Joshua Burnell ponders human fragility on Glass Knight folk album as he turns 30

Joshua Burnell, York folk-prog singer-songwriter. Picture: Elly Lucas

YORK folk-prog singer-songwriter Joshua Burnell releases his fifth album, Glass Knight, today.

He is marking the launch date with a performance at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, near Banbury, before a series of Yorkshire shows in the months ahead.

In the diary are Driffield Moonbeams Festival on August 16; The Greystones, Sheffield, November 3; The Live Room, at Caroline Social Club, Saltaire, November 12, and St Nicholas’s Church, Beverley, November 18, but not York. Not yet anyway. “There will be one,” Joshua promises. “Watch this space.”

Newly turned 30, Joshua combines his magical music-making with a part-time teaching post of Year Five and Six pupils at Fishergate Primary School and weekend shifts on the piano at Bettys Café Tea Rooms in St Helen’s Square.

“It’s such a contrast: all that noise in the school room, as opposed to being brought a glass of spring water on a silver salver in the quiet hum at Bettys,” says Joshua. “It’s like chalk and cheese!”

Does he play any of his own material at Bettys? “Oh yeah, definitely. At the end,” he reveals. “Now I’m doing more piano-based music, it’s easier to fit them in.”

Glass Knight, available from Bandcamp and Spotify, is his first album since September 2020’s Flowers Where The Horses Sleep, the one described by the Guardian as “theatrical with lashings of Peter Gabriel stylings”.

It is his first since the Covid pandemic too. “This album was kind of a lockdown project. I’ve wanted to do this project for a long time, but I’d been frustrated while it just remained in my head. So I finally recorded the demos in lockdown, with a few relics of those sessions still there on the record, including vocals for the closing track, Moonlighter’s Child,” says Joshua.

Joshua Knight with the Glass Knight. Picture: Elly Lucas

He also has been re-recording his 2013 debut EP Lend An Ear – that project is on-going – but the focus turned to completing Glass Knight, with Joshua taking on the producer’s role for the first time.

“This spring, I spent every day of the school holiday – except for my 30th birthday – working on it, even putting in all-nighters,” he says.

“I’d already recorded with the string section at Young Thugs Studio in York and some of the guitar parts, played by Nathan Greaves at Fishergate School. Hats off to head teacher Tina Clarke for letting us use the space.

“At the exact moment Nathan was recording the electric guitar solo for Lucy [Burnell’s ‘biography of a rock star’], the sun shone through the window, giving off this amazing light. It was like a scene in a movie. You couldn’t make it up. It was incredible.”

Reflecting on Nathan’s guitar parts, Joshua says: “Something wasn’t working in the guitar recordings in my own studio – and it was the feedback that was missing. You need that for the rock songs, and we realised we needed to find somewhere where we could achieve more volume and more acoustics, and the school hall was perfect for feedback.

“Nathan recorded his guitar part for Moonlighter’s Child while walking around the hall, where the reverb was incredible, and you will hear some of that on the track Glass Knight too. It’s the same technique that David Bowie used on Heroes, with Robert Fripp’s feedback on guitar.”

The string section plays a significant role too. “I need to give a name check to my patrons on Patreon, whose support meant there were funds in my account to be able to use string players, rather than programmed strings,” says Joshua.

“I knew Kathleen [violinist Kathleen Ord] from her having played on my last album, and she arranged to bring six string players to Young Thugs Studio. Six! I was like a kid in a candy shop, and they were really good at interpreting my ‘mistakes’ as I’d last used sheet music when studying my Music A-level. They were so good, they finished two hours early – and I’ll definitely be working with string sections again.”

Guitarist Nathan Greaves recording at the sun-lit Fishergate Primary School

For now, strings are confined to Joshua’s studio recordings, but “down the line, I’d love to have them play live with me.” he says. “Now I’m more piano-based in my writing, it lends itself to having string players.

“My ultimate goal would be to play the Royal Albert Hall, so maybe they could play with me there!”

From a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a love of fantasy, science-fiction, folklore and fairy tales, heroes and villains, sorcery and the supernatural, Glass Knight has been three years in the making. 

Moonlighter’s Child was the first song to emerge, its theme having first arisen in a novel-writing project in 2014 that was later abandoned. “The character from that story inspired the idea of an album about a character seeking redemption, after falling into an in-between world in the opening song, Where Planets Collide,” says Joshua.

A god-like figure emerges in the second track, Out Of These Worlds, who says “I can’t provide you with the answers”, encouraging the listener to take a solo journey through the album instead.

“I like the idea that you can read into that it’s a concept album, without a concept, like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, but equally the ten tracks can have individual meanings, and those interpretations are just as valid as my own interpretation,” says Joshua.

The metaphor of glass, representing human fragility, is key to Glass Knight too. “We build people up only to knock them back down,” says Joshua. “People just love to be in a mob, with the mob mentality where they like to see someone fall in a horrible way, which we’ve always loved in Western culture, where social media operates as an extension of the guillotine.”

The song Glass Knight was a late addition to Joshua’s song cycle but ended up defining the album and providing its title. “It’s a story from Saffron Walden, in Essex, where a basilisk – [a mythical creature, reputed to be a serpent king, that brings death to those who look into its eyes] – is terrorising the community and they need a solution,” says Joshua.

Joshua Burnell and Kathleen Ord’s string players recording at Young Thugs Studio

“I decided to use the Glass Knight as the perfect metaphor for how we treat people. In this story, the [glass] armour can reflect back both the basilisk and the people – which is something we see when we find ways of trashing someone – as I hold up the mirror to reflect on modern society.

“If those judgemental people found themselves in the spotlight, I’m sure they wouldn’t like not being seen as squeaky clean as they end up being trashed too.”

Social media is a double-edged sword for Joshua. “As a musician, I have to be on there. Without it, it would be game over, but you do get judged,” he says.

Joshua’s song writing combines past, present and future. “I write about whatever interests me,” he says. “People interest me, and what they do, what they did, and what they might do next interests me, ” he says.

“There is this desperate desire to connect with people from times past, and it’s the same with the future, wanting those people to be nearer than they are.”

Living, working and writing in an historical city influences Joshua too. “It’s very stimulating being in York. It’s comforting that there are stories everywhere, including more recent social history, such as the Rocking Horse Project at Fishergate Primary School, where funds were raised to repair the antique rocking horses found in the cellar,” he says.

“But the interesting thing is not the rocking horses themselves, but the stories surrounding them and the people in those stories.”

Come the autumn, Joshua will be touring with Nathan Greaves, Ed Simpson, Kat Hurdley, Oliver Whitehouse and Frances Sladen, who is carving out her own niche as So Fe with an album in the works, by the way.

Joshua Burnell: Throwing up a mirror to the modern world on the reflective Glass Knight. Picture: Elly Lucas

“The new music definitely lends itself much better to the band set-up, rather than me just trying to fit in with what I though the folk scene wanted. Now it’s me being me, and we just do it! It sounds the best it’s ever sounded on stage.”

It will be his first tour since turning 30. “I’m looking forward to my 30s a lot,” says Joshua. “Your twenties are about figuring things out. Your thirties are doing what you want to do, and that’s why this is the perfect album to be released now.

“All that baggage, that process, is there on the album and it’s a relief it’s out! It’s the first album I’ve produced myself: I’ve learnt so much from those I’ve worked with before, but this is the one where it sounds like I think it should.

“Ed Simpson, who worked on the last album, has mentored me on how to use the equipment, and this is the first album where I’ve really been able to work on the vocals to be exactly as I want them to be.”

Looking to the future, will writing a musical be on the agenda, as suggested to him by others? “I’ve written a musical before and there’s definitely another musical in me because I’ve done one already,” Joshua ventures.

“I wrote one for my brother Tim when he was in a musical theatre club, and he wanted it to be like The Decemberists crossed with Rick Wakeman! He was 13 at the time. Now he’s doing an acting course in France and he’ll be releasing some music of his own soon.

“He’s written this amazing song, Lazy Susan Lives In Fontainebleu, which is where he’s doing his course.”

Meanwhile, Joshua’s Glass Knight rides this way today. Let’s avoid saying it will be a smash hit, but it is his best work yet.