INTERVIEW: Michael Chapman | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Iconic British guitarist Michael Chapman holds firmly by the saying ‘que sera, sera’. Despite having three hundred songs in his repertoire and nearly fifty albums under his belt, and despite his ability to fuse and adapt genres to fit his music, ‘innovative’ and ‘prolific’ become empty words in the face of his true intentions. Because, not only does the 78-year-old Northumberland-based songwriter believe ‘what will be, will be’, the implication by extension for his musical triumphs is ‘what is, is’.

This makes him particularly hard to pin down. His eclectic flavour of Americana, characterised by a fluid transition between genres, enhances this undefinable quality and sets him apart from other talented guitarists. As he showed throughout his career, and especially evident in the last two, largely contrasting, records, he imposes no boundaries when it comes to instrumental and lyrical choices. “Music is utterly and completely abstract,” Chapman indicates, and while many musicians choose their type of style according to taste and how they would like to be perceived, Chapman draws from his tank of musical inspiration first and then finds himself categorised as anything from folk, jazz, blues, rock to ragtime.

When asked about his view on genres, Chapman directly dismisses them as giving musicians tunnel vision. “I’ve known great guitar players who only play heavy rock. I’ve known great guitar players who only play folk or jazz. I come from all those things.”

Even though he avoids any boundaries and their potential to dry out inspiration, not so long ago Chapman seemed to have emptied his songwriting reservoir during a six year dormancy. Describing himself as not “very professional” when it came to his role as songwriter and guitarist, he refused to panic about it, because “panicking about anything always makes it worse”. In line with his life philosophy, he accepted that maybe that was all there was. “But then it came again after that huge gap,” he says.

The songwriting spark got notably reignited in 2017 when his full band album, 50, marked a triumphant comeback, celebrating his long and illustrious career. The record drew mostly on old songs capturing Chapman’s lifelong fascination with the landscape, mythology and music of America. And 50 was far from the last mark of a gifted artist, as he seems to have reserved some of his most poignant and instrumentally progressive material for his latest album, True North, which was released in February.

If circumstances led him down the path of professional musicianship, joining the league of great modern guitarists was never an aspiration, but simply the result of a life lived

While 50 — and its large cast of collaborators, mainly young American folk musicians like Steve Gunn and Nathan Bowles — focused on the possibilities of music as a collaborative commemoration of the guitar legend, True North comes from the legend’s reflection on the passing of time. It is the most autobiographical and hauntingly introspective of Chapman’s albums and unlike the American-influenced 50, it focuses on his identity as a Northerner in Britain.

“I am proud to be a Northern person,” he admits, “I’ve never lived in London. I’ve never wanted to live in London. And that’s basically what I pinned down. I am pure North.” Pride in his Yorkshire heritage combined with various threads from his past, mostly painful realisations and regrets as retold in the opening songs After All This Time and It’s Too Late, infiltrate all aspects of the record. The bleary bleakness of the black and white album art are photos taken by Chapman in the 1960s illustrating a life growing up in Leeds, the harsh reality of which is captured in the gritty quality of the vocals combined with a restrained, wistful guitar accompaniment.

As before, Chapman is joined by a variety of musicians, this time not so much as collaborators but as friends and respected artists stepping with him through the sonic mist of a life lived intensely. They include amongst others singer-songwriter Bridget St John, cellist Sarah Smout, pedal steel player BJ Cole and producer and guitar player Steve Gunn. As in the album, they will be adding an intimate presence to Chapman’s performance at The Cluny on Sunday 31st March, interweaving subtle colour into the melancholic tones of his guitar playing and defining his vocals’ introspective intensity.

The atmospheric signature of True North is perhaps the most premeditated element of the album, as Chapman always wanted to create music in the style of Jimmy Guiffre’s Trio’s performance in the 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. In particular, it’s the trio’s lack of a rhythm section that made a lasting impression on Chapman, who has been waiting for the right opportunity “to play atmosphere” and recreate music “that kinda floats”. In line with this spherical approach to the music, the song that epitomises the album’s character the best has no narrative tale at all. The Truck Song is simply a naked snapshot of the passing of time captured in landscape, weather and distance, or more specifically in the endless mileages covered by truck drivers.

With Chapman it is, however, less about the finely crafted art and more about what is in his heart, which is exactly what True North represents. The fact that he is named as one of the greatest living guitar stylists and songwriters is therefore not a conscious reality for the 78-year-old, but a consequence of a career that happened, as he describes it, “because it was raining”. If circumstances led him down the path of professional musicianship, joining the league of great modern guitarists was never an aspiration, but simply the result of a life lived. It is that life that is retold with brutal honesty and modest confidence in his latest album, creating music with soul, music that is alive; the kind of music that inspired a young Chapman in the first place.

Michael Chapman performs at The Cluny, Newcastle on Sunday 31st March.



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