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Bobby Long: Young Troubadour

15 April 2011 by Christine Westwood

If you like live music and you want to be spellbound by passionate, emotional story telling, go watch Bobby Long.

Performing songs from his debut album A Winter Tale to a packed, and rapt audience at the Music Cafe in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival,

Long wove tales both personal and universal, transporting the listener across vast and rolling emotional landscapes.

For an audience, it’s a satisfying trip, from the spare delicacy and restrained emotion of Sick Man’s Blues through to the lilting riffs ofBeing a Mockingbird.

Long doesn’t give himself any excuses from his task of seeking strong stories and melodies or from being as emotionally present as he can on stage. Talking backstage after his second successful gig at the Music Cafe, Long is as honest and real as they come.

“I suffer badly with nerves and struggle with these constant mind games,” he confesses. “You know, the little voice in your head, the one that says no one’s listening – but I have a stubbornness about me and I just get up there and play.

“I guess I’m always drawing from my own stories but it gets really boring talking about yourself all the time. It’s always going to come from the writer whether you want it to or not but I like singing about other stories, finding a character where I’m maybe a woman or a soldier or someone going through an incredibly hard time.”

The solo session was a warm up before Long joined his band for an American tour, followed by dates in Australia, finishing up in Germany and his home town of London.

The tour can only increase the singer’s grass roots following and you sense this is the launching point for the 24-year-old who took up guitar seven years ago and started gigging at open mic nights around London.

He co-wrote the haunting Let me sign with fellow musician Marcus Foster; another friend, Robert Pattinson, performed it on the soundtrack of the first Twilight film (2008).

The song was the tip of the iceberg as far as Long’s musical talent goes, but it quickly flagged the singer’s compelling, poetic melodies to a wider audience.

“It may just be youth but I do have a lot to say and I find it hard to cut stuff. I like creating a large surface area in the songs, that comes instinctively, but I’ve noticed a shift in the new songs I’m writing now.

I guess as you get older, you get wiser and you know how to say what you want to say in less words and with more clarity. But I’m always trying to stay emotionally connected with the character’s story in each song, writing in the moment with how I’m feeling. It’s like a photograph where I’m trying to sum up all the elements, find the depth behind it. It’s emotional but also controlled; I always know what I’m trying to say.”

Long’s debut album A Winter Tale combines raw acoustics with strong band play while the quality of Long’s music attracted guest vocalists like La Belle’Nona Hendryx, and musicians including pedal steel player B.J. Cole who has worked with Sting and Elton John.

The producer is Liam Watson who most famously worked on theWhite Stripes’ Elephant record. Watson is committed to expressing Long’s raw, emotional style on the finished album. With this line up you could say Long is a serious contender.

Part of the charm and tension of the album and live set is the sense that the singer is walking a fine line of both seeking and nailing a story all at the same time.

Having an instinctive and innate musical vocabulary helps; each song is a solid, deep etched melody, and as in all folk and blues traditions they are edged with hope, rage, sorrow and love.

“I come from a musical family so it was always like you have to play something. For me it was a recorder – you remember those from school? It sounded horrible, then from age nine till 12 I played cello. It’s a beautiful, soulful instrument but at the time it didn’t feel like that, it was too big to carry around and besides I wanted to fit in and be cool. Playing cello, you weren’t going to be that, so I quit. But music was so relevant in my house, everyone did it, so I knew when I was ready it would be there.

“I wanted to be a football player, play for Manchester United, until I was about 13, then I realised I probably wasn’t good enough! When I was seventeen I picked up a guitar and it went from there.”

“I’m not conscious of being part of a wider music movement, not yet anyway. I want to be relevant but I don’t really want to be pigeonholed. Everyone I admire, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or The Band, they’ve always done their own thing. People tried to put them in categories but they didn’t put themselves there.

“I want to always be grounded in the music I love, which is kind of folk/country, but at the same time I like the idea of moving on; maybe I’ll do more of an electric thing next.”

For now, Long is off to Seattle to join his band for the first leg of their American tour and wondering about keeping up the pace. His mum is from Wigan in Yorkshire where they take a very prosaic approach to what constitutes hard work.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m working a long week and its Thursday 4 o’ clock, then I call up my mum and she just says, ‘you’ll be alright lad,’ even if I’m complaining I had to get up at 5.30 and looking for sympathy!

“Often the music gives you energy but other ways of keeping going are by playing with good people and of course the audience response. But I don’t just rely on that, I basically just put across the best show I can.”

So far, Long’s album and gigs have attracted positive reviews, but for the occasional criticism he has his down to earth roots to draw from.

“You go and watch the football game in Wigan and the crowd don’t clap when the players walk on the field – it’s like ‘they haven’t done anything yet!’ And that’s where I come from. You have to show up and prove yourself.”

You’ll see him do just that if you catch him on tour, see dates below.