Call it type-casting, but one hardly expects to discuss Keats, Kerouac and Elgar when interviewing a folk singer. Woody Guthrie, Mississippi blues shouters or perhaps a Morris dancing troupe in Chipping Camden seem more likely.
But then Roy Harper was never your average folk singer. His name was thrust before millions when Led Zeppelin called a song on their third (1970) album Hats Off to (Roy) Harper. “Roy who?” roared the rock world almost in unison, and Harper received a slight blip in interest. Cue another blip when he sang lead vocals on Have A Cigar from Pink Floyd’s 1975 Wish You Were Here megaseller. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson calls Harper his biggest songwriting influence, and artists ranging from Pete Townshend to Kate Bush have queued up to collaborate.
Harper sees this lather of acknowledgment as a double-edged sword: any stray rock fans he attracted were at the cost of being dismissed by suspicious, hard-core folkies.
His credibility was never doubted in the 1960s, when he was a mainstay of London’s folk scene, and a towering influence on the lionised Nick Drake. Harper began recording in 1966, and maintained a stream of albums until the turn of the century, when he turned to curating his past output and writing a book.
“I thought I’d retired to doing these other kind of projects,” he says, “but these songs started to appear about 2009, and then I realised the kind of thing that I was writing, and carried on.”
The result is Harper’s first new studio album for 13 years: Man & Myth. As previously many of his lyrics are infused with an epic quality, reflecting his love of Romantic poetry. There is a strong sense, if you like, of his protagonists being in a great cosmos rather than the kitchen.
“The only teacher really that I ever appreciated was the woman who taught me English right at the beginning of my formative life,” says Harper. “I’d have been nine or 10, and she was a big John Keats fan, and so I became a John Keats fan really early on, and I think that Endymion has got a lot to answer for in terms of Roy Harper.”
Other influences would include the Beat poets, while musically he drew on everything from blues to classical, the latter informing his love of suite-like song forms. “I think that started in ’67 on my second record, Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith, which was a long, kind of an epic song,” he suggests. “Those epic things are a lot influenced by the movements in classical music: the different tonal textures in all of them, and the emotional journey always appealed to me. Tchaikovsky’s 4th and Edward Elgar’s Nimrod and things like that were very influential for me… You can see that the way that I went was going to influence people like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull on the other side of things.”
Perhaps this godfather of English folk actually invented progressive rock…
Man & Myth is out now through Mushroom.