Jez Lowe, English folk singer and songwriter and member of The Pitmen Poets chats with Kevin Cooper about how The Pitmen Poets got together, working with Billy Mitchell, their latest album More Black Diamonds and their current tour of the UK
Jez Lowe is an English folk singer and songwriter, who was born and raised in County Durham, in a family with Irish roots. He is known primarily for his compositions dealing with daily life in North-East England, particularly in his hometown of Easington Colliery. He performs both as a solo artist and with his backing band, The Bad Pennies. In addition to singing, Lowe accompanies himself and The Bad Pennies on guitar, harmonica, cittern, and piano.
He is also involved with The Pitmen Poets which includes ex-Lindisfarne singer and songwriter Billy Mitchell, renowned singer and instrumentalist Bob Fox, and leading exponent of Tyneside song Benny Graham. Individually and collectively they celebrate the triumphs, tragedy, humour and hard times of North-East England’s coal mining tradition in an evening of music, song and spoken word, illustrated by atmospheric archive photography.
Whilst currently touring the UK with The Pitmen Poets, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Jez, how are you?
Hi Kevin, I’m very well thank you and it’s good to hear from you.
Before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
No problem, it’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?
Well, we have just started The Pitmen Poets tour and from what we hear it sounds as though the weather may be a little grumpy for us (laughter). We have all been busy over the Christmas period so we have been looking forward to getting back out on the road.
Let’s not think about the weather and swiftly move on to The Pitmen Poets (laughter). Just how did the four of you get together?
Well, we were kind of bought together really. The four of us have known each other for many years now. We have previously worked together over the years; never as a quartet but most definitely together over the years in dribs and drabs. Probably about six years ago we were asked to do a show down in London at The Kings Place which had recently opened. They wanted us to do a show of North Eastern coal mining songs, stories and poems. At that time there was an art exhibition at The Kings Place of The Pitmen Painters. Did you ever hear about that?
Yes I did, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoyed the TV programme about The Pitmen Painters that was presented by Robson Green.
That’s good then, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. If you recall the show The Ashington Group was a small group of artists who originated from Ashington, Northumberland. They would regularly meet between 1934 and 1984. The great thing about The Pitmen Painters is that despite being composed of miners with no formal artistic training, the Group and its work became celebrated in the British art world of the 1930s and 1940s. Well, the exibibiton of The Pitmen Painters was happening at The Kings Place at the same time that we were asked to play there. There was also a theatre production of The Pitmen Painters and it was all happening at the same time. Then on top of all of that we were asked to do a musical thing to it just as a one-off.
So we did the show in London which seemed to go down really well, and then we did it at The Sage in Gateshead, again as a one-off and it has just simply grown over the past few years. Of course it is always so dependent upon just how busy we are individually with our own different things.
Is it all new material or is there material that you have sourced from way back?
Originally the idea was for us just to do all of that old material; the traditional stuff of the Tyneside writers and the County Durham writer’s such as Tommy Armstrong. We had intended to just use the coal mining community material that was available, but to be fair very little of it is actually about coal mining itself. It is more about the shenanigans that went on in the villages and the people themselves (laughter). So that is what we were going to do but of course I have got lots of songs already because coming from a coal mining community myself I already had my original stuff so we used my original songs together with Billy Mitchell’s coal mining songs as a kind of framework to hang the rest of the older stuff on. So it is very much a mixture now. We start and end with modern stuff whilst scattering the traditional stuff in there as we go along.
You have mentioned the fact that you are from a coal mining heritage. Is that what bought you to The Pitmen Poets and the music?
Yes, I would have to say that it was. However, you have to remember that it was not only the mines; it was the shipyards and the steelworks up here. There were a lot of songs and a lot of music written about that together with a lot of theatre. So even though when I first started playing around the folk clubs, I was probably doing the same as everyone else; Irish songs and Bob Dylan songs, that sort of thing. But I was naturally drawn to the more familiar subjects, such as the coal mining. Plus they were very political times when I was first starting out during the Margaret Thatcher era. For me it felt good to be able to kick against something like that; that is what got me fired up. I think it fired up the others too although that would be slightly earlier as the others are all older than me.
Living here in Nottingham I saw first-hand just what Mrs Thatcher, her government and the strike did to the miners. Lots of families still haven’t spoken to each other since 1983. It devastated the rural communities.
Yes it did, and in fact that is something that we try to put across in the show. It was never cut and dry or even a question of bad and good, it is just that the way that it happened was simply tragic.
Without getting too political, what I find offensive is that you can take away tens of thousands of peoples jobs with the swipe of a pen, pay them benefits whilst still importing coal from the other side of the world at a massively subsidised rate.
I know, it’s a real insult. Every few days boat loads of coal come into Newcastle via the Tyne. It makes no financial sense whatsoever.
Swiftly getting back to the tour. Are you looking forward to getting back out there on the road?
Yes I am, it really is a lot of fun out there both on and off stage. What we emphasise is that the stage show is not a lecture in English history; it is an entertaining ride through the past with a hell of a lot of comedy involved. It has that music hall feel which is a Tyneside tradition. And then off stage as well, we all get along; it is a laugh a minute really (laughter). I personally play and sing with lots of different people and have lots of different projects on the go at any given time, but the one thing that I have to say about The Pitmen Poets is the vocal thing and the harmonies once we get going. It reminds me of the Canadian band The Band who used to back Bob Dylan. It’s like that Levon Helm and Richard Manuel harmony vocal thing. That is how it feels to me and I really do get a buzz off of that.
I have to say that I am amazed that you can actually keep Billy (Mitchell) under control for the duration of a ninety minute gig (laughter).
The secret to that is that we just let him go (laughter). If we all tried to be as funny as Billy then it just wouldn’t work (laughter). If we all tried to be as active as he is then it would just be a mess. So if he gets on a roll we just let him go. We just sit back and laugh with him like the audience does (laughter).
I have been playing your recently released second studio album More Black Diamonds and I have to say that I think that it is a great body of work.
Well thank you. We recorded the album in just one day, which is just how I like it (laughter).
I have to ask you, just how far do you think that you can take The Pitmen Poets?
Well, that’s the question. Once this thirty-two date tour is finished, we are all going to be really busy with other stuff. So to date, there are no firm plans for us to do anything for a good while. I have to say that question does cross my mind; would we be flogging a dead horse if we kept on doing it. However, saying that, you have to remember that there is a whole host of material. We have barely touched the source of the material in the North East never mind from elsewhere. Whether or not the audiences will be in to it time and time again, I don’t know. We will see what the reaction is this time. Certainly on the last tour it was obvious that people wanted us to come back and do it again. We will just have to see what happens this time around.
The album has received nothing but praise. The people just can’t get enough of it.
As long as they know what we are doing We are not saying that coal mining was fabulous, in fact it was a terrible way to earn a bloody living (laughter). But it is about the songs; the songs represent a struggle that everybody, no matter what their jobs were or are. In a working class way there has been struggles, and some of them continue to struggle. And that is why we are doing it, we want the people to rally round the songs, which is what we all feel.
Do the four of you write or is that all down to you?
Well it is mainly me (laughter). It is mainly my stuff with a few of Billy’s which he did for a project probably about ten years ago now, which I believe was called The Northumbrian Songbook. Benny Graham also writes but Bob Fox doesn’t write at all. Benny has written a few and we do a couple of his, but the bulk of the new stuff for the band is mine.
Hasn’t there been a few subtle changes to the songs for the tour?
(Laughter) yes there have. For example, I have rewritten the song Black Diamonds for this tour and rather than me sing the whole thing as I always have done, I have given everybody a verse. That is what we usually do with all of my stuff; they are the ones where you will find us swapping vocals, and doing a verse each. That is generally what happens otherwise it would just be me singing the whole thing which simply would be right.
On that subject I have been listening to your last solo studio album The Ballad Beyond and I have to say that I love it.
Well thank you, that’s great.
On that note Jez let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great. Also I should tell you that I am looking forward to photographing and reviewing the show at The Palace Theatre, Mansfield on Sunday 12th February. You take care and good luck with the tour.
Really, that’s great Kevin. Make sure that you come up and say hello. Give me a shout and I will take you round to meet the rest of the motley crew (laughter). Thank you very much. You take care of yourself and I will see you very soon. Bye for now.