Ahead of Blair Dunlop’s second visit to Australia, he took the time to chat with Chris Familton about his new album – it’s blend of English folk and American country music and the role that anxiety played in its genesis.
With his brand new fourth album, Notes From An Island, in his back pocket, Blair Dunlop is heading to Australia shortly to play the Port Fairy Folk Festival, open for Rodrigo y Gabriela and play his own headline shows. Born to English folk musician parents (Judy Dunlop and Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span), the singer-songwriter has progressively widened his audience with each album, drawing critical acclaim, the Horizon Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and peer approval from personal heroes such as Richard Thompson.
“I don’t feel like I seek approval in general but when it comes from people you listen to and respect it means something. It feels very validating even if you think your music doesn’t need validating,” says Dunlop humbly, coming across as someone intent on honing his craft and staying true to his muse. Around the time of his previous album, Gilded, Dunlop experienced anxiety issues which subsequently spurred on new songwriting – one positive outcome of those difficult times.
“I just wanted to write a few tunes and see what would come out of it. I went into a period of being quite prolific, probably because I’d been quite emotional… and then all of a sudden you have a record. I always write about various things but the album did turn out more personal than the last two. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just wrote and looked at what came out. I always keep my audience in mind but I’m not going to temper what I write. I just write what I’m feeling and get that out and if people go with it then that’s cool, and if not then that’s a shame,” says Dunlop.
The album’s first single, Sweet On You, contains the line “If you don’t like Ry Cooder how could I ever be sweet on you”, a clue to where some of Dunlop’s American music influences lie. In conceding that this album is “more suited to an American roots music audience than any of my previous albums,” he’s also at pains to point out the nexus of genres where his music resides in the UK. “In this country you have the folk scene and the Americana scene and the nu-folk scene. I come from the traditional British folk background where the US influences aren’t as prevalent but I listen to a lot of Americana in my spare time and I now live within the nu-folk world of London. They exist in spite of one another and don’t overlap all that much but there are loads of artists who fit into any or all of the above.”
Notes From An Island was produced by Ed Harcourt, a successful singer-songwriter in his own right. He created an atmosphere that was conducive to relaxed and comfortable recording and he also brought some Americana colourings to Dunlop’s folk sound. “I think the album, production-wise, does quote a lot of US West Coast things that I grew up listening to but my writing I feel will always be pretty English in tone. This album has a lot of references to our island and the strange times we’re going through. Ed was the right person at the right time for me in my opinion and I think he had a good time making it too.”
Growing up in the 00’s, Dunlop recalls formative years listening to British indie rock and then dance music in his late teens, both buying albums and being part of the LimeWire generation of illegal downloading. Though unquantifiable, from an early age it was the music of his parents that laid the foundation for his own musicality. “There were always musical instruments around the house and I was encouraged to play which was great but it’s hard to discern what is a direct influence and what isn’t. The whole household and going to gigs and watching my parents soundcheck and things… even if I feel like I’ve found music myself I can’t define how much of my upbringing informed my taste. I was always receptive though,” Dunlop reflects.