Tony Cummings spoke at length to veteran Derbyshire-based singer/songwriter JOHN STAMP
Recognising that the icy blasts of winter are on the wane Cross Rhythms has started giving radio play to a song that positively exudes summer sunshine, "Hippy Days", by John Stamp. And if the name John Stamp isn't yet familiar to you, it belongs not to a sun-bronzed Californian but a British singer/songwriter who now lives in Derbyshire. Not that 'Franklin 54' from which "Hippy Days" features was recorded in Blighty but in the decidedly sunnier environment of Nashville, Tennessee. To talk about his album and his long and intriguing musical and spiritual journey John paid a visit to the Cross Rhythms HQ. I began by asking this veteran singer, songwriter and guitarist about the "Hippy Days" radio hit.
John responded, "'Hippy Days' is a track which talks about the whole feeling I have around the sun, summer; that whole vibe where you feel your shoulders have come down. It's a light, skippy, hippy kind of track. I wrote it about three years ago. I have this kind of hankering after maybe wanting to spend the winter somewhere warm and I've had the blessing of being able to travel a bit so you get the feeling how great would it be in the summer sun in the winter months. It was written from a position of maybe September, October when you know what's coming with an English winter and you go 'Let's write a song about the summer!'"
One of John's favourite tracks on the album is "Knocking". He said, "'Knocking' is a song about a guy who is repeatedly knocking on this girl's door. I suppose it could be seen as somebody wanting something, wanting a relationship. It was written by John Hartley [the renowned British record producer, once half of Phil & John, now living in Nashville] and Steve Hindalong [a founding member of alt rock pioneers The Choir who has written his share of modern worship hits]. So we were in Tennessee, just in a room together and I'd got a chord structure and Steve had got some lyrics and almost instantly my chord structure and his lyrics kind of just melded and John Hartley was throwing in some wonderful little bits and we came up with this track. It's got the Americana thing but there's a definite kind of English Squeeze-like feel to it."
Another standout track on 'Franklin 54' is "Blowing Me Kisses" which features guest Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer fame. John explained, "We'd written this track and John was saying he could really hear Leigh doing a part of it. I'd not met Leigh so she very graciously came and sang her parts. It was a door opened by John; he opened the door and Leigh came. I knew of her music and I knew of her quality so to have her come and sing on the track was an amazing moment."
The album's opening track "Stay Calm" has a particularly appropriate lyric for these chaotic times. Said John, "I wrote 'Stay Calm' with Boo Hewerdine (the mainstream singer/songwriter and creative force behind the band The Bible]. I've been hanging out with Boo and doing some writing with him. I recorded it as an acoustic track in Leeds, with him. It was written from the point 2007, 2008 when the world was kind of spinning on its heels, banks were crashing and the world was in a really weird place and that English mantra: Stay calm and carry on. It meant something to me personally. I was going through some times where I was wondering what was going to happen next. You just have to dig deep, don't you? Whether that's digging deep into faith or into relationships, there is something about us human beings; we're all faced with times when we have to dig deep and get a hold of something that's deep down inside of us and push through. That track is about that. There are quotes taken from Ecclesiastes and some John Stampisms in there as well."
The singer/songwriter explained how the genesis of 'Franklin 54' goes back to a decades-long friendship he's had with John Hartley. " I went out to Nashville in 2015 to see my mate John Hartley who had been out there producing for about 17 or 18 years. We were on the way to Houston, Texas, a bit of a circuitous route really; we went to Washington then we flew into Tennessee. I spent a couple of days with John and he was saying come and record, come and do some writing. So I went back out and recorded three tracks in 2016. He introduced me to Emmylou Harris's band, the Red Dirt Boys. A big feature of that band would be a guy called Will Kimbrough. He plays a lot on people's Americana and country albums, writes his own stuff. So that opened up the kind of recording sound which I was looking for and I went back to Nashville in March 2017 and completed the next six tracks."
John was born in Warrington, Cheshire. He gave me a brief history of his early years. "I lived in Warrington. I loved music and when I was 13 I borrowed a guitar off my Aunty Joan. I was at school with a guy called Russell Bolter who went on to become famous as an actor in The Bill, made a series of films, Who Is Jesus, and now travels around the world training people like Price Waterhouse Cooper and big groups, how to present, how to speak and all of that. So when I was at school with him we were learning acoustic guitar and he was teaching me some chords. So I probably started playing when I was about 13 or 14. I lived in Warrington for about 20 years. I went into the Navy for about a year and realised that I didn't like wearing a uniform and being told what to do so I left. My parents had started to attend a local church and they were kind of very unchurched people so when I came back and they'd started going to church I was like wow, what is going on here? It was a pretty much full-on, in-your-face experience. As a young man, I was probably about 18 or 19 at that point, I found myself in the middle of what was a pretty full-on charismatic church."
Having received Christ ad having encountered the power of the Holy Spirit John's songwriting began to flow. And then meeting up with evangelist Gary Gibbs led to John being asked to join Gary as the worshipping musician. Remembered John, "Gary was hugely into school work so we were doing hundreds of assemblies a year; travelling aound the country singing your heart out at 8.30 in the morning then doing classes and in the evening doing gigs, going to universities and colleges and all that."
John led worship at Spring Harvest. And then he had a chance to play some UK dates with the father of Christian rock, Larry Norman. Recalled John, "I did some dates with Larry in London and the North. What a beautiful character, though a very complex, complicated guy. But in the middle of all that there was something about his heart that was good. As you read back over his life and where all that went you kind of suspend judgement because he lived through a weird and wonderful world. When he came over he arrived in Cheshire with a suitcase full of brand new Levi jeans, and another suitcase with his own t-shirts with his name all over it. And he would pull a brand new pair of Levis out every day; it was weird and wonderful. He arrived without an acoustic guitar so we took him to Dawson's Music, which was a local shop, I knew the guy there. So in comes Larry with his big, blonde Californian hair and the guy behind the counter's going 'OK, John, what kind of guitar do you want? We've got some Martins and some Gibsons'. Larry looks at this nylon string guitar and says, 'Guys, I want this nylon string guitar, this is the one I want.' It was particularly duff, wasn't a great guitar but Larry wanted that one so we pulled it off the shelf.
"He had this way of strumming it with his finger - his finger looked like a battered piece of meat; he just beat the living daylights out of this guitar. When he started singing the whole Dylanesque, beautiful soul-searching kind of vibe came out. He was going through some pretty tough, questioning, searching times on those dates. He'd stay on stage for two or three hours just rambling, talking about his father and his life, all the things that had happened to him, talking about his faith and about God. Then at the end of the gig he gave away loads of CDs to people, all the t-shirts. His manager at the time was running round going 'what's going on? Don't give the t-shirts away'."
Immediately after his Larry Norman dates a band was formed, John Stamp & The Name, who in 1991 recorded an independent album 'Waiting In The Wings'. Cross Rhythms were impressed and wrote, "Their debut album shows them to be a brashly confident rock trio with a set of songs that take on topics like making too much of celluloid heroes ("Hollywood") and coming back to the Father ("Lord Keep Your Eyes On Me"). The ballads. . .are particularly effective." Recalling his band's brief but impressive spell in the spotlight John said, "We had a guy called John Bowen, who's now living in New Zealand. He travels round the world running academies. He played drums. Simon Jinadu was the keyboard player. He was on Bob Harris's show last year; he writes and records and plays. He's doing really well. Carl Stanbridge played a four string bass in the band; he likes a five string bass as well. He's still playing. He's been touring with all kinds of people. He travels and tours and plays in worship bands too. So that's where The Name came from. The Name split up 'cos I went back to uni. My kids were growing up and I realised I needed to do something that was more anchored."
In a seismic change of direction, though one that used his impressive musical gift, John undertook a three year degree course in music therapy. He explained, "Music therapy was an obvious step into something new. While I was in uni, in order to earn some money at the same time I was working in children's homes and in care and that gave me an insight into working with young people. Then I qualified and worked in music therapy for a few months but the opportunity to spend more time working in children's care was there and that's been the career I've had the last 20 years. While I was going through the training and afterwards I left the whole song writing process and any formal structured writing and went into playing atonally. I allowed myself to play anything and explore music and its effects on people in new ways. I worked for the county council, working in children's care. I worked for private companies after that and then I established a consultancy company about 13 or 14 years ago. Today I run a company called ESLAND - E, S, L, A, N, D which stands for eat, sleep, learn, achieve, nurture, dream. We run 21 children's homes across the UK: Kent, London, Yorkshire. That keeps us focussed."
John spoke about the crucial work that ESLAND undertake. "The kind of children we work with are the most vulnerable kids around. These children don't arrive on the planet in a broken state. The parenting issues they've had and the lack of love and support has been something that has created in them a sense of trauma. We deal with young people who've been placed and moved 20, 30 plus times; they've been moved because of anger, aggression. Trying to find a stable placement for them, in order for our staff to work with them and try to unlock the reasons behind this. . . It is a long-term job."
John's years as a music therapist and company director have taken him to many different places geographically and spiritually. He is today a long way from the evangelical counter-culture which once gave him direction, and to some extent, meagre financial support. John spoke openly about the spiritual changes in his life. "Hand on heart, I've been through some really questioning times; times when I've looked at myself in the mirror and not wanted to be part of something that can at times be seen to be judgmental. That's what I find really difficult. I believe in a creator of the universe, a God, whose ultimate passion is for people to feel worth and love and esteem. As I've travelled and seen other people, other religions, faiths and none I think my view of the world and of people has changed to a point where I want to believe in God who cares about people and loves people. I think that's given me a broader view. Some would say I've probably lost a part of that original passion maybe. But I think you have to be true to yourself. You have to be true to what's in your heart.
"There are so many flavours of Christianity and religion you can be pulled into one section of it or another. My kids, who know me well, around me, are a close group of people who would know about my heart and my heart is that people are looked after. So my faith is wrapped around practical things. We're involved in a project out in Kathmandu, children in care there. I'd want my faith to be something that actually affects the world and affects people who are poor. That to me is really, really important. I find the whole thing about having to have a label a really interesting thing. It makes people feel happy if I call myself a Christian or a Charismatic or a this or a that. People can call themselves anything they want, what they really are is when they wake up in the morning, look in the mirror. The mirror is a very honest, true thing: you look at yourself and you're either somebody who is a person of faith and who treats people well or you're not."
John continued, "It's such a release to be able to say I don't have all the answers and I don't have to pretend to whip up some level of faith. I don't have to trick myself into believing something that I actually don't. I can be bluntly honest about things. I find myself closer to God when I'm honest and authentic and when I'm able to say I haven't got the answers worked out for this and that. My experience has been that I've found myself on a platform having to come up with answers or talk about faith in a way that for me didn't feel comfortable at that time; when we were travelling doing the schools gigs and the uni gigs. Everyday you're getting up and trying to present this flawless version of Christianity. Back in the '70s and the '80s when the world became very sales orientated you had to be able to give a really crystal clear three minute explanation of either a packet of soap powder or a new car. Everything was condensed into a bite sized chunk and I think certain quarters of the Church were dragged into that; having to explain faith in a really concise, shiny, slick way. I think faith in God is so deep and rugged and such a wide experience that trying to capture it in bite sized chunks and explain it to people loses something of the complexity of human life."
Now that John Stamp singer/songwriter has re-emerged his album is slowly but surely emerging as a slow burn hit. John chuckled as he advised, "It's had quite a bit of radio play across Europe. And 'Blowing Me Kisses', the track with Leigh, was number six in some random Californian radio station. It's like wow! That's great. I'm not sure what it means but we're number six somewhere."
And now other creative projects are emerging. "I've just been writing with some friends and a young girl who's about 22, and we've been writing some pop stuff for her. Her name's Georgie Workman. She's got some youtube tracks out. She's in the vein of Dua Lipa, quite a modern kind of vibe to it. I just enjoy the writing. It just happens to be this album, taking it out to Tennessee, putting that kind of vibe around it had given a Nashville twang to it. I really enjoyed that. I've been enjoying the Niall Horan album, which is also getting back to that whole singer/songwriter 1970s, '80s kind of vibe. I think there's less of the pigeonhole thing; I think people are open to a bit of country vibe coming in there, bit of pop. I'm trying not to be pigeonholed as Americana/country. I'm coming back into doing some writing and playing and holding it lightly."
And so this residential childcare specialist and occasional Americana and pop songsmith made his goodbyes and left to make the short trip from Stoke-on-Trent back to his home near Ashbourne. He left me with the conviction that there's still much more to come from this veteran crafter of radio-friendly music.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.