John Renbourn:
wants applause for the
music, not the man

An interview by Tom Knapp,
June 1996

A lot of musicians hate to be recognized in public places.

But John Renbourn didn't mind when a fan rushed up to him in an airport recently. He didn't even cringe when the man pulled out his guitar and started playing one of Renbourn's tunes in the middle of the crowd. "That's a wonderful moment, and it does happen fairly frequently," he said. "And I'm always touched." The music, he said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, is always more important than the musician.

Renbourn, who co-founded the folk-jazz fusion band Pentangle in 1967, remains an innovative force in the British folk scene. In addition to his solo efforts, which focus as much on arrangement and composition as they do on performance, Renbourn recently wrapped up one project with Scottish harper Robin Williamson and is planning to tour again soon with Scottish singer Archie Fisher and former Pentangle cohort Jacqui McShee.

It gratifies Renbourn to know that, no matter what styles of music rise and fall in popularity, folk music always comes back -- either in pure, traditional styles or as an integral component of the modern sound. "The music is sort of pared down to the bare essentials in folk music," he explained. "That's the rock-solid foundation ... upon which every generation will add its interpretations. But the basic raw material will continue. There has been a modernization in many ways of folk music, but the modern part falls by the wayside sooner or later, or another part is added, but the main part remains constant."

His own musical beginnings were rooted in the modern sounds of the early '60s. "I was interested in a whole range of music that I used to play, popular music -- particularly American music -- that I heard a lot of when I was a teenager," he said. "I think at a certain point it dawned on me that myself playing this music wasn't very convincing. It was more convincing when we played music that came from our own stock of tradition. ... I certainly feel a lot more comfortable playing so-called Celtic music."

However, Renbourn strives to explore new areas of the folk tradition, and sometimes he's unhappy with the "folk" label he wears. "It doesn't really frustrate me, but it is a very misleading category," he said. "Realistically, the kind of music I play ... really couldn't be classified properly as folk music. It's really a niche in the contemporary scene."

Sometimes, he stretches the bounds by combining sounds not usually paired - for instance, a blending of Irish and East Indian music. "Ethnic music the world 'round is quite fascinating," he said. "There are an enormous number of similarities there, and it's the similarities that are so appealing. ... I haven't even scratched the surface of that kind of thing." He also has an interest in blurring the edges between other styles, including rock, R&B and blues. "I've been really interested in all kinds of stuff," he said. "Generally, I tend to steer clear of something that's already well established. I'd rather experiment."

A seasoned performer who, after three decades, still enjoys playing to an enthusiastic crowd, Renbourn confessed that performing is not his first love. "What I really like doing best is writing and arranging and conceiving music to be played by other people -- and quite possibly myself, but maybe not," he said. "That interests me a whole lot more than just me getting up and singing folk songs." He hopes to be remembered primarily as a composer, he said, even though much of his work is more interpretation than pure creation. "I don't always set out to write something original," he said. "In fact, I'm somewhat opposed to that. I prefer to fit into the tradition of the music. "I think nearly everything I've done has been borrowed and fused and picked up from other players," he added. "It's surprising -- if I hear something I've written ... I don't always recognize it at first."

[ by Tom Knapp ]