AMONG all the big names of the music industry there has been one man who has been quietly writing, performing and entertaining audiences for more than 50 years.
Roy Harper is that rare breed of musicians for whom it’s more about the music than the fame and glamour.
The 75 year old has never been what you might call mainstream and proudly admits he’s a non conformist, preferring to write and perform his music his way. A self taught guitarist, he doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed in one particular music genre but is known for his unique mix of blues, jazz and folk.
In so doing he has enjoyed a successful career navigating five decades of different musical genres, in which he has recorded more than 20 studio albums as well as numerous live and compilation albums and won the MOJO Hero Award in 2005 and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in January 2013.
And while he may not have had all the commercial successes enjoyed by his contemporaries such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, he has nevertheless won plenty of praise from them and other notables including Kate Bush and Jools Holland, not to mention won fans and influenced the likes of a new generation of musicians such as Fleet Foxes, Joanna Newsom and Jim O’Rourke.
To celebrate his 75th birthday this year, Roy is embarking on a small tour which takes in the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, September 12.
It is a venue he’s very fond of not least because he remembers when it was built and he tells me he’s delighted to be back there.
“I remember it being iconic of The Festival Of Britain when it was built in 1951,” he says. “I was 10 at the time and I collected the Festival Of Britain stamps. I would never have thought that I would have played there, but that’s where my life has taken me.
“I also like it because the sound can be very good for the audience and it’s about as big as you can get and still be intimate with your audience. I’ve seen a couple of updates over the years, and feared the worst, in that it might lose some of its intimacy, but it never seems to.”
The gig is designed purely to celebrate his birthday and will feature a list of his favourite songs “with a couple thrown in from the last record” in which he will be accompanied by a string and brass ensemble.
But given such an extensive back catalogue he admits it’s sometimes tricky choosing which songs to have on his play list.
“There are marker songs, songs that changed me or how I might think about things,” he says. “Then there are musical touchstones that in some way cannot be separated into stand alone words or music so successfully.
“They demand each other and are perhaps not anything as special if taken apart. There are favourites, but there are too many of those to play on the same night. One reason is time, and the other is dynamics. I always try to be careful with the dynamic of a night. If you don’t do that, you can leave holes, where songs are not heard properly. You can bury songs in a set without intending to.”
What there won’t be is any new material as he plans to save that for when he presents his next recordings.
“I’m playing to celebrate really, not to present anything other than the achievement of still being active and working, when so many of my dear contemporaries are not,” he says. “It could be very different for me and I’m very thankful.”
Born near Manchester in 1941 Roy grew up like many youngsters listening to and being influenced by music.
He was particularly drawn to Lonnie Donegal but his own music was also influenced by the Romantic poets of Shelley, Keats and Coleridge.
“Donegan’s songs were mainly from southern country black blues, and that’s where we all started,” he says. “It was a culture shock the like of which I’ve never experienced again. I was compelled.
“From there it went through a list of other cultural discoveries that the young music minded all made in those days. For me it was Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Orchestral, Skiffle, Blues, Beat poetry and Jazz, with other bits and pieces coming in as I grew, like Guthrie and Seeger, Ken Colyer and Davey Graham, Richard Fariña and Len Cohen.
“Keat’s poetry is young and fresh and so full of desire. Tragic but hopeful. He was only 26 when he died. Coleridge is possibly the best of the early romantics, but Shelley was one hell of a lad, and most of it is there in black and white.”
In the 60s he played in Soho at Les Cousins and says he became “a folky by default, mainly because I played an acoustic guitar and sang”.
Nowadays “anything and everything, all day and every day” inspires him in his music and writing and he makes no apology for being a non conformist.
“I’m constantly moved by the world and the humans,” he says. “I take notes... Inspirations are manifold, but not that many of them involve song. A lot are just profound moments and can just as easily end up in essays, prose or just lost.
“I’ve always been who I am. I always wanted to do something else, something that was different to tin pan alley. Tin pan alley is part of my culture but I never wanted to ape it.
“I always resisted being either moulded or pigeon-holed. I consciously didn’t want to become a pop star and I’m not a folk singer. I was too interested in doing what I was doing, which I always thought was moving song forward into areas I could feel that it would or could be successful in. It’s all about how I see things.
“Yes, dramatic musical poetry had been covered by Wagner and co, and many others, but not in the manner I saw it - of the present, of the living world, connected to everyday culture. Yes, you have lots of musical theatre, but where is the true voice, the lone voice, and particularly the abstracted voice.
“I was myself throughout. The kind modern instrumentation I prefer is far more natural, which better suits what I am and what I do.”
So how does he feel to be still going strong at 75 and with seemingly no desire or intention of retiring?
“I’m in one piece and I’m happy about that,” he says. “I feel good to the same extent I always did - perhaps a little better with a tour coming up, but also pensive about it’s outcome.
“I obviously still get a kick out of touring and performing live, but rehearsal is an awful chore. It takes precious time away from writing new things. And it really does take it away in huge amounts.
“Keeping yourself gig fit is the same as any other athletic pursuit, and what I do is athletic. If you don’t do the work, you don’t get there. I nearly always enjoy it once I’m on a stage though. I guess that if I didn’t I’d have been back on the dole years ago!”
And what of the future? Happily for his legions of fans, it involves more music as he insists he’s “never going to retire”.
“I haven’t anywhere near got to the bottom of it all yet,” he says. “There are new inspirations to be had every day, and each new song or poem takes a different direction.
“The world doesn’t stop, and I’m still in it.”