STEVE TILSTON: SONG CRAFT
Published: Acoustic Guitar, November 1997

Trekking down to London from the provinces at the tail end of the English capital’s acoustic boom in the 1960s, Steve Tilston was never encumbered with the dazzling raiment and consequent expectations of legendary status awarded to many of his near-contemporaries and inspirations like Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Martin Carthy and John Renbourn. But neither has he fallen by the wayside as just another also-ran from a guitar movement that threw up a handful of stars and faded into the footnotes of British music history – rather, as time has gone on, his career has positively blossomed both as a solo artist, as a duo with Irish flautist/vocalist (and wife) Maggie Boyle and more recently with String Thing – an occasional live ensemble featuring those mainstays of his recorded work cello and violin.

It’s not his first band either. A consistent champion of the English ‘folk-baroque’ style, which he spices up with elements of Latin-American, African and American Country music, in the early ‘90s Tilston toured and recorded in John Renbourn’s Ship Of Fools. In the last couple of years, backed by Rounder/Flying Fish who have released his highly impressive solo set And So It Goes (1996) and the gorgeously eclectic duo album All Under The Sun (1996), he’s started to make inroads into the North American acoustic scene:

“It’s happening for me slowly but surely in America,” he says, “but it’s a bit like medieval warfare – taking each little area by storm! I think audiences in the States are just generally more enthusiastic – certainly in America the singer/songwriter is enjoying a boom. In Britain that’s not really the case!”
A well-balanced individual, with no discernible airs or graces and a voracious appetite for literary, cultural and countryside pursuits outside of music – and currently living, for the good of his soul, in the idyllic hills of Yorkshire in the North of England – Tilston has weathered the storms of musical fashion better than many’s a better known name. He has arguably not only maintained his craftsmanship but enhanced it with the passing of time, and that craft is a subject he talks plainly and passionately about:
“I think everyone has a song in them,” he says. “Songs that are written in your teens are like a courtship ritual really, like a verbal plumage! Certainly pop music is like that. I have done love songs but I don’t do so many any more because they don’t interest me so much – although I still like hearing a good love song if it’s done well. But right from the start, when I first started writing, I thought that the words should mean something. I really don’t enjoy songs that purport to say something and actually signify nothing when you look at the words and find only collections of phrases, like Oasis’ songs – it’s a cop out, it angers me. I end up walking down the street whistling these songs and I’ll kick myself, thinking ‘I’m getting caught up in this’! [laughs] I’m sure it sounds incredibly arrogant, but to me it’s not proper songwriting. They’re going to sell millions more records than I ever will, but I still don’t believe it’s proper songwriting.”

Tilston’s own work, even from his early days – which can be freshly judged by virtue of an imminent CD reissue of his debut (1971) album Acoustic Confusion on the Scenescof label – has always included an element of wistful nostalgia, with surprisingly little in the way of standard singer/songwriter angst:

“Yeah, even at the age of 21 I was writing nostalgic songs about my carefree teens – ‘Reaching Out’, in particular [from Collection, 1972], comes to mind and I still think that’s one of my best songs. Most of Dylan Thomas’s great poems were written when he was young and with a sense of nostalgia. But the new element in my songwriting is that I don’t write so many first person songs now. I enjoy writing narrative style songs, as in ‘The Slip Jigs And Reels’ and ‘Coronado The Turk’ [both on the 1992 duo album Of Moor And Mesa]. I’ve written a couple more actually, fairly traditionally based, which will probably go on the next album.”

Tilston’s increasing canon of story songs, often reminiscent of Irish or English traditional styles, are fast becoming his calling card with numerous covers – mostly from traditional artists. Irish vocal legend Dolores Keane has just recorded his modal tale of Viking invasions ‘The Night Owl Homeward Turns’, which the writer himself is very much looking forward to hearing, while English folk-rock stalwarts Fairport Convention have recorded three of his songs, most recently ‘Here’s To Tom Paine’, originally from All Under The Sun:

“That one isn’t actually a nationalistic song,” he says. “I was trying point out to people – English people – that we do have these radical heroes and original thinkers, that there are some good blokes there in history. I’d just read a book about him and the song was written at the end of the Tory [Conservative government] dark ages and people seemed to readily pick up on it. That one’s only semi-narrative. It started off as a narrative thing but then it sounded a bit trite saying ‘Tom Paine did that, said this’, and so on. It didn’t work. So I kind of had to use catch phrases that I hope that people who would read about Tom Paine would recognise – like ‘lobster backs’, or ‘the age of reason’ or ‘statues of kings’. They’re references that I hope will come alive if people explore the subject.”

Although his style is gentle and articulate, measured vitriol against political hypocrisy and the breakdown of society’s fabric make their subtle mark on And So It Goes. One song that’s been generating particular feedback is ‘Is This The Same Boy’: “That was actually written for a friend’s son.” he muses, “who was schizophrenic basically and I remember this kid when he was a lovely little golden haired lad, who then grew up to make his parents’ life a misery. You never know how they’re going to turn out – bit like songs really! You send ‘em out into the world and they go their own sweet way. But I think that one in particular connects with audiences.”

Readers may also know Tilston’s name from the small print of Chris Smither’s Up On The Lowdown (1995) album, where the pair, perhaps implausibly, co-wrote the exhilarating ‘Can’t Shake These Blues’. Put simply, it sounds like a remarkably successful marriage of typical Smither lyric and typical Tilston guitar lick, which Tilston has also recorded, albeit a tad less convincingly, on And So It Goes. That one came about by chance:

“I was staying at Chris’s place and he wanted to try out some new recording equipment so he got me to just noodle around a bit and I played this guitar figure I’d been working on – I basically had the first verse written – and he was like, ‘Man, what the hell’s that?’ And I said ‘Well, I’ve had it around for a couple of years and I can’t seem to finish it’. He said he’d have a go and I think he made a great job of it. We certainly hadn’t got together specifically to co-write – I don’t think either of us can operate like that. I do like just working on my own.”

With the onset of a young family, Tilston generally prefers writing in the morning but admits that humming tunes while driving to gigs has become a remarkably successful alternative: “The melody for ‘Tom Paine’ happened like that,” he says. “Then again, you stumble on a great melody, you think it’s entrenched and then you get distracted by the view or the business of keeping your car on the road and it’s gone!”

His guitar style – involved but rarely flash – has often drawn comparison to the ebbs and flows of piano arrangements: “I do love piano music,” he admits, “and I wish I could play it. But I don’t like to get into what I call pattern picking. I might use it for a few bars but I like to break it up. It’s the easy way out, just finding a pattern and riding with it for the duration of a song. I find it very uninteresting so, yes, I do go for a more pianistic approach. For me, song and arrangement are equally important, because the moment you get up on a stage you’re showing off really, aren’t you? And if you’re good at it then you’ll get people’s attention. Certainly initially that was how I thought but I’ve been a professional musician 27 years now so it’s more a feeling of taking a pride in my craft and doing the best I can. Hopefully I’m a craftsman at what I do – there’s a lot of paring down of notes. Maybe I still use too many in some places. If you’ve got a real whizz guitar arrangement it can detract from the song, it can lessen the impact of the song. So finding that balance is where the real work comes in.”

Colin Harper

 

STEVE TILSTON – GEARBOX

“My best guitar is one made by an old school friend called Martin Cole,” says Tilston. “It was one that I basically designed myself [pictured on the back of And So It Goes] I love slot heads on the tuning heads and it’s also off-set. On the bass it comes to the 12th fret, on the treble to the 14th fret although it’s not actually a cutaway. I just don’t like the look of them, although I can see the sense in having those extra frets! But also I wanted a guitar built mainly as cross between a nylon string and a steel string, while using steel strings. I’ve got a Takamine nylon string, which I’ve used a little on the last few albums, and a Takamine steel string EN30-C which is the one I take on the road, particularly if aeroplane travel’s involved. It’s built like an old warhorse, sounds great when it’s plugged in and not too bad acoustically either.”

“I’ve just discovered these amazing strings, which somebody showed me at the Folk Alliance conference in Toronto. They’re called Gore Elixir – I put this set on in March, it’s now September and I’ve only just taken ‘em off. That’s nearly 100 gigs – it’s absolutely incredible. They cover them with something that stops sweat getting into them. They’re expensive, about $15 in the States and not available in Britain, but I’m getting them sent over and I see they’re getting a lot of attention on the Internet.”

Steve also has a custom made arpeggione, based on a design for a briefly popular early 1800’s instrument that was essentially a cross between a guitar and a cello. It has only occasionally featured in his live act – and never overseas – but appears on some records: “I had it made by Kincade Brothers in Bristol. The top two strings I use are guitar strings and the rest are cello strings. It’s always been good for writing melodies, which I’ve later transcribed to guitar, because being a bowed instrument the notes don’t decay so quickly, it’s closer to the human voice than a guitar. I’ve been playing it quite a lot recently and I think I’m going to reintroduce it into my live act.”

Colin Harper