With Marvin B. Naylor, 2018
I was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in the south west of England (where I still live today) but grew up in rural north Essex. My dad is an accomplished jazz musician who plays piano and brass, amongst other things. He founded Bazz Wilby's USAWOM Jazz Band which played on the Forces Broadcasting network in Malta and "various obscure dives" during the early 1950s. USAWOM stands for Unrehearsed, Spontaneous and Without Music – "and I assure you it sounded like it", he says. My mum supplied me with the singing-voice gene. My cousin Fiona Simmons is also a gifted singer and performs in the Aberdeen area.
I grew up with plenty of instruments to muck about with, and learned to play piano from the earliest age before taking up guitar at 11, eventually playing a tatty old Fender bass in a school punk-metal band. People laugh when I say I used to be a heavy metal bassist, but it's true. And I didn't sing at all in those days!
Me in about 1988 communing with a road sign. Well, why not.
Me (on the right) with the band White Light in July 1985, rehearsing in the haunted barn behind the Swan pub in Braintree. I've still got that black Fender bass (probably still got the same strings an' all).
The first rock band I joined was called Pegasus. We only played one gig, at a local comprehensive school where for some reason the kids didn't seem to appreciate our repertoire of craply played Black Sabbath covers and watched us in stony silence. It didn't help that the guitarist decided to have an existential crisis that morning and only turned up two minutes before we were due to go on, so we were all really stressed. The next band I joined was White Light, which never even managed to gig at all. We just rehearsed endlessly in a room behind the 16th century Swan pub in Braintree. The room was haunted and scared us witless. There was always a mad dash to get all our gear cleared out after each rehearsal because none of us wanted to be left alone in there.
I wasn't exposed to much folk music when I was growing up but I always had an instinct to seek it out. I developed such a love of Scottish folk song that I learned Gaelic just so that I could sing them. When I was about 14 I had a powerful experience with an old Celtic harp in a stately home museum during a family holiday in the Scottish Borders. It completely transfixed me and I made some kind of spiritual connection with it. That really is what made me want to take up the harp, although it took until I was 26 before I finally had enough spare cash to buy one. These days I play a Dusty Strings Ravenna 34 harp and a mind-boggling Stoney End Esabelle cross-strung harp which has strings everywhere.
Jamming with Steve Lang in 2006.
A lot of the writing or arranging I do is done on a 12-string guitar, which gives me double the chance of hitting the right notes. This is my usual 12-string acoustic, a Faith Venus Eclipse.
I left Essex in 1988 and returned to my native Gloucestershire. I worked for 12 years as a graphic designer, first for a big publisher and then freelance for other publishers, before I decided to spend the rest of my life in the garden staring at vegetables. I became an expert on the old varieties our ancestors grew and learned to create new varieties from their diverse genepool. Nobody was more surprised than me when I bred a unique red-podded pea, created from a hybrid of heritage types. I'm still working on it to refine a version with a top quality flavour, along with various other projects such as golden-yellow sugarsnap peas. I've written a book about how to breed potatoes in a domestic garden, and I used to write an acclaimed blog about my work with plant breeding and biodiversity.
These days I'm back at the graphic design, doing all the typesetting and book production work at Skylight Press.
I didn't know I had a good singing voice until the late 1990s when I stood up and did She Moves Through the Fair at an open mic night at the Playhouse Theatre in Cheltenham and found the audience all gaping at me with open mouths and a bloke in the front row was in tears. So I worked on a few more songs and practised up my guitar and began to take music more seriously. This was also the time when I first got my hands on a 12-string guitar and was instantly hooked – I loved the sound and the feel of it. I still use 6-strings occasionally, but I mostly stick with 12-string. A green reissue Burns Double Six electric 12-string is my main workhorse guitar now, with a Faith Venus Eclipse 12-string for the acoustic bits, and a vintage 1964 Burns Shortscale Jazz Guitar for any 6-string duties. I have also been known to play a black Fender Aerodyne Strat and a surf green Telecaster.
Performing at the Night Owl in Cheltenham in August 2007, with an Aria electric guitar which my dad bought me when I was 13.
For a while I recorded with mandolin player William Shaw under the name of Revolving Doris, until William decided the musician's life was not for him. I carried on by myself, and supported by various musician friends I'd met along the way, my first solo album Mind The Gap was released in August 2007, initially as a hand-made edition of 100 copies. The song Leafblower, a fight back at noisy garden powertools, became a minor hit on internet radio. After a number of glowing reviews it was clear that a full release was in order, so in August 2008 it was relaunched as a fully pressed edition on Sonic Spongecake.
My second album, Seven Star Green, was released in August 2009 and features the work of two collaborators: Dick Langford, former guitarist with folk-punk band Tricks Upon Travellers, and cellist, singer and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Staniforth of Luna Trick.
Mez, my studio engineer, sorts out the wiring
In many ways I feel that I'm still discovering my sound, and going back to music after a break of nine years has been challenging on many levels, but finally there are new songs. Chalkhills, a three-track digital EP came out in June 2018.
In September 2018 I began working with the phenomenally talented 12-string guitarist and songwriter Marvin B. Naylor, and a world of possibilities suddenly opened up. We are working on an album now and you can hear a couple of our new songs on the audio page.