Tony Cummings spoke at length to the one-time frontman for Kato, Keith Ayling, who has re-emerged as MISTER KEITH
To BBC listeners Mister Keith is a brilliant new artist who has brought something fresh and innovative to radioland. BBC Coventry & Warwickshire have called his debut album "stunning", BBC Greater Manchester referred to it as "sensational" while Apollo5 described it as "beautiful songs, quintessentially British." The singer/songwriter himself describes his music as "Victorian pop" while Folk & Roots magazine, struggling to find words to encapsulate Keith's poignant melodies, very English sounding vocals, baroque strings, brass bands and accompaniments which brought in glockenspiel, clarinet, Hammond organ, double bass and ukelele banjo have suggested "it's like the past meeting the present in a calm storm."
To long term Cross Rhythms listeners and readers however, this bowler-hatted creator of a haunting calm storm isn't a new-to-the-scene talent, but the return of an old friend, Keith Ayling, who in the early 2000s was continually heard on Cross Rhythms radio when his Brit pop-flavoured band Kato delivered two of the best albums of guitar-driven albums of the era. Now, with CR about to start playing Mister Keith's "Healing Tonight" from his masterly 'Record Of Wrongs' album, it seemed an excellent moment to catch up on Keith's long musical journey.
Keith began, "I started songwriting in 1986. Before that I was a drummer. I had a youth leader and he wanted to buy me a guitar, so he went down to the charity shop and got me a £20 Eko guitar. 'Here's a guitar, here's three chords - let's start writing songs.' After that I gave up the drums because I had this urge to be at the front rather than at the back. I was in sixth form when I started writing; I was 16. A friend called Michael Buckley offered to play guitar for me, then I had to go away and find a bass and a drummer. We set up a band and started playing gigs locally under my name. That developed locally, then we played Crossfire Festival, which was at Aintree Racecourse. I didn't feel my name was too marketable or memorable or spellable - especially if you're on the telephone - so we shortened it to the letter K. It was the same band, we just shortened the name. It worked really well, it took off.
The band K quickly became mainstays of the Greenbelt arts festival. Said Keith, "There's two reasons for that. We were in the right place at the right time, and we marketed it pretty well. The t-shirts were there: by the '90s, everybody was wearing long-sleeved t-shirts. Everybody walked around site with these t-shirts on and suddenly everybody knew who we were. We got some great slots; we played the main stage and the big top quite a lot. We played every year from 1991 to 2007 by which time we were called Kato. We could be the most invited artist at Greenbelt, with the exception of Martyn Joseph and Garth Hewitt."
The name change from K to Kato was caused by a sea change in the lyrical direction of Keith and his bandmates. Keith explained, "In the late '80s, early '90s we were very much trying to get a mainstream deal. That was the route we wanted to take. At Greenbelt we played alongside Mike Peters and The Alarm, and we were thinking, 'This would be where our music fits'. We pursued a mainstream deal until '96 and got incredibly close. In '95 we were doing some showcases, we won a north west bandstand competition as well as playing Greenbelt and other festivals. We got approached by EMI and Warner, and a French company called Musidisc, who at the time were the biggest record label in mainland Europe, and they were the ones that were most interested. They all came down to London showcases at the Borderline and various other clubs. We got to the point with K where Musidisc said, 'We love the songs, we love you.' But certain members of the band they wouldn't sign up into the deal. That was a really tricky six months to navigate in terms of personal relationships and the business of signing a record deal. It didn't happen. Early '96, I took three months off to decide what I was going to do next. At that point I felt, in my faith, we needed to be playing to young people in youth groups. I needed to return to what I'd started out doing - so we formed Kato. Kato had a very different goal in that we wanted to fill halls with young people and talk about faith and life."
After an independent mini-album 'Seasider' in 1997 and another one 'Home Movie: The Acoustic Sessions' in 1999, Kato were signed to ICC Records (later to become Elevation) who had grown Eastbourne's Christian-based recording studio. The two Kato albums ICC released, 2001's 'Welcome To My World' and 2002's 'Songs To Help You Survive' were big sellers in Europe's insular Christian music enclave.
"When we signed to ICC and Elevation Records one of their goals was to expand into America, but it didn't happen. I think the problem is that at that time Britpop, of which we were part, was popular in the UK but American labels that we were approaching didn't really get it, they didn't understand Britpop; it wasn't the sound they wanted." There was resistance too to Kato's Brit pop approach in other territories. Said Keith, "I remember playing some gigs in Germany, and sometimes we'd go really well. We played the Jesus Freak Festival, which was huge, and we went down incredibly well there. Then we played Christmas Rock Night and didn't go down well, because we weren't heavy enough. Britpop wasn't British rock as such, and we weren't heavy enough for some of the German gigs."
The huge changes in the music industry, including the small-time UK Christian one, eventually caught up with Kato. Explained Keith, "Adrian Thompson, who was Elevation's A&R man, moved to a new job, and the company restructured. They didn't place much emphasis on bands like Kato. They perhaps moved to more of a worship angle for their emphasis. At the same time as that happening the industry changed as well. A lot of other labels in the country were struggling too. It was a tricky time. We continued to gig and though promoters noticed there was no new album, the other albums were still there so we continued to tour them. We were still playing Greenbelt and we were still playing Switzerland a lot. We'd set up a charity at that point, which was funding music education in Eastern Europe; we did that for five years. We set up a magazine called Core, which did really well - distributed about 10,000 issues of that. I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe in those couple of years."
Keith continued, "But there's a lot of inertia involved. When you lose record support you lose momentum; you lose gigs as well. The number of gigs dropped. . . Being honest, I suffered from some depression around that time, 2007 or 2008. We just sat around - myself and Mick Buckley - and said, 'Do we continue just doing this even though we know we can't afford to make a new record, or do we say, "There comes a day when we put it down for a bit?"' And we did."
Up to that time Kato had, in part at least, provided Keith with a living. But Keith began developing other skills. He explained, "A friend of mine who was a bass player in a band called Canaan had an art gallery, and he offered me a job to teach me about the art gallery, how to picture-frame. He told me, 'Friday, Saturday, Sunday, if you've got gigs, you can go off and do the gigs and come back when you're not gigging,' - which was fantastic. I spent seven years there, had this brilliant education in terms of fine art and painting, and ended up developing a lot of other skills - some graphic design work, presenting, events management. When I left the art gallery in 1996 to work for Springboard, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury's initiative for mission, I had all these skills as well as music that I could put into that. You end up picking up little pieces of work here and there."
Things were far from easy for Keith. His depression got worse until cognitive behavioural therapy brought relief and his marriage had ended. He said, "I'd stopped songwriting. But finally I got to a point where I thought, 'I need to make a decision: am I a songwriter, or was songwriting a gift given to me for a period of my life?' I decided that I was a songwriter, so I had to find a way to make the music come back. The only thing I could think of to do that was study. I'm not really an academic, and it was one area that I'd avoided. My father was an academic, musically: he was an army band master, a teacher of music. I found there were only two courses in the world that taught a master's degree in songwriting. One was in America, one was in Bath, and I went and did the Bath one. So I did a master's in songwriting, which from the very first week forced me to write songs - about anything. It was a two-year course and it's a distance course, so you don't have to live in Bath. With the miracle of Skype you can have tutorials, then you travel down to Bath every now and then. The tutors on that course were just unbelievable; I met some great people. Davey Ray Moor was the singer in a band called Cousteau, who were a million-selling band years ago; he's a tutor on that course. Richard Parfitt who discovered Duffy. Joe Bennett is the leading criminal musicologist: the guy called in to sort out plagiarism cases in the high court. So the tutors were unbelievably knowledgeable, and lovely people."
Keith continued, "During those two years I did a lot of songwriting with people. I hadn't done a lot of collaboration before; I'd always wanted to, the opportunities had just never arisen. I had to work out what types of songs I wanted to write. At the end of the course, you had to finish 45 minutes of music. In other words, you had to make a new album; so I used the course to plan and record an album. For the first time in my life, I think I came out with an album that was not governed by anybody else: it wasn't relevant to a record company, it wasn't relevant to a particular market of people, a particular age group. That was 'Record Of Wrongs'. It took a long time. The idea for it started back in 2008, 2009, but I hadn't really written anything. I just thought, 'There's this idea here. It's what I call Victorian pop. What we're doing is writing pop songs - because that's all I know how to write - and we're using references from a hundred years ago, whether they be lyrical or instrumental, to put it into a different era to normal pop music."
Some of the sadder, more melancholic songs on 'Record Of Wrongs' were influenced by Keith's loss of loved ones. He admitted, "My father, my uncle and my father-in-law at the time all died of cancer within about three years. It was the oddest thing. Obviously two of those people were related, but all of the cancers were slightly different. That was a harrowing time. I was very close to my dad, and more so the older I got. Whenever we achieved something, whether it be radio or a Greenbelt mainstage, I always wanted my dad to be there; and quite often he wasn't, because standing in a cold, wet field wasn't his thing."
I asked Keith whether there was something of a healing process in writing some of the songs. He responded, "Definitely. There's a few songs directly talking about my dad and about cancer; there are some songs that talk about the end of my marriage; there are some songs that might talk about my experiences of church. With songwriting, it does depend on from what perspective you come to the songs as to what you make of them. I've got a friend who's a Methodist minister in Preston, and he knew some of the things I was going through. When he heard the album he said, 'That is painful to listen to.' There was a lot of things on there that he knew that I'd gone through, and he was journeying with me; when he listened to some of those put into music, he could see immediately where they were coming from. Not everybody sees that: they pick different things from their own experience rather than mine. It depends on the perspective, with every artist, as to how you come to listen to them, where you hear them."
With such complex and diverse arrangements, involving dozens of musicians, the recording of 'Record Of Wrongs' was a long, gruelling process. Keith commented, "When we did 'Songs To Help You Survive' on ICC, I wrote and recorded that in a month in Eastbourne. We came out of Spring Harvest, we had a month to write, and it was released two months later. But with this one it was years. We did it in a similar way to how I write all the albums in that I write the finished song then I have an idea for the production in my head. So I have an idea - I'm not a producer or an engineer - and what I have to do is try to translate that idea to all the people involved, so that their parts and their arrangements reflect what's in my head. The key to that is just having a great team. My wife Kate arranged the strings and the brass parts. Rick, the old Kato bass player, did some double bass and some guitar arrangement. We worked with Dave Lynch (the experienced producer otherwise known as Dave Izumi) who worked with me on the ICC albums; he knew me and how I work and I knew how he worked. He works with Iain Archer, Duke Special, Luke Sital-Singh; a lot of bands over the years have been through his hands on the engineer desk. He's very creative, and he works well with vintage keyboard sounds and just trying to interpret where the artist wants to go. We got some other people in. It was great to work with Ben Castle, the saxophone and clarinet player, son of Roy Castle."
One of the most intriguing contributors to the sessions were the Eastbourne Salvation Army Band. Explained Keith, "I started to research my family history: this whole Victorian pop idea, and incorporating ideas from the past, I thought, 'Let's do that with the family history thing as well.' I found out that my great-great grandfather, W G Collins, was a famous Salvation Army hymnwriter, who still has hymns in the Salvation Army book now. I had to visit Eastbourne where my dad's family was from, and talk to some of my relatives to get a picture of him, because there isn't a lot around about his past - certainly online there's nothing. I had to get that from word-of-mouth, pictures, photographs. It just so happened that my cousin still runs the Eastbourne Salvation Army band, so I said to him, 'This would really work well, because of some of the references and images I've got in here about my dad, if the band could play on my album. It would be a really great gesture to get them on.' My dad and my uncle were both pivotal in that band; the Ayling family was pivotal, and still is. So they played on a couple of tracks, and then we used another brass band, the Warwick University Brass Ensemble, to finish it off."
When in 2014 the album was finally mixed and mastered Keith took some time out for careful reflection. "I thought, 'Where do I really want this to go? I don't have the urgency I had 10 years before.' What I'd had all my life was this urgency to get the music out, and build up what I perceived as a popular band and all the things involved in that, whether it's gigging or selling albums or performing and speaking to people. Through having the break in writing I'd almost been released from this urgency. I thought, 'Well, I want a few people to hear it. Let's push a few doors without any particular stress.' We sent it to some reviewers, some gigs, some promoters, and very organically and naturally over a couple of years it's starting to pick up some traction. Some random people loved it. It's been a very pleasant, slow process to be involved in; and in a way that fits with how the music is. I wanted it to start with an instrumental track, because I wanted people to sit back a little further in their chair and go, 'I've got to actually listen to this.' When you put on a classical or jazz album, you know you're going to have to be there for half an hour or an hour to soak up what's happening - that sort of feeling. With pop music you don't do that: you're expecting a 30-second hit, like caffeine. I wanted to turn a little bit away from that for this album, away from some of the production tricks we'd done before with the Britpop era, and do something more akin to a classical music album in that it forced people to sit back and soak it in a bit."
Live performances of the songs on 'Record Of Wrongs' are distinctly theatric. He admitted, "There is a little bit of a concept to the show: I wear a bowler hat, and there's a bit more talking in the show, a musical hall vibe to it. But I don't use the term concept album because it conjures up images of the 1970s, and I was a small child in the '70s; it passed me by. We have quite a busy calendar. We're doing some house concerts - very personal things in people's lounges - which I love. We're hoping to do a lot more of those. In the other extreme, we're doing some festivals with a six-piece band. You've heard of Duke Special - his drummer Chip Bailey is now playing with us, which brings a whole new entertaining side to the gig. We're playing a festival in Derbyshire called Eroica Britannia, a cycling festival; we're playing one in Warwickshire called Folk On The Water; we're playing one in Wales called Ymuno, a lovely little festival; then we have our own little event in Derbyshire as well called K.Fest, which I've been running for about seven years - a small, family-orientated festival. For any fans of Nick Drake there is a little festival called the Nick Drake Gathering in Warwickshire, and they've booked me to play there. They're all between June and July, and then there'll be an autumn tour. It's another stage in the life of a songwriter."
Clearly 'Record Of Wrongs' is an album with the potential to deeply affect those who listen to it. Said the veteran singer/songwriter, "I think the more you pour of yourself into something, the more chance there is of somebody relating to it. That's what I've found. I've poured my soul into this one: there's so much more personal information and personal reflection in it. People have grabbed little bits of that and either related it back to me that they can feel the pain - and the joy: it's not all about pain - or they've related it to something in their own life. It's come from the most unusual places. Sometimes it's people I've never met before; they've just heard the songs once - on streaming or on the radio - or from the first time at a concert, come up to me at the end and said, 'That song really spoke to me because of where I'm at.' That's what you exist for as a songwriter, as a performer, singer. You need something more than a round of applause. A round of applause is great, but as soon as it strikes a chord with somebody, and you feel that in some way they've been able to explain something within their life a little better because of the song. That's your job, surely."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.