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Strawbs Sample South African Flavors on New Album
"The Magic of It All" was recorded in Cape Town, includes sax and accordion, and sounds a bit different than most of what came before.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. In the past week, I’ve gotten an opportunity to speak to a couple of musicians for whom I have a great deal of respect — David Cousins of the Strawbs, and Doug Ott of Enchant. This week, we’ll focus on the Strawbs, because they have just released a new album, The Magic of It All, and it has an unusual backstory.
Let’s jump right in.
The Strawbs have always defied convention to some extent, making the kind of music they want to make but rarely repeating themselves. Since their inception, they’ve been bluegrass, progressive, straight folk, folk rock, etc., but above all, they’ve been creative over a career that started in 1964 when they were known as the Strawberry Hill Boys.
So, it’s not a surprise that Strawbs came up with something completely different on new album The Magic of It All — the follow-up to 2021’s Settlement, which I wrote about two years ago. The Magic of It All has an unusual backstory, in that it eventually sprung from vocalist/guitarist David Cousins accompanying his partner on a trip to visit her son in Gqeberha (previously known as Port Elizabeth), South Africa.
Since Cousins was going to be in that country for several weeks, he decided to see if he could set up a few shows to perform while he was there, and managed to do so. He was surprised to see how many people turned up for these small shows that came together with very little notice. Originally scheduled to be solo shows, he was joined by bassist Schalk Joubert.
“The best bass player in South Africa said he’d like to play with me, so I said, ‘That sounds good,’ and off we went,” Cousins said. “We did four shows that were very well received. I had no idea whether anybody would ever remember who on Earth I was, because I had never been to South Africa before. And the last show we did, in Stellenbosch, about an hour outside of Cape Town, we drew 400 people, which astonished me…with only six weeks notice.
Cousins was taken with the crowd size as well as stories from concert attendees, who told him they’d been listening to Strawbs records for decades.
“I had an idea we’d sold records over there because A&M Records told us all ‘You’re selling records in South Africa,’ but because of apartheid, we just couldn’t go,” he said.
Wanting to do some recording, and also some more South Africa shows, Cousins phoned Joubert, who asked him if he’d considered the idea of recording in South Africa.
“He said, ‘Well, there's a documentary maker called Niel van Deventer, who wants to talk to you about making a documentary about the influences the Strawbs have had across the world, and in particular in South Africa, but he would like to base it around recording the new album in a studio in Cape Town.’ So it all interlocked together,” Cousins said.
The documentary isn’t quite ready for release but is expected by mid-August, when Strawbs will be playing Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival.
The album was recorded in Cape Town at the Academy of Sound Engineering — a school for students seeking a career in the music industry — from Sept. 14-23, 2022. Blue Weaver flew in from his home in Germany to produce the album and assist with the writing and recording, while John Ford stayed home to avoid the 18-hour flight to South Africa, writing for the album and adding his vocal parts remotely.
Strawbs’ lineup on the album is:
David Cousins – vocals, acoustic guitar, electric dulcimer.
Blue Weaver (producer) – piano, organ, mellotron, accordion.
John Ford – vocals.
Additionally, the band was joined by several South African musicians: Mauritz Lotz (electric and acoustic guitars), Joubert (electric bass, double bass), Kevin Gibson (drums and percussion), Byron Abrahams (saxophones), Simangele Mashazi (vocals), Marzia Barry (vocals) and Luna Paige (vocals). Jonno Sweetman performed drums on two tracks — “Slack Jaw Alice” and “Wiser Now” — and UK singers Cathryn Craig and Nicola Tee also lent their talents to the album.
Peter Pearlson, who helped Paul Simon when he recorded Graceland using several South African musicians, engineered The Magic of It All. Pearlson and Joubert helped Cousins find the South African musicians who play on the album.
Cousins returned to England and finished recording his vocals at The Joplin House in Stowting, Kent from Oct. 27-29, 2022, with engineer Dan Lucas.
The result is 11 tracks that tread some new ground while still being quite identifiable as Strawbs music.
The album kicks off with a countdown into “Ready (Are We Ready),” which has a driving rhythm, a nice groove, and is more up-tempo than much of The Magic of It All.
“It’s difficult to find a good opening track,” Cousins said. “And I toyed between that and ‘The Time Has Come (for Giving Back).’ And both could have been the opening track, but I decided on ‘Ready’ because it’s in 7/8. You don’t really notice unless you start counting it. But it means that it drives the vocal along much more rapidly than it would if it was in straight 4/4. But it gives a lovely loping feel to the track. And it seemed to me the obvious track to start with.”
Cousins, who turned 78 in January, said he envisions doing it on stage with the band and audience creating a call-and-answer in the chorus. The subject matter came out of thoughts of climate change and water drying up in certain areas of the world, which forces movement of the people living in those regions to seek it out elsewhere. Other migration is taking place due to war. It gave Cousins an apocalyptic feeling and he channeled those thoughts into the album’s opening track.
“It sort of felt almost like a call and answer, where you’ve got an Old Testament prophet standing up on on top of the mountain and calling out the song and the people are answering back,” he said.
The title track is the first song Cousins wrote for the album and it’s a wonderfully nostalgiac and historical look back at the band through the years — from the beginning, all the way to Cape Town.
“I put my guitar in its normal tuning, and then I detuned a bass string to drop D, which is very regularly done thing, and started to play the chords,” Cousins recalled. “And immediately they fell into a sort of lovely feel and groove to the whole thing. It was slightly slower than I had written it when I was running through it at home, but it took on a reflective feel. It’s a song that’s both a travelogue, talking about the places that we've been to around the world, and looking back at the career of the band.”
“All Along the Bay” is a song that features Abrahams on sax — an unusual instrument for a Strawbs song. The band was going for the South African ghoema rhythm and gave the song a distinctly South African feel. Cousins speaks the verses rather than singing them, almost as a jazzy rap.
“Blue (Weaver) is very familiar with South African music, having listened to a lot of it, and said that the sax is one of the primary instruments,” Cousins said. “And the ghoema rhythm, particularly in Cape Town, is the local rhythm. As we were told, if you go up and down the street to any bar or cafe, there'll be ghoema music coming out the door. And so, we were aware of that and we wanted to put the flavor of South Africa on it. I came up with a chord sequence. We put that chord sequence down. And then I said to Blue, ‘I think we need organ on that.’ And then he said, ‘Well, I think we need sax on it as well.’ And so then it became a cooperative thing that we did, and Byron Abrahams is an astonishing sax player.”
Abrahams played harmony sax parts, providing extra texture to the song, and his solo is a scorcher.
“Everybody Means Something to Someone” is a message for people to stay in touch. Cousins was inspired by a sign he found.
“I live about five minutes from the sea. I can walk out and down there and walking along that beach is a very beautiful thing,” he said. “And there have been many shipwrecks on that particular stretch of water. And there are little rows of fisherman's cottages, and it’s very atmospheric walking down there. And there was an art exhibition some years ago, and there was a little plaque left on the wall by a piece of driftwood carved as a fish. And it said ‘Everybody means something to somebody somewhere.’ And I said ‘That’s very nice.’”
Lyrically, the song addresses the fact that people today would rather communicate in brief texts and emojis and don’t really write letters or phone each other up as often.
When all of your belongings are stacked up on a shelf
You’ve got time on your hands, feeling sorry for yourself
Maybe someone’s waiting for the phone to ring
Think of the surprise your call might bring.
To my ears, the song’s music after the verses emulates the rolling in of waves. Placed back to back with “All Along the Bay,” it would make for some good beach listening.
“Our World” started with a melody by Ford and Cousins said he wrote the lyrics for it in about 15 minutes. This one feels more like vintage, folky Strawbs than much of the record. It has a lovely, big choir sound in the chorus.
My early favorite song on the album is “The Time Has Come (For Giving Back).” It’s one of the album’s rockier tracks, particularly with regard to the drumming on it and the standout guitar solo at the end. Cousins gets political for this song, as he does sometimes.
“The political upheaval that’s been going on the last three or four years is quite dramatic,” he said. “It's just a reflection on the political situation at the moment. And there's an awful lot of very poor people. There's a great gulf between the very, very rich and the very, very poor, and that seems to be getting wider and wider.”
“Slack Jaw Alice” brings back Abrahams on the saxophone and is another one of the heavily South African-influenced tracks. Weaver’s accordion, combined with the saxophone, give the song a bit of a Cajun Zydeco flavor, but that’s also indicative of South African ghoema.
Cousins isn’t saying who the song is about but added there are enough clues in the lyrics that people should be able to figure out who he means.
“It could be about, say maybe a politician. It could be about royalty. It could be about financiers,” he said. “You've got to work it out for yourself and that’s what these songs are about.”
“Paris Nights” is a bit of a biographical song about Cousins’ trips to France, as well as a love song to the city. The accordion from Weaver gives this ballad a distinctly Parisian feel.
“There’s something magical about it,” Cousins said of Paris. “It’s a beautiful city. The museums are magnificent and the Notre Dame cathedral is beautiful.”
The last song on the LP version of the album is “Wiser Now,” which is a reflective piece sung over mainly acoustic guitar. The little bit of electric guitar work woven in is a bit reminiscent of George Harrison in tone.
There are two songs that are only available on the CD version —
”The Lady of the Night” and “Christmas Ghost.” There wasn’t enough room on the vinyl for them in order to preserve the best possible sound transfer to LP. Ironically, the ending feel of the album is much different from the LP track listing to the CD’s running order. The missing songs from the LP give the album a more uplifting ending on CD, whereas closing with “Wiser Now” gives the vinyl version a more melancholy or reflective flavor.
Ford sings lead on “Christmas Ghosts” and it has an amazing, pastoral feel to the song. It will be added to my growing Christmas playlist.
“I hope they take away the atmosphere,” Cousins said, when asked what he wants listeners to take from their The Magic of It All listening experience. “The flow is designed to flow all the way through, and there are little subtleties in it, such as before ‘Paris Nights’ we were doing ‘Slack Jaw Alice,’ which (says) ‘She lives in Paris.’ So, there’s a little link like that, but it’s the atmosphere of the whole record. You can’t just listen to one track and say, ‘Well that’s the album. It all sounds like that,’ because it doesn’t. Far from it. All the tracks sound very different. But when they go all the way through, it’s got an atmosphere to it and a flow and a feel. And you have to listen to the album two or three times before you get into the atmosphere of it.”
The Magic of It All should please most longtime Strawbs fans, but be aware that there are some new flavors here that may entice some listeners while turning off others. I feel like it’s a worthy successor to Settlement, and I look forward of uncovering more of its secrets on subsequent listens.
Strawbs and some of the South African musicians — eight musicians in all — will play the Fairport Convention Cropredy Festival as the one and only support gig for The Magic of It All. Cousins has a compromised immune system due to a rare blood condition called Myelodysplastic syndrome, and he will have to cease touring. It’s sad to think that this album won’t get a full support tour, but at least Cousins doesn’t plan to stop making music.
“My last show on stage will be on August 11th,” he said. “After that I’m going to concentrate on just recording and writing more songs and making more Strawbs albums.”
You can learn more about Strawbs at https://strawbsweb.co.uk/.
Ready (We Are Ready)
The Magic of it All
All Along the Bay
Everybody Means Something to Someone
The Time Has Come (for Giving Back)
Slack Jaw Alice
The Lady of the Night (CD only track)
Christmas Ghosts (CD only track)
For my complete interview with David Cousins, check out the video below or download/stream Episode 113 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. David is a wonderful storyteller and his responses are always quite insightful.
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