Interview: Roy Harper

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 10.11.11 in Interviews

Sophisticated Beggar

Roy Harper

Roy Harper is one of the giants of British folk-rock, whose unstinting artistic integrity — and outright brilliance — has earned him the worship of fellow musicians across the generations. The likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Kate Bush all tipped their hat in his direction in his earlier years, while more recently Fleet Foxes, Joanna Newsom and Jonathan Wilson have gathered to touch the hem of his garment.

Roy was born and raised in Manchester until, at age 15, he fled to escape a loony Christian stepmother. Joining the Air Force in his late teens, he found conformity difficult and had to plead insanity to get out, but not before receiving a terrifying dose of electro-shock therapy, which he documented in “Committed,” the final song on his debut album.

From the off, Harper’s songs were unflinching in their veracity, whether laying bare his own emotions or contemporary political evils, or just the inedible food sold in British motorway service stations (see “Watford Gap”). Beginning in a stripped-down acoustic folk idiom, his music evolved according to his own singular vision, acquiring extra instrumentation as he saw fit, but never copping out for the sake of a quick buck.

Just turned 70, he is currently enjoying a major renaissance in popularity, thanks in part to those young disciples’ patronage, but mostly because his life’s work, which he started drip-feeding for digital release this summer, is uniformly magnificent. In conversation, as on the four tracks on 1971′s masterpiece, Stormcock, Roy speaks at great length and in great detail, and yet without waffling or straying one inch from the cause of nailing his point.


So there you were in semi-retirement in Ireland. What made you peep over the parapet and finally release your entire catalogue digitally?

I’m just finding out what becoming digitalized means…In some ways of course it’s convenient, but I discovered in the two months that the compilation album [Songs Of Love And Loss] has been up at iTunes that it’s just a dump for tracks. I can imagine a billion workers on the coalface, filling giant shovels up, and shoveling files into a bottomless pit, a black hole. There’s no quality control. In fact, there’s no control.

All I want is text up there, some annotation, so that people can understand what the records are about. I don’t want this done as 25 tracks into a black hole; otherwise what would make you buy them? Seeing Songs of Love and Loss dumped on iTunes as 1-24, not even 1-12 and 13-24, without anything said about it, with no space for words of any kind, is really depressing. It makes music like another form of effluent, along with all the other effluent.

eMusic is here to rescue you from the black hole! You’ve always been portrayed as a fiercely individual artist, who, unlike many of your peers, refused to compromise, and who has guarded his own back catalogue with pride. Has that been easy going into the digital age?

As it so happens, I’m in a powerful position because I’ve got all my copyrights back. I got them back in the ’80s and ’90s, so I wasn’t really affected too badly, but I could see people around me falling like flies — people my own age, and a bit younger, who really did suffer the sudden loss of income. We’re not talking about the first division, not Premier League Elton Johns, we’re talking about solid second-division people, who suddenly fell on their arses.

The generation of kids who were doing it to them had no idea what they were doing. All they thought was, OK, this is our revolution. We’re gonna take over the world, like the kids always do, without really thinking about who they were affecting. That has probably contributed to destroying a number of careers, because unless you have control over your own material, suddenly, from being a contributor to what is one of the deepest and oldest artforms known to humanity, you were stripped completely bare of everything you’ve produced, and left in a gutter not of your own choosing.

So, people like me who have control over their own material were suddenly very much better off than those who weren’t. That such a demarcation should exist is rubbish. You need to be recompensed for the work you put in on the planet, whatever kind of work that is.

You’ve actually re-released all your albums before, on CD, and on MP3 via your website. Is it important for an artist to curate their own work? Or do you just like having your life flash before your eyes?

Absolutely! Therein lies the difference from the kind of things I do, and pop for pop’s sake. Pop is jingles. Some make pretty good jingles. Elvis Presley was particularly good at jingles, but he had a team of writers behind him. Someone like me, who has actually got a legacy going back, which actually remains largely undiscovered because of the reputation it has for being difficult — which is sometimes founded but sometimes unfounded — well, my stuff certainly isn’t immediate music. Although, one or two of them are. Well, maybe 10 or 15 songs I’ve written are immediate, it’s just that the other 250 aren’t.

The majority of what I’ve written, I would still stand behind fully and absolutely. That’s the difference between me and perhaps some of the people you’ve interviewed in the past. Once you’ve milked a pop song for the milk it’s gonna give you, unless it becomes a standard, it dies, but what I’ve prided myself on doing over the years is writing standards according to my own standards, so that they’ll hopefully stand the test of time in this culture, probably for a couple of hundred years, and maybe even more.

Although, you know, that’s rather optimistic, because, these days, you couldn’t actually fill the Globe Theatre daily with Shakespeare, the way it was actually done at the beginning of the 17th century. The understanding of the English alone would be prohibitive. You couldn’t speak the English of Geoffrey Chaucer as an entertainment in 21st-century England — although he is absolutely the father of English Literature, an absolute icon, and a genius of popular entertainment of its time. Chaucer died in 1400. From 1400 to 2000 is 600 years. So I don’t expect the stuff I’ve written will stand that kind of test of time, that’s too much to ask, but I think the next couple of hundred years, I think that’s easy enough, and that was my intention right from the start.

Your first records came out almost half a century ago! With rose-tinted hindsight, London is always said to have been so exciting in the ’60s. Was that true of the slice of it that you inhabited — the coffee houses and folk clubs like Les Cousins?

There was this absolutely revolutionary convergence of different forms of music, that were unable to reach each other before the ’60s — jazz, classical, pop, folk, blues, skiffle. All of the different big tributaries of music were all still very defined and single. So, what happened to us in the ’40s and ’50s, was that we heard this music coming from leftfield that we didn’t know existed — Southern country, black blues. For us 14-year-old kids, hearing people express themselves in such angst and pain and open sex, in that way, was mindblowing.

We were totally uprooted from any preconceptions we had and taken on a journey that ended up with us being influenced by it all and amalgamating it to create our own thing, just as the post-war petrochemical industry was able to furnish the world with vinyl, because of the excesses brought on by the war itself, by a previous necessity to manufacture fuel and plastic and all rest of it on a mammoth scale. To keep those industries going in a peacetime world, you had to find new ways of selling things, a new product to manufacture. So we were in middle of all that.

In 1955, I was 13, 14, so I was at the most impressionable age. I think this is important historical information for young people to read and understand, because it’s not that it can’t happen again. It’s just not gonna happen here in Europe again. It may happen in China or wherever these sets of circumstances might converge.

So, what people of my particular age and standing have to do now is concentrate on quality. For people in China and India, it’s quantity. For me it’s quality, and I’m determined to keep abreast of quality, and actually, those forces which influenced me when I was between 10 and 16, I’ve still got them in the same compartments they used to be in, and it’s much easier for me to pluck them out!

I’ve read that you were greatly inspired by the Romantic poets, too…

I was very inspired by my English teacher. Four or five of us in class all read together, we could see it was an adventure worth embarking on in some way or another. She would tell us the stories of the separate early 19th- and late 18th-century romantic poets themselves, so I knew from pretty early on all about John Keats, Percy Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Byron, who I never quite liked. So, I was very influenced by them when I was younger — Keats particularly, and Shelley later on, when I had enough experience to understand properly what he was getting at politically.

Keats wasn’t the same kind of political man as Shelley. Keats was a very young man when he died, and his poem “Endymion” was seriously criticized by the London print press, particularly, for being juvenile. That’s probably why I loved it, although I had no idea what the critical appraisal of it had been at the time of his writing it. But it appeared to me to be ideally the kind of thing I wanted to hear, as a young aspirant, which I think I must’ve been, although I didn’t know it. But suddenly, and definitely by the age of 12, I wanted to be a poet, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.

And playing the acoustic guitar — did that come from hearing Dylan in the early ’60s?

No, the blues came to us through Lonnie Donegan, who, when you really work it out, was actually the English Elvis Presley. Eric Clapton, or, for that matter, Jimmy Page — I’ve never asked them, I just implicitly know that we were all there at the same stage, picking up on Donegan, and his sources. Of course, that was a bombshell on British culture. Nobody had sung anything like that before — “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” “Shining Some Light On Me,” “Careless Love” [sings a snatch of "St James Infirmary Blues"]…So, there’s this woman, dead on the slab! It resonated so completely of right down there in the dumps — we don’t care what you think, we’re singing about our social conditions.

With Sophisticated Beggar, you turned up with a complete set of your own material. Was that unusual on a folkie’s debut album?

Yeah, it was. There were odd people doing it. Dylan is a plagiarist, as well you know. Dylan came to Britain to learn what was over here, because if you actually came and learnt the other culture, and what it had been saying in the past, then you had a history of your own, a base you could write from. Same with Paul Simon. The beginnings of folksong are obviously over here, regardless of what you’ve got in the Appalachians and the rest of it.

So they came over and learnt things like “Scarborough Fayre” and turned it into whatever they wanted. Dylan was basically raiding the English, Irish and Scots culture for songs that he could then change the words to. I didn’t like him doing that. I’m exactly his age. It was cheap, just raiding those songs. “Nottingham Town” became “Masters Of War.” The worst one for me was “Lord Franklin” becoming “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” because “Lord Franklin” is such a beautiful song — and you know, it’s almost word for word, “death will be the beginning,” etc. It was actually commissioned by Lady Franklin, when Franklin was lost trying to make the North West passage in 1946. When it was known that they must’ve all perished and they weren’t coming back, she commissioned the song, and it was a really, really beautiful song, and of course it became “Bob Dylan’s Dream” — I mean, how can that happen?

There were plenty of examples, but the one that irked my friend Dominic Behan the most was his song, which was called “The Patriot Game” — truly a good song, because it dealt in a very impassive way with the troubles in Northern Ireland. He [Dylan] turned it into “With God On Our Side.” It was the same music, turned into something completely different. Dylan did a lot of great things, like “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” from that “Blonde on Blonde” era, and “Desolation Row,” those are the songs of a brilliant writer, but I don’t know why he had to do the other stuff. I don’t really want to make a big scene of this, because it’s gonna sound like sour grapes, but there were a lot of people of my type of age who were not too pleased about that.

So you tried to take the various forms on board, and create your own hybrid?

I had the same instrumentation, but I didn’t copy anyone. And I stood by what I thought, and what I was writing. It wasn’t as easy as that for me — not as easy as just taking a song and changing the words a little, and riding on a whole crest of fame because of this. I thought what was being offered in terms of spokespeople for our younger generation was namby-pamby, handling it with kid gloves. They were beholden unto the TV producers, and doyens of taste.

It goes down the ages, now you have your Simon Cowell. That’s fair enough, like one generation transferring to another, but what I was doing, and one or two others, was completely new — some of the same devices were being used in terms of musical instrumentation, but nothing was ever copied. If anything happened, it was more often than not completely new, and with slightly different forms.

“McGoohan’s Blues” from Folkjokeopus [1969] was a turning point in your music, using the trippy TV series The Prisoner as a springboard to rant against authority for 18 minutes, in beautifully poetic terms. You came to favor such longer pieces — just four lengthy meditations on 1971′s Stormcock. Was it a feeling of stretching out, and creative freedom?

It was just putting a stamp on the psyche of the new age, really.

Most prog-rock of that era was very loose and rambling, though, whereas your longer pieces were so minutely structured…

Which probably is a major factor in why it’s endured. I think the stuff that was triumphal masturbation has mainly faded. It’s perhaps still played by its original players, where they’re still alive, but there’s never longevity with that stuff. Back then, my stuff became a precursor for other things almost immediately, things that became hits in the USA.

You mean for the big prog-rock blues bands of early ’70s? You mean certain bands you’ve been associated with over the years — say, beginning with Led Zeppelin?

[laughs] Which was a travesty in some ways, but brilliant in others.

But they fully acknowledged your influence, with “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper.”

Oh yes, they have, absolutely — the correct accolade. It was a great thing for them to do, and Robert, Jimmy and I are still really good friends. That’s always gonna be, because we know what we mean to each other. Robert is fantastically enthusiastic about music. He goes and searches it out everywhere.

Do they ever say what it is they appreciate about your music? It’s always said that that song title was celebrating your unswerving fidelity to your own muse…

Well, Robert compliments me in a very flattering way. He’ll come up to me in a crowd of people, as he did in Dublin last year, and say things — “Roy, I’m nothing like you, I could never be like you, you’re an originator.” He was basically saying that he’s a plain old interpreter — in front of all these people. I was like, [sighs resignedly] “Oh, Robert.” He gets hold of me, and gives me a hug. It’s a very good relationship I’ve got with those guys.

Jimmy Page played on your 1985 album Whatever Happened To Jugula. He’s the quintessential guitar hero…

And he’s the best, too. [Roy has to break off to gather up a pile of papers which have blown off across his garden — notes, he says, for a forthcoming album]

How does it work playing with Jimmy in your style of music?

He’s the ultimate professional in so far as he will listen to what’s in front of him, and what you’ll get is something which empathizes almost completely. So if it’s on acoustic guitar, it’ll be done in the correct way, a way that’s creative and spontaneous. It has a great soul to it, what he plays. He can’t do things twice. Well, he can. If you get the first take from him, and it’s brilliant, you keep going, because the second take is going to be different again, and the third is probably going to be an amalgam of them, and the fourth he’ll get into something that is more formal, and he’ll be able to arrange what he’s thinking. But the ad-lib of the first two or three times he does is usually brilliant. He’s both incredibly intuitive and very professional.

You also sang on “Have A Cigar” from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, circa 1975. Was it them and Zeppelin who egged you on to use rock instrumentation on, say, Bullinamingvase? Or did the association just rub off on you?

Bull… (1977) and HQ (1975) are two of my best, and most favorite, records. I just think that after a while you begin to want to use another voice — all the voices that are available to you, and of course by Flat Baroque And Berserk (1970), that voice was available to me already, on “Hells Angels.” Even on Sophisticated Beggar in 1966, there were things like “Mr Station Master” and “Committed” — they were band-oriented, so it wasn’t sudden.

So you were never a folk purist, who occasionally hopped horses?

No, no, it’s all-encompassing to me. If I needed to use something that I knew I could use, then I would.

The ’80s: How did you navigate through that trivial decade, as a serious, rootsy musician?

I suppose the ’80s was all a revolt against what had been, in every sense. Let’s say, the more effeminate side of the whole industry came to the fore. Instrumentation became more effete, and ethereal, and a lot of people drifted over into a sort of androgynous state. And the people who were really there — Marc Almond, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Culture Club, and all of those things — were really in their own. And it seemed like a foreign world suddenly. It became fashionable to be bisexual almost. As a socially aware person, I’ve got absolutely nothing against that at all, and a lot for it, except that what it did was clear the decks of the age that had gone before it. It probably needed clearing, but what they replaced it with was always slightly more hollow.

Was it galling to be subjected to that kind of cultural clearing?

Yes, in a way it was. There was the punk thing as well. It was a different costume, a different uniform. I wasn’t that keen on uniforms. I’ve nearly always had my beard. There’s been portions of time where I haven’t had it — insofar as you can call a beard a uniform. But it didn’t go down well in 1983, no. I looked as though I was 85 in 1983, like the year denoted my age, kind of thing.

How did you manage to endure? You did some stuff with Kate Bush on her “Breathing,” and your album, The Unknown Soldier [1980]…

To be honest, I just survived. It was pure survival. I went out on the road. I gigged. There were people who were willing to turn up. There was all kinds of tomfoolery went on. To all intents and purposes it was over for me. I was doing quite silly things, really. I was letting it all hang out. I was smoking whole joints onstage. I just let go, actually, particularly the mid-to-late ’80s, where I just didn’t think there was any mileage in what any of us had done previously.

Of course, it then started to swing back, as you could’ve maybe predicted, but it wasn’t really easy to predict, with that amount of anti-feeling for what had gone before, and with that amount of alternative culture — the androgynous ’80s culture — plastered on top of it. It looked like it was gone forever.

What a dreadful period that was, all the way round. Some people will say, “No, that was my heyday!” For most of us, it was a dreadful time, commercially, morally, psychologically, politically. I did my anti-Thatcher bits and went on marches and stuff, but they were destroying whole coal-mining communities. Of course, we can all look ’round and say, “Ah yes, but it was necessary to do that in the ’80s, because coal was half the price in Poland,” or whatever they cared to use as an excuse. And the Chinese turning coal out at one 10th of the price, so why blah blah blah…? But I feel sure that if a little more effort had been made, some of the more derelict communities in the North could’ve been saved, and in Wales.

But then actually, who knows, maybe the shock of having decades of previous culture suddenly torn from underneath you is the one sure way of getting you to actually work at something again. So I wouldn’t like to say it was completely bad. But actually going through it was a nightmare.

When did you notice the pendulum beginning to swing back your way?

I think it had swung back to something reasonable in the early ’90s. Playing an acoustic, I was doing much better by then — and worse. I went through an emotional struggle from ’92-96, where I lost the person I’d been living with for an age [he separated from his wife, Jacqui], and that affected me very badly, so I wasn’t able to take advantage of the ’90s as I should’ve done, but as soon as I’d managed to get rid of that, and emotionally recovered enough, I was back. But life is like that. Life hammers you when you least expect it sometimes. You don’t know what you’re doing.

And in the Noughties you’ve had the likes of Joanna Newsome saying “Hats off!” again…

The Noughties really for me were consolidation. I actually managed to claim all of my copyrights back in the ’90s, nobody thought that they were worth a penny. I’ve managed to stand behind them, and reinforce them in various ways, to form the company and make a life of it, and get the book together, and the DVD, and a small anti-Blair single, which didn’t do that much, and it was never going to, but it was just a signal of what I felt at the time. But all of these things were achieved in the ’90s.

The Green Man came at the end of it [in 2000], but I would actually like to do the vocal on The Green Man again, I didn’t pay anything like enough attention to it. So the ’90s — I wish I hadn’t had to spend that time doing that, but it was actually a good time, because I knew I was beginning to reclaim the work, and to be able to reinstate it, and that’s very important. Having this little company — it’s nothing I thought that I would ever have in my life at all, but it’s been good — it’s somewhere for me to reside on a more permanent basis, for when I leave the planet.

Do you welcome the boom in acoustic, folky music in the past 10 years or so?

Some of them you can’t knock because the poetry on top of them has been feasible. There’s not many of those, but when you say acoustic — yes, I’m involved in, and will always be involved in, the vanguard of that. Music has become humanized again. It’s not just acoustic, it’s human again. Humanized music.

Joanna Newsom refused to play in England a few years ago, unless you supported her. Why did you choose to comply?

She’s wonderful. Another brilliant person.

Mumford & Sons?

Those boys, not that I suppose they’d like it, have been identified with David Cameron, haven’t they, that they’re something he listens to. I don’t know much about them, to be honest. In a position like I am, you can’t be critical of the modern world. I appreciate people more from my own particular sensibility, like Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes. I think they’re probably bigger in Europe than they are in the USA. Hopefully the USA will pick the torch up and carry it.

I went to see Jonathan Wilson the other day, I was seriously impressed. Jackson Browne played with him onstage. Going to that gig reminded me of the first time I saw Jefferson Airplane, and when I was made aware of The Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Still & Nash and Neil Young. That’s what it sounded like, too — the best end of California, all together. And those guys can really play. What a gig that was! Mind you, I was transported back to my youth, so maybe that colored my vision. He apparently is very influenced by me as well. It might be mutual once I get towards finishing this new record — I might be influenced back!

Tell us about this work in progress, that just blew off across the garden. It’s said that you’re writing a collection of songs based on various pre-religious mythologies…

Well, it’s coming, isn’t it? I won’t give you the working title, because then it’ll be out in the open, and someone’ll nick it. Whether it’ll end up this way or not is another thing — but the way it’s started is as my own take on mythological stories, from whichever period in human history I’ve chosen for each one. There’s one or two Greek things in it. In fact, it was leaning too far towards Greece at one point, because Greek civilization is very seminal to European culture, so those stories have come through beside and beyond all religion that’s come from slightly further East.

These myths bear a different character altogether to the religious junk that emanated from the Middle East, which has taken over all of our ancient emotional thoughts altogether, all from a book or a series of books that are no longer really that relevant. The Bible has little pearls of wisdom contained within it, but a whole lot of, actually, garbage. You would hope that people see through it eventually, but having lived this long, it’s not really very likely in my lifetime. Religion has become fashionable again. It always was a fashion, and it always will be a fashion. Religion is fashion. Human mental fashion.

So, what I’m trying to do is modernize some of those ancient stories, so that we get a modern angle. It’s not on a schedule, unfortunately. I need it on a schedule, and I need it to be finished by the end of the year. Some hope! But I’m absolutely full of optimism at this stage. Nobody’s really interested in Roy becoming part of X Factor or anything like that, but I can have a career in the next few years, which actually reinstates me. It can never make up for the losses I went through with EMI’s stupidity [Roy was signed to the subsidiary Harvest in 1969-80], and the youth of Britain and the English-speaking world are not suddenly gonna reside in a 70-year-old man. If somebody came to me and said, You are now going to take the place of Adele — well, that’s not going to happen! But at least I find a proper place now, and I don’t get as much of a hard time from the people.