Brinsley Schwarz has been immersed in a musical life from a young age and had remarkable and eventful experiences in the UK in the 1970s as part of the British Pub Rock scene, playing the guitar in a band that went by his own name and later with Graham Parker and The Rumour. Schwarz eventually focused on repairing and working with guitars for a number of years, and during this time he found a sudden and ongoing inclination towards songwriting that he hadn’t previously experienced. Later, when Graham Parker and The Rumour regrouped in 2012, he also joined them touring and on recording their two final albums.
Though Schwarz was documenting his own songwriting throughout that period, coming to work with James Hallawell (Waterboys, Jackie Levin) at his studio was the next piece of the puzzle in bringing these songs to life. The result was a first collection, Unexpected, in 2016, and later, his most recent album, Tangled, with Fretsore Records. Recording Tangled required a lot of ingenuity and determination during the pandemic period, but having accomplished it, Schwarz continues to work on new musical projects, including his recently released holiday song, “This Christmas”. I spoke with Brinsley Schwarz about the experience of returning to touring after such a long break, the arrival of songwriting in his life, and his process recording Tangled and “This Christmas”.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that you’ve been playing for a very long time, going all the way back to your school days. At what point did you start to think, “I might be doing this for my entire life.” Back then, I know there weren’t a lot of groups that continued for a long time.
Brinsley Schwarz: I started playing the guitar when I was about 13, but perhaps in a childish way, I didn’t really see me doing anything else from then on. Any time things slowed down or stopped, I never went looking, things just always seemed to turn up. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do this for all of this time.
HMS: I think for many people it is a sense of, “This is here to stay”, and things may change form, but the music keeps going.
BS: I don’t think we contemplate it until it stops, and then you have a choice to make. And one of the consequences of that choice is that if you go do something else, you’re never likely to be in a position to take up an offer to come along. So I always just waited and it all worked out.
HMS: Was that how it was when Graham Parker and The Rumours contacted you? Was it something that came up suddenly and you were able to jump on it?
BS: I think by that point, since I had stopped in 1990 and concentrated more on repairing and building guitars, I never thought that something would come along. I wasn’t writing enough music to consider being a solo artist or a songwriter. So when Graham called up in 2010 and said they were doing it again, that was a surprised. But I was, luckily, able to down tools and do it.
HMS: Was there a challenge there, physically or psychologically, to get ready for touring again?
BS: There had been a gap of twenty years, but I had actually played guitars more while repairing them in a guitar shop six days a week. That’s different than being on the road, though, since you spend a lot of time in a bus or on a plane. The difference is that in one case you’re noodling, and in the other, you’re playing live. You’re not really match-fit. Then you’re always a little bit behind, concentrating on what’s coming next. When you’re in the flow, you’re ahead of the game.
HMS: I suppose in some alternate reality, you might have considered that change in your life too stressful and declined the offer.
BS: I don’t think I ever felt like that. To start with, I never actually believed it was going to happen until I heard Steve, in The Rumour, say, “One, two, three, four…” on tour. I didn’t worry too much about it until it actually happened.
HMS: What’s the relationship between you writing and recording your new songs and returning to touring and recording with The Rumors again?
BS: The writing actually started when I was doing repairing. I did a lot of work at the store, but I also did a lot of guitar amp modifications in a workshop at the bottom of my garden. That’s when I heard the Steely Dan album, Two Against Nature, which I used to listen to almost non-stop. I was deep into it, musically and lyrically. Suddenly, it all just kicked off, and I started writing songs. I have no idea why. They were about all sorts of things, too, not just a single theme. That was quite a long time before the band got back together and before I started making my first record. Even though I had loads of songs, I never thought I’d be making a record.
HMS: You just sort of quietly documented them and put them aside?
BS: Yes, I wrote up all the lyrics, and then when I felt like it, I played them. I’d play them while I was in the store fixing stuff, and people would ask, “What’s that?” I’d say, “That’s a riff that I’m going to turn into a song.” Later, I met James Hallawell again, since he was with us in the late 1980’s on Mona Lisa Smile and touring, and he said I should come down to his studio and Richmond and record something, so I did that. It turned out to be really good and we got along really well. We haven’t stopped, really. We’re still doing it. That was in 2012. He’s worked on everything with me. He does recording, we mix and master together, and he’s played all the keyboards.
HMS: Was this all one pool of songs that you were drawing from to decide what to record as Unexpected and what to record for Tangled? I ask that, though I do think that a few of the songs on Tangled seem to speak to our times.
BS: To start with, when I went into the studio with James, I actually went to record one song. That actually led to more because we enjoyed it so much. Our first idea was to have an EP, and we just carried on until we had about 14 songs. I started to formulate what would be on The Unexpected, but new stuff kept coming up, and James would say, “Let’s do that!” I have another album half-recorded, and three of the songs there were recorded when we were doing The Unexpected and they’ve had to wait. Though some of the songs on Tangled I did write and record during lockdown.
HMS: I know that the UK has had some really stringent lockdowns, so recording must have been a challenge. Did you do more at home because of that?
BS: James’ studio is a very little place, with just two rooms, and there’s a little courtyard in between his studio and the main store. During lockdown, I would sit in the courtyard with coats and blankets, with headphones and a talk-back mic. James would be in the studio, so we mixed that way. On the other side of the courtyard is a studio that belongs to Terry Britten, who wrote “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, and loads of stuff. He let me use his studio when I wasn’t there. So then I’d be across the courtyard, with cables running across.
But doing stuff like that is okay, it just takes three times as long to explain what bits you’d like to change. We did do a little bit at home on the phone, with James in the studio and me 60 miles away at home. We found we just weren’t getting anywhere, and we discovered that the iPad I was using was reversing the stereo image, from the right to the left. It caused us a lot of grief! We did two or three songs that way.
HMS: Out of the songs that made it onto Tangled, did you have specific thoughts about why they fit the best to be released? Some of the songs like “Storm in the Hills” and “Crazy World” seem to reflect current events pretty well, for instance.
BS: Well, “Storm in the Hills” I wrote quite a long time ago. That’s about climate change and how governments around the world have not caught onto the idea. That’s made more stark, perhaps, by the fact that the guy who is singing the song has spent twenty years not in the loop at all, and then comes out and asks, “What’s been going on?” The thunder on the mountain is the cave-busting bombs that were dropped in the attempt to find Al-Qaeda, and the chorus is about the war in Iraq.
HMS: In the video we get the sense of different landscapes, too, like different worlds. There are the cities which we seem to enclose ourselves in and then there’s the rest of the Earth that we often ignore.
BS: On a program over here, called Question Time, the actor Brian Cox got asked a question about climate change. He said, “Look, we’re in deep shit!” We are in a bad way, and we, meaning the world, need to do something now. There are a lot of very clever people who can do it, but it’s a matter of giving money to them to do it rather than tying it to some political agenda. Politics is the problem, I think, in the main.
We’ve just finished a new song called “It’s Been A Long Year” that’s damning about the fact that we’re not getting anywhere with climate change, and if we don’t get somewhere with it, soon it will be too late. But you also have to try to put hope into it. I’m saying that we need to rescue the planet and rescue ourselves.
HMS: I’m so glad you’re able to bring your concerns into your new music and look forward to hearing that, too. I understand that you wrote your Christmas song around this time last year, but were then able to get it recorded in time for this season. What prompted your first seasonal song?
BS: I wrote it pretty quickly, but recording it never came about. After Christmas last year, I thought I’d do it early in the year, then never got around to it. I probably would have if life hadn’t been so very difficult. A few weeks ago, I asked Fretsore when they’d need it to put it out for Christmas, and though we were already two weeks past, I asked for two weeks’ time to do it. We went for it and did what we could. The Christmas song is a happy song so I thought it would be a good thing to do.
HMS: Did the classic sounds of older Christmas songs inspire you? I was recently reminded that there’s a lot of Jazz standard DNA in mid-century Christmas music.
BS: When I’m writing, I don’t actually tend to think, “Oh this is like that other thing”, and try to make it more like that thing. I just write it as it comes. My biggest problem writing is the second half. You do a verse and a chorus, then think, “Where’s this going now?” That, to me, is the hardest thing. I get an idea quite quickly, from something someone says, or something on TV, but progressing it past the initial burst of lyrical ideas is the difficult part for me.
When I went into the studio with James, I was thinking of something like “Good Luck Charm”, with that kind of swing. Like something with a male group with a deep, bass voice. We started with acoustic guitar and a vocal. We stole drums from two of my other tracks, one slowed down, and one sped up. There’s a track of me doing my hand on a snare drum. It’s turned out nothing like “Good Luck Charm”, but that’s probably a good thing. James suggested that we do something like Steely Dan with an organ, and though it doesn’t sound anything like that, that’s where some of the ideas came from.
HMS: A number of the songs on Tangled also relate to relationships. Do you have any thoughts about why that might be? I suppose if you didn’t write songs for many years, you have a lot of backlog.
BS: I have pent up stuff inside, yes. [Laughs] My ideas for songs start with little ideas that come from a number of places. Then I can try to put myself in that position. One of the things I can do is to change the person who is talking in the song. There’s a song on The Unexpected where the first verse is the singer talking about having observed a woman in an argument with her man, who is a bully. She’s talking back, but she’s hurting. The second verse is the other way around. The woman is a bully, and the guy is just a nice guy who’s not very strong. Then, the third verse is down to the singer, who has mistreated his woman and is explaining that he now understands.
They are all brought together by the chorus line, which is, “Waking the dead isn’t easy.” That means that once the feeling has been argued away, the feeling dies, and waking it up again is not easy no matter which way around it falls. So that matter of putting different people in different perspectives is something I do all the time. About 40 to 50 percent of my songs are just angry with the way things are, though, among the recordings I’ve made.
Photo Courtesy of Fretsore Records