A Triste Daughter Site - James Varda

Colchester based singer-songwriter and guitarist James Varda moved out from London after making an impact in the late 1980's with his debut album "Hunger" and subsequent tours. After disappearing from national view for more than a decade, he returned in 2003 with the stripped-down and pastoral solo album "In The Valley" where he explores such timeless themes as the passage of time, the state of English countryside and the search for what is truly important in life.
"'In The Valley' is a lovely, sincere, and, at times, moving piece of work. I only hope that we don't have to wait another 15 years for the follow-up."
John Stacey - Comes with a Smile

"[With the album 'In The Valley' James Varda is] back with a gorgeously mature work, on which crisp vocals and emotive recollections provide food for the heart and head".
Tim Perry - The Independent Newspaper.

"James Varda is a singer-songwriter with some quite exceptional moments of lyrical content and emotive delivery."
Time Out


The Triste Interview - James Varda

Triste: I know it's a standard opening gambit in interviews like this, but it needs asking. How would you describe your music to someone who hasn't heard it before?

James Varda: I think I’d avoid the question by playing them the album!

Triste: Okay, that would be the ideal option, but for someone reading this online would you agree that your songs are essentially part of the school of acoustic songwriting that also includes: Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, early Al Stewart, maybe solo Ben Watt.

James Varda: Of the four songwriters you mention I am only familiar with the work of Bert Jansch and Nick Drake. They have certainly been influences, particularly their guitar playing and the overall feel and sound of their records. Alongside English songwriters there are many American country songwriters I like a great deal, such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett. But I also listen to a lot of music that is totally different to the songs I write; Patti Smith, Radiohead, Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley…. In some way probably everything is an influence in one way or another, although it’s really about finding your own particular voice, at which point nothing is really an influence.

Triste: When did you first get involved in making music? What were your earliest experiences like?

James Varda: I started playing the guitar when I was about 12, but I was in my twenties when I really seriously started writing songs. I had a friend at the time who used to go to folk clubs and he introduced me to the folk club floor spot, where anyone can get up and perform a few songs. So I then started playing folk clubs in London where I was living. And at the same time there were acoustic clubs in places like Bunjies, so there were quite a few places to play and develop.

Triste: So were your early songs based in the British folk idiom - that line leading from Bert Jansch onwards?

James Varda: When I first started writing and performing my influences were not really folk at all. Dylan was a great influence, but I was listening to a wide range of music from the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Television to blues players such as Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker, together with Hank Williams and other country writers. So I was drawing on a whole range of influences. People like Bert Jansch didn’t come in until later.

Triste: So would it be fair to say that your playing was earthier and less finely crafted than on the current album? A more "punk" sensibility?

James Varda: I don't think that the songs from that time are less crafted, but the sound was definitely different. There was a harder, more rock influenced sound and there is a band on quite a lot of the songs on Hunger which inevitably gives it a different feel.

Triste: What was the connection with Roy Harper around the time of Hunger?

James Varda: I met Roy at a Martin Carthy gig at I think Clapham Folk Club. I had played a floor spot and Roy spoke to me at the end and I gave him a tape of a few songs. Roy passed the tape to Andy Ware who at that time released a number of Roy's albums on Awareness Records. Andy liked what he heard and he became my manager. I played quite a lot of dates with Roy and ended up recording “Hunger” in his studio in his home in Lincolnshire. John Leckie, who of course had worked with Roy on a number of occasions, produced the album.

Triste: So bearing in mind you had John Leckie producing the record was there some kind of industry "buzz" around the record? Were people expecting great things commercially?

James Varda: Hunger was released on a small independent label (Murmur). John Leckie got involved in the record because he liked the music. There certainly wasn’t the sense of a big name producer being wheeled in, although John was and still is a very highly regarded producer.

Triste: I believe, at this time, you opened some live shows for Roy Harper. I remember seeing a particularly confrontational and erratic show from him in the mid 80’s. How did you find the experience?

James Varda: I played with Roy on a number of shows including a tour in 1988. In my opinion Roy is a very underrated artist in this country in some quarters (i.e the media), but his shows when I opened for him were very professional and very well received by his not inconsiderable audience. For me it was a good experience to open for Roy and his audience was very receptive to what I was doing.

Triste: And how was it opening for Townes Van Zandt?

James Varda: My manager at the time was a Townes fan and had sent me some of his albums so I was just starting to appreciate him at the time, so being able to get to see him for free was a definite bonus.

Triste: What inspires you to write?

James Varda: Trying to make some sense of being alive at this time and believing that putting that into a song is a meaningful thing to do.

Triste: When did you start writing the songs for the new album In The Valley?

James Varda: The new album is a bringing together of songs written over a period of time. I knew if I was going to release something that it was going to be predominantly a voice and guitar record so I recorded songs which worked in that format.

Triste: Was there any kind of thematic glue to the songs on the album? A lot of them seem to have pastoral references to being outside the metropolis?

James Varda: There isn’t a conscious theme to the album but it is certainly influenced by living in a more rural situation. I grew up in the suburbs of London, and lived there for a number of years, but I was never really at home in London. If you listen to Hunger you can hear that on songs such as ‘From the Bellevue Hotel”. About eight years ago I moved to Suffolk and at least within the context of location Suffolk is a much better place for me.

Triste: Reading the lyrics to the title track of the album and looking at the album cover it seems that you’re not blissfully unaware of the problems in the countryside. Is this important to you?

James Varda: As many people do, I have grave concerns for what the future holds for us environmentally and while these problems are global problems they are mirrored locally. The song ‘In the Valley’ documents the particular environment near where I used to live, which wasn’t particularly well cared for. Having said that, the photographs on the cover, which are of the same area, are mainly of things that I felt had some beauty and were interesting to me.

Triste: Only one of the songs is in the third person. How much of your own personal circumstances comes through in the songs? There are several songs which weigh up the options in life as you leave youth and enter early middle age, which could be perceived as being about a man in his mid 30's.

James Varda: I don’t know how much comes through because that is ultimately for the listener to judge, but the songs are in the main of a personal nature. Weighing up the options in life is probably a lifelong process. I think there are very few people who arrive at a place and are content to stay there.

Triste: Quite a lot of the songs on the album are "list songs"? Dylan's the obvious master of this form of songwriting. Was he a conscious influence on your writing?

James Varda: Well that would depend on how you define a list song I think, but to answer your question, Dylan was a great influence when I was starting to write and the quality of his writing is always something to aspire to. In recent years however he is not someone I have listened to a great deal and I certainly wasn’t consciously influenced by his work when writing the songs on the album.

Triste: How often are you getting to play live?

James Varda: The live situation is developing but it takes a little while to acquaint/reacquaint people with what you do to the extent that they will book you to play.

Triste: So I take it that you're mainly playing solo when you go out live?

James Varda: Yes. I’ve always played solo live although playing live with other musicians is something I would like to do at some stage.

Triste: Is there a sympathetic music scene around Colchester for your kind of music? Or do you have to travel far to find suitable venues?

James Varda: There are one or two acoustic venues in Colchester. Around Colchester it is mainly folk clubs but it's not too far from London and Cambridge.

Triste: Are there no like-minded musical souls you can bounce ideas off around Colchester?

James Varda: I guess in my writing habits I’m probably closer to the writer who heads off to the shed with a pile of paper and a pencil. And that works for me. Having said that only some of what I write works in a straight voice and guitar format. I knew ‘In The Valley’ would be predominantly a voice and guitar record and chose the songs accordingly. Many of the songs I have for the next record will need more instrumentation.

Triste: What are you current musical plans?

James Varda: Having not released anything for fifteen years the response to In the Valley has been very pleasing and I’m starting to think about a follow up and hopefully I will be recording in the autumn with a view to a release early next year. And I might even play a few more live dates!

Interviewed by Steve Wilcock for Triste Magazine

Live Gigs & News - James Varda


At the moment there are no gigs lined up. See James' website for further details.


The album In The Valley can also be ordered from James' website as well as being available from all good record stores.


Site last updated Bloomsday 2004