Saturday, 5 January 2013

It's Always About The Music - A Conversation with Chris Quinn

I was talking the other day to the Radio Pembrokeshire DJ once described by John Peel as ‘the real BB Skone’ and the name Chris Quinn came up. BB knew all about him from gigs he’d played in Wales, and by coincidence I was due to meet him today.  Chris is one of those people who always seems to be around the town, though given the number of gigs he plays a year and how often he’s off on tour, I don’t see how that’s possible.  He always has a big smile, always seems to be friends with everyone.  We’re sitting opposite each other now in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse and as we’re talking he’s continually nodding and smiling as people come through the door. [Even the traffic warden who tries to book his car gets a smile - and it works too.]

I can’t remember the first time I heard Chris playing guitar and singing, but the last time was a month or so ago, kicking up a storm with jazz saxophonist Casey Greene. When and how did it all begin for him, I want to know.  Chris starts talking about his childhood in Germany where his dad, a musician too, ran a string of Forces Folk Clubs.  ‘My first instrument was the concertina,’ he says.  ‘I was five years old.  I’d also pick away at a piano whenever one came my way.  Green Onions was the first thing I learned to play. Years before I touched a guitar, I knew my future lay in music.’

This interests me.  We talk about the way this certainty sometimes comes about in childhood. ‘It just felt right,’ says Chris. 'Music was part of my life.  It wasn’t special.  It was just the way things were.’ He remembers going to see one band in particular.  He was still in Germany, still a little kid, up by the speakers drinking it all in.  ‘What was happening on the stage felt normal to me,’ he says. ‘It was just what you did.’

I wonder when enjoying music and playing for his own entertainment spilled over into performing for an audience.  At the age of fifteen, Chris says, he learnt his first piece on the guitar -  and took it straight out onto Pride Hill. ‘Busking was a great experience.  Loads of people came up and talked to me,’ Chris says. ‘And the money was good, of course.’  He’s no memory of being scared.  Playing and performing always went hand in hand. School work at the Wakeman petered out, though a stint at SCAT on a Performing Arts Course brought Chris an agent and a series of Butlins gigs.  This was followed by a Blues Brothers show which toured the South Coast, and by the time Chris turned up at the Dun Cow in Abbey Foregate to play with fellow Shrewsbury musician, James Hickman, he was already a seasoned performer.

‘That night The Badgers were formed,’ Chris says.  ‘It took a few beers and a few more nights before we came up with the name, but by this time the gigs were pouring in.  After the Dun Cow, we could have played seven gigs a week if we’d wanted.’ 

Chris and James still play together, but they play in other bands as well, James most notably with Dan Cassidy, brother of the legendary Eva, and Chris as part of the Robin Nolan Trio, playing Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz with the musician once cited as George Harrison’s favourite guitarist. 

In the world of gypsy jazz, Robin Nolan’s a really important figure.  He’s played the Lincoln Center, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival and many others. Chris has already been traveling and playing with him, and during the coming year they’ll be off again, in a tour which culminates in a Jazz FM gig at the Royal Albert Hall.  For a Pride Hill kid-busker, Chris has come a long way. 

He’s writing songs as well. Having paid his dues to the jazz/blues/folk tradition he grew up in, he’s ploughing his own furrow with an album planned for the end of the year.  I ask about guitars, imagining that he probably has a room full of them. There are only two, he says in  a voice that tells me two's enough.  One’s a gypsy jazz guitar, bought for gigging with Robin Nolan.  The other Chris bought from Eva Cassidy’s father, Fitz.  It’s a Martin D28 [which if you’re a guitarist will mean something to you] and on the occasion Chris bought it he spent a long afternoon in the Cassidy family barn playing Eva’s own guitar.  A privilege indeed.

Chris doesn’t push his stories, but he’s full of them if you care to ask.  I want to know what are the highlights of his career so far, and the Cambridge Folk Festival gets an immediate mention.  ‘Not just because of the professionalism of the people running it,’ Chris says, ‘but because of the history of the place – you know, that sense you have of everyone who’s ever sung there before you.’  

Chris, along with James, has played with Jools Holland too, and says that performing before 10,000+ audiences is great for album sales.  But he’s played small gigs too - most notably a private party for a family of four on a special birthday in their living-room. ‘It may seem crazy to make a four hour journey just for four people and their dog,’ says Chris,  ‘but there are reasons why some things are worth doing, and it’s always about the music.’

What happens when the music is switched off, I ask.  I know Chris spends a certain amount of time setting up gigs for the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse. But what happens when he isn’t even doing that?  ‘I don’t much care for being indoors on my own,’ Chris admits [which is why, I guess, he always seems to be around the town].  ‘I like travelling,’ he says.  ‘I like hills. I like walking.’ And babies, I ask?  ‘Yes, babies,’ says Chris. June 28th is his and partner, Jessicah Kendrick’s, due date.  The bump is showing already.  The scan’s been broadcast on Facebook, and when Baby Quinn-Kendrick [Kendrick-Quinn] makes his/her triumphal entry into Shrewsbury, I’ll let you know, I promise you. 

So what else will this year bring? Compared to a first child, anything else might seem anti-climatic.  But Shrewsbury’s buzzing these days.  There’s the Shrewsbury Folk Festival to look forward to on the West Mid Showground in August, and earlier in the summer the Shrewsbury Fields Forever Festival, which has been going for a few years now and is increasingly drawing audiences from across the country. Then the Lion Hotel hosts great music nights in its ballroom, and in the coffeehouse Jessicah and Chris have Brook Williams lined up [of last week’s BBC TV Andrew 
Marr Show], and Sweet Chorus’s John Etheridge and Chris Garrick amongst others.  Then, not least of all, Chris and Robin Nolan will
 be appearing in concert at Theatre Severn.

I wonder who are Chris’s musical heroes, and immediately get a list of them, divided into nationalities.   There are so many of them, Chris says.  It’s hard to know who to mention and who to leave out.  Even so, John Doyle is there for Ireland, along with Paul Brady; Dougie McLean and Dick Gaughan are there for Scotland; Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson for England; and for America there are Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Tim O’Brien [listen to his Dylan album, ‘Red on Blonde’] and Nanci Griffiths.

Apart from Dougie and Dick, Martin and Doc, most of these names are new to me.  Tonight from Shrewsbury I’m heading home to YouTube them.  If you want to YouTube Chris, here's the link:

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