THE RAGPICKER’S DREAM
Only the most distinguished of the musical elite go on setting themselves new goals after a quarter of a century of acclaimed recording achievement. Mark Knopfler fits the description exactly, and is about to demonstrate it again on his third solo album The Ragpicker’s Dream.
What’s more, he’s bucking the trend of his fellow rock giants by getting more productive as his career progresses. Released just two years after the hugely successful Sailing To Philadelphia, which sold three and a half million copies worldwide, The Ragpicker’s Dream is a delightful, distinctive continuation of what Mark calls his lifelong search for the musical connection between the Delta and the Tyne. More than that, it’s a record of subtle pleasures and gentle reminders of every aspect of Knopfler’s creative dexterity.
The electric guitar lines that helped make his name are still here, but they’re just part of a lexicon of inspirations and influences. Seek within for elements of his sometime strumming sideline the Notting Hillbillies and you shall find them, as you will hints of his pre-eminent abilities as a film soundtrack scorer.
“The record has a kind of an acoustic feel to a lot of it,” agrees Knopfler, “but I’ve really been writing about the things I’ve always been writing about. The things that broke my heart as a kid continue to do so now, nothing really changes. I think if I was to see the Sultans of Swing now, I might still write a song about them.”
“I find myself writing about work, ordinary people and what they do, changes to places over time, and songs about leaving. I suppose because in my life there’s been a fair bit of movement and I’ve always been interested in that, and in the fact that the music travels, so it’s a sort of transcontinental blues in a way. The music has travelled to the States and come back again, Irish songs, Scottish songs, English songs and European songs too.”
Recorded mostly in America with the same band as he has worked with since 1996, The Ragpicker’s Dream is redolent with real, rural elements of Americana. “It was purely practical,” explains Mark, “because me and [longtime keyboard-player and Dire Straits colleague] Guy Fletcher would go from England, and [piano and Hammond organ ace] Jim Cox would come from California, and we’d meet in the middle, where the rest of the guys were.
“Also, there was a room there where everybody could have a booth and see each other, because they use the bands that are capable of recording together all at once.” That spirit of unforced togetherness informs the record, from the opening bars of the opening single Why Aye Man to the closing moments of Old Pigweed twelve tracks later.
Since the official start of his solo career with Golden Heart in 1996, Knopfler has moved slowly and steadily closer to the lower-key expressiveness exhibited on The Ragpicker’s Dream. “This is the closest one to what’s in my heart,” he says. “I don’t see it as a desire to get away from electric at all. The song comes first, the song is the king and you try to do the right thing by the song, that’s always been my way of doing it.
“I’m playing less electric, yeah, just because I was sitting at home with an acoustic flat-top and writing the songs. Staying fairly true to that is why it’s shaped the way it is. It’s really from being more the person I want to be, which is a guy sitting writing a song. The instrument that was always there was this Martin, and I would always pick it up and play it and these are the songs that emerged. Then I would go and play them to the band the same way.”
Mark agrees that his productivity as a songwriting musician is definitely accelerating, and he’s having more fun with it than ever. “Writing is just the solitary thing. It has changed in a sense, I seem to be able to get more and more enjoyment out of it and it’s just writing, and I love that. Then just being able to play a song to the guys and for them to go into their corners and get their parts together and feel the whole thing coming together that way, that’s really a great time for me.”
Now, as ever, the road beckons. Knopfler played four acclaimed shows during July at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Beaulieu, in aid of such charities as Save The Baby, the Teenage Cancer Trust, Leuka 2000 and the Countryside Education Trust, accompanied by many of the friends and colleagues from his illustrious last 25 years, including Fletcher, John Illsley, Chris White and the Hillbillies’ Brendan Croker and Steve Phillips.
“I can’t tour at quite the same level as Straits days because of schools and different things, but we’ll definitely be a loose collection of musicians and do some shows somewhere. I like the idea of playing in places where you can see people and they can see you.
“I’ve had plenty of experience of the bigger thing, and when it got as big as it got, that was when I thought I should turn around and start walking back from there. I was getting away from being the guy writing the song with his guitar. I don’t want to get too far away from him, ever. I think I am getting closer to him, and although I’m a very slow learner, I’m learning how to make a record sound how I want it to sound. It’s a gradual process, but I’m getting there.”
MARK KNOPFLER’S TRACK-BY-TRACK GUIDE
TO THE RAGPICKER’S DREAM
Why Aye Man
“One of those tunes that comes for a number of different reasons. It actually means “Well, of course” in Geordie, “Why, yes.” You still hear it all the time. Jimmy Nail was shooting the new “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” series, and he happened to be saying that the North American Indians, in a lot of their music, they sounded just the same. That’s what put the idea in my head. That, and Seamus Heaney sent me a copy of “The Spirit Level”, his lovely book of poems that won the Whitbread prize. He’d written on the inside ‘To Mark, keep your level high.’ I was thinking about that too. On a building site you could always tell the brickies and the carpenters by their spirit levels and I was always fascinated by my dad’s spirit level, I was always looking at the little green bubble in the middle. I was really writing about the period in which the original “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” was set, it struck me as ironic that there were refugees going from here to Germany, not just to Germany of course, they were going all over the place. So it’s a bit of a mish-mash, the whole thing, but I found myself writing about the Thatcher period. It wasn’t written as anything to do with the new TV series, in fact they just took the chorus, which is only three words anyway, and used that for the end. Jimmy was telling me he’s sure it’s going to be a St.James’ Park [Newcastle United FC ground] terrace song, which is territory I’ve been in before, in fact the Theme from Local Hero is the United theme tune. There was a little spell when it was dropped, when Ruud Gullit was running the team, but as soon as he went, it came back again, mysteriously…”
“I was reading about sideshow live freakshows. It really just comes from whatever I happen to be reading at the time. The devil baby was one of the exhibits and it struck me that the current chat shows on television, like the Jerry Springer show, are a TV equivalent of the same kind of thing. So it was really just a little reflection on that. It starts from the point of view of someone who works in the sideshow area, then it moves to ‘CALL 1-800 IMA FREK’ if you want to get on the Springer show, which was a true thing, you could do that. So it’s just putting two periods next to each other and looking at the similarities and differences between them.
Hill Farmer’s Blues
“I spent a lot of time in the hills of Northumberland. I spent a bit of time doing farm work myself, so hill farming, although it’s a worldwide thing, is something I associate with Northumberland. Actually, there’s a line in it that goes “Going into Tow Law”; well Tow Law’s actually in County Durham, but it’s very close. Whenever I’ve driven through Tow Law I always got a feeling, can’t really explain what it was, but the power of the name always stuck with me. Recently it was the time of foot and mouth, and it was on my mind a lot, how hard it was. We were reading about suicides of farmers, and then I thought if I could make it work for everyone, your farmer in the song could be from where you come from, even in another country. So I’ve tried to make it work for everything and anywhere. Most importantly, I’ve tried to make it work for me.”
Place Where We Used To Live
“There’s a lot about home, and I suppose it’s the nearest I’d want to get to nostalgia. It’s just a place where we used to live, that’s all it is. With the last album when we were doing the press kit, I went back and looked at my little house where I grew up, and the back lanes I used to play in. I tried to find my first little school, and it wasn’t there. Then I went on a trip with someone else back to her little school, not so long ago, and that’s what got me thinking about it.”
“I saw a sign on a store somewhere in London, and it wasn’t a good shoe store, but the sign above said Quality Shoes and that sparked it off. It’s from the point of view of the salesman - it’s kind of my little tribute to 'King Of The Road'. I was lucky enough to meet Roger Miller shortly before he passed away, and it was a very pleasant experience.”
Thee Well Northumberland
“Like ‘Why Aye Man’ and ‘Hill Farmer’s Blues’ it starts off like a folk tune. It could be Northumbrian or a borders folk tune. It’s just Richard Bennett strumming on his bazouki, then there’s a harmonica and a Delta or Chicago style piano, then I start playing some electric, and we’re in the blues, so it really just travels inside itself. I like that, if you can bring that off.”
“This is a solo voice and guitar thing. I’ve got a semi home studio in a little mews house in London, and there’s a little back bedroom in there that sounds really good, so I’ve done quite a lot of work in there. ‘Marbletown’ I just did with the Martin and a couple of mics.”
Don’t Know You’re Born
“It’s a very British expression, in the States they don’t have it. So it is what it says it is. A phrase can strike a note, it could be just two or three words that somebody says, or sometimes it’s a place which collides with you. I’ve no idea when the gong is going to go off or why it goes off, but it just does.”
“Probably ‘Coyote’ comes from watching cartoons with my kids. I always loved Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, and this song is actually sung from the point of view of the Roadrunner, but the funny thing is my sympathy is with poor old Coyote. I don’t know what it is about him, he just keeps on trying. It’s a human thing, that endless, back-to-the-drawing-board thing that appeals to me. Even though it’s sung from the Roadrunner’s point of view. The Roadrunner is kind of cool too. They’re both cool.”
“The Ragpicker’s Dream itself I just invented. To me as a guitar player it has a number of different meanings. The first time it’s a bottle of whisky. I’m more driven to write about the fringes of life, I’ve always been drawn to that.”
Gone To Knoxville
“Again, it follows a theme I’ve always been interested in, which is following a place where people are familiar with the names, and looking at it from the point of view of the past. Just the last few years, these places have boomed. The Gallatin Road in the first verse - you see the traffic reports in the States and you see the rush hour traffic. On screen they’ll be saying ‘The Gallatin Road is very heavy, there’s an overturned truck on Exit 9’ – well that was once just a little track, and not very long ago either. The development is frightening, and you start to wonder how long the wilderness is going to hold out against all this civilisation. And I was thinking about Chet Atkins and his early music life, I think that was on my mind too, the endless backward and forward movement. So again I was using geography from Tennessee and putting it back a few decades into a much more innocent era.”
“I was learning about stews, like you do. One of the things I learned was that pigweed, which is a wild plant, was often put into Mulligan stews but it had to be young pigweed, the young plant. And I thought, somebody must have put old pigweed in it, it must have happened, and then somebody would be saying ‘Who put old pigweed in the Mulligan?’. So really that’s all it is.”
.....end of interview.