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John Henry Lambert - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 20 / 4 / 2008

John Henry Lambert - Interview


One-time electronica artist and now acoustic folk singer-songwriter John Henry Lambert talks to John Clarkson about his broodingly atmospheric and haunting debut album, 'Gone Away', which he recorded over the space of two years in his isolated Dartmoor home

Of all the albums that are released this year, there are unlikely to be many that are as atmospheric or evocative as John Henry Lambert’s ‘Gone Away’. Recorded in his isolated Dartmoor farmhouse over the space of two years, it is an album about loss, not just of love although that has a huge part to play, but also of innocence and dreams. It is a record too of the elements, of autumnal and wintry hues and upon which Lambert has matched his half-spoken, half-sung narrations of things having faded and gone with descriptions of cold English countryside days, dark skies and winds, and echoing rains. "The countryside is a place where I find a lot of inspiration", reflects Lambert, talking to Pennyblackmusic. "Some people take a lot of inspiration from cities, and the chaos that is there, but I have always found it in nature. It is a far more lyrical place for me." Lambert has experience of living in both. He spent nearly sixteen years working in London, where he both ran his own Clapham-based recording studio, Joe’s Garage, and also played in two bands, Schrodinger’s Cat, a folk outfit, and Shen, an ambient house act. With the latter, Lambert recorded two albums, a studio record ‘Spirit of the Sea’ (1993) and a live recording, ‘Live at the Big Chill’ (1994). Some years ago, Lambert, who now manages a company that specialises in making new kinds of electronic musical instruments, and his wife, Isabel, however, decided to abandon the city to move back to the country. "I was raised on a little farm and I never really liked London that much to be honest", says Lambert. "I always found it rather a rather oppressive environment to live in. It’s a great place to make a career, but it is a hard place to live in. We have children now as well, and we wanted to give them the same experience out in the wilds that I had when I was young." As well as Lambert on vocals and acoustic guitar, 'Gone Away' features Ian Ritchie on saxophone, who is both a current member of former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters' touring band and also has a solo career as both a jazz musician and a composer for television. The album was produced by Richard Ashrowan, who, like Ritchie, was also a member of Shen. While the highly experimental Shen was an electronica outfit, merging often programmed beats with location recordings made on the Essex coast and an array of guest musicians reading ancient poems and folk stories, 'Gone Away' is entirely roots-based. Other contributors include Isabel Lambert on harmonium and piano, and on backing vocals Kathleen Willison and Natalie Williams, two young singers whom Ian Ritchie had met through his television work. Uncluttered in sound and recorded almost entirely without overdubs, it is pastoral and brooding in tone, its nine songs evolving unhurriedly, most of them lasting at least five minutes and some expanding out as long as seven minutes, their sparse instrumentation resonating slowly with the deep baritones of Lambert's vocals. "We wanted to make a record with a consistent sound", Lambert says. "We didn't want to make a record with big highs and lows. We wanted to make something that you could put on and listen to late at night and that would have a mellow mood and feeling about it throughout the entire duration of the record. We chose to do that by really sticking to the same instruments throughout, and as the album is acoustic that also helped to promote that feeling as well." 'Gone Away' was recorded over the period of approximately fifteen sessions, with Richard Ashrowan, who is based in the Scottish Borders, flying down from Edinburgh to Exeter every few weeks, and the other musicians travelling from London. "The electronic thing can be great fun to do, but it is a very different kind of head space", Lambert muses, talking both about his day job and his past with Shen. "You have to work hard at all the technical aspects of it, whereas playing live with acoustic instruments I find a much more pleasurable experience really." "When we were recorded 'Gone Away', there was a real mood thing going on" he continues. "Everyone was really relaxed about how long the album would take to record and the sessions as a result of that usually only lasted a few hours. It was all very civilized. We would sit around playing the songs in the house, and with quite a few of them we found ourselves getting a take down in just a couple of hours. We would then put that to bed, and introduce everybody to the next one, so with some of them the musicians would have only been through the tracks three or four times by the time they were recorded. It made them really fresh, and I think that can be heard on the album." 'Gone Away' opens with 'City Skies', which is about a couple, who amidst the dark nights and the claustrophobia of the city, have grown apart and unforgiving of one another. By the time of the second track, 'The Torn Days of Winter', the scenario has switched to the country, but the picture is equally bleak, telling of another or maybe the same couple, who up on a hill as a howling storm gathers in the midst of winter, have, even in better weather, long found themselves unable to talk to each other. The title track, written at the time of the 2004 Hunting Act, is about what seemed then as if it would be one of the last fox hunts in England. ‘Better Days’, set against the backdrop of a summer sun coming out after a rain storm, is an ode to a friend who has died young, while the final trilogy of songs, ‘The Winter of ‘85’, ‘White Horses’ and ‘Lost Sight of the Way’, the latter of which takes place again in the city, all yearn for the past, and more hopeful and innocent times. “Only some of them are”, replies Lambert when asked whether his lyrics on ‘Gone Away’are autobiographical. “That’s the thing about song writing though, isn’t it ? You can often find yourself in a strange place, and some of the songs on 'Gone Away' just come from the imagination. Some of them were actually written when I was still living in London and came out of missing the countryside and environment.” “‘Better Days’ is, however, about a friend of mine who died. It was the first death in my peer group, and that song is about suddenly realising that we are all mortal and life is shorter than you can sometimes imagine. Other more autobiographical songs are things like ‘White Horses’ and ‘Lost Sight of the Day’. They’re about when things don’t go according to plan, and you find yourself living in a place where you didn’t want to live and doing a job that you didn’t want to do.” If ‘Gone Away’ has central themes, they are that once something is gone it can’t be resurrected, and that as one grows older life rather than becoming easier only grows more complicated. “It is a curious melancholy, isn’t it ?” Lambert admits. “When you realise that the world you were comfortable with when you were a child has suddenly been transformed into a world which is more and more alien and less and less comprehensible in many respects.” With ‘Gone Away’ having been released on his own John Lambert Records at the start of April and beginning to attract gradual, but good reviews, Lambert and his band are now beginning to plan some gigs. With Ian Ritchie currently away on tour with Roger Waters, this will, however, be done when he returns and in the same understated style that 'Gone Away' was created. “We are thinking that we may do some shows in London in the autumn", Lambert says. "It is such a quiet record that it will be interesting to see how it transfers to the stage and how we end up doing it. Despite us releasing it now, it is really a winter record. It's not a summertime record, so we thought we might do a couple of shows in the autumn." Although it may be a long time coming, Lambert, with his wife, Ian Ritchie and Richard Ashrowan all wanting to be involved again, is also beginning to think about and to write songs for a second album. In the age of the two or three minute quick-fix pop song, 'Gone Away', with its slow-burning songs, and serious thoughts, offers no easy solutions, but something both more subtle and substantial. In the meantime, we should make the most of this one.

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John Henry Lambert - Interview

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