‘I never make plans’. A straightforward declaration from Michael Chapman, in reference to his show at Band on the Wall next week; the first outing of the year for the English singer-songwriter. Many artists accredit successful outcomes to spontaneity and with 2017 marking Chapman’s fiftieth year as a professional musician, his impulsive approach has clearly served him well. Having joined the Cornish Folk Circuit in 1967, playing blues, folk and just about anything else he’d picked up, he began gigging across the country and signed with EMI to record his first studio album Rainmaker, which was released on their subsidiary label Harvest in 1969, ahead of three more, classic albums before ’72.
He’s had no shortage of adventures during his career, many due to his readiness to play at any time, in any place and before any audience. Chapman qualifies this with a memory from his early career, of a hairy situation in Washington, D.C.: ‘1971, the Cellar Door, Washington D.C., opening for Cannonball Adderley, my hero, the night George Jackson got shot. The audience was black, battle dress, shades, guns on the tables, and utterly silent. At a roof top pool party after the gig, I could see large areas of D.C. on fire. I thought this was maybe the time I get thrown off the roof but thankfully I didn’t – thank you Cannon!’
Although Chapman has been playing in the U.S. since early in his career, he’s never made what you would call ‘an American record’. ‘It’s always been an ambition [of mine] to make an American album’ he states ‘American studio, musicians, record company etc. and I finally got round to it earlier this year. Some things just take a while.’
The album in question is 50, his first for Paradise of Bachelors and one which suitably references the longevity of his career, featuring recordings of some older material alongside new songs. It’s scheduled for release later this month and is described by MOJO as ‘a finely tuned piece that surveys the looming thunderclouds of mortality and the biblical gloom of the times’.
‘After a long song writing drought I had 3 new songs’ Chapman explains, ‘the others were chosen because they’d never seen the light of day in the U.S.’. Chapman invited Steve Gunn, songwriter and former member of Kurt Vile’s band to produce the record and lead the versatile studio band, which also featured songwriting luminary Bridget St. John, who first collaborated with Chapman in 1974, plus James Elkington and Jason Meagher among others.
‘After the last years of self production I wanted to give away control’ Chapman explains. ‘I had an identity of sound and production values (some say I under produce) and wanted to ring the changes so I asked Steve to ride shot gun on this project.’ With Gunn at the helm and a full band in tow, the music reaches the sonic height of Chapman’s seminal 1970 album Fully Qualified Survivor. His affinity with U.S. artists and his desire to make an American album is quite understandable; a fan of jazz with beginnings in the blues, but a leaning towards freer musical styles and virtuoso finger-style guitar capabilities; the records of American artists like John Fahey, Ornette Coleman and Skip James must have been important to him, and contributed somewhat to his vision of the American album.
His tastes are broad and also very current, as he moves in circles with some fine young artists. ‘I have very catholic tastes from Frisell to Steve Reich, from the Everleys to Christine (and the Queens) and it seems to me that my East coast friends have all made great records lately – Steve, Nathan, MC Taylor (of Hiss Golden Messenger), William Tyler, Ryley [Walker] and Daniel Bachman. I’d better step up to the plate.’
With Chapman in fine fettle and having stepped up to the plate repeatedly throughout his career, we’re looking forward to his show here on 14th January. Listen to his recent BBC radio session and keep an ear out for Chapman on Marc Reilly’s BBC 6 Music show on 9th January.