An interview with John Molineux by Grahame Hood
John Molineux is probably best known to Nonsuch readers as the man who made the excellent and influential Douce Amere album back in 1978. Apart from a period with The John Renbourn group from 1978-1982, he has rarely performed in Britain in the last few years, but is still busy playing, storytelling and occasionally making violins in Brittany, where he has lived since 1976.
Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1947, his parents moved up to Vancouver before the family took a liner to from Montreal to Liverpool in 1950. Though they moved around a bit, the family was living in the Birmingham area at the time John first became interested in traditional music at the age of 17. Though he played piano a little, he mainly loved singing, and was a member of several choirs, including (briefly) the prestigious St Albans Abbey Choir, though he has never been a religious person. These were the glory days of the British folk scene and when I asked him who he had seen at the time he replied; “Who didn't I see? Tom Paxton, Alex Campbell, The Ian Campbell Folk Group, The Dubliners.....the clubs were huge, a singers night in Digbeth would attract 250 people, a guest night probably 400.”
Inevitably he began to perform in public. He loved acapella singing and bands like the Watersons and Young Tradition, and he eventually learned to play guitar, mandolin, fiddle and whistle. “I've always loved counter-melodies and enjoyed playing them on mandolin and whistle.” He studied medicine at Birmingham for three years, running the university Folk Club, as well as being very involved with another club at The Fiddlers Arms in Walsall. He gave up medicine and undertook a newly founded two year course in violin making in Newark- on-Trent, graduating in 1974. “I came down to London to work for a violin maker but, despite expecting to make new instruments I was only given repairs to do, so I eventually started my own workshop in a co-operative workshop in Clerkenwell. I was playing a fair bit around the clubs and at Irish sessions, mainly on mandolin. I met Roger Nicholson through John Pearse and sometimes played with him and Jake Walton. We did some recordings for Bill Leader (see the photo on page....) but it never really worked. Maybe I didn't practice enough. Roger was such a gentleman and so polite that I didn't always know what he was thinking and what he wanted me to do. I actually made him a dulcimer, but I believe it was stolen from his car when he was on tour in Germany.” Following a split from his girlfriend John accepted an offer to do a tour of Brittany and Germany accompanying the Cornish singer Brenda Wooton, who was seen as something of a Celtic earth-mother figure at the time. He did so, and in Brittany made the acquaintance of a young lady called Maryvonne who had booked them for a date in Brest. Though his time with Brenda was brief (Mike Silver once quipped that if all the musicians who had backed Brenda in the past had got together the “ex-Brendas” would be the finest folk group ever!) he is always grateful for her advice that he return to Brittany to seek out the girl he had met there. He moved to Brittany in late 1976.
The Breton folk scene was thriving then, Alan Stivell having done for Breton music what Planxty did for Irish music: modernising it without losing the essence of the music, and proving enormously appealing to young people who were in search of a cultural identity in a time of great political change. Maryvonne had a dulcimer, which had been left behind by the Irish singer Mick Hanly. “I had never been that impressed with the dulcimer as an instrument, I always thought it sounded too “sweet”. One day the fine dulcimer player Marc Robine opined that maybe the dulcimer was too limited, which I disagreed with, as any instrument is surely only as limited as the person who plays it? Taking offence on its behalf I started to play Maryvonne’s dulcimer. It had been made by an American living in Dublin and was made of plywood. It sounded more like a harpsichord and I liked the playing position, like a keyboard, which suited my fingers. I found DAD to be the most useful tuning but decided to add lower A and D strings, eventually making a five single-course instrument with a wider fingerboard to accommodate the extra strings. I knew from my violin making how to voice the instrument to get the best tone out of it. I also used a capo, first a modified little metal clamp, and then one based on a flamenco guitar model”.
Of course, what everyone wants to know about is the dulcichord, the intriguing instrument pictured on the cover of Douce Amere which looks like the result of a drunken liaison between a dulcimer and a pedal-steel guitar..... “I wanted a harpsichord-kind of sound, and studied how they were made. The top is floating- it is only attached to the sides, and there is a gap at both ends. It was made from very good quality guitar tone wood and was braced on the underside using the fan-bracing system invented by Torres for Spanish guitars. It has two fingerboards, both of five single courses (DADAD) and both fully fretted. The bridges are only lightly held in place by the strings, there is no great pressure exerted. The levers pressed down to form barre chords on the furthest fingerboard. I used to play organ so was used to playing foot pedals. Unfortunately, the lever mechanism, though it worked perfectly well, was a bit noisy, and I virtually never used it, not even on the record! I still have the instrument, and in fact used it at a gig a couple of nights ago. It looks good and gives out enough volume for an audience of 70 or so, without the need to amplify it. The cover painting was a gift from a local artist, and is pretty accurate, even down to the wing-nuts (to dismantle the instrument for transport)”.
In 1978 John came to Bath to record his first album Douce Amere with producer David Lord. The album was a fine mixture of traditionally-based material and came complete with bi-lingual sleeve-notes and a lovely book of tablatures for many of the pieces on the record. On the way back to Brittany John stayed the night with John Renbourn. “We got rather merry and John R. said to me “Would you play in my band?”, and then with that mischievous grin he has, added “Could you play in my band? “ I said I would but thought no more of it. The next day I was packing to go and he said “Where do you think you’re going? We've got a band rehearsal!” So he remembered after all!” John played with Renbourn’s band for four years, recording two albums with him, one of them a double live album recorded in America. The line-up was John Renbourn on guitar and voice, Jacqui McShee on vocals, Keshev Sathe on tabla drums, Tony Roberts on flute, voice and pipes and John on dulcimers, voice, fiddle and mandolin.
“We would exchange tunes we wanted to do and Jacqui would let us know the songs she fancied singing, and then we’d rehearse for a few days and go off on tour. We could read music well, and the rehearsals were very quick and productive.”
In 1985 John recorded another album, Spice of Life, featuring contributions from the great Breton guitarist Dan ar Braz, who had first come to fame with Alan Stivell. Selected tracks from Douce Amere and Spice of Life were both issued on one CD in 2000, with the title Old Songs & Airs for New Smiles.
John continues his live work, billing himself as a “Musician Conteur (storyteller)”. “My stories are aimed at adults, not really for children under 7, but lots of parents bring their children anyway, and they enjoy it. Though I've not done much violin making lately, I have done courses for schools showing children how to make instruments out of basic materials.” John certainly gave the impression of being a man content with his lot, and it would be great if he could come to do some gigs next year. Here’s hoping...
(Photo of John by Gerard Gay-Perrett)
2015 Written by Grahame Hood for Nonsuch Dulcimer Club magazine.