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Slow emotion

John Cunningham’s songs are worth the wait
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  January 12, 2010

ONE MAN’S TREASURE . . . “Successful people don’t interest me,” says John Cunningham. “Unless they are people who I think deserve to be successful.”
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned reflection? You know, roads diverging in a yellow wood making all the difference? Seems like these days, to be an unabashed soul searcher means being precious or damaged (see: Antony Hegarty or Chan Marshall) — or, still worse, a faux Everyman (see: Springsteen). Even rarer than the reflective soul is the humble vanguard: the Jack or Jill who pisses away the family cow for some magic beans. Somehow, low-key legend John Cunningham manages to be a little of both.

In place of Frost’s New Hampshire woods, Cunningham does his reflecting among the hills of Cumbria, in the north of England, where he recently returned to live after a half a lifetime away and series of life-changing events. “Your partner, where you live, your work,” he says, discussing the experiences that led him back home. “The three main things in your life, really.” And he feels the time is right to finish the songs that will become his first album in eight years — a small eternity in the context of the two-year album/tour/rinse cycle that has become the industry standard. “Successful people don’t interest me,” he points out. “Unless they are people who I think deserve to be successful.”

“Here It Is,” from 2002’s Happy-Go-Unlucky (Parasol), is typical Cunningham: “Autumn torches the ground and parallel days go by/But you know it’s all right to be alone.” He first found his outlet in the Brighton scene of the early ’90s (in the Curtain Twitchers) before moving quickly toward recording and performing on his own. Early albums fell short of remarkable, but 1998’s Homeless House — with its gorgeous acoustic-guitar/piano arrangements and distinctly sorrowful vocals — would recall the smoky atmosphere and sardonic bite of ’60s/’70s records by UK progressive-folk giants like Nick Drake and Roy Harper.

Keeping prolific and staying on the treadmill was never much of a concern. “I was buying a house and seeing about getting a mortgage,” he recollects of the Homeless House period. “When you see these people, they are normally quite young, and the way they discuss things like mortgages is like: ‘When you do this, you pay a certain thing,’ and ‘When you die, you get this much money. . . . ’ It was like life was meaningless and insignificant: ‘When you die . . . ’ It made me wonder what time is, and if it can be slowed down.”

He followed Homeless House (hailed by Joe Pernice — who shares the stage with Cunningham at Lizard Lounge tonight — as “one of my two or three favorite albums of the 1990s”) with the equally introspective but more far-reaching and detailed Happy-Go-Unlucky. Here he used the studio as a tool to escape the isolation of working alone. “I was fascinated with the idea that when the Beatles were recording in the mid 1960s, they didn’t have the luxury of huge multi-track recorders. So they would have had to have thought about arrangements and considered them.” He enlisted French musician Mehdi Zannad (of Fugu) as a collaborator. and together they recorded an album so layered and nuanced, it sounded like the product of a band who’d been working together at Abbey Road for years, with horns and harmoniums flying over gardens of meticulously chiseled chords.

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