HENRY PRIESTMAN INTERVIEW
Henry Priestman has been involved in the music industry for more than thirty-five years. However, it’s only in recent years that he’s started to sing again. Here, in an exclusive interview with Steve, he discusses his impassioned involvement with song-writing workshops, the reasons behind his second album being ‘overdue’, and his close affinity with Hull…
Hi Henry, how are you, and how’s 2013 treated you so far?
I’m very well, ta; it’s been an exciting year.
Compared to recent years, has this year been a particularly busy one for you?
Probably my busiest for ages. I’ve been juggling with finishing off my album, bits of writing, gigs, house-gigs and festivals, and then a relatively new development, which is song-writing workshops in schools. I only started doing them in earnest last year, and it’s really taken off. I think I’ve done nearly fifty in the last year or so. This has led to me being asked to do workshops for the general public, too. I did one in Devon, which took place over a lovely weekend in July, and just got back from another one in Guernsey last weekend.
Looking back, what has been the highlight of the year so far?
It has to be finally finishing my album; it’s taken a while, this one.
The first album – “Chronicles of Modern Life” – was written in three weeks, and recorded in less than a month. I started this new one in 2010, expecting to get it done quickly to capitalise on the relative success of the first since we’d picked up radio play, inclusion on the Radio 2 playlist, an interview on BBC Breakfast TV, and because we sold a respectable amount of albums.
I had a version almost ready, then sadly my mum died, and ten months later my mother-in-law died. Suddenly, rushing out an album didn’t seem that high on the agenda. Furthermore, I started writing more songs better-suited to where I was up to in my life. Consequently, it’s possibly a more poignant and reflective album (and slightly less of a “Chronicles of Modern Life, Part Two”) than the original version would have been. It feels like a step forward rather than “more of the same”.
After more than thirty-five years in the business, does the penning and performing of songs still hold the same appeal to you as it did when you first started out with Yachts in the late seventies?
Absolutely… possibly even more satisfying than ever before, as I’m doing this mostly on my own, leading quite a solitary existence, basically managing myself by arranging my own gigs, writing my own sessions, and organising long journeys to workshops… but writing a song with someone is still a thrill… and I get to sing most of ‘em now!
What do you remember of those early days when you supported the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Who?
Very happy times… This was as Yachts – my first proper band. Sex Pistols was just one gig at Eric’s club in Liverpool, but it was ’76 and the beginning of a really exciting time for music. With The Who, we got to do a European tour playing enormous stadia in Europe, which was great, considering we were just a bunch of mates from Liverpool Art College who found we could make a half decent noise. It was also handy that we came up in the punk/ new wave era, when musical proficiency wasn’t the be-all and end-all. It was with Yachts that I first discovered I could write a song… not necessarily a great song, but we all have to start somewhere.
In the eighties, you hooked up with the Christian brothers, and The Christians went on to storm the charts. Did you sense that the band would be as successful as it duly became?
No way. I’d already been in the music “biz” for nearly ten years without really a whiff of chart success when I first met the brothers Christian, so I was used to, and possibly expecting, failure!
I remember what our producer Laurie Latham said when we were recording the first album. “I think it’ll go Silver,” he said. I just laughed, then it ended up going straight in the album charts at Number Two, contained five Top Thirty single hits, and went Triple Platinum!
After so many years of ‘refusing’ to sing, what provoked you to start singing again on your debut solo LP in 2009?
It was never meant to happen. I wrote a song called “Old” with a fellow songwriter Tom Gilbert. It was the first song we wrote together – just a wry look at the aging process. I thought he’d sing it since I’d never sung lead since the odd vocal with Yachts twenty-eight years earlier, but he’s bigger than me and bullied me into doing it!
I had to invent a voice, I call it my “bad Bob Dylan” voice, but it seemed to work. I’ve toned it down a bit since that first demo. We wrote the whole album in around three weeks; the songs just flooded out, possibly because they came mostly from an honest and personal perspective, and they seemed to touch a chord with other people “of a certain age”!
As a rule, do you prefer to perform on your own or as part of a band?
I started off in 2009 and drafted in my mate – and brilliant guitarist – Pete Riley to help me out. The whole live thing was a real learning curve. I’d been used to being in a band, side-of-stage, head down, playing keyboards. Suddenly, I was centre-stage, having to play guitar (I’m not that proficient on guitar, as live gig-goers will probably attest to!), remember lyrics, and do all the chat in between songs. So, Pete helped guide me through that initial difficult phase.
Nowadays, I’m so much more confident, and it’s often just me going up and down the country, on my own, in my silver Mazda, with my uke and my guitar… but when I need a full band, I use a bunch of mates from the Hull area. We call ourselves The Men of a Certain Age. I’ve also been known to grab the support act to come and join me on the odd song – even the odd audience member! Once, I discovered that the promoter of a particular gig played banjo and even managed to get him to play on a few tracks. I’m currently rehearsing with guitarist Les Glover who – along with The Men of a Certain Age – will also be occasionally joining me at next year’s gigs.
Having been born in Hull, do you still feel any kind of affinity with the city?
Absolutely. A big fan of Hull City. I get back to the area quite a lot for gigs (I seem to have a good North-East following), matches, workshops, and also just to meet up with friends and relatives.
If you had to distill the essence of your epic career into three words, which ones would you opt for?
An industrious chancer! Or, if “an” or “a” don’t count as a word, then “A cheery industrious chancer”!
Looking ahead, what does 2014 hold in store for fans?
I’ve literally just signed this week to Proper Records, and my second solo album – entitled “The Last Mad Surge of Youth” – will be released on 17th February in 2014, tied in with a load of UK gigs in February, March and April.
Finally, what’s the best way for folk to keep abreast of new gigs and releases?
Visit my website at www.henrypriestman.com for gig info, videos, songs, blogs, and a biog, plus details of how to book me for house-gigs, and workshops. I’ve also got a Facebook “artist” page at www.facebook.com/henrypriestman where I post most days with any news and inane tittle-tattle.
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Henry Priestman)
This interview was conducted on 20th October, 2013.