Blek set for his next stage

Don O’Mahony talks with singer-songwriter John Blek about his Cork show and and new album... and he casts his eye further afield
Blek set for his next stage
John Blek

It’s the calm before the storm for John Blek but I find the singer-songwriter in a contented frame of mind as he plots his campaign for the year ahead.

“This year is set to be pretty kinda crazy really just by my touring schedule,” he says, breaking it down for the months ahead.

“It’s kind of madness for the next three months really,” he says cheerfully, pointing out that February and March each leave him with only five days spent at home.

 “Summer is quiet and then it’s back out again in August, September.”

Even with all that to look forward to it’s still nice to begin the year with a sold-out show to launch his new album, Thistle & Thorn.

“It’s nice to have a sold-out show at any point in the year really, isn’t it?” he rejoinders. “It’s the first time I’ve added a second show in Coughlan’s, which is nice. It’s nice to see some element of development.”

Given that this is Blek’s full-time job and he does it pretty much all by himself, it is particularly gratifying.

“I’m pretty excited about this year. There’s a lot of work went into it. I think I’ll always be pretty honest about the fact that being an independent musician means you’re as much a sole trader as you are an artist in some ways. You know you do have to look at the business side of it every so often. As much as you may not want to, you do have to do it if you don’t have anyone else fighting your corner for you. And I don’t. Therefore, all the planning that’s gone into all this is crazy. It’s literally sitting in an office in my house, doing it. But it’s so cool to be two weeks away from it all kicking off.”

The hard work is starting to pay off and Blek’s positive outlook is buoyed by the airplay he began to receive from RTÉ Radio 1.

“It’s incredible this last couple weeks to see the response to things that have been kept quiet for nine months or so,” he says. “Like getting Radio One playlist and getting Radio One plays and that, it’s nice, like. It’s a nice feeling. You can see people following things and buying things off the website. That was a first. That Radio One playlisting is pretty great.”

He’s also getting plays from Gideon Coe on BBC Radio 6 Music, which he describes as a coup. 

“I have a booking agent over there who’s doing a tour for me so I decided that there’s no point in going doing a tour if nobody has a clue who I am.”

With that in mind, Blek’s taken on a UK publicist and has started to focus on that market. 

“This record is a big deal for me in that I feel I’ve put so much effort into it.”

While he finds himself devoting so much energy to the administrative side of the business, it hasn’t been allowed to overwhelm the creative side. “When you are in songwriting frame of mind,” he advises, “you do it.”

Thistle & Thorn sees Blek return to the Clonakilty studio of Brian Casey, this time joined by a greater number of musicians than on previous solo outings. Casey plays a number of instruments but cello, violin, drums, and organ also feature. He also managed to record three songs in Louisville, Kentucky, with his locally based friends Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg.

Having been invited by Culture Ireland in late 2017 to participate in the Folk Alliance International event in Kansas City, Blek took the opportunity to visit Kentucky. While there was a musical purpose to his visit, there was also an element of pilgrimage.

“I’ve noticed in the last number of years that there’s a lot of music that I’m enjoying that’s coming from there.

“Namely, I suppose, Joan Shelley’s music and Nathan’s music. But a lot of it is linked back to there as well. There’s a guy called James Elkington who lives in Chicago. He’d play with Jeff Tweedy on his solo stuff. He’s also got a link back to there. And there’s a beautiful studio there. Bonnie Prince Billy is from there. There’s all these different things.”

And there are other heroes like Bert Jansch and Nick Jones.

“You know, I don’t have the skill level of most of those players,” says a modest Blek. “I play the way I play because of my own limitations. I stretch myself in so so far as I can to play better every time I go to write a song or every time I go to write a guitar part.

“But it’s never going to be a beautiful Nick Jones part, or it’s never going to be an amazing Bert Jansch part. I’m just doing to do my best and as a result of that limitation it’s going to stylise it. To a certain extent.”

  • John Blek plays a sold-out show at Coughlan’s on Friday, February 1. A second date has been added on Sunday, March 24

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