Interview John Blek

De muziek van John Blek ontdekte ik via een andere muzikant uit Cork, Anna Mitchell, van wie ik in 2015 haar debuutalbum Down to the Bone recenseerde. Zij bleek naast haar solocarrière ook deel uit te maken van de begeleidingsband van John, John Blek & The Rats. Vorig jaar wist John mij volledig te overtuigen met zijn derde solo album Catharsis Vol. 1. Hierop werd bloedmooie zang gecombineerd met breekbare liedjes en poëtische teksten. Overigens ben ik niet de enige die hoog opgeeft over hem. De bekende schrijver en musicus Willy Vlautin omschreef John en zijn muziek als volgt : "John Blek is one of those rare artists who is a triple threat. He's a musician's musician, he can break your heart with his voice, and of course he has those lyrics. Bleak and rough, hopeful and passionate, he's master.". Al ruim tien jaar werkt hij gestaag aan zijn carrière met steeds groter succes en dat is mijns inziens zeer terecht. De komende release op 1 februari van Thorn & Thistle was aanleiding om John te spreken. Het album is eventueel al te bestellen op zijn website:

First of all, how are you?

All is good with me. I'm working hard preparing for the release of Thistle & Thorn and enjoying the process. It's a wonderful thing seeing a bunch of songs you wrote being released into the world. 

Do you come from a musical family?

No, there are no musicians in my family at all. I'm the first generation. My parents were school teachers and my grandparents were butchers and car salesmen. No one plays an instrument and no one sings. That's quite odd for an Irish family. It would have been great to have someone to play music with and learn from when I was younger but I think finding my own way is what has helped me shape the way I sound now. Unaffected by my elders. 

What music did you grow up with?

I can remember we would go on holidays to mainland Europe in the Summer in my fathers van. We had a small selection of tapes and I knew every word of every song on them. Mostly things like Willie Nelson, The Beatles, Glen Campbell and Carole King. As I got older it was albums like Unplugged in New York by Nirvana that took my interest then I ended up falling in love with songwriting and really getting into all the irish songwriters that were starting out at that time like Glen Hansard, Mark Geary and David Kitt. That lead me back to folk music I guess where I started listening to Bert Jansch, Nick Jones and Fairport Convention.

You studied at Limerick Institute of Technology in Limerick, what did you study there?

I spent three long years in Limerick studying Events Management. I'm not sure I learned much more than I had already learned through touring and putting on shows but I guess I've got the degree. Whatever that means.

At what moment did you decide to become a musician?

When I was 17 I told my parents I was dropping out of school to play music full time. Of course this did not go down very well and I wasn't allowed to leave education. My mother bribed me to stay in school by saying she would buy me a really nice guitar when I finished my exams. So I stayed and ended up getting a really nice Furch guitar that I still use to this day. I guess it was worth it. Since then I have only ever worked as musician apart from a brief spell as a shoe salesman. 

You are popular in Germany, any idea why that is?

I'm not sure other than I have toured there a lot. Perhaps it is just persistence. 

Your previous album Catharsis vol. 1 was very personal, the new one Thistle & Thorn is more ambitious and, I think, a bit less personal. Do you agree?

Lyrically I think both records have quite personal moments but I think Catharsis definitely has a more intimate feel to it because of the production. it is smaller and closer and Thistle & Thorn has a more grand aesthetic. 

What are the most personal songs on the new album?

All The Night and Hannah are the most personal. Very direct and quite literal.

I think the songs for Catharsis Vol. 1 came easily, how about the songs for the new album?

I don't really ever find songwriting that hard. It's simply a process and what is left is the song. I do it often and practice and try different ideas and perspectives all the time. It's something I love to do. To say it is easy or hard would be strange.

What comes first, lyrics or melody?

Always a melody for me. I will find the melody on the guitar and fit the lyrics in around that.

Joan Shelley sings on the new album, how did you meet each other?

Joan and I toured together in Ireland 4 years ago and have been in touch since then. I was in the States and went to visit her in Louisville. We did a day in the studio and those three songs she is featured on were the result. We also have one of my favourite guitarists, Nathan Salsburg on there.

The Body is a duet with Joan, did you wrote it especially for the occasion?

Yes, when I spoke to Joan about visiting and doing some recording I wrote this songs for us to sing.

All four solo albums are different, are you quickly bored working the same way or do you want to challenge yourself every time?

I think that the first two solo records are quite different but I do think that Catharsis and Thistle & Thorn are a little closer. The scale of the production on both albums is different but the songwriting feels similar to me. I don't get bored with doing things a certain way I just always feel that each album should have it's own character. To do the same thing twice and expect different results would be foolish.

Amongst your fans is also writer and musician Willy Vlautin, how long do you know him?

I got to know Willy on a Delines tour in Ireland maybe 3 years ago. Then I toured with Richmond Fontaine also. He's a very kind and generous person. Interesting guy too.

The new album is dedicated to your partner Ciara. She's musician, how does she influence your music?

It sure is. Yes Ciara is a traditional Irish musician. She plays the concertina and teaches in the Cork School of Music. She's a far more talented musician than I'll ever be. I guess she does influence my music quite a bit but it's really only noticeable in little moments here and there on the albums. She's a great support to me and always encouraging.

Does your band John Blek & The Rats still exists, or are you and Anna Mitchell too busy with a solo career?

The Rats still exists but we're not doing anything. We're not sure if we will ever again. We're all still good friends and play together all the time in different groups. But we're all busy and touring with a 6 piece band is no way to make a living at the level that we were at. It simply is not sustainable.

Your popularity is also growing in Britain, Belgium and The Netherlands, you must be looking forward to do gigs there too? When I'm correct you will do two short tours in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Ya I'm excited to get out and play all these songs on tour next year. 2019 is going to be my busiest year yet. I will be touring Belgium and The Netherlands in early June and again in October. The dates will be announced soon. I hope to see some of your readers there!


Theo Volk