Q&A with UK musician Clare Free - passionate songwriter, fabulous singer, guitarist, as well as an exceptional performer

"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. 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. 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. Considered by many to be the finest blues guitar songstress in the UK today, with three internationally acclaimed albums, numerous international tours, international press coverage and airplay on stations all over the world there is good reason why Clare is so highly regarded. Multi award nominated in The British Blues Awards, The People's Music Awards and winner of the WRC 'Best Acoustic Performance' Clare is a passionate songwriter as well as an exceptional performer. Sublime blues guitar songstress, Clare Free, is back after seven years with a brand new album, “Where Are You Now?” (March 2020). Having taken a break from recording to raise her youngest child, “Where Are You Now?” is her first release since her acclaimed “Dust and Bones” album in 2012. “Where Are You Now?” was recorded at The Barn Studios. Suffolk. The album was produced and mixed by Richard Flack, engineered and co-produced by Bob Kidby and mastered by Frank Arkwright at Abbey Road Studios.

Interview by Michael Limnios                      All Photos by Mike Glasson

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.

"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 Mike Glasson)

How do you describe 'WHERE ARE YOU NOW?' sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

The album is a mixture of old tracks being revisited and brand new songs. Overall it has a richer, more commercial sound to the music than my previous albums. I worked on the tracks with the aim of making them have a wider appeal than previous albums have had. Richard Flack, who’s credits include Robbie Williams, Tina Turner, Olly Murs and many others, produced and mixed the album and which tracks went onto it was his decision. All the songs are my own and he chose the ones he felt would have the widest appeal. Songwriting is very important to me.  In many ways, I see myself as songwriter first and foremost. I’d been working on tracks for the album for some time before I met Richard. I like my songs to be truthful and have real meaning behind them rather than just writing some words for some music. People always comment on the lyrics, so I guess that shows!

What would you say characterizes your new album in comparison to other previous works?

This is a stronger, more varied album than my previous releases. The sound to it is richer and has more depth and the vibe of it has more guts. I love the previous albums but Where Are You Now? is the best music I have ever created, and I am immensely proud of it. Its great to record an album and finish it knowing, for certain, that you could not do better.

Are there any memories from 'WHERE ARE YOU NOW?' studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The studio, which is called The Barn, is absolutely amazing. Bob Kidby, who owns the studio co-produced and engineered the album as well as adding the fantastic blues harp to Did The Right Thing and doing all the backing vocals, is an avid collector of vintage instruments and has a stunning array of guitars, basses, amps, percussion, keyboards and everything else you could think of at the studio.

Bob, very generously, allowed me to use his vintage gear for the recordings so I was given the opportunity to play 60’s Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and many others, through the most beautiful amps and pedals. It was like being in heaven!  I don’t think I used my own guitars at all on any of the recordings because Bob has the perfect guitar for any occasion and would suggest trying this one, or that one, until we had the sound just perfect. Bob is enormously knowledgeable about sound and instruments, I thought I knew a bit, but he is an absolute expert and whatever he suggested always sounded absolutely amazing.

"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." (Clare Free / Photo by Mike Glasson)

Why do you think that Abbey Road Studios continues to generate such a devoted following?

Where Are You Now? was mastered at Abbey Road by Frank Arkwright. The studios are iconic, has such an extraordinary history and is synonymous with quality- if you work with them, you know what you are going to get is going to sounds fantastic. 

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

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.

"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." (Clare Free / Photo by Mike Glasson)

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?

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.

"The UK Blues circuit is very strong and is a real network of enthusiastic, helpful people who do all they can to make great music and to support the musicians who are making the music.  Its like a big family where everyone knows each other which is great. The local music circuit here in the East of England, is good. I live in an area that is particularly arty and there are lots of creatives here which I like. I like how the network of people all support each other." (Clare Free / Photo by Mike Glasson)

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 you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like to see music being valued more by the government and I’d like to see more support and funding for music venues. Especially those that are functioning at the grass roots levels.Right now, the venues are struggling, and I feel funding them properly to put on live music would be enormously valuable. I’d also like to see all children being given access to individual music lessons if they want them.  Music enriches lives in so many ways and many families simply can’t afford to pay for lessons. 

Make an account of the case of the blues in the UK. What touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

The UK Blues circuit is very strong and is a real network of enthusiastic, helpful people who do all they can to make great music and to support the musicians who are making the music.  Its like a big family where everyone knows each other which is great. The local music circuit here in the East of England, is good. I live in an area that is particularly arty and there are lots of creatives here which I like. I like how the network of people all support each other.

"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." (Clare Free / Photo by Mike Glasson)

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Yes, I think it is a specific genre, it has a distinctive sound although over time that sound has become more and more influenced by other music genres so you get a huge range of ‘types’ of blues existing.  A state of mind has to come into it, blues music tends to be made by a certain ‘type’ of person. Generally the creators are people who experience life to the full in all its good, and bad bits, and they bring the emotion of their life experiences to their music which means that blues has a genuine depth to it which I find to be lacking in some other music.

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

All Photos by Mike Glasson

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