It would be difficult to describe singer songwriter Peter Bruntnell’s music any more accurately than NME did when they wrote "Peter Bruntnell’s music should be taught in schools." His albums and live shows have been highly regarded by Lonesome Highway for many years and he continues to be regarded in the music industry as one of the finest UK artists of his time. Son Volt, Richmond Fontaine and Kathleen Edwards all had him support them on tour, an indication of how he is also regarded by his musical peers. Unassuming and humble, he is more likely to highlight other artists and their work in conversation rather than dwell on his own considerable output. Peter is the type of guy that you’d love to sit down with, have a beer and talk music. Which is precisely what Lonesome Highway did recently when he made one of his regular trips to Ireland.
How many years into your career at this stage?
My daughters twenty two now, so twenty two years at it now.
Easier or more difficult nowadays?
Actually, it’s easier. I was just sitting at the bar here in Cleeres (Kilkenny) with a pint of Guinness (laughs) and I thought to myself this being the first date of the tour, I’m so glad that I’m playing in Ireland regularly now, thanks to promoter Willie Meighan and Clive Barnes. I’m not just saying this but it’s probably my favourite place in the world to play, here and Northern Spain which I’ve just played and love.
Was an early career ambition of yours for your music be heard in America?
No, I didn’t think that far ahead. America is so vast, in order to do anything there you have to have a big marketing team and trying to make it there for me would be impossible.
Is that why so many American Americana acts target Europe?
Yes, much easier for them to be heard over here and get tours that can pay.
You were well ahead of the posse in your condemnation of Donald Trump with the opening track of your current album Mr. Sunshine!
I really don’t know, most people I know think he’s pretty despicable. When I wrote that song he wasn’t even running for President. I was just writing it from the perspective of the poor Scottish people that got displaced from their homes and next minutes he’s President of The United States! It’s not exactly great is it (laughs).
I was very impressed to read that the album Nos Da Comrades was recorded in your home studio. Tell me about the process?
Well, we created a studio in the local village hall in Devon which I hired for £120 for a week. We set up and did all the drums, bass and electric guitar there. I went in there with two players and we tracked all the songs and got all the drums, bass and my guitar down in a week. I then did all the over dubs in my studio in my own house. I got James Walbourne and Dave Little to come down and play some electric guitar and that was about it. The album took about three years to write from the first song.
Has the Americana UK umbrella been helpful career wise for you as an artist?
Well I’ve been doing what’s now called Americana for quite a while, back to when it was called alternative country in the early days of Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt and Wilco. It’s not a bad thing to be part of because there are folk that are sympathetic to that genre in different towns and will book you so it’s been healthy for me and very good. There was a time that I got a bit fed up with that tag but I have to say now that it’s been beneficial really. I got nominated as album of the year by the association so that can only be good for my career. Similarly, the Americana Music Association in Nashville has taken off in recent years, I played it a few years back and was supposed to play it again in 2016 but couldn’t afford it. There’s a funding programme in the UK from the PRS and when I played there a few years ago it was great. I had Mike Heidorn on drums, the original Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt drummer, and Dave Boquist the original Son Volt guitar player was on bass for me and it was tremendous but I had the funding from the BRS. I was invited in 2016 but the PRS won’t support the same act twice so I then tried to organise some gigs to cover the cost. I got a few but it wasn’t going to cover it. My wife wanted me to use some of our savings to go which was really sweet of her but I couldn’t justify it to go and do maybe only one gig.
The Son Volt connection goes back a while, you mentioned James Walbourne when we chatted earlier who has played in your band and Son Volt. How did the connection materialise?
It happened because in the 90’s I played a festival in Hamburg called The Hurricane Festival. Son Volt were my favourite band at that time and for quite a while before that. It just so happened that they were on after me on the same stage so I got to meet them and more astonishingly their crew liked my set which was the biggest turning point in my career. Before that I was under pressure from my record company to be somebody or play a certain way as record companies do, putting pressure on young artists or artists young to the business. I wasn’t that young but pretty new to the industry, having released my second album. Son Volt liking my stuff and then meeting them gave me such a boost and when they played their UK tour their guitar tech got in touch I was asked to support them on their five dates. Once I did that tour I became friends with them. I then did a deal with Rycodisc to make a record in Boston and I asked the record company guy if he could get pedal steel player Eric Heywood and Dave Boquist the guitar player to play on the album. They thought that was a really good idea but I was basically too shy to approach them personally so the record company made the approach and it all happened. James Walbourne is one of my best friends, he’s doing fantastic with The Rails and just back from America playing with The Pretenders opening for Stevie Nicks.
I was interested to hear your influences as a young guy, prog music and rock music being very much your choice of listening in the mid to late 70’s
Yes, I loved Genesis, still do (laughs). Foxtrot is a favourite album for me. I was in 5th Form at the time and listening to Thin Lizzy and Van Halen and the rock thing. I didn’t actually get the new wave thing at the time, thought it was a bit raw for my musical taste at the time.
Comparisons are often made with your song writing and that of Elvis Costello. Was he an influence?
Not really, I only bought The Best of Elvis Costello last year after I’d written the new album! I think perhaps the music has all come from the same place hasn’t it, a bit of soul with some Kinks and Beatles so you could say his influences were similar to mine. Writing this new album my influences were actually mid 60’s Kinks and The Who.
The album Nos Da Comrades released last year received such positive reviews. How did that reflect in actual sales and getting more punters to your shows?
It’s done as well as well as any album I’ve put out and I suppose that’s good because I decided I was going to be the record label for the album which I thought might earn me some more money. So, I did a distribution deal with a company in the UK and looked after the rest myself, trying to get airplay and all that. Considering that I didn’t have any marketing budget at all I’m pleased at how it has done and that people seem to like it.
How difficult is it to get Radio airplay in the UK?
Well it is for me. I can only speak from my experience. You know what it’s like, if you pay a plugger to try and get your record on the radio you can throw five to seven thousand pounds at it and still come up with nothing. I just can’t do that, don’t have that kind of money knocking around and I know the likes of Bob Harris well enough to e-mail him. I don’t do too badly but it’s so hard without a huge marketing budget to get anywhere.
You’ve worked with Clive Barnes both in Ireland and the UK. How did that relationship develop?
That came about because I played with Clive in Kilkenny at The Rollercoaster Record Store Day about three years ago. I was just about to play a UK tour with Jeff Finlan and was driving to Cork with Clive and we were playing some of Jeff’s music in the car and Clive suggested we do a trio tour and I was up for it. Jeff thought it was a great idea so it ended up with me and those two guys in a car, touring around, having a great time and basically just happy to be given a chance to play somewhere.
Was the tour a singer songwriters circle format?
No it’s wasn’t. I thought it was going to be that way but they didn’t want to do that for some reason (laughs). So the format was, one night play I’d first, Clive did a set in the middle and Jeff played last and the next night we’d reverse it. Clive played guitar with both of us of course. I liked to play first and when I’d finished go to the bar, have a pint and watch their sets! The problem being on last is that I had to follow Jeff and he’s really good and when he’s rocking he has a bit of Lou Reed attitude about him which is so cool, he’s fantastic I really love and respect what he does.
You’ve relocated to quite a rural setting it the UK. Is that environment inspirational in terms of your song writing having moved from London?
I don’t really know, possibly not. It’s a different scene where I’m living now. When I lived in London I’d meet up with James ( Walbourne) and we’d head up to The Borderline and watch the American bands that were coming over all the time, The Bottle Rockets, Chuck Prophet and people like that. I can’t do that now, the best I might get is a dodgy pub band locally. The scene has changed in London now though with not as much on offer. We used get acts worth seeing every week at The Borderline and in a small acoustic club at the back Andy’s guitar shop, not like that so much anymore. You guys are so lucky over here in Dublin and Kilkenny, great pub music, great Guinness, friendly people who come out to gigs in the middle of the week. In the UK, outside London, you can forget about getting people out to gigs Monday to Thursday. That’s why I love playing over here so much.
Interview by Declan Culliton