Monday, April 28, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Sonja Kristina

Progressive rock is a genre in which rock abandoned the short song and made lengthy compositions that were often more suited for classical music and jazz. In addition, the music contained some classical and jazz elements.  Progressive rock was most popular in the 70s, and some of the most popular bands were Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One unusual band of the progressive rock era was Curved Air for two reasons. First, one of the lead instruments was a violin. Second, and not least of all, Curved Air was fronted by a woman, Sonja Kristina. It was rare for a female to be the lead singer in a progressive rock band. Sonja had also come from an unusual background in folk and musical theater. She was discovered in a London production of Hair.

During the 70s, Curved Air would have many lineup changes. The original lineup included violinist/keyboardist Darryl Way, guitarist/keyboardist Francis Monkman, and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa. Future members would include Eddie Jobson (who would also play with Roxy Music), and Stewart Copeland (who would go on to play with The Police). Curved Air initially broke up in 1973 and then broke up for good in 1976. Yet, one person remained constant—Sonja. She was the spokesperson and sex symbol of the band. Curved Air could survive many lineup changes, but if Sonja were to leave, there would be no Curved Air. Later bands, such as Blondie and The Pretenders, would have many lineup changes, yet a strong front woman remained constant throughout, and the band could not survive without that female presence.

When Curved Air broke up, Sonja would go on to marry Stewart Copeland, who then went on to bigger things as he formed The Police. Once a front woman, she now had found herself as a rock star’s wife. In addition, she went back to theater. In the twenty-first century, she found herself reforming Curved Air. Some old members, such as drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa and guitarist Kirby Gregory, are back along with some new members. In 2014, a new Curved Air album has been released called North Star.

In this candid conversation with Sonja, we look back at Curved Air’s history in the 70s up until the present. Not only do we look at her past as a singer, but her other roles as an actress, a rock star’s wife, or a croupier at the Playboy Club. I want to thank again Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview, but most of all I want to thank Sonja.

Jeff Cramer: How did you get interested in singing?

Sonja Kristina:I’d done a couple of little solos when I was in junior school. It was a Christmas concert and I sang “The Holly and the Ivy.” It looked like there were nods of approval from the teachers and that was just one verse. Then I learned guitar. It was classical guitar, but I learned a little bit.

Then I started learning songs from the 101 American Folk Songs  book, and I learned to play the chords on the guitar. I started singing some of the songs I’d learned to people and they really liked what I did. My guitar teacher, Sister Ann, was a nun, and she got all teary, so I was obviously doing something right.

I just took lots of opportunities to sing songs to people, and I knew there were folks clubs in my local town and in the town where my school was. I also got lots of records from the record library with people like Odetta. Then in 1964, I discovered Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was a big influence on me, so I learned a lot of her songs as well.

I think it was an adrenaline rush to sing, to play the guitar, and to not forget any chords while I was singing. I’d also done quite a lot of poetry speaking at school when I was younger; in England it was called elocution lessons, so you learned to do public speaking. There were these little competitions. I’d won one competition, and I remember what it felt like to really hold the audience captive while I told the story of the poem, “We are Seven.” So words, casting a spell with words, and then casting a spell with a tune and telling stories and moving people. I began playing in lots of different folk clubs.

JC:I understand that Curved Air discovered you because you were playing a part in Hair.

SK:I wandered into my manager’s office, and I was a real hippie with bare feet, and I was out all night playing guitar at squat parties and just living a hippie bohemian sort of existence. He said, “Oh, there’s a show here that’s looking for people like you, and the advertisement said, ‘Hippies wanted, equity members only, must be good movers.’”

So I went and auditioned. We did lots and lots of auditions and recalls. Then I got into the show, and it was a fantastic experience ’cause we were working with Tom O’Horgan, the director from the La Mama Music Company in New York, and Julie Arenol, the choreographer, and Galt MacDermot were also there teaching us the songs. We spent more time working on being real on stage than actually working on the script. We learned the songs quite early on.

The show had to wait to open until theater censorship had been abolished in England. I think the day after it had been abolished, Hair opened and created a big stir in the theater world. I had a solo song; I sang a song about a Hells Angel with a white crash helmet who I’d lent $3.00. I was alone on the stage, and I went from a girl who just sang with a guitar and had a little bit of acting at school to a performer. I felt at home on the stage and uninhibited.

I think the boys who were in Curved Air were called Sisyphus originally, and they were in the pit band for another Galt MacDermot musical, Who the Murderer Was. That musical was happening when Hair was going on.  I’d been in Hair  over two years.

On January 1, 1970, I got a call from Roy, my manager, saying that this band wanted to meet me and try me out to join them. I was still in the show, and as soon as I heard their music, I felt that it was also very special, just like Hair was, as well as the acoustic folk music scene. I just felt very privileged moving into each new scene.

JC:I understand that Curved Air spent a lot of money on that picture disk—the debut album.

SK:When I joined Curved Air, they already had a publishing deal. Their manager was a photographer who’d offered to manage them, but he had some contracts in the business. He knew Lionel Conway, who was the head of Island Music, and he was impressed enough with the seeds of the songs that were developing, which weren’t really songs until I joined. So the publishing company paid our rent.

Curved Air’s first album Air Conditioning

We went into the studio and recorded our album, which Lionel Conway paid for. Then Lionel and Mark Hanau, the manager, took it to different record companies, and then we played a concert at the Roundhouse where quite a few labels came down to see us. After that, there was a bidding war, and Warner Brothers won. We were the first English band they had signed. They offered a lot of money. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was $99,000 or something like that over three years. That money went to the production company to reimburse the money they’d put into the band in the first year. It funded our tours, and after Warner released the album, it charted almost straight away. Our first big tour in big halls was supporting Black Sabbath.

JC:That must have been an interesting thing between the two unique sounds of Black Sabbath and Curved Air .

SK:Yeah, and the audience loved both, so we obviously had enough power. We were very loud; we had big Orange amps and really good amplification. Francis, our keyboard player and guitarist, and Darryl Way, the violinist, were experimenting with all the latest technology for effects and things. It was a very exciting show.

JC:We’ve talked about Hair and the folk clubs, but how did it feel now that you were the lead singer of this group Curved Air? Was there a difference?

SK:Well, it was just magical. My performance kind of evolved; the more gigs we did, I got more into bringing the songs to life, and I was getting into moving and dancing to the music. Then I started doing interviews; I was the spokesperson for the band.

We were all living together, and I didn’t want there to be any kind of barriers between me and the guys, so I was pretty much one of the boys. I wanted to be able to give them hugs, have play fights, and just be myself and get undressed or dressed for the show without having to hide away just so we could all be in one dressing room together. So, there were no boundaries; I melted whatever boundaries there would have been.

Curved Air as one

People have asked me, “What was it like? Wasn’t it terribly chauvinistic—all these men and rock music?” But it wasn’t for me ’cause I wasn’t playing the part of a girl particularly. I was just a hippie person. I didn’t wear dresses—I just wore trousers, flairs, and embroidered shirts or T-shirts in the very beginning. I just saw myself as a performer. I didn’t really sing about love at that time; it was all very mysterious kinds of stories about madness and abandonment and pain.

JC:In the second album, the band scored their first hit single “Back Street Luv.”

SK:We released “Back Street Luv” [To hear “Back Street Luv” click here.] when it first started getting played on the radio, then we did Top of The Pops. We’d already done another TV show before called Disco 2. The audience, which was mostly boys, started screaming when we came on stage, which was quite extraordinary. They were screaming like people screamed at the Beatles. When that single was in the charts, it was a novel experience.

We were also doing quite complex music in the show, as we were doing “Peace of Mind,” which Francis Monkman had written. It is a fantastic piece with lots and lots of musical changes and beautiful words that he wrote. We were also playing Darryl’s “Young Mother,” which was a very popular live number with lots of improvisation in it. On a musical level, the game was very high.

We then went to America. I think the first time we went was to promote the second album. We toured with some great bands, so we supported Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, and even BB King. We played with BB King in New Orleans in a very hot and humid barn type of stadium club. That was great; we could see all these performers and we were playing in big arenas.

JC:Was there a difference playing for more bigger people?

SK:It was very fulfilling. The music went down very well in America. They were cheering the solos that they liked, and they really seemed to appreciate music in a different way than they did in Europe. In Europe, they loved the whole thing, but the applause came at the end of the songs. In America, they cheered the solos, which was new.

JC:The third album, Phantasmagoria, was the last one that was close to the original. There were some lineup changes, but the third album’s lineup was close to the original lineup.

SK:The bass player seemed to change with every album. [Band members] Darryl [Way] and Francis [Monkman] had very different directions. Darryl was melody oriented, and apart from the classical things that Francis played, which he was very reverent about as far as popular music was concerned, it was very free form. The difference between them is that Darryl writes beautiful, simple, melodic song forms, and Francis is more eccentric and complex.

They were very moving in completely different directions musically, and as far as production was concerned, they couldn’t agree so they both each produced their own sides of Phantasmagoria. I think they had done this on the second album in that they did one side apiece. Once we’d finished Phantasmagoria, released it, and taken it out in America, they’d had enough of touring, so they decided that they were going to go off and concentrate on their own musical preferences and tastes. Darryl formed Darryl Way’s Wolf, and Francis joined the band Sky.

They did put on Phantasmagoria, one of the songs I had written in 1967 called “Melinda,” and that was nice because they were very wary of being thought of as a folk band. The very first time I met them they wanted their music to be kind of classical and rock rather than folk.

JC:I could picture “Melinda” being played in the early folk clubs. I saw a YouTube of where the camera is mostly focusing on you playing “Melinda” just with you strumming your acoustic guitar; it very rarely cuts to the other band members. [To see this video, click here.]

You continued for the next Curved Air album Air Cut, and you brought on Eddie Jobson?

SK:I wasn’t sure what to do, but the management we had then said that we should carry on with the band. They said I should get a new band together and make a new album, and then we would fulfill our obligation. We could get more advance from the record company, ’cause every time we delivered an album we got more money to put into the project. Darryl, Francis, and Florian, were okay with this, and Eddie Jobson was the natural successor to Darryl.

Air Cut album

His band, Fat Grapple, had supported Curved Air on two or three concerts in the year just before everybody split up. He was a Curved Air fan, and he played electric violin and keyboards. He showed Darryl that he could play “Vivaldi” backstage at one of the gigs. So, we chose him. We had to persuade him to leave his bunch of friends in Fat Grapple and said this was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Then we auditioned for the guitarist and the drummer.

Kirby Gregory, whose playing with us again now, was just amazing. They were all really young, just a few years younger than me at that time. Eddie was seventeen, and I think Kirby was eighteen. They were both really good performers. The drummer was much more of a straightforward drummer than Florian was, so that meant that the drumming was different.

We all got together; we wrote materials together, and I put another one of my old songs from my folk days, “Elfin Boy,” which was about my very first passionate romance with a person, who actually was a rock star or was a popular singer himself. [To hear a one-minute sample of “Elfin Boy,” click here.] Eddie wrote the equivalent of Francis’s epic pieces; he wrote “Metamorphosis” and I wrote the words, and Eddie wrote the other ones.

We went out for a year and we played in Italy and all around England, and some European dates, and it was very well received.

I then wrote some songs and we went into the studio and recorded them for a new album. Our manager said that Warner hadn’t accepted the album so therefore we wouldn’t be paid the advance and the flow of money would stop.

Then Eddie was asked to join Roxy Music. I think he’d done some sessions for them. Then Kirby wanted to form a blues band with his friend Elmer Gantry. I don’t know if in America they’d heard of Elmer Gentry’s Velvet Opera, but that was his band and they were a very successful band. So Kirby and Elmer wrote some songs and became Stretch. That left me with no band for a while.

JC:What did you do in the time when there was no band?

SK:I had a child to support, so I had to go out and find ways of earning money. I first got a job as a sort of temp. I went to an agency, and I was put in this room full of girls. We were adding up figures in big ledgers and once we’d added them up— it was a TV rental company—they were going from pounds, shillings, and pence to digital money. We had to add all these things up, and then they were putting them on the computer. I did that for a bit; it was strange, but it was a good experience.

Then I saw that you could get paid to train as a croupier at the Playboy Club, so I thought I’d give that a try. I auditioned for the Playboy Club where you had to stand on a little stage in a swimsuit or a bikini and they would assess us, and then we had to do an intelligence test because we were auditioning to be croupier bunnies as opposed to cocktail bunnies. I did that for nine months.

I learned how to cut chips and deal cards and add up to twenty-one very fast—that was another kind of experience. I’d never been with so many women since school ’cause I went to a girls’ school. We had to sort of go and see the bunny mother before we went on to the floor.  We had the ears and the tail, and we had matching Minnie Mouse shoes that went with our costumes, but we wore a little, tiny mini skirt and a little sort of bib thing to cover our cleavage so we didn’t distract the punters [gamblers in British Slang] with too much flesh. Also, it was working nights as well, so I was arriving home at 5:00 in the morning and then getting up again after lunch time.

 JC:Did you ever meet Hugh Hefner?

SK:No, but Victor Lownes was around quite a lot. He ran the Park Lane Playboy and he would pick girls and invite them out to parties, and it was considered very rude to turn him down. I was never asked, but I just know that that was the case.

Then I got offered my old job back in Hair for three months; they were doing a short run of Hair, so I said, “Great, thank you very much.” I left the Playboy Club and did a run at the Queens Theater in the West End. I did some interviews, and the journalists were asking me if I thought that the hippie thing was passé by then, and this was in 1973. I said no and thought it was just as relevant.

When that run had finished, I moved into a flat in Hampstead.  I met this lady at a party after the opening of The Rocky Horror Show and a lot of the cast crossed over from Hair to The Rocky Horror Show; they were similar kind of theatrical family. I noticed at this party that there was a kind of a cynicism about the hippie thing.

Then I heard this woman talking about cosmic this and bliss across, so I headed for her and we got to talking. I said “My marriage had broken up,” and she said, “Oh, you can come and stay with me.” So we got a cab, and on the way back I discovered that she lived in the exact same flat that Curved Air had lived in when we were all together in 1970, which was where Elaine Paige, Tim Curry, and other people had stayed before Curved Air moved in. It was just a total coincidence and that was lovely.

I always find that these things seem to be signs, ’cause there it was. Ian Copeland was living downstairs, so I got to know him, and Darryl called me up around about that time and said that he was being managed by Miles Copeland by just another coincidence. So Ian was living downstairs from me, underneath where Curved Air used to live. There were lots and lots of music business people who stayed at the house on 87 Redington Road. Hot Chocolate, Roy Harper, the band America, “Joe Jammer” from Led Zeppelin, people from Stone the Crows . . . they lived at the same flat.

Ian, who was downstairs, he booked me a tour supporting Cozy Powell and Country Joe & the Fish. I noticed that Country Joe was also very cynical about the hippie movement as well, having done Woodstock. He said that he was very disillusioned with what had happened, and everybody had become junkies and it wasn’t working. I found that very sad, but I still carried the torch inside of my spirit.

I did that tour, and then Miles put the original band back together again. We did a very successful tour of mainly universities and town halls, and there was a lot of excitement, but because of my experience in being female, and whatever sex object I was in the Playboy Club, I reinvented myself. I stayed with my friend Norma in that flat with her and her family; she was from New York and she wrote lyrics for the next two Curved Air albums with me.

Then Norma moved to Portobello Road, and I was staying there with her. We used to go to Portobello Market and buy lace dresses and beads and fringes and things, and so I put together this look that I felt was like a space gypsy—I had a jeweled G-string, so it was my impression of a fantasy futuristic kind of vamp, I suppose.

Sonja’s new look

JC:  The next two albums would  have Stewart Copeland as  the drummer.

SK:Yeah, I first met Stewart in Ian’s flat downstairs from Norma, but then he became our tour manager. He didn’t make that much of an impression on me to start off with. I was actually in a mini relationship with Ian before I met Stewart.

The magic happened when Stewart came along for a rehearsal. That was when I thought he was really, really interesting.

We got together during that tour. After that tour, Francis and Florian didn’t want to carry on again, so Darryl talked me in to staying with him and we would get a new Curved Air with the musicians he had been working with who included Stewart. There was just all this linking of Copelands, and it sort of randomly all came together in a pattern. It also went back to exactly the same spot in London where Curved Air had begun to re-begin.

Curved Air with Stewart Copeland (1st left)

JC:I noticed that the songs on the albums that Stewart was on were shorter, down to three minutes. One of the songs, “Woman On a One Night Stand,” is going for a Janis Joplin type of feel.

SK:Well, that was a song I had written after my marriage broke up. It’s about going out and being free, and having one-night stands and not finding them very satisfying. There’s a little bit of chemistry when you first meet somebody, but when you went to bed together it didn’t sustain itself that long, so you moved on. I had some fun. [To hear “Woman On a One Night Stand” click here.]

The band was writing and they came mostly from blues background. Stewart was Stewart. His own songs were very straight forward. Mick Jacques and Tony Reeves were very sort of bluesy, and Mick was a very bluesy and wonderful guitarist, a much more bluesy sound than Kirby or Francis. When they weren’t really bluesy they were more rock and wild. I think Tony Reeves came from Greenslade or went to Greenslade, but I think he had something to do with John Mayall, so this new blood that was in this new band was pulling toward a different kind of rock and blues. Even my own song.

JC:This would last for two more albums. What happened at the end of it?

SK:I wasn’t as in love with this material as I had been of the original band’s writing and the Air Cut band’s writing. It was okay. There were songs that I actually put my lyrics to and that part of it was good and worked for me. It was just that the songs seemed to be so disparate and it didn’t really seem to have a direction anymore. Darryl’s contribution on Midnight Wire was more ballad-oriented, but then on Airborne he started trying to create these Curved Air epic tracks, such as “Moonshine” and “Juno.” They were more kind of Curved Air, but they had Darryl’s lyrics.

I wasn’t crazy about singing other people’s lyrics at all except Francis’s. On the first and second album and Phantasmagoria Francis wrote some very clever lyrics that I did enjoy singing. But that was the exception. I didn’t enjoy so much Darryl’s lyrics, and the songs didn’t move me so much to perform. Yes, it was disparate but our very last song was a cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which we released as single. We did that live and it went down really well live.

We had a girl keyboard player in the last few months of gig—Alex Richman. She’s a good player, and she used to sing as well. It was strange for me to have another woman in the band. I can’t quite remember how she got involved except that we needed a keyboard player, or we experimented with having a keyboard player.

The new material wasn’t as definitive as the other Curved Air, as the best of Curved Air’s writing. Then punk was coming along and Miles decided to concentrate on punk, and our show wasn’t as cost effective. We weren’t selling as many albums as we had in the past because the way everything was changing in the music industry and the influence that was coming through.

Once again, we didn’t have our wages paid anymore. Both Stewart and I were very broke and we were living in a squat in Mayfair with Stewart’s brother Ian. We moved around to different places for the next two or three years.

JC:Around that time, Stewart would go on to The Police.

SK:Yeah, that’s right. He called Sting down from Newcastle. We’d been taken to see Last Exit, that was Sting’s band, by Phil Sutcliffe, who was a fan of Last Exit as well as Curved Air; he was a young journalist at the time.

We both really got Sting. He was very charismatic even though he was just playing in a college canteen or whatever—there wasn’t a big stage or anything. He had the voice, he had the presence, he was the only thing that was really memorable about that band. Then when Stewart wanted to form his own band he wanted a three piece; he was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix model.

He was also inspired by punk. We had free time, and we were going down to The Roxy where the very first punk bands in England were playing—people like Billy Idol and The Damned, X-ray Spex, and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, which is one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. There were influences. The very first rehearsals and writing for The Police happened in our big, squat place. Stewart hadn’t done Klark Kent quite then.

After The Police had done a few gigs, Stewart and I moved a few more times. Then he did some recordings of his own stuff and invented this persona called Klark Kent, and this was before The Police had had any hits.

 Just before “Roxanne” broke, I was so broke that I went into a second-hand record shop to sell my albums. I noticed that they were advertising for staff, but the staff had to have a first-class honest degree or have succeeded in something, so I asked, “Well, does being a rock star count as having succeeded at something?”

It was the Record and Tape Exchange Empire, which is now really big; there are all sorts of clothing exchanges and computer exchanges in London. It was really cool working there; it was fun buying from the public and selling to the public. You really sort of found the value of things because the longer things sat on the shelf the cheaper they got. When people would come in to the shop and say “Sonja, what are you doing here?” I would say, “I’m working for a living, what do you think?” So I did that for quite a while.

JC:I saw an interview where Elvis Costello interviews The Police. I’m sure you know this, but from watching that interview, I noticed that Sting wasn’t the only strong personality in that band; Stewart was quite a lively guy.

SK:Oh yeah, and [Police guitarist] Andy [Summers] too in some ways.  

JC:You also did a self-titled solo album  in 1980?

SK:Yeah, and that’s just been re-released. It’s getting some good reviews after all this time. It seems that people really like it. At the time it came out, the record company collapsed and few people actually heard it when it came out. I re-released it a few years ago, but then the original record company, Chopper Records, wanted to put together a package of all the Chopper material now, and so we did a deal with them to put out this album again. It’s nice that people appreciate what I was doing then because at that time I was just channeling my version of Curved Air meets punk. I was working   with this band called Sonja Kristina’s Escape; that was when we were sort of developing the materials. That was the material that was on the Sonja Kristina solo album.

JC:After the solo album I know you married Stewart. What did you do during that time? You sort of laid low before we would hear these occasional reunions with Curved Air.

SK:I was having babies. I moved out to the country and took advantage of not being on the road, but money was coming in from The Police once they’d been to America, and “Roxanne” had picked up, and everything was very, very different.

Married couple Sonja Kristina and Stewart Copeland

Stewart’s money started coming in, and I didn’t have to work. That was when I started doing some fringe theater. I did another show in the West End—The French Have a Song for It—and we toured with it. It was really nice show. It was an English translation of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf songs. In that show there was an actress, Amanda Barrie, who was well known in England, and Helen Shapiro, who had been very well known as a young pop singer in the 60s. I enjoy theater, so it was nice to be able to take the time to do it. I did a musical on TV, which had been written by Dave Greenslade called Curriculee Curricula; that was a very strange and surreal piece. That’s what I was doing.

We bought our first house and were getting it decorated while Stewart was away. He had a very bad habit of calling when I was in the middle of a little fringe play, saying, “Sonja, I’m on this heavenly island and I’m lonely. Why don’t you come out and join me?” And I’d say, “No, I can’t. I’m in the middle of this play.”

The wives didn’t go out to many Police shows; we just went out altogether, all three wives, at particular times. The first time we went out was to Key West in Florida where we had a little bit of a holiday, and then we went out when they played Japan. We went out when they were touring Egypt and Greece. When they were out on stage and we wives were just sort of hanging out at the back and I could hear the roar of the crowd, I was thinking, “Oh, I miss that. I miss doing that.” So the fire was still there. It was still also a wonderful, strange, and crazy experience sitting on the sidelines while this band just got bigger and bigger and bigger.

Curved Air had been pretty big in terms of where we’d played, and we had chart albums, but The Police just got so big and they were playing the big stadiums. I went to see them in London a few years ago and was part of their entourage. I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I’ve had many lucky breaks.

JC:  You would do with a mini reunion with Curved Air in the 90s before Curved Air reformed in 2008 for good.

SK:I did The Acid Folk in the 90s. I was on tour in England. I wanted to get back out there again, so I sort of went back to the beginning in a way, but we kind of mixed it with psychedelia and playing acoustically in the new acoustic clubs. Then we played electric in the psychedelic clubs. Then we went all round England and that went really, really well. We were just playing small venues; some folk clubs and small rock clubs, but we would pull a good crowd. I had a great band.

Darryl had been sort of saying, “Let’s get back together again.” We did one gig in 1990, which was when I was doing The Acid Folk, and everything as well. In fact, The Acid Folk people came to those gigs. We got together because we were supposed to be doing a TV show, but then the TV show didn’t happen so everybody melted away again.

Sonja’s Acid Folk album

I was with The Acid Folk for six or seven years from  1996, and Paul Sax and Robert Norton from that time had been in Curved Air for the last five years; the violinist and the keyboard player were discovered back then.

Darryl asked me when I was busy working on a creative project, MASK, with Marvin Ayres, but I didn’t want to divide my creativity with getting together with Curved Air and be with my project MASK, or our project, Marvin and I.

But then we released our second album with MASK. Marvin started going back to his own music again. I was then mentally and creatively free to accept the idea of reforming Curved Air. It was Darryl who asked me, so I said, “Okay.” All the original members met up, and Francis dropped out because he still didn’t really like Darryl’s music. That aspect wasn’t going to work.

Darryl decided that a good way to get back into it, and also to re-claim a lot of the songs, which were copyrighted to Warners, that we would re-record the old Curved Air repertoire. We were going to play along with a couple of other pieces that he’d written—an instrumental piece and a couple of songs—but we would do it the way that he thought they always should have sounded.

I recorded in my studio, and Florian in his, and then we sent files to Darryl, who then put it all together. Darryl played everything else and then got a guitarist. Then we went out and it went really well. One of our first gigs was the Isle of Wight Festival. The reception was really good because people hadn’t seen us for a long time.

Darryl stayed with us for a year, and then he decided again that it was too stressful to tour. I brought in Paul Sax from my wonderful The Acid Folk band and Robert Norton, our keyboard player, to replace Darryl who had been playing very simple keyboards and violin but he couldn’t play both together. Now we had wonderful violin and keyboards, and so the sound is much, much richer than any other lineup has been and the potential was much greater. We have the same bass player, Chris Harris—he was working with Darryl on some other projects before. Darryl asked him to be part of the new Curved Air, so he’s still with us and he’s been the longest lasting bass player who’s ever been with Curved Air. He’s been there since 2008 so he’s been with us for six years.

JC: I understand there has been a new album out, North Star.

Curved Air’s new album North Star

SK:I’m very, very pleased. The album has only been out a few days, but the people who have already bought it are saying really lovely things about it, and they’re enjoying the album. I’m very proud of it too because it took a lot of work to get it together. We don’t live near each other, and we had to kind of accommodate everybody for periods of time in order to get the album into its finished form.

When we first talked about recording an album together, we decided that there would be no hierarchy; we would share all the publishing, and everybody would be allowed to contribute to the compositions. It wasn’t like one person’s would lay down how the song should be played; it would be sort of a group decision, a mixture between improvising and writing. Paul Sax came up with his own lines for the pieces, and everybody contributed lots of sketches of songs and pieces, but no words because I wanted to write the words.

The lyrics for these songs . . . I took melodies that were already there in the original draft, which meant that they were melodies that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of myself if I’d been writing myself. But I found words to fit with those melodies, and other ones I tried to do something that would fit on top of everything that had already been created or was being created. I messed around with it until I felt that I could feel the words and the music.

[Guitarist] Kit Morgan left after we’d started recording, and we were beginning to get into overdubs and production. He had a lot of problems in his personal life. He was kind of dispirited, and he didn’t want to be involved with the band. So we then asked Kirby if he would come back; he was always our first choice, because we had been in touch with him and he had actually done a guest spot on one of our gigs on two of his songs that he’d written. It was just the right time for Kirby too—he had a full-time job, but he wanted to go back to being part of a band and touring and everything, so he has been getting leave to play with us. He came in and replayed all the parts that Kit had done. He kept some of the themes, which were part of the song, but he completely put his own slant on the songs.

We actually recorded in one take two of the cover versions—“Across the Universe” and “Chasing Cars”—that we did on the new album. I had this idea of a Steve Reich kind of repetitive motif, so that was the basis of “Colder Than a Rose in Snow,” which was a re-record in a way. I had recorded the song with The Acid Folk and on the Sonja Kristina  album.

New Curved Air

Then we finished producing the album ourselves, which was brave, but Robert Norton, the keyboard player, has sort of been our in-house engineer. During the writing process, he’d saved mixes of where we were at with the writing and sent them all out to us. Everybody heard everything at every stage, and everybody’s opinion counted. It was the best that everybody could make it and to satisfy everybody’s standards of their own playing and of how the songs should be.

JC:Now with the new album and going back on tour again, how does it feel to be back again?

SK:I mean, we’ve been at it now for six years and we’ve played the big Prague festivals. We played Glastonbury, we played Isle of Wight, we played in Europe and Japan, but we haven’t played the States yet—we’re just we’re waiting for the right offer out there. Through Facebook, people say, “Come to Brazil,” “Come . . .” We want to go to these places, but the business has to be right. There are six of us, and we don’t have someone paying our wages; we have to be self-sufficient, so that’s these days. We put our own money into it. We have to be self-sufficient.

JC:What’s it like being back on stage?

SK:It’s great. Our band is made for festivals because they’re so dynamic and they’re such good performers that the big stage loves them. Also, we like playing in more intimate venues where the crowd is pressed up against the front of the stage. Everyone in the band is very committed to Curved Air. [You can hear the current Curved Air perform, “It Happened Today,” by clicking here.]

JC:Any other plans for the future beyond the new album and going on tour?

SK:For me?


SK:I’ve been asked to do some other collaborative projects. In fact, Dave Cousins just said that he’d like to write some songs with me. I’d like to do some theater at some point, maybe a play or a musical, but it would need to be something exciting and new, but I’m sure it’ll come along when it’s meant to. I just would like some time to explore the theatrical side of my vocational aspirations.

Sonja Kristina Today

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with John Lawton

The legendary rock band Uriah Heep had undergone many lineup changes since its beginning. However, in 1976, the band was about to undergo it’s most difficult lineup change—replacing lead singer David Byron. As anyone familiar with rock history knows,  replacing a lead singer is the hardest thing a band can do, and very few bands can continue to thrive after a singer is replaced. John Lawton came from singing for two German bands: Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers. With the exception of Lucifer’s Friend’s first album,  the music was not as hard rock as Uriah Heep. Yet, despite coming from a mostly non-heavy background, John passed the difficult role of becoming Uriah Heep’s lead singer with flying colors. He was accepted by the fans. John was the singer for Heep from 1976–1979. His fans and the band look back on those years very fondly. To this day, one of the songs he co-wrote with guitarist Mick Box, “Free ’n’ Easy,” is still played at encores at Uriah Heep concerts.

Yet, those who only focus on John’s Heep years are missing out on some good music as well. His previous history with Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers not only shows why Uriah Heep picked John as their lead singer, but also shows John’s vocal variety with different musical styles. Although Lucifer’s Friend’s debut album is similar to Uriah Heep, the band showcased different types of music genres, such as progressive rock and jazz. In fact, Lucifer’s Friend was known for changing the musical direction with each album, and John was able to sing a variety of genres. Likewise, Les Humphries Singers was comprised of a group of singers with Abba-like harmonies that sang gospel, dance pop, and covered famous pop tunes of the 1970s.

While John continued to sing, perform, and make albums after leaving Heep, over the last ten years he found a new occupation as a filmmaker. He has made travel documentaries on Bulgaria.

In this candid conversation, we focus on John’s early years with Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers. We also discuss the legendary Uriah Heep years. In addition, we look at John’s years after Heep and his new occupation as a filmmaker. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview. But most of all, I want to thank  John.

Jeff Cramer: All right. So, what encouraged you to start signing?

John Lawton: Oh, God, it goes way back, Jeff. I think the early days of childhood and things like that. My parents always played music in the house. My father was a great lover of Hammond organ and Jimmy Smith—people like that—and I grew up listening to all kinds of music like jazz.

Mahalia Jackson was a big influence when I was growing up. She used to be on British TV. They used to show her late at night on black-and-white screens, and she was a big influence in my later days of singing, so yeah, that's where it basically started . . . from my childhood.

JC: Okay. Before Uriah Heep, you were in two groups—Lucifer's Friend and Les Humphries Singers. Both of them were in Germany. How'd you get to Germany to become part of them?

JL: I went to Hamburg, Germany, in 1969 for the first time and played well. I came back again in 1970, and the band was made up of some guys from North East England. We had Paul Thompson, who is now with Roxy Music on drums, and John Miles was on keyboards. There were a couple of other guys, I think—Vic Malcolm, a guitar player, who later had a band with Geordie, which had Brian Johnson, who is now with AC/DC as a singer. So, it was like a clique up there.

We played Hamburg, Germany, a second time in 1970, and I was told by a good friend over there that that's where my future lay and that's where I stayed. I stayed behind in Hamburg. I met my wife in Hamburg, and yeah, that was the incentive. From there, I was introduced to the guys from Lucifer's Friend, who were looking for an English singer in 1971. They played me some stuff, and I liked what they were playing.

It was very Black Sabbath but very Hammond-organ orientated and good rock. It was something I'd never heard from a German band before. Yeah, that was the way that happened. [You can hear a great description of this sound John is talking about by clicking here for a live presentation of “Ride the Sky.”] And through them, I got introduced—or I was asked by a guy called Les Humphries who had a gospel choir (they were just becoming very big in Europe at that time)—if I would join them as well. So, I was kind of like, bouncing around between both of them, doing a lot of work with the Les Humphries singers but also with the Lucifer's Friend guys. We got together every now and again and made an album.

Lucifer’s Friend’s first album crept into the Billboard charts in the States and we became a bit of a cult band at that time—the first band of the so-called “Kraut rock” to make it outside of Germany, which was very good.

Lucifer’s Friend performing live (John far left)

JC: Okay. One thing of interest is that Lucifer's Friend and Les Humphries Singers were two different type of genres. Lucifer’s Friend pretty much change genres in each album. The genres ranged from heavy metal to progressive rock. Les Humphries, on the other hand, was a choir that did completely different genres. They did gospel, dance music, and covers of pop tunes. How'd you feel doing all these different musical styles?

JL: Well, the situation was that two or three of the guys from Lucifer's Friend were also steady musicians in the James Last Orchestra, which was a big orchestra over in Europe at that time. They had steady jobs with him and they earned their daily bread, their daily money. I guess I earned my daily bread working with the Les Humphries Singers ’cause we toured a lot. We did a lot of work. And that enabled us to get together—the Lucifer's Friend guys and myself—every six months or so and do maybe a couple of gigs and then start writing for an album. I mean, Lucifer's Friend was our main thing.

I did my thing with Les Humphries, they did their thing with James Last, but what we all really loved was getting together and doing some Lucifer's Friend work. But you had to live to be able to do that, because you couldn't earn enough money just being Lucifer's Friend at that time. The money just wasn’t there to keep the band going without anything else. We did a lot of studio work for other people as well—singing sessions and stuff like that—just to keep the money rolling so we could keep Lucifer's Friend going.

JC: Uh-huh. As I mentioned earlier, each Lucifer Friend album changed very significantly. Was that something that was agreed by the band in general?

JL: No. With the first album, the tracks were already written apart from “Ride the Sky,” which turned out to be the single. The tracks were already written, and a lot of the lyrics were already being done before they approached me. I got together with Peter Hesslein, our guitar player, and we wrote “Ride the Sky” together and some of the other lyrics on the album. But it was set in the way it was anyway. There were no set direction with the albums after that.

It was just a case of how the writing came. We went in and we did When the Groupies Kill the Blues, which turned out to be something totally different from Lucifer's Friend’s [debut album]. But that was just the way we were writing and every album turned out to be like that. It was, “Oh, I got this track. What do you think of this? Oh, that would sound good if we did it like this,” or, “It would sound good if we didn't play it like that.”

And that's why, consequently, every album was different, all the way up to Banquet, which is my favorite album because all of a sudden, we had brass section and we had strings, backing vocals, and all kinds of things going on. That was totally the other end of the extreme. [You can hear “Dirty Old Town,” from Banquet  by clicking here.]

JC: Right. Banquet is an interesting one because the song are longer. For instance, the opening number, “Spanish Galleon,” is eleven minutes long. The album before Banquet, I’m Just A Rock ’n’ Roll Singer, had much shorter songs.

JL: I think somewhere along the line, you look at what you've written previously and everything seems to be all elongated with instrumental passages and very progressive  and things like that. And sometimes, you look and say, “Well, you know, maybe we should look into something a little bit more commercial.” That's why I'm Just a Rock ’n’ Roll Singer turned out to be a little bit more like that. Not intentionally, I don't think.

We just had it in our minds that we should be thinking something along the lines of a little bit more commercial. Not pop, but commercial in that respect. And I think it turned out that way. And then, of course, you go to the other extreme where everybody's getting the jazz as rock influence and you get Banquet coming out of that, you know.

JC: Yeah. Lucifer's Friend reminds me of this Texas band called Bloodrock. I don't know if you've ever heard of that group or not.

JL: I've heard the name, but I can't say I'm familiar with it.

JC: Bloodrock had a name like Lucifer's Friend that indicated they were a heavy metal band. The band did start off heavy, but like Lucifer’s Friend, they were doing jazz-oriented stuff at the ending of their career .

JL: Yeah. I think over the years your musical tastes differ when you listen to other kinds of music. I think that when the guys put together Lucifer's Friend’s debut album, they were listening purely to Black Sabbath—that kind of riff-orientated thing—and then I think as the years go by, other bands start to influence you. I know John McLaughlin was a big influence on the guitar player, Peter Hesslein. I think that's where a lot of this thinking came from after that.

JC: Yes, one other thing I want to say is did you ever think that the group name would confuse people on what the band really sounded like?

JL: Satanic way. [Laughs]

JC: Yeah, yeah. The Satanic way. Even though it seems to match with the first album. I mean, there is a song on there called “Lucifer’s Friend.” But on the later albums, did you ever think of changing the group name? ’Cause it left people thinking . . .

JL: Yeah, I know what you mean. I think the problem was the guys themselves had come across that name. That's what they wanted because they were thinking along the lines of Sabbath, the Satanic thinking. And then, of course, once you put an album out, people start listening to it and the name is out there, and people associate certain tracks with Lucifer's Friend. The name is very difficult to change after that. And I don't think really we thought anything more about it because by that time, the name Lucifer's Friend had kind of been established in certain areas of music.

To change it then would have been a little bit crazy, I think. We had to stick with it. And I don't think really, we thought any more about it. That was the name of the band and that's it, you know?

JC: Yep. At the same time, you manage to have a hit where you take the lead vocal on “Mama Loo” for Les Humphries Singers.

Les Humphries Singers in a print ad (John in center)

JL: Yeah. That just came up. That was a direct rip off of “Barbara Ann” from the Beach Boys, who Les Humphries himself admitted years later that that was where he’d ripped it off from. But I just finished up doing the vocal on it and it became number one all over Europe. So, what can you say? Yeah. It just made him more money. Rip the Beach Boys off—it made him more money. [You can hear “Mama Loo” by clicking here.]

JC: All right. How did you get the call from Uriah Heep, then?

JL: Well, strangely enough, there were some good friends of mine over in the UK—a band called Mud. I don't know if you've heard them. They were pretty big in the 70s over here. They had a lot of hits and I was quite friendly with them. Their road crew had a tape cassette of my work with Lucifer's Friend.

And they knew the guys, the road crew, from Uriah Heep because you meet up on the road—you meet up and play just on the road, burger joints and stuff like that. And they knew that Uriah Heep was looking for a singer to replace David Byron, and Dave Mount [Mud’s drummer], for some reason, handed the cassette over and said, “Listen to this guy. You might not know him, but he might be what you're looking for.” They obviously had a listen to it and the next thing I knew, I was getting a phone call from Ken Hensley asking me to come over to London. They'd heard the tracks and if I was interested, I might actually come over and give it a go, you know?

Which I did. The road crew held up cards like they used to do in ice-skating, where they held up sixes and things like that. I got a load of sixes from their road crew, so that's how I got the job.

JC: ; How did it feel, because at this point, you were now in a very big band and you were also replacing the singer, which is the hardest to replace. Audiences may not know if a guitarist or drummer is replaced, but they do know when a singer is replaced.

JL: I didn't think too much about it really because to be quite honest, I didn't know enough about Uriah Heep before I joined. After I got the phone call from Ken, I basically had to go out and buy the album, The Best of Uriah Heep, to familiarize myself with the music. And so I didn't think too much about the fact that I was replacing somebody like David Byron. It only probably happened in the first couple of months really of joining the band where the press were kind of like, “John Lawton who? And Lucifer's Friend who? And Les Humphries who?” That kind of thing.

I think they were expecting a bigger name. And at the auditions for the job, David Coverdale came down, auditioned for the gig—

JC: And I also know Ian Hunter did, too.

JL: Yeah. A couple of big names. But they didn't get it. So, after we did a few gigs together, I started to notice people in the audience were getting used to the fact that I was replacing David. But I really didn't think too much about it.

JC: You started off with Firefly, which was a little smoother than the last Byron album, High and Mighty.

Lawton with Heep (From L to R: John 4th)

JL: Yeah. Once again, the tracks were already written. They were already there. All they needed was the vocals on them. So, I had no say in the direction that the band was going. It was great. You could walk in the studio and listen— the tracks are great. “Wise Man” is probably one of the best tracks on that album together with “Firefly” and things like that. So, to walk into the studio and have the songs ready to sing was, for me, a bonus really. And you're right—in a way, it was a little smoother than High and Mighty. Yes, it was. [You can hear Uriah Heep performing “Wise Man” live on the Top of the Pops by clicking here.]

JC: Yes. It helps to start off with a really good album. ’Cause fans are gonna be a little more harsher when they have a new singer and you get one chance to make an impression with them.

JL: Yes. Oh, yeah. I also think that the band was kind of softening. At that particular time, they were also softening their approach to their writing as well. I mean, consequently, Ken Hensley was writing a majority of the material anyway, so he was kind of softening his approach to what he was writing and looking at more of a softer side to the band, I think. And not to be as progressive as they were in previous albums.

JC: Yes. On the next album, Innocent Victim, you wrote a very heavy track, which happens to be—and I'm not saying this ’cause you co-wrote that track with Mick Box—one of my favorite Heep tracks: “Free ’n’ Easy.” It’s jarring when you hear it on Innocent Victim because Ken is still doing softer stuff.

JL: Yeah. It's something I came up with. I came up with a riff at home and I put down some lyrics and things like that and took it to the guys, played it, and mixed it all out. I thought we could put a couple of changes in there, which we did—change it very slightly from what I'd originally written in my own naïve way, ’cause I’m not a guitar player or anything like that. And I managed to put this track together.

But I made a couple of changes in there, and to be quite honest with you, Uriah Heep's still playing it today as one of their encore tracks. When they tour, it's one of their encore tracks at the end of the gig, and I'm still doing it, and people still love to hear it live so we keep playing it.

JC: Right. At the same time, Ken was writing “Free Me” which was the more softer approach. That's a track that the AllMusic Guide described as a tune “whose acoustic style and accent on harmonies brought the group dangerously close to Eagles territory.”

JL: Yeah. Well, we basically had completed Innocent Victim. As far as we were concerned, it was cut and dried. We recorded all the tracks we wanted to. He came in maybe a couple of days before we were planning to mix and just said, “Have a listen to this, guys. It might be nothing. I don't know.”

And he just played the opening bars and sang it a bit and we all said, “Yeah, why not? It's a good track to put in there. It sounds commercial. We could have something good here.” So, we recorded it.

It was a last-minute thing and it took the album with it. It became number one all over Europe and Australia—places like that—and it took the album with it, which is a good thing to have. [You can hear live performances of both “Free Me” and “Free ‘n’ Easy” by clicking here.]

JC: Okay. We'll go on to Fallen Angel and Innocent Victim—it has a mixture of heavy rock and soft rock. I noticed that you have a ballad this time as opposed to Ken. Even Lee Kerslake had a ballad and the biggest hit on Fallen Angel, “Come Back to Me.”

JL: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Big song. Lee actually played that to me in a Holiday Inn in the hotel bar. There was a piano.

There was nobody else in the bar—just him and myself and our wives—and he just played it to me as basically as he could, and I thought straight way, “It's a good song. We should certainly record this.” And we did. And it was terrific. And I'm glad we did.

It's a good song. And it's still stands up today. I make a point of playing it live, especially in Europe because people in Europe and the eastern side of the Europe love that song. So, I make a point of playing that live. It brings back memories for a lot of people, I think. [To hear “Come Back to Me,” click here.]

JC: Yes. I've even played the song for a few people who aren't even familiar with Heep, and it goes down pretty well. At that time . . . now, I understand there was an album that was going to be recorded with Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller.

JL: After Fallen Angel, we started to record some tracks. I had written some and Trevor Bolder, bless him, had written some and Ken had come up with a few things. So, consequently, everybody now was kind of writing. It wasn't just necessarily Ken Hensley doing most of the writing. Everybody was contributing tracks to this new album.

We got Jimmy Miller in. The idea was to get a producer in who had nothing to do with the band at all, because up until then, it had all been Gerry Bron. So, the idea was to get somebody in, somebody internationally well-known to produce this last album. The name Jimmy Miller came up because he has a Rolling Stones influence and things like that. It turned out to be a bit of a disaster.

So, it was agreed halfway through that he shouldn't carry on and we reverted back to Gerry Bron. I think we recorded fourteen tracks all together, things that were kind of a little bit off the wall. I had three or four tracks on there, which were poppy but at the same time a little riffy, things like that. And everybody kind of contributed. But it came down to the fact that nobody seemed to be able to settle on what tracks we should actually go ahead and complete.

And then, of course, toward the end of that recording session, I left the band. But the tracks are still there. Plenty of people have bootlegs of it. It's called Eight Miles and things like that. It has various names.

There are bootlegs, but I think it should really be completed. It would be nice for the likes of Mick Box to go in and complete it. I would like to go in and redo the vocals and all kinds of things just to have a one-off to commemorate the end of that particular year.

JC: Yeah.

JL: But I don't think Mick Box is too keen on doing that. Of course, Uriah Heep moved along a lot. I don't think Ken Hensley's keen on doing it. Lee Kerslake would possibly do it. Well, Trevor isn't around anymore unfortunately, so I think you would need all the members—apart from Trevor, of course—who want to do that, and I don't think the persuasion is there at the moment.

JC: What are your memories on the late Trevor Bolder?

JL: Oh, he was a lovely guy. I know everybody says when somebody leaves this earth, “Oh, what a nice guy he was,” but he was a genuinely down-to-earth guy, an absolutely, fantastic bass player. We both joined the band around the same time. So, we both got into Uriah Heep at the same time, both strange to what was going on, but he was an excellent bass player then. I knew him from his David Bowie days; I’d never actually knew him personally, but I’d seen his work with Bowie and the Spiders, and he just progressed from that until the end of his life with Heep. He was just one of the best around and a genuinely nice, nice guy.

He was very down to earth. His humor was very dry, but he was just exceptional and an exceptionally good song writer as well. He wrote some terrific stuff toward the end, and I know there were a few things in the pipeline that he had for this last album, which Heep are in the process of recording now. I think he's a great loss – a great loss to the music business.

JC: ; What brought on your reason to leave Uriah Heep?

JL: To be quite honest with you, it was a combination of things. Ken Hensley and I weren't getting on well at all and he'll admit to it. At that particular time, he had his demons—drug demons and things like that. And he's the first to admit that. Musically, we weren't gelling at all. I think there were signs when we were recording Eight Miles that we weren't on the same wavelength musically at all.

It's all very well if somebody brings a song along. At least if everybody tries it, you try to work it out, and if it doesn't work, then you leave it. But we were getting to the stage where nobody was really wanting to try anything out except Ken maybe. So, there was a lot of that kind of thing going on. Musical differences played a large part of it, plus the fact that I was taking my wife on the road, which we always did.

We always travelled together, and there was kind of a bit of a thorn in the guys' side because they're old hands at rock ’n’ roll and things like that; they had various ladies in various ports, so to speak. And it became a bit of a problem. And of course their wives were saying to them, “Well, if John Lawton's wife can go, why can't I travel with?” I think they were the old school, you know, where you didn't have wives if you were a rock star. You didn't have this, you didn't have—you were purely a single guy.

So, it was a bit of that and a bit of musical discrepancy going on, and we both really agreed that we should come to the end of our ways. It was better for them to go their way and I should go my way, and that's it. Having said that, we are still good friends. I stood in for Bernie Shaw, the present singer of Heep, this past year. He’s had some problems, and I stood in for him for a European tour and we've done gigs together.

Mick and I still e-mail a lot and I'm still friends with Ken. We had the Hensley Lawton Band in 2000. We recorded an album. So, it's not as if we totally ignore each other. That's not the case. Simply, we needed to go our separate ways and I think that's what happened.

JC: I also saw The Magician’s Birthday concert where you and Ken reunited with Trevor, Mick, and Lee and joined with the new guys, Bernie and Phil.

JL: Yeah. We're good friends. I always say, “Once you join the Heep family, you never leave, regardless.” And I'm always there for them if they need help. I'll always step in. And if I need help, Mick and the guys are the first ones to step up and say, “Yeah, we'll come and do this for you.” We can't argue about that at all. It's a good way to work, I think.

JC: Yeah. So, I understand right after you left Heep, there was a solo album that was pretty much with the Lucifer's Friend guys and then you did one last Lucifer's Friend's album.

JL: Yeah. I did an album called Heartbeat in 1981, and it was Peter Hesslein, the guitar player from Lucifer's Friend, and myself. We did most of the music and the rest of the guys who played on the album were the Lucifer's Friend guys. We got a drummer in called Curt Cress who was a big jazz-influenced drummer in Germany, a big name. He came and did the drums.

John Lawton’s solo album Heartbeat

He used to play with Klaus Doldinger’s Passport, and I think he did a stint with Frank Zappa as well. He came in and did the drumming. I got a release in the States through RCA. It was a good album. Very poppy. But it was slightly different than Lucifer's Friend stuff.

After that, I worked with a German band called Zar who hailed from the south of Germany. They asked me to come over and if I would produce their first album, which I said I would. Unfortunately, the singer at that time was having some problems and he couldn't really sing the tracks that the guys had written so I said, “Well, look, I'll demo them for you until you get a new singer.” And they liked the demo so they asked me if I would do the proper singing, which I did, and it resulted in two albums with that band Zar. So, I've always been kind of in the studio somewhere.

JC: What else have you done after Zar?

JL: I did a lot of session work after Zar for various other people, but then the session work was getting to me and I didn't particularly like the session work. It was a bit boring. But I got together some local guys I knew around the London area and we put together a band called GunHill. We went off and just did some gigs just for the sheer hell of it. They weren’t the best musicians in the world, but we had good fun and we played a lot of stuff. We played some Heep songs and some Whitesnake, and all kinds of things just to get out there and get an audience reaction to it, and it just really went from there. We started playing in Europe and it got better and better and better.

We got a few changes in personnel. We got a new guitarist who was better than the old guy, so to speak. It just went very well.

JC: So, is that your current thing, GunHill?

No, no, no. That band moved on to become the John Lawton Band. We had an album out, and we added a couple of studio albums with the bass player that I worked with—a guy called Steve Dunning. We worked for Classic Rock Productions based here in London. We had a DVD out, a CD, and all those kind of things.

John Lawton & Steve Dunning

I was just doing all this work and things just kept coming along. And it got more and more sudden, and suddenly I found myself back on tour again. I was asked to be special guest with Heep, and the Hensley Lawton Band came along. From there, I progressed from that into working a lot in Bulgaria. I've been working in Bulgaria for the last ten years, from doing live concerts over there, to directing and presenting travel documentaries.

JC: Oh, travel documentaries. That's interesting.

JL: Yeah. I've done nineteen-and-a-half hour programs about Bulgaria. I'm presenting and directing, and then I've had a part in a Bulgarian cinema movie which did very well. Mick Box from Uriah Heep had a cameo role in that one and that did very well. So, I've been putting my hands in various boxes to see what comes out.

It's progressed from that to the present day where I'm working. I work a lot in Bulgaria, that's very true. I'm working with a guy called Milen Vrabevsky, and the last year—eighteen months ago now—we recorded an album called The Power of Mind. We've just completed the second album in this series called My Kind of Loving, and we have Simon Phillips from Toto on the drums.

JC: Oh, yes, Simon’s a great drummer.

JL: Yeah. And Joseph Williams from Toto has sung four tracks on it. So, that's completed. I think release date is set for the middle of May.

JC: Okay. That's good.

JL: Yeah. So, that's where we are at the present day.

JC: Okay. Let’s go back into filmmaking. How did you get into it?

JL: I was approached by a Bulgarian guy called Valeri Simeonov. He has a TV station out there called Skat TV. It's a Bulgarian TV station. He saw these little short movie clips on my John Lawton website that we would make when we were on tour somewhere.

He asked me, “Would you like to do this kind of thing for real?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” And he outlined what he wanted to do.

Basically, they’re commissioned by the head honcho in Bulgaria—the mayor and his counselors—and they’ve commissioned a film about their particular area and the history of it up until the present day. So, I tried it and it worked out really well. It’s called John Lawton Presents [You can view one of the travel documentaries by clicking here.]. Like I said, we've done nineteen-and-a-half hour programs about Bulgaria, so it's worked really well. And they're very interesting to do. I'm learning a lot from doing them about that particular part of the world ’cause not many people know a lot about Bulgaria. People know about Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, etc., but people are not aware of the history of this particular country and things like that. So, it's very interesting for me to make and I get a lot out of it.

Right now, I will be doing some more of these movies/documentaries this coming year. I’m hoping to do another two. I have more concerts coming up. I do what's called the July Morning Festival every year in Bulgaria. It celebrates the first of July. It represents, through the Bulgarian people, their freedom from the times.

It’s on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea at 5:30 in the morning. As the sun rises, we go on stage and open up the set with the song the Uriah Heep song, “July Morning,” and it's the people's way of expressing their freedom. When we first started doing it ten years ago, there were a couple of thousand people there. And we've got it up to 10,000. I think we had 12,000 people there last year at 5:30 a.m., and they come the evening before. They pitch their tents and all kinds of things.

And they're all there, at 5:30 a.m. when the sun rises, and we kick off with “July Morning” and follow with a full set. It's a feeling. I can't tell you. It's just a great feeling.

JC: I love going to concerts, but I don’t want to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for anything. How does one get ready for a concert at 5:30 in the morning?

JL: It's tradition though. That's the thing. I've never heard of it anywhere else in the world, but it's the specialty for Bulgarians that they celebrates their freedom from the days of oppression with the first of July, and it's just a great feeling. The first time I ever did it, I looked at my wife and said, “Can you tell me why I'm getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do a gig at 5:30 in the morning?” But once I'd done it, I realized, “This is why I'm doing it. Because it's just great.” It's a great feeling.

JC: Yeah, then that's the sign of the power of music. Even though you weren't in Heep when they recorded “July Morning,” but nevertheless, you were a singer of Heep and the fans consider you an essential part of Heep history.

JL: I was never aware of how much of an influence Uriah Heep’s music was to the people in the Eastern Bloc, not only in Bulgaria but also in Romania, what used to be Yugoslavia, and in the Ukraine all the way up to Russia. Uriah Heep's music at that time was a breakthrough—apart from the Beatles, of course and things like that—but the music of Uriah Heep was the breakthrough thing for them. It was really the first kind of westernized music that they listened to via their bootlegs, which were hastily hidden from the secret police if anybody came knocking, under the table. And I've met so many people—all the generations—who've said to me, “You have no idea how much that music meant to us.” And that's why a song like “Come Back to Me” is still very popular over there because they love all that kind of music.

They love “Free Me,” “Lady in Black,” and other songs like that. And when you see them singing along, it sometimes brings the older generation to tears. They really respect Uriah Heep’s songs over there. I've been over there with Mick Box from Uriah—we've done a couple of gigs together with Bulgarian musicians and the band is greatly loved over there and I think that's a great thing. 

JC: Yeah. That's a great thing, especially the williness to listen to something even though it was illegal in their country.

JL: Yeah. It's a good thing and I think they appreciate Uriah Heep members coming down to play this music. I was the first ever to perform a rock concert in a specific area of Bulgaria at a place called Kavarna, which is in the north, on the Romanian border. I did the first ever rock concert there. I'm not blowing my own trumpet, but since then, every year in June and July, Kavarna has some of the biggest rock names over there. Last year, Deep Purple was there.

Whitesnake's been over there. Robert Plant's been there. Alice Cooper—some of the biggest names in rock have played the Kavarna Rock Festival. I'm kind of proud that I was one of the first ones to actually go and do it.

JC: Yes, yes. Good. Given all this interesting history you’ve had as a singer, what advice would you give to someone who is interested in singing? What would you recommend?

JL: First of all, I would recommend trying to find out whether you can sing. There are so many people who have said to me, “I'm having singing lessons.” And I'm thinking, “Well, hang on a minute, if you can't sing, you can't hold a note, or you can’t hold a melody, then nobody can teach you that.” If it's not in there, it's not in there. A good singing teacher will teach you how to breathe: how to use breathing techniques for the difference in falsetto and normal and from the chest, etc.

A good singing teacher will do that for you. But so many people can’t hold a melody and can’t sing along. So many people sing along to Karaoke and think they're great and they're not. They can't hold a melody even they know the song backward.  I've been asked this question many times—if you're good at what you do, just go out and sing live as much as you can. Because there's nothing like singing to people regardless of whether it's two people, ten people, twenty people, two hundred . . . whatever.

I mean, I first started out doing small clubs in the north of England. They’re called “working men's clubs” where the workmen would go after they'd finish their days’ work. They would go to the bar and have a few pints of beer and talk with their friends. I've played at gigs where there's maybe four or five guys in there with a couple of dogs, and in between songs, they would play Bingo, and then you'd come on and sing some songs, so I know what it's like to play to very few people. But once you can do that and make them listen to you, then you know you're on the right path. But the best way to establish it is to get out there and sing live so somebody hear it.

These days, YouTube is the best way for people to get recognition. So many artists these days have gotten their recognition through YouTube, especially bands like the Arctic Monkeys and people like that. People have seen them on YouTube and say, “Hey, you gotta see this band,” and it's word of mouth that's passed down. So, YouTube is a great way of doing it. Today, the technical ability to record stuff in your own living room, in your own bedroom with a computer, is limitless so for anybody out there, if you're just starting out, try every possible way to get your voice out and be heard. That's the best way to do it.

John Lawton today