An English guitarist who has been living in Chicago for many years, playing in bands and also working with the likes of Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Nathan Salsburg, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, James Elkington has reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and quite extraordinary fingerstyle guitarist on his debut solo album, Wintres Woma (“the sound of winter” in Old English), recorded at the Wilco Loft studio in Chicago. In his wonderfully diverse songs you can hear the influence of the great British folk acts of the ’60s and ’70s, and his more modern proclivities as well. To hear his inventive playing at its best, check out the YouTube video for “Make It Up,” the first song on the album. We caught up with Elkington when he was on tour in the Pacific Northwest last November.
I’ve seen pictures of the Wilco studio and it looks like they have a few guitars there.
The Wilco Loft is like guitar insanity! Jeff’s been collecting for a long time, and there’s so much to choose from. It would take me a week to audition all the nice acoustics they have there, so when I got to the studio I basically limited myself to guitars that were within eight feet of where I was sitting; there were probably about 12 of them. Mark Greenberg, the studio manager there, who also recorded the album, very casually had me audition some of the guitars as we were going through the songs, and we just totally clicked with a ’30s Gibson L-00 that Jeff had. I was looking for a certain sound, and this particular guitar sounded in the room kind of like what I wanted. And then once it was recorded, it transformed into exactly what I wanted. It ended up being the go-to guitar for almost the entire album. Only on a couple of songs are there any other guitars. I might use another if it’s a doubled part.
Jeff had heard the album and knew how much I loved that guitar, and at the end of the session, he very kindly offered to sell it to me. But even at the incredibly generous price he offered, it still would have been way too much for me. I would be worried about it all the time. I wouldn’t take it out of the house. The guitar would own me, instead of me owning the guitar!
So Jeff said, “If you want the road-ready version of this, you need to get a Waterloo guitar.” He’s been playing Waterloos for a while. He introduced me to them and I got a great deal on a WL-14, which has been my companion ever since the record came out. It’s a new guitar and it needs some miles on it, which it’s getting; I got it at the beginning of the year , and I’ve played it at least two hours a day ever since. I tell everyone I meet about it. It doesn’t sound like the old 00 I recorded with, but it’s responsive in the same sort of way.
The Waterloo is not modeled specifically after the old 00, but more like the off-brand wartime acoustics Gibson was making under various different names, like Kalamazoo and Kel Kroydon. It’s funny—a lot of the more boutique guitar companies seem to make reissues or clones of the older vintage guitars that are so sought after, but they don’t make the sort of rough-and-ready department store guitars that we associate with country blues players. And there really hasn’t been anything that sounds like those old guitars up until fairly recently. You have to credit [Waterloo founder] Bill Collings with having both the resources and the inclination to do that.
Do you find that some guitars sound better in alternate tunings than in standard tuning, and vice-versa?
I do. I’ve found that with a lot of newer guitars—certainly for fingerstyle players—there seems to be a lot of pressure on guitar companies to make very full-frequency instruments. People talk a lot about bass response, balance between strings, and getting an almost orchestral sound out of one instrument. There’s definitely a place for that, but it turns out the sort of guitar records I like aren’t really made on those kinds of instruments. The records from the ’60s and ’70s I like so much were made on fairly thin-sounding guitars—Bert Jansch, Nick Drake; people like that. You can hear on a Nick Drake record that the strings probably have not been changed in years! Martin Carthy played an old OM, Bert Jansch played a borrowed Harmony on some of his records. They’re not bass-y instruments. It’s funny, what sometimes sounds good to your ear in the room—a very flattering full sound—actually records as kind of flat. But things like the old 00 and the Waterloo, which are more “shouty” in the midrange, record magically.
How much of the album is in alternate tunings, and how did you get started using them?
The entire album is in DADGAD, which of course is a very resonant tuning. There are three D’s in there and they’re sort of sympathetic to each other, so that balanced, full bass tends to get a little bit exaggerated with the, in quotes, “nicer” guitars.
This whole album started out as a doodle, basically. I was playing with Jeff Tweedy and we were touring—not a huge amount, but we had a lot of time off during the day—and I borrowed a guitar from Jeff to practice. I’ve never been one for alternative tunings. I don’t really like to shift the goalposts on myself that much, but my friend Nathan Salsburg, who I play with in a guitar duo, does that all the time, and he can seemingly move very smoothly between three or four tunings. But I’ve never really liked standing there on stage retuning; even if you have multiple guitars you still have to do some adjustment there.
Anyway, since I had this time off, I started to experiment a little in my spare time, almost like learning a new instrument. I’d sit down with a guitar in DADGAD and really have no idea what was going on. But I liked the sound of it, and that kind of harp-like effect that people like Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy were able to get with that tuning. So I started dabbling, and after about six months of that I had all these little bits of music which I kind of fashioned into songs. But it was never intended to be a record.
You have that nice instrumental, “Parting Glass” on there, and I was wondering how many others started as instrumentals and the later acquired words.
All of them! Nearly all of them started out with me trying to write a little piece and then singing the top line I’d come up with, and that started to evoke words. That was kind of the process of the whole record. Initially I was writing all these little solo guitar pieces, but we ended up having more songs than we needed and we ended up using all the vocal ones. There are three other instrumentals.
Did your hear a lot of folk music growing up?
Folk music was around when I was growing up, but it was not something we were into at all. Also, in England in the ’70s and ’80s, you didn’t have classic rock radio, so stuff was just gone; instead it was a really linear thing going through musical fashions in the ’70s and ’80s. You listened to your parents’ records but you probably weren’t interested in that. My dad had Davy Graham records and I was absolutely not interested in them, even once I started playing guitar. I don’t know why. I was into Souxsie & the Banshees, and the Smiths. In the ’90s I got more into the American underground rock band scene: Slint, Jesus Lizard, really amazing guitar players. Then I heard his guy, Jim O’Rourke—who worked with Wilco on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—did like a 20-minute John Fahey cover, and that was the first time I even heard that name. That would have been mid- or late ’90s, and for some reason this completely turned me around for a minute there. I’d sort of had this brief dalliance playing banjo, not very well, but I had the mechanics of finger-picking down and I started applying it to the guitar, mostly because of this Fahey cover I heard, and then I heard some actual Fahey records. So that’s kind of what got me into it initially. And then I found that the stuff I really liked was the ’60s English folk music that I had really thought was kind of silly before.
And then, of course, you’ve worked with Richard Thompson, who’s like a crossover from that world and so many other styles as well.
Right, and that’s still a completely bizarre thing; an amazing confluence of events. He’s such a hero to me—he’s like the complete guitarist because, like him, I also play a lot of electric guitar and I like to write songs. I admire him on so many levels that to actually play with him and be included on his record [Still] in that way was something I’ll never get over. In fact, it had the strange effect of making the year that happened kind of crappy because it was like right at the beginning of the year and I thought, “Nothing this good is going to happen for the rest of the year!”
Did you pick up specific things from him, ask him for tips?
No, I didn’t ask him to show me anything, but I did watch him like a hawk! I know what he’s doing—I just can’t do it! He has a very wide range, as everyone knows, and it was interesting to hear he’ll take a jazz lesson, just to get his brain working in a different direction, and that’s why he’s still one of the best—he never stops developing.
Do you remember your first acoustic guitar?
My first acoustic guitar was a nylon-string. In the ’80s, if you told your parents you wanted to play guitar, they made you play the least-fun guitar you could think of to see if you were really serious about it. So I got a classical guitar, a ¾-size mass-produced Spanish guitar, and then I had a teacher who had me running scales, and the drudgery was endless! I immediately started making up my own chords. I’d play a C chord and then I’d slide it up two frets and say, “Well, what is this?” and the teacher would say, “That’s nothing—don’t do that!” [Laughs]
Then I had Japanese Strat and amp. That was me through my teens. I did have a friend who had a Yamaha acoustic with a solid top and I played that a lot. But I was really all-electric until I was around 28; then I switched to nylon string for a while, and then I got more into looking into the folk stuff I liked. And that’s when I got a decent Martin 000.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.