O DROM - ROMA TRAVELLER INTERNATIONAL
Volume 6 - RORY McLEOD INTERVIEWED by Doghi Calderas, NOVEMBER 2000
British 'TRAVELLING' Soul-Singer Songmaker, Storytelling
harmonica-playing, tap-dancing one-man-rhythmic-dance-band 'BLETHERS'.
How did you become a professional singer?
I never thought I could be a professional singer The first time I was
paid for enjoying myself, for doing something I loved, I thought, that's
the secret to life, I'm getting paid for doing something I enjoy, so I
am a success, I have a job! Actually the first time all I really got paid
was my tube-train fare.
Where did you start to sing?
What kind of venues types. bars or folk clubs.?
I started playing for dancing,
Some Folk clubs said I was too political or not traditional, their reaction
to me told as much, or more about their politics as it did mine.
I always joke that I'll teach my Grandma my songs
. then learn them
back off her, I can call them Traditional songs then!
Every folk club is different. Some organizers are more open than others.
I still feel a great debt is owed to Folk club organizers, who arrange,
invite, advertise and take risks for no reward but the pleasure of being
involved in such a movement
A couple of folk clubs I played wouldn't allow the audience to dance,
one promoter got very physically abusive and stroppy with someone who
was dancing, which upset me, some of the people were asking me why I was
playing in such an unfriendly place like this. I found that I was playing
to both a folk club, listening crowd and a younger more Punky or "alternative"
crowd, I'd attracted from playing at Glastonbury Festival and or, miners
benefits, or who I'd reached when supporting Michelle Shocked.
Some clubs were very small, but they let everyone in, so that it was big
crowd, and it started getting uncomfortable for people, especially those
who felt their folk club had suddenly been overrun and changed ambience
for a night. They were great steamy gigs, sweaty and the magic was created
because they were so very intimate and acoustic, no mikes.
(Some clubs I remember enjoying were The Bacca Pipes, Empress Of Russia,
I was happy, also believing this was the only way to change Folk clubs
atmosphere was from inside, by playing in them, not by turning your back
But it started to get ridiculous, people sitting on floors, folks at the
back trying to see and hear. Me losing my voice, some people wanting to
I started wanting to play bars again instead, with Microphones and PA,
not so precious, and play, again, for people to dance to as well as to
listen. I wanted to take people on a journey with my stories, inside themselves,
but also physically, singing my Dance stories, celebrate life, move around
and not feel like I was playing in some church museum, classical, precious
library concert situation all the time.
I actually wanted both. I like variety, not to play only one kind of venue.
I do not just want to play for people to dance. I want to nourish them
too, heal something, and open up. I'm not talking in a religious sense,
but I'm talking about what people, we all, want to experience directly,
to feel it, touch it. Its not just about picking up CDs in a shop and
playing it at home, but people holding instruments themselves, joining
in, being part of it all, participating, not being a tourist, standing
I still play folk clubs, but not everywhere. Because I
wanted there to be room for people to dance as well. Even in a folk Club,
I don't think of it as playing to a "Folk Club audience" "Stamp
collectors" or "Train-spotters" it is "An Audience"
whoever is there, is there and I don't like stereo-typing. To me it's
dangerous, I take everyone at face value, however they are dressed, straight,
short hair, long dread locked, trendy or not, old young, uniformed.
I couldn't get gigs in the "bigoted" or 'conservative'
folk clubs at the time, even though the audience enjoyed my songs, the
organizers didn't. I did better busking and playing at some of the country
Anyway I took off again traveling. For a couple of years and then came
Give me music outside around a fire anytime.
What kind of people come and hear you sing?
I have more than one kind of audience,
some people come to hear harp playing, Other people come to hear songs,
others politics, others dance and travel. Young and old. Some for everything,
the variety. I've had people bringing their Grandmas and mums to hear
me and I've had Grandmas and dads bringing their sons or Grandchildren.
I have played despite the audience, with them, against, but with respect,
I have always willfully, played for myself, I won't adapt what I do for
"The Big audience". I play as if it were my last gig, maybe
that is self indulgent to some people I'd play 3-4 hour gigs, because
I played for the dancers, Movement is also good for the arthritis!
But then some people come and hear me by accident too, turning up and
not knowing what they're in for. They come up to me at the end, clearly
affected and touched and moved and have been challenged and disturbed
and excited by something that is new for them. Some, in the past, have
also walked out, but that is their right.
People are always coming back to listen to a song again
and hear something else, they are quite dense songs. People come and hear
something they never heard the first time. Songs can change, depending
on how I perform them and in what context I'm singing them. It's not always
about what songs you make and sing but about how you relate to an audience,
the context, the places you sing in. The directness, an intimate relationship.
It is magical if you can make a big audience feel like they're in a living
How do you think people perceive your work?
I wanted folks to hear a song and experience a personal sense of discovery.
I just do my work. I know for some people my singing voice sounds ludicrous,
I ruined it by shouting, not singing, on the street etc, and the rawness.
I used to use my falsetto a lot more. Funny though, how my voice changes
when I'm singing lullabies and holding my 5 month old baby boy Solly,
I am singing lower and quieter, there's more resonance, I'm relaxed and
I'm trying to sing him to sleep. I am singing with a different attitude,
more tuneful and soulful in a small, darker room. I am not a choir boy,
or a "pretty" singer. But I don't care, I don't want to be.
I enjoy singing. I'm not trying to sell culture. I know I talk too much
between songs, there are stories behind each song, they are part of the
song, I suppose I'm giving background you wouldn't get just listening
to a CD, the stories are almost inseparable from my songs now, I'm just
not singing them, maybe I should sing my intros! I wish my talking at
a gig could be a conversation with the audience, Of course when I'm playing
for dancing, I'll be keeping the flow, not interrupting the flow with
talk. Back to the talking though...That's why certain kinds of "Heckling"
are welcome, questions. observations, opinions, as long as they aren't
while your singing. It's all audience participation.
Do you feel like you are part of a tradition?
Yes, I do feel that I am part of a tradition like Woody Guthrie, Hank
Williams, and George Formby, Bob Marley, Sam Cooke. Robbie Burns. Louis
Armstrong Bessie Smith., I related in some way to the experiences they
expressed. Some would say that they aren't my own cultural traditions,
but that is what I grew up with. I blame the parents! (Joke)
But as an influence, It's integral, not consciously, but it's so intertwined
an influence, something like oxygen maybe?
The Music I love to hear is nothing like the music I make and I play.
I wouldn't want to listen to my music myself, there's not enough space
in it, or enough soul and I make too many words! I think words can get
in the way of emotions in a song. So I like short, simple strong songs,
unlike a lot of my own songs. i.e. I love " A Change is gonna come"
By Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.
Hank Williams touched me, he had a way of expressing emotions, a real
magic that has never gone away. Timeless.
‘Buddy can you spare a dime’, is a beautiful Yip Harburg song from the depression. I once was given Yips phone number in South Mexico by a woman who’d worked for him, she’d heard me sing and thought he and I would get along well. I never got to New York City to meet him.
What traditions do you come from?
My traditions are from wherever I have been, traveled, who I played with,
heard talked with, I was young when I left UK. So I wasn't brought up
listening to English/British traditional music, I was ignorant of it,
I knew Woody Guthrie, Rock n Roll like Eddie Cochran's, music Hall, Bob
Marley etc. all song writers are links in a chain.
My mum and dad ran away to get married, because my Dad wasn't Jewish and
he was an Atheist. A Red.
Whatever my Traditions are what Rock and Roll my mum liked to jive to,
and What musicals my dad liked to sing in the shower etc.