An Interview with modern day troubadours James Keelaghan and Jez Lowe, appearing in concert October 6th, 2013, Harrisburg, PA

James Keelaghan, hailed as Canada’s finest singer-songwriter and “poet laureate of the folk and roots music world,” and England’s Jez Lowe, one of the busiest performers on the acoustic/folk scene, join forces for a special evening of music in a Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert on Sunday, October 6, at 7:30 p.m., at the Midtown Scholar, 1302 N. 3rd Street, Harrisburg.

Concert tickets are $21 General Admission, $17 for SFMS members, and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or online at

Called Canada’s finest singer-songwriter, James Keelaghan takes traditional folk music and brings it into the current century, telling stories that are designed to be passed from one generation to the next, just as folk songs have been carried on for centuries. His masterful story-telling has been part of the bedrock of his success, earning him a Juno (Canada’s Grammy), first prize in the Folk Category of the 8th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, and accolades from Australia to Scandinavia. He uses his background in history to write songs about social issues, such as his well-known songs Kiri’s Piano, about the internment of Japanese Canadians, and Cold Missouri Waters, about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. My Blood, written with Jez Lowe, is one of many examples from Keelaghan’s career of his inviting collaboration into his creative process.

Accompanying himself on guitar, cittern, mandolin and harmonica, Jez Lowe has brought his “pointed, poignant and powerful” songs of life in his native northeast England to audiences worldwide. Raised in a coal mining family with Irish roots, he composes songs of social impact that directly address economic conditions, and issues of poverty and limited social opportunity in that region. Performing solo and with the Bad Pennies, he has played at some of the most prestigious venues in the world. Jez’s songs have also found their own way around the globe all on their own, borne by performers including Cherish the Ladies, the Tannahill Weavers, the Black Family, Fairport Convention, The Clancy’s, The Dubliners and literally hundreds more. BBC Radio 2 has called him “one of our finest songwriters,” echoing his 2008 nomination for “Folksinger of the Year” in the BBC Folk awards.

 

This interview was conducted and edited for the Susquehanna Folk Music Society by Lesley Ham. She caught up with them as they embarked on their road trip from Canada to the United States.

SFMS: How did you get together and start playing and touring together?

James: We were aware of each other from the folk scene in general and we shared stages at various folk festivals in various parts of the world. In Australia one year we did a couple of shows together at the National Folk Festival. It was a pretty good sound, so I thought maybe we should pursue this thing, because we write in very similar styles and about a lot of similar things. So at that National Folk Festival in Australia, we started working up common material. Then we toured together in the United States, Canada and the U.K.

SFMS: You’re both known for writing about historical and social issues. How do you collaborate with each other? Do you play on each other’s songs, or write songs together?

James: We have done some writing together; we’re trying to do more writing together. We also play together; we’re both on stage together for the whole time. We sing harmonies on each other’s songs and participate in each other’s music.

SFMS: Are you both from similar backgrounds?

James: We both tend to write about “every person,” about ordinary people and their lives. I think we have similar appreciation for what we write about.

SFMS: Some people have likened that to a kind of folklore. Do you think of yourself as a kind of folklorist or tradition bearer?

James: I think of myself as a troubadour. Once I was in a café in Turkey with a friend and a guy was in a corner doing a song, a kind of recitation, with all the men listening to him. I asked my friend what song he was singing. And it was the Odyssey. It was his job to sit there and recite the entirety of the Odyssey. In that way, Jez and I are bearers of stories. I’ve always thought that the best compliment of one of my songs would be that a couple hundred years from now someone gets up in a folk club somewhere and sings one of my songs and says, “This is a traditional folk song, we don’t know who wrote it.” That means that what I’ve done is created a song that’s good enough that I can completely disappear from it and the song stands on its own and has a life of its own.

Jez: I agree. One of my songs has already been absorbed into the British tradition. It’s quite a compliment.

SFMS: What’s it like collaborating with James?

Jez: It’s remarkable how similar our approach is. The music sounds quite different, but it’s amazing how alike our approach and our background is, and our standards and ideals. It’s amazing since we come from opposite sides of the world. A common heritage.

SFMS: James, because of your song Cold Missouri Waters were you paying attention to the fires in Colorado and Arizona recently?

James: Yes, my song got attached to the news coverage of that event. People on Facebook started spreading it around on the memorials to the firefighters that were killed in Arizona. And then I ended up on the front page of USA Today. It was humbling, to think of that song being used to memorialize those guys. That’s what Jez and I are talking about. It’s all about the power of the song. It’s all about touching people through music and telling stories that reflect people’s lives. If we wrote about princes and kings I don’t think people would care. If we write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, I think people can relate to that. You write these things and put them out into the world and you never exactly know how they are going to affect people. One of my songs, McConville’s [about how pubmates help out the family of their dead friend] suddenly has become the story-song that everyone is talking about.

SFMS: So, you pick stories that affect you?

James: It has to touch me first; if I don’t care anything about the story, I can’t write about it. I’m sure it’s the same with Jez. (Jez: Yes!)

SMFS: What’s your writing process? Do you start with the story?

James: I hear a story, and then I mull it over for a long time until I find a point of view that I can tell the story from that resonates. To me, telling a story is all about the point of view. So do you agree with that, Mr. Lowe?

Jez: Yes, that’s one approach that I take. I also enjoy making up stories and characters to reflect a real situation, like a novel, like fiction.

SFMS: What can we expect Sunday?

James: You’ll be treated to an evening of extremely fine song, and witty, and entertaining guys (Jez: and handsome!), and a great story.

SFMS: Drive safely.