Good singer/songwriters are ten-a-penny in this city. Ask them, they’ll tell you. But, great ones… they’re a little rarer than you think. To be still releasing records after 25 years in the game is commendable. To be presenting that work to a constantly evolving and growing audience reveals an artist still getting better with each passing year. It’s all about the work with Ian Prowse. Except when it’s about the craic. By Alan O’Hare.
“He’s a giddy schoolboy and a wise old soul all in one – you can’t fake that.” Acclaimed Dublin singer/songwriter, Eoin Glackin, is talking about Ian Prowse and wondering aloud about what drives his friend and colleague. “They’re the things that make him vital as a songwriter and a live act,” he declares. Glackin’s got it just about right. The music Prowse makes, and the gigs he plays, have been part of Merseyside folklore for nearly twenty five years. That they are now also part of a wider success story, not just a provincial one, is testament to the talent, temerity and tenacity that the Ellesmere Port-born, Liverpool-living artist has shown over the course of around a dozen record releases.
His first real band, Pele, had big backing and took up residency in the lower reaches of the charts in the early-to-mid nineties, while building a live reputation that Prowse reaps the benefits of to this day. Then, at the turn of the century, came Amsterdam with its critical (NME named them ‘Best Unsigned Band’ in 2000) and celebrity (Elvis Costello, Christy Moore, John Peel commendations and covers) credentials. Still, something alluded the Merseysider and his revolving door of musicians… sure, the songs remained top quality, and thrilled the small but select group of acolytes the band attracted, but the art was caught betwixt and between the Celtic-soul of Pele and the pop-rock Amsterdam specialised in. The solution, surprisingly, came at the behest of that old anomaly: the record company. They decided to throw away the pretence, see it all as one big body of work and let the post-Internet world see the joins with a ‘best of’ release. Prowse hasn’t looked back since: “That turned it all around,” he reveals about 2012’s ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?’ collection. “You could, and still can, feel it on the street… and people buy me more drinks!”
That bonhomie is a massive part of Prowse’s progress and what endears him to other artists, too. “His heart and soul go into everything he does,” says songwriter and Echo & The Bunnymen keyboardist, Jez Wing, whose song ‘Mississippi Beat’ Prowse covered on his last album, ‘Compañeros’. That record shone a light on a gaggle of songs written by people who have travelled under the radar and were viewed with some, erm, comradeship by Prowse. “I organised a gig for refugees in Liverpool that was targeted by the far right,” reveals Alun Parry, another tunesmith Prowse covered on the 2015 album. “A few of the bands understandably pulled out of the night… but not Prowsey. He’s a good skin, as my mum would say.” It’s not just local artists that ‘Compañeros’ unearthed, but internationally-renown singers, too: “He has a big heart and a deep soul,” says folk hero, Alan Burke. “That boundless energy bursts through in all of his music.” Dan Donnelly, travelling troubadour and guitarist with The Wonder Stuff, agrees: “Ian is 110% all the time,” he says. “He squeezes the last bit of music and fun from every situation… ”
They’re the compañeros, but what about the man himself? Him and his band, Amsterdam, are gearing up for an end-of-year show on Seel Street next month, in the Arts Club, and rehearsing a set that spans the full gamut of Prowse’s career. The perfect time, then, to catch up with him and perhaps capture a bit of that energy. But, first, a word on the ‘Compañeros’ album – one of the most interesting and intriguing records of recent years…
Was it a risk releasing a record of other people’s songs?
The older I get the more I see that people just love great songs and fine records, so I didn’t think it was a risk in the slightest. If you pour yourself into the song, then it all works out… I already felt great affinity with all of the tunes on ‘Compañeros’. I knew I’d do an album of songs that I hadn’t written one day. Both Bruce Springsteen and Damien Dempsey have both released records reaching into folk music of the past, so there’s no point in doing that – but these are my folk songs. I think it was an unusual concept that has really resonated with people and turned out to be successful.
We hear all physical copies have gone, so congratulations. What pulled people in so well do you think?
Yeah, the album is sold out and there’ll be no more made so hang onto your copy if you have one! Our rule when making it was if we didn’t think we could better the original, then we wouldn’t do it. We probably didn’t achieve that with every one… but that was the standard.
What didn’t make it? People were surprised there were no songs by Elvis Costello or Christy Moore…
There isn’t a vast well of these songs and I think only two of those that I brought to the table didn’t make it. We decided early on to not have any of the famous compañeros, if you like, so Elvis, Christy and The Clash, for example, didn’t make it. I think that was a really good decision.
It certainly gave the record its inimitable spirit…
I definitely couldn’t do it again, because I don’t know of twelve more songs like that, that I’d be comfortable with. How could you not be moved by the powerful simplicity of ‘My Name Is Dessie Warren’ or the beautiful poetry of ‘You Can’t Win ’em All, Mum’? I imagine I’ll always include some of these songs in my sets of the future – there’s quite a few that were in real danger of being completely forgotten.
You’ve toured a lot with this album, both here and in Ireland, but solo as well as with the band. Enjoying it?
I love leading a band into battle – that’s where I’m from and being in a gang never ever gets boring or tiresome. The solo thing is something I’m getting much more at home with, though it’s as different as rugby is from football! It really is a different experience for the artists and the audience… but I’m getting quite good at it now!
We say ‘solo’, but you’re often joined by other musicians at the gigs. What do they have to bring to the stage?
Fire, skill, soul, belief, patience… and the ability to drink too much and think too much.
We’re all guilty of the latter, post-Internet! You’re an artist who engages with fans online, how did it start?
It was around 1999 and someone told me this new and weird thing called the ‘World Wide Web’ had a Pele page on it. I went to an Internet cafe here in Liverpool and saw it all… the webmaster was a guy from Sheffield, called Robin Byles, and I asked him to get involved in my new band Amsterdam… he’s still with us to this day! Robin and the website were absolutely invaluable for me to stay in music around that time.
I remember it well. Amsterdam were indie pioneers in the pre-MySpace, Facebook era…
Our fan forum was legendary, with huge amounts of camaraderie and friendships which still exist. Full of right fucking nutcases too…
… they kept it all going! How do you feel about the changes the game has been through since then?
I’ve lived through all models: the huge major record deal, the indie deal, the cottage industry… in the old days, you were either inside the music industry or you were outside of it. No deal meant you weren’t in. Now everyone is in. I miss the days when you could afford to not like a band on a whim because there were loads of others coming along… that conveyor belt of cracking bands has all but stopped.
How do you reconcile ever-present economic realities with those itching, nagging artistic concerns?
Well, for me, you can’t exist as an artist unless you’re making new records, marking the life you lead now and singing about it. I’ll always be driven to do that.
You’ve announced a 25th anniversary reissue and tour of Pele’s ‘Fireworks’, too…
As much as anything else, 2017 will be about making a brand new record and we want to make our absolute masterpiece. However, I have no problem with giving over the next few months to celebrating my first album – it still sounds brimming with melody and energy and we’ll have a lot of fun playing it. The rest of those sets will be all of my other stuff down the years – we want to gather up any old fans who didn’t come on the latter part of the journey and join everyone together… it’s all the same thing to me.
It’s some journey. Highs and lows, ups and downs, tears and laughs… a bit like one of your gigs!
I just wouldn’t give up. I was, and remain, demented with it… I’m not so sure I’d have kept the standard of the music so high if Pele or Amsterdam had gotten really big. Underachieving made me more determined.
You do your best work when you’re in a corner…
There’ll be no ‘stop gap’ albums, no ‘that’ll do’, no loss of form and no average songwriting.
I like the fighting talk! Your fans often tell me how they feel they can rely on you…
Anything we do has to stand up to all the other records… or I just won’t put it out.
You had to pull out of The Jam celebration gig recently. What happened there?
I had encounters with two of my punk rock bass playing heroes this year: one from The Jam and one from The Stranglers. Jean-Jacques Burnel called me up to rave about ‘Compañeros’ and tell me it was being played for the second time that day on The Stranglers’ tour bus! We had a great and funny conversion and he showed me respect… and I’ll leave that right there.
Fair enough. Let’s talk about the Arts Club, what can people expect?
It’s a brilliant place to watch a band in and a magnificent place to play, with six hundred people singing, dancing and crying. This year we have a 15-piece circus, including Nev Henry from The Blow Monkeys on sax. It’ll be like the ‘Sermon On The Mount’ in there!
Ian Prowse & Amsterdam
Saturday, December 3rd 2016, 7pm
Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool
Pic by John Johnson