Q&A with British musician Clare Free, a passionate songwriter and a fabulous singer and guitar player

"It certainly helped to gain social acceptance for black performers in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement and it also helped to bring the issues to the fore with songs like ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ helping society to understand the issues that were needing addressing. Blues also offered a wider voice to those members of society who were not able to attend the rallies and marches and helped by enabling them to feel involved by listening to the new blues songs on the radio."

Clare Free: Born To Write Songs

British Clare Free is a passionate, award nominated songwriter and a fabulous singer and guitar player. She plays both with a band and solo. Clare’s performances are fiery, exciting and heartfelt. Clare served her time with bands including Misdemeanor (With Matt Schofield, Gini Hobson, Maurice McElroy and Constance Redgrave of Spikedriver fame) she guested with Larry Garner and joined Dana Gillespie on two trips, one to India and the other to be the opening act at the Mustique Blues Festival every night for three weeks. Later Clare joined the band 99lbs. Then, having finally made the decision to go it alone, she released her debut album “Be Who You Are,” in 2010. The self-penned mixture of rock, country and blues propelled her into the limelight with excellent reviews in the UK and the USA. In 2010, she released the live EP “How It Is,” a four track CD of Clare’s own songs. It also received rave reviews and the limited edition copies sold out quickly. All four tracks from the EP reached the blues top ten with the international distributor CD Baby in the same week. One track (Funky Mama’s Kitchen Blues) reached the final in both the British Blues Awards (Kevin Thorpe Award for the Best New UK Blues Song) and the People’s Music Awards (Best Pop/Rock Song) She won the WRC Award “Best Acoustic Performance of 2011” and 2012 saw her nominated for Best Female Vocalist in the British Blues Awards.      (Clare-Free / Photo by Marie-Dominique Fache)

In February 2012, Clare released her second album "Dust and Bones", again all tracks were written by Clare and the album recieved excellent reviews in the press in Europe and the USA. The next three years saw Clare tour extensively playing up to 100 dates a year both solo and with her band in the UK and Europe. In 2015 Clare released the single 'Sniper Fire' which, again, saw excellent reviews. Then, in November 2015, Clare and her husband David, welcomed their third baby. She has been featured in Guitar and Bass Magazine, PlayMusic Magazine, Gear Magazine, Blues in Britain, Blues Matters, Classic Rock Blues, Blue Monday Monthly (USA), Blues News Norway, and more. On top of this she's made countless live radio appearances. Her new album is getting closer and will be released in the autumn 2018.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

If we are talking about the blues people and culture of today, I would say I have learnt to believe in myself from them. I started my guitar playing career at a blues jam session and those guys could play so much better than I could, but they nurtured me, and even though I was a terrible player at this stage, they made me feel I could one day be a great player.

I have also learnt how lucky I am. If I go and listen to some old blues I can hear how tough it was for those guys, not just as musicians but at citizens too. I was lucky enough to have been born at a time, and in a place, where a decent education was something everyone had and the future was a lot more certain for me growing up than I imagine it must have been for the old blues stars in their early years. Looking at the instruments the old blues guys played, and the simplistic recording devices, I learnt that music does not have to be played on a fancy guitar, but that it comes from the heart, and from experience. Music comes from the soul and no amount of expensive gear can bring that, that comes from the inside.

What does the blues mean to me? Well, it means a huge variety of things. It means soul searching, gut wrenching music that makes my heart cry out. Blues now crosses so many genres that its hard to define what is ‘blues’ today but for me its about the ‘realness’ of the music.  That it comes from the heart and that it has a ‘bluesy feel’ about it, which is hard to define but I think it comes from the artists soul.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

A few years ago I would have confidently said I was a blues artist and nothing else, now I have so many influences from folk, rock and country, as well as the blues that I would define my sound as ‘blues based’ rather than as ‘blues.’ As a songwriter, I am influenced by a huge range of genres and artists. I adore blues and always have so my writing tends to be influenced most by the blues classics, which, of course, means that I have plenty to please blues fans on the album that I am recording later this year. That said, I am a real fan of choruses, and simple 12 bar blues doesn’t technically incorporate what I think of as a ‘chorus’ so in some songs I am letting the blues feel shine through but adding a chorus which really works for the way I write.

My creative drive is a part of me, I was born to write songs. I didn’t play much for a couple of years as I had a baby but I was itching to get back out and playing again.  If I didn’t write songs I would loose a part of myself that is part of the way I define myself. Songwriting is as much a part of me as my arms, head, hair and so on.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?                       Photo by Rob Stanley

I have been lucky enough to spend time playing with some of the best musicians in the world and they have shown me the levels of proficiency, skill and professionalism that I aim for. 

That said, its the people who I had around me in my formative years as a guitarist who’s advice and teaching I still carry with me to this day. I had a wonderful teacher called Pete Sherburne for a while and he gave me the best advice ever, which was ‘learn to play everything exactly like the original, then go on and make it your own.’ This was wonderful advice, as it meant I learnt songs properly right from the beginning and have me a wide bank of artists styles to draw from. Pete introduced me to  the film producer and actor Randall Paul, who is himself the most phenomenal guitarist. One day Randall showed me how to play funk guitar and that was it, I was hooked. To this day I have a funk sound to a lot of what I do and this is all down to one day in Pete’s living room.

Another piece of advice that I carry with me at all times is Constance Redgrave’s advice to ‘never write a lyric just for the sake of it, write it because you mean it.’ This is brilliant advice. I am a very fussy lyric writer and I keep this in mind whenever I am writing, I take great care over the words of songs so they really mean something to me.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have had so many amazing experiences out on the road but I think one of the most moving moments was when I was playing a song of mine called ‘Small Miracles’ which is about having a baby against all the odds. In the front row were two women who started to cry, I could see the tears rolling down their cheeks. I thought ‘Oh no, I have hit a nerve and they are upset that I am singing this song.’  As I played I felt more and more guilty as their tears kept flowing.

When I finished the song they got up from their seats, even though I was in the middle of the show and came rushing up to me with a mobile phone. I thought they might tell me how much I had upset them but quite the opposite, they started showing me pictures of a tiny baby who from their family, and who had made it against all the odds. The were tears of happiness and they had absolutely loved the song. I think when you can touch people’s souls like that it is a wonderful thing.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think music is a continually evolving artwork and, although looking backwards its easy to see that we no longer have some incredible artists with us I do not think it is right to miss what we no longer have, but, to appreciate how much we have learnt from the musicians who went before us, just as they learnt from those before them and the developing new musicians are learning from us now.

I am continually astounded by the quality of music being released today, some of it is simply fabulous and I love to see ‘proper’ bands writing and releasing fantastic new music. There is a tendency to say that nobody writes a good song anymore but I don’t think that is true. There are some brilliant writers working today and these are the people who will influence the future generations. Its great to see that blues, and other genres, have not stagnated or stood still but that they have continued to develop and flourish.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from the music industry and circuits?                        Clare Free / Photo by Rchard EcclestoneS

I have learnt to be tough and persistent. Nothing of value comes overnight and you have to work very hard for every gain. You have to really be as good as you possibly can be, and you must not be lazy. I have also learnt to be realistic. When I first started playing I had the idea that success was somehow linked to fame, and recognition and, in some ways, I suppose I still hold that opinion but, I have also learnt that ‘success’ is in the eye of the beholder. For me, ‘success’ means that I have worked into a position where making a living from the music I feel so passionate about is possible.  To me that is ‘successful.’ I would like more, of course, who doesn’t, but I am able to do what I am passionate about every day, and get paid for it, and I am grateful for that.

I have also learnt that there is no pot of gold in the music business and that the music business is just that, a business. Songs and artists are treated as products by the industry, this is often totally at odds with the way artists see themselves and their music. Its helpful for an artist to be able to separate the ‘art/music’ from the ‘business’ because, just because you love playing it does not mean someone will want to buy it.

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? 

It has shaped me a a person in many, many ways. The blues has been with me right from the earliest days of my playing and stays with me and shapes me to this day.   It has opened my eyes to the world, I can see lives that are nothing like mine but still we are bonded by this beautiful music that we make. It makes me feel grounded and like a part of a bigger thing. It has taken me all over the world, and introduced me to many wonderful people, and will continue to do both I hope.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I get asked this question all the time, and I still am trying to fully decide my answer to it. My wish is always that I should be judged as a guitarist/singer/songwriter and not as a ‘woman guitarist’/‘woman singer’/‘woman songwriter' as I feel that I want to be judged alongside everyone in my art, rather than just the women.

I sometimes feel like a bit of a novelty and find people occasionally say ‘wow, its amazing to see a woman play the guitar like that.’  Often I find these comments come from other women, and I think that’s because there aren’t very many women playing electric guitar seriously and to a high standard. For some reason it doesn’t seem to attract women in the same way as an acoustic guitar might, I don’t know why.Thankfully, I experience very little sexism from my professional contemporaries and the comments about ‘being amazing for a woman’ are getting less and less. I believe women are almost equal to men in music, although I know I am at odds with some people who would say they are not. I suppose it depends on your experience and background. I have been very lucky maybe.

"If we are talking about the blues people and culture of today, I would say I have learnt to believe in myself from them. I started my guitar playing career at a blues jam session and those guys could play so much better than I could, but they nurtured me, and even though I was a terrible player at this stage, they made me feel I could one day be a great player." (Photo by Marie-Dominique Fache)

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

Wow, now that’s a big question…

It certainly helped to gain social acceptance for black performers in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement and it also helped to bring the issues to the fore with songs like ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ helping society to understand the issues that were needing addressing. Blues also offered a wider voice to those members of society who were not able to attend the rallies and marches and helped by enabling them to feel involved by listening to the new blues songs on the radio.

Further, as white bands like the Rolling Stones were playing blues music by Afro-American artists, and this helped to create a segway between Afro-American culture and white culture and helped to bring common ground to these divided communities. Of course, blues has also influenced almost every genre of music we have around us today, so its also possible to suggest that anywhere that music has influenced socio-political change, blues music has been influential.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d like to spend the day with my Dad. He died nearly 5 years ago and there are so many things I wish I had asked him. I’d ask him all about his work and childhood, as well a host of other things, but in some ways what I would like to do most is just sit with him and be with him. 

He motivated me and inspired me hugely and I think all the time of what he would say to me about how I am getting on. I feel he is still with me but I would dearly love to hear his voice again, and to introduce him to his little grandson who he never met.

Clare Free - Home

Photo by Marie-Dominique Fache 

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