Who are my real influences?

Added on Monday 28 Feb 2011

I've been thinking about who and what has influenced my music. Many of the writers who reviewed my latest album wrote with great confidence of the artists I was 'clearly influenced by'; but the things is, they were wrong. It seems that if your voice sounds a bit like someone else's - then that artist is cited as an influence; apparently my music has been influenced by Johnny Cash, Lloyd Cole and Leonard Cohen; because I've got a deep voice and I'm a bit wordy at times.

I don't consciously try to sound like, play like or write like anyone else; however - like every musician who has ever lived - I'm clearly influenced by the artists and songwriters that I've listened to or played the songs of.

So what's in the mix that has lead me to write the songs I do, play the guitar the way I play it and sound the way I do?

The following accounts are the people and events my brain is throwing up in response to this question; it could be that it's suppressing influences to protect myself, or to throw both of us of the scent.

Tom Waits

Tom Waits has been a songwriter, artist that I've listened to since the 70s - starting with his first piano driven 50s hobo act - through to his re-invention as a clanging hoarse junkyard poet (Swordfishtrombones). As an aside, I met Tom Waits in Edinburgh after a gig he played at the Playhouse in the 1980s; it wasn't quite the momentous occasion that it sounds; he asked me if I knew a good place to go for a late drink. Not being from Edinburgh I had no idea. The personal relationship between me and Tom started and finished right there.

Guitar playing

The events, books and players who taught me guitar but are now 'hidden in the mix' of my style are:

  • Classical guitar playing. I first started to learn guitar (I was about 13) on a nylon strung classical guitar; I learned from a book on classical guitar playing. I still have the tendency to play the odd arpeggio or a random flamenco influenced lick.
  • A book on 'rock rhythm guitar playing' that I can't remember the name of; it taught me how to 'strum' in lots of different rhythms and added a very distinctly sharp staccato to my playing style.
  • Wilko Johnson; as a teenager I learned every one of his guitar parts from the 1976 Dr Feelgood's live album 'Stupidity'. Chunk, chunk, chaunka - 'Back in the night'.
  • Steve Forbert; similarly I learned almost every guitar lick on every song from Steve Forbert's 1978 album, Alive on Arrival. Lots of G, Am and D stuff.
  • Big Bill Broonzy and lots of the finger-picking blues players from the 30s and 40s. I couldn't play the complex blues picking of those old guys but because I listened to so much of it, it seeped in to whatever part of my brain that stores musical styles - and it is now seeping out again when I play the guitar. In general the simplicity of the blues has influenced my songwriting and taught me about building and resolving musical tension.
  • The Beatles and the Stones; I learned a lot of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs as a very young teenager; I wasn't trying to learn the style of any particular player (I wouldn't have known who played what) but playing their songs taught me the logic of their chord structures and the way they put their songs together; I'm influenced now in as much as if I play anything that reminds me of one of their chord structures I try to avoid it; because I'm so familiar with it, it sounds like a cliche.
  • Punk and Garage bands; my playing in bands consisted of me playing fast - with lots of bar chords and bits of chords half-way up the guitar neck combined with open strings; I did this while swinging my arm about theatrically. I'm still trying to figure out how that translates to playing the acoustic guitar.
  • The Carter Family; most recently my guitar playing has been influenced by Maybelle Carter; as I've been playing quite a few Carter Family songs.

The Punk Era

Punk music was the music of my teenage years and like many teenagers at the time I wasn't just a fan I was part of the Punk 'movement'; bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, PIL, The Rezillos, Siouxsie & The Banshees and later bands that had punk attitude like The Jam and Adam and the Ants.

The first band I played in was a punk band and all the bands I've played in since have been influenced in some way by the attitudes of the punk period. I'm still not keen on long guitar solos and I struggle at times to connect with delicate, quiet and reserved playing styles.

Punk taught me to play fast energetic music; so I struggled to play slowly when I started playing solo acoustic; it has taken me a couple of years to slow down.

It also taught me to jump about on stage; but that doesn't work in the folk clubs for an artist playing an acoustic guitar.

I'm fond of the 'do it yourself' attitude; which was part of punk; so no need to use a studio if you can record your album yourself (not that that is unusual now; it's become the default approach).

However I've no desire to listen to punk music now; it was the music of my youth and I'm not a nostalgic person. I wore a 'Denis the menace' style top when I was a punk; and I don't wear that now either.

Piano players

Piano players have influenced my guitar playing. I loved a lot of piano playing when I was young; anyone who had the New Orleans swing; people like Professor Longhair or Dr John - or could play barrel-house blues or stride piano. The rhythm of the piano players influenced my songwriting and the rhythms I play on the guitar.

Singing

There are a lot of styles that I think have influenced the way I sing (or don't sing); the crooners (including Frank Sinatra), Elvis, Edwyn Collins, old time American country and blues players, dramatic 'European' sounding singers like Jacques Brel and the pop singers of the 60s and punk 'anti-singing' style of Johnny Rotten.

I sang 'Blue Christmas' a few years ago in the Ettrick in Old Kilpatrick - and was told by an admittedly drunk audience member that I sang 'better than Elvis'. Clearly I don't believe that but I've been waiting for the day when I can tell someone about that compliment; and this is as good a time as any. :-)

So there you go - that's as much as I can remember right now; the people, books and music that have actually influenced me rather than those people that I 'sound a bit like'.

And this influence thing goes on; I continue to learn and be changed by the music I listen to and the cover songs I learn. At the moment I'm listening to a lot of old time country music and American and British folk. These styles are coming out in the songs I'm writing.

Thinking about what I'm writing at the moment I notice another influence I haven't mentioned and that is 20s and 30s Jazz; of the sort of that Louis Armstrong would be playing trumpet in.

I could go on for ever; there will never be a time when there isn't great music to listen to, learn from and be influenced by; this continual discovery of new music is a joy in itself.

Check out my new album, Every Day is Sunshine, to hear how what all these influences add up to.

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What the critics said about 'Every day is sunshine' by Jim Byrne.

  • "a heady and exotic mix. " Q Magazine.
  • "..full of cinematic turns of phrase, dressed up in alluring melodies delivered by some of the most respected players on the modern-day Celtic Folk scene." UNCUT
  • Album of the week on Celtic Music Radio
  • Added to 'God's Jukebox' on Radio Two Mark Lamarr show
  • "A beautifully produced collection of Americana" The Daily Record. Four Stars
  • "Great record... a complete, compelling listen. ", Adam Levy (Songwriter/artist, guitarist with Nora Jones)
  • "ten beautiful, atmospheric songs..", Folk, Blues and beyond
  • "a fresh, original album", Eilidh Patterson (singer songwriter, vocalist with Beth Nielsen Chapman)
  • Sounding like Johnny Cash never left Folsom prison...meditations on life that'll soon sound like old friends. Spiral Earth

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