Alasdair Bouch, a British singer-songwriter currently based in the Czech Republic, talks about his brand new album, about the reasons that made him settle in Prague, and about the hardships and pleasures of a full-time musician´s life.
I arrived nearly seven years ago now, and it’s flown by. I actually didn’t intend to stay – I originally came here for a month to learn how to teach English, and immediately fell in love with Prague. Most people don’t believe me when I say that – of course, the beautiful women and beer might have influenced my decision to stay – but there’s something magical about this city that draws you in. And as Kafka wrote, its claws won’t let you go!
Are there any aspects of Czech music, life or art you especially enjoy?
I wasn’t surprised to find that the Czech Republic has an extraordinarily rich cultural history; I was already aware of – and admired – many Czech writers and filmmakers before I arrived. I even had four Mucha posters on my wall as a student in Wales! But I was perhaps intrigued to find how closely I identified with the artists here. Czech literature is profoundly affecting, the films witty and moving, and the art and architecture dazzling. My favourite writer has to be Hrabal – if I were to write fiction, I would want to write like him. He brings me to tears and laughter, often on the same page. Seifert is a sensual and vital poet. The directors Menzel, Svěrák, Hřebejk and Lipský are all masters of their craft. But all these are just scratching the surface. When I arrived here, I read every translated book in the library by a Czech author, bought any DVD I could find with English subtitles and visited all the museums. I totally immersed myself.
Who were the bands or musicians who made you wish to become one of them? Was „being a musician“ a childhood dream, or how did you decide about your career?
When I first picked up a guitar at the age of 15 or 16, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Pixies, Lenny Kravitz and Jane’s Addiction – as well as all the 60s folk troubadours. My mates and I would set up our cheap amps in my parents‘ garage and just shred. We played parties and the local church hall – unsurprisingly, Sony didn’t come calling! Although I had been singing all my life, it was never a dream of mine to be on stage professionally. I never thought of it as a sensible career choice – I still don’t! Basically, it just crept up on me – I was working so hard on my music that one day I woke up and discovered that I had made a full-time career of it.
What does it mean to be a full-time singer-songwriter living in our times?
I’m glad you asked! Excuse me if I get on my soapbox for a minute. Being a full-time musician isn’t just a case of showing up to a gig five minutes before you’re due on stage, rocking the crowd for an hour or two, then hitting a hotel room with a couple of groupies. That’s only part of it! There’s hours of practice, years of honing your craft on stage, composing songs, writing lyrics, recording and mixing albums, arranging licenses and copyright, promoting your music online, uploading your songs and photos, designing posters and artwork, devising press releases, creatively blogging and emailing your fans, making videos, sourcing new venues, booking shows, long hours travelling to foreign shows, buying equipment, selling your product, balancing your finances and finally, paying your bills. It’s amazing there’s any time for performing after all that!
On top of that, many people don’t think twice about illegally downloading your music, or giving it away to all their friends. If your albums are self-financed, as mine are, that really jeopardises your chances of making the next CD. But without new music every year or two, it’s hard to keep the fans engaged. So you have to tour constantly to put bread on the table.
That said, it’s not all doom and gloom, so I’ll stop complaining now! The Internet has given musicians many opportunities that they didn’t have a decade ago. If you weren’t signed to a record label, it was hard to get noticed and sell albums beyond your immediate fanbase, hometown or regular touring schedule. The Internet has levelled the playing field a bit. Now every bedroom musician and their dog can have a music website, but equally, everyone has a good shot at getting noticed. You might not have a massive advertising budget, but if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can still make a mark.
Do you collaborate with Czech musicians or other artists?
My current band is truly international – we are British, Czech, Slovak and American. I am utterly blessed and honoured to be working with some of the best musicians in Central Europe. I also use phenomenally gifted local artists and photographers for my album art. When I have time, I occasionally help out venues looking for bands, so I check out a lot of live music. I have met so many talented performers here, whose music I believe deserves to be heard – among them Nylon Jail, Jan Řepka, Martina Trchová, Ondřej Galuška, Žofie Kabelková… all fantastic songwriters. I used to organise fashion markets in Prague too, because I met many incredibly original designers, but sadly I don’t have enough time for that now. Nevertheless, it is so important to support homegrown talent. Next time you need a present for someone, consider buying them something handmade and local. It’ll last longer, look better, and you can bet no one else thought of the same thing!
How do you compose your songs? Are they based on your own life and experiences?
People always ask me if the words or the music come first. The chicken or the egg. Sometimes, I’ll have a melody running through my head, and I just find some random words to fit the tune. Often those words end up in the final song, or even determine the subject matter. Other times, I’ll stumble upon a great sounding phrase, and the tempo of the words will suggest a melody. But I can’t choose when the muse will strike. Often I’ll be walking down the street when I dream up a new song – then I have to hum it all the way home, in case I forget it before I get to my guitar!
Somewhere along the line, someone told me the maxim ‚write about what you know‘. Pretty much all of my lyrics are based on personal experience – either my relationships, philosophy, or life on the road. The core of my songwriting has to be based in truth. How can I expect people to identify with my lyrics, if I’m not honest with them? Even the rare story-song I write has to come from something I have felt deep within myself. One song on my new album, ‚Third Time Lucky‘, is about a homeless man who finds life getting harder every year. The idea for the song grew from a night I spent sleeping rough on a pavement in Dublin in the middle of winter – probably the most miserable night of my life. I could never forget that, and the thought of spending my entire life on the streets is almost unbearable.
Your new album was released last Friday: how would you describe it? Is it different from the previous ones?
Musically, it is a little different. My debut album ‚First Person Singular‘ had a solo acoustic, alternative folk-blues sound and it featured a lot of guests playing wooden instruments! The next, ‚Second-hand Lullabies‘, was more soulful rock, with a full backing band and a more radio-friendly feel. The new CD, ‚Third Time Lucky‘ shows a slightly harder, darker side of my songwriting. There’s still the uplifting anthems to sing along to, but it’s soaked in old-school rhythm ‚n‘ blues tears and late-night whiskey laments. Lyrically, there’s still songs about love, death, hope and heartbreak, so the old fans won’t be disappointed!
If people want to listen to your music, what are the real and virtual spaces they should visit?
The websites which get updated the most are ReverbNation and Facebook – if you become a fan, you’ll get invited to shows and discover all sorts of exciting stuff there. I don’t play any regular shows in Prague, but I really like Joy, and I’m sure to play there again soon. And look out for the CD launch party with the full band – it’s going to explode!
‚Third Time Lucky‘, the new CD by Alasdair Bouch, was released on 10th May 2013, with a launch party planned later this month.
Photographs by: Honzi Foltan, Michal Mecner (respectively)