In an industry where it's increasingly hard for even the best artists to stand out, this Spring sees the start of a project that's bringing a select group of singer-songwriters to audiences in a slightly different way...
Greg Hancock and Alex Seel, both accomplished and respected musicians and songwriters in their own right, have created a series of concert dates with a difference. In each location they will team up with a third songwriter and perform in the Songwriters Circle format whereby rather than dividing the gig into sets, the artists take it in turns to sing songs.
Katie Whitehouse, founder of fromthewhitehouse.com, talks to Greg Hancock about the project:
Katie: So Greg, do you want a cup of tea, or would you prefer a beer?
Greg: These days more likely to be tea, pleaseâ€¦. Until later in the day! I'll still have some sugar though, please...
Katie: So, how did you first get into songwriting, and what would you say drives you as a songwriter these days?
Greg: I've always done it. I got my first guitar when I was about 11 and quickly found that I just didn't want to play it the way my teacher said. From the start I never wanted to learn existing tunes, I just played around until something came into my head. These days I feel less driven than I was when I used to write two or three finished songs every week. I am happy with half a dozen a year now. The method is still pretty similar thoughâ€¦. Mess around with the guitar until something happens. I don't usually set out to write about something in particular but mainly find that things that have been in my mind come through anywayâ€¦. Lots of stuff about ageing parents recently!
Katie: What is the Circle Tour, and how did you come up with this idea and format for your tour?
Greg: I had been to a couple of concerts in this format and really enjoyed them. There are not many individual artists who can hold my full attention for the entire length of a typical gig and the variety offered in a songwriters circle is really inspiring to me. I had already decided to try to get some gigs together for a short tour in 2019 and was looking for a selling point that got away from the notoriously difficult "Relatively unknown older bloke with guitar" thing that can be hard sell! So I did four or five gigs in this format with different people and they seemed to go down really well, with many audience members making a point of how they had enjoyed comparing and contrasting styles and techniques, and also the spontaneous banter between the artists.
Katie: What stands out for you from those gigs?
Greg: It's a great feeling to be sharing the stage with some of the musicians I most admire whether they are known only locally or further afield too. It means I get to go to a gig as well as perform in one and from the stage it's great to observe the audience reaction to the other musicians. A few highlights from last year that come to mind were watching mouths fall open as Adam Sweet unleashed some of his blues riff playing in Wiveliscombe, eyes widening when people hear Sarah Yeo's voice for the first time in Churchinford, and the gorgeous moment of silence before the applause after Alex Seel performed "Take This Guitar" in London. Last year we often finished with all three artists playing "May You never" by John Martyn togetherâ€¦ not always with a shared idea of tempo, key or chord structure! It was always a laugh though!
Katie: Before having the idea of the Circle Tour, how hard have you found it to get gigs as a solo artist?
Greg: It's the part of the job I find very disheartening and demotivating. Locally, there are almost no venues interested in artists playing original material, and few places that have a "listening audience". Across the country there are more suitable places but a huge number of equally amazing artists competing for gigs, and venues obviously are less willing to take a punt on an unknown when they can choose a well-tried favourite who will be more likely to pull people in. Negotiating your own fee, and try to convince someone that they should book you is also hard to do alone. It's much easier to pitch something that is more like a "show", that involves variety and perhaps also allows for the venue to have an input about the third musician. Like many others, I also have a full-time dayjob which makes travelling distance an issue - as well as the obvious issue of making enough money to live on. The dayjob means I no longer have to do the "daily grind" gigs in the corner of a noisy pub singing covers that I used to hate. The number of solo artists who can really make a living just from music is very small. Most do teaching and session work as well as their own projects to make ends meet.
Katie: Why did you pick Alex to do the Circle Tour with you?
Greg: I first met Alex at an open mic night in Exeter, where he had to wait until right at the end they squeezed him in! He knocked me sideways with his playing and I then invited him to play at an Oxjam event I was organising. We bumped into each several times and I think we recognised in each other someone who had similar aims with music, although very different influences and approaches. He is more London based and we had often discussed the problem of getting suitable paid gigs even in the capital, so he was the first person that came to mind when the idea for songwriters circles first started bubbling about in my mind.
Katie: Did you have any particular criteria for choosing the third artist?
Greg: Last year, I wanted to work with some local artists that I really admire, and try to use the format to introduce them to different audiences, with the Dr Evil plan that it would also enable me to reach some of their followers and fans too! Sarah Yeo and Adam Sweet were first picks as I thought the three of us would really offer a huge variety whilst appealing to similar audiences. Steve Dagleish and Alex and I had done a one-off gig together in 2018 and we thought it would be a good combination for London. I also tried to choose artists that lived in places where they might have a following but I didn't - for obvious reasons! In a few cases this became a sort of "Me, my mate and my mate's mate" line up as I got Steve Pledger to set up a gig in Durham and then he suggested Sam Slatcher as the third artist. It was a similar idea with the one that you and I did together with Steve Jenner in his home village! For this year, I approached a wider mix of people that I have got to know, or at least know about, more recently. Maaike Siegeriest is an exceptional songwriter who works much more from a jazz perspective than a folk one, and so offers another facet to the mix. Sarah Hayes (AKA Tennyson's Twin) similarly brings a warmth and emotional intensity to the show. Madeleine Harwood â€¦ well - once heard, never forgotten! We met at the Busk Love Festival two years ago and I have been trying to find a way to work with her since then!
Katie: Did you approach any of your heroes? Who ARE your heroes?
Greg: Well there are different levels of heroes I suppose! And there are different levels of success and fame tooâ€¦ many of the people I am completely in awe of are totally unknown outside the rather small clique of people who listen to contemporary acoustic songwriting! Age has made me much less shy and much more resilient to rejection so I asked people who I thought might be interested in the idea and that I thought would fit in well with the format. Some of those are certainly artists that I personally rank very highly in the genre - Tobias Ben Jacob is one of the most interesting songwriters and mesmerising performers I know, Chris Cleverley too. I didn't hesitate to ask, but was very chuffed when they agreed! I will also get to perform with some artists that I don't know very well personally but have come to admire enormously like Henry Parker, Minnie Birch and Odette Michell.
Katie: Do you enjoy performing live?
Greg: Yes, I do enjoy it and I enjoy looking forward to it too, although solo gigging can be a lonely experience sometimes. I don't suffer from bad nerves these days, which helps. I've become more relaxed about people not liking what I do, as well. I don't like a lot of other music - so why should everyone like mine? Again, the songwriters circle format takes a lot of the pressure off too. If they don't like my stuff particularly, they will hopefully still have a good evening! I concentrate on trying to make music that I want to listen to!
Katie: Where are you taking the tour and how did you choose venues?
Greg: This year we are mainly concentrating on Southern England. From the Westernmost point in St Just, Cornwall to the Eastern coast in Deal. Kent. There's naturally a cluster around the South West where I have more contacts and three different dates in London. The outlier is a gig in Queensbury, near Halifax which we are very excited about as that's where we get to perform with Henry Parker - a really exceptional guitarist and arranger. It's quite spread out due to dayjob commitments. Alex and I are starting at the end of February with a house gig - Live at Thornsett Rd, and then there are a couple of other weekend dates until we really tour more intensively in the second half of March. Then there is a little cluster of gigs at the end of May and then after the summer, some more in September.
Katie: How's the tour selling? Have you had any surprises so far?
Greg: I'm trying not to think too much about that at the moment, although I've just heard that our first gig, in London, has sold out! I have asked a couple of the venues and they are happy that sales and interest seems to be picking up. It's a general problem across the music business that people seem more and more reluctant to buy their gig tickets in advance, which leaves both venues and artists feeling a bit anxious. However, there can be huge surprises - last year in Churchinford, we were expecting a nice audience of around 35. On the day it seemed like half the county turned up and we ran out of chairs in the hall! So please, if you're reading this and intending to come, do book your tickets.
Katie: What happens when the Circle is complete?
Greg: I think this is an idea that can be built on. I'd like to go further afield and further North, and reach different audiences. However, I am sure that the idea can be tweaked and developed in the future.
Katie: What three pieces of advice would you offer to other singer-songwriters wanting to tour, from your experience?
-Don't expect venues to come flocking to you. Sell yourself and be prepared for rejection - or even worse - being completely ignored.
-Be prepared to take on most or even all the financial risk. Negotiate ticket splits where possible, or agree a hire fee for the venue and take all the risk yourself.
-Do your best to make sure that if people don't come, it's not because they didn't know about it. Get the word out there as much as you can!
Katie: That sounds like sound advice Greg. I hope to see you out there, and is it late enough for that beer now?
All tour information and ticket links: www.circletour.co.uk
SAT 29TH FEB - PENGE, SOUTH LONDON - GREG & ALEX
FRI 6TH MAR - ULEY, NEAR DURSLEY - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH MADELEINE HARWOOD)
SAT 14TH MAR - CENTRAL LONDON - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH MINNIE BIRCH)
SUN 15TH MAR - GREAT TORRINGTON, DEVON - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH MAAIKE SIEGERIST)
TUES 17TH MAR - ST JUST, CORNWALL - GREG & ALEX (WITH DAVE JENKIN)
THURS 19TH MAR - MYLOR, NEAR FALMOUTH - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH TENNYSON'S TWIN)
FRI 20TH MAR - GLASTONBURY - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH SARAH YEO)
SAT 21ST MAR - STARCROSS NEAR EXETER - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH TOBIAS BEN JACOB)
SUN 22ND MAR - TAVISTOCK - GREG & ALEX
THURS 26TH MAR - DEAL, KENT - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH LUCY KITT)
FRI 27TH MAR - CENTRAL LONDON - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH STEVE DAGLEISH)
SAT 28TH MAR - QUEENSBURY, NEAR BRADFORD - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH HENRY PARKER)
FRI 22ND MAY - WIVELISCOMBE NEAR TAUNTON - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH CHRIS CLEVERLEY)
SAT 23RD MAY - EXETER - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH TENNYSON'S TWIN)
MON 25TH MAY - BATH - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH BOB GALLIE)
FRI 25TH SEPT - TAUNTON - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH ODETTE MICHELL)
SAT 26TH SEPT - BRISTOL - SONGWRITERS CIRCLE (WITH ODETTE MICHELL)