FEATURE: Ian Stephenson – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Folk musician Ian Stephenson is set to play Sage Gateshead on Friday 1st March. Before that show, we asked the man himself about what inspires his music.

Nowadays I’m into folk and traditional music, and jazz. Like, really into those genres. They’ve influenced me greatly and play a huge part in influencing my most recent musical compositions, but it hasn’t always been that way, let me explain;

When I was nine years old I used to listen almost exclusively to a cassette tape of Johann Strauss II, Viennese waltzes. I loved that tape, although I didn’t know at the time that the chordal structure is what I enjoyed. My primary school teacher Mrs Norman was the reason I began to play guitar – our school must’ve seemed like a scene from The Sound of Music, always singing and almost everyone strumming a guitar. Once a week we sang a great deal of John Denver songs at guitar club, I can remember enjoying the middle-8 chords in the song Country Roads, a school favourite, they’re pretty weird in that context but really great!

Later on at high school it became known to me that a few lads there were getting into bands like Guns’n’Roses, Metallica. It was the age of MTV and Nirvana were just coming onto the scene (I know I sound like Alan Partridge at this point). What I absolutely loved about Nirvana was the strength of the melodies. You might not think that Nirvana were known for their subtle use of harmony but they really were brilliant in that way. Our school Nirvana cover band ‘Empathy’ made it our goal to learn every single Nirvana song including some strange and also terrible bootleg songs, in case anybody at our concerts should ever make a request. Nobody ever did.

At this point my parents were starting to take us to folk festivals lie Whitby Folk Week and Beverley Festival. When I think back to that time I guess it was quite a naive scene back in the 90s. The really exciting thing about it was that you could see bands at the top of their game, and even go up and chat to them after a show. I was lucky enough to get to see a few acts featuring an incredible Newcastle-Based acoustic guitar player (still my biggest influence to this day) Ian Carr. He was playing Scandinavian music with Swap, making Kate Rusby songs quirky and interesting, doing wild jazzy playing with concertina player Simon Thoumire, and some amazing duo and quartet work with Karen Tweed, Andy Cutting and Chris Wood.
See him play made me realise how much harmonic and rhythmic variety can be put along with folk tunes and songs. Much like the simple waltz melodies of Strauss or the exotic crunchy notes in Nirvana songs, folk music (particularly the instrumental stuff) is an amazing structure on which to hang layers of complexity.

After a few years attending some wonderful workshops (Folkworks Summer Schools being a constant yearly highlight through my teens) and even a few lessons with Mr Carr himself (training up from Yorkshire to spend a few hours learning as many chords as possible), I was firmly addicted to folk music, arranging and jazzy chords. We had started a huge 20+ piece youth band called The Pack, where we would travel around festivals in exchange for free tickets. The peer influence of hanging around a group of like minded talented musicians like that can’t be underestimated, every time I played with them I wanted to come back better than before and so I spent a lot of time practicing, and recording myself into primitive multi-track recorders, building arrangements up with my instruments, something that would stand me in good stead when I finally got into looping technology. At the age of 17 my band 422 won the BBC Young Folk Award which was the final nail in the coffin for any career that wasn’t performing folk music. It was a wonderful step up for us all and we got transplanted straight onto stages of big festivals like Cambridge and Tonder festivals.

Eventually I would begin studying music at Newcastle University. The first folk and traditional music degree course in England was just about to start, perfect timing and I dived right in. The course allowed me to spend half a year abroad in Finland at the Sibelius Academy. It was there that I found another chord magician, a wonderful composer called Timo Alakotila. Two hours of one to one composing lessons a week and the cold weather meant I stayed very busy composing and also discovered lots of wonderful jazz thanks to the free CD borrowing service a the local library, where you could borrow 20 CDs at a time!

All these influences have stayed with me since that time, and the last 10 or 15 years have been spent in the company of some incredibly creative musicians in bands like Kan, Baltic Crossing and with my good friends Andy May and Sophy Ball – fantastic folk musicians who also love a good chord!

Most recently I became interested in the idea of pedal free looping, having seen a wonderful show called Hannah James’ Jigdoll. An opportunity came along to try this out in front of an audience, supporting one of my favourite Scandinavian bands Vasen, and I love it!

My new solo show Modulate developed out of that concert and with support from English Folk Dance and Song Society and as part of my role as Associate Artist at Sage Gateshead, it’s now ready to perform for the first time on 1st March at Sage Gateshead!

Ian Stephenson plays Sage Gateshead on Friday 1st March.

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