Corin Ashley lost the ability to do the thing he is clearly meant to do. He fought his way back and he just released Broken Biscuits, a wonderful WONDERFUL collection of pop songs inspired by his recovery from a pretty major health crisis.
But there was much more to talk about. Find out about Delia Derbyshire, Graham Gouldman, XTC, Jellyfish, friends, playing with Jody Stephens, the wish to tour Japan and 60s or early 70s pastiche.
If I wonder if 10CC was a big influence on you while making Broken Biscuits, would you take that as a compliment? Or were there others that inspired you?
I would definitely take that as a compliment, but I would saw that Grahm Gouldman is more of an influence specifically. There’s a song on my last album, “Marianne” that is an absolute celebration of Graham Gouldman’s writing.
I have a recording of him, Neil Finn and Roddy Frame doing a songwriting circle where they sing on each other’s songs and I have listened to that a million times.
The biggest influence on this album was that I had a pretty major health crisis halfway through making it. I had a stroke due to “a series of unfortunate events”, as they say. It completely wiped out the use of my left hand and paralyzed one of my vocal cords, and really messed up my ability to speak, let alone sing. I did about 9 months of therapy to get back to being able too really play and sing again.
It was a rare opportunity to reconsider music on every level after having played for 30 years. I had to go back to my building blocks as a musician, which are Wings, Badfinger, Supertramp- things I grew up listening to – and then, purely from a learning-to-play-the-bass again perspective, the Police.
That whole period of being a bit of a frazzled blank space mentally was a big re-set button on my music, too. When I couldn’t even really comprehend notes for a while there, the sound of the MRI machine sounded like music to me (which I actually took as a hopeful sign) and I got really into Terry Riley’s music for a while, and Brian Eno suddenly started to make more sense to me. Bowie’s “Black Star” album was the soundtrack to my whole hospital stay.
Now, as a matter of music that maybe influenced this album, I would mention the Eels, certainly Jellyfish, XTC (always)- but these are things that are more in terms of arrangement or production ideas. I’d be inclined to think “OK, I want to do a compressed Nashville tuning electric part like the Eels on this section”. Or, on the last song, the Dean Martin cover, with the strings and woodwinds arrangement, I added some strange bits like a pedal steel app on my iPad and a music box, and that track is labelled “Jon Brion nonsense”, so that’s where direct influences come into play.
What about Broken Biscuits? It’s more than just a record title, like a theme?
Yes, it’s so funny how these little matters of happenstance can take on more profound meanings. I stumbled across this term “broken biscuits counter” in a rock bio of Ron Wood and just liked the sound of it. I tucked it away as lyrical idea and then I encountered it again in a collection of synth piece done by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the early 60s- the very early days of music synthesis.
This artist with the best name in all of music history: Delia Derbyshire- c’mon, you gotta love someone named Delia Derbyshire, right? The name alone conjures up sexy 60s intrigue.
So I wrote this first song on the album as kind of pastiche of 60s or early 70s spy caper with lots of travel. It doesn’t particularly mean anything, but it could also mean anything the listener imagines, right? So, then, when all this happened with my brain, I really felt just shattered inside.
With a stroke, your brain is still trying to fire off signals to burnt out synapses constantly, it just feels like there are burnt wires inside your head that are sparking and fusing constantly.
I came back to the idea of broken biscuits- do you have the saying “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” in the Netherlands? It kind of means “that’s just your bad luck” when something happens. Anyway, all of this was tied together in my head and then I told my friends Aaron and Liz, who are designers. They went to Liz’ photo studio and actually cut biscuits with an exacto knife to make the letters and did this album cover for me.
MInd you, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to finish this album at all, but they gave it to me a surprise, as encouragement and motivation. They spent hours on their knees, cutting the biscuits up and making the cover, so I really felt like I owed it to them as friends to get better.
Magpie over Citadel. What a beautiful BEAUTIFUL song! And what a Prog Rock song title it is?
Thank you. That’s possibly my favorite on the album because it’s quite a simple song. That’s another example of how my friends lifted me up when I was down. Rob Anastasi, a songwriter I know, asked me to go to Memphis to play bass on a few of his songs.
Perhaps it would have been more practical for him to hire a bass player who hadn’t had a stroke, but he really gave me some confidence- honestly, once I found that Jody Stephens would be playing drums, I would have played bass on his sessions one way or another no matter what. But I was able to book the next day, after Rob’s session, and leave the drum mics up since we already had sounds.
I had this song kind of half written and it was still very fresh and exciting when I recorded it with Jody. I didn’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what I wanted to do with it. I just told him “On this one, If you could just play like Jody Stephens from Big Star, it would be wonderful” and he did exactly that.
It felt like I had played with him before after listening to his drumming for so many years.
The meaning of ‘success’ has changed over the years. When would you consider Broken Biscuits to be successful?
It doesn’t have much to do with money, I can tell you that.
The fact that you said you were driving around in the Netherlands singing one of my songs with your son is special to me.
These songs, you write them and then send them out into the world to make friends.
For it to be really successful, someone would put the album out in Japan and I would have a reasons to go play shows in Japan. That has always been a dream of mine. I don’t know, I suppose with this album in particular, I’d like to leave some breadcrumbs behind as encouragement for other musicians who might have an injury like mine in the future. Not just musicians, but anybody who loses their ability to do the thing they are clearly meant to do and has to fight their way back.
Buy Broken Biscuits here