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Back to Blek

Singer-songwriter John Blek told David Hennessy how his latest album was his way of staying creative during lockdown whilst also trying something new, how good it felt to return to the stage after lockdown and why he didn’t miss any of the recklessness of the Irish wedding when he got married in the middle of a pandemic.

Cork singer-songwriter John Blek’s song Salt in the Water was nominated for International Folk Song of the Year at the Folk Alliance International 2018 Awards and his previous record Thistle & Thorn reached number 1 in the Independent Irish album charts.

John launched his fifth album, The Embers, early last year. The pandemic may have put an end to the year of touring he had planned, he has remained productive with his series of albums entitled Digressions with Digressions #1 arriving last May and now to be followed by Digressions #2: Grounded.

Recorded at home in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Grounded is Blek’s effort to regain a sense of balance and purpose during a period of great uncertainty. It is already being received positively with the first single RIght Moves getting playlisted on RTE Radio.

John told The Irish World: “The process of creating this Digressions series and the process of making these recordings and going through preparing the releases and things, that’s as essential to me right now as the art that is the subsequent release, the piece of music. It’s keeping myself busy as well as having something to share at the end of it, I suppose.

“This Digressions project esssentially allows me to release music that is a step outside of what I would say, in inverted commas, my normal comfort zone.

“The first one was a live album which a friend of mine had recorded at a gig I did in his recording studio in Wales in April 2019. That was just sitting on a hard drive and I was like, ‘You know what? I think it’s time to release this’.

“I mean it was there, I could do it easily and cheaply and, frankly, I needed the money.”

John explains that his latest album of isolation content is more experimental which makes it more rewarding that it is being positively received.

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“Digressions #2 was much more of a labour of love. There were songs I started writing in April and recorded throughout the summer.

“It was me doing something that I had always wanted to do and that was working more with electronic instruments. It’s not something in folk music that musicians generally tend to lean on but something that I’ve always been curious about.

“There was a fellow Cork musician who I had never had the pleasure of meeting but Simple Kid was his name and he used to release music in the early noughties.

“He was always a great source of inspiration for me, the lo-fi folky kind of sound he was able to create. I’ve always wanted to try and do my own version of it or to emulate him in some way, shape or form and I just seized the opportunity.

“I got myself a couple of cheap drum machines, a cheap synthesiser and went about making this album.

“It’s been received really, really well which is heartening and it’s nice to feel as though a risk is being respected and it’s paying off.”

The reception has been positive with one magazine comparing John’s voice to Art Garfunkel while another Uk publication tipped him for future success.

Does John feel like he is making waves here in the UK when he ironically can’t get over here to play? “For me it’s a long game and it always has been.

“To say I’m ‘making waves’ makes it sound quite dramatic but it’s not necessarily.

“I would say that over the last 18 months I’ve made tentative steps into working in the UK and that’s gone really, really well since 2019 and this is another step.

“I’m not looking to crack anything or be at the top of anything.

“I’ve always worked as a musician, as a songwriter, for a living and I will continue to do it.

“It’s always lovely when a piece of work is recognised and when it reaches more people. It’s an incredible sense of achievement and I really do relish it but there’s no dramatic road to success going on here. It’s graft and it’s blood, sweat and tears and I love it that way.

“These songs have sat with me for so long. They were finished, done and dusted for about eight or nine months prior to the release and you can kind of sit there nervously maybe once a month or every two months when you listen to them to see if you still like them or to see how you feel about them.

“This is the first album that I actually got quite nervous about the release of because it did feel like something that was outside my comfort zone and it was kind of sink or swim. It felt as though it may not be received well by some people.

“It’s lovely to hear people saying nice things. Everyone enjoys a compliment, do you know what I mean?”
Although it is strange to think of now, John was playing in the UK around this time last year. “Yeah. In this environment it seems alien, I suppose.

“Will we have it again is the question that is more concerning for me really.

“And if so, how soon? Really the last twelve months have flown by in one way, moved very slowly on a day-to-day basis. So little has happened within the last twelve months that it feels as if it has just flashed by because there was nothing personally of note.”

John laughs and has to quickly correct himself here as he actually did have something quite notable happen in his personal life in the last year.

“Well, actually, I beg your pardon. Nothing personally of note is a horrible thing to say, I got married in July.. But workwise there’s been nothing major, no massive tours or that kind of thing.

“It does feel like looking back at a different time that I really, really hope we will be able to live through again.
“I was lucky to get away last year for two tours and that’s kind of helped to sustain me a little bit, that part of me that desires to perform and to travel.”

John saw his tours of Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark cancelled but he was thankful to be able to tour Germany late last year when numbers were going down and things were starting to open again.

“It’s somewhat disheartening obviously to have the shows cancelled but everyone’s working towards the greater good here, it’s not necessarily about the individual. We kind of all have to toe the line and pull our weight frankly.

“Miraculously there was a window of hope in October/November last year when I got away to Germany for ten shows there. Somehow that happened. I’m not even sure how to be honest but it’s just settling back in to another prolonged quiet time.

“The first night stepping onto a stage and having that sense of purpose restored… When something is your vocation and what you have chosen to do with your life for better or for worse and when it’s taken away from you, it’s fairly altering to your circumstance. And to have that sense of purpose restored felt phenomenal even if it was only for ten nights in the second half of the year. It was incredible.

“The shows were limited capacity which was okay, it worked out fine actually in the end because it felt safe, it felt good. Venues where I would normally play to 100 I was playing to 45 or 50 but it was still pleasant and I still really got a kick out of it.

“At that point I was so hungry for it that anything would have sustained me really.”

However, John does admit to it feeling a bit eery by the time that short tour came to end as things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

“By the time we got to the last day of that tour things had begun to nosedive on the continent significantly as well as at home. I was getting out of there at the right time but flying out of Munich Airport was an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat. It was pretty desolate, everything closed down and you were just very aware of the fragility of the system and what was happening.

“There was coronavirus test centres all around the airport and even in the bays where normally the taxis would pick people up there were these temporary isolation units set up for people. It seemed like something out of a disaster film. It was a little bit strange. I got home safe and sound anyway.”

John said he didn’t miss the recklessness of the Irish wedding.

John also leapt at the chance to play some gigs at Dublin’s Workman’s Club and Cork’s KINO last summer, even driving to Dublin prepared to have the whole thing cancelled.

“Again, numbers were cut down but that was okay, it just meant that you did two shows instead of one.

“Doing the two shows made me feel as though I was some sort of Las Vegas lounge act put out to pasture but it was still just great fun and great again to have that sense of restored purpose.

“The big difference with those shows for me was the level of uncertainty that surrounded them. The restrictions were changing by the day and at times by the hour particularly around the time of that Workman’s show.

“I literally left my home here in Cork City, drove to Dublin not knowing if the gig would go ahead. I dropped my guitars and my equipment into the Workman’s Club at around 5 o’clock. I parked my car. On the walk back to the venue for my soundcheck, that’s when I got a call to say the gig was going ahead.

“It seems insane but I was aware of the chance that it could be cancelled but I wasn’t willing to risk it from my end so I was happy enough to take the three hour journey up and down for no reason if necessary.”

One track on the new album seems to be especially personal. Bursting with fatherly advice and life wisdom, the track My Father’s Son clearly comes from an emotional place.

“I guess that song was provoked by my friends fathering their own kids but it was kind of a combination of things my father would have said to me and things that I would say to my future child.

“It was kind of a combination of things, the first being that a lot of friends have started having kids recently. I started thinking about it and I started thinking about the scenario that they’re finding themselves in.

“The other side of it is that my father is actually one of my best friends. Where I live in Glanmire, my folks are only about five minutes over the road. Under normal circumstances I would see them four or five times a week.

“My father was my best man. That’s the relationship there. We get on really well and unfortunately I’m slowly but surely turning into him as tends to happen.

“The first time I played it for my dad, I did well up ever so slightly and I think that that’s okay. It’s a piece I’m very proud of.”

Speaking of being best man, what was it like to get married in the middle of such a crisis? “Getting married in a pandemic is really cheap,” John laughs.

“No, it is true but I am joking. It was brilliant to be honest.

“We got married on 21 July. We had 15 people. We had a small family gathering and got some photos in an art gallery around the corner from the registry office.

“Then we went down to have a garden party. We got some food and some drink and set up a bonfire. It was almost a proper pagan ritual.

“It was really good. I thought I would miss the recklessness of an Irish wedding: The bunch of lads with their arms around each other and the ties around their heads. But I didn’t.

“It genuinely was an amazing day. We never considered postponing it but we were supposed to be having a bigger ceremony, 120 people, and that bit the dust fairly early on.

“We were thinking about doing a party or whatever next year but I think at this stage we’ve realised the deal is done, the job is done and we’re happy so we’re moving forward now.”

Digressions #2 – Grounded by John Blek is out on 19 February. Right Moves is out now.

John plays Timber Mill Library in Birmingham on 5 November, The Green Note in London on 11 November, Steel Rooms in Brigg on 12 November and the Royal Air Force Association, St David’s on 13 November.

For more information, click here.

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