As part of his 75th birthday celebrations, folk veteran Roy Harper recently took to the road for a series of special shows in which he revisited and reworked some of his most acclaimed albums. The shows also coincide with the release of three reissues from his back catalogue - the albums Flat Baroque and Berserk, Stormcock and Lifemask were released earlier this month via his own label Science Friction and distributed by PIAS.
Throughout the course of his career, Harper has been heralded by numerous rock and folk heavyweights as one of the genre’s most important figures, with the likes of Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, Kate Bush, Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom among those to have cited him as an influence.
Not only has he been decorated with a flurry of awards in recent years, including a BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and a Mojo Magazine Hero Award, he was recently the subject of a documentary for Sky Arts called Roy harper: Man & Myth.
Now, in conversation with Music Week, Harper looks back over his illustrious career, offers a glimpse of what fans can expect in the future and reflects on the ever-changing nature of the music industry…
Earlier this month you played a handful of special shows. How did you go about selecting what would be included in the sets and how you would revisit and rework them?
“I went back to almost the beginning of my cannon as it were. I chose songs that are my favourites, including songs from the three reissues. They're three records that were released in the late sixties and early seventies - I've got a few songs from those, obviously. There are songs in my catalogue that I don’t necessarily think I did wrong with at the beginning of their lives, but I think they have another life, which perhaps I wasn't able to afford at the time.
What was the industry like back then compared to how things are now?
Royalties were like 1.5% o5 85%, excluding packaging so you actually never got anything back from a record. That brought you down into the tenths of pennies, which young people now get from Spotify. It was an equal world in the sense that when you're young you are there specifically to get ripped off. A) Because you don't know what you are doing. B) Because you're not old enough and. C), most importantly of the three, you want to be involved. You will sell whatever you have got to become involved to start with. Of course what you do have is the youth of vitality, the ability to work all day and all night to make records and to make them quickly. So you learn after about two or three records that actually you could be doing a lot better.
How involved were you in the remastering process of these reissues?
One hundred percent. There is no way I could leave a record of mine to anybody except me. As soon as you get into the remastering studio with an old record all of the things that have built up over the years that you're critical of come right to the front of your vision and you start right there. It's no good, absolutely no good to give it to anybody else. Nobody has had those experiences with those records and nobody knows what they're listening to. The only person who knows really what they're listening to is the person who made it and is critical of it still.
Has revisiting these songs helped shape how you'll be preforming them live now?
Yes, to take them completely out f the context of which they were recorded; to take them to a stage performance, which will make them totally different. The original records you can’t really change that much. You can bring instruments up and down but if you change them people don't like that - and rightly so. There are alternative views of these songs and some will appear on this tour.
You’ve worked with and influenced many iconic figures from the world of rock and folk. Are there any that have had a notable impact on your music or have influenced you in some way?
Well, I'm an amalgam of all kinds of influences. Folk or folk-rock is a complete misnomer. It would be better even to call me psychedelic rock but that is so far off the mark that it doesn't really count. I'm in a field of one. I’ve known that for 30 years, I'm not just saying that - I am. That’s the way it is. I’ve been thrown out of folk clubs for not sounding like whomever. What they want in those places are things they identify with immediately. What they wanted were things that had been sung by the union or by working people about their conditions - all of those things that were relevant to where the working man was at that point, or thought he was, put it that way. They didn't want to hear about the inner forces of themselves. They didn't want to hear anything about inner landscapes and I've kind of made a specialty of that over time. That would have been viewed by those kind of people at one stage as either sissy or irrelevant or not manly enough.
Who were your earliest influences?
Well I’d sort of consumed bits and pieces of classical, because of my dad listening to the radio. Of course, popular songs as well, like Bing Crosby. And as far as being influenced - he influenced the world in the forties. There was the Frank Sinatra and the Bobby Sox era just after that. But the big thing that changed all our lives was the advent of Elvis Presley, but just before that was Lonnie Donegon who was actually the English Presley. He was a big influence on a lot of the people that are my age now. The songs that Lonnie was singing hit us like a sledgehammer in the mid fifties, an absolutely cultural sledgehammer - nobody had been through that before and nobody has been through it since. I think that people think they have with the advent of David Bowie in the ‘70s, but that was a sort of revolution for the multi-sexuals.
Will you be releasing new material any time soon?
Oh yeah ,definitely. Rehearsal is a terrible chore; it takes you away from the real thing you want to do, which is to write. It's going to take me a couple of years to get a record together because of all the other things I've got to do - you've got to actually live life. I don't have helpers running after me or the ability to live on a desert island in a hut. I am the record company so anything that happens with the label has got to be tied up by me.
The industry has, in many regards, changed beyond recognition from when you first started making music in the ‘60s. What changes do you foresee over the coming years?
You can't actually go there. it’s completely different and the same. It hasn't got to go anywhere; the perception is that it will get somewhere, but today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow, so tomorrow is going to change again. Will Spotify be bust tomorrow? Will they go bust? No, they probably won't, but something’s going to change. Someone’s going to come up with something like the Internet!