Plainsongs is my fourth album release with the Subjangle label and my eighteenth studio album as a solo artist. For a track by track rundown of the songs on Plainsongs, together with the acoustic demos I made, click here.
It’s been twenty years since I recorded my first album, Solomon’s Tump, in a Cheltenham bedsit on a Tascam 424 tape machine.+ The songs keep coming, though, and as long as they do, and I think they’re half-decent, I’ll continue to put out music.
It was always a long-haul thing for me, ever since I wrote my first song, ‘Running Free’, in 1988. I’m still amazed by the magic of creation. ‘Running Free’ isn’t a great song but at one time it didn’t exist. Then it did. I’ll never forget that moment. Wow, I’ve actually written a song!
A recording exists of the first performance of ‘Running Free’ (with my band Embryo, named by my biology teacher) and on drums is my friend and near-neighbour Hugh Lyford, then a mere fourteen years old. Hugh plays the drums on Plainsongs. My mate at sixth form, Richard Kilbey, sings the lead vocals. Richard plays lap steel guitar and synth on Plainsongs.
All I’ve attempted to do ever since is try and write better songs. It took me a long time. In fact, ten years later, in 1997, I still hadn’t written a song as good as ‘Running Free’; and that was with the bar set very low! I very nearly gave up on the idea then. Fortunately, in 1998, when I was twenty-seven, and at a bit of a turning point in my life – I had just dropped out of university (for the third time!) – I managed to write ten or eleven semi-decent songs.* This encouraged me to try and get a band together in order to perform them and soon The Dandelions (Mark I) was born.
This was when I met my friend Paul Kench. Paul plays guitar on Plainsongs. He answered an ad I put out for a lead guitarist in Cheltenham music shop, Aroundabout Sound. I was playing bass. While we hunted for a female lead singer (I imagined the band sounding like a cross between Jefferson Airplane and Blondie), we recorded a few songs with fifteen year old drummer Jamie Jordan in his school's music room, including 'Upside Down'. After eventually finding a female singer, The Dandelions Mark I split following a few gigs, as did The Dandelions Mark II, following a similar pattern, but Paul and I remained close.
I formed a new band with a friend I met at a meditation group I was running, Magda McCaffry. She played bass so I switched to guitar. My best mate Dean’s partner, Amanda, sat in on drums. Magda named the group Karma Truffle – after fantasising about psychedelic confectionary – and we performed the songs that Magda and I were writing as well as covers by the likes of Love, The Undertones and The Bevis Frond. It was a heavy band. Examples of the songs we were writing include Magda’s ‘Don’t Ask’ and my ‘When He Comes’. Tragically, Magda passed away earlier this year from cancer. A talented writer, her novel, Mirror Dead, was published in 2017 under the pseudonym, Magda McQueen.
It was while Karma Truffle were getting together that I recorded Solomon’s Tump. I was writing so many songs that I used half in the band and kept half (the more melodic ones) for this solo project. I wanted a fictional name for this alter-ego and settled on ‘Bernard Blake’, referencing my favourite poet but it was also the name of an older guy I knew from work.
Amanda stepped down and Paul and Jamie soon re-joined the group. Fortuitously, Paul had started dating a woman who was setting up a record label in London. He passed her a copy of Solomon’s Tump and she and her business partner asked me to sign to the label. I insisted that the band was signed instead.
For a brief period, we enjoyed the head-swirling fact that we were signed to an indie label and were tasked with recording an E.P. for ‘proper’ release. By this time, I was writing more accessible material for the group and we chose to record ‘A Better Way’, ‘Let It Go’ and ‘She’s Not All That’.^ I have told the story a thousand times, but, sadly, the reality of that situation was neither glamorous nor lucrative nor even much fun. Fast forward two years and we’d left the label and the band was no more. The E.P. took a year to record – the producer’s quest for perfection would have put Paul Rothchild to shame. Magda quit after one too many three in the morning stops at the Welcome Break services after showcase gigs up north. We found a great female bass player replacement but she lived miles away in Essex while Jamie was at University in Birmingham. I got sick of travelling for three hours just to rehearse and handed in my notice.
With the songs on one Karma Truffle E.P. and one (independently financed) L.P. (What You Do Comes Back To You) recorded for posterity, I turned my attention to the backlog of songs I had accumulated over the past two or three years and resumed my solo career. I dropped the ‘Bernard’ from my moniker – something I would later regret because of the arrival of classical ‘boy band’ Blake the following year – and began recording my unused songs on a Tascam portastudio at home playing all the instruments, as I had done with Solomon’s Tump.
I developed a habit of self-releasing at least one album per year for the next fifteen years, sharing my music on the internet and selling my CDs at gigs. I was newly married and to support my family (and, more importantly, to ensure I stayed married!), I had to start earning money from music. It was clear I wasn’t going to achieve this through royalty cheques, so I bit the bullet and started a tribute band. I figured that if I had to do this, I might as well choose my favourite group.
I put another advert up in the local musical instrument shop (in Melksham, the town in Wiltshire I had moved to after getting married) and this bloke knocked on my door one evening, introducing himself as “Paul McCartney, at your service.” His real name was Joe Brown and he plays bass on Plainsongs. Look and sound like Macca he did, though, and with Paul (confusingly) taking on the role of George, me as John and talented drummer Chris Scrivens performing as Ringo, from 2013 to 2020 our group All You Need Is The Beatles celebrated and recreated every one of the The Beatles’ studio albums live on stage at various theatres across the country on the fiftieth anniversary of their release.
As I say, I kept recording and releasing music as Blake throughout this period. Highlights included being invited to perform at the Bethlehem Music Festival in 2014 following the release of my album, Star Over Bethlehem, and getting my song 'Vinyl Junkie' mastered at Abbey Road Studios and its inclusion in the 2018 British crime film, "Dragonflies Only Live for 24 Hours".
Lockdown was responsible for the folding of All You Need Is The Beatles in 2020, shortly after we had performed our show celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Let It Be’ album – a fitting conclusion. Obviously, I used the enforced time at home to record a new album and the result, 1971, brought me to the attention of indie label, Subjangle, and its re-release on CD, together with a compilation bonus disc of the best of my material from my previous albums, as HMS Blake.
Kaleidoscope and The Book On Love followed in 2021 and 2022 respectively on Subjangle CD. The former was mostly recorded at Radar Sound Studios in London with the help of Joe, Hugh and Rich (Paul wasn’t available) and the latter I recorded at home.
My intention with Plainsongs, was to record live with the band in the studio on analogue tape with as few overdubs as possible - "just plain songs" - in the same way all my favourite records were made in the sixties and seventies.
That potted history brings you up to date and introduces my friends who kindly joined me to record Plainsongs at New Cut Studios in Bristol in March and April of this year. I am incredibly pleased with the results. Huge thanks to Scot McKenzie, Drezz and Barry Gardner. The album launch gig takes place at The Cavern Club, Liverpool, on Saturday 3rd June at 4.45pm as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival.
+ I aim to release a remixed and remastered edition of Solomon's Tump later this year.
* I have been tempted to release 1998 demos for years. They were recorded on a four track recorder that I borrowed from a friend when I was (briefly) at Swansea University.
^ I don't own the sound recordings to the versions of these songs on the She's Not All That E.P. unfortunately, and they are hard to track down online. I have one copy of the E.P. on CD at home. I re-recorded 'A Better Way' in 2010 and it is available on the A Taste of Blake and Vinyl Junkie compilation albums.