Folk musician and activist Chris T-T made a long-awaited appearance at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival as one of Jon Boden’s curated acts.
A case of quitting while you’re ahead? Later this year he plans to undertake a farewell tour of the UK and move on to different metaphorical pastures.
Sarah Corbett-Batson caught up with him for an extensive explanation.
Are there any particular campaigns that you’re interested in that you see as being progressive and making a positive difference?
That’s a great question. I haven’t jumped on the Corbyn express particularly. I’m still a Green voter because I live in Brighton where Caroline Lucas is the MP and she’s an angel walking the earth. Although I love what’s happening in Labour, I feel like I’m looking at it as an outsider. They have gone somewhere really effective in social media stuff. They’ve clearly outgunned expectations hugely. Their campaigning online is really effective. But that’s not really answering your question.
I think that if I were to shrink back into a core issue, it would be to do with animal rights and it might be to do with lifestyle. For example, I’m not quite a vegan at the moment and I think it’s time to really give it a go, to become vegan and to live in a much more sustainable way. My friend, the writer Paul Kingsnorth is not of the Left at all, he calls himself a recovering environmentalist, he’s not a climate change sceptic, he’s a climate change pessimist. He gets a lot of stick from all sides because of the way he writes about climate issues. He’s incredibly anti-development – he thinks we’re over developed. But then what he does is back that up in his own life. He lives in the most sustainable way of almost anyone I know in the developed world. He lives in Ireland in a way where they don’t consume very much and they’re home schooling and they’re living off the land in a very vital and real way. For example, he did an amazing thing by getting rid of his flush toilets in his family home. He’s put a proper composting toilet in his home. When I start thinking about that, the extraordinary savings of water. One of the worst things we do is that we poo into clean water every day. So he lives it in a really tangible way, vibrant way. That’s still not quite answering your question but I would like to personally live in a better way for the planet, I think. So maybe environmentalism and animal stuff are the two things I would go for. If we’re talking about party political issues, we need to get PR or some change in the first past the post electoral system or we’re in serious, serious trouble long term.
Then the other thing is everyone’s key topic, which is Brexit, and I don’t have particular passion either way so I haven’t found myself deeply immersed in the Brexit debate. Caroline Lucas and the Greens are fervently Remain and funnily enough, I found myself reacting slightly against that but I don’t want that to be taken as meaning that I’m in any way an ideological Brexiteer. Before Brexit was ever a thing, I always struggled a lot with the more neoliberal aspects of the EU and for example stuff that was done to Greece and stuff that’s done to monocultural agricultural stuff. Then when it became this issue that was incredibly passionately and viciously fought on both sides, I really struggled with that, particularly that the far Right is seen as being Brexit and that’s horrible. We didn’t have anything like a proper debate on anything. We just had both sides going, the other side is evil. Then we were expected to have this ridiculous referendum on something that nobody understood.
How did your friendship with Jon Boden come about?
We went to school together and when we met, he hadn’t discovered folk. He was already tall. He was two years below me but he would date girls in my year so he was one of those guys! He was a phenomenal guitarist, the best in school, and we formed a band, a trio. I think I was 14 or 15. We played a few gigs and we did a bit of busking. He was just a great kid musician to hang around with and we were finding ourselves. The other guy in that trio was Tom Edwards, who went on to be a really renowned orchestral percussionist and in the band Spiritualized. So I’m the least successful member of my old school band!
Jon and I also did theatre music together in school. My dad was the drama teacher and we did the music for a school play and that is how Jon got the bug for theatre music. He was really sophisticated in the way he got how music and theatre meshed together while I was still fumbling around. I tried to get him into Springsteen and he got me into Led Zeppelin. He was so Zeppelin.
Do you feel part of any scene?
I don’t feel part of the folk scene at all. I would say the punk folk scene or the acoustic punk scene is the closest I’ve come to being part of any scene, but that’s mainly just because of the label I’m signed to. I don’t really make that kind of music except that if I’m playing solo with an acoustic guitar then I’m strumming and singing. My label is Xtra Mile and they have a whole roster of artists doing what you might call punk folk. Skinny Lister, who’ve played here, and Beans on Toast, and Will Varley at the folky end and Against Me! at the hard rocking end of it. Xtra Mile is a fantastic label for feeling like a family. They’re really nurturing, not just of the artists in a way, but also one of the best labels I’ve ever seen for nurturing the fan base as people they are responsible for and look after.
There’s a brilliant new young charity that’s just sprung up called Safe Gigs for Women and that charity came out of fans of Xtra Mile and fans of Frank Turner because that scene is very supportive already. There’s already a network of female fans where if you’re going to a gig of one of these artists and you’re going alone, you can hook up with a whole bunch of female fans that will take you under their wing and look after you and introduce you to the scene. It’s incredibly supportive and I meet them at loads of gigs. Over the last few years, that’s been where the younger people at my gigs come from; they’re from the punk world and they’re proper fans of music in a way that sometimes I think has been lost. They’re actually showing up at gigs, they’re actually buying stuff, they actually really care about the artists and that’s really exciting.
I really wanted to be a folk singer from maybe about 2005 onwards and Jon (Boden) gave me another really early opportunity. I was the first ever Bellowhead tour support – as soon as they were big enough to have a support, they took me out. But I just can’t quite be nice enough, I am too much of an idiot and I think there are always going to be one or two people who will properly take against it. That’s not even about politics; I think if you sing about anything other than universal themes, you put people off. I wasn’t anyone’s ideal pop idol so it was that or nothing really.
I love folk music. I feel closer to the folk world as a radio presenter and DJ than as an artist because as an artist, this is my first time of playing here, I’ve played maybe three or four folk festivals in my life. As a radio presenter, I get invited to everything and I get sent every album and people are much more welcoming because you’re supporting their music. I wonder if I leave it for a few years and don’t make any music of my own, I’ll find I’m much more welcome in the folk world because I’m just this person who plays their music and don’t have any personal skin in the game.
What up and coming young folk artists can you recommend?
I really love Hudson Records. Hudson is a pretty new label and they did the Furrow Collective album. It’s not really fair to call it a new up and coming young act, but they did the solo album by Neil McSweeney and he’s a Sheffield based songwriter, not trad at all, and he’s a stunning songwriter, really investigative in sound as well. His record sounds brilliant and that label is doing a whole load of stuff. They’re actually doing the new Jon Boden album too.
I love the way that folk music in the last two years or so has re-embraced rough edges. So for a while it was too slick and too polite. That seam of bands kicked off by say, the band that was Lynched, now called Lankum and also Stick in the Wheel. Maybe even Kings of the South Seas, which is Ben Nicholls’ project – he recorded that with electronic guitars on it, in Cecil Sharp House but produced by John Parish who is a really legendary rock producer, and I loved that record as well. In the wake of that, I think you notice that some of the younger folk acts are just being a bit rougher and again it’s more radicalism sneaking in, so I find that pretty exciting. I love Commoners’ Choir, Boff Whalley’s radical choir, that’s beautiful stuff.
I can’t think of anyone brand new. I think that the other thing about the folk scene is that someone like me gets to the brand new stuff a bit later because they still develop artists properly. Like you’ve still got the remnants of the folk club scene so they will get out there and gig before they’ve put records out, which isn’t so common in pop music or indie music, so I miss stuff until it’s been around. But I would shout people towards the new album by This is the Kit by Kate Stables, she’s been around for years but she’s just signed to Rough Trade so her new album is a big step up and that’s produced by John Parish as well and it’s got members of The National singing on it and that’s a wonderful songwriting album.
Can you sum up what Cambridge Folk Festival means to you?
It was the great goal of my career for many years so it’s the biggest tick that I could have possibly have ticked off my box for my career and I’m really so blown away to have played it, and also that it was a happy experience as well. I camped as well and had a really nice evening and it’s been brilliant.
Chris T-T plays his farewell tour this autumn. See the Chris T-T website for details
Interview: Sarah Corbett-Batson
Photos: Copyright Carl Byron Batson. Not to be reproduced without express prior permission