Interview with AYNSLEY LISTER – 29 Aug 2013

Aynsley Lister is back with his first studio album for 4 years. It’s suitably titled ‘Home’, because it’s his debut recording on his own Straight Talkin’ Records label. It also features his current tour band and is overseen by his in- house management company.

If you include his two significant contributions to the two Blues Caravan albums, ‘Pilgrimage’ and ‘The New Generation’, ‘Home’ is his 12th album in an 18 year career, which makes it all the more remarkable that he is still only in his mid 30’s.

‘Home’ is the work of a fast maturing artist who has outgrown the catch-all blues-rock label, and has chosen to focus on songs that play to his strengths of strong melodies, heart felt vocals and of course some hot licks.

Guitar fans have no need to fret, as there’s plenty of spark and intense solos, the main change is that he saves his best to emphasize the feel, mood and dynamic of a song.

‘Home’ isn’t so much a new direction, as Aynsley simply fulfilling the potential that bubbled up on his first self penned album ‘Upside Down’ and which was later given added polish by hired hands on ‘Equilibrium’.  

Pete Feenstra talked to Aynsley Lister about the new album, his influences and his career so far.

Is the album title meant to reflect your new found independence as a recording artist?

In a way, yes. There are several reasons I went for that title. After 15 years of being with outside labels and managers everything on the business side has been brought back home. Also in myself I’m the most settled and content I’ve ever been so it’s quite a personal album too artistically. It feels like after 15 years on the road everything has finally arrived where it belongs – and it feels great!

Everything in your career is now ‘in house’, including your own label. Is the musical direction of this album something you might not have been able to pursue without being independent?

For this album I just wrote what I felt and kept going until I was 100% happy with what I had. I didn’t want to rush the creative process and so the whole thing was allowed to breathe and unfold in its own time. I had an album in my head and having everything in house meant I was able to go and record exactly what I wanted the way I wanted with no pressure from anywhere. Although I’ve always had a big say in anything I’ve done before, there’s always been some kind of influence is certain areas.

Is ‘Home’ the work of a more mature recording artist?

Oh definitely! I’m a more rounded person these days with way more life experience! I used to be quite uptight about the whole thing but nowadays I’m so much more relaxed about stuff. Plus when it’s your tenth album you have more experience in your craft and you’ve learnt so much along the way about how to make an album. Not to say I’ve gone all ‘pipe and slippers’….. There’s no danger of that just yet ha-ha!

Did you set out to make a song-driven album?

That’s just how I hear things these days. It used to be all about the guitar with everything else second. Now, when I listen to music I want to hear some content and substance and so that’s what I try to incorporate when I’m writing. I love melodies, interesting lyrics that create good imagery and a song that creates a ‘mood’. Of course I still want the guitar in there too but it’s more of an integral part rather than the focal point.

Was it difficult to strike a balance between the blues-rock style people know you for and the different influences?

Not at all, it all came very naturally. One day I might be in singer songwriter mode and I’ll write something like ‘Inside Out’ or ‘Free’ then I might wake up the next morning and want to write a blues song. I’ve never been influenced by just one style so if I write a poppy song it’ll still end up having a bluesy feel to the guitar, similarly if it’s a blues song it’ll have some twists in there and some melody or a chorus or whatever! This album is the best example of all the different elements that make me up as an artist.

Do you think you will have to drag some longer term fans over to this album?

Well, you can never please everyone! I think you just have to do what you believe in. I don’t think it’s a drastic change of direction, more of the next chapter really. I’ve always just created what makes me happy and fortunately the fan base I’ve built up over the years have been incredibly loyal and just keep coming back for each chapter!!!

‘Home’ is more of a band album than ‘Equilibrium’ was, does that mean a lot of the material was road tested before you came to record it?

About half of the album was toured before we went in to record. It’s a really good way to test things out and see what works and what doesn’t. ‘Equilibrium’ was written in the few months leading up to the studio and I worked with session players who I literally met on the day so ultimately the songs came out very differently on the album to how they ended up being played live. I’ve always loved the interaction of a good band – early Led Zep’ stuff and all that – you can tell it’s a band. I definitely wanted that for ‘HOME’.

You’ve also incorporated Andre Bassing’s piano as a significant part of some of the arrangements as on ‘Free’, ‘Sugar’ and ‘Impossible’. Are his parts including the jazzy break on ‘Feeling Good’ a result of playing them live?

I’ve been working with keys in the live band for nearly four years now so I’ve got used to how they can fit into my music and really embraced the scope it gives me. Artistically I have a much bigger palette to work from so now when I’m writing I hear where keys will sit in the song from the off. Andre has been with me for around three years now and he’s a fantastic musician – he plays a very tasteful and musical interpretation of what I present him with on my ’.

I wrote all the songs with keys in mind and a good half of the album including ‘Sugar’ and ‘Feeling Good’ were road tested before we got to the studio. One night he took the solo in the middle of ‘Feeling Good’ instead of me and it sounded great so we kept it and decided to record it that way. ‘Free’ and ‘Impossible’ weren’t tried on the road, but I knew what I wanted from him for those two.

You were the only British artist in Classic Rock’s 2007 Top 10 Contemporary Blues Artists, yet your music has become diverse since then?

I guess it depends on what you see as blues and what’s not. John Mayer is hardly blues at all but he was listed too in the same feature! I’ll always be a blues guitarist at heart but my music as you know mixes lots of different influences. I suppose using the term ‘contemporary blues’ means it’s blues for the new millennium!

You broadened your audience base by touring with headline acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and yet people might be surprised by the fact you are moving in a more subtle direction?

The album definitely has a subtle element to it but live it works tremendously well. Of course there is more guitar at a live show and it’s got the raunchiness you get along with the energy you put over to the audience. The most common thing I’ve heard recently with the new material is how memorable it is. I wrote it all specifically to work in both a live context AND on an album. The two platforms are completely different and you have to adapt to each, but so far both have received a great reaction from both old and new fans alike.

Do you try to constantly evolve as a song writer?

It’s not that I want to change into something else; I just want to get better at my craft and consistently keep raising the bar. That’s not to say I want to get clever or more technical with things but like anything creative, you want to get better at developing whatever it is that inspires you to write.

I could never have written these songs 4 or 5 years ago. I do get increasingly pedantic with it sometimes but it’s because I’m not happy until it’s exactly how I’m hearing it in my head. I spend a lot longer on lyrics now than I used to but ultimately I’m more satisfied because I know I’ve challenged myself in doing the best I possibly can at that point.

You’ve been writing since you were 18, at what point did it all click together for you?

Tough one, I’m not sure! I’ve always had a knack for coming up with melodies and the focal point of the song first so the challenge has always been to work back from there and build the song around it. I don’t have a formula I work to so every song is different and presents a new challenge!!

On the production side did you and Wayne Proctor set out with a big picture in mind?

For a long time before I got anywhere near the studio I had certain criteria in mind. I wanted the songs to work both on an album and on stage, for them to be fun to play, to get the most organic sounds we could onto tape and not mess around with stuff unless absolutely necessary. I spend a long time on my home demo’s so if I’m hearing a certain arrangement or drum fill or whatever, it’ll already be there on the demo.

By the time Wayne heard all the songs half of them had already been road tested and the others had a very definite sound or arrangement. I like to be prepared when I get in the studio!! We only rehearsed for one day and then we started tracking. It was great having Wayne co-producing because although I had a very clear vision of what the album would be, he was great at being objective and hearing things that I was sometimes too close to like when we tracked the vocals for instance, or adding an extra part here or there to give it more variety.

There’s a lot of variety on this album does that mean you consciously write with a style in mind?

I think that is just my style, I dip in and out of various different genres and that’s just what comes out!

Do the strong melodies come from playing your guitar?

Not particularly, I just hear melodies in my head or am inspired by something I might hear. Although I definitely have my out and out blues moments on the guitar, my overall playing style has become more melodic as my writing has so I guess that’s just the way I hear it!

‘Home’ seems like the natural opener as it’s got that big blues-rock feel, but it’s not a true barometer of what to expect on the album as a whole is it?

Ha-ha, nope! If I’m listening to an album though I want it to keep my interest past the first few tracks so that’s what I went for with this…. to have an interesting album that visits a few different areas in order that it doesn’t repeat itself or get stale.

‘Inside Out’ has a great melody, a Robert Cray soulful feel and like ‘Broke’ and ‘Free’ it’s very radio friendly, was that the aim?

When I first came up with the ideas for those songs I knew they weren’t going to be blues rock songs. You can always tell the way it’s going to go very early on and so the parts and instrumentation were arranged to serve the song and present it in its best light. I didn’t set out to write anything radio friendly, that’s just the way they came out.

‘Broke’ is unexpected political commentary?

I came up with the music for that first and then the hook-line for the chorus melody shortly after. Lyrically it was something I’ve never done but it was something I thought people would connect with. I was very careful though to try and not get too heavy with it though!

How did ‘Free’ come together? It’s almost a two-part song, hung together by some beautiful sustain?

I wanted to write a song about a close friend who recently passed away. I’d known him more than half of my life and he was a big part of my music – he did a lot for me. At the same time though, I didn’t want it to be excessively dark or depressing – more a celebration of a great life. I wanted the verses to be quite open with lots of space for the lyrical content and some nice subtle guitar lines.

The verses kind of set the mood for the whole song, it’s got possessiveness to it but still allows me to inject some emotion and get the story across. Then of course to go with the chord structure of the verse I was hearing a big powerful chorus with more simplistic lyrics, almost anthem-like in a way.

It’s also another song with a big guitar sound, were you trying to keep a balance between the melodic material and guitar parts?

I think I just wanted it to have some real light and shade, for it to take you on a journey. The first verse sets the scene and draws you in then this big chorus comes in, grabs you and doesn’t let go until the second verse comes around and then it backs off and lets you breathe again!! The break down section midway through the song is where the whole thing gets right down low to create the set-up for the loud outro section. I had so much fun doing the feedback guitar part here – I actually used the guitar my friend found for me for this!

‘Sugar’ lifts the album at the half way point; did you pay special attention to the sequencing on this album?

Oh yes, always a tricky one! The first half of the album is quite varied but all the songs are quite serious and song based so I thought with the piano intro ‘Sugar’ was the perfect way to gently move the album into another gear without it being too sudden. It definitely lightens the mood which I felt it needed by that point.

Who are the main influences in your song writing on this album?

Everyone from when I started out right up to now! The blues guys like Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Clapton and Peter Green definitely make their influence known in my guitar playing on the bluesier tracks like ‘Sugar’ and ‘Straight Talkin’ Woman’! For the more song based material my inspiration comes from so many different places. Music is always around us, whether you’re out in a bar, in a shop, blasting out of someone’s car stereo or whatever.

Most of the time I’m not paying attention to it or zoning in, but suddenly I might just hear something that’s grabs me. It might be a melody, a lyric, a drum groove, a sound or anything. My phone is full of little sound clips of me singing ideas into it on the spot! Sometimes I might hear a song that I like, maybe it’s the way it draws you in with the atmosphere it creates or a really catchy hook-line or whatever.

One of my favourite albums is still ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac. That’s a really varied album and has so much substance. The songs tell a story and suck you in but at the same time the mood changes throughout the different songs. I do like some of John Mayer’s songs from ‘Continuum’; they have a good balance of mood, lyrics and melody with some really tasteful playing and singing.

Are the various guitar tones meant to reflect different the moods of a song, I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Possession’, where the guitar parts mirror the lyrical meaning?

I just choose whatever compliments the song best. On the bluesier ones I’ll go for quite a wild raunchy tone like on ‘Sugar’ but that kind of tone and playing wouldn’t suit ‘Free’ so it’s just keeping it all relevant to the song really. How I’m going to play is the main decider for guitar tones and sounds.

I play like I sing sometimes, certainly on the bluesier ones like this, so I’ll use similar phrasing. For me it’s all one voice really so yes the guitar parts do kind of go in sync with the lyrical meaning of the song and the way I sing it!

There are also some intricate guitar elements – I hear bits of Carl Verheyen and Eric Johnson on ‘Broke’?

Really? That’s interesting! I’ve never listened to either though I am aware of Eric Johnson’s playing style. I just played what felt natural and relevant.

The solos seem to be an integral part of the songs. The big guitar break on ‘Sugar’ for example, gives the song more momentum?

Whereas I used to write with everything focused on the guitar in the early days, I look at the bigger picture now. For me you can still have a great guitar moment in a song but it should serve the song and not the other way around.

Which version of ‘Feeling Good’, did you hear first – Muse, Eels, Nina Simone, or another?

Ha-ha… It was Nina Simone’s version. For me it was a great platform to work from. We started doing it in the live set and I heard the Muse version which I wasn’t as taken with.

You’ve been very successful with covers – such as ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Crazy’ – Where did the idea originally come from to cover something radically different from your normal material?

I try and choose songs that I feel I can do something with, where I can put a bit of ‘me’ into it! A great song will always be a great song and will stand the test of a re-work or whatever. I can never quite understand the point of doing an absolute carbon copy of something that’s already been done!!

What made you choose ‘You Make It Real’?

I’ve always liked the song and lyrically it fits like a glove with the rest of the album.

It’s a good example of the strong vocals on this album, was that something you worked on?

The vocals? Interestingly no…. Something seemed to happen to my voice a couple of years ago, something to do with hitting 35, I think! It just started to change tonally and suddenly singing became easier. The vocals were one of the easiest things to get recorded!

Was ‘Hyde 2612’ inspired by the TV show ‘Life On Mars?

Oh yes! I got hooked on that TV series as soon as I saw it although it was after the fact – I first discovered it a couple of years after it was aired. I just got completely sucked into the whole story line and the characters in it are pure genius! The dialogue is so colourful and quirky and I’d kind of visualised myself in that scenario a few times – the whole going back in time thing. It actually took more than one attempt to write too. I knew I wanted to use as many references and quotes from the series as possible to create the best imagery possible but at the same time still have a song that had a chorus line hook.

Where did the idea of a bass heavy funky groove come from? 

I messed around with the idea for a while and the first version of the song was nothing like how it ended up – it was a lot slower and darker but I felt it needed to be a bit more fun and quirky so that was scrapped and I started back at the drawing board from scratch. I thought of coming up with a ‘White Stripes’ type riff… a bit fun, a bit quirky: the bass and drums to drop in and out etc.

Once I’d decided to walk away from the first version this one came together a lot quicker, the riff came about in about half an hour and then the rest of the music just fell into place. It was a lot easier to write the lyrics for this version too, even though I started from scratch with these too.

The main thing Sam wants in the series is to wake up from his coma so that became the hook-line for the chorus. The verses are just describing where he is in the series and a typical day of bribery, corruption and ridiculous one-liners!! I had a lot of fun with this once this final version came together.

‘Impossible’ has a dreamy Peter Green style guitar feel and then it becomes very jazzy. How did that song evolve?

I bought a new guitar shortly before the recording session and it just had this certain tone to it that I started noodling away through my amp and came up with the chord sequence. It was all very laid back so I thought a smoky kinda laid back vocal and double bass would fit lovely. I wanted to do the ‘less is more’ thing with the guitar – lots of space etc

‘Straight Talkin’ Woman’ sounds like another potential live favourite, and bit like the song ‘Free’ in the way people can quickly connect to it?

It’s great fun to do live because it’s so up-beat and jolly! I love playing that rhythmical guitar groove, nobody out there seems to do it but for this song it’s perfect. It’s also very rootsy for me but it gives me the chance to do my Freddie King impersonation in the outro solo!

How much of this album will you play live?

We’re playing the entire album bar ‘You Make It Real’ and ‘Impossible’. They were the only two that I felt should stay as album tracks. The rest has translated in a corking live set and they’re all great fun to play.

Interview © August 2013 Pete Feenstra

Photos by Walter Goyan and Adrian Gee


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