5 April 2019
It would be understandable if Michael Chapman decided to put his feet up for a well-earned retirement. Instead, at the age of 78, he’s still slogging around the country playing songs from across a career spanning more than half a century.
In fact, following a six-year-long spell of writer’s block, he’s becoming more prolific than ever and making some of the best records of his career. In his new band – pedal steel legend BJ Cole, cellist Sarah Smout and singer Bridget St John – he has found the perfect foils for his weather-worn voice and intricate acoustic guitar-playing.
Usually described as a folk singer (though he hates the term himself and was recently dubbed “the godfather of cosmic Americana”), Chapman sits somewhere between the boundaries of folk and blues, jazz and country, with a mantra-like fingerpicking style on his ancient acoustic guitar and a gift for writing and singing storytelling songs. His guitar playing recalls greats like Davey Graham and John Fahey, Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson and it must surely rankle that he has rarely received the same sort of acclaim, though he has always had the admiration of his peers, shown by recent collaborations with Hiss Golden Messenger, Ryley Walker, Jack Rose, Bill Callahan, Thurston Moore and Alex Turner.
He’s clearly battling a cough and a cold tonight but it doesn’t affect his performance: the patina of age his matured his ravaged rasp of a voice into an instrument in its own right, lending even greater authenticity to songs rooted in a life lived to the full, and able to supply bass notes where none existed. Tonight’s added veneer of catarrh only adds further character.
He comes onstage in weatherbeaten jeans, denim shirt and a trucker’s cap with wisps of white hair peeking out of the sides, looking like the gas station attendant of American folklore, accompanied by the same ensemble with whom he recorded his latest album True North. Cole’s pedal steel adds a strong country flavour, Smout’s cello swathes the songs in sweet melodies, and St John’s sweetly smouldering vocals provide the perfect counterpoint to his gravelly voice and fingerpicked guitar.
Apologising for a persistent cough, he could easily have played an instrumental set to save that voice from further damage – his instrumental albums like Fish (Tompkins Square Records, 2015) are a particular delight – and he does include the delightful Caddo Lake, a classic country melody drenched in weeping pedal steel guitar. Cole goes on to earn an ovation for his solo on It’s Too Late, one of a handful of songs from his reflective recent album True North (Paradise of Bachelors, 2019), the sometimes startling effects prompting Chapman to chortle: “He’s pressed the Hawkwind button!”
It clearly takes more than man-flu to stop Chapman singing. And talking, for his storytelling is not confined to his lyrics: his anecdotes, peppered with dry Yorkshire wit, suggest that if he did decide to hang up his plectrum, he could probably carry on as a stand-up comedian. His songs are mostly autobiographical, which means he can draw on well-worn gags to introduce them. The Mallard is about a historic steam engine – built in Yorkshire, naturally – which set the world speed record when leaving Peterborough in 1938, making it the fastest steam train ever. “Because they don’t make ‘em any more,” he quips. “I’ve been to Peterborough myself,” adds Chapman, teeing up his punchline. “I got out fucking quick too.”
There’s another yarn about how he missed the opportunity to join Lucinda Williams onstage because he had never received the invitation she emailed him – “I haven’t got a computer!” he chuckles proudly – and delivered a cheeky riposte to her suggestion that the song in question, It’s That Time Of Night, is about having one drink too many: “I told her: ‘You’d know!’”
After All This Time, another song looking back on his life from True North, is “a song about one of the more disgraceful episodes in my life,” he says, recalling a day off in his hometown of Leeds (“my worst nightmare”) in which he was accosted by a vaguely familiar middle-aged lady in a bookshop, who asked if he remembered her. “She said: ‘You should do – we were married for four years’.”
Sometimes You Just Drive, from his 2017 album 50 – the first to be recorded with this line-up and which he describes as his “American record” – is an apocalyptic song about the 2015 flooding of Carlisle, with a notable vocal contribution from Bridget St John. “But it’s also an anti-religious song,” he adds. Just Another Story is introduced as “a song about that great American icon, the truck stop waitress. She’s out in the desert somewhere, living in a trailer with her kids.” In a similar vein is Truck Song, a tribute to Jimmy LaFave, a real-life Texas truck driver and singer-songwriter who died a few years back, and whom Chapman admires.
Then it’s back in time to Rabbit Hills, drawn from his most successful album, Fully Qualified Survivor, way back in 1970. He returns to the stage, still coughing and wheezing, to delve further into the past for Shuffleboat River Farewell, “the last song I wrote in Hull,” from his 1972 album Wrecked Again. He bemoans the gentrification of his one-time home: “Hull’s got a Ferrari showroom now,” he grumbles. “And they closed the Silhouette club – the only gay trawlermen’s club I know.” He cackles with laughter before repeating his well-worn gag about the ferry that stopped running when they opened the Humber Bridge in 1981. “A ferry from Yorkshire to Lincolnshire,” he chuckles. “My idea of a pointless journey.”
Thankfully, Chapman’s own journey, which famously began outside a Cornish pub in the rain in 1966, when the penniless art student offered to play guitar for half an hour if he could come inside, remains far from complete. Catch him while you can.
True North is out now on Paradise of Bachelors; listen to It’s Too Late here: