Twenty-First Century Troubadour: Justin Hayward on French Connections, Songwriting, and Literature

Posted on 07/25/2013

 

Justin Hayward

Justin Hayward

Interview with Barbara Havercroft

Born in 1946 in Swindon, England, Justin Hayward is the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist with the legendary band The Moody Blues. His renowned, highly successful career in music is now in its sixth decade, and is characterized by excellence and innovation in popular music. The Moody Blues have sold more than seventy million albums and have been awarded more than a dozen platinum and gold discs. Justin Hayward has also released seven solo albums and has received numerous prestigious awards, such as the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music, awarded in May 2013. The following telephone interview was conducted at the University of Toronto on Monday, June 10, 2013.

Barbara Havercroft

After you and John Lodge joined the Moody Blues in August, 1966, the band continued performing the rhythm and blues music played by the previous incarnation of the group. At this point, in the late sixties, you and your four band-mates decided to travel to Belgium to work. Why did you choose Belgium? Were there conditions in Belgium that were conducive to the band’s metamorphosis and the conception of new material, including the Days of Future Passed compositions?

Justin Hayward

Actually, the band’s metamorphosis came a bit later. You must remember that nothing is planned in this band. We just stumble into things and lucky accidents and great big slices of luck happen to us. So there was no plan. We went to Belgium playing the old rhythm and blues set, which we continued playing for about three or four months after John and I joined [the group] and we simply weren’t very good at it. We only went to Belgium because there was a promoter there named Ricky Stein who was prepared to offer us gigs and who could find us cheap accommodation in a bed and breakfast place. We worked out of Mouscron, Belgium, for a couple of months, not developing a new act. In fact, I think that it’s true to say that during that time, all of us were convinced that this would perhaps last a couple of months and then we’d move on from the group and each other. It wasn’t until the following spring (1967) that we really changed our style. Because I came to the group as a songwriter, I was pushing my own songs in Mouscron, and we did add a couple of my songs (“Fly Me High” and “Cities”) to our set straight away, but they didn’t go down very well because people just knew the Moody Blues from the rhythm and blues material.

B.H.
I did not know exactly at what point during that early period you began working more extensively on your own compositions and your new stage show. I know that in the late 1960s, the band did appear on a number of French television shows and performed at concerts and festivals in France. I am thinking of December 1966, for example, when the band was on a show called “La Soirée du Réveillon”; in 1967, you performed “Fly Me High” on “Têtes de bois et tendres années”; in addition there were performances on “Ce soir, on danse” (1968) and “Bouton rouge” (1967 and 1968, hosted by Michel Drucker) at the Maison de la Radio in Paris. The Moody Blues also played at the Gala du MIDEM festival in Cannes in March, 1968. How did the performances on these shows and at these festivals play a role in increasing the band’s renown and popularity in France?

J.H.
We’re very grateful to those television programs, particularly to “Bouton rouge”, and also to Salut les copains, which was a magazine that took a great interest in contemporary music. At that time, I was doing my songs in our set and so was Mike [Pinder], but they weren’t fitting in well with the rhythm and blues material. During those early times, from the time we were in Mouscron through until about 1969, it’s true to say that France, Belgium, and Holland saved our lives, because if we hadn’t had those places to work, I doubt whether we’d have survived. We couldn’t have earned enough money to even make the payments on the guitars and amplifiers. Those were the places that we knew we could go and at least earn a living.

B.H. 
In a recent article entitled “The Moody Blues: The Making of ‘Nights in White Satin’”, [retired Moody Blues member] Ray Thomas is quoted as saying, “France really put bacon on the table for us”. He then goes on to mention that the Moody Blues performed with the iconic, American-born, French singer, dancer and actress Josephine Baker. Do you have recollections of that event?

J.H.
Yes, I certainly do. It was a privilege to meet her. We didn’t have Google in those days, so I couldn’t “google” her to find out exactly who she was. [laughter] All I knew was that we were playing with someone who, upon entering the building, would provoke a huge flurry of activity and excitement. I have to say that in spite of her [rather flamboyant] stage act, she was the most unassuming, gentle, and tolerant kind of woman. It was a pleasure to meet her and see her work.

B.H.     
Did she wear her feather costume?

J.H. 
I don’t think she did; no. I think she was dignified – not that she wasn’t dignified with the feather costume on [laughter] – and calm; she was the great star. It was curious for us, because she wasn’t as well known outside of France. There are a few people like that, who have achieved that kind of great stardom, but who are hardly known in their home country. She was simply revered in France. She actually shared a little room with us [the Moody Blues] and was charming and tolerant of us, a very gentle and quiet woman.

B.H.     
Was this a concert at which the band and Josephine Baker were both performing?

J.H. 
Yes, it was a concert. But you know, these memories are a bit dim and distant for me [laughter]. If you asked each person in the group to describe a particular place or time, you’d get six different answers. At least, if the producer [Tony Clarke] were still alive, you’d have six versions. As far as I remember, it was at a stage in a kind of hotel venue. Whether it was televised, I don’t know. There was some theme to the evening, and in addition to us and Josephine, I think even Stéphane Grapelli was on the bill.

B.H.     
The French seem to have an enduring passion for your most famous song, “Nights in White Satin”. In 1982, for example, Marie Laforêt released a French version (“Blanche nuit de satin”) as a single, and in 1991, Alain Bashung included the song (in English) on his Osez Joséphine album. But prior to this, in 1969, Monaco-born Léo Ferré released a song entitled “C’est extra” that immortalized the Moody Blues and you in particular. Are you familiar with this song?

J.H.     
Oh, “C’est extra”; yes, of course. We knew Léo Ferré very well. We actually met him in 1966 because from Mouscron, we’d travel regularly to Paris. Fortunately, we had all found very lovely French girlfriends who would let us sleep in their apartments, so we never needed to book a hotel! [laughter] Through them, and through going to clubs, late at night – as you know, club life in Paris doesn’t start until around midnight –, we met Léo Ferré and he took us around Paris society, us and our girlfriends, and it was the most glorious thing, because he could walk in anywhere, if you had a piano. People would worship him. He was one of those wonderful contradictions in terms: an anarchist who never needed to buy a meal, and who had a chauffeur! [laughter] He could walk into any society gathering and he often took us with him. He was a great, great friend. I would love to meet his son [Mathieu]. I’ve seen his son play, and do his father’s songs, including “C’est extra”, but I’ve never had the courage to go up to him.

B.H.     
This song, “C’est extra”, seems to have increased the Moodies’ audience and visibility in France.

J.H.     
That’s right; absolutely. It’s a beautiful song. There’s another point I would like to make about “Nights”. There was a girl called Patricia, when “Nights” was about to be released, who actually released the record before we did. We had made the record, but ours didn’t come out until about November 11, 1967, quite a long time – two or three months – after it was recorded. Some people in the record company had heard a copy of it and had sent a tape over to Barclay, I believe, in France. Patricia’s producer heard the song and told her: “You’ve got to record this song”. So she recorded and released it before we did. It was like that in those days: people used to get Beatles’ songs out before the Beatles’ records came out.

B.H.     
But once the Moody Blues released it, did “Nights in White Satin” not go on to become a number one hit in France?

J.H.     
Yes, our version did. Patricia’s recording came out first, and did very well, but ours was released within two weeks of hers and then overtook it. But she still introduced the song to a lot of people; she was a beautiful young girl and so she brought another audience to the song as well, which was very nice. I’ve got her recording of “Nights” at home. She released a French version of the song; I can’t remember what it was called.

B.H.     
There is another, more recent French connection that I’d like to discuss with you. On the Moodies’ 1988 album, Sur la mer, you used Russian-born, French painter Nicolas de Staël’s 1955 work Le Fort Carré d’Antibes on the cover. Why the choice of the French album title and this particular painting for the album?

J.H.
“Sur la mer” was just a phrase that we thought fitted the album. I don’t exactly know why we were using that phrase. We were trying to pull the various songs on the album together and Sur la mer just seemed like the right kind of title. And it was only at the last second that I saw that painting and I thought that it would work with the title, of course. I did not even know exactly where it [the fort] was, even though I was very, very familiar with the Antibes area, but I’d never actually looked at it from the angle from which Nicolas [de Staël] painted it. It’s an old fort, isn’t it?

B.H.     
Yes, it is; it’s in Antibes right on the shore of the Mediterranean.

J.H. 
That’s right; yes. Then I asked for permission to use the painting, and it took some time for the family to give their permission. I’m so glad they did; it’s one of my favourite sleeves.

B.H.
It’s a beautiful album cover. I believe that this painting is in the Picasso museum in Antibes, in a room devoted exclusively to de Staël’s works.

J.H.     
That’s right. I’ve been there recently; yes. I honestly can’t remember where I saw it originally; it must have been in a magazine, around the time when we released the album.

B.H.     
Yet another French connection is that which exists between you and the medieval French troubadours, those composers, lyric poets, and singers of chivalry, courtly love, and desire. The association between your art and that of the troubadours seems fostered not only by your autobiographical song “Troubadour”, and the former electronic message board of this same name, but especially by your penchant for and mastery of love songs, called cansos in the troubadour tradition[9]. Could you expand upon your affinity with these medieval artists? Do you see yourself as a twenty-first century troubadour, continuing that tradition today?

J.H.     
What a lovely thought! What a lovely a sentence you’ve just said, Barbara. I couldn’t have said it any better. I’m just a guitar player who writes some songs. I am very privileged to be able to enter that magical, enchanted world that is songwriting. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s like having a room in the house, and only you know where the door to that room is located, so you can simply enter it. I often think that my life would be rather sad without that dimension and that actually quite bothers me, the idea that that dimension would not be there. I think that I did feel this association with the troubadours ever since the beginning. The guitar itself, and the fact that you could stand and sing and play, and that it was your friend; you could be just anywhere, in any room; there is one with me here and now. The troubadours made a huge impression on me as a child. I do remember seeing those pictures of medieval troubadours with lutes and other instruments and thinking, isn’t that a great way to make a living? You don’t have to work! [laughter] You simply write and sing a song, if you’ve got the desire to do it. Music is about having the desire. I don’t believe that it is about having talent. But there is a certain physical attribute you must have: your vocal chords must be made a certain way. But it took me a long time to learn how to play the guitar and how to do it properly. And that desire is what those troubadours had. They could travel anywhere and could earn a living by singing; people would throw a few coins at them and that would be wonderful. That has not changed; I very much identify with that.

B.H.     
Like many troubadour songs and poems, yours are highly poetic, richly textured, and characterized by the use of beautiful imagery and numerous rhetorical figures. One notes, for example, the combination of opposites (the oxymoron in “You are lost in the arms that have found you” in “I Dreamed Last Night”), personification (“And as the darkness/Throws its cloak upon the ground” in “Deep”), extensive use of comparison (“And the strength of the emotion/Is like thunder in the air” in “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”), and the poetic use of sound (such as the alliteration in the “d” and “s” clusters in “Just like driftwood of a dream/Left on the seashore of sleep” in “Driftwood”), to name but a few. Could you comment on your use of these poetic devices and the role they play in your songwriting process?

J.H.     
I think that I was lucky to have a childhood that was full of words and language, although I’ve struggled with the French language [laughter] for the last few years; I’ve got the most awful accent. You know, you realize that foreign languages, for an English-speaking person, are just not another way of speaking English. The French language is a window on that culture. And that has taken me a while to understand. I was very fortunate to have been brought up in a household with enlightened parents who were both teachers; my father was an English teacher and his language was gorgeous and precise. I learned so much there. My older, late brother and I shared a room at the back of the house, from which we could see the weather coming [towards us], see the sunsets, and we could see all things unfold in front of this window. It was very influential for us, this view. What was happening outside this window seemed to rule our lives. We could look into that western sky – that’s where the title of my most recent solo album came from – and see the heroes that we had. But I was also very lucky to have been brought up in a family with a very strong faith so my music, right from the beginning, was influenced by the English Hymnal, which has some amazingly beautiful language, and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, which is also quite stunning and breathtaking. It’s almost forgotten now, and almost misused, but it is actually beautiful and not hard for a child to understand. Those influences, all put together, have provided me with a kind of imagery that goes into my songwriting and writing of any kind.

Of course, there are other sources of inspiration for poetic images. I do find myself falling in love with lots of different people, not in any promiscuous way, of course [laughter], and over the past few years, am selfishly choosing my people much more carefully, and am not being around people with whom I don’t want to be. If I meet and see someone that I really fall for, then I’m going to be with this person. I decided a few years ago that this was what I was going to do. And I think that is what my lyrics were leading to. In addition, when I was a kid, I had a broken heart, and those kinds of experiences during childhood and adolescence are very powerful; they stay with you and inspire you forever.

B.H.     
You pursue your use of sensual, poetic lyrics on your new album, Spirits of the Western Sky. I’m thinking particularly of the song entitled “The Eastern Sun”, an impassioned entreaty to an unnamed lover-addressee. Here, pastoral images (“the skylark and the stream”; “the meadow rich and green”; “the whisper in the trees”) are juxtaposed with appeals to the senses: smell (the “heady fragrance”), sight (“the gardens and the groves”), and even taste (“the cardamom and cloves”) are evoked. These images find their perfect musical accompaniment in your delicate, subtle acoustic guitar work, the lush swelling of Anne Dudley’s violins and cello, and your distinctive voice: a sort of musical painting is created. What are your thoughts on the choice of images you are using in this song?

J.H.    
As I was saying, there are people whom I would follow if I had the chance. Of course, you can’t follow them into death. At times, I’ve been cruelly cheated in that way over the years. I don’t know how to put it more precisely without revealing personal details. “The Eastern Sun” is about wanting to be with someone: “Let me be there, at your side”. Some people have a magical aura about them and you can feel it. If you do say “I love you” to certain people, they’ll say, “I love you, too”; yes. And sometimes that’s just a short moment and then it’s gone and you can’t say it again. It has been said once, and that’s that. I do think of those issues in those terms. The song also harks back to my own childhood of growing up in an area of southwestern England – I was born in quite difficult conditions in an industrial place. My parents moved out of Swindon into the surrounding countryside when my brother and I were about five and four years old, respectively, about ten years before my sister was born. So we grew up in the countryside in the most beautiful, rolling hills. Those are the things which I remember clearly, as well as the deep history of the west of England where we were brought up. It’s a very powerful place of legend and myth. I started to see things in those terms and to associate them with people. “The Eastern Sun” is about a couple of different people whom I would [like to] follow, or whom I would have followed, to the ends of the earth.

B.H.     
There are other songs that you’ve written, while remaining poetic, have a stronger narrative thrust in that they recount actual stories. I’m thinking of “Billy” (from the album The View from the Hill) and of course of the diptych composed of “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”. “Your Wildest Dreams” even begins with a clear storytelling marker: “Once upon a time…”. Since this issue of The Critical Review of Contemporary French Fixxion deals with the subject of “Song/Story”, I’d like you to elaborate on how you use songs to tell stories. Is writing a song that recounts a story different from composing one that is more of a poetic meditation or musing on a particular subject?

J.H.     
I think that they overlap, but it’s curious that I sometimes don’t know what a song was about until later, with hindsight. I look back, twenty years later, and I’ll see what it actually was about. That happened to me particularly [with songs written] in the period between 1970 and 1973, which was a dark time in the [Moody Blues] band, an unhappy, unstable time in the group. I knew that we were going to split up; I could see it coming, because there were five very strong males together; somebody had to fall. With that alpha-male stuff, someone has to go down. It was every man for himself. So looking back on it now, I can rationalize the songs that I wrote then and see them in those terms.

As for the difference between writing a song that tells a story and one that is a poetic meditation on a specific subject, “Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” were absolutely true [autobiographical] songs. I had gotten to the stage in my life where I needed to know what happened [with that story]. The only further statement that I can make about the subject matter of those two songs is that you can never go home. That’s always a dilemma, because it’s never going to be the same. Maybe it is for some people; I don’t know. It was indeed very important for me to discover what had happened [with that story]. And when I did, it wasn’t quite what I thought would have occurred. As for “Billy”, it recounts an incident which I believe took place in Germany. I was in Italy or France (in Nice, I think) at the time and I was simply inspired to write about this incident. It didn’t impact me in any way personally but I felt quite close to it.

B.H.     
Justin, you are reputed to be an avid reader of contemporary literature, especially novels and poetry. Do the imaginary worlds of these fictional texts have any bearing on your musical compositions?

J.H.     
Yes, they certainly do, because what happens is that once I discover a writer, I then devour everything that he or she has ever written. Then I devour the biographies and autobiographies of these writers, or the diaries that they have written. You know, it’s a relentless thing. When I’ve exhausted a writer [’s works], I feel really down and I wonder: how can there be anything better than this? When I was a child, it started with Enid Blyton’s books, even though I don’t think that my father, who was a literature and English teacher, approved of her [novels]. But I found her mesmerizing. I read Blyton’s “The Famous Five” when I was eight, nine or ten. It was just absolutely wonderful. Then I began disappearing into medieval writings, followed by books written in the second half of the nineteenth century, before delving into poets of the early twentieth century and into the art of that period. I also read poets like Keats and Shelley. I then got somewhat distracted from really “good literature”. I became all psychedelic, reading the Bhagavad Gita and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the mid-sixties, I read The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), after which I made a complete change and went through P.G. Wodehouse’s books. I spend so much time on the road that the “Englishness” of the forties, fifties, and sixties is something of which I need to be reminded, because I sometimes forget where on earth I am or who I am. And then I remember: oh yes, there’s a reason for which I love the Anglican church, there’s a reason why I love those wonderful works of art in those often outdated institutions; there’s a reason why I love all of that. During the last few years, I’ve decided that I’ve had enough of male writers; the male fraternity, the male sex, was not satisfying me enough [laughter]. So I began reading all of the great female writers and have become completely enchanted with them.

B.H.     
What about French literature? Do you read any of the classics of French literature or any contemporary French women writers?

J.H.     
I should have done and I’m certainly going to get around to it. Could you give me a suggestion of a current French woman author whom I should read?

B.H.     
Certainly; there are many of them who are excellent writers. Can you read in French?

J.H.     
Yes I could, but I’d struggle.

B.H.     
There are works available in translation by authors such as Annie Ernaux, Marguerite Duras, and Sylvie Germain, among others. I would suggest beginning with Annie Ernaux: Les Années, her recent masterpiece, is a wonderful text. It has not as yet been translated, but it will be. There are, however, many of her other texts that you can obtain in English translation, such as Cleaned Out (Les armoires vides), Simple Passion (Passion simple), and A Frozen Woman (La femme gelée).

But returning to your work, Justin, I’ve noted that one of the recurrent images in your songs is that of the sea. Some examples include the “fleet of golden galleons on a crystal sea” (in “Are You Sitting Comfortably”, co-written with Ray Thomas); “Like a ship on an uncharted sea” (“I Dreamed Last Night”); “I lie awake with the sound of the sea/Calling to me” (“Voices in the Sky”); “We’ll walk beside the ocean hand in hand” (“No More Lies”); and of course, “the seashore of sleep” and the “driftwood/On the shore” (“Driftwood”)[19]. The sea seems to have different meanings in various songs. Could you discuss your use of the sea image, and its importance in your song-writing process? Is it a source of great inspiration for you?

J.H.     
I think that it’s the most powerful force in nature, isn’t it? I’ve gravitated towards it from the West Country [of England]. Now I find that I cannot live anywhere except by the sea, and I want a view of the sea. My daughter lives in quite a modern house which is in an amazing, rather wild position in Cornwall, and that’s had quite an influence on me. I’m drawn towards it [the sea] and I have to walk by it. I’ve got a little boat and I can be on the sea now and then, but it still frightens me. I need just to know that the sea is there; it is such a great, living being. I feel that I must be close to it and to have something that great, a physical thing to respect, is quite interesting to have in your life.

B.H.     
Justin, I’d like to thank you most sincerely for taking the time to do this interview with me today. I’ve very much enjoyed speaking with you.

J.H.     
Thank you very much, Barbara. My pleasure.