Born in Wales, Christopher Rees has developed his own path through roots music. He takes in everything from Welsh Male Voice Choirs to Appalachian influences in his music. He released his first record in 2001. That ep was Kiss Me, Kill Me. His first album 'The Sweetest Ache' came out in 2004. His latest album, his sixth 'Stand Fast' has just been released. His music is special so Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to ask him some question prior to his departure for SXSW.
When did you become interested in the story of Dorothy Squires?
I saw a documentary Cerys Matthews presented / narrated about Dorothy Squires on TV a few years ago and immediately became captivated by her story. When I learned that she was from my home town of Llanelli I was just gob-smacked. I just couldn't believe that such a huge star had come from my home town, hit the big time in London and then Hollywood and I knew nothing about her until I saw this documentary. What that says about the local media in Llanelli or my lack of awareness of my home town heroes I don't know. But her life story is quite remarkable. She was equally blessed and cursed.
It's a rags to riches to rags story that beggars belief. From her humble beginnings in Llanelli to the glittering London club scene of the 40s and 50s, a much publicised marriage to Roger Moore (before he became 007), the famous parties, Hollywood lifestyle and multi million record sales, she appeared to have it all. But then came the much talked about break up with Moore, her singing career began to slide and after a brief revival in the late 60s she lost one house to fire, then another to flood and became obsessed with taking the tabloid newspapers to court. There she lost most of her fortune before being declared a 'vexatious litigant' and was banned from The High Court. Bankruptcy soon followed and sadly she was forced to spend the rest of her days a poverty stricken recluse, back in Wales, living in a small terrace house provided by a charitable fan in the Rhondda Valley until her death in 1998 aged 83.
Her story is both glamorous and heartbreaking and I just couldn't resist the temptation to write about it. It would make a great film too I think, but that would be a much bigger project. I've tried to condense it into a nutshell. I wanted to capture certain aspects of her personality with heartfelt compassion and respect despite the somewhat flippant title. The song provides some brief observations of her character in 3 short verses but ultimately I wanted to produce something that portrays and celebrates a much maligned yet truly amazing Welsh singer.
After working with the South Austin Horns did you feel the need to get back to the roots of your sound?
It wasn't so much getting back to the roots of my sound as much as these were the songs and the sound that slotted together and formed the best collection of material when I started thinking about the next album. I often stock pile songs and compartmentalise play-lists according to style and sound and the ones that compliment one another so I had been building this collection for a little while with the belief that the songs worked well together.
I really enjoyed working with The South Austin Horns and hope to do another album together at some point but for an artist in my position it is very challenging to try and tour or promote an album as ambitious as Heart On Fire was with a full 9 piece band. I was lucky enough to play a few festivals like Glastonbury with the 4 piece horn section and it felt absolutely wonderful to have that sound behind you but 9 people is a lot to manage and afford, unless you have some serious financial backing which sadly I do not. But that doesn't ever stop me attempting to make the best albums I possibly can no matter what the songs call out for. Saying that I did enjoy the relative simplicity of 'Stand Fast'. It is a pretty raw yet powerful album and can be fully represented with a basic 4 piece band set up of voice/banjo, electric guitar, bass and drums.
The majority of the instruments are played by yourself apart from the drums and, on one track, trumpet. Is that your favoured way of working or something of necessity?
To be honest it's a bit of both. I do enjoy working alone. I enjoy exploring the songs instrumentally as much as I can within my own limitations and especially enjoy it when I am able to stretch my own limitations and have small little breakthroughs where I might actually find a new guitar part or bass line or banjo pattern that I feel really works, enhances the song or takes it in a new direction. And when that happens I don't really see the need to get someone else in to recreate or replace the part I've worked really hard to find just for the sake of having someone else on there. Surely it's the best way to actually improve and progress as a musician and songwriter – which is always something to aim for. If I hit a wall and can't make a particular part work I'm not too proud to ask for help and I'm lucky enough to have some great musician friends who I can call upon, but it is very rewarding when you can solve a problem, find the feel, the style and the sound that your looking for and make it work yourself. Playing drums is a somewhat different matter and apart from the little bit of drums I played on my second album 'Alone On A Mountain Top' where I did actually play everything on the album myself I've never really had the facility to learn how to play drums. Maybe one day. I did used to play French Horn when I was 11 or 12 but that was a long time ago so I leave any horn parts up to the experts these days.
Your music seems rooted in the appalachians but how much of it is filtered through the valleys of Wales?
I'm not sure really. Obviously you are influenced by the music you listen to. I don't believe that you have to come from a certain place or environment to be drawn to music from another time or place. If it resonates with you and you surround yourself with the sounds and soul of a certain style of music then I suppose certain elements will rub off on you. It's the same for anyone who might listen predominantly to say German Krautrock, or Indian sitar music or anything else from anywhere on earth. If you can connect with elements of that music or environment it will form your primary influence and shape the way you approach music and what you actually feel drawn to write and play. It happens in the same way that your immediate surroundings, parenting and upbringing will shape who you are as a person. It's all about what you engage with and are drawn to.
I was born and raised in Wales and I am a proud Welshman. As a child you can't avoid the sound of a male voice choir or church music or certain folk songs and that goes deep into your psyche. I do feel very connected to Wales as my home land. I also feel a very strong connection to great music. It just happens to be that a lot of the music I felt most connected to came from mid century America. I do feel proud that Wales has produced such great, big, emotional singers as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, but as a teenager growing up they felt as distant and superhuman as Elvis or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. They are all great performers! They are all people to look up to, to admire and be inspired by.
To be specific about Appalachian music I think when I started playing banjo I was certainly more drawn to the old time Appalachian mountain sound rather than super fast bluegrass. At first that just seemed unattainable to me through pure technique and speed. But I blinding started navigating my way into playing banjo as a finger picking guitarist who could fumble his way around open G tuning and write songs. There is something so immediate about the physical acoustic response of a banjo that it can stop you in your tracks or send you flying as a writer. After almost a decade of playing banjo I recently had a little break through and am now beginning to actually play and write in a more traditional mountain clawhammer style. It's just clicked and now makes sense to me. I'm slowly decoding the puzzle. There are certainly a lot more banjo based songs in the pipeline. But the pipeline is also full of various other batches of songs that are capable of going in other directions too. I'm aware of my strengths as a song writer but I don't particularly want to be pigeon holed musically so I just write whatever feels good in the moment it arrives or is encouraged into life. I try not to stylistically censor myself.
What were your influences for Stand Fast?
I guess the strongest influences were the sound of the banjo and a Gretsch guitar soaked in reverb and tremolo through a Fender valve amp. I quickly started to realise that combination of intricate finger picking and big twangy, sweeping electric guitar chords created a certain atmosphere that I really liked. I'm really not sure I could pin point any particular artists as primary influences on the entire album like I may have been able to do more readily for the last album. I guess after so many years a lot of your formative influences rear their heads without you actually noticing. It's just in you. But I hope that I've found a certain distinctive voice of my own by now. Sound wise you can pick out elements of Appalachian banjo music, rockabilly twang, country shuffle, mariachi trumpets gospel and even a Welsh male voice choir, but I don't think I approached the album with any specific artists in mind. The play-list just came together as a whole on the basis of what songs worked well next to one another. I always try to produce a coherent album that works as a whole above anything else.
Who of your contemporaries do you admire?
David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand) was significant in for making me pick up the banjo to begin with. I did connect and engage with his darker approach to it which itself draws heavily on Appalachian mountain music. I feel fortunate to say that I have toured with several contemporaries I really admire from William Elliott Whitmore to The Sadies, Eli Paperboy Reed, Michael J Sheehy, John Murry, Dan Aurbach (The Black Keys) and then of course living heroes of mine like Kristin Hersh, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, Wanda Jackson, Steve Earle and John Cale. I also love bands like Calexico, and Devotchka as well as songwriters like Ryan Adams, Mark Lanegan and many more.
You run your own label which gives you the freedom to record and release what you want but, in this age of the download, what are the most difficult problem you face getting your music out?
It has it's pros and cons. Yes, as long as I can stay afloat I can continue to record and release what I want, but with the shear amount of music available online these days it is difficult to try and raise your head above the parapet and get the exposure and attention that you might think you deserve. But then everyone thinks that don't they? The lack of any significant marketing budget means that I have to take on the heavy burden of responsibility when it comes to promoting a new record. Press and radio pluggers don't come particularly cheap and can often struggle to deliver enough of a tangible return in boosting actual sales to justify the expenditure. I think the longer I can survive making music and keep doing what I'm doing the more chance I have of being eventually heard and allowing the music to find its own audience. Nothing has ever come particularly easily to me and I have to be dedicated to achieve what I want to achieve. But I do feel that things keep moving forward in the right direction and I do feel lucky to have earned the odd break I get here and there. I'm committed to improving as a musician and songwriter. And if I can do that I will always be creating new music and moving forward as an artist whether it sells well or not.
Are you able to survive strictly as a working musician or do you need to find other sources of income?
Yes, but I do have to be very frugal and careful how I manage myself and my finances. I have to play a lot of solo gigs to be able to pay rent. I would love to be able to demand the figures that could justify taking my band out on the road for any length of time but I have to do a lot of the leg work solo just to make it work financially. I try not to lose money touring although that can happen from time to time. I'm definitely have more of the slowly, slowly catchy monkey mentality than the speculate to accumulate mentality. I've seen lots of bands I know have lots of money spent on them then get chewed up and spat out the other side disillusioned with music and throw in the towel. I don't want that to happen especially if I'm the one who is over spending on an uncertain investment. The journey as a musician is its own reward. It is all about survival.
What is the over-riding impulse for you to make music?
There is an over-riding impulse and urge to find some form of artistic expression. To express the way you feel about yourself and the world around you. When I was younger I used to find it in painting or photography or dance but when I started making music and writing songs that was it. No turning back. The sense of achievement I get from creating something out of nothing is just fantastic. And I never take it for granted. Over the last three years I've made annual trips to Nashville where I've done some co-writing with other songwriters in a publishing house on Music Row. I had never co-written with anyone prior to my first visit but it came really naturally. Song writing isn't some magical, mythical process that comes down upon you like a lightening bolt. Yes, sometimes you might get moments when things happen but a lot of the time you just have to give yourself over to the creative process and just sit and work at it. As I said before the process of making music is its own reward. I am at my happiest when I'm alone with my studio and instruments in a cottage in the middle of the countyside writing new songs. It gives me a great sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.
What are you're feelings about your body of work, is there an album you favour or do you judge you own work on the strength of the songs?
Generally my favourite album is the latest one or the one I'm going to be working on next. I don't tend to listen to them much after they have been release but certain songs do hang around in the set lists for a long time. They are generally tried and tested live favourites and I often include a few from all the albums - apart from the first one 'The Sweetest Ache'. I never really carried any of those songs forward with me after I moved onto my second album. I guess they were from a slightly different musical perspective and perhaps don't work as well in a solo context. Just the other day someone came up to the merch table at a gig and looked at all 6 albums spread out and commented on the albums as “Quite a body of work”. I hadn't really thought of it like that much before as it's an ongoing process that I keep adding to but I do believe that the best is yet to come.
I think you have created a distinctive sound. Is it what you had in your head when you started out?
Probably not. I'm not really sure what I had in my head when I first started out. I think I have gone through various different phases whether it's obsessing over string arrangements, horn sections or whatever and continue to have periods where I might embrace one thing more than another and be drawn in a different direction. But the banjo and swampy/twangy Gretsch guitar combination is something that I feel very comfortable producing. No matter what musical direction I choose to follow I always want to sound like me and have a strong identity. Maybe that is the distinctive sound that will define my music but ultimately I think it always revolves around my voice and my vocal identity whether it's surrounded by dozens of other musicians or alone with a banjo.
What are you plans for this year?
I'm going back to Austin, Texas for SXSW this week and then return to Nashville later on for more co-writing sessions on Music Row. I've co-written 8 songs in Nashville over the past few years so I'm hoping I'll write another 3 or 4 on this next trip so that I'll have enough to put out an album of songs written exclusively in Nashville. My 'Nashville Songs' album if you like. I'd also like to possibly return and record the thing properly in Nashville with a choice band of Nashville musicians and maybe even work with a producer. After that I'm hoping to do a short tour of The Netherlands in April. I'd love to get back up to Scotland and return to Ireland too. I just need to keep on touring as much as possible to try and promote this new album and cover as much ground as I can.
Is the label as important as the music or just a means to getting your music released. Do you have any plans to release any other artists in the near future?
I have released other artists on the label like Michael J Sheehy's beautiful album 'Ghost On The Motorway, The Snakes and the Haiti Vodou album that I put out to raise money for the earthquake disaster, but at the moment it is more of a platform for my own work. If I come across an act that I absolutely love and could work with, I would certainly consider investing my time and efforts in them – if I could help and they wanted to work with me but, like I said earlier it's all about survival and I have to protect my own future, so I have to be very careful.
What has your years as a musician, label owner taught you?
I think I've learned a lot about myself through music and through writings songs. Having the ability to externalize and express whatever I'm feeling internally is cathartic and healthy even if it can sometimes be somewhat dark. Creating something positive out of something negative is rewarding but it's also rewarding just to create, no matter what it's about. It's all valid in that moment. You have to cherish and nurture those moments. The actual craft of song writing is a constant fascination and as far as I'm concerned that is why I do what I do. It may sound a little precious and worthy but it is the truest thrill in the entire process. Yes, it's nice to have your ego stroked at gigs, in press or radio or whatever but there is a much deeper confidence and self belief to be found in the writing of a good song. And then you realise that you are in it for all the right reasons, no matter what anyone else says or thinks about you. That's what really drives me and sustains me as a song writer. As a label owner I've learned a lot of the little pit falls that are there to trip you up and make things get very expensive. I'm no entrepreneur or svengali. I'm just trying to get my music and the other music I love out there as best I can on very limited resources. The business side of things can drag you down sometimes and be very distracting from the main reason you started doing it to be begin with. But it is a necessary evil and having the platform to release music without depending on anyone else is a great thing.
How do you set about writing, do you draw for real life or from your imagination for inspiration?
There is no particular formula or specific way that I approach writing. It can happen in many different ways and often involves both real life reflection and wherever your imagination wants to take you. I've certainly written my fare share of deeply personal songs that come from real life experiences but then there are also those story telling narratives that might draw from fiction or the gospel, or folk lore, a twisted imagination or whatever and that can also be really rewarding as a writer. If you can invest yourself in the story or the song, inhabit the material and deliver it with conviction it's equally valid and rewarding – sometimes even more so. That's when you can really flex your muscles as a song writer. One way is no more valid than the other but depending on the subject matter you can generally tell the difference.
What would be your dream band?
Instrumentally I would love to explore all the sounds available within an orchestra. I suppose an orchestra is the ultimate dream band in terms of the sonic palette. But if you are asking me what musicians I'd like to have play in a fantasy band, well I think most dream bands would feature Jimi Hendrix (Lead Guitar), but it's hard not to just want to include all your favourite artists. I love Tom Waits so he'd have to be in there somewhere even if he's just coughing or banging a piece of led pipe against an open piano. John Bonham could thump the crap out of the drums and Nina Simone would keep everyone in check. That combination could be a complete disaster but it'd be fun to find out.
Thirteen. Unlucky or not?
Let's hope so. I'm way too superstitious. But I've had to entertain the notion that 13 could be lucky or else I would probably never leave the house for the entire year. And that would just be irrational and self defeating. It's been a good year so far and I hope that will continue.
Interview by Stephen Rapid