An Interview with Dave Cousins of Strawbs

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I’ve got the long-time leader of classic band Strawbs with us for a chat today. Strawbs has a new record out, which is called Settlement. Also, on our docket for the day, we talk about Dave’s time during multiple lockdowns, the recording of Strawb’s new record. Some of his favorite music, and more. If you would like to learn more about Strawbs and their new record Settlement, you can head here. Enjoy this interview. Cheers.

Andrew:
Dave, thank you for taking the time to speak with us here. It’s been some year. What have you been doing to keep your mind off the ever-raging dumpster fire?


Dave:
It has been the strangest year that I can remember. A year ago I was living quietly in my house, built-in 1745 with a medieval cellar carved out of the chalk, in a small village on the White Cliffs of Dover when the cellar flooded due to a leak from the water supply to the hotel next door. At the same time, the first Covid-19 lockdown was declared.

I had to move to a friend’s house twenty miles away, near Folkestone. When I went back to my house, the cellar was full of fungus, the water was still running, and the insurers were called in. I am for the third time in lockdown, and the repairs to my house have not been completed.

I had my guitar with me, the songs began to pour out, and I knew it was time to make a new Strawbs album. I called Blue Weaver, who now lives in Germany, and asked him to produce the album – Settlement.

I have not seen any member of the band for a year. The album was made entirely remotely from one another, with contributions from band members recorded on our own individual recording devices, sent by We Transfer to Blue, who coordinated the whole effort. I have to say it has been one of the most productive and satisfying periods of my recording career – I have little time to think of anything else!

Andrew:
Tell us a bit about your backstory? How did you get into music?


Dave:
When I was 11 years old, I started piano lessons – encouraged by my mother and my grandmother, who played by ear. My teacher didn’t mention examination grades; she encouraged me to learn light classical pieces (‘Barcarolle’ – from the Tales of Hoffmann, and the like), which my mother asked me to play to anyone who visited our house. I hated doing it and gave up my piano lessons.

My mother liked the Pop songs of the day sung by Rosemary Clooney, Slim Whitman, and Frankie Laine – there was always music on the gramophone. But then I heard Lonnie Donegan singing “Rock Island Line” on the radio, and I was hooked. Mum and Dad bought me a cheap Spanish guitar, and I got a book about Leadbelly (written by John Lomax) out of the library and learned “Down in the Valley.” It was the first song I played on guitar.

Andrew:
As an artist, who are some of your earliest influences? As you’ve evolved musically, how have those influences changed?


Dave:
Lonnie Donegan was the catalyst who introduced me to Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie’s songs and records. I sat at the feet of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had sat with Bob Dylan at Woody’s hospital bedside. In 1965 I was in the front row at the recording of Bob Dylan’s two half-hour BBC TV shows – his performance was riveting. Bob inspired Donovan to write songs; seeing Don on TV with “This Machine Kills” on his guitar made me realize I could write songs. My banjo playing was inspired by an LP featuring Flatt and Scruggs at the Newport Folk Festival – I worked out Earl Scruggs licks by listening to the record at half-speed. In London, the hippest folk group was The Young Tradition, who sang ancient acapella songs in modal harmonies. Then along came The Byrds. My influences haven’t changed; they have evolved.

Andrew:
I want to talk about Strawbs new release, Settlement. Tell us about the inspiration and recording of this record.


Dave:
I had a new guitar at the beginning of the first lockdown in February, and it had the sound of a lightbulb exploding – it demanded to be played. The songs are the motivation for the album, far beyond any display of musical technique.

Blue Weaver came on board as producer. He lives in Germany, and members of the band sent their home-recorded contributions to him to compile. I haven’t seen anyone involved in the recording of the album face to face for a year.

Andrew:
This album feels diverse in terms of the genre while still retaining that classic Strawbs sound. Tell us more about that?


Dave:
The “classic Strawbs sound” derives from the songs, primarily the lyrics, that dictate the music style. We always have a Dave Lambert song, and this time it was a gentle folk ballad. “The Visit,” that shouted out for folk club harmonies. Dave laid down a guide for “Flying Free,” and I loved the opportunity to flex my banjo fingers.

The running order was dictated by the vinyl version of ‘Settlement,’ which finishes with “Chorale,” the last segment of the “Quicksilver suite.” Blue was totally in command of the audio, and his experience of performing on six consecutive No 1 singles in the US charts with the Bee Gees shines through.

Andrew:
In terms of lyrical content, what are the themes? What’s the through-line? Are your songs intensely person, or are you only telling stories?


Dave:
The isolation from everyone, the vulnerability, the strangeness of the empty streets, the ineptness of the response to a killer virus, awareness of spirituality brought out new songs that reflect the situation we are still living in. “Strange Times,” “Settlement,” “Each Manner of Man,” “Quicksilver Days,” “We Are Everyone” (written in half an hour after seeing the death of George Floyd on the news) are modern-day Folk ballads.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?


Dave:
I have vinyl albums and a good turntable – I’m excited to hear Settlement on vinyl as our last vinyl release was in 1987. I don’t have a streaming account, although I dip in for reference. I still buy CDs, as I want the package, and I go to Amazon for them.

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you, and why?


Dave:
Blue – Joni Mitchell
Intense songs and my introduction to the dulcimer. Joni taught me a tuning that she had worked out with David Crosby that I used on our first album.

Songs of Leonard Cohen
Intense songs. I was his accompanist on a BBC TV show on his first visit to London. A very warm and welcoming man.

Crêuza ce Mä – Fabrizio de André
Intense songs in the Genoese dialect. The sound and history of the city.

Cruzadio el Rio – Radio Tarifa
Intense songs in Spanish. Flamenco/Arab/Andalusian/Moorish textures.

Andrew:
All musical possibilities aside, what else are you passionate about? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?


Dave:
Medieval buildings and churches. Ancient hill forts and long barrows. The Nails From the Hands of Christ. These are all embedded in the songs.

Andrew:
Last question. What advice would you have for younger artists?


Dave:
Believe in yourself and what you are creating. When that ray of sunshine’s overdue, you’ve got to keep on trying.

Interested in learning more about the work of Strawbs? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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