CHRIS WADE & CELIA HUMPHRIS Interview
Chris Wade recently released one of our favourite records of the year, Dodson & Fogg. He collaborated with Celia Humphris, Judy Dyble, and Nik Turner on several tracks and we asked Chris and Celia about the experience. It was a pleasure to reconnect with Celia for the first time since our extensive Trees interview in 1991.
I understand that you’re an illustrator (ace cover on the Dodson & Fogg album by the way), have published several books/audiobooks, author a magazine (Hound Dawg), and even DJ a podcast version of Hound Dawg Radio. Quite the Renaissance man! How did you progress from writing stories and interviewing musicians to becoming one yourself?
Well I have always played music and written songs from a really young age, 6 or 7 actually. In my teens I used to write songs all the time and record them on my old Tascam 4 track machine, experimenting with sounds and weird ideas, most of which sound pretty bad looking back now, but it’s all a part of learning. My dad was always the one to encourage me to be creative and I am really thankful for that. Me and him are really good friends and we actually do the Hound Dawg radio together, but it’s more just us two doing mostly improvised comedy together than any actual music, but I love doing it. Anyway, I think it was around 2009 that I first started writing and illustrating. I did a book that was sold on Hugh Cornwell’s (ex-Stranglers singer) UK tour and around the same time I started my online Hound Dawg magazine, which started as monthly PDFs, to a blog and now a brand new print edition, the first of which just came out this week (November, 2012). I also got into fiction a little after that when I got to work with the comedian Rik Mayall who narrated my comedy audiobook Cutey and the Sofaguard. It all came out of frustration really, being frustrated with not having a job at the time and getting myself into gear and doing something I really wanted to do. So I like to vary my projects to keep it all interesting, but I have always wanted to do something musically that I was 100 percent happy with and Dodson and Fogg is something I am very proud of. (Note: I am afraid I cannot take credit for the Dodson cover illustration. It’s taken from a children’s book from the 1700s. Wish I had drawn it though dagnabbit!)
Where did your inspiration for these songs originate? Have you always been into the folk scene?
I haven’t always been into folk really, and to be honest I don’t listen to a lot of folk even now. I like folk rock like Trees obviously, but my tastes are more classic rock orientated really. I like things like Donovan, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, which is kind of folk related, and Cat Stevens too, Tom Petty and especially Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. But some of these songs originate from my late teens, ones I’ve found on old tapes, dusted off and messed around with. ‘Meet Our May’ is one of those old ones that I re-wrote for the album. A lot of the new ones just came out naturally, and they were really fun to record and mix, but I am not sure what inspired them, maybe my musical tastes all rolled into one.
Can you share the meaning behind your musical pseudonym? It certainly sounds like some long lost folk duo from the ’70s! Or are they the Wisdom Twins?
Haha, not the Wisdom Twins! Anyone who has heard the audiobook of Cutey and the Sofaguard will be glad it’s not those two fiends. It would probably get banned. Dodson and Fogg are from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. I just love the sound of the names, I love old English things, traditions and things like that. That’s why Ray Davies is one of my favourite writers, especially his ’67 to ’69 era where he was writing about the village Green, Arthur and lost ideals of England. One reviewer was baffled with the pseudonym because it’s clearly mostly me with some collaborators. I like that some people might be wondering which one is Dodson and which one is Fogg.
You’ve effectively captured that earthy, ’70s vibe, particularly on the more acoustic tracks like ‘All Day Long’, ‘Where On Earth’, ‘Say Goodbye’ and ‘Endless Sky’ that evoke fond memories of Incredible String Band, COB, Forest, and of course Trees. I particularly liked the mournful string flourishes from Alice White (violin) and Ellie Davies (cello), and Nik Turner’s flute work (on ‘Crinkle Drive,’ ‘Endless Sky’, and ‘Nothing At All’) suits the songs so perfectly. Was that something you were consciously yearning for or did the atmosphere develop organically as you got deeper into the recording process?
It definitely just developed as it went on, because they started as straight bare “one guitar and voice” acoustic things, then Celia got involved and it started to sound like classic folk rock from the ’70s. Then with Nik [Turner]’s input it got suitably more psychedelic. People have called it “acid folk” and I do think it often sounds a bit like Incredible String Band, who I love, but this wasn’t in mind when I started out. One reviewer even seemed to imply that I made this album to sound like the ’70s on purpose, when in fact I just wrote songs and recorded them organically. I don’t want people to think this was done deliberately as a retro album, not that that would be a bad thing of course, but in this case it just isn’t true.
I also love that people say it embodies the ’60s and ’70s, because they are the best eras for music in my view. But I also think importantly that it isn’t just nostalgic, not that there is anything wrong with nostalgia, but it is perhaps a way to bring in a way of writing and recording that is being overlooked right now. There’s too much formulaic music these days I find, over-produced pop that is churned out. One current artist I like that is around my age is Amy MacDonald, although she may be a couple of years younger than me… her work is brilliant and haunting.
How did you solicit the contributions from Celia, Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention), and Nik Turner (Hawkwind)?
It was a case of asking really. With Celia, we had already been in touch a few years back when I did an interview with her for my Hound Dawg Magazine [Issue #5, March 2010]. Start of this year we got back in touch because I asked her if she would like to contribute some vocals to some of my songs. I didn’t think she would say yes though, but she did! I asked Judy to do one track and approached Nik as I know he is a versatile and very talented player, I just knew his contributions would be amazing. He’s a good guy, Nik. These were all done at their end and emailed across to me for the mix. Amazing experience.
Celia, what was your reaction when Chris invited you to help complete some of his songs?
I was pleased and intrigued. Chris had previously interviewed me for his online magazine, subsequently asking if I'd be interested to record an audio book - one of his short stories. I was, and am - still ongoing. For every hour of narration you need to allow 3 hours for editing - mistakes, breaths, wrong emphases etc.
I'd no idea he was a musical man until he mentioned he'd started writing songs and would I be interested in singing on some of them.
Chris, did you compose the songs with their participation in mind or did you ask them to contribute afterwards?
Afterwards, yeah. These were all written and I just wanted to know what they would sound like with top notch collaborators putting their own thing into them. I didn’t think they would say yes though, that is important to remember. I was thrilled with this whole project. With the second album this could be different though because I have written certain songs knowing that certain people will be contributing again. Which in itself is amazing for me,
How familiar with were you with your collaborators’ previous work? Did you go back to their albums or previous recordings for additional inspiration?
Trees only made two albums and I have been playing them regularly the last few years, so their music is some of my favourite stuff. I am not sure how much it has influence writing style but I suppose it is hard to tell yourself. With Nik and Hawkwind, I had an uncle who totally loved them so I was aware of a lot of their work growing up and as a teen I liked their early stuff. Everybody knows Fairport of course, but I never listened to them much, although I do like what I have heard, particularly the album Judy is on.
Tell us how the album came about – did you collaborate over the internet and send them partially completed songs and ask them to embellish them with vocals, flute, etc. and then send them back to you? Did you include a blueprint for them or did they completely improvise their accompaniments?
Well the songs were written, with guitars, my vocals, my bass and any other bits and bobs I did on them, and I sent them across. Celia and Nik are such talented people that they didn’t really need a blueprint, they took the song and brought to it something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Celia’s multilayered backing vocals on a song like ‘All Day Long’ totally enhanced the song completely in my opinion. Nik’s flute playing amazed me when I heard it. To hear him, such a legend, playing on my song, just brilliant. So they did come up with their own parts but I know for a fact their parts were well thought out and prepared at their end.
Celia: Chris emailed me the basic tracks, him and his guitar and invited me to add what I felt necessary, no specific direction. ‘Say Goodbye’ already had some flute added [by Chris] so I started with that one and sang around the flute. I recorded several different takes, couldn't decide which to go with so sent the lot and he used them all! Ditto with the others. I'd have liked to have done more, particularly ‘Crinkle Drive’ - I'd a great idea for that - but simply didn't have the time. In retrospect, had I known that the whole project was going to take off in the way that it has, I might have shelved other projects and concentrated more time on this one!
Was it difficult to add something to recordings that you weren’t originally a part of? I’m assuming this was quite a different experience from the Trees’ album sessions. Was it difficult trying to determine where you would fit in?
No, not really. The difficult part is getting to know the songs and the chord structure. In a band, one would rehearse for a while before recording, stopping and starting as necessary. This way is much more time consuming! But as soon as I hear a track I'm already singing a counter vocal, it comes naturally to me. I don't always get it right of course, hence the multiple tracks which all seem to end up on the finished product.
Were these your first formal recordings since the Trees project? How did it feel to get back behind the microphone after more than 40 years?
Oh, no - not at all! I'm a professional voice artist / actress and have my own dedicated voice booth in my basement. The majority of my work is speech, but I've sung on the odd advert in the past. When Trees re-emerged, I seized the chance to do what I'd always wanted to do and added a few vocal harmonies to the original recordings. Now when I play Trees albums, I no longer feel the need to sing along and wish I'd done so at the time! I flew to London to record in the studio with David, Barry and Bias (sadly Unwin had passed away) for the remix on On the Shore, but all the Jane Delawney additions were done from my studio. Then Judy Dyble asked me to guest on a couple of tracks for her Talking with Strangers album last year. I've very much enjoyed the chance to sing again.
Chris, did you have to send any of the submissions back for fine tuning or did they nail what you wanted on the first try?
What they had come up with honestly did blow me away. As a big fan of Celia’s voice, I knew that it would be good, but even then I was totally stunned by the brilliance of it. She was so creative with the song, just such an honour for me to have these legends on my album. Anyone who cares about the music or art they create will know exactly what I mean I am sure.
How long was the whole process – once you started writing and recording and sharing material with your collaborators, how long did it take to finish the album?
Well some of the songs were already written, they just got jigged around with and I wrote some new ones, recorded my guitar and vocal parts (and bass, keyboards, a bit of my own flute playing in there too). This all took a couple of months, and while I waited for Nik and Celia to do their parts I was writing some things for the second album. As a result most of the second album, or my parts of it that is, are already recorded. So I sent my tracks out in April I think, and Nik came up with his parts at the end of August, or the start of September. So five or six months really, including the mixing. It is the best project I have done so far, really pleased with the whole thing.
It seems that the internet has opened a lot of potential for these long distance collaborations. Were there any issues that arose? Do you think you’ll continue to record this way in the future?
There were no problems at all and I can’t wait to get the second album together, although I do have to learn to be more patient!
I understand you have a lot of songs left over from the initial recording session. Will you be looking to send any of them out to potential collaborators or have you talked with Celia or Judy or Nik, et. al. to see if they’d be interested in hooking up again? Perhaps you’d like to start fresh with new voices/collaborators?
I know that Nik and Celia are definitely on board and I know I would love them on my recordings for as long as they want to do them.
Celia: Oh yes, absolutely. No brainer.
Chris: There are some other collaborators lined up, some verified, others not for certain yet, but they are going to be pretty exciting for me all being well. I also have a great trumpet player called Colin Jones who has brought some real colour to the second album.
As you move forward, do you think you will continue collaborating with favourite artists if the song seems ripe for it, or do you think you’ll continue to work by yourself? In other words, are there any plans to put a band together to flesh out the sounds and possibly tour the album or are you satisfied with the current arrangement?
I am, to be honest, happy just recording, because I love being shut away working on something creative, like with the books I do, and I really do see the recorded song as the real article. Like a painting in a way, laying on sounds and hearing the results when everything is in there. I would like to do gigs one time, but I didn’t really enjoy gigging with my old band, it felt more of a slog than anything. It would have to be a nice set up and something to enjoy, otherwise there would be no point. You never know….
On a more personal note, Celia, I understand you recently relocated to France and now sell luxury real estate in the French Riviera?
We moved here in 2004 and foolishly spent a fortune treating friends and family to a year's worth of virtually free holidays. It was great fun, but depleted the funds so much, as did the first round of renovations, that we realised we'd need to find some serious work rather than living off income from investments. So I started applying for jobs: played the female lead in a pro production of Coward's Private Lives which toured around small theatres here in the south [of France] for a couple of months. It was great fun and wonderful to tread the boards again. The people I met through that became firm friends and led to other things. I've since appeared in a film noir called Dead in France which was written and directed by my co-star in the play, Brian Levine. It showed at Cannes two years running and has won awards, including 'Best' for two of the actors.
Were any of your clients aware of your background in music or do you look back on that as another lifetime?
No, my property clients weren't aware of my hippy-style background. As it all happened in my teens and early twenties, it did seem like another lifetime. However, the two have come together in time and are not mutually exclusive.
Do your children have any interest in pursuing a career in music?
I have one son, Luke, who has followed his grandfather's trend and stuck with art. My father, Frank Humphris, was a commercial artist working for many years on Eagle Comics followed by Swift Comics and Ladybird Books. He did a short spell on special effects working for the renowned Freddy Francis in various Hammer Films Productions, and Luke has for many years worked for Framestore doing a digitised version of the same thing. He is an accomplished guitarist and plays keyboards too, but has no ambition to play live.
Of the four children I subsequently married into, only the eldest - Trent Ford - has gone the performance route and has appeared in many well-known films (notably Gosford Park) and TV productions ( The West Wing, Smallville, The Vampire Diaries etc)
Finally, Chris, tell us about this weird and wonderful video you’ve made to accompany the album.
Haha, the cretin is played by my girlfriend’s father. He’s a good laugh and always up for messing around so me and my girlfriend Linzi made this weird video with him sort of wandering around a forest sort of finding weird objects and basically being a lost soul. I find it really funny but my humour might be a bit twisted. I make a cameo as a wood dwelling odd ball, passing him a toy of two native Americans in a boat, then I chase him with a stick. Lovely stuff….
Lovely stuff, indeed. As is the album, which we reviewed here and you can purchase here.