IN the week when Gary Stewart turns 40, the Easingwold singer-songwriter has released his lockdown album, Lost, Now Found.
“The album was recorded at home and is pretty much all me, with the exception of a few musical friends, like Rosie Doonan, Ross Ainslie and Mikey Kenney,” says the left-handed guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, whose birthday was on Monday.
“Especially with this album, when you finish a recording, there’s that culture, that thing, where you always think it’s the best you’ve done, but I really do, because I had the time,” says Gary.
“The difficulty is that normally I don’t give myself time to write songs because I’m always doing other things, but I think I’ve tended to use that as an excuse before, but that couldn’t be an excuse this time.”
Before Covid-19 became the invisible enemy in March last year, Gary’s diary would be filled with such commitments as playing drums for Leeds band Hope & Social and guitar for Rosie Doonan; alternating the drummer’s seat for eight years in the Harrogate Theatre pantomime orchestra pit; hosting the Greenwich Village-inspired Gaslight Club acoustic hootenanny gigs at Oporto!, in Call Lane, Leeds, and fronting a seven-piece covers band, touring the UK with Graceland: A Celebration of Paul Simon’s Classic.
“In lockdown, I could give myself to writing after quite a hiatus from doing that. Suddenly, you have all this time and you can either squander it or you can try to use it productively, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be productive,” he says.
Perthshire-born Scotsman Gary had cut his teeth performing on the Leeds music scene for ten years before moving to Easingwold. Writing songs in the folk/pop vein, and influenced by the major singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s – Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and assorted members of The Eagles – he had released three albums and two EPs to date.
“The last album came out in November 2018, but I didn’t really give it the push it deserved, probably because there were other things going on, though I did have a launch night at The Crescent [in York],” he says.
Lost, Now Found emerged over a burst of song-writing between April and June 2020, ten compositions completed in “lightning time” by his own standards. “I started with a song, Leopard, that had been kicking around my head and notebook for 18 months or so, with a verse and chorus,” says Gary.
“As a self-confessed professional procrastinator, my fear was that I wouldn’t stick with it or even bother to give myself a fighting chance, but thankfully I managed to finish it, and I thought, ‘let’s try to expand how I write, moving on from the usual four chords’.
“My girlfriend is a big Beatles fan and that kind of influenced my writing. For me, when I’m writing an album, I always think, ‘what would interest me as a listener?’, while trying to write each sing in a different key, though I didn’t quite manage it in end!”
“Technophobe” Gary ventured into the realm of D.I.Y. musician for Lost, Now Found, playing, recording, mixing and producing the album as a solo work.
“I thought, ‘I may as well spend time learning the technicalities of recording, learning how to use software of industry standard,” he recalls. “Arts Council England enticed me with its Developing Creative Practice fund, so I applied, got the funding, and that helped me to buy a laptop, an interface and a couple of really nice microphones,” he says. “This in turn led me down the rabbit-hole and into the Wonderland of home-recording.”
The next two months were spent learning a new trade on-the-go while recording the ten new songs. “It was a really interesting process, as I didn’t have to worry about playing on the songs because I can play what I need to a reasonable standard,” says Gary, who studied orchestral percussion at Leeds College of Music from 1999 and lived the big-city life until relocating to Easingwold in 2014.
“I’ve played for such a long time, I’m like a magpie, or a musical carpetbagger, picking up different things to play, like the guitar when I was 14/15.
“What was great this time was being able to get the sound I wanted, and all those things make me feel it’s the best album I’ve done: the recordings are good, the sound is excellent.”
Multi-instrumentalist Gary has enlisted the help of a handful of musician friends to “add colour” to assorted songs. Rosie Doonan, who has worked with Peter Gabriel, duets with Stewart on Hot To Trot, Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja and Lost, Now Found, and Mikey Kenney, from Band Of Burns, lends string arrangements to Rainy Day Lover and Sailors And Tailors.
BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ross Ainslie, from Treacherous Orchestra and Salsa Celtica, plays whistle on Front Lines, while Sam Lawrence and James Hamilton contribute woodwind and brass respectively to the opening track, Tailspin. “Under the pandemic restrictions, we couldn’t meet up, but I was able to send the tracks to them record their parts,” says Gary.
Lost, Now Found captures the sound and feel of a 1970s’ era singer/songwriter record. “My D.I.Y. approach to recording, coupled with my musical influences, help give the album its lo-fi sonority: warm-sounding acoustic guitars and drums; plate reverb vocals, and instruments captured as naturally as possible, with very little effect,” says Gary. “Think Tapestry meets Tea For The Tillerman.”
Stylistically, the album embraces 1960s and 1970s’ artists alongside more contemporary folk/pop luminaries: The Beach Boys’ drums and vocal-harmony influence are apparent on Hot To Trot and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja; John Martyn and Nick Drake bounce off each other in Tailspin; lead single Leopard has a Villagers vibe, while the plaintive feel of Still Crazy-era Paul Simon is present on Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and the title track.
“These are ten songs that I’m really proud of,” says Gary. “Songs that deal with themes I constantly return to, consciously or sub-consciously: fabrics of my character that I’d like to change (Leopard and Chest); procrastination (Hot To Trot) and redemption, coupled with new beginnings (Tailspin) and straight-up love songs (Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja) – songwriters just can’t get away from writing love songs!”
Inevitably, too, there are songs woven more indelibly and intertwined with the time and circumstances wherein they were written: family loss, both physical and mental, for Sailors And Tailors and Lost, Now Found and the triumph over adversity of the NHS for Front Lines.
“Some songs came really quickly, like Front Lines, which came from a conversation with my percussionist, who’s a paramedic, and told me of paramedics being put on the phone to speak with cancer patients who couldn’t be treated during the pandemic.”
This summer marks Gary’s return to performing, kicking off with Gary Stewart’s Folk Club from 7.30pm to 10pm on July 3, replacing the Silent Disco that has now aptly fallen silent that evening in the open-air setting of At The Mill, in Stillington, near York (box office: athemill.org).
“It will be a very special, one off, folk club: part folk night, part headline gig, with an eclectic mix of acts and then me doing a set,” says Gary.
As At The Mill’s Alexander Wright explains: “The first half will work like a traditional folk night. Hosted by Gary, people in attendance are given the opportunity to play and share – music, stories, songs or poems. If you want to share something, then bring your instrument and your voice and we’ll see you there!
“The second half of the evening sees Gary take to the stage for a headline set. We can’t wait for Gary Stewart’s Folk Club. We love a folk night – and we really look forward to seeing and hearing all the wonderful things you bring to share!”
Gary will be in solo mode on the July 31 bill for Meadowfest, Malton’s boutique midsummer music festival, headlined by Lightning Seeds (box office: tickettailor.com/events/visitmalton/348810/s).
In The Crescent’s diary are two gigs: Gary’s Paul Simon show, Graceland, on September 18 , with tickets on sale at £12.50 at seetickets.com, plus he will be back on drums there for Hope & Social on October 12, newly rearranged from July 16.
Even in such strange times, Gary Stewart is living out a young Scotsman’s vow to himself. “I consciously made the decision that I was going to make music, as even if I didn’t make a lot of money, I’d still want to make music because that’s the win of it,” he says. “I’ll always work hard at it, though sometimes I could be more proactive!”
More proactive? The multi-tasking new album, the diverse live performances, would suggest otherwise, Gary.
Gary Stewart’s Lost, Now Found was released on June 14 on CD, 12“ vinyl and download.
Just how multi-instrumentalist is multi-tasking Gary Stewart?
ON Lost, Now Found, he contributes vocals, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, hi-string guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, keys, xylophone, glockenspiel, congas, bongos, shakers, triangle, tambourine, finger cymbals, temple blocks and…thighs. Oh, and he recorded, mixed and produced the album.