Jon Brooks, Shapwick and How to Get to Spring

Over the course of three solo albums on the superlative Clay Pipe label, Jon Brooks has created music with a very distinct and affecting sense of place. The first, 2012’s Shapwick, took inspiration from the eerie calmness of a night-time detour through this sleepy Somerset village; while follow-up 52, from 2014, was a touching evocation of a childhood spent at his grandmother’s house (as Clay Pipe boss Frances Castle once said to me, with no little admiration: “He was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond.”)

2017’s Autre Directions, meanwhile, was a beautifully sparse reflection on the almost-somnambulant pace of life in rural France. “As the village church clock tolls, it strikes home a simplicity,” explained Brooks himself, in the album’s press release. “A purity of existence that couldn’t really exist elsewhere.”

His new Clay Pipe album, How to Get to Spring, also captures a sense of purity: this time, the simple pleasures afforded by the fading of the winter months, and the empty skies and gentle warmth of the oncoming springtime. In early 2020, with so many of now us temporarily deprived of the physical space and restorative powers of the countryside, the album feels both poignant and reassuring; and its eight perfectly-weighted tracks chart, with Brooks’ characteristic poise and elegance, the journey from grey, snow-flecked hillsides to bone-thawing April sunshine.

In early March, I spoke to Jon about the album, and the forthcoming re-pressing of Shapwick, for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Congratulations on the album… is the springtime a particularly evocative time of year for you? 

Jon: I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth. So this album is about that: it’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.

I always feel slightly unusual in that February is one of my favourite months, which sometimes raises eyebrows. January can be harsh, but in February you get buds appearing on the trees, and those lovely days of hard ground and clear skies.

I’ve always loved that time of year as well. From February to April is a really, really good time. And that’s where the album goes, really… it’s “how to get there”.

I was going to ask if there was a chronology to the album?

I think so – it was definitely written in that way. It goes through a hard winter into early spring, and then into mid-spring, yeah.

I get the impression that you spend a lot of time outdoors… has this album been inspired by your ramblings around your local hills and forests?

That certainly has an influence, yeah. I’m out every day, because I need that headspace, and I need time to come up with the ideas. When my brain switches off, out in the woodland, I tend to get ideas. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, so that’s when things happen.

Whereabouts do you go walking?  

I’m in Derbyshire, so I walk around nature trails and meadows. There are loads of fairly lost places around here, where you just don’t see anyone.

On the verge of the Peak District, then…

Yes, basically. It’s lovely, actually – it’s very cool.

My version of your Peak District is the North York Moors… and I find, in walking there, that it’s not just the fact that you’re out and about in beautiful countryside, but that you don’t have anything else to concentrate on. All you have to think about is putting one foot in front of the other, and walking. Do you deliberately go and try to find that mental state in which to be creative?

Yes, definitely. Because although I’m quite a connected person with technology and so forth, I leave my phone at home when I go out. And I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me. And I think that puts you into a different mental state. I think that’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and I think certain things can bubble to the surface. And you make mental notes, and come back and perhaps write something. Or you make some notes on a new concept. That’s how it works.

How do you go about translating those feelings into music, then? Given that you don’t take a phone with you, can you compose in your head as you’re walking, and then work on it when you get back?   

I seem to be able to. And something I’ve also done a lot more of recently, especially with this album, is writing down key words. So I would have a certain word that I felt had come to the surface, and I’d write that down, and then write around that. I’d say – “How does that word feel? How does it sound in the mouth?” And then just go from there. From fairly abstract things really, to trying to describe a word in sound. I really love doing that.

That’s fascinating, there’s almost an element of synaesthesia to that.

Well, I do actually have that as well.

Do you?!

Yeah, I’ve had that since I was a kid. It’s quite distracting in a way, because I’m also a sound engineer and a mastering engineer. And I “see” sound. So, in order to use my ears, I have to try and switch that off… because I can actually see things like waveforms, and colours, and various things. It’s quite an odd one!

I had it in a very minor form as a teenager. The Velvet Underground’s third album, the one with ‘Candy Says’ on it, has a really distinctive guitar sound, which I assume is Lou Reed’s arpeggio. And, as a 17-year- old, I saw that guitar sound as little blue metallic tubes that I was travelling down. It happened with a couple of other albums too, but it was a very fleeting thing, and I’ve often I’ve wanted it back! So you see physical things like that: colours and shapes?

Yeah, I do. Actual colours and shapes, and with various sounds and frequencies they can take on different forms. I’ve always had it, it’s never gone away.

Did you just assume as a kid that everyone had it? 

I think I probably did when I was really small. You don’t really think about it – you just think “this is normal”.

I guess it can be a blessing and a curse! Obviously you want to switch it off sometimes… but I guess the essence of creativity is sometimes finding those strange connections. If you’re a comedian, it’s the punchline that nobody sees coming; if you’re a musician, it’s finding a new sound, or the direction of a melody. Is there an element of needing your brain to work in different ways sometimes?

I think so, yeah. I wear a lot of different hats in the studio, and I go from mode to mode. So in certain modes, you need more of that, and less so in others. Thankfully, I’m kind of trying to train myself into… not being able to switch it off and on, but going more in the direction of trying to control it a bit. Because I’m a bit of a control freak! (Laughs)

Do you find your state of mind not only affected by the landscape, but also by the way in which the weather changes that landscape? I think I’m definitely a different person in the autumn to how I am in the spring.

Yeah, I often feel very different at different times of year. I’m very in tune with the weather, and it really affects me and the way that I write. And obviously it affects the way that I conduct myself outdoors: in winter, you’re wrapping up, and that has its own feeling. I’m very in tune with all that, which I’m very pleased about – because I love different seasons. It’s seeing the change from one season to another, and thinking – ah, I don’t need to be quite as wrapped up today!

My favourite times of year are the times when the weather is changing from one season to another. I love all seasons equally, but after a while they get slightly wearing: and I love the change from spring to summer just as much as I love the change from autumn into winter.  

Yeah… I used to not really like summer. I used to think I was just a winter person, but honestly – I’m not. I really do enjoy it, and I enjoy those changes, like you say.

There are some intriguing Gaelic song titles on this album… there’s ‘Fonn’ – that’s a Gaelic word, isn’t it?  

It is, it’s a word for melody.

I wanted to ask about a couple of others… there’s a track on there called ‘Siorraidh’ – what does that mean?

It’s a specific kind of melancholy. I liked the sound of the word. A lot of this album was conceived on the Isle of Skye. I was travelling around, seeing different words everywhere, and I was noting them down… I took a notebook around. And it was a word that I just really liked the sound of, and I thought – I’m going to write something around that.

Where did you see it, can you remember?

I can’t, actually. It might have been in a cafe, or on a sheet of paper somewhere. Because I’m often going round different places, and if I go into a cafe and they’ve got handouts or little leaflets, I’ll take those and put them in my notebook. You find inspiration in these things.

Do you keep the notebooks wih you at all times? Do you have one at the side of the bed in case you dream something interesting?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got several of them. Loads of notebooks. I’m a notebook fiend!  

Definitely a physical notebook, and not a phone?

Definitely physical. I like the act of writing, and… I’ve got different pens… (laughs) I’m terrible like that. Absolutely terrible.

Do you doodle as well?

Yeah. Drawings, and little diagrams. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. No-one gets to see it either, it’s kind of secret.

I know a few people that do the same. I’ve got a friend called Scott Turnbull, he’s a lovely and rather eccentric actor and writer, and he thinks that if he doesn’t make a page of notes and drawings in his notebook every day, he’s let himself down creatively. And within that page there might be one idea that he can use. He’ll pick something out of it. 

Yeah, you’ve got to do an awful lot of that really, to get one idea. But it feels worth it for that one thing that stands out, and you think, actually… I can do something with that.

I assumed that you’d been to the Isle of Skye actually, because I googled the album track ‘Neist Point’ and discovered that’s where it was! Do you want to describe Niest Point to us?

Yeah, there’s a lighthouse there, and there’s quite a long walk all the way around it. And to get to it, you’ve got a load of steps. It’s a long way, a good walk. I was there for most of the day, and I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing. You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.

I was just really taken by how I felt there, and also… on the inside sleeve, there are various Polaroids of trees, and all of those trees exist on Skye. It’s all about making these temporary connections with nature, and somehow giving them a life after you’ve left them alone and got back in the car and driven off. So there’s a lot of that going on… and one of those trees was at Neist Point.

Talking about your connection with nature – and with place and landscape – I was delighted to see that your album Shapwick, from 2012, is being reissued on vinyl. It’s genuinely one of my favourite albums, and it’s meant so much to me over the years. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind it… this was another journey you were making, wasn’t it?

It was… I was coming back from a holiday in Devon, and there was an incident on the motorway – I think it was a rugby club that had caught fire – and we were in backed-up traffic, standing still for hours. And we decided that, as soon as we could get off the motorway, we’d take a detour. This was at night time, and it was completely dark. And there was a little village called Shapwick… we were driving through it, and I was just completely taken with how the car headlights looked as we went though the village. And I noted it down – at the time I was using my phone to take notes – and I just made a quick note: “Shapwick… sounds like a good album title”. And I kind of imagined how the village would feel, and the various things that would happen in it.

So as soon as I got back, I pretty much started writing stuff around that, and it became an album. And now I feel very old, because it’s been reissued for the third time! I’m really glad that it’s coming out again, because people still ask about that record.

I find that it’s a record that makes a genuinely emotional connection with people. It has a very personal resonance for me, but there’s clearly something in it that really speaks to a lot of people. Do you ever know what these things are, or do you just put the music “out there”, and see where it goes?

I don’t think you ever can know, really. Because everyone’s got their own take on it. But what I ty to do, with every record I make, is put a lot of human emotion into it. And that can take various forms, but I always want to create something that someone is going to connect with. Rather than just being… well, you know, I’d hopefully never make a bland record that doesn’t appeal to anyone. They’re going to appeal to different people, but the ideas is to try and create something that someone, somewhere is going to really connect with. And if I can do that, I’m doing my job properly.

Did you actually stop in Shapwick, or did you just drive straight through it?

No! We literally drove through. I’ve never been there.

I do love the idea of the village now having this kind of second identity, and a second history. It’s like when towns and villages are used as locations for films and TV shows… you’ve created a kind of fictional Shapwick, which I really like.

Exactly, yeah. I think, years ago, I read something about Brian Eno being quite into taking places on maps, and imaging what those places were like. That always fascinated me, that idea. And as I started to explore the place, I was thinking: “What does this place feel like? And what could go on there? Who are the characters?”

And I go off into my own world, and people become characters, and incidents become fictional things that can turn into music.

Can I ask about something on the album that has tormented me since it came out?  

Go on, then. If I can answer…

Who is the man talking about bats? I can virtually quote him word for word…

Ah! Yeah, he was fabulous! I went on a bat walk, a guided walk around a nature reserve one evening, and he was the bat expert. He had all the equipment to listen to bat calls… it was fabulous, I still remember that night. He was such a character, and I just happened to have my audio recorder on me – because I carry one of those everywhere – and I recorded him speaking and I thought: “You are absolutely brilliant, you’re going to feature on a record one day…”

Does he know he’s on it?

(Laughs) I don’t think he does…

It might be a lovely surprise for him one day! If ever I end up using the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, I usually do it twice… and that’s come directly from him.

(Laughs) Yeah, he was really, really good.

You’ve recorded under lots of different guises, and done lots of collaborations… I guess lots of people will know about your work with Ghost Box as The Advisory Circle. Does it feel like you have very distinct musical personas?

Yeah, definitely. I’m just interested in lots of different things, and I can never just stick to doing one thing. I would get so bored. I probably collaborate a lot less now, but I’ve done a fair amount of that in the past – I’ve done collaborations with Friendly Fires as The Pattern Forms, and we did an album together, that was good fun to do. But even on my own, I do different projects all the time, and from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing.

Do you start composing with a particular persona in mind, or do you just make music generally? And if it sounds like an Advisory Circle track, then that’s what it becomes, and if it sounds like a Jon Brooks track, then it becomes that instead…

Sometimes, yeah. I try and let things take the lead, and then I’ll just go with it, rather than trying to control it too much. You kind of get a feel after a while, of – “is this going to be an Advisory Circle track, is this going to be a Clesse track” or whatever it is, and you can then develop it in that direction, and just go with it. But I love doing different things, I always do.

It stuck me that you work with two labels with a very striking visual identity. Clay Pipe has Frances Castle’s wonderful artwork, and Ghost Box has Julian House, whose work I love, too. Is that visual element important to you?

Incredibly. I’m very into visual graphic design. And I’m just incredibly lucky, working with Frances or Ju, that I always get a sleeve that I’m really happy with. Their work, I always think, is half the record. It’s not just about the music, it’s about everything else around it. And when I give something to Ghost Box, or to Frances, and when I see the artwork, it becomes a record. And it starts to sound like a record, because I’ve got the artwork. That’s the only way I can describe it.

It must be a lovely feeling when you first unpack the finished product…

Oh god, yeah. It’s always exciting. It was like that with the last Ghost Box thing I did,  Ways Of Seeing … that was in a gold foil sleeve, and I was like… “Ah, right OK… this is really good, what he’s done.”  

The number I’ve times I’ve tried to wipe my thumbprints off that sleeve, though…  

(Laughs) Oh, I know. Just get one of those polythene covers on it…

I used to do that with my schoolbooks! So what have you got planned next?

Just experiments at the moment. Obviously I’ve been getting this album finished, but now I want to do wildly different things. I’ve been doing loads of experiments, and seeing where it all goes, and the exciting part is not knowing. You just don’t know where you’re going…

Thanks so much to Jon for his time and conversation. The above interview was conducted in mid-March, before the Coronavirus lockdown was implemented, so the the vinyl editions of both How to Get to Spring and Shapwick have been temporarily delayed. However, digital copies of the former are available to buy here:

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/how-to-get-to-spring/

And Jon’s digital back catalogue is available here:

https://cafekaput.bandcamp.com/

2 thoughts on “Jon Brooks, Shapwick and How to Get to Spring

  1. invisibleplanmark April 3, 2020 / 7:10 pm

    Great read Bob, and I’d always wondered about the bat man too… ie the man talking about bats on Shapwick!
    Really been enjoying ‘How to get to Spring’ today, a nice calming tonic to the craziness going on in the world at the moment.

    Like

    • bobfischer April 3, 2020 / 9:14 pm

      Cheers Mark, and yeah – it’s a lovely, soothing album.

      Like

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