By Timothy Dwenger
Vacations are usually nice, relaxing times and for many musicians, a hiatus, break or sabbatical from performing and recording is common and rejuvenating many years into an active career. But, for a 20 something, coming off a successful solo debut and just getting a solid foothold in the American blues scene, it’s all but unheard of. Unless, that is, you’re Davy Knowles, the incredibly talented young guitarist and singer from the Isle of Man in the U.K. who broke onto the radar of blues fans late last decade. The thing that makes Knowles’ experience different from the aging rocker demographic in his line of work is that his recent multiple year break from recording and, for the most part performing, wasn’t self-inflicted and sadly it involved lawyers.
While he isn’t at liberty to talk about the legal issues that sidelined him for the last few years, he did offer some very high level thoughts when he recently spoke with The Marquee from his home in Chicago as he prepared for a brief tour and a return to the studio. “It was general industry stuff,” he said, casually. “It’s just a pain in the ass, but I’m totally through it and a little bit wiser and uglier for it.”
Fortunately, Knowles was able to make good use of his mandatory break, as he was able to delve a bit into the fascinating musical history of his birthplace. “I spent a long time back on the Isle of Man, where I was born, as part of their ‘Year of Culture.’ In fact, I was named a cultural ambassador for the Isle of Man, so I did a whole program working on Manx folk music. The origins of it, the development of it, everything,” he explained, referring to the music of the indigenous people of the island. “The Isle of Man is really a polyglot nation much like the states. It’s right between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales so you’ve got influences from all of those countries as well as Scandinavia too as the island was really kind of civilized by Vikings. There is this wonderful mixture of folk music there and I actually ended up doing a short documentary called ‘Island Bound’ which hopefully we will be able to release soon. It’s been quite an interesting project and I spent the best part of a year working on that.”
In addition to spending time in the U.K., Knowles explored the connections between Manx music and the music of the American folk tradition. “There was a mass migration of Manx people to the United States so we traced some of those routes and how the Manx music contributed to the music of America,” he said. “It is interesting how similar Manx folk music is to the folk music of America. We spent a lot of time in Appalachia and we found songs there that people have been singing since the Irish, Scotch and German settlers populated that area in the 1700s. They are actually better preserved in Appalachia than they are in Ireland and Scotland. They changed some of the lyrics to suit their own surroundings but the tunes are identical. Some of these songs are five or six hundred years old.”
While Knowles himself isn’t even 30 yet, there’s little doubt that he has an old soul, as his music shows the kind of maturity and craft possessed by an artist twice his age. At times he showcases rocking Rory Gallagher influenced blues rock and, at times, a more mellow, deft fingerpicking folk that owes as much to Mark Knopfler’s later work as it does Richard Thompson.
Now that the layoff and the headache of the legal issues are behind him, Knowles seems very excited to be back in the game. “I’m quite happy to be a working musician. That’s always been my goal,” he said. “It’s nice to get the wheels rolling again. I do this because I love it and for no other reason. I absolutely adore it.”
Earlier this year Knowles released The Outsider — his first album since 2009’s Coming Up For Air — and he’s finally been getting the chance to play these songs in front of a crowd. “It’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. “It’s great to be able to design a whole new set to play for people. The songs have already changed live because I never had a chance to tour a lot of these songs before I recorded them.”
One of the strongest pieces on the album is an acoustic tune that is heavily influenced by the folk tradition and draws its name from the documentary that Knowles worked on during his break. “I’ve always loved acoustic fingerpicking music. I kinda grew up on it as my dad played a lot of that stuff,” he said. “‘Island Bound’ is a homesick kind of song. On my first record I’d written an acoustic song called ‘Roll Away’ and I wanted to write a little bit of a sequel in a way because I’m in my late 20’s and I’m seeing my friends that I grew up with having families, getting married, moving away and doing all these amazing things. It makes you reminisce a little bit. It’s a very autobiographical song I guess.”
While Knowles’ hiatus wasn’t welcomed at first, it did give him the very same opportunity that musicians many years into their career are seeking: to write without the pressure of an impending deadline, to explore other creative interests and, perhaps most importantly, to recognize the value and importance of recording and performing.
Soiled Dove Underground | September 15
Go If You Dig:
- Mark Knopfler
- Richard Thompson
- Warren Haynes