Ritchie Blackmore... yes the strat wielding, hard rocking riffmeister from the legendary band Deep Purple has just released a primarily acoustic based collection. If you think this means pseudo-acoustic versions of "Smoke On The Water and "Woman From Tokyo", check your preconceptions at the door. "Shadow Of The Moon" is a wonderful merging of styles and genres drawing primarily from the 15th century Renaissance period. Blackmore borrows liberally from Renaissance themes for the music. The lyrics skillfully dance between centuries past and present and are the product of Candice Night, who handles the vocals as well.
While purists may stick their noses up in the air at this recording, Blackmore and Night have taken their love of this music and put it into a more contemporary setting which may ultimately introduce many to Renaissance Music who wouldn't otherwise be inclined to investigate it. This project is also not a typical "one off" but a career path that Blackmore is firmly committed to. A second record is almost completely written and Blackmore advises that it will be a little more energetic, stressing the Gypsy spirit and reflecting a more Russian and German influence. I spoke with Ritchie following tours of Japan and Europe to promote this release and got a couple of comments from Candice as well.
JJ: Other than the intro to "Anya" on a recent Deep Purple CD, and the lead break on "Black Masquerade" with your group Rainbow, you haven't displayed any leanings toward the acoustic guitar in your career. How did this project develop?
RB: I've been interested in Renaissance music for about twenty five years , and I always kept it just as something I listened to until about four years ago. I began playing in that style about that time and Candice would join in humming the tunes so we just took it from there. I felt that her voice would be good for this type of music as it is kind of romantic. A few of my friends suggested that we record the songs we were playing as they sounded so good, and that's how it got started.
JJ: I have read that you referred to this as a "conglomeration" of styles, is that due to your use, even subtle that it is, of the electric guitar?
RB: That's right.
JJ: You may upset the purists with the less than exact Renaissance instrumentation, but you might just make the style much more accessible to the mass audience with this approach, was that in your plan?
RB: There was one point when I thought, lets make the traditional record, but my next thought was that we wouldn't be doing anything that somebody hasn't already done so we compromised. What we wanted to do was open the door for other people that were not particularly interested in Renaissance music to show them what's out there so that's why did a bit of both. I really love the traditional approach, but I don't think I could really do it in the orthodox manner. We started off with "Renaissance Fair" which is an old Renaissance riff I have played for years, and then developed into "Play Minstrel Play" which we didn't even know the words to. I told Candice that I thought it should be about a flute player much like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
JJ: You managed to get Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull to play flute on that one?
RB: I am kind of a friend, but more of a fan of his. I have been a fan of his for about twenty odd years, and I think that when he (Jethro Tull) did the "War Child" tour back in '74 I was impressed not only by the music but the whole angle of the minstrel look compared to everybody else playing Led Zeppelin. He is so sophisticated and to my thinking one of the only true Genius in Rock Music.
JJ: There are some similarities between Renaissance Music and Rock n Roll.
RB: Yes, it's those parallel kind of fourths and fifths, not unlike the "Smoke On The Water" riff which is in fourths, and some of the harmonic structure is similar. Sometimes if you hear some of the music played for royalty it is very brash and majestic or exciting, like todays Rock show although 500 years ago. Funnily enough I am not drawn towards the Lute, even though most people would think I would be, my interest is in the wind instrument side of things. I love the Trombone.
JJ: I read that you were trying to capture some of the "Gypsy Passion" with this record.
RB: Yes, well that refers to music which to us was also trying to get across a feeling of sitting around a campfire with acoustic guitars and playing songs which would stand up on their own without effects, and a light show or plugging into an amplifier. The Gypsy passion is also an offshoot of people like Django Reinhardt and his fiery style of playing. I often think about how an East German or Hungarian would approach the music which surprises people who think this is Celtic music. I feel this is very far from Celtic, and I don't relate to Celtic music too much as that is more along the Irish line and we are drawing more from Europe.
JJ: Speaking of Django, you do some pretty nice playing on "Play Minstrel Play" yourself, do you use a pick on those fast runs?
RB: On that part I do yes, although when I am writing I play mostly without a plectrum. Sometimes it is strange making the changeover to the plectrum for performance, because on stage to come across I find that the plectrum is the best way. I also am finding it hard to use a true acoustic guitar on stage. I did actually in the beginning but quickly developed a lot of feedback trouble. When you play on your own it's okay, but when you play with the band things like drums and keyboards get a little bit loud.
JJ: And they suck away some of your frequencies.
RB: That's right, and it drives me crazy so I find myself in desperation getting out the plectrum and turning up a little bit. I now have a Fender semi-acoustic which I am using on stage.
JJ: How did you find the song "Ocean Gypsy"? It seems to fit your project perfectly.
RB: That piece came along from Annie Haslam and the group Renaissance. Annie is an old friend who we went to see play up in Connecticut several years ago and she did "Ocean Gypsy" so I went out and bought her CD which contained that song, I believe it was from about 1975. Another inspiration is Michael Oldfield (best known in the US for his Tubular Bells which was used as the theme for the movie The Exorcist) and one of my favorite records of the eighties was his hit "Moonlight Shadow" (a huge hit in Europe and other parts of the world, but not in America).
JJ: You have a few very tasty instrumentals on this CD, did you ever consider making this record all instrumental?
RB: Not really, I have always found that a bit dull, although I do like people like Leo Kottke.
JJ: You display a nice touch and tone for someone known only as an electric player.
RB: I have been practicing a lot on the acoustic for about four to five years now, but it was a quite strange transition because you can't just run up and down the fingerboard like you can on the electric. Of course the action and the necks are higher and bigger, and the strings are much wider so everything you play on the acoustic has to count a little bit more. On electric I play a set of eleven to forty six (string gauges) but I don't play like Jeff Beck who is a very electric style of player, my runs are more orthodox and I don't bend as many notes. I had been schooled a little bit years ago on Classical Guitar, and it may sound strange but I learned to use all my fingers. A lot of Blues, and Rock guitarists don't use more than two or three (on the left or fretting hand).
JJ: You seem to have developed a pretty good fingerstyle with your picking hand, do you use flesh and nail?
RB: Actually it is all flesh, and I have been playing fingerstyle hard for the last four years. I recently went to the finger doctor for my left hand because playing the acoustic guitar was much harder , and it is amazing that after playing for so many years that working on the acoustic would bring back the calluses, and the pain (laughing). On the acoustic I have been using the standard D'addario 13's.
JJ: Your electrics are famous for having scalloped fretboards, have you had the acoustic fretboards worked on?
RB: No, because I only need that scalloped business for bending a note to push it up a tone , and on this type of music I don't bend any notes.
JJ: What make of guitars are you using on this recording?
RB: Most of the was done on an Alvarez and a Taylor, although we had better luck recording the Alvarez than the Taylor which got a little mettalicy and honky. I now have a Lakewood which is made in Germany and I am very impressed with it. They gave it to me to try when I was on tour there recently and I find myself playing it all the time now. Pat Regan was responsible for recording the guitar and he placed two mics very close to the sound hole.
JJ: The new CD has a track 16 which is a bonus instrumental track for America?
RB: We just recorded that "Possum's Last Dance" a couple of weeks ago. We thought that since the record had been out for a year overseas we wanted to add something extra. I recorded that with the Taylor and tuned down, although most of the recording features guitars tuned to normal 440 I tend to like tuning my guitars down. I feel that by tuning down a whole step the guitars ring and sustain better and the flexibility of the strings is increased.
JJ: Do you use any alternate tunings?
RB: I haven't got to the point where I can leave standard tuning. I find the guitar complicated enough without changing the tuning.
JJ: On "No Second Chance" was it a difficult decision to add the electric slide guitar?
RB: We couldn't make up our minds so we recorded it with both acoustic and electric! Hidden in the mix is all the acoustic take but we liked it better with the electric up front. That is where I started thinking that it should not be just Renaissance music and all acoustic. I almost felt guilty about playing the electric. The next one will be like this as well, I don't want to get bogged down playing only acoustic.
JJ: This record could be a bit of a "guilty pleasure" for people like myself who like Renaissance music but could overdose real quickly on the real thing.
RB: Exactly, that is what we are trying to do. I have loads of Renaissance stuff but I find myself getting a little bit tired of the purist approach.
JJ: You are probably going to be blasted by the guardians of true Renaissance music.
RB: Oh, definitely. But those people have a place in history. We want to draw from it the romance and change it a little bit. I can imagine that people will listen to our stuff and say "I can recognize the melody but what is he doing?". Sometimes things can be a little bit droll if presented as found, sometimes you need to add some excitement. I was brought up on Segovia , who is a brilliant guitarist, but he leaves me bored stiff.
JJ: You also played some Mandolin on this record?
RB: I just went into a guitar shop down the road not too long ago and asked if they had one, and they pulled one off the back wall. I told them it would do, but could they tell me how to play it? They didn't have any idea, so I tune it like a guitar and just play it like a guitar so the notes I tune to are G C F# and A.
JJ: You also play a healthy amount of twelve string on this record.
RB: Yes, I really like the twelve string, they are great to play if they have good action which is the secret actually. My Alvarez has got action similar to an electric guitar. I find myself playing the twelve string too much sometimes. It is such a great sound and a few people have told me I play one like a six string, to me there is not much difference although my fingers tell me afterwards that there is.
JJ: You have to be very precise or you can really sound messy.
RB: That's really true, I love the twelve string. But like we said earlier when you get on stage the nuances of the twelve string can get lost in the sound of the band.
JJ: I understand you have toured parts of the world and played some very non-traditional concert venues in support of this recording.
RB: Yes, the idea was to go in much smaller halls as the audience would be smaller. We played a Church in Berlin which was packed with people from Germany and Poland and it had such resonance due to the stone construction , and the audience listened so intensely that you play better because there is almost a reverent feel to everything. We would like to do more of this in the future, play in Castles and Churches.
JJ: Have you thought about playing any of the big Renaissance fairs?
RB: We have, and we're looking into that although we are wondering if we will get flack for using amplifiers. We were going to play at the New York Renaissance fair but the musician who runs it didn't seem too amused by the idea.
JJ: Do people show up to your gigs in full garb?
RB: Yes they do, and it's great! There is a whole following that we have that dresses up as well as the band.
JJ: Is this a one album flirtation or a path you plan on staying with for awhile?
RB: This is the path I hope to be on for the rest of my days. I haven't forgotten Rock'n'Roll, and I do like to turn up the volume and play , but that can wait for awhile. This is very exciting and a real challenge as the music is much more rigid than Rock, with many set melodies and one of my weak points is remembering melodies note for note. I am used to inferring the melody and improvising, but with the Renaissance stuff you have to stick very much to the line so it is a challenge, but an exiting one. We have already written about eleven songs for the next CD. The new things I have written have a much more Russian or ethnic feel with gypsy dances, a little more "up" than this record which is more romantic ballads.
JJ: This recording isn't really time specific, to the Renaissance, or today, and it doesn't strike me as easily classifiable which may hurt the marketing of it.
RB: (laughing) That's true. The biggest compliment we have been receiving from some of the fans is that it would purge their souls , and many people feel we will lose our Rock'n'Roll fans, but those people are getting on like I am and they want a more mature feeling. When we get older we get quieter and, dare I say sophisticated, and it is very gratifying to find the fans right there even though we made a drastic change.
JJ: Candice has done a great job with the lyrics and avoided cliches while weaving current themes with Renaissance references.
RB: She is very aware of MTV, and singers like Alanis Morrisette, but at the same time is drawn to the Medieval period and like me she is not a fan of Celtic music but prefers the European Renaissance.
JJ: The next batch of Russian influenced songs should be very exciting.
RB: Yes, and I felt that my only criticism of this current project is that when we are on stage you have to be very quiet, and it can feel like a "musical lesson" which is not what I want it to be. I want people to enjoy themselves and get involved so the new songs are much more audience participation with opportunities to stomp feet, clap and sing along.
JJ: This is definitely a moody collection.
RB: That's right, sometimes when I play "Memmingen" (a delicate fingerpicked instrumental) I would have to have total silence or it wouldn't work. For most of the tour of Japan and Europe it worked but we just played a private party with people talking and laughing and it totally destroyed the atmosphere. I don't want to be in the position of having to have the audience in total dead silence, although when they are it is a fantastic effect because you can get lost in the music.
JJ: There is really more of Ritchie Blackmore on this record than probably anything you have ever done.
RB: That's very true, and I think it may have started from a fan letter I received which I took to heart about playing my solo and then going back to the riffs and not really exposing myself enough as a performer/player. In Deep Purple it was a little bit like being in a factory with me playing my little solo and stepping back to hide behind the other egos.
JJ: You carry more on your shoulders now, but you seem to have a good partner in Candice.
RB: That's right, although I never realized she could sing until the last five years.
JJ: She has a good voice for the Renaissance stuff but it is current sounding as well.
RB: I have heard some traditional singers who are very excellent but they can come across as too proper. People don't want to hear a proper singer, they want a little bit of an edge. She is in a band with me so most people are recognizing my guitar playing but they are listening to her sing.
JJ: It seems like a difficult spot for her to be in because there is a lot to like musically on this record so all she can do is ruin it, and if she does really well she will receive little credit because you are so celebrated.
RB: (laughing) Right, we played in Japan and her first concert was in front of five thousand people, and she was terrified, we all were terrified but she came through it very well, she didn't resort to drinking like I do. She's always writing lyrics and reads a lot of poetry. This is our first collaboration together and we put a lot of love into it. It may be unprofessional to say but we think it is very good. It is more for a mature, thinking kind of audience but we are pleased that children seem to like it as well.
JJ: Does Ritchie present you with finished tunes?
Candice Night: When Ritchie writes these songs it is over a long period of time but once he gets it set he presents it to me pretty complete. I look at lyric writing as putting puzzle pieces together and it is a great challenge and it is interesting because of the need to find the right rhyming scheme and number of syllables. I really enjoy doing it but I need to hear that finished product before I can start putting those puzzle pieces together.
JJ: How did you approach the lyric writing for this music which spans several centuries?
CN: I love the fantasy of the 15th Century and try to present it in current day setting. I am a big person for imagery and I want to paint pictures with words so if I can get somebody to see something through my eyes they will not just hear about something they will see it, feel it, and taste it.
© James Jensen, Acoustic Musician Magazine 1998