Bryn Haworth Onstage. The bluesman talks about early days at Island Records, work with prisoners and his life-defining experience.

While some blues musicians often sing about their wild Saturday night exploits or when their woman done left them, Bryn Haworth seems to prefer more domestic matters. He tells his listeners how he “slipped right into the kitchen and made myself a brew” (“Pick Me Up”); how “I was standing in the kitchen, just listening to my radio” (“Egypt”) and how “I was in the kitchen, you were in the hall” (“I’m in Love with You Baby”). Maybe his next album will be a blues collection that includes the traditional “Come On in My Kitchen”?
But we may have to wait a while. He is no great fan of recording. He released his superb compilation CD Inside Out at the same time as his latest studio work One Way Ticket, largely for pragmatic reasons (studio work is time sensitive and he told me, “I’m not very good working under pressure.”)
The anthology goes back a long way in his catalogue and for once Haworth had the chance select the tracks. In previous attempts, Christian labels politically passed over some superb songs in favour of inferior ones that carried a plainer gospel message.
“I've had two or three compilations done over the years, but it was great to have a hand in the choice of songs this time,” he commented. “It's more about getting a good flow in the song order and that takes the time. I think all artists are perfectionists in their way.”

BrInside Out 90Look more closely at the album’s song titles and you could guess the idea behind the collection: Inside Out includes “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the title track, Maggi Dawn’s “Wash Me Clean” and “New ID.” It’s a release that Haworth gives away as part of his prison ministry. “Working in prisons since the early 90s has been extremely creative song-writing wise,” he said, “When you're standing in front of people whom God loves to bits, you look for ways to communicate. Songs are a wonderful way into people's lives.” He added, “I also think Inside Out was a great title for a prison CD.”

As well as being beautifully fluid, his music has the gritty, bluesy, musical authenticity to relate to inmates and his down-to-earth lyrics are direct enough to communicate well. It’s plain to see why God had this job earmarked for him and his wife Sally.

This is a process that began with his first solo gig in the mid-seventies. He recalled, “I was on tour in Germany supporting the band Traffic. I had just signed to Island Records and had made my first album for them which hadn't yet been released. At that time I wasn't a Christian, but would describe myself as someone who was looking for God, but didn't know the way. It was a big deal for me to take on a solo support slot, as I had always been a member of a band, but I decided I could do it, and worked out a 35 minute set.”

Feeling nervous about how he was being received, Haworth turned round between songs to change guitars and noticed a figure behind Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ.

“I was quite close and because I was sitting down and playing, I could see his feet and I could see his face. He was sitting behind the Hammond with his head slightly bowed and wasn’t looking at me but his eyes were looking slightly down. It must have been a few seconds, but it seemed like forever that I got to look at him. I just suddenly relaxed and I felt, ‘Wow! I’m not alone up here.’”

Although the figure could have been a roadie, although roadies should not be sitting onstage, he looked too serene and emanated a different sort of presence. That encouragement helped Haworth to face the rest of the set with a burst of confidence. 

When he came offstage, he asked Sally who the figure was, but she had not seen anyone. He then asked the sound man, only to get the same reply. After he asked the A&R man, who also had seen nobody on stage with him, the pieces clicked together. 

He knew at that point that he believed. With the ground prepared, “A few months later we walked into a tent meeting, heard about Jesus and welcomed him in to our lives.”

Even now, when he speaks of the experience, you can sense what it means to him. Was it an angel? “It could have been. I don’t know about these things. It’s quite a holy thing to me; quite precious. It was absolutely incredible.”

That, of course, was only the start. “The call to prison ministry came over a period of a few years back in the late 80s,” he recalled, noting how excited he got at the scripture that says ‘I was in prison and you visited me’.

”In 1990 Sally and I went on staff at the South West London Vineyard and the pastor, John Mumford, gave me a job description, which was to develop the worship and start a prison ministry! I hadn't a clue what to do, so I called up all the chaplains in London prisons and asked if we could come in. They all said 'no' except for one, a Church Army chaplain in Wandsworth called David Kearns.   We went in for a regular night meeting and as we were coming out he said, 'Right, you do it next week'.”   

Thrown in at the deep end, the following week Haworth started in his comfort zone with some worship and testimony songs, which lasted half an hour. Then, wondering how to continue, one of the team asked if anyone wanted prayer and all the hands shot up. That set the pattern.

Bryn Haworth in Phantom Tollbooth interview. The prison work is not a ‘hit and run’ business. “We visit three prisons on a regular basis every year and travel to others,” said Haworth. “Generally we will take a morning chapel service of about an hour; you can build up relationship with some men as they are in for years. Letter writing is also a good way of strengthening relationships. Over the years you get to know some better than others; it's really up to them how much intimacy they want, but I've had quite a few come to concerts on the 'out' and had tea together.”

Such a regular work has clearly fed into the songwriting for the latest albums and so the reaction from inmates is no surprise: “It's been very well received,” Haworth reported, “and the guys are asking for another one, which I'm looking at doing in the future.”

Haworth’s admirers should not expect anything soon, though. He said in the liner notes of Inside Out, “This might sound strange to you, but I don’t like recording. The whole process has always been hard for me. I’m OK once I get going, but it’s a fight against myself.”

Furthermore, the old music is getting deleted and he does fewer sessions now, which makes it hard to get hold of a decent amount of his material.

Given that he records with musicians whom Clapton has regularly used; that his sound is so unique; that he has worked on albums by Gerry Rafferty, Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Cliff Richard and Andy Fairweatherlow, a shortage of his music is a real shame.

But it doesn’t seem to trouble Haworth, who describes himself as a ‘glass half full’ character: “I do enjoy playing other people's songs, but a lot of my session work was back in the 70's and 80's and some of my employers have passed on or don't record very much these days. But I have lots of good memories. It's always been hard to make a living from music, but somehow I've managed.”
As he was part of Island Records during their most inventive period, I was keen to know what it was like at the hub, working alongside acts like Bad Company, Roxy Music and Free. Hearing Haworth’s answer only made me more envious of his experience.

“It was an incredibly creative time. Island had a restaurant; they encouraged musicians to sit down, eat and talk with each other. There was a rehearsal studio and a recording studio in the block at St. Peter’s Square in Hammersmith, so it was a really good, creative environment. Chris Blackwell laid it out very well. You’d meet and eat and chat. I remember Steve Winwood saying, ‘What’s that you’re playing?’ and I said, ‘It’s a mandolin.’ The next time I saw him, he’d bought one and was playing it.

“I talked a lot to Eno from Roxy Music. He was always intellectual, reading books and talking about sounds and things. He was fascinating.
“Fairport Convention, whom I went on tour with, were very sociable as well. I’d really talk about instruments with Fairport – guitars and mandolins. Back then, it was the problem of trying to amplify acoustic instruments and then Ovation brought out the first electronic acoustics. When they were in America, they brought me back a 12-string and 6-string acoustic, so we were the first people in England to have these, which was great!”

For newcomers looking to get a fair representation of his music, he said “The Gap, Grand Arrival and Inside Out would give someone a good cross section of styles and material I enjoy.”

I would add the near-perfect Sunny Side of the Street, his second Island album, which enjoys guest spots from musicians like Daves Mattacks, Pegg and Swarbrick (all from Fairport Convention); top sax player Mel Collins; Chris Stainton (Eric Clapton, Bryan Ferry) and Alan Spenner (Ted Nugent, Roxy Music).

It seems criminal that the album is so hard to get hold of, but there is little chance of Haworth putting it out on his own Bella Music label. “Island owns both the albums I made for them forever, as do A&M with the two albums I made for them. I did try once to use some tracks but they wanted too much money. I may try again one day, but you can't speak to an A&R person these days - you have to speak to the lawyers now.”

Derek Walker
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