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Larissa interviews Andy Innes – one of our country’s most prolific and successful guitarists. Andy Innes’s solo album, Anthems of a Stranger, is set for release on 6 November 2012 and the launch party will be held at Tanz Cafe. In this interview, find out more about the man behind the guitar and what it takes to be a successful musician in South Africa.

MR: Tell us a bit more about your journey with Johnny Clegg, how did you end up working with him?

Andy: I was a fresh-faced 23-year old when I successfully auditioned for the guitar gig in Savuka. I had taken a crash course in Zulu with the percussionist Godfrey Mgcina who was working with me in the PJ Powers band at the time. We went to perform at the Expo in Sevilla in Spain and Godfrey would construct exam papers for me to answer and give me oral tests, while Don Laka (who was doing the keyboard gig at the time) watched on! I did this so I could understand the lyrics and ideas and pronounce them correctly when I sang backing vocals. I also worked really hard on the vocal and guitar parts in the run-up to the auditions at Ellis Park. I speak pretty much fluent Zulu now.

I was a fan of Johnny’s music long before I was on the payroll, so this was a dream job for me. Something which always stayed with me from listening to his early releases such asAfrican Litany is that he was a latter day revolutionary poet, as were the Bob Dylans and Randy Newmans of the American social revolution. In truth, today’s songwriters (with some notable exceptions) are to our contemporary culture what the T.S. Eliots and Tennysons were to theirs.

MR: You’ve toured with Johnny all over the world. Which have been your most memorable tours?

Andy: They say first love is always the one we remember most fondly! I did the Heat, Dust & Dreams tour with JC & Savuka in ’93 – 3 weeks rehearsal, 2 months promo in Europe, 2 months on the road in the USA, 3 months on tour in Europe. It was a whirlwind kaleidoscope of venues I’d only ever heard of and read about, Universal Amphitheatre LA, Central Park Summer Stage New York, the Warfield in San Francisco, some of the House of Blues circuit, Shepherd’s Bush Empire London, The Zenith in Paris, Hallenstadion Zurich, Deutschlandhalle in Berlin, Sun City Superbowl here in SA… the list stretches on for around eighty dates.

It was also really great working with Peter Gabriel for the collaboration in the 46664 Arctic show in Tromsø, Norway a few years ago. I had the truly enviable job of teaching him harmonies and lyrics for a performance of Asimbonanga with Johnny.


MR: I saw that you made the semi-finals for the Tanz Cafe Anything Acoustic competition. Being an already established (and phenomenal) musician, what made you decide to enter that competition?

Andy: It was a great opportunity to slip in undetected, in stealth mode, and get a few nights of performing in with the nucleus of my band. There’s a huge difference in focus involved in stepping a few metres closer to the centre of stage after working as a sideman. I was really grateful for the opportunity to stretch my legs before the hike started.

It was a bit challenging doing some of the instrumental pieces such as Gitane on a big old acoustic guitar, but it was a great experience and I met some really nice people there too.

MR: What can listeners expect from your debut solo album, Anthems of a Stranger?

Andy: I like to think of it as an imaginative, expressive, very listenable musical journey that poses some challenging social ideas and questions, and presents my somewhat more intricate guitar instrumental material with amazing performances from some of my friends and peers. I feel that it has painted a relatively accurate picture for me of where I am right now. Any recording by an artist is ultimately a watermark of where they are right now –Anthems of a Stranger is my watermark. It’s also a uniquely South African album. Many of the ideas I express in the lyrics belong to here and nowhere else, others are ours, but have more of a universal appeal. There is also some Zulu Maskandi and Mqashiyo guitar influence in a few of the pieces, without trying too hard to be that thing.

Being as my background is equally western pop-rock / folk guitar styles and Southern African ones, it was inevitable that a flavour of this style of world / folk-rock is where I would end up.

MR: You and Johnny have a history together, how easy was it to work with him on your album?

Andy: It was great to have Johnny in studio for two tracks. I’ve already produced Johnny for some of his own releases and worked as his MD-slash-head-prefect for years, so it wasn’t as daunting as it could have been, had I never worked with him before. We’ve been standing next to one another on stage and living on tour buses for twenty years, so we have a pretty easy relationship.

Johnny really came to the party, building a mouthbow for his session (see more of that here) and generally bringing a great energy to the body of work.

MR: As a session musician, you’ve done a lot of work with other international musicians. How do you draw from these experiences and how do they inspire you?

Andy: I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with some super people during the course of my career, yes. One thing that has definitely come from all of that is a sense of perspective. Very few of the artists I’ve worked with have had particularly unreasonable attitudes about who and where they are in the greater scheme of things. It’s made it easy for me to appreciate good fortune on my career path without making the mistake of taking too much credit for it personally.

MR: Is being a professional musician what you always wanted, or is it something you grew into?

Andy: I was always keen on music from an early age but it’s a very challenging career path. I think Guthrie Govan said it best when asked. I paraphrase, but it was along the lines of: “If you want to be a musician, don’t bother. Only do it if you absolutely have to.”

MR: Do you feel like the quality of South African music and song writing is improving? How does it match the international standard?

Andy: We’ve seen great bands and producers coming up recently and I’m really impressed with what I’ve heard and seen. There’s much less of a perceived inferiority complex that used to permeate the atmosphere of the local industry. I just see lots of exciting, fresh, interesting people making good music in lots of different genres. I particularly find the grassroots industry growth in Johannesburg and Cape Town to be very artistically inspiring. It really is about the music, rather than other things.

I’m also encouraged by the sight of many cross-cultural indie acts, rock bands from the townships, young people from traditionally opposite backgrounds coming together through music. It really is a universal language.

“Matching the international standard” is not necessarily something I think we should aspire to. We have our own flags to fly and, rather than compete on someone else’s terms and home ground, I think anyone from our little corner of the world needs to export something which is uniquely ‘here’. We have a wellspring of great cultural inspiration to draw from here, so trying to be Creed or Gaga or Daughtry is not necessarily going to reap results.

One thing I’ve come across time after time on my travels is the spiritual curiosity that South Africa seems to engender in people who are not from here. We really need to treat that as intellectual capital and take what is uniquely ours to the world.


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