My Inspiration: Johnny Campbell | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Acclaimed folk artist Johnny Campbell unveiled his new album, True North, back in January. A captivating collection of songs which explored Northern identity, the album gathers together field recordings of traditional songs, each recorded at the highest point of its given county. From Northumberland and Durham, to Lancashire and Merseyside, Campbell has travelled the length and breadth of Northern England to collect these recordings on or close to the summit of each spot. Here, he tells us about his inspirations behind the project…

The idea came a couple of months into the first lockdown of 2020. I wanted to create a concept album of sorts. The album, True North, would form a tapestry of the Northern English identity through field recordings of traditional songs of each county, exploring the relationship between the land, and our connection (and disconnection) to it. 

Like many kids, I was introduced to the outdoors by my family. Growing up in Yorkshire, I was taken up those ‘gateway’ hills for Yorkshire folk – Ilkley Moor, Buckden Pike and Pen-Y-Ghent, by me mam. I guess if you live in the North East, it’ll be Simonside, near Rothbury. So for me, as a keen walker, who passed those early trials in the hills at a younger age, and grew to love it, taking a guitar into the hills wasn’t much of a burden.

Each song was recorded outdoors, on, or around the highest points of each historic Northern English county summit. Some are administrative or metropolitan counties, such as Tyne and Wear, where I recorded the North East traditional song Here’s the Tender Coming with North East folk duo The Brothers Gillespie, on the summit of Currock Hill, not far from Blaydon. It was tough to pick a song from this area, as there’s a plethora of fantastic songs of the North East tradition. For that area, I really wanted to find something around its industry of ship building, but instead came across an anti-recruitment song from the Napoleonic Wars, which felt like a defiant final track to the album. Each track recorded in a different location had its hurdles. One of the tracks on the album demanded a twenty mile long walk, taking recording equipment and a guitar over pathless terrain, unexploded ordnance on MOD land, and crossing bogs. It wasn’t for the faint hearted.

One of the tracks on the album demanded a twenty mile long walk, taking recording equipment and a guitar over pathless terrain, unexploded ordnance on MOD land, and crossing bogs. It wasn’t for the faint hearted

True North forms the final part of a trilogy of releases (Winter Hill Trespass in 2021, A Right to Roam in 2022) which explore the concept of connection (and disconnection) to the land which were concocted during the mists of time in that first lockdown. If it wasn’t for the Pennines and the waters that flowed into the industrious cities of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, we wouldn’t have had the Industrial Revolution. The geography of the north also played an integral part in the Transatlantic slave trade, as cotton was transported to the mills through the ventricles to the North, the newly-created canals. The song Four Loom Weaver, from Lancashire, laments the emergence of steam powered machines that put jobs at risk in the cotton mills. The industry, identity, Co-operatives, Chartism… all part of the Northern identity that still exists today, would not have been borne if it wasn’t for these hills.

I wanted each song to be recorded within three takes, and most do that. Others four or five. I wasn’t after the pristine studio quality, or even a 100% refined take. I wanted the feel that it’s a moment in time. It has a double meaning, but this is why the album is called True North.

The search for True North is part of the concept of the album. It’s something that has driven mankind for millennia – from religious texts across all faiths, to the idea that there’s a better place, somewhere, spiritually, to the search of the Holy Grail, the yearning for truth, meaning, peace. It’s a spiritual journey that keeps us going. The eternal search for the Meaning of Life.

In my mind, it is the search and space that occupies the immediate that IS the Meaning of Life. Living in the NOW. The field recordings of the album exemplify the moment. It’s not even about the songs, the songs are merely the conduit for ‘True North’. Recorded on desolate moors, mountains and bogs, in a flicker of a moment, captured for posterity, never to be repeated again. These are moments of the present. On that note, as John Muir, ‘Father of the National Parks’ says: ‘’The mountains are calling and I must go.’’”

Johnny Campbell performs at Lightship in Blyth on Thursday 14th March. Tickets can be booked through Frank at [email protected] or 07929 616703


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