The singer-songwriter’s deeply personal 18th solo album brings together an assorted cast of characters that have made a lasting impact
Award-winning singer-songwriter Ian Shaw recently released his new album Greek Street Friday. Drawing inspiration from his early musical influences, including Bowie, Steely Dan, Al Jarreau, early Elton John, and Billy Joel, the album’s 11 tracks serve as an autobiographical exploration of various themes, such as 1980s London, New York, relationships and loss.
The album extends beyond his jazz roots to incorporate elements of blues-rock and pop, with production/writing from Jamie Safir and contributions from notable session musicians. The album not only reflects Shaw’s personal experiences but also pays homage to influential figures in his life while addressing the complexities of contemporary society.
A twice winner of BBC’s Jazz Awards, Shaw also presents The Ronnie Scott’s Radio Show on Jazz FM, taking listeners backstage at the famous club. A patron of the Citizens of the World Choir, Shaw is a constant campaigner for the rights of refugees.
Here, Shaw takes us inside his 18th solo album…
It’s always truth through lyrics first
TO BE HELD
Although it’s not the opener, the record started spiritually with To Be Held (track 6 on the finished album) – the first song we wrote. I heard an incessant, simple rolling melody, akin to how Joni Mitchell works on Hejira, and found how, if short bursts of melody (all within just five notes) are repeated, you can orchestrate the chordal movement with more depth and create a very consistent narrative in two big sections. The tension comes from a rockier bridge which serves as a tag to each section. Lyrically, these bridges contain the most pleading and almost shameful confessionals. I was undergoing eye surgery whilst recording with my friend, Tracy, who’s no longer around to jibe me with stuff like, “Come with one good eye, you clumsy clown.”
The confessional ‘muse’ culminates with, “Christ, I even think this is all my fault.” Because I mostly think everything is. Born Guilty is an earlier song, penned for my old quartet.
PEOPLE WHO GO TA-DAH!
This is about self-obsession and that pleased-as-punch thrill you get when you’ve clearly got away with a fairly heinous act. It features Jacob Rees-Mogg as its arch conceit. But like anything, there’s a smidge of decency in everyone. Mostly. Jamie Safir created a pop-perfect, almost Steely Dan-like arrangement, with a singalong chorus. It has a stop-time middle eight which for some reason makes me impersonate Michael McDonald (who I was lucky to work with).
GREEK STREET FRIDAY
The title track and two stories. The first I overheard, almost word-for-word, at a bar in Greek Street, waiting for a friend. The second story is my own I guess. I love Soho. I can walk there from my flat. It feels like home. Gerry’s Club is a life-line for a new generation of folk. I first drank there in my early twenties. It is a warm, supportive little bar, with people who’d drop everything to help you if you fucked up. And some who wouldn’t. I imagine it’s the kind of place my dad would love. He may have even been, who knows.
Acoustic guitar and slide make it into the feel that we wanted. The opening chords were inspired by a Tedeschi Trucks Band track – along with the new Bonnie Raitt – a band I was listening to when we were writing the record.
Falling Uphill charts my early days as a piano-bar entertainer. I loved it and loathed it in equal measures but the request slips were gold. There’s no real chorus but a repeated “Falling…” which is a real crowd pleaser. Saf and I love the early Elton and Billy Joel records and this is hopefully reflected. David Preston has prescribed melodies as solos on a few of these tracks. This is one.
George was written almost entirely by Saf. It was originally on the first Ben Cox Band album (which I produced). It seemed fitting to re-record it. Firstly, because it marks the genius and sadness of George Michael – and is so lyrically simple and easy to sing. Secondly we have drummer, Ian Thomas, in the band who was George’s drummer too. So it felt right. It’s the only song in 3/4 waltz feel – and goes very high vocally. I decided to whisper it, over ‘soulifying’ that section. Again, it’s always truth through lyrics first.
I had interviewed the Scottish Poet Laureate, Jackie Kay, about her book about [blues artist] Bessie Smith. I realised that the book was as much about Jackie as Bessie. I wanted to also pay tribute to another great friend, Clare Torry, who provided the legendary wordless solo on Floyd’s Great Gig In The Sky (Dark Side Of The Moon) and no better singer could I imagine than Polly Gibbons, who nailed it.
Again, Saf’s idea was the contrast between the image-rich verses which reference Kay’s book – and a rockier, more built-up chorus. David Preston features on this.
SAY A PRAYER FOR BABY BLUE
I spent some of my early twenties in New York. AIDS was wiping out thousands of (mostly only) young gay men. One such man was Danny, or ‘Baby Blue’ (he took a strange little blue tablet and wore a peacock blue boa). I adored him, met his mother out on Rhode Island.
Bowie was number one with Let’s Dance and I was on my way back to Spain to play piano bars again. My mum forwarded a letter to me from Danny’s mother to say he’d got very sick and died. He was twenty. A year on we danced to Don’t Leave Me This Way (Thelma Houston, not The Communards) and scattered his ashes over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Saf immediately got the Elton/Bowie feel. It rocks along and it’s our gig closer.
This is (or at least starts thus) the ‘jazziest’ song on the record. It starts with a free voice/piano opening verse, before going into time. It began as a melody only (from Saf) – a method I love. On my only other all-originals record, Lifejacket (2007), David Preston offered up this approach (especially on Hiraeth). Recording someone else’s tunes with my lyrics feels exciting and collaborative. There’s hardly room to ‘jazz’ this one up, the melody is so fine.
Lyrically, it looks at the awfulness and brilliance of how the younger generation live their entire waking day through their phone. I was on a train once and was thrilled at how thrilled a young woman was when a flurry of butterflies flew up on her screen. Words become images and reverse. There’s also a verse about the ludicrously re-invented (badly) Matt Hancock. Who I saw almost walking into a lamppost. His ‘little world’ in his face.
A duet for an older and a younger man. Generations apart, nothing changes. It’s a bar room singalong song, with the amazing Alex Haines playing slide guitar. The other 3/4 song if you hear it this way. Matt Kent, the NY raised singer-songwriter, was the perfect duetting partner.
WE STOPPED TALKING
Inspired by Robert Elms’ beautiful book, London Made Us: Memoir Of A Shapeshifting City and my own memories of how London and music were so intertwined. An extra verse was added to mourn the government’s bizarre treatment of the Windrush generation.