James McArthur has been able to combine a lifetime of self-determination with some indirect capitalisation from the mainstream industry. “I work and renovate green spaces,” explains the Wrexham-born singer-songwriter.
“I’ve worked in forestry and I renovate gardens – it’s something I do. But from that, I’ve fed the money back into the music, any spare pound.
“I’ve even done the gardens of some top executives. Not because I wanted to get to them – that’s not a scene for me – but I’ve fed that money into the record. So the music industry has funded this album, just not in the way it normally does. It’s like I cleaned the money in a brook and it was drinkable in the end.”
Such are McArthur’s creative and sonic principles that much of his 10-year recording history has either been in extremely limited editions, or still sits on reels in a cupboard. But after the promise of the Lawn Order EP, he and the Head Gardeners (Johnny O and Jim Willis) have delivered Strange Readings From The Weather Station, an album of chiffon-sensitive delights that nods to its folk antecedents with a contemporary touch.
For one particular tune, I might have moved 20 tons of soil.
“I grew up in the hills, with very little in the way of everything,” he says, “but I’m not dismissing that in any way because your imagination develops as a result. I’ve had the weird luck that musicians are always into what I do, but because I haven’t put myself out there that much, the industry doesn’t really know much about me.”
Respectful of the Renbourns and Martyns of the late-1960s acoustic scene, McArthur has upgraded those influences on beautiful, diaphanous pieces, often with playful titles such as Half Cut and Spin Cycle. They’re intricately underpinned by acoustic guitar, violin, mandolin and sometimes steel guitar and piano.
“Those people were fusing jazz, blues, Eastern and English folk,” he says. “And the technology at the time brought out the prog as well. We’re now in a position where we can develop that because there’s a lot of tools around and there’s a bit of distance now too.”
Not to mention the fact that he’s every bit as much of a fan of the vintage soul sounds of James Brown and Lee Dorsey.
Fellow British prospect Samantha Whates sings on The Day It Rained Forever and there are contributions by Joel Magill and Raven Bush from modern-day Canterbury psych-prog favourites Syd Arthur. Raven being Kate Bush’s nephew, they recorded in part at her former studio, Wickham Farm in Welling. While keen not to be seen to be piggybacking on her name, McArthur does, however, remember seeing equipment from her age‑old Lionheart tour lying around the place.
Proud of his DIY philosophy, he says he’ll wait for a positive reaction to Strange Readings From The Weather Station before taking it properly live, in which case he should be touring very soon. Meanwhile, that other job has kept him down to earth in more ways than one.
“It’s taken a long time doing it this way, but I got there in the end,” he says. “For one particular tune, I might have helped move 20 tons of soil. It almost becomes like early-1900s blues, where they picked cotton and then they went off to play.”
line-up James McArthur (vocals, acoustic guitars, drums, percussion, piano, harmonica), John O’Sullivan (pedal steel), Jim Willis (violin, mandolin) sounds like The late-1960s pastoral folk scene with a system upgrade current release Strange Readings From The Weather Station is out now on Moorland Records website www.jamesmcarthurmusic.co.uk