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Leicester-based cult musician and singer-songwriter Kevin Hewick talks to John Clarkson about his tenth solo album ‘Never Give Up on A Song’, working with the surviving members of Joy Division just after Ian Curtis’ death and also Adrian Borland and The Sound.
Kevin Hewick is a critically acclaimed musician and singer-songwriter from Leicester. He has shared stages and toured with artists including Roy Harper, Peter Hook and Lene Lovich,
In a forty-plus year career of many highlights, he recorded two of his early tracks, ‘Haystack’ and ‘A Piece of Fate’, in 1980 with the three surviving members of Joy Division as his backing band the day before they changed their name to New Order. He also recorded an EP of four of his songs, ‘This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal’, in 1984 with the late Adrian Borland and The Sound.
Hewick has also released ten solo albums, the latest of which ‘Never Give Up On a Song’ came out earlier this year. The captivating, self-deprecating front cover, in a hint of his cult status, shows a solitary Hewick sitting on his own outside a café playing an acoustic guitar without an audience. Its tracks include ‘Wendy O’, a tribute to Wendy O. Williams, the singer with the controversial American punk band The Plasmatics who took her own life in 1998; the epic seven-minute, trumpet and violin-laden ‘My Turn for a Miracle’ about his grandfather’s experiences in the World War 1 trenches, and the ecologically conscious ‘River Sense’.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to Kevin Hewick about ‘Never Give Up On a Song’ and his lengthy career.
PB: The cover of ‘Never Give Up On a Song’ is very striking. Where was the photograph on it taken? Why did you choose that as the title for your new album?
KEVIN HEWICK: It was taken outside a great place called Nigel's Cafe in Melton Mowbray.
Twice a year (pre-Covid anyway) Melton has had a thing called the Melton Folk Trail, weekends of playing at a few venues each day, in bars, coffee shops, on outside stages etc. Lots of people wander around with guitar cases, violin cases and so on, cross-crossing the town centre, going to their next slots. I’ve done Saturdays and Sundays doing three or four 40 minute sets per day, rarely repeating myself so it’s like one long set split in parts and different places.
So there I am on the album cover playing to nobody really, feeling like it was all over, encountering zero interest.
I’m actually nearly giving up on a song in fact. It’s a small moment of defeat. I’ve had a million of those but fact is my songs are the greatest Kevin Hewick songs in the world.
A little in joke with myself is that you can see in the picture that Nigel's advertise Melton’s famous pork pies and after many years as a vegetarian I’m now vegan.
Also there’s a disinterested passer by reflected in the window. Jim Tetlow the cover designer said that’s like the famous photo of the man running by Nick Drake - which appealed to my vanity I guess.
PB: Your last three albums including this one have all been released on your own Botheration Records. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of self-releasing your records rather than going through another label?
KH: Well... I lose my own money rather than other people’s money.
I always say Botheration spends thousands to make hundreds back.
Actually of my previous labels Dave Dixey of Sorted Records still helps me a lot especially with any streaming issues, and Chris Garland who ran Pink Box is always willing to give me advice and encouragement too.
After a long time of talking about it with Tim Bowness, I now have a Kevin Hewick store on the Burning Shed website which is a big help with my distribution and internet sales and a bit of extra promotion.
PB: ‘Wendy O’ on 'Never Give Up On a Song' pays tribute to the controversial Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics. When did you discover her and what was the appeal to you of her that you wanted to write a song about her and her suicide?
KH: She and The Plasmatics generated loads of press at the time. I regret never getting to see them though as it was they got banned from a lot of venues. I like that they blew stuff like TVs up onstage.
The first part of the song is about that auto-destructive art act, chainsawing guitars and so on.
The second part is about how she chose her moment to die amidst the trees, feeding squirrels and birds. Without glamorising it, and not diminishing the distress she was in to want to end things like that, she checked out from life in a very spiritually apt way. I quote her note as such in the song: “..there is no self, only calm.”
Of course I’d much rather she were alive today. Maybe she’d be a private person, she was already pretty much - but she died before the relatively recent advent of social media so maybe she’d have used it to express support for women’s rights, animal rights, maybe she’d have related to people like Greta Thunberg.
Miley Cyrus has recently been citing her influence. Maybe Wendy could have become an active artist again herself.
Suicide is a close to the bone subject for me, I’ve known close family, friends, comrades and colleagues who’ve done so.
It’s a devastating act for those left behind having to deal with it. It causes everyone great pain.
The actual suicides themselves are silently serene. It’s over for them, overdosed, hung, burned, obliterated or whatever. For them the drama is all over. Their suffering is all over but for everyone else...you carry it for the rest of your life, thinking all the what ifs, how could we have stopped them and so on.
In artists it’s a way of sealing the deal, you know, the whole they really meant it thing. Years ago I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath so I was as bad as the disciples of the cults of Ian Curtis, Adrian Borland are now...all these people getting off on that stuff, but, hey, it’s a lot less fun when it’s on your own doorstep, in your own family.
Another recurring theme in my songs that appears here is a female Christ figure, I know I’m projecting that here in ‘Wendy O’.
If Jesus did come back why would ‘he’ be a ‘man’? Or maybe now Jesus would be a they, in between gender definitions.
I read an article about the icon painter Oksana Shachko and how she was depicting female Christ’, female Christs wearing burqas, and “Un-Christian” Christs.
Anyway this is a lot of beating about the Kate Bush to say that I’m also singing about my Catholic mother...
All of which might sound like typical male artist projection stuff but that’s what I’m doing be it to a fault or born of my own hang ups/issues.
Clearly I’m trying, and trying to learn to be a better, more honest, more reflective and more inclusive artist and trying to confront darkness and see a light within it.
PB: ‘Green City/Bird Cathedral’ and ‘River Sense’ pay tribute to nature, and ‘Sweet Itch Stallion’ seems to be about cruelty to a horse. Do you see yourself as a keen environmentalist/conversationist?
I often feel helpless about the future of the planet as an individual, like many of us do. It begins with yourself but like anyone I’m contradictory. I consume and over-consume, and, for example, I don’t drive, there are far too many cars, our cities are slaves to cars.. but to contradict that I still need lifts/buses/taxis/trains so I’m as bad as anyone though I’ll never fly again unless it were for some significant reason like a sudden miraculous demand for me to play in the States or Japan.
As I said before, after many years of being veggie I went vegan 18 months ago but a lot of that was to do with my health. I gave up alcohol about three and a half years back because of my health too.
‘Green City/Bird Cathedral’ is about actual mature trees that have been cut down or are newly growing in Leicester and Blaby. (I live just a few yards from the city side of the borderline.)
‘Sweet-Itch Stallion’ isn’t about cruelty to horses. It’s an irritating skin condition that they get, they have to wear masks and coats because they rub against tree bark or fences or walls and make it worse.
It does feel symbolic of the human dilemma too, wearing the “coat of suffering”.
PB: ‘My Turn for a Miracle’ is about your grandfather’s experiences in the trenches in World War 1 and is the most orchestral track on the album running to seven minutes and involving both a violin and a trumpet. Did it involve a lot of other musicians and who else played on this record?
KH: No, there’s not a lot of musicians, a lot of it is down to the expansive sound and mixes that Adam Ellis gets at Deadline Studios.This is the fifth album I’ve done there with him.
I sing and play guitar and do a beat on the drum. Adam is on bass ukulele, Jonathan Read is on trumpets and flugelhorns and Roger Wilson is on violin so it’s only the four of us.
(In fact on the rest of the album the only other additional player is drummer David Anderson.)
A sad thing is by the time we’d recorded it it was too late to play it to my dad who had become profoundly deaf and very ill with vascular dementia, and who eventually died from it. I wish he could have heard it and comprehended that it was about his dad but by then he couldn’t seem to coherently process sounds in his hearing aids and his illness had progressed too far.
My grandad was wounded at the Somme. As it describes in the lyrics he was one of two survivors out of eleven men in a trench that got hit by a German shell.
In the photo in the album's inner gatefold he’s sat between two of the men that died that day.
It was a reaction as well to political exploitation of the 2018 centenary of the end of World War 1.
People like my grandad and my two uncles who served in the Desert Rats in World War 2 didn’t talk about it that much and certainly didn’t see themselves as heroes. They just went out there with their regiments and played their part.
The whole ‘hero’ thing has been pushed to sell the idea of perpetual warfare and that in turn is for arms sales, billions, trillions of dollars worth poured into keeping humanity engaged in futile conflicts rather than in unity, true freedom and social justice.
I feel very strongly about the care of disabled and traumatised veterans. The same kind of people who sent youngsters to their doom back then are still in power now and as I say in the sister song ‘The 70 Year Itch’ now that those who ever served in the second war are either over 90 or dead the first hand lessons of history can either fade or even be forgotten and as we can currently see there’s a danger of fascist ideology flourishing again as before.
PB: You recorded two of your early tracks, ‘Haystack’ and ‘A Piece of Fate’ with the three surviving members of Joy Division a month after Ian Curtis’ death in 1980 and the night before they became New Order. Was it an especially sombre session or was there an air of renewed hope there also?
KH: It certainly wasn’t sombre. Though I’d been on the bill with Joy Division a couple of times, we’d never actually spoken to one another before that session. They just ignored me and I was too shy to imitate anything. At the session at Graveyard Studios everyone was really nice and they applied themselves to the songs though the lack of any rehearsal didn’t help matters. We could have done with working on stuff beforehand.
We’re much more aware now about the lasting effects of grief.
They had only had a month since Ian’s death to deal with their emotions both as individuals and as a band.
However, they were hitting the ground running. As you say they’d already decided on the new New Order name the night before.
As the day wore on Bernard Sumner did show some irritation and anger, not at me, just at...things I guess. He threw his guitar on the ground at one point and walked out of the studio for a while.
One thing it did lead to in the years ahead was getting to do supports to New Order, and Peter Hook's bands Revenge and The Light. It’s always good to see Hooky though it’s hard to comprehend I first saw him and Joy Division as much as 42 years ago.
Stephen Morris wrote about our session quite sympathetically in his recent book .though the lack of rehearsal and then what we did not being properly mixed or mastered was the first of quite a few Factory Records own goals where I was concerned.
Between my inexperienced green rawness and lack of self editing and Factory’s haphazardness my 80s music career was doomed before it even got off the ground.
PB: You have, as you say, toured with Peter Hook, played at various commemorative nights to Factory and Tony Wilson and wrote and recorded your own tribute LP to Factory. ‘All Was Numbered’, yet they did release on the ‘Factory Quartet[ several live tracks from a gig in which the audience was abusive and hostile without your permission and you were dropped before you had a chance to release an album. Do you see your experience there as bittersweet?
KH: I wasn’t dropped by Factory, I left. By then Tony Wilson has become totally preoccupied with opening the Hacienda, I’d lost my novelty value with him and I saw no prospect of any studio sessions or releases in the coming year, Cherry Red offered me that so I went with them.
It was bittersweet but much of the optimism of early 1980 went with the death of Ian Curtis, Tony was deeply affected by it and yet I felt he didn’t really open up about it. People didn’t so much then. My Grandma Hewick died around the same time too,. She was 90 and the last conversation I had with her was about how I was going to be on Factory Records. Despite her great age I took her loss very hard.
A few changes like having Martin Hannett actually conscious during the recording session (I loved him as a person and he was great to me but we never did a ‘proper’ session together) and if my singing had been less mannered and with less half baked lyrics and with a more rehearsed band and, hey, I’d be an 80's indie legend too...
But, though I can see it as blessing and curse, it’s blessings mostly concerning Factory, and doing things over the years, in relatively recent times shows with Hooky and The Light and Rowetta, Section 25, X-O-Dus, Crispy Ambulance, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and The Names and appearing at speaking events with Paul Morley and John Robb, that ticks the Factory blessings box for sure.
PB: You describe Adrian Borland in the year 2000 tribute book to him ‘Book of (Happy) Memories’ as flinging himself “into the songs in a way that very few can do with every ounce of physical effort possible. He seemed to burst out of his clothes, he seemed to burst out of his skin.” Is that the way you remember him primarily, as this almost volcanic experience?
KH: Yes. The whole band performed with utter passion and deep commitment.
I always say about the time of ‘All Fall Down’ when they played at Scraptoft College in Leicestershire to six people, three of whom were my friends, and me and 2 other student lads.
The Sound treated it like Wembley Stadium...
Similarly I was there when Doll By Doll did a devastatingly powerful performance at Birmingham Barbarellas... to eleven people. Like Borland and co Jackie Leven and The Dolls were on a mission, driving like demons from Station to Station indeed, often too far to few people.
PB: You had been a massive fan of The Sound and had bought their first LP ‘Jeopardy’ after reading about it in ‘Zigzag’. You had, however, had difficult experiences with both Factory Records and Cherry Red and were out on a limb at the time you recorded with them, but as you also say in ‘Book of (Happy) Memories’ “The Sound had some faith in me” and collaborated with you on four of your songs for the 1984 ‘The Cover Keeps Reality Unreal’ EP. Why do you think that they wore keen to work you?
KH: They were open to collaborations and seemed in love with being a band,. They thrived on working as a band then,. It was all about youth and energy and creativity. Again like Doll By Doll then they were four perfectly blended energies together.
Doll By Doll and The Sound were the match of Joy Division for intensity. I can connect the three of them together because they were all at peaks in that end of 70s/ dawn of 80s era. I was too young (and on the wrong continent pretty much) to see The Velvet Underground and The Doors.. but I saw Doll By Doll (58 times in their case) and The Sound and Joy Division.
Record company-wise I wasn’t out on limb at the time of either of the Sound sessions. First time I was still with Factory and did it to present Tony Wilson with a finished potential A side of a single but he reacted badly. He said he wouldn’t ever release anything by a “fucking London band” on Factory.
Second time Cherry Red wanted us to make a 12’ EP but due to my poor sales it was the end of the line for me with them. They let me go after that.
PB: s it true that ‘The Cover keeps Reality Unreal’ was recorded in eighteen hours. What are your memories of that session? Was it especially frantic?
KH: Yes, it was all done in one go, day into night into next day.
The Sound just worked like that. Hard.
The engineer Nick Robbins has a camp bed in the studio there. He’d not ever go home for days.
Adrian was full of enthusiasm and ideas. Mike Dudley and Graham Bailey were totally on point as a drum and bass team, superb.
Max/Colvin Mayers, I mourn him to this day just as much as I do Adrian, he was a wonderful guy and able to find and parts and tones for a song on his keyboards within seconds of you beginning to play it to him. I’ve never known anybody so quick to latch on to things as he could.
PB: You have put out an impressive ten albums and, as well as The Sound and Joy Division/New Order, have appeared on stages in support to artists such as Roy Harper, The Fall, PJ Harvey, Fairport Convention, Lene Lovich and Jackie Leven. What do you see as the main highlights of your musical career?
KH: It's rather in character for me that I often dwell too much on my lowlights. I used to worry about being the perpetual support act, especially at those turn of decade times when audiences thought they had to heckle,spit and throw stuff because the media said it was the ‘punk’ thing to do.
Back then the only people that you saw solo on that circuit were Attila The Stockbroker, Patrick Fitzgerald and me. In the early 80s I did a poetry/music collective with Patrcik and Ann Clark and John Hollingsworth. We were a bit ahead of our time with that package.
John and I are still close friends. He became a top A and R with Warner’s and then got into photography and film making and we’re working on something interesting that should bear some fruit in a couple of years time.
Anything with Section 25, Durutti Column, The Sound, Doll By Doll and Jackie was like family. We had a bond between us. The Certain Ratio audiences maybe got fed up with me, I got put on with then a few times. It took a while for them to grow on me but I look back at their uncanny telepathic quality as a band,. They unfolded with time and are still unfolding in this century. Limitlessly.
Even more so there was a strong bond with Jackie and I was briefly in a band that backed him, the ‘subversively’ named Stornoway Girls - we were all boys, Jackie and I and Dan Britton and Lee Allatson. I’m very proud of the live album we did with him in 2001.
I felt he should have worked with us some more and done a studio album with us, Lee is a great drummer and Dan and I covered guitars and bass well between us. We had an exciting edge and I think we had much more to give to Jackie as a unit.
Touring with Roy Harper meant a lot to me as he was a huge influence on my stuff. David Gilmour came and played with him at the Leicester date and I had a fleeting five second encounter with Kate Bush at the London one.
Back then I did badly want to be Roy’s friend, to talk with him and find the meaning of life with him (it’s all there in ‘The Lord's Prayer’ on ‘Lifemask’) but to my disappointment at the time I didn’t ever get that close to him.More recently I’ve opened for his fantastically gifted son Nick and he’s very approachable so that perhaps makes up for my never making a deeper impression with Roy.
I’ve a deep primal love of folk music so getting to support and meet members of classic Fairport like Simon Nichol, Dave Pegg, and Dave Swarbrick who was with Martin Carthy that time, it all meant so much to me. I’ve done a few other gigs with Carthy but he never seems to remember me ha hathough we’ve even sat and had dinner together.
Being alone with him in the dressing room at Aberdeen Lemon Tree as he ran through ‘Prince Heathen’ - that was a moment!
It was great to do gigs with Doctors Of Madness and Richard Strange - it only took 40 years from seeing them in 1977 to being on the same bill with them in 2017!
That was a show I put on at Leicester Musician. I’m no big time promoter but I’ve put on a few things at The Muso. As well as Doctors Of Madness there’s been Slits legend Viv Albertine, Lene Lovich, Jude Rawlins, my old Cherry Red friends Eyeless In Gaza, Pat Fish, Venus Fly Trap, Patrick Fitzgerald, the much missed CP Lee, X-O-Dus and the inevitable Section 25.
I’ve also put on Keith Christmas before and he’ll be back again soon, amazingly 52 years on from his first album and his Beckenham Arts Lab days with Bowie.
Lene Lovich is always a pleasure to see and work with. My good friend Jude Rawlins was on guitar with her then and the whole band are the loveliest people. I got to be in the tour bus with them and they are just cool people to be with. Ditto Section 25. We’ve got a lasting connection from Factory days. When they were Vin and Larry Cassidy and Paul Wiggin, they were an awesome hypnotic trio.
It’s just sad to think of Larry Cassidy of SXXV and Jackie Leven and Adrian and Colvin with The Sound all gone, though they still seem very ‘here’ in the music.
I think a lot about Tony and Martin and Rob Gretton and Malcolm Whitehead too. Factory was amazing because they were amazing. I was very lucky to cross paths with them.
PB: Will you be touring or playing dates to promote ‘Never Give Up On a Song’?
KH: Like for everyone the Covid crisis and lockdown meant my bookings just dissolved. For example, I lost four planned festival appearances in 2020.
I want to tour but it’s difficult to get bookings, my name is not quite out there enough.
Also I constantly write and put new songs in my sets so any show can only be a taster from past and of future albums,
To see my at my best I think I need an intimate venue and a clued in/tuned in crowd. I like plenty of time, I try to keep the songs and between song chat interesting and have a real, warm exchange with the audience.
If I play one chord and moan, it’s art because I define myself as an artist. It’s beyond the technical or about being good or bad. It’s me trying to put into practice what I’ve learned from ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Metal Machine Music’. I have to stand my ground and believe in the integrity of what I do or I’d have to limp away back into the shadows.
If I can get there and plug in I’m up for anything anywhere where everyone’s reasonably into it - I’ve done my share of people talking through it/unengaged. There’s no vibe unless you feel the vibe. I want you to feel the vibe. I’m sorry if I don’t succeed in making people feel that. It’s wonderful when they do.
Due to time and tide it’s inevitable to dwell a bit on not being as young as I used to be, and I have a few minor health things like being diabetic which can be either tiresome or downright lethal, but it’s a low cred illness. We never saw Bono and Sting and Annie and Sir Bob doing Diabetic Aid at Wembley Stadium, did we?
Just as well, I guess.
I listen to and observe a lot about performance. Recently I’ve seen shows on TV by Beth Hart and Tori Amos and they blew me away. 100%! That driving conviction and absolute giving of themselves to their songs. Yet in contrast I actually saw a great musical hero of mine a few years back in London at Cafe Oto: Annette Peacock, and she was composed and flowed everything seamlessly into like one vast piece, all its movements and moods infinitely unfolding. A state of being.
I and my friend Cindy Stern met her afterwards too and it was like a dream, one of musics great originals but also a lovely, warm, inspiring person.
I feel affinity with other artists like Tammy Payne in Bristol, Rosie Abbott and Simon Waldram in Chesterfield, Melanie Pegge and Autumn Dawn Leader in Loughborough. There’s so many great talents out there.
As well as my own stuff in Leicester I play guitar with Maureen Anderson’s psychedelic freeform improv band Multimorph, (our first post lockdown show in. July was ninety minutes of space rock grooves) and I have a new project happening with Leicester poet Carol Leeming MBE, it’s her words and songs, with Nick Murphy on percussion and bassist Les King. Also I’ve got another thing starting with keyboardist Lee Spreadbury so I hope in some form with these and/or by myself things can accelerate in late 2021 into 2022.
I love playing solo, it’s very real and true to the songs, but I like playing a band too, that Neil Young type contrast between him on his own with a Martin acoustic and him electric with his Les Paul with Crazy Horse. I love distortion and feedback. I’ve had a few electric line ups, the last decade often with Mark Haynes on drums and Pete James or Dave Dhonau on bass. Cream, Hendrix, Taste, ELP, Rush, Nirvana - i’ve always loved the power of the power trio whatever form it takes.
I have the illusion (or delusion) of this singer-songwriter thing of being a calling, like a priest or a nun. A nun in my case of course.
There are many low moments where I want to turn it off but there’s no ‘Off’ switch. I did give up once “Dust on my guitars/ Rust on my voice” as the title track of ‘Never Give Up On A Song’ says but was a denial of what I truly am. I’m a musician, a songwriter, a performer. That’s my purpose, my being.
I’m not technical at all. It’s all spirit. All feeling and all about now. I don’t just want to be a footnote of events forty years ago..I’ve always felt I do something nobody else does. I see that space and make music and say things in lyrics that I need to. Convincing others that they might need it too is the thing,
And there’s always much, much more to do, and I want do it until I drop,? It’s what I feel I’m here to do, meant to do, have to do.
PB: Thank you.
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