Gravity Serpent turned up to see rakish troubadour Toby Parker perform at Ledbury’s lovely Shell House Gallery. The event was a festive affair with mince pies, mulled wine by the ladle and music and art in plentiful enough supply to satisfy the hungriest eyes and ears. Toby rattled through a strong set of songs from his new self-titled EP with a confident command of his instrument and echoes of Robert Johnson and his beloved Bob Dylan. Gallery owner David Savager was called up on a couple of occasions for cowbell duty, but most of the time Toby played any percussion one man band style with a foot tambourine or good old fashioned stomping. The finale was a rendition of Fairytale of New York with one of the other singers from the night, who had previously poached the song for his own set. We are glad they were coaxed by the crowd into playing it again.
After the gig he was good enough to talk to us about busking and the blues…
Gravity Serpent: Hi Toby.
Toby Parker: Hello.
GS: Thank you for the gig, very much enjoyed it. Good to hear the new songs
TP: Thank you
GS: What’s your favourite key?
TP: Probably G. I think it’s a lot of people’s.
GS: Notice you play a lot of what people call the blues. Could you tell us what the blues is?
TP: I think the blues really explores emotions. The songs are about the grey areas people have, jealousy, anger and sadness. It explores the bits imbetween.
GS: Do you think there’s a sort of strength in it? From the bottom of the well so to speak.,,
TP: Yes I do, and it certainly has a lot of bearing on other music. It’s the root of popular music in its modern form.
GS: What’s your favourite blues musician at the moment?
TP: I’ve been listening to a lot of Eric Clapton recently – Derek and the Dominoes, Layla and other assorted love songs. I’ve been caning that.
GS: Would you describe yourself as a troubadour?
TP: A troubadour? Well it’s slightly more flattering than a busker. In the sense of being a musician and a troubadour, you have to be flexible, and as such if somebody asks you to do a gig in Scotland in two days you can do that and that whole tradition does flow into what a modern solo musician does. I’ve been in bands before, everything’s by committee. You have to discuss it with everyone, whether something is a good idea, whether you think they’ll paint us in a good light, everything else.
GS: Do you miss being in bands or do you prefer being solo?
TP: I did feel a great sense of freedom when I decided to seriously go solo. I did reservedly perform about a year ago but I thought, I’m going to do this, because it’s what I wanted to do. I did have this ambition to be a band leader, but I didn’t feel I was technically where I wanted to be. Now if I’m in a band I could still have that option of doing the solo thing.
GS: Would you recommend being a busker as an apprenticeship for a solo recording and gigging artist?
TP: Yeah I really do. I really, really do. But you have to be careful, because busking is seen to be a money-spinner by a lot of people, and I suppose it is, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a means to an end. A lot of people identify what makes the most money, which is I suppose more muzaky stuff. I talk to ‘real’ musicians who say I made about 200 quid that day but I was really whacking out the cheese, tears in heaven on accordion or something. But I think it’s a really good apprenticeship. I did acoustic busking for a long time, which teaches you to project your voice and to play with a good energy. It makes you a lot tighter. I personally have taken quite an all or nothing approach, pursued it almost bloody mindedly and busked for less than minimum wage. I wouldn’t ask everyone to do that but you do get the practice in. People say you have to have another trade, be a teacher or something, it’s scary to some people but you can just go out on the street and play, make a living.
GS: What do you hope next year will bring for you as a musician?
TP: I want to get into a band situation again, and I want to travel round more. I’ve been very local. Going to towns is great fun but it’s unsustainable. I went to London in October and I got my travel paid but you can blink and be swindled in London. You’re always out of pocket. If you’re out of pocket you’re really fucked because you don’t earn that much to begin with.
GS: Well Toby, thanks for talking to Gravity Serpent and we wish you all the best with your ambitions for 2013.