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Ken Nicol - The Triste Interview
|Ken Nicol is a singer-songwriter, who is currently working with Steeleye Span as the lead guitarist in their touring line-up, and playing solo when time allows. Over the last half decade, Nicol has also often been involved with Ashley Hutchings, the folk-rock, self-styled Guv'nor, in The Albion Band as lead guitarist and vocalist/writer as well as various smaller-scale educational off-shoots. Now back in his home town of Preston, Nicol spent a lot of the 80's in the States, playing with Al Stewart, as well as fronting his own bands. Triste met up with him in his home studio in 1998.
Triste: How did you start off making music?
Ken Nicol: Well, I must have started out playing the guitar when I was 12. Or at least that's when I got my first guitar. My biggest inspirations were the Beatles, then Bob Dylan. Then after him came people like John Renbourne. Around 1965, when I was 18 or 19, I got very serious about things. I moved to London in 1971 and had signed to CBS in 1973 with my partner Pete Marsh on CBS. The first two were released on Capricorn records. One of the tracks got into the lower reaches of the Billboard charts. The third Polydor album we actually recorded in California in 1978. Before we went over we met with the producers over here and they asked us about who we liked. The people I was listening to at that time were James Taylor and Steely Dan. Those were the kind of guys we really admired. To my great delight and pleasure we had a lot of those guys playing on our sessions: we had Bill Payne from Little Feat; Lee Sklaar played on two of my songs and Craig Doerge from The Section. We almost got Lowell George to play slide on one of my tracks, but I cut a decent version first so we didn't bother with him.
Triste: What was the relationship with Pete Marsh?
Ken Nicol: Pete Marsh was my brother-in-law at the time. We were called Nicol and Marsh, then Easy Street. All the albums were either called Easy Street or Nicol and Marsh's Easy Street. The first Polydor album caused the biggest splash. We somewhat lost our way with the second album. I think we became too diluted which is one of the easiest things to do. Often you'll get to the point where you've got a good chemistry among the people you're working with and there's an established songwriting partnership. And what happened, is what happens to a lot of people, and you start to try other things, writing with other people and we were making too much of a departure from what was working originally. So then the album would seem too diverse; one track would appear very different to another because, say, Pete would have written it with the drummer.
Triste: Were you pressurised into making more commercial sounding records?
Ken Nicol: More commercial? Yes. I always felt that pressure throughout all those years. I never felt comfortable in the mainstream music industry. I found myself doing a lot of things because I felt they ought to be done and I consequently have had very little desire for a number of years to be caught up with all of that game, at any level.
Triste: But isn't it a fact that in the "Music Business" that business comes first and foremost, and music follows behind?
Ken Nicol: I think it's realising that that's enabled me to get my perspective, In the end you've got to do the things you believe in. You've got to be yourself. And so if you're competing with all these other people, if that's what you're in for, then that's fine, then you examine and reach forward for what your motives are. If what you're really into is composing and playing, then you're not necessarily always getting these things satisfied by this process of chasing money and marketing. I think you've got to let other people get on with it. A lot of music that people are critical of is very simplistic, very commercial and appeals to masses of people. If you're only doing that in pursuit of commercial success. I think you're going to find yourself empty at the end of the day. You can't fake it, you've got to do what you want and be true to yourself.
Triste: But what about all those cult artists whose greatest fame came after they were dead? I'm thinking of your Nick Drakes and Gram Parsons here. Wouldn't some commercial and critical reward been appreciated by them?
Ken Nicol: I think there has to come a point when you've got to be stop thinking in terms of justice and injustice. People do things for their own reasons. There are many more unsung heroes than will ever become recognised. It's very hard to make any measurement of how much they should become "cult heroes". Just how good someone is - it's a very subjective thing. In a way you've got to express the things that you feel you're here to do and everyone else can make of it what they want. If they want to blow you up into an icon they can do.
Triste: But isn't music also a form of communication and wouldn't most artists prefer to communicate with 100,000 people rather than a 100 people?
Ken Nicol: I think you can never be under the illusion that just because 100,000 people are listening to what you're doing that 100,000 people understand what you originally intended to mean. Everyone of has their own interpretation, maybe there's some collective agreement, but I think that if you feel that your communicating solidly with a handful of people, then that can seem very worthwhile in itself.
Triste: Haven't you ever thought you should have a new Rolls Royce in the drive and to be so financially secure that you could do exactly what you wanted to do without having to worry about the day to day costs of living?
Ken Nicol: Life's a very temporary thing. I can't see that Rolls Royces would bring about any purposefulness for me. It is about doing what you feel you want to do. And everything else is a by-product. I honestly believe that somewhere inside of us we know what it is that we have to do. Whether you consider it a spiritual thing or not, I believe we all have our own niche or path or whatever. When you're doing those things you draw energy from it and you feel satisfied. When you're not doing those things you get very fatigued, you ask a lot of questions and get very unhappy. You can never, ever, ever justify that on the basis of making money. It doesn't make sense. We're here for a limited number of years. If you start to approach it from what feels right for you, I also believe, some people might think naively, then automatically that starts to create by-products and you might find that one of those things is money. We're held restricting ourselves a large amount of time by the idea that certain things aren't possible when we really need to start thinking that those things are possible. Thinking that way often creates possibilities by itself. It's quite amazing how often people land on their feet.
Triste: What about the people who don't? Again I'm thinking about Nick Drake and his despair at failing to reach out to an audience.
Ken Nicol: I don't know, we can only theorise about the conflict he was going through, but it is shared by very many people. I tend to look at that normally you find a lot of doubt and uncertainty as part being that kind of creative person. It's more that, going back to the idea that we have things to do, I feel that when you're given that kind of stuff you've somehow got to make sense of it. Maybe it was his destiny to do whatever he did and die whenever he did. We've all got pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and we have to try and make sense of them.
Triste: Maybe he was asking the wrong questions at the wrong times?
Ken Nicol: That's where he was at that time and those questions were relevant to him at that time. Possibly if he'd stuck around a little longer, he might have moved on to other questions.
Triste: Going back to your time in America. Would you say that you were picking up US West Coast influences onto your brit-folky background?
Ken Nicol: I think that my music has always been a little bit American, a little bit West Coast. I really rated a lot of those players. I didn't consciously try and be like that. I just gravitated that way, but now my music is a strange mixture of lots of things. I've always dreaded the whole business of categorizing music. It's easy to say now its a bit folky because I play with an acoustic guitar. And then with The Albion Band I get slagged off for being American. To me music's just music. I suppose you could say that it was considered to be what was called soft rock. Just at the end of that period the concept of AOR was being created. I thought that the last album in 1979/80 was bloody great superb. It was released at the peak of the punk thing and we hadn't got a hope in hell. We had a big problem finding a deal. A lot of people put it down to bad management. Our manager Tony Gordon, who a few years later discovered Boy George, didn't go over to America and the people we worked with in America were very critical of him. The production company proposed that it was re-released in America in my own name. Wed put one or two new songs on it. I didn't go for it. I was going through my strange time. It was like eight years of just trying to figure things out that had nothing to do with music.
Triste: How was California at that time during the era of its Rock Aristocracy of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne and Little Feat?
Ken Nicol: The weather's fantastic, but it's very oppressive when it gets very smoggy on sunny days. The winters are beautiful though.
Triste: Are there a lot of outlets for live music?
Ken Nicol: No, there was a lot of music going on, but its a different scene over there. First of all, if you want to play a number of live gigs you've got a long way to travel because it's such a big country. There's also so many people playing music that there isn't really a live scene in terms of making money. Here within a 20 mile radius you can half a dozen gigs and get paid reasonably well. In America it's spread out over a much wider area. A lot of people will not want to pay you. The only money you get is the money they take on the door from people who come to see you. I felt that musicians over there were treated with a certain type of contempt. It's a very funny place. Some of the musicians are so damn good, but there's a casualness and a disregard in a way that you don't necessary find here, unless they're seen to be a star and then it all changes. But that's all done more at a business level rather than at a live music level. It seems that if you want to get anywhere to even survive, you have to start doing deals, selling songs. And its really quite difficult so that's why so many of them end up working as waiters and waitresses because there's a cerain level of sucess and nothing below it.
Triste: What was it like being back in Britain?
Ken Nicol: The first 18 months over in the States were great. The weather and an irresponsible lifestyle - a lot of drinking and other things. Then at some point you have to deal with real life and assess if that's where you want to be in life. So for the last 6 years over there I didnt like the place and I didn't know what to do about it. Cos I had this certain idea about England. When I left it was dismal and grey and miserable and I came back for a holiday and I loved it, so I figured I would come back.
Triste: What do you mean by "real life"? Were you living an especially false life over there?
Ken Nicol: You go out and drink lots of beer and tell jokes and have a good time and get smashed and the next day you wait up with a headache and you've got to decide what to do. That's real life. Im not saying the good times were any less valid, but there comes a time for many of us when you ask yourself is this really what I want to do. You say, "I'm not happy. What am I going to do about it?" I honestly believe that we tend to be critical of where we live. The way we perceive it is just a reflection of what's going on inside you.The weather might be hard work, but we can't really blame the weather for all the things we tend to blame it for. Wherever you go in the world you take those feelings with you and at some point, when all those little diversions and those games are coming to an end, then it will all surface again. When the drink wears off and the euphoria stops then you're really just at the beginning of a process. I guess you've got to go in search of whats meaningful for you.
Triste: Running away to a new town or country doesn't solve anything when the problem's inside of you.
Ken Nicol: Its like in a relationship. You establish a relationship and then when the euphoria fades away you have to start dealing with the real person. Then you either look for another means of adding excitement to our lives or we start to look how we can create something with a little more meaning.
Triste: When you got back to Preston what were your thoughts?
Ken Nicol: It was a question of confidence. I'd lost a lot of confidence and I basically moved in with my Mum and Dad. I needed to reflect. I was really greateful to have the opportunity to do that to have the time to reflect and thinking about what I should do. I did go out and play a few clubs, I gave guitar lessons and taught a little bit at college. It's like starting from scratch. Just starting to establish ways and means of doing the things I wanted and earning a living. And its been great. I mean recently the amount of work Ive got is ridiculous.
Triste: Why did you decide to join the Albion Band when you seemed happy playing solo?
Ken Nicol: Couple of things. I knew Ashley. It's not just a cse of joining the band. It was a case of being a large creative part in that band and working with Ashley writing. The dance band album that we did I produced and wrote a lot of stuff for. It makes me happier to write than anything. The performing side, there's a certain amount of bullshit involved with the flashing lights. Writing to me seems very honourable. You can pour your heart and soul into your song. You can design it so that if you want people to look at something in a certain way, then you try and present it like that. But it doesn't have the glitz and glamour of the performing side of things. The writing is the more enjoyable to me and that's one reason why I got involved with Ashley. And it means that - I know it's not a huge market, you're not playing to an audience of thousands in stadiums - you have ameans of getting your name known to a larger number of people.
Triste: Talking about songwriting. How much of craft rather than an art form is it?
Ken Nicol: It can be. I don't believe even if it was it would detract from meaning what you say. There's all kinds of ways you can be skillful at putting tunes together. You can be a craftsman. What stuck in my mind is Randy Newman. I remember him saying he did one album of some project. The only way he could write that material was to have an office and do like eight hours a day. I think you'll always find that, regardless of how inspirational certain parts of the songwriting process are, you will always have to introduce some discipline or you won't get it finished. It's really using that to a greater or leser degree and you know what kind of framework you need to work with to get things completed. But I agree that you shouldn't blow people's abilities out of all proportion. A lot of people who are acclaimed as being so great are just somebody who sits down and writes a simple pop song. The rest is media hype.
Triste: You mention the balance between crafting and grafting a song out and the times when you are inspired. Do you ever pick up a guitar and it feels like you've plugged into some vast repository of songs floating around in space and they song comes out fully formed?
Ken Nicol: It does, So much so, that Ive been fascinated by the whole issue itself. I've had dreams where I've heard the song in completion and I've been making it up as I've been hearing it. Ive even been listening to a radio in my dream and to it's come out of the radio and I'm making the lyrics up as they come out of the speaker and the words all rhyme and I can go anywhere with them and I can say anything and there's complete freedom. So actually I believe that within us, some people may think within us some outside us but I tend to think more now inside us, there is that complete freedom. For example, you know when you're dreaming and you're in that lucid state you can make things up as you experience them. You can go where you want and do what you want and its difficult to engage any amount of time between the idea that will happen and it happening. That to me is representative of how much freedom we have. The difficulty is translating things and in expressing things on this plane. The problem is the process of somehow getting from there to here. Sometimes the channels are very open and it just pours out, other times the channels are comparatively closed and we have to sweat it out.
Triste: So you think our dreams are full of artifice?
Ken Nicol: We know. We are full of knowledge. When we are in a dream state we know. It's only when we are here and our conscious mind kicks in that we get all the doubts and the things that say, "No you can't", "I don't think that's a very good idea" or "God damn it, I had it a minute ago and its gone now". I think the more relaxed we are the more we can have some of those channels and the more some of that knowledge expresses itself.
Triste: How does it disappear?
Ken Nicol: The guitar has not to be played. The moment that the notes start to become the issue and the focus then you will probably lose it. You've got to maybe sit back and close your eyes a bit and not try to hard. It's like trying to remember someone's name when it's on the tip of your tongue. One other thing which relates to dreams and songwriting spontaniety is an idea that I think is really interesrting. I've been reading this book called "The Soul's Code" by a guy called James Hillman. He reckons that the oak tree is in the acorn. The actual form of the tree is in the acorn but there has to be a process of actualisation so it grows from the acorn and it becomes this symbolic thing. As with a song. Sometimes I think that maybe the song is already written on a level, but the important thing is to go through that process of actualisation. When you make it happen here, that's where the challenge comes in.
Triste: Do you ever try to use altered tunings to trigger ideas?
Ken Nicol: It's like hearing somebody else playing guitar and hearing them play things you wouldn't and you think, "Bloody hell, that's good" and all of a sudden it gives you an idea. Playing in different tunings is the same way beacuse your fingers will always gravitate to familiar patterns and familiar moves. Your fingers want to do the same things all the time. How many people say I always play this when I pick up the guitar. How can I play something else. Well it's the same for everybody.
Triste: How important is honesty in songwriting?
Ken Nicol: There are all kinds of ways to be honest. I've always wondered how you cannot be honest when youre writing a song. How you can't be, even if your making up the story. How that story could be anything other than a reflection of how you see things or feel about things.
Triste: But don't you ever self-censor things?
Ken Nicol: Well I think you censor things or design things in various ways. Maybe you're talking about a feeling and experience that might be difficul for people to take. It might defeat the object - you might want people to like the song! Perhaps you're embarrassed about saying certain things. Maybe you don't know how your singer would put it across. Another reason might be that it doesn't fit into your stereotypical idea of what that kind of song should be like Maybe your aimng for a certain kind of market. Maybe its a country song, but that idea doesn't sound very country even if it's honest or not. So there's all kinds of reasons for doing that. Everyone must do that when they're writing. Obviously some people are more open than others. Being a personal thing doesn't always necessarily constitute my idea of a good song My idea of a good song would include not just what you make of it, what you make from your thoughts and feeling, it might have to express some intelligent reflection. There are no hard and fast rules.
Triste: So how do you cope with singing traditional folk songs about lords and ladies committing adultery and murder?
Ken Nicol: It's in the way you sing it. It's hard for me to imagine that someone like Simon [Nicol from Fairport Convention] when hes singing "Matty Groves" on stage he's going through all those emotions. He's probably thinking this is the 25,000th time he's performed it. What can preoccupy your thoughts can be just you want it to make put on a good performance and you want to make an impression on people and you've got all that to consider in the equation.
Triste: What do you think of Dylan's constant reinvention of his songs on stage? Sometimes they're worse, but on other occasions he develops a new aspect of the song from its original recording?
Ken Nicol: I can't speak for other people. I can only talk for myself. Whether we feel like it or not on some days we've all got a job to do.
Triste: I take it you're playing a lot of Arts Centres and regional theatres with Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Band, but you also play some folk clubs. What I find incredible about some folk clubs is that the ideological battles of the early 60's are still taking place.
Ken Nicol: The strange thing about Folk Clubs is that they're all islands to themselves. One club will be all unaccompanied and mainly sea chanties while down the road they play electric original tunes with only the slightest connection with folk. The folk club is generally an expression of the organiser of the club. There are many curious places it's hardly surprising that folk music has a bad name with some people.
Triste: Folk should be a living thing not preserved in aspic.
Ken Nicol: Ashley's very good at experimenting with music, but he still got his boundaries. We're playing at Cecil Sharp house in a couple of weeks time. I think of music as the expression of the spirit, so there's a lot of freedom rather than a strict formula to stick by. You've got to play your own music and it's difficult to get away from your influences. Most people start by copying and learning the basics of their instrument. After a while if you're following a guitar arrangement from a book you'll try and understand why it's written one way and not another and then you might add your own ideas to the song. It's a question of confidence rather than following a text book. You get compared to people until you've established yourself but doing it properly is just the expression of one person and finding your own individual voice. Eventually you get to the stage where you can say, "This is me take it or leave it."