Chris Wood has been around for some time now and been described variously as a Ďmaster craftsman of songs and storiesí (Mojo) and Ďrichly redolent of Englandís greení (The Telegraph), an uncompromising writer whose music is often said to reveal his love for the ďun-official history of the English speaking people. ď Over the course of his career, heís been involved in all sorts of projects, most recently enjoying both critical and commercial success on a wider scale since the release of his last studio album, ďTrespasserĒ (2008).†
Mark Whitfield spoke to him about his collaborations with Billy Bragg, Simon Emerson and the timely Darwin Song Project.
Hi Chris.† Youíve been around for a fair while now but you might be a new name to many Americana UK visitors Ė tell us about your music.† Would you describe it as folk in the traditional sense?
I started with the tradition and have come to writing but, and hereís where your Ďbeen around for a whileí phrase getís answered, I havenít taken any short cuts. I love the trad stuff and always will but I felt a growing confidence in my own ability as a creator and wanted to try it out. My mate saw me do a gig of my own stuff and came backstage laughing his head off saying ďyouíve finally found a way of channeling your anger!Ē
Youíve been described as documenting the ďun-official history of the English speaking people.Ē† Is this in a history from the ground-up sense?† History in a social sense or something more broad than that?
Englandís Chuchillian, Kings & Queens history doesnít tell even half the story. England is a nasty little island, ruled very firmly and quite viciously for centuries but listen to the songs of folk and youíll hear a much richer story. Filled with characters like John Barleycorn, Long Lankin and Tam Lyn. Stuff that will scare you shitless one minute and have you all torn up the next. I think of theses songs and stories as Englandís repository of ĎThe Common Senseí. Ordinary peopleís unriddling of the universe. Our real crown jewels.††
Americana UK deals with a lot of alternative country music but thereís a degree of thought within the genre, particularly from artistes like the Handsome Family, that Americana and a lot of country music from the states essentially all originates from English folk music, even down to some of the language used.† Would you agree with that and do you see any correlations between what youíre doing and roots genres that exist overseas?
No question. Bert Lloyd said as far as musicís concerned Englandís stolen a great deal but it has given away a lot more than itís given credit for. I looked around at my repertoire when I was younger and found loads of it was American or American versions of English songs and I had absolutely no problem with it. It felt as easy on my tongue as anything collected here. Every Thursday night I try to get together with old friends to sing what is essentially ĎAmericanaí and one night I asked my mate why we were singing all this stuff and he reminded me that we were Ďjust bringing it back homeí.
How was it to win Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards?† Did it feel like a great achievement and did the publicity around it give you an opportunity to widen your audience?
Itís certainly made my agentís life a lot easier. It also gives the venues something to say. Itís not easy for venues at the moment, trying to get people out to live gigs when they have so many reasons to stay at home. It helps people make the decision to turn out to a gig when there are a couple of BBC Folk awards hanging around the artistís neck.
You were one of the founders of the English Acoustic Collective Ė what is the organisation about and how did you come to be involved with setting it up?
I was doing a lot of work which looked disparate to some people, you know, teaching, writing, playing, making radio programs, photography and stuff like that. It all made sense to me, it was all very joined up but I figured it would make it easier to those looking in from the outside if I gave it a name and so The English Acoustic Collective was born. Steve Knightly came up with the name but it suited my purposes exactly so he let me have it. Itís a rolling group of loosely associated artists who take Englandís indigenous art forms as their starting point. Iím amazed itís worked so well and for so long.
Youíve been involved too with Simon Emersonís Imagined Village project, and are taking over apparently from Billy Bragg as the main male vocalist within the project.† How has being involved in that been for you?†
Once I get my monitoring sorted Iíll be fine. Itís soooo rockín roll, so industrially loud Ė I left a couple of last yearís gigs in tears because it was so loud. Iím such a pussy. Such an audiophile. The project is great though, a crucible of extremely gifted people with no egos to speak of. We are getting into the next album, Simon is emailing me tracks and Iím putting down vocals and emailing them back to him.
How has the evolvement of music in the new digital age affected you?† The editor of NME recently said that he thinks itíll bring music back down to song-writing again because itís only in a live setting that youíll be able to get something unique.† Do you think thatís true of the folk genre (or for any, for that matter)?
Iím not a fan of what most people call ďthe industryĒ. Thatís why I run my own label. Itís not even a label, it doesnít own any of the music on it. The music is all with the musicians, the label simply administers their titles. For people like me the fragmentation of the music scene makes sense. Instead of thousands of markets of millions we are moving to millions of markets of thousands. Itís the same number of people, they are just getting savvier at seeking out what they think is important. We just have to make sure our stuff means something to them.
Itís interesting to see too that youíve been involved in the Darwin Song Project marking the 200th anniversary of his death and apparently locked yourself away in farmhouse to record some songs for that.† Were you pleased with the results?† And would you dare take the results on tour to the American south? (!)
I ainít never been to the ďAmerican SouthĒ. It exists for me as a place defined by Hollywood and It looks suspiciously like Hollywood takes a dim view of ďthe SouthĒ. I sing loads of stuff from the rural US and I just love it. I love the God stuff. The gospel, the snake handling, itís all good. My take on the Darwin thing is that faith, by definition, is irrational. Judaism, Christianity, The Royal Bank of Scotland! Science is about rationality, measurement, proof, stuff like that. So, if you can not measure that which is irrational then science has no place trying to pronounce over faith. For me, it really is that simple.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?† Will you be touring to promote the new collection?
Iíve got a project called ĎA Hand Made Lifeí Ė which has me touring my first band! Andy Gangerdeen plays drums, Robert Jarvis is playing Trombone and Barney Morse Brown is playing cello. Itís a great sound, subtle yet massive. We will tour in November and Iíll have an album of that stuff then.