What sort of feedback have you had from fans about the meaning of the songs in their own lives?
I get email, cards, and letters. I guess once every two years, someone comes and shakes my hand or sends a message and says, in all seriousness, that we’ve saved their lives. I never know how to respond to that. It’s an amazing thing for someone to say to you. I should probably start wearing a stethoscope and call myself “Dr. H”. I tear up even thinking about it, but there was one time in Paris a few years back and I was doing an interview at a table at a café in the street. A French guy came up to me —there was a camera on me and it was running during this interview—and he just stood in front of me and he put his hand up and he shook my hand. He said nothing at all. He just looked at me. And I just knew. It was so deep and it was just his way of letting me how, without any words at all, how deeply he’d been affected by things I’ve said. It’s that truth thing again. If something’ true, you almost don’t have to put it into words.
The song “Estonia”, with its lyric about coping with the death of a loved one, seems to be one song that many fans relate to in a deep way. After your father died, did that lyric take on a new meaning for you?
I originally wrote that song after a chance encounter with a guy who had been on the ferry when it sank. He was the sole British survivor and I just happened to be sat on a plane next to him. He was hellbent on telling me all about it even though he didn’t know who I was. He just wanted to talk. He gave me a moment-by-moment account of that ship sinking and everything that happened to him and the people on it. It was incredibly moving. I was in floods of tears listening to him.
We did a little charity gig because he was trying to raise money for bereaved Estonians who had lost the main breadwinners from their families because there was no social security in those countries. At the same time as that happened, I knew a girl who had lost her father and I was trying to write some words to be of comfort to her. So those two things wove together and became “Estonia”.
That song was played at his funeral at his request. Going back and singing that after that was a struggle, to be honest. I had to try and find a place to put it in my head so that it wouldn’t upset me when I was singing it. Easier said than done.
We had an amazing experience in Estonia. A couple of years back we made an album named Less Is More and that was an acoustic treatment of various things we’d written, and “Estonia” was one of them. We toured with that album and, as it happened, that was the first chance we had to go to Estonia and we played that song in Tallinn. At the end of that song, everyone stood up like they were standing for the National Anthem. It was astonishing, really. They didn’t clap and go crazy. It was just their way of acknowledging what their countrymen had been through because it was such a national disaster on that ferry, and also for parts of Sweden as well. It wasn’t like they stood up for us, they just all stood up.
Marillion: “Somewhere Else”
In June, you’re embarking on the first Marillion tour of the USA since 2004. Now, because many people may be wondering why it’s been so long since you last toured here, can you take a moment to describe the mixture of taxation policies and red-tape of immigration control you have to go through to tour here?
We’ve been trying to get a visa. What we’ve had to do is fill in a 50-page application document for permission—permission!—to apply for a visa. So you go through this first stage where you fill in all this stuff and it has to include all the schools you went to, including the name and address of the school you went to when you were six years old, and everything else. The other day I got an email: “You’re divorced, right? We need to know the name and date of birth of your first wife, when you were married, when you were divorced, and the grounds for your divorce.”
So they’re actually asking me to supply the grounds for my own divorce five years ago just for permission to get an interview to go and stand outside the American embassy at 7:30 in the morning, which is what everyone has to do, to queue in a line to go through the door to have an interview to get a visa to play a rock ’n’ roll show to people who are desperate to hear you. They treat you as if it’s your life’s ambition to come to America and they should try and prevent you when, really, we’re coming because the Americans want us to come.
We’re only coming for three weeks. That’s the point. The tickets are already sold so it’s no great leap of the imagination of the immigration authorities to figure out whether we’ll be a problem. I don’t see how we can be perceived as one. And I think they can work that out without needing to know the grounds for my divorce.
It’s no joke is it? I mean, a good friend of yours, Aziz Ibrahim, who played in your solo band and has been the guitarist for the Stone Roses and Paul Weller, recently applied for a US Visa to tour America as a member of Steven Wilson’s band. Steven said that they took one look at him and denied him—he may be Pakistani but he was born in Manchester.
I spent a long time on the phone with Aziz after that. He was very upset and disillusioned. We’re quite close, Aziz and I. He’s never had a parking ticket, he’s never committed a crime of any sort. He has no kind of criminal or police record in the UK. He said, “I’ve been a good boy all my life. I grew up in a rough neighborhood where it would have been easy to have had a criminal record by the time I was 10 years old. But I never put one foot out of line. All I ever wanted to do was to be a musician and to entertain people.”
They still, to this day, haven’t given him the reason was just placed in the pending tray. I mean, they didn’t refuse him in the end, he actually got the visa in the end but by the time it came through, he lost the gig. I’ve heard horror stories about popular musicians from the Middle East and Africa trying to get visas to tour America.
I knew a guy a couple of years ago and he put together a tour for Hugh Masekela from South Africa. Half his band didn’t have birth certificates or passports. So, to be fair to the Americans, some of the African bands can be an administrative nightmare because they don’t have any paperwork. But, nonetheless, if you can turn on a movie and see a band playing, that should be fairly good proof that that’s what those guys do and that’s who they are.
I was on the 747 that was grounded so that they could arrest Cat Stevens [in 2004]. That was a long day.
It was the American fans who, essentially, saved Marillion’s career by showing the band how it could harness the Internet to connect directly with fans.
First of all, we’ve never been that successful in America, but having said that, people who have gotten into the band in America have been very passionately into the band and very hardcore in their approach. And so when we do play in America, the audiences are small but amazing. Consequently we’ve only ever done club tours in States. In fact, we’ll be playing mostly the same clubs this year that we were playing in 1989 when I met the band! That tells you how well our career has lost it! But, having said that, it could have gone the other way. At least it’s held steady.
Back in the old days, when I first joined the band and we were signed to EMI, we were much more surrounded by men in suits than we are these days. When I say men in suits, I necessarily don’t literally mean men wearing suits. I mean there was more business around us. We had a proper manager and we had a proper agent and we had proper lawyers in central London. And we had a proper record label, EMI, which meant we could sell half a million records and make less money than we do now! Which is what tends to happen when you have proper music business around you. They have all the money.
Marillion: “Afraid of Sunlight”
So when we left EMI, we started off doing an independent deal with a company that, back then, was called Castle Communications and then evolved into other things soon after. They were the label that fell apart on the day my solo album was released—that was the kind of thing that happened to me over my career. Because we’d done an independent deal, there wasn’t the major label to give us the tour support in for us to come to play America. We’d always lost money going to America because we’d always played club tours and men in suits were always involved.
So we put out a message the fan club to say that we sorry but we wouldn’t be able to come to America to support This Strange Engine. The next thing I heard was that there was this guy called Jeff Pelletier and he had this idea. He would open up a bank account and he put up a message on a message board on this thing called the Internet—which I didn’t know anything about in 1997 because the Internet hadn’t really happened in Europe at that point. Quite a lot of Americans were on it and getting into it. But they hadn’t even invented browsers at that point, so this was all very hardcore, geeky, writing your own code and creating your own message boards. Pioneering stuff, which Americans are good at.
The first I knew about it, he’d opened a bank account. He’d made an appeal to American fans to pay for Marillion to come and tour—to actually cover the shortfall. He’d already got $20,000 in the band when I heard about it and I’m the singer in the band. They subsequently raised $60,000 and gave it to us. So we went and toured America. Of course, everyone who had contributed money still had to buy a ticket to come and see us.
It was an act of amazing faith and generosity and it really woke us up to a lot of things. It woke us up to two things most of all. One, that our fans had our music so ingrained in them and it was so important to them that they would think nothing of contributing money for us to come over there—well in excess of the ticket price. And, secondly, this Internet thing was damn useful and we’d better get on it.
// Notes from the Road
"Powerful Chicago soul-singer dips into the '60s and '70s while dabbling in Urdu, Punjabi and Italian.READ the article