bridget st. john
in 1968, the enduring DJ john peel started his record label, dandelion, around the young folksinger bridget st. john. over the next five years, she was a vital part of an unprecedented and still unmatched wave of british folk rock talent (fairport convention, nick drake, bert jansch, al stewart, john martyn, the incredible string band) that flourished in the acrimonious success of late-’60s london, and outlasted kamikaze psychedelica well into the ’70s.
bridget st. john’s music is cloistered yet honest, her husky voice unhurried and glowing. songs such as “lizard long tongue boy”, “barefooting around the city”, and “goodbaby, goodbye” are uniquely british folk rock vacuum-packs, languid, rarified, and unabashedly romantic. her songs are sad but they strive to connect. there’s hope in them too, as if nico had possessed desire.
I met with her in cafe mogador and we talked about her friends and musical peers back then (nick drake, david bowie, kevin ayers, sandy denny, buffy sainte-marie, john martyn), and life these days with her daughter. she is a clear-spoken, warm person. personable and private. she’s lived in new york city since the mid-’70s and has recently begun performing again.
chickfactor: what are you doing with yourself now?
bridget st. john: I’m writing songs and am beginning to play a few gigs again. for awhile I tried to do voiceovers. but you can’t get an agent until you get a job and vice versa. I did do one for an art shop. got $50 for it. I had to take three trains, but it was 30 seconds of work for $50 thank you very much. to try and get more gigs I would have had to call every morning “hi, you really want me, don’t you?”
cf: you have a daughter?
bridget: yes. she’s pretty centered now. I mean, the beginning of teenage years are pretty awful and that’s the time that I think they need parenting. they’re so difficult, they’re difficult to themselves. but now she’s really in a great place.
cf: is she old enough to have a sense of your career as a singer?
bridget: oh yeah. now she’s very proud. she takes cds with her, she like a little agent, she came to the gig in london at the weavers last year. she’s seen me perform when she was a little girl but she doesn’t remember that, so that was the first time she’s seen me. she’s totally supportive, she wants me to do this now. I think three years ago it would have been a scary thing. but now it’s like, I’m very cool now.
cf: and then who knows in a year?
bridget: well, exactly…you have to take what you have now.
cf: how did you start with music? did you learn on guitar?
bridget: I didn’t even have a guitar till about a week before I left high school. when I was younger, I played piano until I was 11. I hated my teacher and thought, I’m not gonna do this mountains and molehills and all this. so my mother said “okay, you can give it up but but you have to do another instrument.” I said I wanted a guitar. “no! you can’t play a guitar.” so I did the viola for two years and tried to play it like a guitar and my teacher ended up giving me a banjo because it was so clear that I didn’t want to play the viola. finally my grandmother wound up giving me £20 so I went and bought a guitar. then when I went to university I was around all these people that could play. I would just watch them, try to figure out what they did. my second year at university I met john martyn, so then I started learning a lot. I had been in the south of france with this american girl, buffy sainte-marie. who is, to this day, amazing to me. she’s one of those few people who is political, but can combine it musically so that it’s still very moving. the woman I listened to when I was much younger was helen shapiro. she was an english singer who had three or four hits. her first hit was “don’t treat me like a child”. she gave me hope because she had a deep voice — and all these other women had high voices‹and I finally thought, maybe you don’t have to have a high voice. and the beatles. but that was before I had a guitar. and bob dylan. I used to listen to a lot of bob dylan. I still do.
cf: what do you remember about bowie?
bridget: bowie used to have a folk club, something called “the beckenham arts lab”, and he actually ran it. he’d sit there with his acoustic guitar and play and then introduce whatever guests. I also opened for him at an open-air festival when space oddity first came out, and I’ll never forget, we were all sitting around backstage listening to the single, and everybody was looking at him like this is so great and he’s got his long curly hair…very sweet. and then later I opened for him in his ziggy stardust days, down in portsmouth. there was a huge storm, a hovercraft overturned, that was such a weird night. and there he was in his platform heels and I remember thinking, oh, that’s not the same guy that I remember.
cf: you were friends with nick drake?
bridget: we used to play at “cousins,” which was a little club. paul simon used to play there when he first came to england. john martyn played there all the time. there was a greek restaurant upstairs and it was owned by this big greek guy named andy the greek. then he had this cellar — “les cousins” it was called. anyway it was this great little place where you could always go and hear so many people. nick and I played there a lot. we were very much alike — we tended, if somebody’s talking, to be kind of quiet. I didn’t need to say much with him. I can remember sitting outside on greek street — outside a pub opposite les cousins waiting to go in and play and not really saying very much, and it was very comfortable — I don’t have to fill up the silence if it’s not necessary.
cf: john martyn was a good friend of his also…
bridget: oh yeah, they were really close. he was really upset when nick died.
cf: what do you think went wrong with him?
bridget: I think he was very depressed actually. I remember having a conversation with john when nick died, and at that point — I don’t read about people and find out what happened — but he heard he’d taken an overdose of prescribed antidepressants.
cf: well, of course, with his musical resurgence, there’s been a lot of speculation surrounding his death — accusations that he was damaged from acid use. what do you think?
bridget: well, I don’t see the point in speculating since he’s not here. enjoy what he left behind, instead of worrying over what might have happened. in terms of acid, my head is in the ozone, but as far as I’m aware, that’s not my impression of him at all. I know, I can remember other people that I definitely knew were using, or had been. nick wasn’t like that. knowing what I do about depression, I would definitely say it was much closer to that. but you know I loved his music, that was nick drake to me. you know, “could have been a poet could have been a book…” it’s just lovely thinking.
cf: your songs have a similar atmosphere.
bridget: we were very complementary. we didn’t write the same things — but we definitely had some sort of balance — especially in terms of performing.
cf: in retrospect it seems very natural, you two being in the same time and place performing together.
cf: so was it through john martyn that you met john peel?
bridget: I met john peel through a guy called pete roche, a poet who was affiliated with the liverpool scene. he knew people I knew at sheffield (university). at the time john peel had a radio program called “nightride,” and so john said I’d like to hear what you do, so we went over to al stewart’s and made a little demo. he liked it and asked if I wanted to come on the program. and again this is something that would never happen today because you can’t get into the BBC because of security, but back then I just went up to the desk clerk, “I’m here to see john peel, and I’m going to be on his program to play some music.” okay fine go on up to floor whatever it was, that’s what it was like then. the first album I made (“ask me no questions”, peel produced) took ten hours. it was very much about doing it. “pig and peel”, a song ron geesin produced years later for a 10″, is about john peel’s wife, sheila. he calls her “the pig.” I wrote it for them you know cause they were great to me.
cf: “pig and peel” could be a great children’s song…
bridget: I would like to do a children’s album.
cf: you have a real knack for it.
bridget: there was the one with kevin ayers, “the oyster and the flying fish”, we did a duet. it’s a great little song. we were going to do a children’s album together, but I was here, he was in majorca, and it never happened. I wrote some songs for my daughter that she still asks me to sing even at 15, although maybe it’s because she knows they are about her.
cf: are you aware of what your daughter listens to?
bridget: I hear stuff through her that I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. I try not to listen to the radio a lot, the same songs over and over, but she’s very open to what I do listen to, she’s very open to some things. she’s not like, “oh mom.”
cf: what was touring like back then for you?
bridget: at the beginning it was just me. I didn’t know how to drive. one of the very first things I did was john peel took me on his DJ gigs, in rooms that were called “quiet rooms”. he’d play records, then say to the audience, “I want you all to sit down because she’s very shy. be very quiet, I want you to listen…” and I would sit and play a half hour or so. “don’t do too much,” he’d say, “it’s always good to leave them wanting more.” I would also play colleges. then I got an agent, I would open for fairport convention, the doors, deep purple, david bowie. it was weird but it always worked — except one time, when I opened for the groundhogs. that was a disaster and it was in newcastle, a big town hall. it was the only time I ever walked off-stage — all these kids chanting “we want the groundhogs” I did a couple gigs with the incredible string band but it wasn’t like I got to know them.
cf: were you listening to a lot of your contemporaries back then as they put records out. I mean, would you go out and buy the new pentangle record?
bridget: I listened to everything john (martyn) put out. van morrison, joni mitchell — she put out her first album about the same time as mine. I loved carly simon’s first album. I don’t remember really buying much after that, but I loved that first album. some king crimson, fotheringey, which was sandy denny. sandy denny, she was great. I was really upset when she died. CF