I have a broad and eclectic listening taste in music, which I absorb into my songwriting, musicianship and compositional approach as some kind of insatiable sponge. Whilst the majority of instruments I play are acoustic – and, as such, as a listener and as a musician, folk and Americana are home territory for me, I listen to a lot of music, right from the earliest recorded blues, jazz, country and folk music to present day electronica, ambient and minimalism. You’d be just as likely to walk in on me listening to Blind Willie Johnson as you would to Boards of Canada, or Scott Joplin to Squarepusher.
I’d genuinely struggle to whittle my vast listening experiences of influences down to a concise list. Therefore I’ve decided to talk about some of the artists who have had more of a direct influence in shaping me as a musician, a songwriter and a person – although many are interlinked (cross-pollination is something I’ve found happens a lot amongst us musicians)!
As with the majority of artists listed here, I was a teenager when I first met Gus Fairbairn (Alabaster). He was running a regular night of live music at The Thirsty Scholar – a tiny pub beneath the railway arches close to Oxford Road station in the heart of Manchester.
Gus was beginning learning to play tenor saxophone – either shortly afterwards, or around the time that we first met – under the tutelage of well-known Manchester-based saxophonist Ed Kainyek. I was astonished at just how rapidly Gus took to this instrument. Even when he hadn’t been playing for very long, Gus was already able to bring out an impressive range of tones – from being able to honk it to producing such beautiful, soft notes – reminding us string-leaning laypeople that the saxophone is, in fact, a woodwind instrument.
I learned a great deal from Gus as a stage performer, a songwriter and a musician. In his performances, Gus can bring an audience from howling with laughter to being moved to tears – within the space of about a minute. Spanning from hilariously funny to deeply moving and thought-provoking, from gentle and sparse nylon-stringed acoustic guitar compositions to danceable funk and jazz stompers, there really are no others out there quite like Alabaster dePlume.
Additionally, Gus taught me to make an event more of an immersive, multi-disciplinary experience than a typical gig – I will never forget the launch event for Copernicus at Antwerp Mansion in Rusholme, Manchester. There were beautiful origami boats and various other spectacular decorations hanging down from the high ceiling, with a big projection premiering the video of album track “I Don’t Know” by Elle Brotherhood. This inspired me to explore my own multi-disciplinary approach in more detail and, in the future, like Gus, I would like to continue utilising this for events. Gus introduced me to the music of Paul Robeson and deepened my love and understanding of Leonard Cohen’s music and lyrical craft, amongst so many others.
Ríoghnach Connolly, Ellis Davies, Mikey Kenney
Again, I was a teenager when I first met both Ríoghnach Connolly and Ellis Davies – and likewise, separately, Mikey Kenney. Rí and Ellis played blues and jazz standards as part of a band called Ernie’s Rhythm Section, hosting a regular night at The Victoria on Wilmslow Road in Withington, Manchester. I’d often find myself jamming and generally having a really good time with the musicians from Ernie’s – who later evolved into Honeyfeet when they started working more on original material. Playing with musicians like Rí, Ellis, Sam Buckley, Rik Warren and Mike Pritchard – and seeing these phenomenal talents perform live – also played a really important role in shaping me as a musician.
Gus (Alabaster deplume) joined Honeyfeet on tenor sax with Biff Roxby on trombone. Rí and Ellis lived in a flat we nicknamed “The Embassy” and, just a few doors down on the same road, Gus, Biff and Sam (later Rik) shared an attic flat we called “Iron Mountain”. I spent a great deal of time going to see all these musician friends perform live, then we’d go back to either The Embassy or Iron Mountain, play music and have a great time well into the next day! They’re all such astoundingly good musicians that I couldn’t help but learn a lot from hearing them all play music – and honed my development as a young musician by jamming along.
When Rí was chosen as Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2019, I saw the news as soon as it broke and I instantly had an ear-to-ear smile on my face, brimming with joy. If anyone deserves to win this award, it’s Rí. A phenomenal talent – not only as a vocalist but as a remarkably gifted flautist, effortlessly weaving from jazz to her traditional Irish roots - with a powerful, versatile and utterly unique singing voice, transcending folk, jazz and soul – you always know when you hear Rí sing – she has also worked tirelessly for many, many years. Ellis Davies is a thoroughly lovely human being and a mind-bendingly good guitar player – and all-round musician whose talents extend out equally to bass and a multitude of other instruments. Rí and Ellis have been together for many years as a couple and as a musical duo at the heart of many projects, not least Honeyfeet and its predecessor, Ernie’s. Like Rí, Ellis is also involved in many, many other musical projects. A highly versatile guitarist and musician, Ellis spans an impressive array of styles and genres with effortless ease – blues, folk, jazz, ragtime, soul, funk – you name it, Ellis can do it – and will blow your mind in the process! When Victorian Dad were in the studio recording what would be our first album (though the tracks from these sessions were never officially released) in around 2007-08, our songwriter and frontman David Rybka invited Mikey Kenney down to the studio on the outskirts of Wigan to record some fiddle – so I first met Mikey in a recording studio. I instantly got along really well with Mikey. Even back then, it was clear that Mikey was an extraordinarily gifted fiddler – now, it’s not an understatement to say that he’s easily up there with the very best of fiddlers that these shores have to offer.
I’ve always liked listening to traditional folk music from Ireland and the constituent nations of Great Britain – but it was listening to Mikey play which inspired me to want to learn to play more traditional music. The majority of the instruments I play are acoustic and strongly associated with both traditional music from the UK and old-time music from North America – so becoming more familiar with this repertoire of traditional fiddle tunes is a natural fit for the instruments that I play. Mikey is probably the biggest inspiration with regards to traditional music influences in my playing and also in terms of me wanting to grow and develop playing styles through learning traditional tunes. Not only is Mikey an outstanding fiddler – he is also adept at an array of other instruments. I was taken aback at just how quickly Mikey developed his guitar playing – within the space of only a year, after Mikey had decided to learn the flat-picking guitar style associated with Bluegrass, Mikey had already become a master. The dedication with which Mikey applies to his craft as a musician is something which I admire and respect deeply. I always learn a lot from hearing Mikey play and from playing alongside him. Mikey is a role-model for any aspiring musician.
I joined Mikey for a few gigs with his own songs – as Ottersgear – over a spell of a few years and Mikey has joined me on fiddle too. Both Rí and Mikey have taken part in all my studio recording sessions to-date – my song “That You Knew” from my first EP Possessed was the first time that Rí and Mikey would appear together on record. Rí, Ellis and Mikey are all members of the excellent Band of Burns, whose music is also really inspirational to me. Just before Covid hit, in early 2020, I went to see Band of Burns live at St Georges in Bristol – and it was a truly memorable performance. Both live and on record, Band of Burns are phenomenal. I was inspired by the instrumentation used and multi-instrumental abilities of several of its band members, plus how much space and atmosphere was allowed by a twelve-piece band. I found the turn-taking of lead vocal duties to work really well, each member taking to the front of the stage to lead at least one song each.
Biff Roxby and Louis Barabbas
I met Louis Barabbas at around the same time as I met Ernie’s Rhythm Section – as a teenager living in Manchester. Louis would go on to co-found Debt Records with trombonist Biff Roxby, who joined Louis’ band The Bedlam Six (shortly after the band’s initial incarnation as The Black Velvet Band).
Biff would also join Honeyfeet as trombonist at a similar time – a role that he still fulfils so well today, amongst running his own studio (WR Audio in Manchester, together will fellow Bedlam Six alumni Dan Watkins), playing in several other bands and musical projects – as well as being an in-demand session musician on trombone (Elbow, BC Camplight and 808 State are amongst the artists he has worked with – either live or on record – as a session player).
I was one of the first artists to be signed to Debt Records after the label came into existence and Louis encouraged me to hold up my sketchbook in-between songs – a practice that I still do today, making showing-and-telling about my artwork a key feature of my live performances. Louis gave me a lot of really helpful advice and I have learned a lot from him. He’s also a unique performer and I learned a great deal from the high energy and theatrical fun which he brings to his live shows – even when performing solo.
Biff has arguably had the most direct impact in terms of shaping the sound of my music – certainly with my recorded output. As the producer and engineer of all my studio-recorded material and releases to-date, Biff has helped to mould my sound into what it is today. I love working with Biff – he really understands where I’m coming from with my music and he brings the best out of the material that I put forward. Both ambitious and sympathetic, Biff brings my ideas to life from their conception as songs I’ve written alone with one instrument – usually a guitar – to a full-on studio production. Always understanding the eclectic influences behind my music and allowing these to shine through on record. My regular band members all love working with Biff too – many have gone on to record with Biff with other projects they’re involved with after first working with him whilst recording my songs. I hope to continue working with Biff as my producer for many years to come.
Unlike the majority of other artists on this list, I haven’t worked alongside, or collaborated with, any of the members of Trembling Bells. However, I was instantly enamoured with Trembling Bells the very first time I heard their music. I’d discovered Will Oldham/Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and came across the live album The Bonnie Bells of Oxford – which had been recorded together with Trembling Bells – and I was instantly hooked. I love Lavinia’s voice – which, to my ears, is like a beautiful fusion of Sandy Denny and Grace Slick. Alex Neilson’s songwriting with Trembling Bells is like all the parts of 60s and 70s era folk I love the most – encompassing all its various forms, from trad, rock, psych and prog – but without being a pastiche in any way. The writing is fresh and innovative.
I was lucky enough to open solo for Trembling Bells (and their wonderful Tin Angel records label-mate Baby Copperhead) on the Preston date of the Dungeness tour – which turned out to be the band’s final album. My long-time friend Matt Gallagher – who I’ve played alongside for years as a member of Victorian Dad and who I’ve also brought in as a musician with my own songs – a Preston lad very well connected within the local music scene, helped to book me in as the opener.
Before the gig, I did a drawing of Trembling Bells – which I gave to the band as a gift. Alex subsequently asked me to draw himself and Vinnie being vomited out by snails – and then to draw his new project, Alex Rex. Given free rein, I went for dinosaurs (mostly T-Rexes) adorned with regalia. I will be listening and looking out for both Alex and Lavinia’s future output as Alex Rex and Lavinia Blackwall with keen interest as I think both are spectacularly talented musicians.
It would be remiss of me to talk about musicians and songwriters who have had a direct influence upon me without mentioning David Rybka – songwriter and frontman of Victorian Dad, a band which I played in as a multi-instrumentalist for over ten years (we never officially split up and are currently on an indefinite hiatus – though we may well pick up again one day and have been in touch about doing a gig together again recently).
Like the majority of other artists I’ve mentioned in this piece, I was also a teenager when I met Dave for the first time. Dave was, at that time, enjoying a stint as keyboardist in widely-acclaimed Wigan band Moco. We gelled instantly – as friends and as musicians. Whilst Dave’s primary listening tastes and influences contain much heavier sounds than mine – Dave is really into metal and hard-rock – we also share a great deal of common ground in our musical tastes.
I was hanging out with Victorian Dad from the band’s inception – most of the band were living together in a beautiful 18th century farmhouse in Manchester – incongruous with its surroundings (Alabaster dePlume lived there too – Gus often joined Victorian Dad in the band’s early days – as did Denis Jones and John Fairhurst). Within a short space of time, I’d been brought into the fold – the youngest musician in the band by a few years and much less experienced. I brought one of my oldest friends Fran Lydiatt (also of the aforementioned Bedlam Six and occasional keyboardist with Honeyfeet) into the fold. So, in at the deep end with some really incredible musicians, I had to learn a lot – quickly – to keep up.
Dave is a prodigious and prolific songwriting talent – as well as a fantastic guitarist, all-around musician and vocalist– and, in my view, persistently underrated. He ought to be a household name. I learned a great deal from Dave both as a songwriter and as a musician, honing my craft under his wing. Compositionally, Dave is capable of creating inimitable songs which are both interesting and unusual, whilst being catchy and memorable, spanning from folk, acoustic and Americana to metal and prog – from the depths of despair darkness to upbeat bouncy radio friendliness - and all unmistakably David Rybka.
Other members of Victorian Dad would become regulars in my own band – both live and on record – guitarist James G. Wilson (along with Fran, one of my oldest friends), Fran Lydiatt (keyboards, piano, accordion, synth), Matt McNicholas (drums and percussion), Matt Gallagher (guitarist in Victorian Dad but organ on my material). Bassist Tom Doherty recorded on my first EP, Possessed.
Dave is currently active with Deepshade – whose new drummer Adam Owen’s brother Daniel Owens recorded electric upright bass, double bass and bass guitar on both my first LP Silver Coins and White Feathers plus new EP Strange Weather. Tom Doherty, Victorian Dad’s bassist and a long-time collaborator with Dave, plays bass with Deepshade. Generally a much heavier sound than Victorian Dad’s folk-rock tendencies, Deepshade will soon be releasing a new EP. Yours truly manages their website (which I built from scratch).
Special Mentions To…
Since moving to Bristol, I have seen Nick Hart perform several times – and I’ve also listened to both his albums Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs and Nick Hart Sings Nine English Folk Songs. Funnily enough, Nick’s next album will be called Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs.
Nick is excellent in every way – a great, authentic and genuine voice, exceptional guitarist and a charismatic and engaging performer. His selection of traditional songs work fantastically well and it’s always a joy to listen to Nick play live – and to hear his recorded material. Like Mikey Kenney, Nick inspires me to want to explore traditional folk from England in more detail myself.
Liz’s music is charming, heartfelt and wonderful. It evokes a lot of pre-rock styles of music – particularly jazz, blues and early country – whilst being delivered through Liz’s unique prism. Liz was very much in amongst a lot of the musicians I’ve already mentioned from my years living in Manchester as a young adult. After deservedly landing much critical acclaim and success with her music, Liz has been on a long hiatus – working for the Musician’s Union in more recent years. Her last album, Haul Away, was released on PIAS in 2014. I’d very much respect Liz’s decision if she opts not to return to music but, if Liz were to start performing again and began to write and record some new music, I’d definitely be amongst the first in line to listen and at the front of the queue go and see her perform live again.
I was really inspired by Dan Haywood’s New Hawks (which included Mikey Kenney on fiddle) the first time I saw them perform together at Dulcimer, Chorlton, Manchester over a decade ago. The wide array of instrumentation and skill of the musicians involved – plus the eclecticism of the genres from which these instruments are typically associated – was a major influence in terms of how I would later assemble a band of musicians, both live and on record. Dan is currently active with garage-punk outfit Pill Fangs, which he fronts. I think everything Dan does is great. Well worth checking out!