Basil Clarke possesses an outstandingly beautiful singing voice; he’s also a very fine songwriter. Why he isn’t a global superstar is a total mystery to me.
His song ‘Carrying Mine’, recorded by Yargo, is one of my all-time favourite records, so when the chance arose, I was very eager to talk to Basil about his life and music. Here is a summary of our conversation…
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Could you tell me a bit about your early life?
I lived in Beswick till I was about seven; it was a bit like Coronation Street… cobbles, two-up, two-down. Then I moved to Langley – stayed there till I was eighteen. After that, I moved to South Manchester… Old Trafford, Stretford – and I kind of stayed down that end for ever.
So how did you get into music?
I worked at the Electric Circus and then punk kinda started and I saw punk for the first time – anyone could be in a band and that idea hit me. I was at university, at UMIST, and when I finished the course I thought: “Right, now I’ll start a band.”
So you formed your own band?
The first rehearsal I had after university… that summer afterwards… was with some guys that I knew, in The Midland in Levenshulme, and there I met Tony Burnside; he was a guitarist. And me and Tony walked home and we decided to carry on working and rehearsing.
Were you singing then? Was that your role?
Well I wanted to sing, I was singing, but I was starting from nothing… I didn’t know how to write a song. Tony was pretty good at guitar… we just used to jam; I was playing bass at the time and he was playing guitar and we didn’t know how to do anything but we somehow pulled it together and eventually wrote a song.
Did you play covers at first then?
You just tried to build a song around what you could do?
Yeh. So that’s how we started and we found a drummer… first it was Steve, Tony’s brother… then there were another couple of guys…
I met Paddy (Steer) when I saw him playing bass in a music shop; he joined Tony and me. Phil (Kirby) was the last to join; he was in Biting Tongues. One of the first times I saw them was at Riverside Arts Centre in London on the South Bank… and it was an amazing experience. I just fell in love with Phil’s drumming.
And you discovered they were from Manchester?
Yeh, well we moved in the same sort of band-type circles. It was me and Tony doing Yargo, but I played a few gigs with Biting Tongues as a guest vocalist.
When you started Yargo did you have a particular manifesto? A set of ideas?
Looking back, you start stuff and there’s a lot of innocence about doing it, being able to play stuff and rehearse all the time – there were a lot of people on the dole who were in bands, you know what I mean?
I think, I thought I knew what I wanted to do and I thought I knew everything I needed to know and there is something quite positive about that innocence…
But you wanted to work with those other musicians principally because you liked the way they played… it wasn’t so much, “we’ve got a set of ideas and we want to do this”, it was more a case of a sort of musical mutual attraction
Absolutely – I love the way Paddy plays; I think he’s a great bass player and I just love the way Phil plays.
Does the Yargo name have any significance?
No, I was going out with somebody at the time who loved the book (by Jacqueline Susann) and I just thought ‘Oh that sounds like an interesting name’. I never read the book myself – she used to talk about it all the time.
When you were playing in Yargo you were basically labelled as an Indie band; that seemed to be the way that you were perceived… it probably wasn’t very helpful?
No, it was fine… it was just unusual.
Did you see yourself as an Indie artist?
I think so; we were Indie because we couldn’t really be pigeon-holed and I think we quite liked that at first.
As time went on though, I thought we were good live but you’ve got to find your way through the recording situation and I think we probably needed a little bit of help and direction to get the recording side right.
Sometimes you’re trying so hard to get noticed and to get record company recognition just so you can carry on and do more and all those ups and downs and rejection… you start to get cynical that the whole industry is going to take you over and gobble you up and turn you into something rubbish…
So you had a fear of losing control over what you were doing?
I think so.
Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to go through a few different producers… it might not happen straight away.
So did you work with a number of different producers on Yargo’s albums then?
Not really, I did some production on the early stuff and I think we might have worked with a couple of guys but… I suppose I was quite protective and I didn’t like the way it was going. But a lot of that was innocence on my part because you do need top people to get it all right.
It must be very difficult to find somebody who can allow you to play to your strengths and who you can trust?
Of course it is.
˜The Other Side Of Midnight’… Was that done for the TV programme (of the same name) or was it picked up and used by the programme?
It was done for the programme; they asked us to write something for the programme so we did – and the record company liked it. They got D-Mob who had a big hit with Acieed Acieed to do a mix of it – and he did it and it was housey and we hated it – I hated it – and I resisted it.
So you said: “No we don’t like that.”
Well, it went out but I was resistant and I gave the guy a really hard time – I really pissed him off I think. Looking back, I should’ve let him do what he wanted to do and let them do what they wanted to do. It’s not the end of the world and there’s a parallel now, because I’ve done the album ‘The Measure of my Worth’ and my artistic input has gone into it and I’m happy with that. And now I’m going to put it out in America and I’ve got some people over there who are helping me to navigate the waters. They want to do a re-mix of the title track to get someone to do a more popular mix of it… now, years later, I’m thinking ‘OK, cool, I don’t mind, just do what you want to do.’
˜The Measure of my Worth': it’s a really strong song. I read it as a lament of the lover who is constantly in the thrall of the beloved, but then I realised it’s about a performer, isn’t it? Is it? About the dependence of the performer upon their audience and how that puts a performer in a difficult place… a sort of Achilles heel?
It’s a universal thing: when I wrote that, I was thinking of a person. But as time has gone on, for me, it’s like ‘Well, what is the measure of my worth?’
Personally, when I really get down to it, the true measure of my worth, the thing which makes me forget everything, makes me happy for that moment, is to be able to write. And when I’ve written that piece and when I’m happy with it I think ‘Great that’s it’. So that is the measure of it… the measure of my worth.
So for you it’s the art itself. But when you think about it as the name of the album, then the meaning becomes: the album is ‘the measure of my worth.’
Yeh, course it is.
I was wondering if you as a performer felt almost an irritation at that desire to perform because you’re dependent upon an audience and it’s almost annoying that you need other people to do that… to have that experience?
No it’s not about that anymore… it’s not about the adulation anymore. Having done gigs where you’ve been close to heaven – it’s been done; that’s been done. And if the conditions are right, the music’s right, the musicians are right, the rehearsals are right, the technical side is right, and the audience come – it can still fail for reasons you don’t know – but it can be beautiful again. I’ve experienced that. It can happen again; it’s not a big deal.
I noticed ‘Neo Soul’ on your website… you’re a singer-songwriter and it’s quite intimate work and soulful. If that term had been invented before it was invented… if you could’ve been pigeon-holed as Neo Soul earlier on, would that have made a difference? Because you came before all that didn’t you?
It’s funny how you can be so near to something and yet so far at the same time.
OK, it’s a singer-songwriter thing, the lyrics are quite personal but it didn’t really fall into the Neo Soul type of bag because the grooves have got to be absolutely solid and right
But that little step to saying – Right, this is the direction it has to go down. Then it’s a short step to transforming your music into an area which people can understand and latch onto and pigeon-hole, which…
…which is unfortunately what you have to do if it’s going to sell in America, I suppose.
Or anywhere, y’know what I mean? So taking that conscious step and saying ‘Right, it’s not pop, it’s not gonna be pop, it’s gonna be neo soul, and making that step just transformed the music and people can understand it…
So do you feel that was a compromise then?
No… I think it was a good thing because in the end, through all the music that I’ve known and grown up with and loved, the roots have always been kind of right, so really it was something which was staring you in the face, that you just didn’t see, for whatever reason.
The whole Talking Loud thing, acid jazz in London, did you ever think ˜Hey, I could be part of that”?
No, I never really bothered.
You never thought of going down there?
No, because what I was trying to do – I wanted to write my songs and find a way of getting my bit over and then going to a producer to do whatever they wanted to do. I just wanted to have my input – I wasn’t even sure what that input was. But whenever I went to a label, it was always like “OK, we’ve got this backing track” and that was just the way that music was being made then, and still is to a degree. But just to have my own thing that I’m trying to get over and to have my confidence in it; that’s what I want.
I see myself more as a singer-songwriter, so if I write something I tend to have a melody at the same time and I tend to try and stick with that because… just because.
Words come with the melody?
No the words come first usually and then when I sit and write the words after that the melody is like close, close behind them… it just shapes itself somehow for me.
So when you’ve been writing the music that’s on your current album did you use technology… did you sit at home with a computer?
That’s where I startedâ€¦
Did you resist technology at first?
No; any way that you can get a great groove together that works… there’s no argument… you don’t care how you get it!
So who would you say your big influences are in terms of your singing style and also your writing style?
I’ve come to the conclusion that a song is a really simple thing… it’s a collection of words, verse, chorus; it’s a construction, and it’s a simple thing. And that simple thing can have legs of its own that can take it into a heavy beat, a groove, a jazzy thing! So the people who come up with the simple goodies all the time – Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye – people that always came up with the goods.
I used to wait for inspiration to come: there’s a book called ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron. One of the disciplines is called ‘The Morning Pages’ where you get up and write three pages of whatever comes into your head… a lot of subconscious stuff came out but I could use it, and it made me realise, I don’t have to wait for inspiration. It’s in me; I can do it whenever I want.
So when did you have that epiphany?
It was a good few years ago. But it was good! Now I just don’t worry about it. I know it’s always in me. If I’m in the position where I’ve got to write I think I’ll be able to write and not come up with rubbish; I think Iâ€™ll be able to deliver.
And in terms of your singing style – you’ve not told me your vocal style influences.
Noâ€¦ when I sing sometimes, just occasionally, I feel I hear myself sounding like my mother… because she used to sit and play the piano and sing a bit butâ€¦
And is that a good thing, sounding like your mum?
Well she had an unusual voice… she wasn’t a singer at all… she just used to make a noise and I’ve found myself remembering what she sounded like when I sing sometimes, but that’s all.
What about Nina Simone? You’ve covered a couple of her tracks?
Funnily enough I think that if we’re going back to where I originated from way back in Africa somewhere, I think that probably Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield and myself are all from the same tribe, somehow! That’s what I think!
So what happens next?
I’ve got my album and I’ve played it to a few people here and people like it- but it’s seen as a niche-type thing – a British person doing Neo Soul. Going out to America – it’s niche – but a person can make a living, and live, and do gigs.
Because it’s such a big market?
So is that your plan really going forward? Would you like to be based there?
I wouldn’t mind. I’m happy to go where the music takes me. If I can go out there, and work with top producers, and make music I want to make – great! That would be fantastic!
But I’m really happy to be here, doing what I’m doing, and I think I’ve improved as an artist and a writer. I’ve got this new song which I hope we get out, called The Limit, which I’m really happy with – so I’m looking forward to working more on that with Dave Connally in the immediate future.
I’ve made these contacts in America and if I can put this stuff out over there, and maybe a little bit of money comes back, I’ll be able to go over and work with a couple of producers – just go wherever, to make the best music I can make; that’s my ambition in this life.
Basil Clarke’s album The Measure of my Worth can be downloaded via his website at www.clarkemusic.tv.