Interview – Jon Bickley – Singer/Songwriter – Pagan Harvest

Pagan Harvest released their self-titled first album in December 2015. At the core of the music is a deep love of the myths and legends of English folklore, in particular those emanating from darker less travelled paths. The trio are Lawrence Reed (guitar/composer/orchestration/producer), Jon Bickley (singer/songwriter) and Steve Daymond (electric bass).

The core folk influence takes elements of progressive rock using classically influenced guitars and orchestration to subtle effect. There are no outpourings of flash virtuosity, it is not necessary. The songs and emotions they evoke are the things that really count with Pagan Harvest.

Jon Bickley is an accomplished songwriter and performer in the blues/folk genre whose lyrics stand alone as poetry. He has already released a number of solo albums. We met up in March 2016 to discuss the road to Pagan Harvest.

EARLY DAYS

Future members of Pagan Harvest first met while at school in Watford just north of London.

‘When we joined the school was called Watford Technical High School. Lawrence and Steve had known each other from childhood, both lived in Radlett. I arrived aged 14 and got to know them gradually over the next four or five years. I didn’t know about their musical history, I think Lawrence was taken around folk clubs by his guitar teacher as a prodigy. I started playing at about 14 learning T.Rex songs. I was never going to be a virtuoso and had more of an interest in how one chord led to another and suggested melody. As a child I was brought up with Charles Wesley’s hymns in church and listening to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Supremes at home, so melody was always present.’

At similar educational establishment in other parts of England there were similar musical stirrings. The music of the heart expanded to incorporate music of the head. Progressive rock was beginning to hit its stride.

‘I wrote songs as soon as I got the guitar. I had a band while at school called Apocalypse, David Bickley (my brother) on drums, Paul Blackwell on Bass, Phil Beavis on keyboards and initially Chris and Liz Lawley on vocals although after a while they left and I took over the singing. The songs were long and sounded like Pink Floyd, Gong, Led Zeppelin etc. I don’t think these early songs were necessarily expressions of anything I had to say lyrically. I was discovering the guitar and making up tunes, chord changes, riffs to stick together in a kind of collage although I didn’t really know how to link them together. The music Apocalypse produced was more about dynamics than organic songs. It was more Stravinsky than it was Gershwin! It was great fun and we were able to play all sorts of different moods.’

A growing influence though was the feel and dynamics of folk influenced rock from both sides of the Atlantic.

‘My engagement with folk started with the Californian singer/songwriters and the English electric groups of the late 60s and early 70s. Neil Young and David Crosby provided not only inspiring music but also role models. They were earnest, poetic, had very long hair and wore lumberjack shirts. I was a teenager in search of an identity and I found one. English artists I listened to were Fairport Convention, John Martyn and Cat Stevens but I think it was the acoustic work of Traffic and Led Zeppelin as much as anything that led me to where I am today. They had a kind of earthiness and darkness that was slightly outside rock’s usual palette. This feel occurred somewhere on every Led Zeppelin album and it really caught my ear.’

From a rock perspective Jimmy Page is an enormously influential musician and invested heavily in the soft whisper to thunderous roar approach in Led Zeppelin’s music. Robert Plant’s lyrics would speak of mysterious and exotic places with hints of magic. From the folk side of the equation the ritualistic connection with the seasons and English rural life is beautifully covered in the song cycle that forms the Watersons’ ‘Frost & Fire’ album. The future songwriter of Pagan Harvest was taking note and finding new paths.

‘I couldn’t quite work out where it was coming from other than organic natural European influences. Then I begin to hear it in other music outside rock such as Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch etc. I was listening to some folk music at this time but not playing my own material. The folky finger picking style came into some songs because I wrote on an acoustic at home.’

In 1976 Jon Bickley, Lawrence Reed and Steve Daymond left school and went their separate ways into the world of further education and working for a living. It was to be 35 years before they were all in the same room together again.

By this time Lawrence was living in Bath (south west England) but frequently working in London and made contact with Jon. Over a few drinks they discovered they had both recently read Rob Young’s ‘Electric Eden’ and felt similarly drawn to the English rural folk culture and pagan rituals.

Steve was a working musician in various bands around Bristol and had always been a lot more than ‘just a bass player.’ He was living only a few miles from Lawrence and had kept in touch. He came in to add the pulse and the glue that holds the music together.

ENGLISHNESS

What are the traits that define the Jon Bickley view of Englishness?

‘The spirit of Englishness hovers around me in the way that a dream is different from real life. It is remembered and thought to be somehow important but is elusive and hard to describe. It is not racial or social but emanates from a sense of place. It has to do with the presence of trees, birds and animals and how their personalities and relationships create an environment and how we sense that environment. It is pagan and pantheistic. I used to live in an urban area and the atmosphere of the streets shaped how I lived my daily life. Today I live somewhere more rural with a green hill outside my window. I can sense the difference every day. All of us are influenced by where we are. We feel a sense of place in a garden or a cathedral or when the space opens up around us crossing a bridge over a river. Down the years the land has had a profound effect on the people who live here, whether they were born here or not.

Shakespeare uses the forest as a place where characters, attitudes and normal social conventions are changed by a force that would not be at work in daily life. It is a place of magic, spirits and fairies. You can learn what you need to learn, then return to ‘normal’ life transformed and equipped to go on to the next stage in your life. There is often love in Shakespeare and it is as if in order to encounter something as magical as love you have to have normality stripped away and be opened by magic to receive magic. That is the kind of thing I was reaching for in the lyrics for Pagan Harvest. The magic and romance, the invoking of the past was all meant to create a romantic fog that would cause the listener to put down their normal critical faculties and sink into the dream of Englishness. Everyday life, suffusion of magic, and socialist doctrine of helping each other is my manifesto for Pagan Harvest.’

Other writers such as Lewis Carroll, AA Milne and Kenneth Grahame come to mind as creators of this magical and quintessentially English landscape. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ is infused with Englishness. This sort of feel crops up all over English Literature.

SONGS AND COMPOSITION

Most Pagan Harvest compositions begin with Lawrence Reed’s music to which Jon Bickley adds the words, but there are alternative routes for gestation. Harrow Road was a group effort with Steve Daymond’s tune, Reed’s arrangement and Bickley’s lyrics. Damascus began life with Bickley’s lyric and a different tune that was subsequently used for Fight the Devil.

Reed writes using music software so the compositional and recording processes are sometimes as one. The backing tracks were assembled over a long period of time with supporting vocals from Debbie Hill. Bickley recorded half the vocals at a studio in Bristol with Adam Smith (an associate of Reed’s) and the rest at his own home recording facility. It is actually rare that all three musicians play together in the same room apart from occasional rehearsal.

‘The earliest songs were Fight the Devil, Damascus and Queen of the River, then there was bit of a gap to Harrow Road and The Hawthorn. Finally we had Rebecca Falls where we felt we’d made progression, it was our best song. We were quite excited about it being the song that best represented us. We were sufficiently excited to turn it into a film.

The Hawthorn deliberately sets out to undo the connection with right wing views of exclusion. I’m not writing about where you come from, it’s about what you take from the land around you. It’s nothing to do with anything unpleasant. England is enhanced by those who come here, not diminished. The sense of wonder, the sense of the Hawthorn blooming is available to anyone. The first verse talks about professions, the second alludes to different cultures coming here and experiencing the landscape. Indeed our history is one of coming and going, we are an island race, we have to trade. I was trying to say that England was a place that welcomed all people to its shores. We are all sorts and all equal, and yes we should take more refugees!

Fight the Devil was originally written for another project but didn’t make the final edit. In that story our hero enters the forest to free the maiden by slaying her captor. He could have stayed in bed.

The tune for Damascus is Lawrence’s original response to lyrics which once had a different tune now under Fight the Devil. Damascus has always been a place of radicalisation, of warring factions and religious wars. When I was taught the bible story of Saul’s conversion it was about enlightenment and liberation but it is easy to see it as a story of radicalization. This led Saul to stop the violent oppression of a group of fanatical extremists and to join them at a time when their leaders were being persecuted as criminals (terrorists?) by the occupying western imperialists.

Queen of the River is about irresistible magnetism, the lure, the attraction. The sad girl at the beginning of the song goes outside and is enlivened by the beautiful world around her ‘She raised her voice to the treetops and her heart began to rise….’ I think it’s about isolation, about separating yourself out and wallowing in misery. Then when you come out into the world of nature it calls to the pulse of life. The river has an energising current, there is a sap that rises in the trees, the sun comes up and the whole thing is pulsing with life. This particular song was written at a time when I was powerfully aware of the way perception of the world is changed by being in love. I used to commute into London and it was very grey, very dull, on a very slow Bakerloo Line train going from Harrow to Charing Cross. Then one morning the horizon was on fire, it was like the opening scenes from Apocalypse Now. To me the world was on fire, I was in love and that made everything magical. Queen of the River was written under that influence.

The words to Harrow Road are saying that our daily lives can be beset with problems (the nurse in the corner) but magic is available (soft mist in the magical wood) and maybe this is accessed by kindness (let me help you with that heavy load). Harrow Road hints that even today magic is available to anyone with an imagination and a willingness to believe. I am standing where Oberon stood, black, white, Christian, Muslim, man, woman, child, rich, poor. Magic is magic and can strike us at any time.

When I wrote Rebecca Falls I had the old English folk song Reynardine in mind. In that song a girl disappears. If that happened today the police would be called. My starting point was – where would the police look? What would happen when the detective looked in the gap between where the girl started out and the world where the fox lives? What clues would he find?’

Although you have just read Jon Bickley’s own view of his songs he has learned over the years to leave them open to a degree to give the listener a chance bring their own life to the song. In the narrative of ‘Rebecca Falls’ a missing girl, a detective and a shadowy foxlike figure seem to act out a ghostly/ghastly ritual. You think maybe you saw something out of the corner of your eye, but you’re not quite sure. Is it the ‘stone tape’ theory? Can inanimate materials absorb energy from living beings during moments of high tension and manifest that energy again and again using unfortunate passers-by as conductor? ‘Rebecca Falls’ is an eerie tale of something beyond our comprehension. Eeriness is powerful because it is carried in the unseen.

PROMOTIONAL FILMS

Pagan Harvest have made three films to date.

The ‘Damascus’ feature combines war zone footage from the city itself with stunning and vivid images of flowers and birds. The images of destruction are not particularly graphic but we see enough to feel the terrible power of those weapons. The ‘Saul’ character in the song realises the blinding light didn’t come from heaven, it was shells from hell. The awful truth is that in 21st century Syria nothing ever changes. Is there any hope?

The second film is an ambitious production based on ‘Rebecca Falls’ and directed by Jim Roper, a Bristol based film maker.

‘When it was mooted that we do a second video that would represent us as a whole it seemed Rebecca Falls was the track. Obviously the fact that it was 12 minutes long came up fairly quickly! The length though didn’t influence our choice, we felt it represented us in the best light and it would have been chosen even if it had been longer or shorter. It was our best and most original song at the time. We then had to think about how we were going to present it, after all it wasn’t your normal pop video.

We sat down with Jim and having seen some of his previous work kicked around a few ideas. He and I discussed A Field in England, The Wicker Man, and the use of chiaroscuro in Film Noir. There was quite a long debate about what I had in mind when I wrote the song. The woman I wrote as independent, strong, curious, brave, definitely a woman and not a girl. She’s perhaps a little dissatisfied with life and is exploring. I had a picture of her climbing a hill or mountain, she’s assertive, she’s running her own life, and I laboured this point with Jim. He’d previously made films where there would be a victim being chased and I said it wasn’t that. The reason I was so clear on this was that I was writing with the old English folk song Reynardine in mind.

Everybody had done Reynardine in the 60s/70s but then it the 80s it was criticised by feminists as a rape fantasy. I couldn’t quite see that. My view was that the girl and the fox were equals, yes he beguiles her, complements her, but I don’t see any coercion in the lyrics of the original song. She calls him a rake, but that to me didn’t suggest anything particularly sinister. They were two equals colluding in an affair. When I wrote my version I wanted to make sure that both sides had agency, influence and were able to express themselves and respond.

Jim cast a woman in her thirties to play opposite the fox in the film but on the day she failed to show. We then had to decide whether to press ahead using Steve’s daughter Ellie who’s a teenager or scrapping the film and do something else. We decided to go ahead with Ellie but that changed the dynamic to some degree and it’s possible to read the film as the fox chasing this ‘child’ victim. That is definitely not what I wrote. There is no criticism of Jim here, we were in a difficult situation and made a democratic decision to go ahead, but this left a gap between the song and the film.

There are lots of things in the film that I like, the dreamlike feel, using the landscape to achieve that status is pretty central to the concept of Pagan Harvest. We were able to foreground the mythological supernatural aspect but still give it enough recognition of the real world. It has a sense of the real world but you’re not quite sure, there’s something slightly dislocated about it. We didn’t want it to be totally supernatural, we wanted the dislocation and I think we achieved that. If you isolate some of the shots there is fantastic beauty. I would like to work with them again. I think you do have to look at the film as a separate piece of work because it is different from the song.’

Certainly the film is a monochrome visual treat, the influence of ‘A Field in England’ is clear to see in the way it has been shot. Jim Roper has done a great job. It’s a fair point that the girl (not yet a woman) increases the tendency to think it’s an abduction. An older more experienced woman (as per the original actress) may have not have appeared as vulnerable and the willingness to ‘go over to the other side’ of her own volition more convincing. The jury is still out on the frequent and lingering appearances of the fox. This writer likes his horror movies to scare him in the half-light via the corner of his eye!

Pagan Harvest’s third film entitled ‘Rebecca Falls – The Forensics’ was released on 23rd August 2016. Having expended a lot of creative energy on the ‘Rebecca Falls’ song and film there was a desire to make a mini documentary about the influences behind the song, how it was constructed, and the contributions of the individual musicians. It was produced by a new team and combines the feel of the ‘Classic Albums’ TV series and Melvyn Bragg’s ‘South Bank Show.’

THE FUTURE

Are there any plans for Pagan Harvest to play live? Certainly there would have to be other players involved to get the music across.

‘I’ve always thought that we could play live, there is drama and dynamics in the music Lawrence has written which could come across well on stage. I think Lawrence and Steve would want to get as close as they can to the original recordings. I would be keen to explore other arrangements involving minimal additional players to make the staging more manageable and throw up some creative new ideas. We are at the beginning of thinking about this so it is early days and who knows where it will take us.’

How much material do you have? Is new material evolving?

‘We have other songs that didn’t make it onto the album and we’ve started recording a second album. When we are together we do work well, but I guess we don’t get together often enough. We move at a stately pace! It’s sometimes difficult balancing the band with other commitments, we do all have full time jobs and families, as well as musical side projects.’

Where can we find the album?

‘It was self-funded and Lawrence designed the sleeve. It is available via the French Musea Parallele distribution.’
Go to http://www.musearecords.com/ext_re_new_catselect.php?np=41401

Further information: Pagan Harvest Website: http://www.paganharvest.com
Rebecca Falls Official Music Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7KsGTgD0MU
Rebecca Falls – the Forensics : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwKN_jPvfoA

Advertisements