Bert Jansch 1943-2011 RIP
If you’re looking for a definition of longevity, then a man who has influenced both Jimmy Page (born in 1944) and Beth Orton (born 1970) must be in with some sort of a shout. And when you consider that Bert Jansch has survived everything from alcoholism to bankruptcy, it’s good to see him fit and well at 62, launching a new album this September on the Sanctuary label. As for what number album Black Swan is, ‘I’ve no idea at all! It’s in the twenties, I know that…’
The first thing you’ll notice on Black Swan is the impressive guest list, from Ms Orton through Mazzy Star’s David Roback to Devendra Banhart and band, whose Noah Georgeson performed mixing duties.
‘I love to collaborate,’ Jansch confirms. ‘You get much more of a kick out of working with other people rather than solo, but I always make sure there’s at least three tracks on an album which are totally me. Part of my fan base – dare I say the purists – demands it. Sometimes they don’t seem to want me to do anything with anybody at all! Really! It’s strange…’
Yet Jansch sees the passing of the torch as crucial. ‘My kind of guitar playing is not the kind of thing that will go away. It’s always in fashion, particularly with young players who’ve never come across it before. They’re always fascinated by it – and of course they’re in turn doing exactly what I did when I was a kid with my influences, the influences from my generation. It’s an ongoing thing, a definite folk progression.’
Just as Jimmy Page might never have come up with the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin III without his influence, so Jansch is happy to acknowledge his discovery of Davy Graham in the early ’60s as ‘the next step up’ from American guitarists. The pair’s gigs last year in Scotland went well. ‘Fantastic,’ Jansch confirms. ‘He was really on form.’
After starting life as a solo artist – his first eponymous album from 1965 remains a staple of the British folk lexicon – Jansch picked up more fans through work with Pentangle, the folk-rock group who rank alongside Fairport and Steeleye as Britain’s late-’60s response to Dylan and The Byrds. Now he’s solo again, but still happy to share the spotlight.
Jansch has long been associated with Yamaha and uses both his LL11Es, made a generation apart, on the album. ‘That came about because Beth wanted to do a song, When The Sun Comes Up, in C which meant I had to retune the guitar and there was only one guitar that would go down that far – the newer one!’
Jansch used to own several guitars made by Coventry luthier Rob Armstrong, ‘but I only have the one now. They are really good guitars.’ He’s never been a collector (selling off instruments after his bankruptcy cured any of that) and has never considered lending his name to a signature model. ‘I’ve never gone that far!’ he laughs softly.
Always happier playing live, Jansch’s dislike of the confines of the recording studio has led him to embrace technology in the form of a hard disk system which lets him record at his own pace – though with collaborator Georgeson on the road with Devendra Banhart, the music crossed and re-crossed the globe in MP3 form as the tracks took shape. ‘I always found the studio left me frustrated,’ he admits. ‘The record company gave you two weeks of allotted time and you had to get to know a new engineer, producer, etc. Sometimes you’d walk out and felt you hadn’t played to your full potential.
‘So, for me, this modern day recording, doing it at home, is ideal. I get just as good results that way and I can take my time. Usually I put the guitar down first. There’s a lot of build-up to it; I’ll often record it live, hear what it sounds like and then tear it apart.
‘All my albums are basically documents of what I’m doing at the time,’ he reflects. ‘To me some are more pleasant than others depending on what I’m doing at the time. This one turned out to be a pleasant period.’ And what of the link with Beth Orton, who appears on three tracks and duets with him on Watch The Stars? ‘That was a natural progression just by doing gigs together. She’s a great singer and a fun person to be with – a scatty singer, no pun intended. I’ve been giving her guitar lessons. She’s coming on!’
By contrast, Texan singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, the ‘new face of American folk’ according to certain media scribes, was actively sought out. ‘He was in London doing a show and myself and my wife [singer Loren Auerbach] went along to it and saw him after the show, and we struck up a relationship from there.’
But in the main, it’s still the younger generation who seek out the master. Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler of Smiths and Suede fame used to go to Jansch’s gigs together. ‘I didn’t even know who they were!’ he says. ‘It’s always a shock, actually. I still can’t believe that I influence people at all. My world is so far removed from some of them.’ Nevertheless he has since played with both of them, and there are plans for an album with Butler. ‘When we do gigs live they’re quite exciting musically, so I think that will come about.’
The master’s attitude to the guitar has barely changed over the years. ‘I’m slowing down a little bit, but it’s basically the same. I’m still in the learning process, believe it or not, still wanting to learn to play it like Julian Bream – which I’ll never do. But I’ll keep trying!’
For someone whose chief early influence when a young man in Edinburgh was Big Bill Broonzy and fellow visiting Americans Pete Seeger and Brownie McGee, Jansch has paid little attention to the States in recent years – but all that is soon to change. ‘The album’s coming out a month later in the States from a Chicago-based company called Drag City, so I may be going out there for a few festivals,’ he reveals. When punk priestess Patti Smith invited Jansch to play at the Meltdown Festival in 2005, he considered it an honour.
It’s also flattering when someone documents your life in print, and a recently updated book by Colin Harper, Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (Bloomsbury) traces Bert Jansch’s life and times in fascinating detail. With quotes from Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Johnny Marr and others it comes highly recommended. But let’s let the man himself have the last word.
‘I only know how to play a guitar and write songs; when it comes down to it, I don’t know anything else. And I suppose the fact I still enjoy what I’m doing is what keeps me at it.
‘To find there are other people out there who I’m influencing, and they say so to me, it keeps you going. Anyway, the love of the guitar in itself is the first thing…’