An Interview with Blair Dunlop

Georgia Evans sat down with the contemporary folk singer, songwriter and guitarist Blair Dunlop to discuss everything from his latest album, Talybont South and his role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

To someone who’s new to your music, how would you describe it? 

I started off doing a lot of traditional folk music, now I don’t do old folk songs, but I’m very much influenced by them; sonically, lyrically and thematically. The new album is a bit more personal,  contemporary. Probably in between West Coast Americana, like the Eagles, Jackson Brown, things like that and then more like contemporary/ folky songwriters from the traditional UK folk scene. Most people say it sounds like the Eagles.

Why do you think they say that?  

Because I’ve written loads of songs in C and we got harmonies. I came into possession of a Gretsch, and I’ve been writing on that, that formed the sound of the new album. But that’s probably the guitarist in me talking, I’ll never see it as American, I’m very much an English writer.

What makes this album different to your previous albums?  

It’s definitely more personal. There are a few socio-political parallels that I draw, but it’s basically a break-up record. And it’s more contemporary sounding than the last few albums.

Who was your favourite person to collaborate with on the album?  

Well Fred’s looking at me, so probably Fred.

If Fred wasn’t here?  

I don’t know, Fred and JJ are my boys, they’re in my band so I’m just going to leave them out of it, ‘cos that’s not a collaboration that’s more like a chore. Dani, the engineer! Dani and Ed the producer. Dani’s amazing, she’s really young, she’s like 21? She engineered the whole record, she was amazing. I think she’ll do really good things in her career. She’s just ace to be around. And then Ed the producer was amazing, I grew up listening to his records. To get to work with him is great. He created a really amazing atmosphere in the studio; he’s half on edge but half really chilled.

As you’ve mentioned the album is influenced by romance/heartbreak. Any other influences?  

Yeah, Brexit. Not specifically Brexit, but isolation in the Western world. Brexit comes into that obviously, but it’s not a political album. It’s more of a social commentary than a left-wing rant. It’s posing questions.

Can you elaborate a bit more?  

When I started writing the album I was just writing the album that I wanted to write; in essence, it’s a break-up record, but it’s not just about heartbreak, because 2016 was the year of Trump, Brexit and the rise of populism. I’m not really a political writer, I’ve written the odd thing but there are other people who do that better than me, and it’s not really what I want to do. There were loads of parallels between my isolation and then the island isolation, so I thought, ‘there’s a theme in this’. Then I started drawing parallels, fleshed out more of the songs, re-wrote bits and wrote a couple more songs. There are definitely nods to what it means to be British and living in the UK in 2016/17 when we recorded it. It wasn’t a conscious decision.

I don’t think many people would associate heart-break and isolation with Brexit, it’s a really interesting link for you to draw on. You come from a musical background, was there any expectations for you to follow in your father’s footsteps?  

Never expectation, well, maybe like a tiny bit but only because I wanted to. I was never pushed. And I was never good enough at football. There were always instruments around the house, so it’s kind of like going into the family butchers, like a natural progression but I was never forced in any way. I just always gravitated towards music, at school whenever I got a chance to play in shows and stuff I’d always want to play, as opposed to acting. I spent a lot of time in the theatre, but I always wanted to do music.

What’s your favourite track on the record?  

The first track, Spices from the East. Lyrically, it’s the most interesting. It’s about colonialism but also cooking. That song is personal, we cooked a lot together but linked to that how did the influx of spices, how did we evolve as a nation, how did our cooking evolve, oh because we shafted the Eastern world, that’s tied into colonialism and Brexit and that isolation. What is it to be British, it’s not black and white but I just thought it was interesting. You’ve got to think about these things.

It’s interesting. When and why did you decide to pursue music as your full-time career? 

Well, I took a gap year and my best mate (who we stayed with last night), he got a cricket scholarship to go to Cardiff Uni, and he’d had a gap year. He came back, I hadn’t seen him for a year and my first job out of school was acting in a play in a theatre about sleepy old England and farmers and stuff, so it’s like folk music – bang what I was into at the time like pure traditional folk. So I was a villager and played guitar and mandolin and sang in that. We did a week in each different place, and in October, my friend has just got back off his gap year and was staying in halls, Talybont South, so I stayed with him to save money on digs. I bought him a shitty flat screen TV and we played Fifa all week when I wasn’t in the play, for old times sake. I met all of his housemates and went out with them, and so when they started second year, one of the guys dropped out so I thought I’d live in Cardiff. Just before I moved to Cardiff I was just starting to gig more and more and making enough money and was earning enough to make a living so I withdrew from UCAS.

Were you singing covers or originals? 

I was doing some original, but a lot of traditional folk songs so covers in a sense. Arrangements of traditional songs, old English and sometimes Scottish songs. Doing the folk clubs to an older audience and that’s where I cut my teeth and that’s still a large part of my audience. But I don’t really associate myself with traditional folk at all anymore, I still love it and I might play a traditional tune tonight, but it’s not the main body of my work anymore. I’m influenced by it, but it’s different now. It’s more like folk rock or old county. Kind of Americana.

Last question, what was it like to work opposite Sir Christopher Lee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?  

Amazing, he is a legend, a proper, proper legend. Interesting, most people ask what it was like to act with Johnny Depp. Sir Christopher Lee, he’s actually a pretty good singer himself. You know he’s released a metal album? He’s a great operatic singer. We got on really well, I wrote him some limericks, you’re tutored there and we were doing limericks, and I wrote him one and gave him it, I’ve never told anyone this, but I gave it to him and he loved it.