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Blowing his own harp: on the road with a harmonica virtuoso
As he prepares for his Oxford gig, Will Pound tells Tim Hughes about his life with mouth organs – and how it all began
When Will Pound’s father bought him a harmonica to help control his breathing, he could have had no idea where it would lead.
The 10-year-old Will was recovering from a series of operations to treat a heart defect, and his dad was convinced the mouth organ would improve his health. It did.
Will, now 26, is among the world’s finest harmonica players; a virtuoso performer, nominated for the accolade of Musician of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and hailed as a genius by celebrity fans Tom Robinson, Mike Harding, Cerys Matthews and Mark Radcliffe.
Oh, and he has already scored a Christmas Number One single. Kind of. Will provided harmonica for the Justice Collective’s 2012 Hillsborough tribute single He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother, which also featured Sir Paul McCartney, Mel C, Gerry Marsden, Robbie Williams and a certain Kenny Dalglish.
“It’s a weird way to start playing an instrument,” he says, speaking from the home in Cropredy, near Banbury, he shares with his wife, and violinist bandmate, Nicky.
“I always wanted to be a musician, I just didn’t know what instrument it was going to be. So when my dad gave me a harmonica to help with my breathing, that was that. I started playing, enjoyed it and carried on. And my breathing improved too.
“I guess you could say the harmonica saved my life,” he jokes. “But I don’t think the doctors would agree. It definitely helped though.” Will, who is also dyslexic, taught himself to play and cannot read music. And, he admits, it was a slow learning process.
“It took a lot of determination and painful sounds coming from the instrument,” he grins. “I’m sure the neighbours didn’t like it, and nor did my parents – even my dad who gave it to me. I had to practise hard for a couple of years to get the basics, but finally managed to develop my own style.” So did that involve listening to stacks of old blues records? Learning from such masters as Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter?
“Not at all.” he says. “The blues is not my main thing. I actually like listening to indie music, and don’t listen to many harmonica players because I don’t want to replicate them. A lot of my style comes from listening to fiddles.”
As well as being a dab hand at the blues harp, Will also knows his way around the melodeon.
“Although it’s a squeezebox with buttons on the side, it’s a similar instrument to the harmonica,” he says. “It makes blows and sucks in exactly the same way, making different notes.
“It makes it a lot easier than learning the violin,” he adds.
Starting with one harmonica, Will now travels with a suitcase of 40 instruments – both diatonic and chromatic.
“They each have a different sound, from Western to Eastern, Bulgarian, Indian and Arabic. The tuning is different, as is the way you breath into them.
“They can cost a lot too, the most expensive going for £5,000 and the cheapest being £40.”
Since being nominated for the BBC accolade, Will’s talents have been even more in demand. “It was a surprise to be nominated,” he says of the award, which went to Scottish fiddler Aidan O’Rourke. “I didn’t expect anything like that. Unlike the pop scene, the folk world is small and everyone’s mates.
We’ve all worked and jammed together so it doesn’t actually matter who the winner is.”
It also helps to sell records. His debut album A Cut Above, which came out last year, is a typical Pound-style mix of bluegrass, folk, jazz and rock, with new arrangements of classic tunes and original songs. It features the talents of Martin Simpson, Kris Drever, Damien O’Kane, Andy Cutting and Tim Edey. A follow-up album is due out next month.
The music was honed on Will’s 60ft-long 1970s narrowboat, moored on the Oxford Canal, which doubles as a studio. “It’s a great spot,” he says. “There are no neighbours to bother, and it’s well sound-proofed.”
On Saturday Will plays the North Wall Arts Centre, in Summertown, Oxford. He will be joined by his band – fiddle player Henry Webster, guitarist Chris Sarjeant, and double bass player John Parker, formerly of the band Nizlopi.
“There’s a big element of improvisation,” he says. “Because I don’t read music, I’ll never play big orchestral concerts or do film scores, but we are all capable of improvising, which means every gig is different.”
Will Pound plays the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, on Saturday.
Tickets are £13 (£11 concs) from thenorthwall.com or call 01865 319450
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