James Hollingsworth admits to being in his early 40s but looks younger. In his 20-odd-year career he has played in many different bands and with many talented performers – too many to list here – but he is now coming into his own as a multi-talented musician.
He has two kinds of solo gigs; stripped down acoustic and, at the other extreme, a “technologically replete” act with a big pedal board and lots of multi-effects. He has played in his own four-piece band, not surprisingly called the James Hollingsworth Acoustic Band (“for want of a better name”), in a duo with a superb sax player, is currently bouncing ideas off three drummers and three keyboard players, has collaborated, separately, with a visual artist and a poet, and is working with John ‘Johnnie’ Burns, who has produced Genesis, Jethro Tull, Motorhead and Burning Spear among others.
For more details of (some) of the above you’ll have to check out his website, meanwhile…
“I was born in Shoreham-by-Sea and lived in Sussex for 18 years. I took a year off before university and temped, mostly office work. I knew I had been accepted at Swansea University to do Marine Biology, so the temp agency got me a job in the Marine Cargo department for Eagle Star insurance – just because it had ‘marine’ in the name.
“Then I went travelling for about five months, across the USA, mostly Greyhound buses, then Australia doing the same thing for six weeks, sleeping on buses, had a good look at the world then – off to Swansea.
“When I was in Australia I dived on the Great Barrier Reef and got my NAUI certificate (National Association of Underwater Divers) for proper diving, great experience towards the degree. When I got to Swansea I could have carried on with the diving on a Wednesday afternoon – but by then I’d formed a band and the only time we could all practice was… Wednesday afternoon. But I ended up getting a 2:2 in the end so that was all right.”
How did the music come about, because it obviously took over?
“At the age of six when I started having piano lessons, and I sang in the local church. Then I changed school at eight, had the chance to learn other instruments and Dexys Midnight Runners were in the charts – so I opted for the violin. That’s the only instrument I ever got any grades in. I got to Grade 2 without really practising, it came quite easily – they said I had a natural bowing action – but I wasn’t taken with the material I was playing. I felt I was being taught to play notes rather than tunes. If they’d taught me jigs and reels I would have loved it. So I gave up when I was 12.
“Between then and about 16 I stopped playing and started listening, especially to Genesis and Canadian band Rush, who have been around since 1974. They’ve gone from being a sort of Led Zeppelin clone, through synth rock, indie stuff and are now full-on metal. I learned to play bass by playing along to them.
“My brother knew some musicians and used to borrow stuff. I remember sitting in an alcove with a guitar and an effects pedal, headphones plugged in, and drifting off into delay-land. Then I bought the acoustic guitar I still play now, a Fender F2-10. I’ve since played others of the same model and they were… nothing. I just got lucky with this one.
“But I played bass in my first band, three of us in sixth form called the Trinamic Trio. We liked the old-style rhythm and blues, the Blues Brothers fired my imagination… George Thorogood and Dr Feelgood.
“When I got to university we formed a ‘power trio’, a guitarist, me on bass and vocals and a drummer, and called ourselves As For The Owls. We played about 30 gigs…
“The guitarist, Nick Birdsall – he later became a Buddhist monk – he was the first musician I met at university. We were both unloading our amps outside the student accommodation when we arrived. The drummer was Dave Carter who was a thalidomide victim. He had a very short, right forearm and one of his fingers had been adjusted to replace a missing thumb, he was very good, always on the beat. As a bass player the drummer is really important to you and he was great to play with.
“The name originated from Nick. He had this enamelled owl mascot that sat on top of his amp. And we decided to include ‘owl’ in the name. So I picked up a book, opened it at a random page and pointed at a random sentence – which was ‘as for the’.”
(I point out that an early name for what became Monty Python was Owl Stretching Time. Then we move on…) Why did you switch to playing acoustic on your own?
“I saw Roy Harper play at Swansea University. I saw what he could do with just an acoustic guitar, an enormous sound, and realised what was possible – that’s when I moved towards playing acoustic guitar on my own.”
What about the marine biology?
“The target was to get the degree and have something to fall back on and then concentrate on the music. My mother saw me at Seend Acoustic a few weeks back and said, ‘they say there’s something everyone was born to do, after seeing James’ performance tonight, let’s just say he wasn’t born to do Marine Biology!’
“Over the next few years I shared a flat in Patchway with a guy called Andy Hunt, we’d formed The Mushroom Jam in Swansea with Nick Birdsall. So I moved to Bristol to join The Electric Druids, whose drummer, Nick O’Neill, later played keys in Bristol classic rock band JEBO. Nick’s a very accomplished composer and musician. He’s actually chorus master and resident composer for the Parliament Choir, plays organ regularly at Westminster Cathedral, teaches… He just played drums as a busman’s holiday. At the time I thought he was the best drummer I’d ever worked with, but he wasn’t really a drummer at all.
“After about 30 gigs with the Druids I left, saved all my pennies and threw away the plectrum and worked on my right-hand picking technique… including using my little finger, which I didn’t realise even classical players don’t do.
“So it’s 1998, I’m in Bristol, I’ve saved up, learned to drive and bought a car and a PA. Then I found out about the open mic scene in Bath and Bristol and its environs. The gig I remember most fondly was The Hat and Feather in Walcott Street, Bath. One night the mixing engineer gave me a cassette he’d recorded me on. I also played the Kashmir Klub in Baker Street in London and they recorded me as well. That became my first CD. By that time I’d started playing at the Tantric Jazz Cafe in Bristol – Jamie Cullum started off there – and had a residency there for five years.
“In 2003 I joined JEBO – formed by two ex-members of K-Passa (Passa were a raucous band, very anarchic, kind of punk folk rock fusion, a bit like The Levellers). I saw an ad in 2003 looking for a singer and saying they had a producer on board who’d worked with Genesis and Jethro Tull. I wasn’t sure at first but eventually got in touch with Rob Allen and Jeff France and learned the songs they sent me… and stayed with JEBO for five years. And I got to meet Johnnie Burns, who’d produced three Genesis albums back during their Peter Gabriel period – and of course they’d been one of my main influences.
“One day I saw that the official Genesis tribute band, a bunch of French Canadians called The Musical Box were playing at the Colston Hall. It turned out they were doing a big tour. Now we had Johnnie Burns who’d produced the album they were performing, so it was decided we could support them at three big UK venues.
“But JEBO was a cross between The Who, Queen and Pink Floyd – that’s the best way I can describe them – so the Musical Box guys wanted us to do a stripped-down acoustic set so as not to clash with their big, electric Genesis sound. Fine.
“Now we’d played at The Horseshoe in Downend and there was a great engineer there named Spider. Rob called him up and said: ‘We’ve got a big gig in a couple of weeks in London and we were hoping you could bring along a mixing desk and help us pull this off.’ Spider said: ‘Oh I don’t know, I’ll have to check my availability.’ And Rob added: ‘It’s at the Royal Albert Hall.’ Suddenly Spider was available!
“So we played the Royal Albert Hall. It was 23 April 2005, the day before my birthday. We celebrated it after the gig at midnight in the green room! It was a great moment.
“In 2006 I gave up both Tantric Jazz – and a part-time job in the Lloyds TSB pensions department! – and went full-time as a musician, mostly solo acoustic.”
Anything else close to that?
“A couple of years later we went on tour to Germany and played at Loreley, a huge amphitheatre, supporting Asia, Jethro Tull and Fish – that was another band I was into way back. I was the first person in the school to like Marillion…
“I left JEBO in 2009. It’s basically Rob Allen’s band, he’s the main songwriter. We were doing our second album and I realised only two of my songs were going to be on it. I felt it was the wrong combination of personalities to get my songs played, so I left when there was a kind of lull in our activities, I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch or anything.
“As for now… I’m playing a lot with sax player Sean McBride, originally from San Francisco. We met about 15 years ago through a mutual milkman. I got chatting to him, like you do, and he said: ‘There’s a guy lives round the corner who plays saxophone, you should meet.’ He passed Sean’s card on to me and I’ve still got it pinned to my board in the office upstairs.
“Then there’s poet/author Kevan Manwaring with whom I’ve formed The Steampunk Theatre Company with visual artist Jonathan Hayter – we’re developing a multi-media show which we’re launching at a castle in Scotland in September, very exciting!
“That more or less brings us up to date.”
So Marine Biology’s loss is music’s gain… and it’s clear you are utterly dedicated to being a musician.
“I never really worked out if I was a singing guitarist, or a singer who happens to play guitar. All I know is that I’m a human being who loves sounds of all kinds, my imagination is as filled with sound as it is with light, being a musician is a wonderful outlet for that inner life.
“I’m now a member of the Performing Rights Society as well as the Musicians’ Union, it’s been a long road from being a disillusioned 12-year old who gave up the violin, to being a professional musician who’s performed at the Royal Albert Hall.”
Care to name a few bands we should know about?
“Oh yes! The Wraiths, they’re a Bristol band. The singer, Mog, has a beautiful voice, Jon’s a talented guitar player and they’re backed by a great line-up of musicians.
“Then of course JEBO, a superbly professional rock machine who I’m proud to have fronted for their first five years.
“Ryan Inglis, who lives in Weston-super-Mare, is very active in the Bristol scene as well, great acoustic guitar skills.
“Jess Vincent, Bradford on Avon, I first saw Jess at Seend Acoustic – delicate webs of guitar, with a lovely voice and dynamic songs.
“And of course Susanna Waters, another Bristol, musician who is an excellent, all-round folk performer – and raconteur.”
Finally, what about the future?
“There are some exciting developments at the moment career-wise. I can’t give too much away, but it involves collaborations with movers and shakers in the Bristol scene, investment, international touring, a professional production team and, of course, working with Johnnie (Burns). I feel especially grateful since all this is coming together at the same time!”