sight, unbelievable really. I feel that I am a part of something very special and I have my good friend Peter Knight to thank for that.

SOS May 2014

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Posted 11:19 Tuesday, May 13, 2014 In: SOS

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