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Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention: Interview

At The Barrier favourites Fairport Convention will be kicking off their 2021 Autumn Tour in just a couple of weeks’ time – at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Maidenhead on 14th October to be precise. The tour runs until 30th October, when it winds up at the Ragged Bear Festival in Nuneaton. In between times, Fairport will be visiting such old favourite venues as Lavenham Church, The Regal Theatre at Tenbury Wells, Chipping Norton Theatre and Lowdham Village Hall – full tour details are available here.

Fairport are delighted to be back on the road at long last, and we at At The Barrier are delighted too – and we’ll be popping along to see the chaps during the tour – watch this space…

Ahead of the tour, our writers John Barlass and Dominic Walsh were pleased to spend some time with Fairport’s co-vocalist, principal songwriter multi-instrumentalist wizard to chat about Fairport, songwriting, lockdown and how it feels to be back on the road again.

Chris Leslie – The Brasenose, Cropredy, 5th August 2021

Hi Chris!  Welcome Back to you, and to Fairport after what seems like an age.  How does it feel to be performing live again and getting back on the road?

Hi Dom and John, thank you, it feels so good to be contemplating touring again. We now have two concerts under our belts. The Live at the Brasenose concert and closing the Wickham Festival (our review here) on the Sunday evening.

We had the Brasenose concert filmed and recorded so it could be put out “Live” on the Saturday night that we would have been performing at the Cropredy Festival (our review of here). You can now see it up on YouTube (here).  

It was so good seeing and playing with each other again. We rehearsed together the day before the gig, first time since lockdown stopped all live music. It immediately felt good… so I’m really looking forward to our tour in October.

It’s great to see Fairport back on the road after all this time.  You seem to have picked up where you left off in 2020 with a set that focusses on Shuffle and Go and the (now) 52-year old classic, Full House.  What are your long and short-term plans for live performance and any forthcoming albums?

Well, because we only got to do one tour promoting Shuffle and Go before all touring had to be cancelled, it still feels like a very recent album from a playing live point of view, so we are picking up where we left off almost two years ago – lots of songs from that album , together with some material from our ever expanding back catalogue, and a few songs which are always with us such as Matty Groves and Meet on the Ledge. So no plans at the moment to record the next album, but watch this space…

Fairport Convention photographed in November 2016. The band celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on 27th May 2017.

With Fairport’s vast back catalogue, how do you go about deciding which songs to dust off aside from newer tracks and any relevant anniversary tracks?

I think it is a balance of what fits in with the newer material, and some numbers tend to swap and interchange with each other year to year for example Who Knows Where The Time Goes and The Hiring Fair.  We try to maintain a balance of performing numbers from the back catalogue whilst moving forwards with new material …

Sometimes on particular anniversary years, we have performed a whole album as a first half of a concert –  Babbacombe Lee comes to mind on the 40th anniversary of its release. It was a really interesting thing to do, and was recorded for a live album.  Similarly, at Cropredy Festival during our set this year, we were going to play the Full House album with the existent original line up plus myself standing in for the irreplaceable Dave Swarbrick.  This is now set to happen at Cropredy 2022. 

Are there any particular songs in the catalogue that you have never performed with the band that you have a burning ambition to? There are always a few curveballs in Cropredy sets and such…

Wizard Of The Worldly Game and Bridge Over The River Ash from the Angel Delight album come to mind…

Tell us about your time under lockdown:

You released your latest solo album, Fiddle Back, in August last year – how did that come together and how did you go about gathering the material?

Did you take the opportunity to do any writing for future Fairport or solo projects?

Well – I was sitting at home just after lockdown had started, like so many of us, watching the very grim news coverage, seeing all the amazing key workers, and the incredible NHS workers holding it all together and giving their all. I felt very ineffectual with very little to offer to the cause, so I started posting videos up on my Facebook page – mostly instrumentals played on different instruments each post. Then I found an App that lets you film up to four separate passes and then combine them into a solo group! I felt that if any of these posts cheered people up – I would be doing something positive in my own way. 

Then the thought of a solo album (our review here) came to me, so I started writing…

The opening track, Traveller’s Song, was the first number I wrote.  I recorded it on my iMac in Garageband.  I have a couple of really good mics, one for vocals, and one for instruments.  I connected them into the computer through a Focusrite  interface. I really worked hard on the recording levels and learnt so much about editing and EQ as I went along, I feel the end result has a proper album feel to it rather than demos, which was all I had recorded at home until then. 

I was writing then recording each day – sometimes writing into the early morning hours ready to record that number the next day. It was very cathartic and focused my creative mind into something really positive. I felt that being positive was so important amidst such troubling and sad news coming in every day.

FIDDLE BACK - CD

Once the album was out, I made a video for the opening track Traveller’s Song – filmed at home and in the surrounding countryside and woods – that also took me on a journey of discovery and learning.  I have three videos now up on YouTube – again learning so much about filming, and editing – all filmed on iPhone and iPad.

A few other songs have come to me since recording Fiddle Back. Maybe they will make it into the Fairport repertoire – we’ll have to wait and see…  I also did a lot of walking, and have really got into astronomy – which is just amazing and full of wonder.

We were honoured to have you write about David Grisman for At The Barrier, and have the links subsequently included in your Off The Desk 2020 programme release. During the past year or so, have there been any albums or artists that you have discovered? Or old favourites that you have returned to?

The incredible James Taylor (who Peggy wrote about here) has returned to my immediate horizon in a lovely way. We now have a grandson called Taylor. He is a beautiful one year old. We haven’t seen that much of him due to lock down and the fact he lives five hours away from us but he was recently here for a week or so.  Whenever he is settling down in his pushchair for a nap during the day, his Mum and Dad play him James Taylor – he loves it! Whilst rocking the pushchair in the hallway – I knew exactly why J.T. was little Taylor’s favourite.  Such amazing song writing, guitar picking and that rich, warm gorgeous voice. These precious moments spent with our Taylor and J.T. in the hallway, inspired me to write a song that almost wrote itself. It’s called “Taylor, James, and me”.

Fairport released its latest album of original material (Shuffle and Go) just before lockdown kicked in.  We think it’s an excellent album – up there with Fairport’s best.  You managed to promote it on the 2020 Winter Tour, but how frustrating was it to lose the opportunity to celebrate it at Cropredy?

Yes it was a real shame we couldn’t get to perform the Shuffle and Go material in front of the Cropredy crowd. When we finished the Winter Tour earlier in the year, we were on a roll, and the tracks were all played in and feeling really good…

We’ve all been gutted that the Cropredy Festival has had to be cancelled for the past two years although we fully understand the reasons why.  Have the worst of the potential financial implications of cancellation been avoided and are you confident that we can pick up where we left off when the festival reconvenes in 2022?

We are so lucky to have Gareth Williams at the organising helm of Cropredy. He has such expertise and knowledge of the Cropredy Festival infrastructure, logistics and production; what I would call a very safe pair of hands.  The decision to cancel was of course a difficult one, but we are definitely heading forward to Cropredy 2022.

Happy Days – Chris on the Cropredy stage
(Photo: Kirstie Handley)

Many of your songs relate to real events – nautical adventures (Edge of the World, Mercy Bay, I’m Already There), space (The Year of ’59, Moondust and Solitude and even a snippet of Myths and Heroes), historic events (South Dakota to Manchester, The Fossil Hunter).  What has been your inspiration for choosing these subjects?

Well, I came up through the folk scene, and was always into the stories around the songs. Over the years in Fairport, my writing seems to have developed along those lines. There are so many remarkable individuals whose life stories inspire me and I feel need telling, such as Mary Anning and Black Elk. My fascination with space since childhood was the flux for celebrating the 50th year Apollo moon landing with a song about the loneliest individual in the universe (as we know it Jim…) Michael Collins – so completely isolated on his orbits around the far side of the moon… just amazing!  All such great material to write with…

I’m aware that you attended college to learn the craft of violin making.  Is that still a skill you pursue?  Did you make any of the instruments that you or any other members of Fairport use on stage?

The violin I use with Fairport is the second violin I made at home when I was at The Newark School of Violin Making back in 1981. I really enjoy playing it still.  I have made quite a few violins since then over the years, but full time touring from the late 1980s really stopped me making any more. However, during lock down I also rebuilt my work bench, set out all my tools, and now have a fiddle almost finished. Great to be back in that frame of mind too.

I know that you’ve been associated with the The Adderbury Morris for many years.  What, if anything, is your current involvement with the side?

Well, funny you should mention that!  This evening as I write this, I have been out all day with The Adderbury Morris Men dancing around the village as part of the village Community Day – it’s been a really fab day. The village has three morris sides, who were all out dancing – such a great vibe.  I don’t get out dancing (well I play the fiddle mostly) very much due to being on the road -all things being normal! – but when I can make it I still really love it.

If you could wish for three things in 2022, what would they be?

World peace,

Enough food, water, and Covid vaccine for everyone on the planet,

A bigger telescope.

Lastly…A couple of the songs closely associated with you that I’ve (John) always loved are I Wandered By a Brookside and Song for Andreas from your last solo album.  Can I make a personal request for one or both of these to be included in a Cropredy setlist in the not-too-distant future?!

Thanks so much for those requests. There is always so much material vying for a place in our Cropredy set, but I will bear them both in mind for the future.  I wandered By a Brookside was found in Swindon library by a dear and long departed friend of mine,  Barbara Berry, who also wrote the melody. I first recorded it with Whippersnapper, and then with Fairport. 

Song For Andreas came about through meeting a Hardanger Fiddle player and collector in Norway called Bjorn Sverre Kristensen. I went to his house after a gig to see his collection of Hardanger Fiddles and I told him about one I had just bought from America. He researched into the maker’s family and uncovered a tragic story connected to the Hardanger fiddle I had just bought.  I had to write a thank you song to Andreas Pile who made it back in 1925.

Chris Leslie – on behalf of At The Barrier, many, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us.  We’re looking forward to seeing you on the Autumn Tour.

You can find all of Fairport Convention’s tour dates by following the link here.

Watch Chris’s video for Moondust and Solitude – a track from the Shuffle and Go album – here:

Fairport Convention: Official Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Chris Leslie: Website / Facebook / YouTube

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2 replies »

  1. Excellent interview chaps. Looking forward to getting out and about to catch the Autumn Tour. Plans are already afoot for next years Cropredy Festival.

  2. Hi Paul! Many thanks for the comment. I’m still finding it hard to believe that live shows are really happening again… let’s hope it stays that way!

    And Cropredy 2022 will surely be something very special…

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