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John du Feu interview by Aidan Milan
Ahead of the release of his debut double album Sky Blind/Naked Heart, we caught up with actor, writer and emerging folk artist John du Feu and his partner Daphne Cazalet (who also features on the album) to talk about his inspiration, his life on the road, and how he feels he’s finally become the person who wrote these decades old songs.
Aidan Milan: What made you want to release the album now?
John du Feu: It’s largely the result of coming to Italy. Daphne and I were living in Australia for a good 25 years or more and before that I was an actor traveling all over Europe, but I’d been working in theatre all that time. So when we came to Italy, I was looking around for new things to do, and because I’d been in theatre for so long, I was kind of fed up with it and I wanted to do something else.
This is also the first time for years and years that we’ve had all our stuff in one place. When I was looking through everything, I found all of these songs, and realised that I’d been carrying them with me all this time without ever playing them. I didn’t expect that I would still remember the tunes of them but I soon realised that, actually, not only did I remember them, but I liked them!
To my amazement, when I played them on the guitar, suddenly all the songs made sense to me. They were really about the life that I had been leading - partly the life that I’d been leading before I’d wrote the songs, and actually, a lot to do with the life I’d led after writing the songs. It’s quite extraordinary how prophetic some of the songs are. It’s odd, I feel like I’ve somehow become the person who wrote the songs. Whereas when I wrote them, I’d had absolutely no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. It was just a blind instinctive attempt to bash out some reflection of a very chaotic life.
Daphne Cazalet: I think you’ve finally allowed the music to come through. You always knew there was something else for you other than the theatre.
A: So you said that writing a lot of these old songs was almost prophetic. Well I’m curious, where then did the inspiration for these songs come from?
J: Well Daphne always laughs because she says they’re all about my old girlfriends. (laughs)
D: I’m sure they are!
J: Actually Geraldine is about Daphne! And the one we sing together, Blue Evening, is from a play I wrote but it was never included in the performance. But that was one of the odd prophetic things - I wrote that song for a play long long ago, but when I played it again, it seemed to sum up so brilliantly the life that Daphne and I have together, and so we sing that song together. It seems like the song foretold our relationship.
The thing I found with my old relationships was that they were never perfect. It was almost like a mosaic, we were always trying to build a life out of little bits and pieces.
However I always felt that I learned such a lot from these women who I was involved with, particularly at that time, and I was very grateful for that. I think partly the songs which I wrote about them or which were inspired by those relationships were the songs of confusion. They were the songs that came from the fact that the women I was with understood the relationship a lot better than I did. Meanwhile I was trying desperately to make sense of a life that really made no sense at all.
A: So would you say that the songs themselves make more sense now?
J: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the things that was learning about in those relationships at the time and not really understanding but nonetheless writing songs about, well now I do understand them and now I see that they are part of me.
A: Do you have a favourite song on the album or is that impossible to choose?
J: Yeah that’s pretty much impossible! Having a favourite song of yours is like saying you have a favourite bit of your life. Each song has a specific meaning so it would be difficult to say that one had a favourite song.
I’ve always written as well as been an actor, but the thing with the music is that music itself doesn´t interest me and never much has. I’ve always used to enjoy music, but I preferred songs where I can hear the words and follow the poetry of them. Songs by people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; those people who were essentially poets.
A: If then, as you say, have no particular love for music, why did the songs come out as songs and not just poetry?
J: (laughs) As soon as I start writing a poem it has a tune - I can’t help that. I’ve got a musical obsession anyway, even though I don’t respond very much to music, I’m one of those people who wakes up every morning with an tune in their head that they walk around trying to get rid of all day.
D: Perhaps John ought to accept that he’s a musician. I don’t think he’s accepted it yet!
A: You’ve lived all over the word - how would you say that this traveling has informed your musical tastes and style?
J: I’m not sure it did! I think the traveling kind of ossified my tastes if you like. The thing is when you travel around all the time, you don’t really belong anywhere. When you move around like that, you lose track of everything, and the only home you have is what you carry around with you in your head, and in a sense the songs and music became that home for me.
So I guess the reason the songs have stuck in my head for all these years is because, in a way, they’re all I’ve got.
A: Where then did the desire to collaborate with Italian musicians come from?
J: That was a fantastic thing! When I started playing the songs just for a few people at parties here and there, at some point I ran into Giuseppe Conoci who runs a AnimaMundi, a record company that produces Salento music records. Then he introduced me to Valerio Daniele who has the recording studio in Monteroni that I’ve been working in and we agreed that we would produce an album in which half of the songs are just me on my own with the guitar and half of them are performed with other musicians. But when I heard Valerio was doing with it, initially I was quite horrified! I was used to it being just me and the guitar; being able to give a very personal performance and express the songs in my own way.
But to involve other musicians meant that I was having to record them according to the rules of the recording studio with a metronome, and it all had to be recorded separately; first the guitar part and then the singing, and then the rest of the musicians one by one, and I found that fucking terrifying!
When I heard it back it sounded to stilted; I couldn´t believe that this was the way my music was going to sound. So we did a lot of soul searching and I woke up one morning and said “Wait a minute, this is two albums!”
We decided that one album will be Naked Heart, one will be Sky Blind and on Sky Blind, Valerio and the other musicians could do what they like, go for their lives and and enjoy it, because Valerio is brilliant. And as soon as I knew that I would have Naked Heart, to do all 14 songs in my own way, suddenly I was able to hugely appreciate what Valerio was doing. I went back to him, cap in hand more or less and said this is brilliant keep doing what you’re doing!
A: So do you think it’s likely that you’ll make another album at some point?
J: It would be a bit preemptive for me to say! I’ve still got some old songs left, and I’m writing new songs, so I would be surprised if I didn’t get up to doing another album, if I last long enough!
Follow this link for a special pre-release offer of John’s album, Sky Blind/Naked Heart.