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

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Nev Clay is a retired mental health nurse who has been a stalwart of the Newcastle scene for 25 years. With a show coming up at The People’s Book Shop in Durham on Saturday 16th March, we got to know more about what inspires the singer songwriter.

My main inspiration, in terms of the singer-songwritery side of things, has been George Welch, a brilliant local singer-songwriter who’s still going strong, despite a couple of recent health scares. He’s the master of the inbetween-song and mid-song ramble – I once saw him do a 45-minute set where he only played two or three songs (might sound familiar to anyone who’s seen me play). He’s a big man with big hands, but with just a thumb and an index finger, he can charm the loveliest sounds out of any old guitar, and during his rambling sets he shifts from sidesplitting comedy to heartbreaking loveliness and back again – another trait I’ve tried to emulate. 

George was also the first local singer I’d seen who delighted me with his specificity and with local references – his famous ode to the old Beavans store on Shields Road being a good example (“Three steps to Beavans/Knocking on Beavans’ door/Stairway to Beavans”). It was like the thrill of hearing Mark Knopfler namecheck the Spanish City in “Romeo and Juliet”, and reminded me I could write about the banal and beautiful things around me (though never as successfully or perfectly as Richard Dawson did, for instance, in his songs Ornithology and Final Moments of the Universe, both masterpieces, I think, of specificity and locality, the banal and the elegaic). 

George used to run the Folk club upstairs at the Cumberland Arms, and that’s where I made my first attempts at solo performances in about 1995, with George’s encouragement. My first two songs there were one about Nietsche’s sister starting an ill-fated Aryan colony in Paraguay (true story), and one about domestic abuse – both long forgotten, thankfully – and one time the only people in the room apart from George were Kathryn Williams and Neil le Flohic: It should be said, perhaps, that I never set out to be an acoustic finger-picker, or even a singer, and though I loved Joni Mitchell and John Martyn as a teenager, I really just wanted to play guitar in a metal band, and only started fingerpicking when I was 32, mainly because I’d smashed my “shredding” wrist in a fall, but could still move my fingers with the plaster cast on. 

In an equal but different way, Ted Chippington blew me away – I saw him a couple of times, and his laconic delivery, his apparent abandonment of any accepted norms of stagecraft, were revelatory. That first album, Man In A Suitcase, is brilliant. My frequent, semi-deliberate (and perhaps irritating) disruptions to my own set, unsettling the spectator/performer narrative, doing that Brechtian Fourth Wall thing, are a nod and a wink to him as well as George.

Lyrically, Mark E Smith and his encyclopaedic, all-encompassing sprawl have also been an inspiration, awash with crisp packets, carrier bags, Scammell trucks and Curly Wurlies, ever since I heard the Slates EP in 1981. I love that sort of stuff, the foregrounding of the banal – the sort of thing Mark Kozelek does with Sun Kil Moon now and, in a different way, the hilarious lyrical humdrummery of Serious Drinking on their fantastic album The Revolution Starts At Closing Time, a personal favourite. It’s like bringing the minutiae of the real world into that hallowed arena, “the lyrics”, a space often reserved by songwriters for the “big” themes of love, loss and death, and eschewing them in favour of the everyday, or at least juxtaposing the two. On a similar theme, I’ve often wondered out loud, at local songwriting events, just who is writing the 21st century’s versions of the Blaydon Races and Cushie Butterfield – perhaps Fog On The Tyne is the closest anyone’s come (or, more recently, Living under the Blue Star by St James Infirmary.

Having been so indulgent already, I do briefly want to credit the influence of four other folks – 

(1) Husker Du’s Grant Hart, with his sublimely simple and instantly whistlable melodies (I did a cover of Green Eyes when I supported Damon and Naomi of Galaxie 500 at the Cumberland Arms).

(2) Surprisingly perhaps. Henry Rollins, whose relentlessly clear-sighted and almost Buddhistic descriptions of emotional turmoil have been of great assistance – I sent him a copy of my first album (no reply), and reference some lyrics off The End Of Silence on my track Song Called Song (as well as doing an execrable version of My War occasionally).

(3) Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, who sent a generous and thoughtful two-page handwritten response to my album Not It, and suggested I try DADGAD tuning, prompting a 20-year love affair with alternative tunings, and…

(4) Kirsty MacColl, who sent me a postcard saying she enjoyed Not It, “especially the lyrics”. 

Nev Clay plays The People’s Book Shop in Durham on Saturday 16th March.

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