The craft and conflict in 21st-century Britain

Chris Wood is getting to the heart of England’s recession with his songs written while on the road

Few artists are documenting the reality of this recession with the belly punch that Woody Guthrie landed during America's great dustbowl Depression. Gillian Welch has tapped it in The Harrow & The Harvest, but for all our talk about the crucial role that artists can play in helping to liberate us from the psychological and spiritual trough of this recession, there's a tangible void where documentarian songwriters could be.

The English songwriter and singer Chris Wood has come closest to putting his finger on the ragged pulse of his home place on his latest album, None the Wiser. From Perth to Stevenage, and Carlisle to Cornwall, it seemed to Wood that the recession was the only story in town, and his ragbag of song-stories charts that freewheeling trajectory with dogged determination and no small tincture of irony.

None the Wiser emerged from a lengthy UK tour that Wood did with Joan Armatrading. It was a time when he was determined to learn how to write while on the road. With just a 45-minute support set each night, there was time for people-watching and fermentation – lots of it.

“The only thing I can write about is what I know,” Wood figures, “and I can’t pretend to be someone else. When the boom years were happening, I think I was still writing about it all then, too. I felt like a stranger in my own country. It was ghastly; it was like the fall of Rome.”


None the Wiser is a highly political album. It zeroes in on the price people are paying for their indebtedness, and the grim inevitability of what Wood calls the old Etonian set who, it seems, hold sway in Britain, regardless of party political colours. Wood mines the work of the 19th-century pastoral poet John Clare's I Am and William Blake's Jerusalem, as well as crafting distilled commentaries of his own to reflect what he sees as life in Britain in this dimly-lit 21st century.

“People get swept up into politics: it’s worse than meaningless, because it dupes them into thinking that it’s important, that it matters,” Wood says. “In the bigger scheme of things, it has nothing to do with anything. There is nothing sustaining about politics and, at times like this, we need that which will sustain us.”

Wood has never shied away from the stripped-down sound of voice and guitar, but on this album he’s amped it up with Hammond organ, double bass, and a sublime flugelhorn.

"I wanted more soul," he says with a smile. It's not quite the soundscape associated with folk music – unless you're Allen Toussaint or Aaron Neville, who marry jazz, blues and soul with the sensibility of folk musicians in thrall to the music they grew up with. "The guitar I used has a really smoky sound, and that goes for my voice too, as it gets older. I started out playing with Andy Cutting, who plays the melodeon, which, when you think about it, is an organ. So for me it just feels like the same – but more. It's a richer, deeper sound I was after."

In his songwriting, Wood’s angular perspective points the listener toward dark underbellies where the real stories lurk.

“I think I’ve always looked at the world in a strange way,” he says. “I’ve always felt somewhat misunderstood, and I’m sure it’s my own fault because I don’t like to fill in the gaps for people. I tend to assume that they’ll know what the f**k I’m talking about. But all my life the evidence is that people haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. It was one of the reasons I started writing songs in the first place: a desperate attempt to try and get it down in a way that I could sit back and say, ‘there, that’s what I mean’.”

Wood is adamant that he's not a particularly good writer; it's just that he reckons "there's an enormous amount of shite out there". Then again, taking Joni Mitchell as his reference point, he's hardly aiming low. His other benchmark writer is that stalwart of the folk canon, Anon – the countless unnamed writers who have bequeathed songs, without a whiff of copyright or credit along the way.

“Some of the finest songs I’ve ever heard have been written by Anon,” he says. “If I can stand on the shoulders of Anon and use that as my benchmark, then that’s in essence what I’m doing.

"A lot of writers appear, to my ear, to be trammelled. Sometimes it's nice to come at a subject in a roundabout way – though on this album, songs are short and sharp. I'm a big believer in what Tom Petty said: 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus.' "

None The Wiser is out now on RUF Records. Chris Wood will play Dublin, Cork and Waterford in October