Interview for VBC internet radio in Vladivostok, Russia
Interviewer: Dmitry Shakin
I (Dmitry) got acquainted with New Age music in autumn 1990 when I just began working as music editor at the radio. One rainy day I got a parcel from Carmen Willcox of Paradise Farm. It was a box containing several audio tapes with extraordinary music recorded on them. Never in my life had I heard anything of the kind! That is how I learnt about your music and the music of Phil Thornton, David Sun, Medwyn Goodall and others.
So many years have passed but I still remember those incredible feelings which I had at that day. I think that “the first wave” of New Age musicians who started in middle 80s and beginning of 90s created very sincere music - the music that could touch the heart of every listener. Forgive my excessive sentimentality, but, you know, during these years I had a chance to listen to various music, and I often thought that I am missing very much those tapes from the past.
Let’s put a clock back and try to remember how it all started. What is the first thing that you have reminiscences about? Could you tell me how it all started and also about your early music?
Well, may I tell you how music itself started for me first, Dmitry, before I look at New Age music? I began to play the piano intuitively, very early… aged about 3. I was adopted by a Jewish family in London, and both my adoptive mother and grandfather played and sang. My mother liked composers such as Gershwin and Cole Porter. My little tunes were introverted and melancholy though, not boisterous! When I traced my ancestral roots I found that my birth mother's Jewish family came from Russia… from Orsha, in what is now Belarus. They had been re-settled there. Before that I think they came from further east, near Kazan. My features are quite Russian… a bit like Nuryev!
By the age of about 8 I was liking Buddy Holly, Elvis & Rick Nelson on radio Luxembourg. I used listen under the bedclothes at night! Then I heard Bob Dylan, and his songs went deep into my heart. Instead of silly pop-songs about love gone wrong, he produced startling images like 'the foggy ruins of time' in his lyrics. This transported me into another dimension. I was so taken with it that I could not simply relax and listen, I had to respond. So I learned his songs on the piano, and began to fantasise about my own ideas.
I was very shy and would only sing to myself, however. No-one outside my parents knew I could even play the piano. Lessons were arranged for me, but I found I could not learn to read, despite my teacher's big stick! I wanted to play only from my heart.
As a teenager I loved the music of Dvorak, Bruckner, and the mournful Italian baroque composers like Vivaldi & Albinoni. Also Vaughan Williams. Of the contemporary musicians along with Bob Dylan, I liked… amongst others... Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Mike Oldfield, Fairport Convention and a French/Greek folk-singer called Georges Moustaki.
I wanted to be a footballer, but I also wanted to be like Bob Dylan. I remember Dylan saying he just wanted to be bigger than Elvis when he was a kid… well, I just wanted to be bigger than Dylan! I was hopeless at the sciences at school, and liked only literature and the arts. I think I was a natural born mystic… but they didn't teach mysticism at school!
The other thing that happened when I was little, was that I had visions of Jesus, aged 5. This was not understood in my family, who were Jewish, so I kept quiet about it. But the seeds were sewn already, for my later life. I have followed those visions of Jesus into my work as a psychotherapist, and also into music as an expression of the Divine. I am not a Christian, you understand, or a practicing Jew, and I have no religious creed, but I see the Divine in all things, am guided by Spirit and know, unquestionably, that we are all one. This is what I seek to express in music. Dylan and Leonard Cohen, these two are great Jewish mystics who tell profound stories in song, and carry a message of a bigger reality. I identify with that… being a story-teller in song.
Imagine that you have been asked to choose two songs for a compilation of the best songs in the history of music. One of it should be a song of yours, and the other one – any other of your favourites. Which two would you choose?
This is a great question! May I confine it to contemporary song? If it was classical, I would consider something like the sublime "Spem in Alium" by Thomas Tallis, or Bizet's "The Pearl-fishers"… or perhaps the Neapolitan love-song "Catari, Catari". With contemporary songs not written by myself I think there are two contenders. One is Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" but sung by Jeff Buckley. The song is so bitter-sweet, beautiful, humble, ironic and transcendent, but Jeff Buckley's performance with just his pure, heart-breaking voice and mesmerising electric guitar is like nothing on earth. It is utterly masterful and I never tire of it. When I hear it and sing it myself, I feel naked before God… and somehow that is OK.
The other song which vies for the top place in my heart may surprise you. It is "Golden brown" by the Stranglers, made in 1982. I remember the day I saw this on a pop-show on TV. The Stranglers were mean, moody punksters, but suddenly there were these four ugly men in black singing something from another time. It was like a baroque sea-shanty. The harpsichord and strangely sensual rhythm never wavered or 'sold out'… it just stayed pure. Hugh Cornwell's voice was so sensual and sweet somehow, and the words were like some mythic tale of the elusive anima or mystery inner woman. Apparently, the lyrics reflected the experience of heroin, but to me the theme went way beyond that. It actually constellated this mermaid-like, sensual young feminine that I recognised from my own heart.
If any song describes my inner woman, it is "Golden brown". With "Hallelujah" I feel naked before God. With "Golden brown" I feel naked with this girl. It gets me in the pit of my stomach every time I hear those first few chords… still today, after nearly 30 years!
Of my own compositions and recordings I would choose from these tracks: "Wings of fire" from the album "Stardance"…an epic instrumental track which describes a long, snaking train journey to Mexico City when I was about 25, which took a day and a night, through mountains, deserts, jungle, coastland and volcanos. Little boys got on board with monkeys and melons. At one point there was a forest fire across the valley in the shape of a question mark. Then I would consider "Angel's lullaby" from "High Planes Music". This is only a couple of minutes long, but it has a deep emotion in it. It was used on a film for a foundation that uses water therapy for very disabled children. It made me cry to see this little boy being held lovingly in the water, so he could enjoy the sensations. He had a lovely smile on his face. A mother also used this song at the funeral of her son. This too made me cry… the honour of having a song of mine used for such an occasion was almost too much to bear.
On the same album is "Gypsy Madonna", about the inner Divine feminine. My voice seems imbued with a spirit from way beyond me on this track. "Song of eternity" from "East of East" is something I always like to sing. There is a YouTube of me singing it in the studio as it was being recorded. "If you believed in love" sung 'live' on my 'greatest hits' double album "Forgotten Language of the Heart" is a true reflection of the power of Spirit to heal. My latest release is called "Falling Through Time" and there are two tracks on that which really capture and express a kind of higher love from beyond, which heals my own soul. "Falling through time" is sung as if the Higher Self is singing a devotional love song to the innocent, child-like ego, and "Visions" has a kind of very simple, plaintive French country folk melody, but with lyrics that refer to the worlds beyond the world.
I am very pleased with many covers I've done… "Greensleeves", "Silent night", "Copper kettle", "I heard the voice of Jesus say", "Lily of the west", Shenandoah", "Amazing grace", "The raggle taggle gypsies", "Golden brown" of course, and "Please let me get what I want" by the Smiths. I always seek to find the transcendent in these songs and bring it to earth.
If I am to choose the song that most expresses my true heart I would say that it is "Falling through time". So my two choices, finally, would be "Hallelujah" and "Falling through time."
Here is the question that I am particularly interested in: Do you remember the moment when you heard your song by radio for the first time? What did you feel at the moment? What song was it? And generally, do you remember at all the moment when you "woke up" a famous man?
Dmitry, I never wake up a famous man! In my own household, which is the most important place for me, I am a husband and father. I do not get recognised in my own house sometimes, let alone in the street… my kids are too busy to notice I'm there half the time. There are no pretty young girls waiting outside my front door, unfortunately… no cameras except the CCTV ones put up by the police!
It's true that people in the public domain project all kinds of things onto me, as we all can do onto figures we like (or dislike), because of my voice or my words, or the image they see. I try to be myself all the time and not play up to any image. I am capable of profundity, but also of stupidity. I answer every mail I get, and I try to always be honest… otherwise I forget which lies I've told! I seem to attract a very intense following, but then my songs are very intense. I'm not known by many people, but those that do 'know' me tend to want to live inside me or have my children. And that's just the men! I think that if I manage to really convey that the Divine is in everything and that we are all connected, in song, then my artistic life's purpose is fulfilled. And some people really seem to pick up that message, and it opens the heart… mine and theirs. But it is not me… it is Spirit that we feel.
I once heard it said that the metaphysical artist is the only person with a special licence to lie. Someone has to depict the unseen worlds, but that doesn't mean that they can live up to these ideals.
When I was 18, 19, 20 I had a German girlfriend, Ursula, at the university of Gottingen. Ursula introduced me to art… to Kandinsky & Chagall, to Fellini, to Pachelbel, to Hesse, to D.H.Lawrence… and we used to listen to the radio broadcasting from central Europe. When I heard Leonard Cohen, Georges Moustaki, Alain Stivell, Fairport Convention and the like, I longed one day to actually BE the artist who's songs were played on the radio. We went down to a Beat Club, called the Blue Note, to hear folk acts and alternative music… and I longed to play there, and to be on the radio. They were magical moments, and I wanted one day to actually provide that magic for others.
And I did! Now I'm played on the radio a lot, and people mail me and say they had a magical experience listening to a track of mine. One man had a huge heart opening on a plane over Greenland, as the sun set pink and blue on the snowy landscape and Virgin were playing "Angels lullaby" on the in-flight station. He found a huge upwelling of feeling in his heart and sobbed with joy at the beauty of it all. At that moment he felt the Divine in everything.
I first heard myself on the radio in the UK. It was on a local radio station in Devon, in 1992, and it was Valentine's day… the day for lovers! They played my track "To my one true love". It is immensely gratifying to have achieved my dream in this way… it gives me huge amounts of energy and cosmic love, and I feel very grateful for it all.
What can you say about your latest album 'Falling Through Time'?
In March 2009, I gave a small acoustic concert at a church in Stroud, Gloucestershire, and in the audience was a young musician and sound engineer, Shaun Britton, who gave me a CD of his music to listen to. I liked what I heard, and some time later I asked Shaun to engineer and co-produce my next album. When that time came we agreed a start date, which was May 28th, 2010.
My original plan was to compose and record maybe eight new songs, and sing some more of my favourite traditional songs as well. My working title for the project was "Fireside Ballads". I had planned to start with 'The house of the rising sun', but on the morning of the first recording I awoke with a new song almost complete in my head, as if from a dream, and I completed it, mentally, on the drive down to Shaun's studio, in Fareham, Hampshire. I called this new song 'Everything is in God', and remembered that those words appeared in a song of Van Morrison's entitled 'When will I ever learn to live in God?' They must have been cooking inside me for quite some time.
Much of this album was recorded between the end of May and the end of October, in a largely sunny, warm and dry summer… quite Mediterranean in fact. The early morning drive down to Shaun’s, usually on a friday or a sunday, was invariably sunny. Every day we recorded, in fact, seemed to be a sunny day.
Shaun is a young composer, producer and sound engineer, and his effortless genius helped make the whole project a delight. No matter what the issue was, Shaun always had a solution.
Very quickly the project gathered a spirit all of its own. I wrote three songs in ten days, or rather three songs wrote me… they were 'Visions', 'Falling through time' and 'Blessings on your soul'. At this point it became clear to me that the album itself wished to be called "Falling Through Time", which seemed to be an appropriate concept, because it both covered the mystical sense that eternity somehow desires to communicate to our mortal souls, bringing tidings of comfort and joy, and also that some great traditional songs are timeless stories about the essential ingredients and dramas of human nature, just like myths, fairy tales or dreams, but set to music. Interwoven for me between composing, family and working life, and watching the football world cup, was this quote which I found very inspiring:
"I see this life as a conjuration and a dream. Great compassion rises
in my heart for those without a knowledge of this truth."
Some of these traditional songs seemed almost to whisper gently into my ear, just as insistently as my new songs did. For instance, I wanted to record the traditional ballad 'Shenandoah', and found in the studio that it had very definite ideas about how it wished to be conveyed. I researched the song and found that one of several possible native American meanings of the word 'shenandoah' is ‘beautiful daughter of the stars’. Legend has it that a protestant settler in West Virginia fell in love with the daughter of an Indian chief, and the song is about the impossibility of their love. The refrain 'away I’m bound to go' takes on an extra layer of meaning when one considers that the Algonquin word 'awae' means spirit. I added some lyrics of my own to 'Shenandoah', as I did later to 'Amazing grace'.
All through the recording period, a song kept popping into my mind as a constant anchor… and this was 'Magic' by Bruce Springsteen. I felt uplifted by the sentiment contained within it… of ordinary reality being like a conjurer’s illusion… of falling through time myself, somehow…
This song also inspired me to play a guitar pick accompaniment on 'Song of the blue lotus', 'Raggle taggle gypsy' and 'Blessings on your soul'. Piano is my main instrument, but I plugged away at these picks until I became quite a flamenco hillbilly, (and not a moment too soon!) 'Raggle taggle gypsy' is over 200 years old, and is the forefather of the song 'Gypsy Davy' which I first heard sung by Woody Guthrie and then re-interpreted by his son Arlo. In this track I wanted some Flamenco shoe dancing, as I heard this in my imagination. Shaun found an old plank of wood in a cupboard alongside someone's old shoes, and proceeded to put the shoes on his hands, kneel down and tap out the Flamenco rhythms on the wood! Sheer genius!
'The mystic garden', 'Forgiveness' and 'Have mercy on me' are songs I wrote last year and then performed at various concerts. They were recorded, and appear 'live' on a double compilation album of mine "Forgotten Language of the Heart". The literal garden referred to here is actually the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, a very powerful, magical place in south west England, steeped in myth and legend to do with King Arthur, but also Jesus and the Divine Mother. 'Love's philosophy' is a poem by Percy Shelley which I felt I really wanted to set to music. I used the title for an entirely different track many years ago on an album called "Love is the Only Prayer", but after hearing Leonard Cohen set Byron's 'So we'll go no more a-roving' to music I set about bringing this favourite Shelley poem of mine alive in song.
The one cover version I have sung here is 'This little bird', written by John D. Loudermilk and made famous originally by Marianne Faithfull. I found I wanted to slow it right down and almost whisper it, but then to have the song explode and die in a brief piano crescendo. I practiced it 100 times, and the ending was never the same.
'Spanish is the loving tongue' is an old border song I first heard covered by Bob Dylan. I've been singing it for nearly thirty years, and I sang it on the streets in Mexico when I lived there as a younger man. I sang it to my then Mexican girlfriend, but I had never before recorded it. 'Wayfaring stranger' is a troubadour-esque, minstrel spiritual I first heard sung by Johnny Cash, which is the kind of song with such open and direct simplicity, it makes me look as if I can almost play the guitar convincingly. 'Love is come again' is actually a hymn set to a traditional French country melody, celebrating the phenomenon of renewal in the human heart.
Curiously, when I was about to complete this album, I toyed again with the idea of recording 'House of the rising sun', and pretty much the same thing happened at this end point as had happened at the beginning. I awoke with the impulse to compose a new song at the eleventh hour, and within two hours I had completed it. This became 'Song of the blue lotus', and 'House of the rising sun' never got recorded.
I have learned that the blue lotus is a sacred flower from Egyptian times, and that the oil is inhaled to enhance meditation. It is also considered to be an aphrodisiac, both bodily and spiritually. I inhaled some, found it utterly intoxicating in the subtlest way imaginable, promptly fell asleep and awoke with this song the following morning. As it turned out, this last-gasp song I came up with seemed like the most natural song to begin the whole album with, and so I went with that.
In general which of your albums is the most favourite and why?
Well, the album of mine that has been the most successful in terms of sales is the piano-based instrumental New Age album "Concert of Angels", made in 1993. There is a certain irony to this in that it was made in 3 days and cost only £150 to make. "Serpent in Paradise", made in 2007, took over 30 recording days and cost €15,000, by contrast. "Concert of Angels" consists mostly of improvised piano, which I recorded in the piano room at the house of my friend, Anthony Phillips, who lives very nearby. Anthony was a kind of mentor figure for me, and was originally a founder member of the band Genesis. He is a classical guitarist and pianist, and has made many guitar and ambient solo albums himself, and also recorded prolifically for film and television. It was Anthony who recorded my first demo cassettes in 1980, and who produced my first albums in the late 1980's.
So I recorded this intuitive piano at Anthony's house, and then took the recording down to the studio of Phil Thornton… a colleague on the New World Music label… to orchestrate it subtly. "Concert of Angels" was inspired both by a pilgrimage my wife and I made to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia, Spain, and by the death of my Godfather. I was present when he died, and felt acutely aware of his spirit ascending as it left his body.
The long opening track describes the journey to Santiago de Compostella, which means 'Saint James of the field of stars', and is called simply "Santiago". It is quite an epic narrative.
I found a painting called "Concert of Angels" in an art library, after much research, which seemed to perfectly describe the music… both the image and the title. The painting is essentially green… a healing vibration. Perhaps this combination of spontaneous, heart-felt piano, plus the image, healing vibration and the title presented a very coherent and integrated statement to the music-buying public. It is still very popular today, nearly twenty years on. I feel it has a certain timeless quality to it. My friend and colleague, Emoke Labancz in Budapest, has just created a compelling YouTube video to promote this album.
But the album of mine that I personally like the best is my new release "Falling Through Time". I feel this is because it contains my most evolved song-writing, my purest heart expression, the best musical production and the loveliest artwork… and it is is on my own new record label, Singing Stone Music, as I am now independent. I felt more free to be bold and intuitive than ever before, and the album seemed almost to call to me to be incarnated, from worlds beyond, rather than something I created. I felt it already existed, somehow, and I was the sculptor who found the statue in the marble. It has sixteen tracks and is over seventy minutes long, and is a singer-songwriter album in the style of those that I've loved over the years myself by, say, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash… but with a mystical, spiritual foundation. It is also quite eclectic, with a lot of different musical styles and influences, although all the songs are ballads.
In every person's life there are such moments when one has a desire to sing something quietly for himself. What do you usually sing in such cases?
Well, my response to this is quite funny to me! The truth is I NEVER sing anything quietly to myself in such moments. I sing quietly in the studio or when I am composing, but never in those moments that you refer to. What I DO do in those moments is to sing absurd, manic songs for, and inspired by, my two cats. These are complete nonsense songs, infantile, juvenile and lunatic. But the cats love them. It makes them want to bite my nose, or attack the curtain. My youngest son does this too. These songs would make a great comedy album. My little cat is called Chipi. She's an Abyssinian… and is probably, therefore, Moslem. She only wants to be with me, and growls at everyone else. She's so small and cute but she behaves psychotically with everyone but me. If I sing mad songs to her she eats my lap-top. Our other cat is called Lupin… much more sociable and sane… but he will attack my foot if sung to.
Do you believe in the therapeutic use of music?
There is this wonderful quote from the Gayan, a Sufi book of wisdom… the full title of which is "Notes from the unstruck music from The Gayan of Inayat Khan". It goes like this:
"What science cannot declare
Art can suggest.
What art suggests silently
Poetry speaks out.
But what poetry fails to explain in words
Is expressed by music."
Music goes beyond all art forms as the most direct expression of Divine love, and Divine love IS healing. It is prayer and meditation. Music is four-dimensional. What ideology and belief declare with the word, music expresses with a kiss. What politics seeks to change by rhetoric, music achieves with dance. Music opens the heart, unblocks the block and frees the spirit. Music evokes Eros. In indigenous cultures when the children are sick, the shaman instigates music and dance to call back the spirits into the body.
Music is the language of Spirit. So of course I believe in the therapeutic use of music. We ARE music. The therapeutic use of music simply realigns the mind and body with spirit, and re-connects us to the music that we are.
What's your ultimate goal as a composer/musician?
I don't actually see myself as a composer or a musician in the sense of that as a career. I'm a mystic, and music serves that in me… I don't write music to top the charts, to win an award or gain recognition. I write solely to heal my own heart and to reach out to others, and to express these deep truths about the Divine that I experience. If I did not find a way to do that I would doubtless go mad.
With that in mind and in my heart I then pursue excellence. I need only enough money to keep it going, so I can continue to compose, record, market and perform. I've managed to do that, just about, over twenty five years.
Thank you very much for the interview and just a few words for the listeners in Russia who are discovering your wonderful music nowadays.
It is my honour to be invited to answer these questions, Dmitry, and so thank you for the invitation. My music has some of the melancholy Russian soul and magical spirit in it, because of my origins, and of this I'm proud.