To hear Gwenifer Raymond perform is to be swept up into near-orchestral tapestries of noise.
It’s remarkable, then, to step back and fully realise that those cyclones of melody are being generated by one person, and one instrument.
Predominantly a guitarist – although she’s also a noted banjo player – Gwenifer Raymond is a phenomenal instrumentalist, someone who is able to blend different traditions and techniques into a highly personal landscape.
Releasing two albums along the way, Gwenifer Raymond is one of this country’s most-noted guitarists working in a so-called Primitive Style.
Ahead of her set at EFG London Jazz Festival this weekend, the Welsh-born, Brighton-based artist breaks down what Primitive Guitar actually entails – and why it’s moniker belies the open-ended, highly complex artistry underneath.
The first player I ever heard that could be inarguably categorized as ‘Primitive Guitar’ was John Fahey – inarguable because, as a man at a loss for a genre, he came up with the term ‘American Primitive’ to describe his own instrumental fingerstyle compositions. Prior to this he’d been regarded as a ‘jazz guitarist’, but the term ‘primitive’ seemed to apply more accurately given his strong influences from pre-war blues and Appalachian folk music and how that could tie in more generally to the art primitivism movement.
I entered the world of Primitive Guitar on a tangent from youth playing in punk and grunge bands. Alongside this healthy appreciation of a racket I was also brought up with the records of Dylan, Young, The Velvet Underground etc blaring through the house. At some point I discovered that a common influence that threaded through these seemingly disparate musics were the early American blues players. I bought a bunch of cheap compilation CDs, and from about one verse into Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me’ I was a goner.
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Having taken up the acoustic guitar for a few years I became especially obsessed with the alternating thumb technique popular with country blues pickers of the pre-war period. Being very impatient at learning other people’s songs and having a vocal talent in the category of ‘burning sack of caterwauling cats’, I had resigned myself to composing solo fingerstyle blues guitar instrumentals. I didn’t know that was a thing that might interest other people until another Cardiff guitar player played me my first Fahey record. It was at that point I became ‘American Primitive’.
More recently the term ‘American Primitive’ has become increasingly contentious due to the problematic connotations the word ‘Primitive’ may have in the context of predominantly black and/or poor musicians. It seems quite reductive to describe the sophisticated and adept finger-dancing of blues players like Blind Boy Fuller as ‘primitive’. It also limits the scope of the associated guitar soli movement to ‘Americana’, whereas in reality it draws influence from pretty much every nation imaginable (and some unimaginable – just to make matters even more complicated psychedelic also has a strong presence in a lot of Primitive Guitar music). That said, we all need a section on the record shelves, and the differentiation between primitive and folk art often seems mostly driven by whatever’s popular at the time. So I find myself quite happy to ascribe my own through-line from punk-rock to psychedelic-blues-jazz as a Primitive journey of the guitar.
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My first album ‘You Never Were Much Of A Dancer’ is definitely an American Primitive record in that it is very heavily drawn from the traditions of American blues and folk music. However, I think my second (most recent) album, ‘Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain’ is a departure from the strict Americana labelling. I’d been listening to more avant-garde works while I was writing it, which somehow put me in mind of the strange land and folklore of my childhood in the south Wales valleys. Dark forest misted in low sun, breath in the air and wild roots grabbing at my feet. From that pervasive landscape I think I formed something a little more my own; a Welsh Primitive sound.
On that I’m going to leave with a list of four guitarists that influenced me, in the order that I first heard them. Within each of them is a mish-mash of what in my opinion define the four humours of great guitar: Minimalism, racket, dissonance and scandalously catchy hooks.
Blind Boy Fuller
Master Wilburm Burchette
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Catch Gwenifer Raymond at Kings Place, London on November 12th as part of EFG London Jazz Festival // full ticket information.
The Welsh-born guitarist draws upon classical punk, grunge and folk-horror to write dark, immersive acoustic compositions
Gwenifer Raymond’s rich, powerful solo acoustic instrumental music first took flight with her debut album, You Never Were Much Of A Dancer. A 13-song flurry of acoustic guitar and banjo compositions – very much in the vein of the big hitters of American primitive, John Fahey and Jack Rose – the set was a riveting demonstration of her often-blistering playing.
For Gwenifer’s second release, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain, she has composed music that feels more personal and confident. Longer pieces unfold in complex forms and worry less about typical structure.
“The first album was the result of spending years playing in [American primitive] style and gathering songs,” she says. “Some of the riffs went back to when I was learning. With the second album, I’d been playing this music for a long time and at lots of shows, so by that point my voice had begun to come out more naturally. Before, I felt like I was trying to do this American primitive music, but with this one I was like, ‘I’m all right with whatever comes out.’”
Solo acoustic music is solitary by nature, but the pandemic put paid to Gwenifer’s plans to record the second album in a studio, forcing her to take a homemade approach. Continue reading →
Danny Riley reviews a new documentary about the American guitarist and mystic, Robbie Basho
Forget Gram Parsons and Gene Clark – Robbie Basho is the true voice of Cosmic Americana.
It is puzzling why the why the legacy of this unparalleled innovator of the acoustic guitar has fared so poorly in comparison to his label boss – the more popular and fashionable John Fahey. Whilst Fahey continues to project an inscrutably cool, sardonic air through his steel-string subversions of American folk-blues, Basho comes to us all open-hearted joy and sincere, religious conviction. I’d argue it is our culture’s general unease with all of these latter qualities that has acted to the detriment of the reach of his fandom. He was a guitarist of unparalleled innovation who alchemically combined elements of Indian, East Asian, British and various other folk musics to create near-symphonic odes to the American West and the human soul. In its valiant attempt and ultimate failure to get right to the heart of this baffling and beguiling musician, Liam Barker’s documentary Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho will do a lot to redress this critical imbalance.
Formed mainly from the video testimonials of the few people that knew Basho at all – his adopted family, a smattering of fellow musicians, the students he taught guitar and his religious associates – the film reveals details of his life and lifestyle unknown to the vast proportion of his followers. Perhaps tellingly it is the acquaintances he met through religious avenues, namely the members of the California sect Sufi Reoriented, that feature most prominently, illustrating in itself Basho’s deep and abiding commitment to spiritual enquiry. Conversely, Basho’s status as an outlier guitarist is made self-evident in the interviews with his contemporary musicians. There are some rather questionable comments from Pete Townshend – American Primitive enthusiast and also a follower of Basho’s spiritual leader Meher Baba (“I’m very influenced by Basho’s playing, you can hear it in my work”), whilst countercultural icon Country Joe MacDonald seem barely able to remember anything about his meetings with Basho. It seems that temporal distance was required for his genius to be truly appreciated, as is seen in the words of more recent musicians – Glenn Jones comes off as a veritable Basho scholar, whilst Steffen Basho-Junghans swears by some form of metaphysical connection with the late guitarist.
Basho helped invent the playing style known as American primitive, but his music was nearly forgotten after his death. Then a few years ago, a trove of never-before-heard recordings suddenly surfaced.
A few years ago, filmmaker Liam Barker was at work on the film that would become his 2015 documentaryVoice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho. Barker’s subject was the late guitarist who (along with figures like John Fahey and Leo Kottke) helped invent the acoustic style known as American primitive, and he kept hearing about a collection of the artist’s personal recordings that had seemingly been lost after his death in 1986. That’s how the director found himself in a ramshackle house in South Carolina, surrounded by stacks of old newspaper and animal excrement.
“When I went there, it was kind of like something out of a horror film,” Barker says. “It was like, you know, unbelievable filth all around.”
But to his amazement, Barker found exactly what he was looking for: box after box of magnetic reel-to-reel tapes, still sealed. “Miraculously, some of these recordings sound like they were recorded yesterday,” he says.
Now, the personal recordings stashed in those boxes are being released for the first time in a five-disc set called Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes. [ . . . ]