BRIDGET ST JOHN IN CONVERSATION
- An interview at John Tobler’s place, High Barnet, Thursday 23rd November, 1995.
The night before, Bridget had played her first London gig in two decades at the Weavers. She’s spent the last 20 years living in Greenwich Village, but 1994/95 saw the reissue of her back catalogue and a new album, ‘Take The 5ifth’- (See discography at end), which prompted her return to English soil.
NB: Please don’t go expecting the more traditional-style historical Terrascope interview. We just sat around Tobler’s kitchen table, drinking tea and chatted about various topics!
PT: How do you think the Weavers gig went last night?
BSJ: Oh I loved it. I felt really comfortable. I enjoyed it a lot.
And that was the first major gig you’ve played over here since the mid 70s?
Yeah, apart from the five songs I played at the Strawbs gig (30th anniversary gig in 1993 - NC). I really prepared for this gig so hard - we really rehearsed, every Wednesday!
Did you give the set list a lot of thought?
No, yesterday was the first I thought about it. You have to know what you’re going to start the first set with. But actually when I got up for the second set, I changed my mind.
So it wasn’t a case of just getting up on stage and finding your levels, as it were?
When I rehearse I don’t really sing out, but something takes over when I perform live. It lets this bigger voice come out or something. It feels good to do that.
Apart from these two UK appearances, when was the last time you played live in America?
Apart from sitting in with people, 1983. The year after Chrissy [Bridget’s daughter] was born. I still played that- whole year and it was so difficult because I was breast-feeding. It wasn’t just looking after her and then singing at night. It was working all day and looking after her. It was pretty clear that I couldn’t go on doing that. And I felt I was mechanically playing - I had no creative energy except for her, and I think if you speak to most mothers, they’ll say the same thing. That’s where you have to be.
Yep, I understand... So is there a big difference for you between British and American audiences?
I think it’s different everywhere. I think every gig is different. It’s not’s just because it’s English, it’s because of everything... the weather even! I suppose audiences are different but because I haven’t played full sets in America for so long, I can’t really say that. I wouldn’t play the same places in New York that I played 10 or 12 ‘Years ago, because they’ve changed. When I was first in Now York, we had these incredible evenings. We’d all do our sets and then way into the night - 4 or 5 in the morning - we’d all be out playing our now stuff. Stuff we were in the middle of writing, or stuff we wanted to try out before we actually put it into a set. Now it’s so different. And then, too, people came out because they wanted to see live music and now you have to have your mailing list and you have to try and get people to come out and pay at the door. You didn’t used to have to pay at the door. Everything’s changed, rents are going up so club owners charge more money. It’s all business now, it’s not like the scene it used to be. The clubs I used to play, Kenny’s (Castaway) and the Bitter End, have 4 or 5 acts a night each doing one set, nearly always bands. Sometimes they’ll put together an acoustic evening but each of those acts is expected to bring along their audience, then they clear the room and then the next band brings their audience - it’s just different, it’s not relaxed, it’s very tough. You don’t expect to make money. You play hoping that someone will come down and see you, but I don’t want to play like that. There are other clubs and I’d just have to find the ones where I’d be comfortable and play.
Do you think you’ll tour the States at all?
Yeah, definitely. There’s someone on the West Coast who wants to put some gigs on. He’s done that for Michael Chapman. I’m going to explore a whole lot. I’d like to play in New York and down the East Coast, I’ve only really done New York State and Long Island. I’ve never played in Boston or Washington.
John T: Which British festivals did you play when you were still living over here? Did you ever do Cambridge?
No,I didn’t actually. I’d have to look through my scrapbook to see which festivals I did. There are so many festivals now, there used not to be so many.
They’re the only places now where you see a lot of people still coming together. Maybe you should play at the Guildford Folk Festival - they had a new site this year, in a beautiful park, Loseley House...
Where they make great ice cream (laughter). Cambridge is kind of very high profile now? It used to be so laid back.
John T: Exceptionally. There’s now 15,000 people beating their way through. I was just thinking that the festivals would be a good place for you to aim for.
You said you only did a very short set at the Strawbs festival?
Yeah, by their request. Not because I said I wouldn’t do more. Basically I asked if I could do it, it wasn’t like they called me up in America and said, come and do it. They said, “we’ll squeeze you in, but you can’t do more than 20 minutes”! They were terrified I’d play longer. It wasn’t very relaxed for that reason.
How was the reaction there? Were people surprised that you were on?
Yeah, I think so. I was, well not in a daze exactly, but I wasn’t really sure what happened when I played and there was a whole lot of feedback that put me off.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this a whole heap of times before, but why did you actually move to the States in the mid-70s?
The immediate reason I visited there was because I was seeing somebody that ended up over there. I booked to go there for 6 weeks and of course, as soon as I got there, he was living with someone else. He’d forgotten to tell me that before I went. It was like, “Oh shit! I’m in this city, I don’t know one person”. But Stefan Grossman had always said I could stay at his parents, ‘cause we were friends, and that’s what I ended up doing. Because a menage a trois is not my idea of fun! Especially not in a hotel room! So that’s the actual thing that got me there, but having said that there was whole background of feeling drawn to checking it out, as well. I liked it, I felt as if I’d come home for some reason.
It seemed like you weren’t going anywhere career-wise in the UK when you moved there. Two years between albums...
Definitely. I remember saying to people that I felt creatively as if I was walking down a cul-de-sac. I could go on doing college gigs and it was all lovely, but I didn’t feel I was being stretched at all. I need something to stretch me, it’s hard to motivate myself constantly. And New York definitely stretches me. All the time. Plus it was very hard with the Chrysalis thing. It was very clear they didn’t care about that album [‘Jumblequeen’].
Were you still signed to Chrysalis?
Yeah. What happened was, they didn’t pick up the option for another album, but they had my publishing for five years, so that was really frustrating. Everything I wrote would be theirs and they weren’t doing anything with it. But when I came to the States, Mark Goodman, who was then running the Chrysalis office, was much more open to letting me go and make demoes.
So that’s how you got to record those four tracks that were added to the BGO reissue of ‘Jumblequeen’?
No, not all of them. ‘Curious & Wooly’ I paid for. That was done at Right Track with Steve Burg who did Steve Forbert’s first album. ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ Chrysalis did pay for.
How quickly did you assimilate yourself into the New York scene?
In terms of playing gigs? My first gig was in June of 1977 so it took me almost a year - 10 months. Having said that, I was in Canada for three and a half months of those. I'd been talking to Island Records, they'd heard 'Moody' and really liked it and they were half thinking of doing something with me, but then I left for Canada. When I got back, my first gig was at Kenny’s Castaway opening for John Martyn. From there it was relatively easy to get gigs.
The stuff on ‘Take The 5ifth’ has a very major label sound to it. We’d get snippets of news across from America that you were still doing things. I just wondered why there wasn’t another album until the ‘collection’ this year?
I think the problem with me and major labels is, they don’t know how to market me because I’m really not ‘product’, I’m me! I’m not about to change the way I look or talk just to suit a marketing plan. But at the same time, they don’t know how to market me and one company said, these songs are great but we don’t know what to do with you. They didn’t understand how to put some one like me in the big machine - and I think that’s probably why nothing happened.
It’s interesting what you say about marketing and your image. During your years with the Dandelion label, do you think your image with the nice dresses and long hair was an honest representation of you?
Oh absolutely! I was wearing long skirts when I was in university and people would stare at me, but I felt comfortable in them. Somebody said I was a beatnik. I thought, what’s that? I just felt comfortable in those clothes. I got this old velvet skirt from some thrift store. I just bought things I liked to wear. It wasn’t a cultivated image or anything.
One thing that someone said last night was, it’s obvious you’ve really looked after yourself in the intervening years since that time. I was curious to know whether, when everyone else was indulging in that hedonistic lifestyle, you were ever drawn into all that?
I’ve had drinks and I’ve been drunk, but I can’t do that on any kind of sustained basis, so I don’t enjoy it. So while I tried things and used things, it was never a regular thing. I get high off people and ideas and things. I don’t mean to sound pure, but I know what my limits are and I don’t go beyond them. I don’t do myself much damage.
There’s been a long gap between records. Obviously you’ve been bringing your daughter up?
And working at the same time. I got really angry when people said, why’ve you given up singing? I said, I haven’t given it up. I was ‘breathing in’ - that’s the way I looked at it, and there are times when you’ve got to do that, because there’s something else you got to be taking care of. It’s like if fields lie fallow, they get richer when they do that. They don’t deplete, they get better. I don’t see time as a problem, I know that in the scheme of the big machine it’s terrible not to be 25, but I don’t really care about that ‘cause I can’t change it. I know what I have inside of me. I know I can write and sing. I knew it wasn’t the right time to be performing because I couldn’t give the right energy to it.
Do you think now that you’ve got this really great back catalogue available on cd, it’ll help?
Yes, definitely, It’s amazing how it’s all come out together. It’s perfect actually. I couldn’t have planned it better than this and yet it just happened this way.
How did the material come together and how did the deal for ‘Take The 5ifth’ come about?
The deal came before deciding on the material - the material was always there - I had no exact concept of what would be on it. I talked to Brian Willoughby about wanting to put out a CD and he said, “well you should call John Tobler at Road Goes On Forever”, so I did. I think he was a bit sceptical until I played and proved I could still actually sing! He was very encouraging after I played. After that, I got all the masters that I had and gave them to Ron Geesin to do whatever he had to do with them. We got it down to a short-list of about 24 songs to choose from and the 17 that are on ‘Take The 5ifth’ are the 17 that whenever I listen to them I don’t cringe.
JT: I felt it was very important to show that Bridget was not stuck in the long-dress/Dandelion syndrome and that this was now 25 years later and there was progression.
I have to say that ‘Catch a Falling Star’ is my favourite track. One of the interesting things about it is that it’s got Steve Hayton from Daddy Longlegs on it... how did you get to know him?
Through Ian Tilbury. I think he used to work with Julie Felix, who he managed. I can remember it was done at a greasy November night in this little dark studio in Hendon - I think it was the only song we did. I like songs with melodies and a lot of those old songs you just can’t not like them. Some of them I wouldn’t want to sing because I don’t really want to sing the words, but the melodies are great. And I just like the innocence of it. That’s kind of how I am - always look for the good in things, always hope that things’ll work out. That type of stuff.
The other reason I brought it up it is that at one point you mentioned to me that either when you were still with Dandelion or just after it, you were going to do a full album of classic cover versions.
Of standards. It was when Dandelion had just finished and they were looking for another deal for me. And the suggestion was for me to do an album of standards but I didn’t think I’d live long enough to do an album of standards. I hadn’t had the experience to sing some of these incredible songs. I don’t even know if I do yet.
You had a long-standing relationship with John Peel, his programme and record label.
He’s still my friend. I’m terrible, I usually call him the day I’m leaving but this time I called him the day after I got here and he was so surprised. I always call to say hello and I send him stuff, I send him clippings of really weird things in New York, or stuff I know he’ll relate to.
You don’t have to answer this, but were you disappointed that he wasn’t there last night?
No, he told me he wasn’t going to be. He was recording his programme and even if he wasn’t recording, I would have very surprised if he had come along cause he’s very busy and he’s got his own life.
One of the things that surprised me last night was that you didn’t stand up to play guitar! Do you only do that when you play the electric?
Well yeah, and also because it was the first gig for a long time, I just wanted to feel really comfortable and I wasn’t sure how I would feel standing for two sets. Also because that stage is high enough that if you sit down, it makes it very intimate.
When did you last do any proper demoes?
Well the last one I did I had to pay for myself and it cost four or five hundred dollars, and that’s quite a lot of money. And that’s a basic demo. Before that I demoed ‘Look at This Child’ - I was so emotionally involved with that
song, and the whole thing that was going on at the time, that it came out so overproduced I would never consider putting it out as it is now. That cost fourteen or fifteen hundred dollars to do one song. It’s very expensive to do it, but at the same time when I really believe in something I’ll just go do it. I can’t afford to demo everything.
The trend seems to be for people to use portastudios. I don’t think people care if there’s a little bit of imperfection on it.
They don’t unless it’s at top 40 level. It’s hard to get there. What I think should happen and probably could happen is that with a lot of these little labels, if somebody on radio opened up and said once or twice in a programme they’re gonna play things that nobody normally hears, things could take off, if they really believed it.
Written and produced by Nigel Cross, directed by John Tobler. Edited by: Phil McMullen © Ptolemaic Terrascope
If you want a feel for what Bridget’s music is all about, you could do a lot worse than check out her recently released EP ‘The First Cut’ on Nigel’s Shagrat label, a beautifully sepia sleeved 10" featuring her touching tribute to John Peel, ‘Pig ‘n’ Peel’ plus 4 others, including a fine version of ‘Ask Me No Questions’ and the haunting, otherworldly ‘Lizard Long Tongue Boy’.
i. Ask Me No Questions/Songs For The Gentle Man (See For Miles SEECD 408) [her first 2 Dandelion LPs on one disc but a bit naughty considering they left off ‘Early Morning Song’from ‘Gentle Man’]
ii. Thank You For + (See For Miles SEECD 428) [her 3rd Dandelion LP plus her live set from Montreux Pop Festival, April 72]
iii. Jumblequeen + (BGO BGOCD 260) [her 1974 Chrysalis album + 4 unreleased cuts]
iv. Take The 5ifth (Road Goes On Forever RGF CDO26)
There’s Some Fun Going Forward .... Plus (See For Miles CD 427) [reissue of 1972 Dandelion sampler - Bridget’s cuts are ‘Fly High’ (45 version) and ‘Early Morning Song’ from ‘Gentle Man’]
The First Cut (Shagrat EP ENT 007 10")