Interview with Mike Turnbull, musician – March 2023 – by Polly Marix Evans
Well, this is a new one for me, I have never interviewed a musician before, unless we count Gwen Bainbridge but she’s a ceramicist too and a friend so I didn’t consider her to be a scary musician. Not that Mike Turnbull is scary, though I think maybe my initial emails warning about my tendencies towards silliness may have scared him slightly as he arrived, at The EVAN Gallery in Penrith, with back-up in the form of his partner, Kate, and their dog, Teko.
Mike is a self-taught musician. He started playing bass guitar at the age of about 15 when a lad from school wanted someone to jam with and showed Mike how and what notes to play. Although he enjoyed the melodic patterns of the bass, he got bored with it as he needed to play with others to ‘make it work’, and he really wanted to play lead guitar and write his own songs rather than just playing other people’s stuff, though ‘normal and contemporary, not folky music’ at this point.
A less than subtle question reveals us to be close enough in age to know the same kinds of music (ish).
In the 80s everyone else was listening to the New Romantics - Duran Duran, Haircut 100, etc., that was the music of the time. Punk was beginning to go out of fashion, Mike knew he wasn’t ‘a greasy rocker’, so that left the mods to inspire him. He became intrigued with their music - Madness, The Beat, The Specials (which were the new mods of the time) and their genre links to the 60s. The Kinks and The Who, Pete Townshend especially, were a huge influence on his early music.
He played in various indie bands throughout his teenage years and on into his twenties and early thirties. I ask if he embraced the Robert Smith from The Cure look at any point (my first true love, a lad from Wales, played bass and had this look down to a T!) and he admits he did a little, though we both agree it’s not a look that ages that well past your forties!
During Mike’s forties he had a decade of ‘not much music.’ Sometimes life, work, family, can leave little time for something that, although not his full-time work, warrants more time spent on it than a mere hobby.
Mike has deep roots in Cumbria. He was born in Grange-Over-Sands and now lives on the outskirts of Kendal. His full-time job involves manufacturing boats – full sized, sold in kit form for people to build themselves. I ask if he’s ever thought of building a guitar and his eyebrows shoot up! I think I’ll take that as a yes, or possibly the seed of an idea planted.
Then various things changed in Mike’s life and, seven or eight years ago, he got back into the simplicity of acoustic music, listening to the likes of Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys, Seth Lakeman and Steve Knightley. It was then that he discovered the tenor guitar (he’s brought one along for the interview and strokes its case absentmindedly as I quiz him. Kate strokes the dog!) He says ‘It’s folky, but not quite.’ – intriguing! He already knew the sounds and shapes of the chords, but the tuning is different. He says the rest did him good, all that time away from writing music meant, once he began again, it literally flowed out of him ‘I had tonnes and tonnes of new stuff.’
He writes songs of stories and legends. The folk festivals, featuring the artists whose music inspired him, showed the crowds going mad to the catchy fiddle music and driving beat. Kate says people often think of folk music as being dreary or doomy and gloomy, but it’s not, modern folk is popular and often upbeat.
Mike has several recordings available including Circlet of Gold (2017), In So Small A Compass (2019), The Courageous Tree (2020) and Two Kingdoms (2021)
‘In So Small A Compass’ features twelve Lake District inspired tracks. The name of the LP came from Gavin Maxwell’s book Ring of Bright Water in which he writes “Nowhere… have I seen any place of so intense or varied a beauty in so small a compass.” Mike contacted Lukas Drinkwater, who plays the double bass and owns a recording studio in Stroud (Gloucestershire) as he’d played with some of the artists Mike so enjoyed listening to. Lukas has now moved to Australia with his wife, acoustic artist Emily Barker. The Initial EP of 5 tracks blossomed into an LP of twelve and includes tracks such as 'Heart Shaped Wood’ (you may have seen this from the M6) and 'Edge of the Map'.
The Courageous Tree (track & EP) is inspired by a tree which grows on the banks of Coniston Water, struck by lightning many years ago. It’s half alive and half dead and black and burnt, but still growing and has become a symbol of hope and courage to many in the local area.
Two Kingdoms harks back to Mike’s Scottish roots, back to the Border Reivers, the shifting boundary between England and the ferocious Scots, in which he sings ‘In two kingdoms we will dance' on Reiver's Steel.
Mike Turnbull and The Safe Kings has disbanded a little in recent years, and Mike’s new band, formed only last year, is called Mike Turnbull and The Valliant Knights. Alongside Mike, band members are Rob Steeles (on guitar, mandolin and vocals) Rob Penrice (on bass, and happy to be in the background sitting on his amp!) and Jack Davies (on drums.) You can find their music in all the usual places online – iTunes and Spotify, and also on Amazon. Or you can buy an actual real-life CD in The EVAN Gallery.
The bands mainly perform in Cumbria, they played at Solfest a few years back. They strayed over the border to Yorkshire to perform at Countryfile Live at Castle Howard in 2019. And they’re looking into performing at more festivals, again hoping to cross that county-line to Northumberland or Yorkshire (Mike’s partner is from Yorkshire) or maybe even further afield. Mike would definitely like to play more, along with teaching and doing workshops too.
He teaches students both in person and online. One of these students is studying music and, as part of the course, has to learn an instrument she knows nothing about. Mike is teaching her bass guitar at The Heavy Rain Studio in Kendal, owned by his good friend Andris. Another, from Leicester, has lessons via zoom. Mike loves that he can pass on his forty odd years of knowledge, and says ‘It feels right to be teaching now, doing it now.’
He still plays bass guitar too, in two cover bands. And another Kendal based musician, John Osborne wanted to work with Mike too, under John's umbrella Sunset Flight. John writes his own songs and liked the idea of adding Mike’s instruments to his work – Mike says this is much more ‘mellow and straightforward.’
By the time this interview goes live, Kate and Mike will have performed together in Skelton as a duo Briar and Bramble. Kate used to play violin at school and Mike has been teaching her mandolin. I ask Kate if she’s terrified! She says there are nerves there, but they’re good nerves. She used to teach forest schools and do story-telling, so she’s not afraid of an audience.
He doesn’t want to have a job he hates and be forever waiting to retire. Eventually he would love to be able to work full-time on his music career. He reckons musicians (and artists) never retire, they just go on and on because they really love what they do, and their work is always evolving.
Of course, he does sometimes get stuck, mind-blank. That’s when he finds inspiration in something obscure that he stumbles across, like the book he found of eighteenth and nineteenth century sea shanties. These sailors were singing songs to cheer themselves up, or keep them in time in their rope-pulling. The song lyrics are so old there’s no issue with copyright, and Mike can lift lines, tweak and alter to make them more structured with his own music. They’re jolly songs on the whole, upbeat and dance-y, such as ‘Haul Away Joe’ and ‘Fire Down Below.’
But there’s a bit of deep and dark in his tunes too. Songs such as ‘Runaway Corpse’ and ‘King of Dunmail Raise.’
I’m getting into the swing of this interview now and obviously think I’m actually on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs! I ask Mike what’s the last song he’d play, if he could only play one more, or save one from the waves. Mike says it would definitely be ‘King of Dunmail Raise’ and there’s such a good story behind the recording of this track. Mike went to record his EP Circlet of Gold, and he was just playing around on the guitar while Andris set the levels and got the microphones working properly, and this track was never destined to be on the LP, but Andris said ‘What’s that? What are you playing? It’s GOT to be on the EP, I LOVE IT!’
Mike says ‘the tenor guitar saved my life, and this track was the first I wrote for the tenor guitar. It is my signature tune. And if I could only play one more song, it would be this, and I’d play it on the top of Dunmail Raise with the Cumbrian wind blowing in my hair.’
And then I made him play it! And it was fantastic!