Music Q&A: James J Turner

The Liverpool acoustic singer has released a new single. Hey Brother, which explores people's roots within, and connection to, local areas

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What informs your music and songwriting?
It’s the tough road of just being alive and how people deal with it that inspires my songwriting. In other words, the human struggle within the context of inner spiritual landscapes and external concerns such as the environment.

How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
I started playing guitar and singing from a ridiculously young age. I had my own gigging band from the age of nine, largely playing rhythm and blues. I also wrote songs as a kid, and continued performing in different line-ups through my teens. I worked at Liverpool docks after leaving school, but kept up with my music, playing most evenings and weekends in the city. As I got busier with my music in my early twenties I had to quit the day job, and then I fronted several different line-ups including Lies All Lies, playing a rock’n’roll meets new wave guitar-style music. Later I fronted The Electric Morning, which was a kind of psychedelic rock band and released records on the Liverpool indie label Probe Records, which toured with American bands such as the Rain Parade, True West, The Beat Farmers and The Long Riders, playing all around the UK and Europe.

After opening my own recording studio in Liverpool city centre – Hard City – I started to work on my own solo stuff. My first solo album, The Believer, came out around 2002 and was picked up by Virgin Records for North America. It had a kind of Americana, rootsy alt-country rock feel that suited the US market.

From 2008 I felt a need to go further back into my roots, inspired partly by the music I was listening to at the time, which included a lot of English folk music. The songs I was working on then became my second solo album, How Could We Be Wrong?, which was released in 2012. This album was a studio project with a full band, with a folk-rock sound. I kept my electric guitars in their cases, instead playing a Martin D28 alongside other acoustic instruments including fiddle.

At around the same time as How Could was released I started doing a lot of solo gigs across the UK, and then a different kind of style started to emerge. From then to date I’ve been developing and honing this solo performance down. I now use a stomp-box along with my voice and D28 – and people say I make a lot of noise for just one person, ha ha!

My next album, Spirit, Soul & a Handful of Mud, was released in 2015 and again this was folk-rock in feel, but because I was exploring my own spirituality at the time and became a member of OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) I think this imbued the music with a different kind of sound.

What are you up to at the moment artistically?
For the past year I’ve been working on my most recent album, Future Meets The Past. This is scheduled for release in spring next year, and is actually an Arts Council England-funded project. This was the first time I’ve been tasked with conceiving, writing, arranging and performing an album for a specific project and it was quite a challenge! I was determined that the album feel as live and organic as possible, so I had the rhythm section put the track down live in the studios, with the bass and drums playing at the same time. Also, there’s no digital editing, and because the musicians are all excellent – including Dave Ormsby, drums, Etienne Girard, bass, and Neil McCartney from Merry Hell on fiddle, plus Amy Chalmers, also fiddle, and Vicky Mutch on cello – and the vibe in the studio was great, I really think we’ve captured something special. The album is still folk rock, but maybe a bit more rocky than my previous couple of albums, because I returned to the dark side and added an electric guitar to a few tracks, ha ha! Plus I’ve tried hard to create a lot of radio-friendly singles.

What’s on your rider?
I don’t have an official rider. Usually I have some water and tea or coffee. Some of the gigs I do are charity events and fundraisers, and there aren’t huge resources, so of course you have to accept this. Bigger festivals and events usually give you vouchers for the bar and food stalls, which are always welcome.

Tell us your most embarrassing or surreal experience.
Normally they all tend to blur into one long embarrassing experience! But one particular episode that stays in the mind is: I was playing the Liverpool Empire, which is a big gig, and so the backstage area is vast and full of tunnels. So, by the time I got from the dressing room on to the stage I was out of my comfort zone and disorientated. Anyway, I was pleased to see what I thought was they hadn’t opened the curtains or something, then I realised I was standing with my back to the crowd, which was a full house, and I was actually looking at the backdrop. It took me a couple of minutes to get my head together.

What song do you wish you’d written?
The Times They Are A Changin’, by Bob Dylan. It’s simple, articulate, anyone can understand it, and it can be performed with just a voice and guitar. And, of course, it’s genius.

What’s your worst lyric?
I’ve been writing songs since I was 15, and probably even longer but I can’t remember, and had a little publishing deal when I was 17, which gave me free studio time. So I wouldn’t really like to revisit some of the songs I wrote then! But I’ve always known that words are important and of course it’s a learning curve. I’ve always tried to do my best. As for what the silly lyrics were – I’m not telling you, ha ha!

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