Ashley Hutchings & Ken Nicol
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Look at any folk record from the past forty years, and the names Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol will pop up in some prominent places. Hutchings was the founding bassist in Fairport Convention, leaving after fabled 1969 album Liege & Lief to form another legendary folk/rock act, Steeleye Span. He is still very active today, with the Albion Band, his series of Morris music albums, and the Rainbow Chasers.
Ken Nicol has been Hutchings’ longtime partner in the Albion Band, and has been the guitarist in Steeleye Span since 2002. Now the two have released their first album as a duo, entitled Copper, Russet and Gold. The album, available through Park Records (www.parkrecords.com), is a fun and eclectic collection of songs that are not bound by any one genre.
Coston: How did this record come about?
Hutchings: The record came about through Ken contacting me and suggesting we write and record an album of newly written songs. He said (quite correctly) that we write good songs together, and had composed many fine ones for The Albion Band, and wasn't it time we composed together again?
Coston: What surprised me is the diversity of the music on the CD. Some rock, folk and jazz mixed in. Was that something that evolved during the writing process?
Nicol: Both Ashley and I are very eclectic in the way we view music. Largely it’s a case of, the way you think, is consequently the way you write. If there was a process that could be described as evolvement, it would be less of one that just sort of happened by itself, and more a case of wanting to give the album a breadth of expression and colour that could be achieved effectively by using a whole mixture of musical genres.
Coston: Both of you keep busy schedules. Was it hard to find time to write and record this album?
Nicol: Yes, I mentioned earlier that it slowed down the recording process quite considerably. I should add also that, for me at least, it’s not just a case of grabbing any available time you can get you hands on. With anything I become involved with, there is always a period of time within which I have to ‘think my way’ into it. I have to capture a feel for that task. This isn’t an issue so much if it’s, say, recording or mixing, but when it comes to writing, it takes me a while to get my head into that zone. It can actually be quite difficult when you have a number of things on the go at the same time.
Hutchings: The album took some time to record, probably two years, during which we would do a bit, have a few months off, do a bit, record some more after a long break, etc..
Coston: Do you find that the writing process is different in working with each other, as opposed to writing on your own, or with others?
Nicol: It’s quite different. If I write alone, often melodies and chord progressions initiate the subject matter of a song. Ninety-something percent of the time, when writing with Ashley, he’ll send me his lyrics, and I then set them to music.
Of course, there’s little difference between the two when it comes to reaching deep within for that spark, that essence of something that gives one the sense of having found something inspirational, or at least something that inspires oneself. But one of the reasons I believe our partnership works well is because our songwriting roles are clearly defined. Ashley writes the the words, and I write the tunes.
Hutchings: The writing process is inevitably different when we work together. Put simply, I write the words and send them to Ken who sets them to music, just like Rodgers and Hammerstein!
Coston: Ken, Steeleye just finished a lengthy 40th anniversary tour, and a new album. What's next for the band?
Nicol: I’m not 100% certain just at this moment, but my guess is that there’ll probably be a couple of tours in 2011.
Coston: While it's been many years since Ashley was in Steeleye, did he have any advice for you when you joined the band?
Nicol: Keep your head down. And always carry an extra pair of boxers.
Coston: Ashley, you've been a key part of four legendary groups. Fairport, Steeleye, Albion and Morris On. What would you say has been the keys to your success?
Hutchings: I've absolutely no idea about the key to success. I just do what I want to do and hope for the best!
Coston: How would you describe your bass playing? Does it change, depending on the project?
Hutchings: My bass playing is pretty conventional nowadays. It was more adventerous back in the Fairport and Steeleye days. I think of myself as a writer, producer, band leader first, and bass playing comes well down the list.
Coston: When I interviewed Dave Mattacks last year, he told me that playing on the first Morris On record [Morris On, 1972] changed the way he thought about what he could do on drums. What have you gotten out of the Morris On series?
Hutchings: Constructing the Morris On series of albums, and there have been six, has been fun and therefore a relaxing change with all the strongly emotional songs I've recorded.