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The Jack Rutter Interview

We talk to Jack Rutter, folk musician, about his new album 'Hills', his favourite folk albums, the definition of folk music and why he wears a neck brace.

Meet Jack Rutter: folk singer, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, and – as you’ll see – man who frets over things like ‘best before’ dates. I mention this point up front because I think it might give you a sense of who you’re going to read about – a gentle, humble, loveable fellow that I had the pleasure of hosting when he played at Whitchurch Folk Club in November.

Despite an extraordinary talent, there’s nothing showy about young Jack Rutter. Both onstage and off, he fumbles with his words delightfully (I’ve already adopted the ‘harmonica neck brace’ that you’ll be reading about later into my lexicon), apologises profusely for mistakes he thinks he’s made with his research (he never makes any – everything checked out in the sub-editing), and goes to great pains to help in any way he can (it’s a rare headline act that turns up early to help put the chairs out). In short, he’s the kind of chap you hope will go very far indeed, simply because the world needs to hear more from people like Jack Rutter.

And with that in mind, before we take a step further, allow me to implore you: click the following link and make yourself a purchase. Hills is one of the finest folk albums of the year. You’d be a fool to leave 2017 without it.

Thank you for coming down to perform at Whitchurch Folk Club last night, Jack. 

That’s more than OK.

That was your first solo gig of real length, wasn’t it? 

First ever full 90 minutes, yeah. A two-45s gig.

What’s that like to prepare for in comparison to something where you’re with Moore Moss Rutter

Just as fun, really. I work out what the setlist is going to be in advance and just practice those songs a bit. I don’t often get to play my melodian out in public, but I think it’s nice to have a couple of tune sets in the gig, so playing those tunes in the week before has been fun.

You had someone come up to you from the audience, someone that knew of the area that you’re from, and there was a song… 

Yes, there was a lady who, in the interval, came and said, “My grandma’s from Swaledale”, which isn’t that close to me anyway because Yorkshire is quite big. I think it’d be a good two hours up the road. But the song ‘Swaledale’ is sung often in the pubs around Sheffield at Christmas, and I’ve also heard Will Noble – my best mate’s dad – singing it quite a lot, so I thought, “Oh, I can sing ‘Swaledale’ in the second half for her.” I’m not sure if she actually wanted me to sing it for her, but I said I would, so I did [laughs]!

Well, everybody joined in very quickly. 

They did, and with gusto!

Is it important to you to be singing songs that are local – songs from where you come from? That seems to be the focus of your album in some ways. 

Erm, I think so, yeah. It’s not too conscious a decision. It’s just generally that those are the songs that I know or would naturally gravitate towards. Those are some of the ones I gravitated towards after I decided I was doing an album – songs that were already in my brain.

When you were putting this album together, you said you went out for a walk and you had six songs that you knew immediately were going to be on it. What were they?

I went out, I think it would’ve been last summer – 2016 – and I just went for a wander. I realised that, even though I’m lucky enough to make lots of different music in lots of different guises, I wasn’t singing traditional folk songs on my own. And when that’s actually my favourite music anyway, and the most integral, as far as I’m concerned, to me that I like, it felt a bit strange that I wasn’t doing that myself. I talked to Ben Nicholls, who is the bass player in the Seth Lakeman band, and he was saying, “You should record a solo demo at some point because it’ll be fun and you’ll enjoy doing it,” so my first thought was, “I’ll do a demo of some songs.” And then 10 minutes later, after thinking it through, I thought, “Ooooh, I’ll do an album! That’ll be good.” And I kind of had a full plan for it.

A few ones I just knew – they were kind of pootling around in the back of my brain – from listening to them or singing them in the van or in sessions or what have you. Songs like ‘Hey John Barleycorn’, and ‘Hatton Woods’ was in there. ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ was in there. A few… I wouldn’t know off the top of my head, unfortunately.

There are two or three songs that really stood out for me and have become definite favourites on the album. And at the concert, it seems you’re aware of them as well. I’d just like to go into them further: ‘Hey John Barleycorn’, and then there’s ‘The Daleman’s Litany’ – did I say that right? 

‘Dalesman’s Litany’.

Yes, and then there’s ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’. Tell me a little bit about those three songs – how you came to them, how they got immersed in your psyche, and then how you went about arranging them. 

‘Hey, John Barleycorn’ went in fairly osmosically from the singing of The Wilsons. That’s one of their staples… that’s the right word, isn’t it? Yeah, a staple diet! That’s one of the main Wilsons songs.

That kind of went in at some very late nights at the Resolution Hotel bar, Whitby Folk Week, around 2010/2011-ish.

So, how old would you have been then? 

19, I think. Maybe a bit younger. 18 or 19.

When you first heard that at Whitby, was it something that grabbed you immediately or did you have to hear it a few times? 

I think I must’ve heard it a few times, and then a couple of years ago at Shrewsbury I was sat right at the front watching the Wilsons. I think I had a gig the previous night, and then I was staying there the whole weekend. The Wilsons were on and I had a couple of nice pints from the very nice bar at Shrewsbury, including one of their Plum Porters – they have a Plum Porter on at the bar at Shrewsbury that I always like. I was sat and they were singing that, and I was thinking, “Ah yes, it’s all in my head, this one! I could do a nice guitar part to this with this weird tuning.” And that was one of the first ones I arranged for the album, and I actually made a little demo video of that which was not for publicly sending out, but to send out to gig bookers and promoters and what have you.

The one after that was ‘Dalesman’s Litany’, and that’s a song that I’ve heard sung by Dave Burland for many years – a wonderful song which I recorded with Moore Moss Rutter in 2011 on our debut album. I’ve changed the key a bit since then and I’ve changed the arrangement and the way I sing it, so I fancied getting a sturdy version of that down because I sing that song so much and I love it so much.

So, that song is actually by Dave Burland, or is it a traditional? 

It’s kind of traditional. I think the words were written by a man called Frederick William Mormon in either the late 1800s or the 1900s. I have to think about that because, you know, the whole 1800s/19th century thing always throws me [laughs].

It throws me, too. 

It’s very tricky.

I don’t think I’ll ever get it. 

No, I don’t think I will either. I’ve started going with 1800s/1900s because then you can think, “Nineteen-oh, ah! That’s the 1900s!”

That’s exactly how I do it. 

Yes, exactly. It’s just easier. Anyway, that was published in his book, Songs Of The Ridings, off the top of my head… I could be wrong, but I’m quite sure that’s what it is. Apologies if I’m incorrect.

I think, to be a modern folk performer, you need to be a historian as well. 

You do actually have to know this stuff a bit more, don’t you! I need to do some proper historical reading to have this all ready [laughs].

As far as I have gathered, it was put to music by a man called Dave Keddie at some point in either the 1960s or 70s – again, apologies if I’m incorrect there. And then I learnt it from the singing of Dave Burland, off his album, A Dalesman’s Litany

And that album, you were saying to me earlier, is a kind of staple.

Yeah, for a lot of people, even though you can’t get it anymore. I always find that when I sing it in a club or a festival, there’s a quick wall of sound that comes back. Lots of people know it, so my theory is that a lot of people have that album, or a lot of people have heard it. People always come and chat about it after the gig.

I’m going to head off immediately and try and find that album. 

I think they’re not cheap because it’s out of print. Alan Wilkinson from Northern Sky magazine was saying that for many years he’d been through every vinyl bin, through all the classics that are always there for 50p, and one day he was close to giving up, thinking, “I’m not going to find anything good in here.” But he kept on flicking until, suddenly: Dave Burland, A Dalesman’s Litany, a pound! He found an absolute treasure trove of folkie stuff.

It’s the great thing about spending a day crate digging, isn’t it? As you flick through those records, you’re actually flicking through a little segment of someone’s life. They’ve sometimes been handed in by a relative after the owner has passed away, so it can be like discovering a time capsule. Recently, I’ve been finding time capsules full of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, which is scary because that’s about half a generation ahead of me!

Yeah, it’s a shame. I think there’s less of a chance of that in crate digging these days because a lot of the stuff gets sorted better by the charities, which is probably a good idea. A lot of the stuff can be found easily on Discogs or Ebay, but it is sometimes nice to just come across a treasure trove. Oxfam Books & Music in Durham – it’s just incredible for it. Their selection of folk stuff is just sickeningly good. It’s dangerous to go in there, for your wallet! [Laughs]

Before we move on to the last song, I think it’s worth continuing on that Discogs theme. How do you use the internet to go about uncovering new songs? Traditionally, your Martin Carthys would have had to go off and learn songs from someone they heard of on the other side of the country, but that’s not necessary anymore. How do you do it? 

Oh, I think I do all of the bits. I might learn from a book, from a revival recording – something on Trailer or Leader or Topic, something from a Voice of the People collection, or just something that’s been recorded on an ambient mic at a gathering. Maybe it’s in an online library, maybe I’ve heard people singing it in a pub or at a folkie session, or maybe at a festival. It could be the Yorkshire Garland Folk Song website… there are just so many ways of all these songs getting around, and that’s been the case for the 10 years that I’ve been doing it. I don’t generally use one particular way because they appear in so many different ways.

One of the things that has struck me about talking to you over the last couple of days is how knowledgeable you are about albums within the folk world. You seem to know who played on what, where and when. 

I think I’ve got a weirdly encyclopaedic mind. Some information it just won’t retain, but if it’s what decade and year an album came out, and who the guitarist was on it, and whether someone played marimba, and what the song was they did that on… for some reason, that all just stays in my head. I think it’s just that brains are weird things, and that’s one of the weird things that mine does.

OK, here’s a question you’ll probably have to think about. If you had to name three albums that have played a huge part in your progression as a folk singer, what would they be? 

Oh… [thinks]. No, that might be too hard a question because when I’m driving home in the van I’ll think, “Noooo, I can’t believe I forgot that one!” And I’ll think… [thinks again].

[20 seconds of silence]

No, that might be too tricky! I’ll have to think about that some more.

Gah! OK… first one that comes into your head. 

Only because I had it on yesterday in the van, Game Set Matchthe Nic Jones live recordings. I got that out of Huddersfield Library in my mid-teens. It’d be in my top 10, definitely.

That’s interesting. The obvious Nic Jones one would be Penguin Eggs… 

Yeah, I mean… it’s all brilliant, obviously, but I think the live ones struck me more, maybe, when I first heard them. I don’t know why.

Is there any song off that album that I can paste into the blog article here and now for people to listen to? 

‘Clyde Water’, off Game Set Match, is pretty much the pinnacle of music, even though it’s not perfect. But that’s also why it’s perfect! It’s the groove; the most technical (but not technical) guitar part; the singing is just on the cusp of being the perfect pitch for him; just the general storytelling.

And that’s what makes it the definitive version, above the one on Penguin Eggs

For me, I just prefer that version.

Here’s an example of my mind retaining that kind of information: in the Three Black Feathers (a wonderful record shop in Malvern) reissue of Penguin Eggsin the extensive sleevenotes, Nic Jones says he’s not as keen on ‘Drowned Lovers’ (the title of the Penguin Eggs version of ‘Clyde Water’) as he is on the live one, and that’s why he wanted to include the live one on the reissue. Again, apologies if I’m wrong there. I like that version because it’s just a bit more hard-hitting and to the point. The Penguin Eggs version is amazing as well, but it feels like a completely different song. It’s the same words and the same tune, but the arrangement is so different. Either beforehand, or in the year or two after Penguin Eggs, it morphed over into this version, and I think it’s just incredible.

Back to ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’… 

Oh, yes! So, to go back to your point of where I get all the songs from, ‘Hey, John Barleycorn’ is from hearing The Wilsons sing it in the pub and onstage, ‘Dalesman’s Litany’ is from the Dave Burland record, and ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’ – I got the text from Frank Kidson’s Folk Songs of the North-Countrie when I was looking through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library one day. I found some other versions of it afterwards and edited the text a bit, and in the process of recording it we took a couple of the verses out and changed them around. That’s because Joe Rusby was producing it, and he was saying, “You don’t need that verse in there – its a long song as it is – we need to get right to the point here – that’s waffle!”

So, when you’re off in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and you find a song, is it that the lyrics are jumping out at you, or are you reading the notes and hearing the tune in your head? 

It’s just the lyrics. I can read music if you were to make me, but it would be a very long and complicated process. I could work it out eventually, but I’d be going, “Right, so that’s a ‘G’, and the next one… one, two, three, four… yep, that’s a ‘C’…” I was better at it when I was little!

It’s not a great way to get hired as a session man, is it?! 

Oh aye [laughs]! But as I say, I’d be able to if I had to, but generally you don’t need to.

So it’s the lyrics that are jumping out at me, unless I’m hearing it on a record. I might go, “Oh, I like the tune of that but I’m not so keen on the lyrics.” Actually, with ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’, I had this set of words but the tune that went with it I wasn’t so keen on. I liked the tune from ‘Banks of Red Roses’, so in my head they fit together, but then I put it into 5/4 instead of it being a waltz, so I got the best of both worlds: a tune that resonates with the way my brain works and a story that I really liked. They all came together.

You’re obviously a very humble fellow… 

[Giggles] Well, I don’t know.

…but is there an arrangement on this album that you’re particularly proud of? 

Yeah, I like them all really. I do like the ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’ arrangement. It’s a tricky one to do live because it’s so wordy, but there’s so much going on and I’m very happy with that. ‘Hey John Barleycorn’, I like, and ‘The Bilberry Moors’. All of them!

I always ask this, so please indulge me. Is it possible to give a definition of folk music

Oh, erm… I went to a Steve Roud talk in Sidmouth. What year are we on now? That talk was in 2017.

That’s this year, Jack. The 21st century. 

Yes, precisely [laughs]. We’re going to have to start saying 2018 soon and it’s going to start getting confusing again! Around this time of year it always starts getting troublesome. All your ‘best before’ dates start saying 2018!

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jack Rutter – a man deeply troubled by ‘best before’ dates. 

Oh aye! Definitely! What was the question again, sorry?

Is it possible… 

Yes it is! Not it’s not! Sorry. Now, what did Steve Roud say? It’s something like, “A folk song is something sung by a folk singer, and a folk singer is someone who sings folk songs.” Say that and you win! It’s such a good definition. It can’t be defined any other way, I reckon.

OK, well I want to start picking that apart straight away…

It’s too big a beast to be dealing with here, isn’t it? It can’t be picked apart, anyway. He’s hit the nail on the head.

You still have to work out what a folk song actually is. 

Well, it’s a song that’s sung by a folk singer!

Is Laura Marling a folk singer? 

If she sings folk songs, yeah! Y’see?! It’s easy! You can never lose with that one. Anyway, as I say, it’s too big a beast. If the most knowledgeable scholar on this subject can’t put a lid on it, then it can’t have a lid put on it. And that’s part of the fun of it.

Your background isn’t folkie, is it? You came to it from the unusual angle of heavy metal. 

[Laughs] Yes, I came to it from a lot of different musical things.

I think you can kind of hear that heavy rock background in your playing. When you’re strumming, it’s very strident – very rhythmic. 

It comes from being a drummer as well, in the past.

Were you a drummer, too? 

Yes, I used to play lots of different things. I’d drum for punk bands and I’d drum for the school orchestra and the school jazz band (when I wasn’t playing guitar in the school jazz band). I was doing lots of general rock guitar after becoming obsessed with AC/DC and things like that. Then I got into lots of singer-songwriter stuff, and basically anything that I could consume, musically. Then Shepley Spring Festival started a field away from my house. I went and asked if I could please play and they said yes, so I went for the weekend with lots of pals from school and had a brilliant time, and I thought, “I quite like this folk thing.”

What did you play at that first Shepley visit, then? 

Some of my own songs, although I wouldn’t even be able to remember what they were about now. I was quite into Shane MacGowan and the Popes at the time because my dad had quite a few of their albums, so I think I was doing covers of that. I remember playing harmonica. I definitely had a harmonica neck brace? Hold on… is that right?

Harmonica rack, I think. 

Rack! That’s the one. Where did neck brace come from?

Hahaha! I’ve got images of you in medical attire. 

[Laughs] Yes, well that’s where I got into all of that. I reckon a lot of the rhythmic stuff came from the fact that I was playing a lot more guitar in sessions – accompanying tunes for many years. In that situation, you are the harmony but you’re also the drummer.

You’re propelling the tune. 

Yes, exactly. I think that’s where a lot of that came from.

But you’ve also got that wonderful fingerpicking style. I hear elements of Martin Simpson and people like that in there. That kind of fluidity. Did that come naturally to you, or was that a hard study? 

Bits of both, really. I listened to lots and lots of Martin Simpson because I got a lot of his albums out from Huddersfield Library. In my mid-teens they had this wonderful selection of folk CDs, which you could borrow of course. I listened to Kind LettersProdigal SonTrue StoriesEverybody’s albums were there, which was an important resource. My life would’ve been hugely different without Huddersfield Library, without all that cool stuff to immerse myself in. So that fingerpicking style would’ve gone in subconsciously from listening to so much of his music over the years.

Have you started thinking about your next album?

Yeah, of course. You can’t help yourself. You’re out for a walk and thinking, “Oh, I wonder what I could do with that.”

I suppose the thing with being a musician is that you record these albums and then there’s a huge gap of time before they come out. The general public don’t tend to realise that the new album they’re hearing is often quite old for the artist. 

Yeah, well I suppose it was this time last year that I was finishing the arrangements of Hills, and getting it all ready to record. I recorded it in January this year. I’m not stopping myself thinking about the next album, but I am enjoying playing these songs for the time being – sitting back and listening and going, “I’m quite happy with that. I did a thing.”

Look out for Jack Rutter performing with Jackie Oates at Normafest 2018. He’ll also be releasing a new album with Moore Moss Rutter in the spring, on Hudson Records. For more info on Jack Rutter, head to www.jackruttermusic.com.