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Jim Moray sits on the steps of Abbey Road Studios wearing a red Harrington jacket, blue jeans and playing an Atkin acoustic guitar.
Jim Moray at Abbey Road. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

The Jim Moray Interview

Jim Moray reflects on two decades as a professional musician, recalling his early work and looking forward to a brand new album.

Having reached a stage in his career where young guns are citing him as an influence, Jim Moray is ready to take stock. In the latest episode of the Old Songs Podcast, ostensibly about one of the ballads with which he is most readily identified, he discusses his first two decades as a professional folk musician, as well as many more years spent thinking about ancient ballads and the best way to approach them in the 21st century.

Regular listeners can tune in on the usual channels, but for those who tend to veer away from podcasts, we’ve put together an edited version of the interview for you to get stuck into. Ahead of the up-coming Jim Moray Festival at Cecil Sharp House, the musician discusses his early career, a case of mistaken identity with Amy Winehouse, his memories of working on ‘Lord Douglas’, and exciting news of a new album, Beflean, recently recorded at Abbey Road Studios and due out in autumn of this year.

Jim Moray sits at a table with a huge fish on the plate in front of him. He has ketchup and a cup of tea, and he is staring straight into the camera with a very serious expression.

So, Jim Moray, 20 years, you say?

It’s 21 years since that first EP that I released, and 20 years since Sweet England, which is my first record. 2002 saw my first professional gigs. I was in the Young Folk Award in December 2001, and then I made an EP in Spring, 2002, which I sent it off to a few places, not really knowing what I was doing, just as a sort of demo calling card. Out of that, I got Cambridge Folk Festival. They used to have these things called the Club Tent Showcase. So every day they had a sort of up-and-coming, like, “first gig at the festival” featured thing. So I did that. I played Glastonbury. Where else did I play? I played some gigs with Billy Bragg – a run of tour supports. I got all sorts of things off that EP that I’d recorded in my bedroom. And then I made the record which came out in 2003, which was called Sweet England.

I love the pictures that I’ve seen of you from that period with Amy Winehouse.

Yeah, that was 2004.

She must have been the enfant terrible of jazz, and I suppose you were put there as the folk version of that?

It was exactly that. The photos of me with Amy Winehouse are because the Musicians Union Magazine had a cover feature that was the new faces of niche genres, so it was the new faces of jazz, soul, folk… It was me, Amy Winehouse, Jamie Cullum and Joss Stone. But Jamie Cullum and Joss Stone couldn’t make the photo shoot, so they were going to photoshop them in later, and then that never happened for some reason. So it’s just me and Amy Winehouse. She thought I was the photographer’s assistant when she arrived. She wasn’t aware that I was the person who was going to be in the photo with her.

Did she have any interest in folk music?

I don’t think so, no. I mean, she was perfectly nice, but, like, very sort of brash. I think I knew that I was lucky to be doing that, though; that this was a thing that folk musicians were lucky to be doing, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t just run of the mill, like, “of course this is what’s going to happen.” So I think I did appreciate that this was an unusual occurrence at the time.

But you were seen then as being somebody who had shaken things up quite a lot in terms of folk music.

I suppose I was regarded that way because that’s the sort of thing that you put in press releases. It’s not that I was writing it, but somebody on my team was deliberately saying that sort of thing, and I think maybe it comes from that. And then you go, “Oh, well, that’s good, let’s emphasise that point.”

But I hope that the work that I’ve done is imaginative. I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the word “experimental” because experimental suggests that you’re not sure it’s going to work. You know what I mean? That you’re just putting elements together to see how they go, and then you go, “Oh, well, it’s still all a bit of an experiment.” Whereas I think my process has been a bit more deliberate than that. I don’t just bang elements together to see what happens. So, “experimental”, I don’t identify with as much, but I hope that the stuff that I’ve done is sort of creative and innovative and coming up with new ways to solve old problems.

I don’t just bang elements together to see what happens.

Jim Moray

My tastes are pretty mainstream, so it’s not experimental music in that sense, either. I don’t think my stuff is difficult to listen to, and I never have. But I guess if your area of listening is tradfolk music performed in the way that it had been performed since the 1960s, then maybe it sounded a bit different. But I don’t think my work is as big a leap as Fairport, Convention and Steeleye Span in the early 70s.

Do you look back on Sweet England with pride?

Yes, I do.

Can you listen to it still?

No, I can’t really listen to it, mainly because of the vocals, and some of the sounds are a bit hard and digital because I was recording it in a bedroom on Logic without very good equipment. But some of the imagination on it is still quite striking to me. I don’t know how I came up with some of those things, and I wouldn’t come up with something as daring now.

The vocals just sound really dated to me. I didn’t really know how to sing then because the band that I was in immediately prior to recording Sweet England was a loud guitar band, and I was sort of foghorn screaming then. So I think what I hear when I listen back to Sweet England and, actually, to be honest, the work I did right up to Low Culture, is someone who doesn’t know how to sing quietly. I’m trying to, but it comes out in a really whispery voice – like a sort of reedy, thin whisper. But I had no guidance. I produced that EP and then, off the back of that, I think maybe people thought that was my style. “He’s this guy that makes stuff in his bedroom and is a sort of self-producing artist.”

I worked with a couple of producers to try out before Sweet England and it didn’t really work, so I just did it myself. And then you get pegged as being that’s what you do. I would have loved to have worked with somebody far more experienced on the record after Sweet England, but it just sort of never happened. Then, after a few records, you kind of calcify into this unproducible state. My methods of working are quite fixed now.

So, the singing I can’t really listen to, but the songs themselves, and the arrangements, I’m incredibly proud of.

When I first came across your music, I think it was probably about 2015. I remember talking to somebody and saying, “Who’s this Jim Moray guy? How on earth do you pronounce his surname?” And they were saying to me, “Oh, he’s this guy who makes his music in his bedroom and uses bleeps.”

I think that comes from a couple of specific tracks. [Laughs] Like everything, we could use the example of our mutual interest in The Beatles. I often think about the music that was around when I was a teenager – that sort of Britpop era. It sounds Beatley, right? But actually, it’s just specific tracks. There’s a Beatley thing that comes from the middle part of ‘Martha My Dear’, the bit that sounds like ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by ELO as well – that sort of upbeat thing. And there’s a Britpop strain that sounds like the middle part of ‘Hey Bulldog’, a sort of snarly-guitar-descending-chord-sequence thing, you know what I mean? And then there’s a ‘Penny Lane’ thing.

I suppose, with me, there are a few tracks that sound bleepy and that’s what stuck in people’s minds, because it was different. ‘The Seeds of Love’ on Sweet England is probably the one, and I’ve never really done anything like it since.

What’s interesting is that you’re now at a point where you’ve got younger musicians like Frankie Archer coming through, who cite you as an influence. Frankie is also known for that… I’m not going to use the word “experimental” … but that slightly left-field approach to folk music.

There are people who’ve covered the same ground. What quite often happens is that the instrumentation is the point, if you see what I mean, like it’s folk with gadgets. There was some conscious effort on my part to try and not be folk with gadgets, going forward. The point isn’t the instrument it’s played on or the tools that you’re using, the point is the effect that you produce at the end. I hope that I’ve always been guided by what the song sounds like, how I might enhance the song, and what tools I could use, if that makes sense, rather than it being the pedals being the exciting thing.

I don’t know whether they would cite me as an influence or not – influence is probably going a bit far because I’ve known them since they were teenagers and there’s a sort of mentoring thing going on – but the way that Tom Moore and Archie Moss use pedals now, I think, is the same way that I have. The way that they augment their viola and accordion with electronics is sort of the same way that I’ve approached it this whole time. And the same with Frankie, really. It’s still about performing a song.

I do occasionally hear people doing something where I’m like, “I know where you got that from’, [laughs] and I suppose another element here is that, when I started, I learned some songs from people I was fans of and performed them in public. That was an interesting exploration of how that generation slightly above me regards ownership of traditional music. I’m talking about stuff that they’ve written the tune for, or stuff that they’ve written the words for, but they haven’t maybe highlighted it as much because, in their heads, it’s like a contribution to traditional music. It’s like, “I’ve just come up with this new version and I’ll pass it on to the next person.” But when they have passed it on, there were the odd uncomfortable moments of like, “Hang on, but you’re singing my version of this song.”

So now that I’m in that position, I’m sort of pleased that I don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s because I went through those experiences, but, you know, I’m always pleased to hear somebody doing the bit that I added to the song, whether they’re aware that I’ve added that bit or not, partly because I hope I made the song better. When I hear people doing things with the verse that I wrote but not acknowledging it, I kind of think, “Yeah, that is better, isn’t it? It is better with the bit that I added. It is better with that rhyming word changed, or it is better with the third phrase of the melody going down rather than up.” I don’t feel the ownership of it so much as I feel the vindication of going, “Musically, I made a good choice there.”

I suppose there’s a sort of Darwinian thing that if you make the tune better, that’s the one that people are going to want to sing… you hope. I want to believe that it’s a sort of utopian musical concept.

But all the best people do it. I definitely do things Chris Wood’s way, as does Nick Hart, as do lots of people. We all do things Martin Carthy‘s way. We do things Eliza‘s way. Martin Carthy and Nic Jones did things Joseph Taylor’s way, or Phil Tanner’s way, or Sam Larner’s way, because they were the people that had that handle on how music worked, on how melodies and how words fit together, and how those two intersect to tell a story in the most dramatic way.

Tell me a little bit about how you have worked with our illustrious sponsors, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, over the years.

I think the first time I became aware of EFDSS is when my parents were members. There used to be a thing called the Hobby Horse Club that was a kind of kids’ folk thing. I think that was EFDSS-affiliated. But we always had the EFDSS journals around; if you’re a member now, you can opt into receiving them, but the journals have been running since the 1920s, every year. They were always on the bookshelf, not that I delved into them, but I was always aware that there was this resource there and that it was connected to this place, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. And we had books published by EFDSS around the house, some of which I’ve inherited and are on my bookshelves now.

Other than that, my relationship with EFDSS was sort of at a distance. In the 80s, Sidmouth Folk Festival was still run by EFDSS – lots of festivals were – so I had interactions with the organisation at festivals when I was a kid.

I didn’t do that thing of going and sitting in the library researching songs. That wasn’t a big thing for me. Partly because we had the books at home, you know. But I was always aware it was a thing I could do. And when I became a professional performer, there was a librarian who used to work there, Malcolm Taylor, who was a really unsung hero of lots of people’s folk journeys, I think.

I wonder whether the first time I actually went to the library was doing a radio programme for the 100th anniversary of Cecil Sharp collecting ‘The Seeds of Love’ [Roud 3] from a guy called John England, who was the gardener at Hambridge. There was a Radio 4 programme made and Malcolm Taylor presented it, so I’ve got a feeling that must’ve been 2003. I think I probably recorded my bits in the library at Cecil Sharp House. That’s my memory anyway.

At the time they didn’t have many gigs on. That really started happening more when Katy Spicer took over as chief executive, so my visits became more frequent.

In the latest episode of The Old Songs Podcast, we take a look at your arrangement and recording of ‘Lord Douglas’ [Roud 23]. That evolved at the Vaughan Williams Library, didn’t it?

I had heard the stories of Martin Carthy researching ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’ [Roud 199] by getting all of the versions that were in the collection at the VWML and putting them all on the table and cherry-picking bits of it, and you hear the stories of Nic Jones doing the same.

When I was putting my version of ‘Lord Douglas’ together, the real impetus was something called the Cecil Sharp Songs Project, co-sponsored by EFDSS and Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was one of those songwriting projects where they put eight artists in a country house for a week to write two hours’ worth of material. It was looking at Cecil Sharp’s collecting trips to the Southern Appalachians, some of the last collecting trips he went on, him and Maud Karpeles – they went over to America at the behest of Olive Dame Campbell, who had been collecting around there. I think she was based in New York State, but she’d done some collecting in the Southern states and told him there was this rich resource. He made a couple of collecting trips and he found a tonne of stuff. He went there to try and find folk songs from the British Isles that travelled over with the settlers and had been kept alive there, the theory being that these songs were probably preserved in a purer state than they were in England at the time, as they’d continued to evolve in a different direction over here.

Anyway, we were doing this project and there was lots of writing songs about the trip and writing songs about people that he met, but I think there was a feeling that we really needed some trad material in there. We were talking about the trip without actually performing any of the stuff that he’d collected. And he collected, I think, 12 versions of this ballad from different people.

I went to the library, went to Malcolm Taylor and said, “Can you find every copy of ‘Earl Brand’ [an alternative name for ‘Lord Douglas’] that you’ve got? So I just laid them all out on a table, copied bits out, cut and pasted lines, and filled in some more lines where there were gaps. That process was the first time I’d really done the thing that I’d heard about Martin.

Purity of tradition – purity and authenticity – the more you look at them, the more they crumble under your fingers.

Jim Moray

There are versions of that ballad from Scandinavia, Afghanistan, Kurdish versions… it really set my mind going with how things are interlinked in Europe and elsewhere in the world. I was aware of how songs were exchanged between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales a lot, but there isn’t really such thing as an English song, if you know what I mean? It’s a bit more complicated than that. People come and go, borders are just lines on a map. Purity of tradition – purity and authenticity – the more you look at them, the more they crumble under your fingers, but in a really fascinating way that makes everything richer for everybody. If there’s a Kurdish ballad where the name sounds a little bit like ‘Earl Brand’, then isn’t that really cool? Isn’t that a really sort of life-affirming thing to think about?

I think what’s interesting about that ballad is the way that this story travels around the world and has a fairly similar story in these different versions. But then it also appears to be a historical story that relates very specifically to Scotland.

Well, look at Greek tragedy, or Tristan and Isolde... This ballad is also about a real Lord Douglas who actually lived at a specific point. I think these stories get sort off projected across real people and refracted through experiences.

Norma Waterson used to say that with folk songs, the ephemera – the milkmaids and the horses and the pistols – aren’t the thing. It’s the human story underneath. I’ve always really subscribed to that. When people ask, “Why are you interested in this old music that’s all about jobs that people don’t do anymore, and riding milk-white steeds?”, it’s not about that. It’s about these things that happen over and over again. People falling in love or falling out, happy endings or sad endings. They’re all the same, echoed through centuries and centuries. Finding those connections and finding that these are things that have happened all around the world and throughout time – those are the bits that get me fired up about stuff. Because you’re tapping into something bigger than just your own experience, aren’t you? You’re finding the universal in something that’s deeply personal.

Head to the Old Songs Podcast for the rest of Jim’s discussion on the origins of ‘Lord Douglas.

This track actually won something, didn’t it? About 10 years ago this February, in fact…

[Laughs] In the old days, Jon, they had these things called the BBC Folk Awards. This got Best Traditional Track in 2012, which was really nice. And also, it was really nice that they gave it to a long ballad because this is the hard stuff. It’s the stuff that I find the most interesting, but I think people think the public will be put off by the length and the dense language and so on.

Detail and history and context aren’t things that put people off, they’re the things that make people fall in love with traditional music.

Jim Moray

I mean, this is a wider point. From the vantage point of 20 years working in it, the mainstream folk scene has gone through a big, long period of not wanting to put outsiders off. Not dumbing down exactly, but trying to be like, “Oh, don’t get bogged down with all of that history and detail and so on. It’s all a bit of light-hearted fun.” And actually, that’s the most interesting point. I don’t think people who’ve never come across traditional music are put off by things that take some effort. That’s the reason that they’re going to fall head over heels for it and dive deeper. I’ve said this many times, but I think The Old Songs Podcast exemplifies a bit of that. Detail and history and context aren’t things that put people off, they’re the things that make people fall in love with traditional music.

So, we’ve talked about your early career a little bit. Now you’re embarking on middle age…

[Laughs] When you put it like that…!

You can’t be the enfant terrible of folk anymore.

Yeah, I think I get the impression that some people are a little bit surprised. I suppose, if you do something high profile when you’re 21, you get sort of tagged as that forever. But I’m 42 now.

It’s an interesting part of your career, isn’t it? I mean, you’re clearly here for the long term.

When I was interviewed back then, I always said the thing about folk music is, it’s a genre where people do their best work when they’re in their 50s and 60s. At the time, I was talking about June Tabor, Martin Carthy and Normal Waterson. That’s who I was thinking of. I hope that’s true. I hope I haven’t done my best stuff yet because, like I say, I’m a huge June Tabor fan and the era she was at her best is when she was firing on all cylinders, slightly later in life, you know? And you can see that for all sorts of people. For all of the songs that Leonard Cohen wrote, he was the real master later in life. And then there are people like Nick Cave and Tom Waites, too.

I haven’t changed my aspirations for what I want to do. I’ve just got more tools to do it.

Jim Moray

I want to carry on getting better. I want to carry on kind of pushing myself. Sometimes it’s being more subtle with things rather than using a sledgehammer to make your point. I’m a different performer than I was then, but I think I haven’t changed my aspirations for what I want to do. I’ve just got more tools to do it.

Part of this process has been that I went and recorded a selection of things from the last 21 years in Abbey Road Studios. I think these songs continue evolving partly because you get a bit older and you get a bit more perspective and you glean insights into them through singing them, and you refine the parts. I’m better at playing the guitar part than I was in 2012. In fact, I don’t think I could even play ‘Lord Douglas’ in 2012. I think I pieced it together in stops and starts. And there are another 14-odd songs on the record and it’s the same for all of them. They’re all being revisited for a reason.

It’s like taking stock, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is a bit of taking stock. And I think maybe this is a good moment and then I won’t have to do it again for a while. Like I say, I hope I haven’t done my best work yet and I’m impatient to get to that stuff. So this is almost like a sort of shoring up of everything. Like, “Here is the sum total of everything I’ve learned about playing these songs, and now I can use that as a jumping-off point for the next set of songs.”

Jim Moray recording ‘Beflean’ at Abbey Road. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

Can I just ask, what is it with you and songs about lords?

So, for this Abbey Road album, the original idea was to do an EP of ‘lord’ songs. I’ve joked about it for ages. As I said, I’ve been trying to do one of those big ballads on each record and quite often they’re called ‘Lord-something’. And after a while, when it became a pattern, I started doing it deliberately. ‘Lord Ellenwater’, ‘Lord Bateman’, ‘Lord Douglas’… I’ve got loads.

I tend to think about it as being an interesting marker of the sort of people that got immortalised in song. Another thing Norma Waterson used to say was, “Folk music is the oral history of the people who didn’t get their history written about in the history books.” But maybe those rich and noble lord songs sort of go against that in a way, although I suppose it’s not the people they’re about, it’s almost like the working class caricaturing the gentry.

Anyway, it became a pattern and I quite like it. I don’t know what I would have called an EP of songs that were all lord songs.

You once said it was going to be House of Lords. I think that’s a great title. It’s worth doing it just for that!

Yeah. What broke it away from that is the album after this one. I did ‘Long Lankin’ [Roud 6], which is another huge, monumental ballad, and I wrote a tune for that and I put these versions together, but I didn’t really get the recording of that right. It’s just not very good. And the way I play it live, the solo guitar version is so much better, so I really wanted that to go on there. So that was a non-lord song. And then, from there, it was a short leap to other songs I wanted to re-do. There’s a song called ‘Dog and Gun’ [Roud 141], which was on my second record, which is from Northern Ireland. ‘Near the Mountain Streams where the Morcocks Crow’ is the title that other people sing it under. That sort of never got its due, and I felt like I wanted to dig that one out again. And then there are songs that I’ve sung loads of times. I’ve sung ‘Lord Douglas’ thousands of times. I’ve sung ‘Sounds of Earth’ probably approaching a thousand times at this point. There are some well-worn ones. There are songs that I never played live and really needed a second look at. So, yeah, it’s all good.

Beflean, the new album from Jim Moray, is due for release in autumn, 2023. For more information, keep an eye on jimmoray.co.uk, his Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages. See the EFDSS website for more info on the Jim Moray Festival. This article is an edited extract from series 2, episode 9, of The Old Songs Podcast.