Welsh veteran ROB ASH was quizzed by Tony Cummings about his decades of music experience
Welsh singer/songwriter Rob Ash is one of the great unheralded heroes of the British Christian music scene. Down the years his exemplary guitar licks have added fire to many an artist's work while his own solo albums show him to be one of Christendom's finest blues-tinged rockers. Born in Bridgend to a Welsh mother and a Ghanaian father, Rob grew up in the '60s and was soon enmeshed in the music scene of the time. He recorded three singles (made at George Martin's Air Studios) with the band James Hogg. But alongside his musical development, things were also happening spiritually to the singer/guitarist. Rob remembered, "My conversion to Christianity was a great time in my life. Playing in a rock band and living that life on the road, it was not the thing to happen. I was asked to go to a local Elim church a few times, but refused, but then I gave in and went one night. But there is another side to the final arrival.
"I remember going to a church at about age eight, my mum used to insist on me and my sister going every Sunday. I had an experience at that time. They were a nice group of people and I am grateful to the efforts they made to encourage me at that time. We often criticise the small corrugated buildings that no one goes near, but these people were sincere in their faith and I guess it rubbed off on me. They also had great Christmas parties where we were given gifts for good attendance - I won a Bible that I still have today. So that put the seed inside me. When I was older it took a preacher a few meetings to help me realise how much I needed Jesus. We were part of that Jesus revolution that happened in the '70s. There was definitely a move of God's Spirit across the country, we had connections with many people and the music played a big part in that generation, all kinds of music and not just one type or style. It was a great time seeing so many as well as me becoming Christians."
In 1984 Rob began working on tracks which were to become his first solo album, 'Follow The Cloud'. He remembered, "My friend Ray Bevan phoned me. I had spent a year working on songs but had no outlet and no money. He put me in touch with Rob Andrews at Chapel Lane Studios. Rob asked me to send him a demo, about a week later he phoned to say he enjoyed the songs and would I like to come up for a chat? We eventually got going on the album. I only had one drummer to call on - he was playing with Ishmael, but he lived near me - and we practised for the album. It was Pete Wills, with whom I still have contact. I remember Rob saying he knew a good keyboard player called Mal Pope, so I said 'Great.' Mal came up and put on some keys and synths. 'You're In Love' and 'In The Movies' stand out as tracks that he made sound good. I was in a benefit gig with Mal recently and he played some really nice songs. But I was at the start and only had so much time. We got the album out and I started selling it, but when you're on the road, money goes. I remember having a bill from the studio which I could not pay. I had spent most of the money on expenses and an album cover, but I aimed to pay the studio back. Then I had a letter from Rob and Marion telling me that I did not have to pay the bill, it was a gift towards my ministry. That sticks out in my mind when it comes to that album - despite the music, here were people who understood and were there to help."
Also in the mid-'80s Rob recorded and gigged with Christian band Filament. Cross Rhythms asked the singer about his sojourn with Filament. "Doing two albums with Filament was fun, although I wish we had not done the first one. 'Practice What You Preach' was the better one. I sometimes have contact with some of the other band members. Kate James lives in Scotland and is doing well as a folk singer. Tony Liddington lives in Fladbery (sounds like a bad case of wind). He gives drum lessons and is working on a small studio in his garden. James Wright lives in Newport and is very involved with the Kings Church there, as well as producing children's musicals, live and on CD. The rest of Filament I don't have contact with, but I am sure they're all doing something with music."
Rob recorded more solo albums with Chapel Lane, 'Holy Spirit Touch' (recorded with Fran Byrne and Tex Comber from the mainstream hitmakers Ace together with guitar maestro Bryn Haworth) in 1989 and 'Right Now' in 1992. But it was Rob's 'Blue Steel' album, recorded in 1997, which many aficionados reckon to be his finest work. Recalled Rob, "Working with so many talented musicians was a challenge when doing 'Blue Steel'. I first approached Terry Williams whom I knew, but he was with Dire Straits and I did not know if he would do it. Terry is one of the most down to earth people you can meet, he is not only a drummer but a nice guy to know. He said yes as soon as I asked him. Rob Andrews knew Dave Markee and also asked him, he also said yes, so I had a great groove section to start with. My local church helped by paying them for me, as a gift towards the project. Terry and Dave hit it off and we started the tracks. 'Save The World' sticks out, not because I wrote it but the groove that Terry put into it - listen to his hi-hat and try and do the same. Having Mal Pope come and play keys was also great, he always adds that something to a song. We also had Raul D'Oliveira play trumpet - I remember on 'Save The World' singing the line I wanted and Raul played it back to me, exactly as I had sung it. We added the harmony and it was done. On 'Down To The River' I just let him play what he wanted to. I also brought another friend in, Phil James, to do some BVs on 'Samaritan' - he also captured a great feel on that one. Those sessions were always going to be memorable, but again although the music and the great musicians played their part I also had a great engineer called Paul Cobbold who helped me hold the whole thing together. Without that steady influence things can fall apart. And once again it was the generous spirit of Rob and Marion that helped me get the CD on the road."
Rob's most recent album is 'Neon Textures', a project he recorded at home but using Chapel Lane for overdubs. He has played a lot of pubs recently with fellow Welsh singer/songwriter Phil James. He commented, "I am still very much a travelling singer/songwriter and I play at as many gigs as I can get. I still feel thrilled at being asked to perform. My wish at the moment is to also hook up with a drummer and bass, possibly a keyboard player, but I still like playing solo. I love to make people laugh and that mingled with the music makes me feel good about a performance."
Unusually for an itinerant singer/songwriter, local church is very important to Rob. "I am now attending a church in a village called Cefn Cribwr. It's seen an incredible transformation. We pulled down the old building and with the help of government funds, built a purpose built community centre. It has a coffee house that's open every day, a sports hall, computer room, youth centre, fitness centre and a board room. I head up the audio team and am also involved in the worship band. The church is called BCLC, Bethlehem Christian Life Centre and you can find it on the web."
When asked to give his thoughts on the British Christian music industry Rob had some interesting things to say. "The Christian music industry in the UK? Is there one? I mean, industry is a big word, do we actually have an industry in the UK? I know there is one in America. I think we may have some kind of scene that comes and goes. There are pockets of ministry in the UK, it's always been that way here, but ministry is a more apt word. I know of lots of people who are involved in music ministry, but if you asked them if they felt part of an industry, I don't think they would. We do have music on the God channel, but it's not a UK industry music thing, it's mostly American. I think before we can create a music industry we have to have a lot of different musical genres going. Praise and worship is good and I am a big fan of Hillsongs and Abundant life music, they have played a big roll in the praise and worship all across the world. I think also these types of worship churches have set a great thing for us to follow, but it's not the whole picture. There are a lot of different styles out there that we should not ignore. The thing is, we here in the UK just need a bigger machine that can drive everything along."
Rob had some equally interesting opinions about the fruitfulness of Christian music ministry. "We often think of fruit as the things we have achieved, but the Bible talks of the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, that's the kind of fruit I hope I am still learning to produce. As for the most fruit I feel I have produced, if I had a physical fruit it would have to be my family. A lot of the rest is just things I do or have done, music to me is only a gift and can't help me on the inside. Only God can do that."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.