INTERVIEW: Gerald Clark (The Great Divide – new album River’s Tent)

Gerald Clark
Photo credit: © Krisztian Sipos

River’s Tent is composer Gerald Clark’s second album as The Great Divide. A song sequence exploring lost time and rediscovered places, it features guests including Robert Wyatt and trumpeter Byron Wallen. AJ Dehany spoke to him from one side of the river’s tent to the other.

“It’s not a jazz album, although it has a lot of jazz influences and players on it,” says Gerald Clark, describing his new album River’s Tent. His impassioned 2013 political suite Nakba certainly was a jazz album [REVIEW]. River’s Tent is a sequence of thoughtfully-arranged, pop-influenced songs that bring together his diverse talents as a composer, producer and singer-songwriter.

“The way I like to record, it’s very old fashioned and it’s very expensive,” he says, explaining the gap since his previous album as The Great Divide, 2010’s Terra Firma. The new album was recorded with a core group of Gerald on piano with drummer Eric Young and Tim Robertson on bass, with contributions from Kairos 4tet’s drummer Jon Scott, jazz bass player Sam Lasserson, pop guitarist Neil Taylor and trumpeter Byron Wallen.

“Byron Wallen played on Nakba, so I met him on that. He’s a great guy and a great trumpet player. I didn’t wanna use any sax on the album because I think saxophone in singer-songwriter projects often pigeonholes it in an awkward way. I wanted it to reach a broader group. Some of the horn arrangements were very inspired by Brian Wilson, who uses a French horn quite a lot. Byron has this trumpet in F, which is a lower trumpet than normal, and a French horn is in F so he ended up playing those parts and that sounded lovely, particularly over the strings. His flugelhorn solo in London Reverie is beautiful.”

The centrepiece of the album is Ibrahim with vocals by Robert Wyatt. The collaboration came about in a rather sweet way. “I love Robert’s stuff and I’ve often tried to write in his style. He loved my jazz album Nakba and he sent me one of his postcards, which he’s quite famous for. I thought ‘Wow, that’s amazing. Well, I’ve got this song’. I asked him and he said, ‘Yeah, I love it, I’ll do it.’”

The album’s title is taken from TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land. It encapsulates the reflective mood of the album. “The leaves fall and they leave the frame of a tent over the river after the change of the season. There are some fairly open ’80s influences in the music. In the lyrics one of the things that links a lot of these songs is the sign of things having changed and moved on: this is how things was then… [referencing George Harrison’s “When We Was Fab”] …and this is how things are now: trying to find a way through, reflecting on the past and thinking about the present.”

The album is sequenced like a journey from darkness into light. “There’s a sense of optimism at the end, and a lot of pessimism at the beginning, and then there’s more reflective pieces in the middle.” Place and displacement permeate the album, from the poetic specificity of London Reverie and North Sea to the ambivalent nostalgia of The Wrong Place and The Gone-Away World. The opening two songs move from the wistful That Was The Life straight into the blackly humorous I’ve Been Pushing My Luck (And My Luck’s Pushed Back). He explains: “The songs are all either personal or tongue in cheek, and perhaps that’s me, that’s the way I write.”

The songs have a personal quality that is immediately relatable, but they are as much drawn from people’s lives as his own experience. The subject of Otto Quangel And The Hollywood Ten is from a novel by Hans Fallada called Alone In Berlin, and The Gone-Away World is a novel by Nick Harkaway. The Waste Land has of course spawned a whole academic industry unpacking its dimensions of the mythic and the personal.

“I think the best writing is from experience, but it doesn’t mean that it’s all your stories. Ibrahim, the song with Robert Wyatt, is a real story about a taxi driver who once took me on a journey. His parents were sending over a wife soon that he was going to marry. He said ‘I don’t wanna drive a taxi all my life. My girlfriend keeps saying that I should…’ and then he looked at me guiltily and said ‘Oh, because I do have a girlfriend’—and I said ‘How’s that gonna work out when your family sends this wife over?’ and he said ‘I don’t know! What am I gonna do?’ It was the old world and the new world and he was betwixt and bewildered – so that’s a very real story – but not about me!”

LINK: Gerald Clark’s website

Categories: Features/Interviews

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