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Just doing his job

Singer-songwriter John Blek told David Hennessy about his latest album, it’s just his job to write songs and working with Cathy Davey and Colm Mac Con Iomaire from The Frames.

Cork singer-songwriter John Blek has just released his eighth studio album, Until the Rivers Run Dry.

He describes it as a mixture of ‘unashamed love songs’- unsurprising considering he got married in 2021- and more anxious songs that are from the uncertain time of the last few years.

John told The Irish World: “I’ve thought about the split in the songs.

“It’s ten songs and five of the songs are definitely unashamed love songs but the other five are still that kind of lingering sense of existential dread that still kind of hangs over us a little bit post COVID, or post-COVID lockdown era.

“Be it just general everyday anxieties or climate induced anxieties or whatever it is.

“But it seems to me that it’s five songs of unashamed love songs and five songs that are a little bit more anxious perhaps.

“It’s going really well so far.

“The reviews have been good and it’s been getting some good radio play and it’s going to be really interesting for me to play them live.”

Until the Rivers Run Dry is John’s fourth studio album in four years. While some call him prolific, he expects little praise for being a songwriter writing songs as, after all, that is his job.

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“My job is to write songs so I just go and do my job.

“It might be an overly simplistic, kind of Corkonian, almost Roy Keane-esque mentality,” he laughs.

Roy Keane has been known to say things like goalkeepers shouldn’t be praised for making saves or that football players shouldn’t be given too much credit for turning up and training well as- It’s their job.

“It is what it is.

“That’s what I’ve chosen to be my job, I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it as well as I can.

“I don’t really think about it (the number of albums) all that much. It’s not really important.

“For me, it’s not about accruing albums, it’s not accruing a higher number.

“It’s just about doing my job essentially.

“I enjoy the process of writing the songs, of recording the songs and touring it as well. Right now, at this point in my career, I suppose I’ve realised that if I release every year or every year and a half, I can still pay the rent.”

The Irish Times have described John as, “A force of nature”.

Sue Merchant of BBC Radio Cambridge said: “What an amazing voice.”

Ralph Mclean, BBC Radio Ulster, said: “I am hugely enamoured with John Blek’s songwriting… An artist you should find out more about and fall in love with, ‘cause I have.”

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

The last time The Irish World interviewed John was about his album Grounded which was recorded at home in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until the Rivers Run Dry allowed John to return to more of a normal recording situation.

“Grounded was an album where I essentially played everything on it bar a couple of little pieces where I sent the files to my friends whilst we were in lockdown in 2020 or ‘21, whenever it was, this was the complete opposite.

“It was like an entirely community-based collaborative project.

“It was done at a recording studio just outside Clonakilty called Wavefield Recordings that I’ve used regularly and with a producer called Brian Casey.

“I worked with Cathy Davey, who’s one of my favorite songwriters and singers based here in Ireland, and Colm Mac Con Iomaire from the Frames and Glen Hansard’s band, and he provided the strings for the whole thing.

“And then an English jazz pianist called Kit Downes plays the keys on it and then kind of regular collaborators then, two friends of mine, Davey Ryan on drums and Chris McCarthy on bass.

“So really this whole album was the antithesis of that last project that we spoke about. It was about working with different people and kind of inviting them to add their colour to the songs that had been created and try to create something that was outside the realms of what I could do on my own.”

As he says, the new record features vocals by Cathy Davey and strings by Colm Mac Con Iomaire of The Frames.

How did you get them involved? “It’s funny. If anyone ever asks me, ‘How did you do that? How did you achieve that? How did that come about?’- The key is you just have to ask, and you can’t be overly sensitive.

“You have to be willing to be rejected but that’s the worst that’s going to happen: Someone will say no. It’s not rude to ask for someone’s assistance or for someone to help you with a project.

“The case with Cathy is that I had met her manager a couple of times and had been in touch so I just dropped her an email and asked her. And similarly with Colm Mac Con Iomaire.

“I literally just sent him an email, sent him the songs, and he replied the same day and he said, ‘John, I hadn’t heard of you until last night when I was listening to RTE Radio One and one of your songs came on’.

“So there was a bit of serendipity there as well in a nice coincidence that kind of brought it to fruition, I suppose.

“It’s an incredible thing to get to work with people who you’ve admired from afar for so long.

“And that’s part of what I love doing in the album making process, working with people that you have that level of admiration for.

“From a production point of view, you’re offering guidance and you’re kind of focusing them on the areas or the parts of the music that you want them to embellish.

“But other than that, you kind of take the hands off the steering wheel and let them guide it, because it is essentially their characteristic vocal or playing style that you’re trying to incorporate into your production, into your music, so you kind of have to allow them a certain amount of freedom.”

John is going to play some shows in Germany in May. He was there two years ago when his shows were cancelled and he had to make his way home.

Is it still a case of keeping those fingers crossed when setting on tour after the last few years, you never know? “I think with any tour in any time, regardless of the other issues, I think you kind of cross the fingers in a way anyway.

“There is a sense of going out on a limb even if it’s only for two weeks or whatever it is.

“You’re kind of at the whim of whatever is going to happen or whatever the situation is be it a weather issue where your flight can’t take off or be it a flood or a storm, a natural disaster, a war. You know, whatever it is. These things are becoming very prevalent since COVID even.

“So there is an element of crossing the fingers and hoping it happens.

“But he who dares wins really, and I’m all for committing and just going along and doing it.

“And if the worst case scenario is that I have to make my way home with my tail between my legs, then I have no real problem with that.

“I’m brave enough for that at the very least.”

How much gigging have you been able to do since things have returned to ‘normal’?

“I’ve been able to do a huge, huge amount.

“It kicked back into gear for me in September ‘21 when I released an album called On Ether and Air and I toured that the whole way up to the end of that year which was only five or six months. The only little hiccup was in December.

“I had flown out to the Netherlands to do a tour of Belgium and Holland, and I did two gigs and then there was new COVID restrictions introduced. So I had to leave ten gigs there and come home and that was the only hiccup.

“But last year was an incredibly busy year: Two tours in the UK and numerous trips over to Europe, to Belgium and Holland and Germany and whatever I could do around Ireland.

“It’s been fantastic.

“It’s an incredibly important part of what I do.

“It’s the solitude of writing the songs, the small community of recording it, and then the bigger community of going out and actually playing it. They’re the three things that allow each element of my character to kind of come to life, I suppose.”

Considering what John has already said about it being his job to write songs, it should come as no surprise to read that the process of writing the next album has already begun in some early stages.

“I guess on my travels, I get to get to meet and get to play with a lot of just great musicians and I get inspired by them or excited by them.

“So I’ve kind of hooked up with a cello player and a viola player who are based in East Germany so I’ve invited them over to Ireland in June and we’re going to do some recording together.

“And then earlier that month, I’m going to go over to the Netherlands for a couple of days to record with a female trio of singers called Woolf and just going to do a few bits with them and see where it takes me, I suppose.

“Part of the joy of it is just the bit of experimentation.”

Until The Rivers Run Dry is out now.

John is currently touring Ireland and comes to the UK in May.

For more information, click here.

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