As Darth Vader memorably intoned in Star Wars – A New Hope, way back in 1977, “The force is strong with this one.”
With Blair Dunlop, the irresistible urge to record started back when he was just a child. “Mum and Dad got me a Fisher-Price recorder, a plastic thing about the size of a lunchbox, and I took it everywhere, recording gibberish that I sang into it while we were at the shops. I’ve always enjoyed that.”
Two decades later, with the release of his fourth album, Notes From An Island, it’s obvious that Dunlop remains consumed by the urge to make music.
“I’m kinda buzzin’,” is how he describes his enthusiasm for this album. “The initial reaction has been so amazing.”
Coming from a man still in his mid-20s, whose debut album, Blight & Blossom, won the coveted Horizon Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, these are strong sentiments indeed.
From the start, his albums have enjoyed critical acclaim, with each one expanding his musical horizons, his audience and his prodigious songwriting gifts. Notes From An Island, with its timely mix of socio-political insights, tender love tales and impressive virtuosic guitar playing, is very much an album which reflects the age in which it has been created. Nevertheless, as with everything Dunlop does, it is fuelled by a desire to keep moving forwards, break down barriers and maintain the integrity which has established him as a favourite of not just a growing body of fans but of radio programmers and critics.
Born into a musical family in the mining town of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, on February 11, 1992, Dunlop was surrounded by music from as far back as he can remember. “Our house was just off the M1, so jobbing musicians, folk singers, troubadours, songwriters, used the house as a base when they were touring. There were always instruments around and I remember playing a lot in the house.” His earliest musical memories are of his mother singing. “She has an amazing voice, and I often attended soundchecks and gigs with her and dad.”
Taking classical guitar lessons from the age of six, he was so steeped in music that even an early brush with the lure of the silver screen couldn’t draw him away. Having received a scholarship to go to a local preparatory school, unexpectedly Dunlop found himself one day, along with twenty or so other pupils, auditioning for the role of Charlie Bucket in the Johnny Depp movie Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Passing that hurdle, he learned that nationwide there were over 5000 others up for the role. “Amazingly, I got to the final two before Freddie Highmore got the part.” He admits to being “a bit gutted, obviously, but then a few weeks later Tim Burton’s assistant rang up and asked if I wanted the role of the young Willy Wonka.”
That led to a small recurring role in the TV series Rocket Man, and Dunlop briefly enjoyed being, “the actor kid who could go down to London, and do fun stuff.” But when he went up to Repton School his formerly all-round scholarship was converted to a drama scholarship, which he found too limiting. “It just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I wanted to play guitar and focus on music.”
Luckily, one of his teachers recognised his already developing musical talents and arranged for him to spend an afternoon recording a six track EP. “We just put a few songs down live,” he reveals. “One traditional song, one instrumental cover, a Damien Rice cover and a couple of other things.” Released in 2010 by a small traditionalist label, it received no promotion and is now a collector’s item.
One year on, for his second EP, Bags Outside The Door, Dunlop was ready to record his own songs, with engineer/producer Mark Hutchinson of the Northampton-based Rooksmere Records. “I really count that as my first EP,” he says, “but although Mark did a great job I can’t listen to it anymore because my voice has changed so much.”
Clearly, Dunlop’s pursuit of perfection was already pushing him to achieve more. Hutchinson was so impressed by Dunlop that he almost immediately pressed forward with what became the 2012 debut album, Blight & Blossom. “I’d jump out the car now if I heard Blight & Blossom,” laughs Dunlop, “which is funny because it won the BBC Horizon Folk Award.”
Whatever Dunlop now feels about the quality of his voice on Blight & Blossom it earned plaudits from The Guardian, from Simon Mayo on Radio 2 and from Q magazine which awarded four stars and described him as “a vital bridge between Brit folk’s first and latest flowerings”.
When pressed, Dunlop admits “I still rate the writing on Blight &Blossom, but it’s the lack of gravity in the voice. I know the boy who sang those songs and I know the young man who sings the new ones.”
Before Blight & Blossom, he had briefly been acting as front man of recently re-born folk stalwarts The Albion Band and this too could have provided him with a career path but, although he acknowledges having a learned a great deal from that experience, the praise for Blight & Blossom made him think hard about what he now wanted to do.
With so much acclaim and that Horizon Award, the obvious thing would have been to pursue a solidly folk-based career, but Dunlop is rarely content to do the obvious.
In part, his decision to plough a wider furrow was inspired by his fascination with the evolving technological revolution in social media. “When YouTube came along I found loads of things, a new world of double-tapping and all this virtuosic stuff, which coincided with finding traditional folk people, like Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, old stalwarts of the English folk scene. It all came together at a nice time.”
Having abandoned his classical lessons, he had become a largely self-taught guitarist, combining elements of the virtuoso techniques of Richard Thompson, Nic Jones and Andy McKee. “For me, YouTube was my version of going into a record shop and browsing the racks.”
On the live scene, he had paid more than his share of dues, starting out in village halls and folk clubs, before doing gigs with his parents (Fairport Convention co-founder Ashley Hutchings and folk singer Judy Dunlop), treading the festival circuit, touring in Europe and working for a while in the USA.
He and Hutchinson worked together again on his second acclaimed album, House Of Jacks (2014). “I can listen to it a bit more than the first album, because my voice had dropped a little lower. And songwise, there’s a lot of songs on there that I still perform live, like Chain By Design, The Ballad of Enzo Laviano and The Station.”
Still, though, he knew there was more he could do to unmesh himself from the shackles of being pigeon-holed as a folk singer, when his influences were coming from much wider sources. Having performed over the years as a solo act, as a duo, as a four and a five piece band, he had by this time settled into a very productive trio relationship with drummer Fred Claridge and keyboardist Jacob Stoney, and it was with them that he recorded his third album, Gilded (2016), shortly after starting his own label, Gilded Wings.
Recorded in live takes at Manchester’s Blue Print Studios, Gilded was “envisaged as my first album with the shackles off.” Regrettably, some shattering experiences in his personal life meant that he couldn’t focus on the recording process as much as he would have wished. His own perfectionist criticisms were barely noticed by Radio 2 who playlisted the singles The Egoist and 356, while Q magazine, Clash Music and Louder Than War piled on the critical plaudits.
With his life now in what he describes as “a happier place” he has returned with Notes From An Island, which features close collaborations with Ed Harcourt, Dave Burn and Gita Langley. “With every record I’m getting closer to what I want to achieve and I think this is comfortably my best album to date.”
Some of the songs derive from the emotional turmoil, a romantic breakup, that was the back drop for Gilded, but he now has the distance to see that unhappy time from a new perspective. “The new album has been great for me. I’d like to think that sonically it does what Gilded was meant to do. I’m in a better place now than I was then and I guess that’s partly to do with writing being cathartic.”
His guitar playing, always impressive, has taken another quantum leap, at least in part because of his love affair with his new Gretsch, on which he wrote most of the songs.
The album opens with Spices From The East, superficially a lovely song about a young couple cooking a meal together, but as is so often the case with Dunlop, there’s a sub-text for those who look closer. “There’s references to our colonial past, and how our control of the sea networks to the east mean that we can today go down to the supermarket and enjoy those spices from the east, as a result of violence. Also, the drum sound on that track is flippin’ massive, I love the kick drum.”
Feng Shui he describes as, “probably my favourite in terms of listening back. It’s a cool little track with a nice groove,” and the first single, Sweet On You, is “not my favourite for subject matter but I like it because it’s a happy medium between commerciality and authenticity. It’s the first single I’ve done that is 100% me. It has humour, references to the music I grew up loving, and it gives me a bit of a wry smile.”
Asked what hopes he has for this fourth album, he says, “Commercial success and money have never been my prime motivations but, if it goes platinum, I really won’t mind.”
He’s already thinking about the next album, some of whose songs are already sketched out in a list he maintains on his phone, but before he gets to that he’s looking forward to his second Australian tour, some select gigs and festivals in the UK and a major tour in the autumn.