Nigel Eaton

A Chat With...Nigel Eaton

This week, we are chatting with Nigel Eaton, regarded as the “foremost hurdy-gurdy player in popular music in North America and Europe”.

Quick bio

Instrument(s): Hurdy Gurdy
Band(s) or collaborations that we should know about: Ex Blowzabella member, ex Ancient Beatbox Member, ex Page Plant band, ex Loreena Mckennitt band. Since 1981 Blowzabella Groupie, general hanger-on at Blowzabella gigs.

What are you currently working on, and what’s in the pipeline for the coming year?

Currently working on a new album with Andy Cutting (and others), so that means lots of tune writing.

I have one dance gig at Halsway Manor in Somerset in March, but am hoping a new album might generate a few more gig offers. I hope for it, but that’ll depend on the success or otherwise of the new album and its attraction to dancers. I am pretty comfortable with playing for dancing, concerts require too much practice, complex arrangements etc. My style is more trance based, dependent on creating a groove and letting the dancers enjoy the sound. Drone instruments are particularly good at playing for dancers, the constant sound and with beats helps them get “lost” in their movements.

If someone is reading this who hasn’t listened to any of your music before, where should they start?

YouTube is where to find me. The early videos dating back 10 years or so are pretty sparse (too sparse). The accompaniment people might use often doesn’t serve the tune in the way I was hoping for, so now I try to offer at least some clues as to what to do. I wasn’t trying too hard back then, I guess, and used YouTube as a way of listing my tunes for posterity and not particularly concerning myself with the presentation. Since covid, and having fewer chances to play live, I’ve been doing a lot more double tracking. I guess I’m missing my band mates somewhat, and the accompaniment helps present my tunes in the best possible light. I did some pretty good work with Loreena Mckennitt, I feel. There’s “Mummers Dance” for one, and the live gigs at the Alhambra include plenty of gurdy and most of her albums too.

I do somewhat discount the Page Plant work as being representative of my normal work. I did get to play what I wanted, there was no control imposed, but the music wasn’t as familiar to me as you might imagine. I wasn’t a Zeppelin fan. If I’d known Jimmy Page owned a gurdy and had played one on the record (The Song Remains the Same) then I might have followed them more, and would have hoped for some kind of introduction to them personally. Then again, that possible yearning to meet them might have blown my chances of playing with them. No band wants a fan in their band, right? If it had been Robert Smith (The Cure) or Nick Cave asking me to play with them, then I’d have definitely crumbled in their presence and blown it for sure.

What’s on your playlist at the moment, and why does it appeal to you?

I don’t really listen to listen to much, maybe The Cure, Buggles, Loreena Mckennit, Julie Murphy and Philippe Rombi. I’m pretty jealous of musicians who’re doing really well and being given to a certain pomposity, I tend not to listen to things that are popular, on principal. I have a very quick ear for a tune, I fear hearing a tune, forgetting it, writing it myself a few weeks later, then claiming it as my own. Some of my tunes have come to me almost complete, after having required no effort, and this is when I’m suspicious I’ve just pinched it. I then post it on Facebook or YouTube and watch the comments through gaps between my fingers. Happily, I’m so unpopular that no one has yet noticed all my tunes are by others. It’ll happen one day for sure.

Sam Kelly is a recent folkie I listen to because he played my Halsway Carol on the tele just before xmas, good lad.

Which folk albums, in your opinion, should everyone listen to at least once, and why?

So anything by Blowzabella obviously. I started my musical education pretty early, as mum was playing Elgar all the time when I was a kid and dad only played Jean Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield. Anyway, I learned hurdy gurdy by playing along with a French gurdy album by Vielleux du Bourbonnais, comprising the great Blanc brothers and Fred Paris. I tried to keep up with them, keep their beat, end at the same time and do all the variations in the middle, the best training I rek. Then I discovered a breton band Gwerz, Le Gop and Café Charbons, yes all containing wonderful gurdy players and all unrelated in style. My playing style is closely related to that of Patrick Bouffard (Bouffard’s Waltz) and maybe Gilles Chabenat too. I tried to copy Patrick’s “machine gun” beat, I picture him when I’m playing, his poise and manner. His melody style is so far beyond my abilities that I find it hard to enjoy (jealousy). Gilles first band were called Les Ecoliers de St Genest. Their album has so many classic tunes on (mostly written by Gilles), all session classics, all known by most French players, if not all, and all beautiful.

My main teacher was Doreen Muskett, with who’s help I got a place at the Guildhall School of Music in 1985. With her I studied as much baroque music as I could bear, but quickly looked to France again when I had the opportunity to study with Valentin Clastrier, a bona fide hurdy gurdy legend. This course was a week long, just the 2 of us. I don’t recall playing much there, but got back home filled with images in my head of his style and a few of his tricks that helped colour my own playing. 

I’m guilty of listening to an album I made with Julie Murphy, my best work, it was hard to make but so rewarding and rich, named Whirling Pope Joan. Obviously everyone must download Panic at the café from my bandcamp page too. Andy (Cutting) and I playing well, great tunes, appalling production values but great fun.

Where are you most ‘at one’ with your instrument?

So I started writing lots of tunes for a film (Tulip Fever), maybe 9 or 10 tunes. One was used, but the possibility of having many more on a film is what motivated me back in 2014. These tunes gave me a little more confidence again since leaving Blowzabella, which was so stressful and damaging that I’d thought it better to disappear for a while and concentrate on the cupboard business. After a while, this was going so well that I forgot about music all together.

Happily, these tulip tunes formed the basis of my efforts with another melodeon player, Simon Gielen, and my old Blowzabella band mate Dave Shepherd. We performed many barn dance gigs here and abroad, then Brexit hit, and then covid. Missing them both, I started writing again,  this time making music for stay at homers. Multi track videos. I’d been thinking for a while about how to do it. Make a video, a live one but with lots more accompaniment in the background. It’s worked well, especially since I have total control over everything. It pleases me anyway, and the tunes are written with the accompaniment in mind. This has freed up my writing somewhat. I used to rely on others to make the tunes work the way I wanted, and this can be frustrating. I’m now most at home in the studio but I know that’s a bit of a cowards way. I do fear getting on stage again, it’ll depend on who I’m on stage with, for sure.

Please tell us about your practice regime, or how you keep developing as an instrumentalist.

Practice? Never, not after I was 17. I got to the level of skill I needed to do my thing early. I’d been playing for a year and a Swiss guy came to stay with us in Southampton to learn hurdy gurdy making from dad. He was also a red hot player. All very annoying to me, so I determined to out-play him as quickly as possible. I stayed up night after night learning complex beats and flashy melody lines, all the tricks and more. I was soon cured of jealousy in this particular case. Blind fury was what got me practicing, and I needed to have that or doubtless I’d never have bothered and I’d be working in Kwik-fit in Totton.

I now try to write the catchiest, coolest tunes I can, in the hope they are liked and performed by others. Tunes that are so good that they become instant session classics. Music writing is a form of immortality, and I guess now I’m of extreme old age that seems important. Also you get royalties when someone records your tune, or plays it in a venue that counts this stuff. I can usually count on enough from this to buy a couple of curries a year, not bad hahahaha. Happily I work for a living too.

What’s the most nerve-wracking thing you’ve done (musically), and what did you learn from it?

The scariest musical gig was the first Page and Plant show in Pensacola Florida 1995. I’d planned out how I was going to present the hurdy gurdy for the Zep crowd. I knew some of them would understand why I was even there, given Jimmy’s use of the instrument decades earlier, but I knew that might not be enough entertainment in itself. I decided to stand enigmatically still and allow the hurdy gurdy to shine, without any pazzazz from me at all. Ok, watching my efforts on video after the show, I looked like I’d died and was an automaton corpse boy yearning to die again. The next show was somewhat different. That’s when I learned to look like the rockstar that the crowd might have been expecting to see. Turns out “looking” like a rockstar is pretty easy, just look like you’re supposed to be there, big movements, strut about with a big suit on and be very very loud.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a musician?

Best advice? Charge more than everyone else. When bands or their managers have rung me (not for a while) to ask me to play on their cd, I always state my fee and when there’s silence….. I suggest cheaper options. I quickly go from being thought of as extremely dear to being “just the man we were looking for”. When I charged too little, I’d still often lose the gig just as many times as when I was “too dear”. The plus side was that everything I played in the studio made it on to the record, whereas when I was “cheap” it usually didn’t. Not being on the record means you’ve wasted your time. Never let “that” happen, always cost them enough that you’ll definitely be on it.

What’s your dream band line-up (dead or alive)?

The Blanc Brothers, Fred Paris, Julie Murphy, Andy Cutting, Jean Baron and Michelle Pfeiffer.

To satisfy the instrument/equipment geeks amongst us, please tell us a little about the gear you use to make music.

Gear geek stuff. I use Pete Cornish Preamps, Pete Cornish power supply, KK hotspots and Accusound pickups with an ATpro35 instrument mic, Mackie mini mixer, Logic X and good ears (struggling of late in that dept).

My YouTube method of video making requires a camera with audio recording , in my case an iPhone. I have Logic running constantly, and when I feel ready to go for a take, I clap my hands (so there’s a peak on the recording) and go for it. At the end, I clap my hands again to fix an end point for the take. This is necessary for syncing the video and audio later on. I then add any overdubs I want to the original take, in Logic, usually extra melody, both high melody and low, any counter melody, chords and extra buzz parts, maybe some small percussion usually a big bass drum only. I then mix this so it sounds as good as a track on an album, but with the lead gurdy part a little quiet. Then in imovie, I sync the clapping peaks (or use a clapper board) at each end of the track, so they run at the same speed, and bring in some of the iPhone solo gurdy sound against the mp3 track from Logic. The hurdy gurdy level is then about right, and can be adjusted up or down. I like the iPhone sound because it is a recording of the original take in a room with no effects, so has some space around it. The final result sounds “real” but with all the frills too.

Further listening

Here’s Nigel, playing  one of his tunes – Great North Wood

Another of Nigel’s tunes and multi-track vidoes – Maids of the Borderland

Nigel with Page & Plant

Blowzabella in 2022

Loreena McKennitt – The Mummer’s Dance

An interview with Nigel Eaton

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