IT is not often I get to encounter a songwriter…
who mixes traditional sounds with satirical and humorous edges. Chris Tavener has been spending time and telling me about his live album, Is He Joking? ... I ask him which songwriters he takes inspiration from and what it was like recording the album.
Tavener tells me about new artists turning his head and what advice he would give to upcoming musicians; what it feels like being provided kudos by Tim Minchin’s management company; if it is important, given the times we are in, we can laugh as well as provide something deep – he selects a trio of albums that have made a big impression on his life.
Hi, Chris. How are you? How has your week been?
I'm very well, thank you. My week has been fun so far but very administrative: emailing venues in mainland Europe.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
My name's Chris Tavener. I am a satirical Folk singer-songwriter using humour and an acoustic guitar to tell social commentary stories about the world we live in. I'm constantly performing live in the U.K.
Is He Joking? ... is your new live album. What was it like filming it in the Three Minute Theatre (Manchester)?
It was brilliant! John and Gina, who run the theatre, are lovely people with an admirable work ethic and they've certainly turned it into a quirky place. There are mannequins tied to the ceiling and an axolotl tank right next to the seats. It's the perfect venue to host an intimate concert - and I was so pleased to perform in it for the album recording.
There are newer numbers combined with older ones. What was the reaction like to the newer material? What was the vibe like in that space?
The reaction to the new material was great. In fact, if I were to do it again, I would have liked all the material to be new to the audience. The first reaction to a song or a punchline is very often the best. Performing that new material for the first time, and simultaneously committing it to a record, was both nerve-wracking and really rewarding.
I can't thank the people who attended that show enough. They created such a brilliant atmosphere and I think you can hear it on the album/D.V.D. now.
Your songs are satirical in nature. Given the times we are in; do you think it is important we can laugh as well as criticise?! Are enough songwriters going beyond the cliché and ignoring the satirical?!
Yes - and even better to do both in one breath! That's just one of the things I love about great satire: it's the ability to be cynical about something while, at the same time, being funny, silly or playful. A lot of people are calling this a great age of satire and I think it's coming back into fashion among songwriters as we come to terms with these dark and uncertain times.
The album (of the live show) has been well-reviewed and Tim Minchin’s management has contacted you. What is it like knowing it resounds and connects with people?
It's incredibly validating to know that people of that stature are interested in what I'm doing. I've always wanted to write music that connects with people; music that they can relate to. Above all else, that's what I'm striving for. When I get a laugh, that sort of signifies to me that I've touched on something the audience has identified with.
Give me an impression of the songwriters and speakers who influence you. Do you mix a love of classic satirists like Tom Lehrer with traditional artists?
I most certainly try to. I, love Tom Lehrer Randy Newman; Loudon Wainwright III, Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie for their lyrics, especially, and I would call them all influences. But, I think I've also been inspired by modern voices like Alex Turner, Courtney Barnett; Paolo Nutini, Laura Marling and, very recently, Jade Bird...
I always make sure that the music is allowed as much care and time as the words. Originally, I'm a musician first: I hope that's what separates me from many comedians who use music. The songs of Billy Joel, The Beatles; Jim Croce and Oasis all influenced me.
What comes next for you? Will there be more material, live or studio-recorded?
Next is a tour of the U.K. and Europe. It's hard to see past that at this point. I'm thinking about whether a studio-recorded album or live album should be next. I'll probably base it on this release, whether it's a success or not…
I have a couple of smaller releases before then, including a single about the World Cup 2018; a weekly video series and, perhaps, something for Christmas.
Can we see you tour this year? What gigs do you have coming along?
Absolutely. I'll be touring in Europe in September and the U.K. will have to wait until October to November. I'm travelling further than I've ever gone before. Very exciting!
All details will be at www.christavener.co.uk/events after announcements.
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
I'd like this album and D.V.D. release to open doors for me that weren't there before. I don't know yet what they'll be but I just keep working at every small idea that comes into my head and every opportunity that comes my way. I have been asked to do a couple of song commissions for a new documentary and a charity organisation this month.
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
So many amazing memories to choose from…
It'd be easy to say the album recording shows, so I won't mention those (even though I have...) and I'll go for something left-field.
I'm always astounded by the generosity of strangers. One of the perks of this job is getting to be around people at their most jolly. Recently, I was playing a gig in London where a group of afternoon drinkers kept buying shots for me. It was eventually decided that I would come with them after the gig to a party. It turned out to be a private birthday party where I had to act casual and pretend I knew whose birthday it was...
Which three albums mean the most to you, would you say?
You do ask some tough questions! All great questions, too:
Courtney Barnett's debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, means a lot to me. I was a follower of hers years before it came out. I have a memory of listening to it while sweeping a floor in my last day job before becoming a full-time musician.
Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home has always been one of my favourite albums of his. Nothing invigorates me more than that opening track, Subterranean Homesick Blues. I can't believe that, fifty years since its release, the song can still do that.
Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I played this album into the ground in my late-teens and I still know every word and every note. For partly sentimental reasons, I can't ignore this album's influence.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
I often say the same thing but I think it's an important point: look for what makes you distinctive and original. I heard a lecturer talk about a micro-niche in music once and it seems that every famous artist has one.
It's certainly not job number-one if you're finding your feet: it will happen naturally but just try to be aware of how you can differentiate yourself from other musicians. That's the way to stick in an audience's head.
I would also say having some business acumen gets you a lot further in this digital world where artists are much more independent than they used to be.
IN THIS PHOTO: Joel Gardner
Are there any new artists you recommend we check out?
If I'm allowed to mention unsigned artists then I could be here all day answering that question…
IN THIS PHOTO: Thom Morecroft/PHOTO CREDIT: Rosalinda Hindle
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
I don't, and it is something I hope to change; to get a better work/life balance. I enjoy reading, running and travelling when I'm not working on my music.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Could you please play Keb’ Mo’ – You Can Love Yourself. A friend recommended Keb’ Mo’ to me a short while ago. He sounds incredible with his authentic Blues sound and effortlessly poetic lyrics. One day, I'll hope to play like him instead of writing about Cliché Blues...
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