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Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rodney Branigan: the high plains drifter who came from LA to Somerset, via Nashville

"The idea in my head was that if I could do this thing it would attract a lot of attention initially and what I did with that attention would be the true test of my entertaining ability."

Maybe I watched too much Aerosmith on MTV in the 1980s but I can’t shake the sensation that there is a kind of one-upmanship involved in playing two guitars simultaneously that goes way beyond the usual. Calling Doctor Freud?

Rodney Branigan, 37, was at the BBC in Portland Place a couple of years ago, taking part in a showcase. He had a blues voice, was passionately involved in what he was doing and could definitely play guitar, plus he had a kind of rude health about him that, combined with the American accent, made me think of something my nana had said about American GIs during the second world war seeming “corn fed”. Then he pulled out a second guitar - whoaaah! - and started playing it alongside the first. One was a kind of rhythm section and he was managing each with one hand.  Nifty… and slightly disconcerting. Certainly memorable. He was already extremely good, you see, when he was only playing the one guitar: why bother?

Poking around on the web I could find very little about him, which seemed odd as he’d clearly been around for a while somewhere and had the serious demeanor of a pro. He reminded me a little of Chris Whitley, minus the drugs, or Lindsey Buckingham, for the guitar energy. But there was something wilfully non-standard about him: perhaps it was just that he seemed to have a rough idea what he was doing at a time when the music industry was in disarray. How?

Fast forward a couple of years and he played the Half Moon in Putney. We had a brief conversation during which he mentioned a sponsorship deal with Yamaha that made me think someone was probably marketing him, and that he'd recently moved to Frome in Somerset. So I tried again with the Googling. This time there was more: I could see evidence of a dalliance with Show of Hands, six records and – eh? -  a DVD of him playing in India, as well as an audio interview with a Parisian who wanted to know an awful lot about guitar tuning. 

“I get a lot of very guitar-orientated stuff,” he said on the phone later.

So tell me about yourself?

“OK. I’m from Amarillo, Texas, originally. I grew up on the high plains and left home when I turned 20. I moved around a lot, playing any place that would let me, and in those days I used to do a lot more folk-orientated stuff. Bob Dylan, that kind of thing…

“So I’ve been playing music professionally for 16 years and in my adult life I haven’t had another job. I lived on the road for years… opened for The Toadies and The Nixons, did several tours. Then I moved to LA in 2005 and had been there for about six months when I met a manager and moved again, to Nashville. I signed with a manager called Eddie Wenrick and he got me a gig writing for EMI.”

So you were like one of those young musicians in the brilliantly bling TV series Nashville? They did that job.

“Yes. That was me, kind of. So I had a day job while I was writing my album and I lived in Nashville for two years, had a couple of song-writing coaches, including a guy called Dave Loggins.”

Like Kenny Loggins? The tune from the opening sequence of Top Gun was suddenly going around my head.

“Yeah. I think he’s his cousin or something. So I was writing country music in Nashville and it was all right. I didn’t get any final cuts on albums and it wasn’t massively lucrative but it was a day job.”

There was a slightly guilty pause.

“I prefer not to write country music if I’m quite honest about it. It’s a very specific type of thing you write about and I don’t like to write songs about drinking beer and failed relationships. Most of it is about failed relationships.”

Suddenly he seemed immensely likeable. So you’ve been right to the heart of the US music industry?

“Yeah. I guess you could say that. But one of the reasons I moved to London in 2007 was that my record label – Little Wooden Boy Music - went bankrupt and my manager got out of the business.”

Oh dear. Was this connected with the rise of the internet in the music industry?

“It all seemed to start slightly before then. When I was in LA in 2002-03 I dealt with a lot of record labels and a lot of the A&R guys lost their jobs around that time. By 2005-06 it was taking a massive downturn.  There’s more money in independent music these days.”


“I mean as a whole there is. But on an individual level there isn’t.”

OK. So why London?

“There seemed to be a lot of opportunities for me in London. I signed with a record label based out of Paris called Bad Reputation Records and they re-released an album of mine from the States. It was a kind of rebranding. I’m still signed with them: in the UK I can release my own stuff but in France - because I don't speak the language - it's useful to have someone doing my groundwork. There's a booking agent and someone who does PR. But in this country I don't have a record label. I have an agent who does bookings in India and one who does tours in Germany. And I went to China once and did a tour of conservatoires, a lecture series on composing music."

So what's going on with Yamaha?

"Right. Yes. I'm on the Yamaha tour right now."

When I'd first tried his number he was breaking up a bit but I could just about hear that he was in a car on his way to a guitar workshop in Derby with Tim Snider.

"It's for the release of the LL series. That's a type of guitar they make: they just redesigned it and we're going into music shops and performing there."

So when I saw you at the Half Moon that was also part of the Yamaha tour?

"They took the dates we were already playing and filled in the rest, put us in music shops on the dates we weren't playing. I've been working with Yamaha for six years. I do clinical work for the guitar manufacturers and they fly me around the world to demo the guitars. Basically I sell the guitars to the people who sell the guitars."

Suddenly, the pieces fell into place for me. Branigan does a business-to-business thing a lot of the time. Yes, he's a pro but it also accounts for the lack of footage on the web of him giving concerts, which you'd usually expect for someone who was making a good living from music. Eureka.

"Yeah. I get loads of free guitars. I haven't had to pay for a guitar in about 12 years."

And I guess that's just as well, considering your website is called

"Ha! I started that website in 2001. When I started playing percussive guitar I wasn't sure how hard you could hit them and I broke six in a year. But I've figured out how not to break them now. I pretty much know the exact tensile strength of my guitars."

And do you ever worry that the "two guitars" thing gets in the way of the music? That your gimmick overshadows your reputation as a serious musician?

"Yes. I do feel that it gets in the way. It gets a lot of attention, so I reserve it now for the last track of every set I play. But it's where all the guitar endorsements come from. Initially I did it because I was trying to make as much sound as possible. The idea in my head was that if I could do this thing it would attract a lot of attention initially and what I did with that attention would be the true test of my entertaining ability. I do get some criticism for it - mainly from other guitarists, who say 'What's the point of playing two when you could play one and make more of it.' But I get some pretty rare endorsements. I make a comfortable living."

So you moved to Frome? You said you have a five-year-old daughter now with your partner, whom you met in London? Is she from Somerset?

"No, she's from London. But she was more up for the move than I was: she just wanted to get out of town. I grew up in a bit more a of a country environment myself, where there was more space to run around and I want that for my daughter. We looked at Trowbridge but decided on Frome when we heard that there would be a Steiner school opening there. It's a kind of alternative education where they focus on the creative arts more than they do in the state system. And one of the ways they do that is by slowing up the academic side of things before the age of seven, then they speed it up again. From the age of seven to 16 she will learn Chinese and Spanish and most of the kids that come out of Steiner schools are pretty fluent in both. I met some people on the road who had their kids in Steiner schools and one of them had a 16-year-old who was fluent in French."

Useful stuff.

"Frome has a creative community and a farming community, and I'm fine with both. My family farmed wheat, maize and cane for animal feed, and I can appreciate both mindsets."

And how are you settling in? Have you met the neighbours? I went to the folk festival in Frome a couple of years ago - coincidentally I ended up writing a piece about musicians who had mildly dysfunctional relationships with instruments - and remember that Sam Lakeman and Cara Dillon live there.

"Yes. I've met them in passing. And I met Seth before, through Steve Knightley. He invited me to play one year, to help stand in for Phil Beer when he was away, and it took two of us: me and Seth. In fact I saw Seth two days ago at the Acoustic Festival of Britain: I was trying to see if he'd be at Glastonbury this year. My partner and I are both involved in a project in the kids' field: we take guitars and violins along with us, as well as teachers, and give free lessons to children. My partner is a luthier and she recycles musical instruments from music schools. I'll always be at Glastonbury doing this, even if I'm not on the bill."

He explained that this was how he also met Billy Bragg: he donated some recycled guitars to Bragg's Jail Guitar Doors charity after being invited to play the Left Field stage at Glastonbury one year and even went with him to HMP Wandsworth to play back in 2007.

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