Feature

Ian Robb and James Stephens showcase their musical camaraderie on a new album

Guitar in Woods

Declining With Thanks is the latest in a long line of collaborations between Ian Robb and James Stephens. Whether acting as producer for Ian’s trio, Finest Kind, or as bandmates in the quartet Jiig, there’s a mutual admiration between the two artists.

“James has worked with such a variety of singer-songwriters, traditional musicians, fiddlers and God knows what over the years, I think every one of them has informed his ability,” said Ian from his Ottawa home.

“It’s one of the reasons I had no hesitation in asking James to be on this project. I’ve worked with him for many years, and I know he understands where I’m coming from and my aesthetic when it comes to traditional music.”

“You trained me!” replied James from his home in Chelsea. “There was a lot of freedom because I know precisely where Ian’s coming from. Ian tends to downplay his songwriting. You’re not prolific but you’ve written very powerful songs, like ‘Homeless Wassail’ or ‘They’re Taking It Away,’ which have a strong social justice message.”

The genesis for Declining With Thanks came out of Ian’s posting of videos on YouTube.

“After doing them for a couple of months, I thought, ‘Well maybe I should just do some recording,'” Ian recounted. “I looked at some of the songs I had been learning recently, and it just kind of developed from that.”

Once Ian had recorded concertina and vocals, his thoughts turned to what James could add to the project.

“I think it’s very generous that Ian wanted to call it ‘Ian Robb and James Stephens.’ It’s really ‘Ian Robb with James Stephens,'” James interjected. “The repertoire is all you own; it’s fantastic.”

Ian replied by saying, “I think you’re much more important to this project than you may be owning up to.”

“I think I have a good understanding of what Ian was hoping to hear,” said James. “But Ian’s very open to me just trying stuff out. So it was a very satisfying process, especially during the pandemic when you’re looking for something to do. It was a real pleasure.”

Declining With Thanks features somewhat of a look back for Ian because it includes the song “Campbell The Drover,” which was the first song on the first album Ian recorded, 1976’s The Barley Grain For Me.

“That was a Folk Legacy album I recorded with Margaret Christl,” he said. “We asked Grit Laskin to sit in on that record. It was a project that was sparked by Edith Fowke, the renowned Canadian folk song collector. She recommended to Sandy and Caroline Paton at Folk Legacy that she should record myself and Margaret. Yeah, the first song on there was ‘Campbell The Drover.'”

Having emigrated to Canada from England in 1970, Ian used the opportunity of recording for Folk Legacy to pursue a deep dive into Canada’s traditional song collections.

“I wanted to look at what songs had been collected in Canada,” he said. “It got me looking at some of the great collections by Helen Creighton, Edith Fowke, Kenneth Peacock and tons [more]. It’s quite staggering when you look at the amount of material that is sitting in books. Edith was still collecting folk songs when I knew her in the early 70s.”

James Stephens’ journey to traditional Canadian folk music took a different path than Ian’s.

“It’s probably mostly due to my older brother, Peter, who’s also a musician,” he said. “He was sort of from that folk revival era. He’s nine years older than me and was at university in the 60s. I remember him bringing home albums of the Newport Folk Festival. He also lived in England for a couple of years in the early 70s. He got into the folk clubs in Bristol so then I started hearing English folk songs.”

All the while James was also listening to rock and roll and studying classical violin.

“So I have a fair breadth of musical tastes mostly due to my family,” he said.

As James mentioned earlier, Ian is a skilled songwriter, as he displays on the new album with “Daft Annie,” which he calls a “fake folk song.”

‘fake folk songs’

“I think I would find it difficult to write a song that wasn’t a ‘fake folk song’ because I’ve been so immersed in traditional song for such a long time now,” Ian said. “When I sit down and start to write lyrics or compose a tune, the influences are right there, and I can’t do it any other way. The first time I heard ‘fake folk song’ coined was by Peter Bellamy, who wrote a lot of ‘fake folk songs,’ and many of them are really good. I kind of call myself ‘a writer of old songs.’

James describes his career as a producer as something he bumbled his way into.

“I was in bands back in the 80s and 90s, going into studios, paying a lot of money and not being really happy with what happened,” he explained. “I invested in some equipment and learned that way because I wanted to find out how we could overcome the limitations of the recordings we’d been doing where we had no control. So I really learned from watching a lot of people who were more clever than I. Then it dawned on me I would be able to produce because people would start asking me to produce their albums. I’m a real collaborator. I have no ambitions to do anything really solo. I love being in bands. I love that process. That to me is really the richest part of music making.”

Making music for 25 years with Ian has been a very important part of James’ life.

“This will embarrass Ian but when I was in my 20s, starting to listen to traditional music, Hang The Piper was one of my favourite albums, and I’d listen to it all the time. Now I feel very lucky to be playing with someone who I think is one of the best folk singers of his generation. There, I said it!”

“You’re not embarrassing me,” replied Ian. “You’re just making me feel old!”

For more information on Declining With Thanks, go to ianrobb.com.

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