Naked Flame: Roy Harper

'Songs Of Love & Loss'
roy harper.jpg
When the voice comes crackling down the line, it comes as a surprise - it’s a shock to hear from Roy Harper at all, but in the place of an old man the voice is vibrant, confident, young. “Actually, when all is said and done I’m still a young person, really. I don’t suffer from age” he muses. Devoutly independent, the songwriter cares for his own back catalogue via a parent company, holing up in rural Ireland while the music industry struggles to adapt to the 21st century. Carefully preparing a new compilation for release, ‘Songs Of Love & Loss’ witnesses the re-emergence of a brave talent – one that refused to bow to outside pressure, perhaps at the extent of his own reputation.

Soaking up music from an early age, Roy Harper left school with a few qualifications alongside a deep and lasting knowledge of blues and jazz. “I was in the same position that a lot of young people are now. I had a certain amount of basic qualifications, I went to Grammar School – actually I was a Grammar School drop-out. I had an interview at Brooke Bond Tea and the guy sitting across the desk from me said: you know, I think you’re over-qualified for this job. It was like that. There’s probably a lot of that goes on today. Kids who do degrees getting turned down for jobs sweeping floors – things haven’t really changed that much.”

Turning towards music, Roy Harper struggled to pull together an exotic melange of influences. Deeply literate, the young songwriter was drawn towards the Beat poets and the 19th century Romantics, which placed him outside of the slipstream of pop culture. “I was really deeply interested in the Romantic poets, the 19th century Romantic poets. They still have a big part in what makes up Roy Harper. I am a combination of them, Beat poetry, jazz, blues –all that kind of thing amalgamated into a whole that you can’t really describe as anything other than being completely unique. I don’t think there’s anybody else who carried the same sort of influences that I’m carrying” he states.

Part of the 60s folk boom, Roy Harper was ‘folk’ only in the sense that no other bracket could contain him. Gently plucking his acoustic guitar, his material veered from the personal to the political. Refusing to be boxed in, the songwriter has constructed a vast – and largely coherent –back catalogue which remains vital. Yet here in the UK, his place has often been reduced to simply acting as an inspiration on more commercially successful artists. Throughout the interview Harper offers a few sideswipes at the media’s collective consciousness which has, for the large part, left him behind. Referring to a rejuvenation of interest in the United States, the songwriter seems passionate, vindicated. “The British music press has treated me with little more than disdain for a long, long time. The material really should be taken without that kind of an atmosphere in it. If you’re separated by thousands of miles then you don’t get that atmosphere with it, you just get the material. Which stands on its own right. They’re untainted by the British view of me. Which is sometimes jaded, let’s say”.

Preparing ‘Songs Of Love & Loss’ for release, the renewed attention should change that. Prepared as a distinct document rather than a timeline of his career, Roy Harper seems to emphasise the unity of his work. Yet the very concept, honing in on the more romantic tinged elements of his back catalogue, seems to constrain an avowedly independent artist. Continuing, Harper discards any notion of being misunderstood. “It won’t bother me at all because it’s an aspect. People who care to actually dig up a bit of turf will come and see me, start on their hands and knees with a trowel to find things out. Some of them will be horrified but quite a lot of them will have something else in their lives to enjoy, in the musical sense.”

A vivid yet easy to soak up listen, ‘Songs Of Love & Loss’ marks Roy Harper out as a true lost talent. Focussing on his writing, he talks passionately about the possibility of new recording sessions in California. “I’ve taken charge of it for the last three or four years but because of the business commitments that an independent record company takes from you it’s not very easy to sit down and write. It’s like almost in your spare time but when is that? It’s coming together. There’s five songs written and another six or seven skeletons. I’m hoping that by January I’ll have a bit more to add to that and I can start” he explains.

Planning to use ancient myths as a framework, Roy Harper emphasises that the project remains firmly in the planning stages. “That’s the way that I’m going about this thing. Just to open up and connect my own life really with ancient stories. Give people clues as to where you might see glimpses of a story in a song that I’ve got. So that’s the intention. What’ll come is anybody’s guess, really. Once you get into a studio things change. Obviously if you put other musicians in there then things change even more.”

The sheer sustained creativity of Harper’s career perhaps gives an indication of how he has become sidelined. Where other talents faded into the night Roy Harper remained phantom like on the fringes, the longevity of his career serving to pull him away from the maelstrom of pop culture. It’s a contradiction that the singer acknowledges in typically sardonic style. “I don’t know whether to actually go off and hide so that nobody actually ever sees me, disappear and let it carry on by itself or whether to join it again. The actual presence of the thing itself” he muses. “I always think, and I always maintain, that the material will be better off when I’m gone. They won’t have me to interfere with it then. It can be judged on its own merit instead of having the lunatic in the middle of it.”

'Songs Of Love & Loss' is out now.

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