Brit bluesman Bonfanti talks to Paul Strange about being crowned Best Acoustic Performer at 2013’s Blues Awards, Gibson Hummingbirds, and giving blues music the recognition it deserves.
Long haired, bearded British blues rocker Marcus Bonfanti may strut his stuff on stage with his Gibson SG or Fender Tele cranked up high, but when it comes to songwriting, an acoustic is the only way to go.
It turns out that all of the songs on Marcus’s latest album, Shake The Walls, started life on an acoustic, often with the bluesman strumming his mum’s old Martin copy.
‘That’s the way I write songs,’ says the 31-year-old Londoner, as we settle down to discuss his current album.
‘I find it difficult to write on anything but an acoustic,’ he continues. ‘That’s how I’ve always done it. At home I’m usually playing an acoustic. That’s where most of the writing is done. You start playing around with something, come across a nice idea, and it all starts going from there. So everything was acoustic and then I changed the arrangements to suit an electric band because that was the sound I wanted for this record.’
Shake The Walls is Marcus’ third album. From the insistent opener ‘Alley Cat’ to the rip-roaring ‘My Baby Don’t Dance’ and the brooding ‘Honey’, it’s a solid statement of intent. The bluesy confessional ‘We All Do Bad Sometimes’ is a highpoint.
‘We didn’t know how that number was going to turn out or if it was going to make it on to the album,’ he says. ‘We tracked the bass, drums and electric guitar together, and it was sparse. Then the band went home and producer Dave Williams and I sat with it. They included a big acoustic guitar sound, which helped to drive the song along. Then, once we laid the vocal on and gave it an in-your-face sound, it suddenly became this big, emotional track. I’m happy it’s made it on to the record. I really like ‘Alley Cat’… it’s a strong opener. It’s how I feel most days. That intro sounds to me what London sounds like at 8am! Clangy and a bit much, but you get through it anyway, because you love it.’
‘Cheap Whisky’ warns of the dangers of inexpensive alcohol. ‘I had a room on Willesden Green High Road that had a flat roof outside it. I used to sit on it, overlooking the street. Some nights I’d get home about 2am from a gig, and I’d sit there, watching these right old characters walking along, absolutely wrecked. It gave me plenty to write about. There was a guy I used to see in the café opposite. He told me he could have expensive drinks all night but it was the cheap stuff that messed him up. And it got me thinking about when the whisky’s cheap, there’s another price you end up paying.’
Shake The Walls wasn’t the easiest record to make, forged during a tricky time in Marcus’ career. Following the success of his first two releases – Hard Times (2008) and What Good Am I To You? (2010) – he should have been on a high, especially after winning the British Blues Award for Best Songwriter in 2012. (He then won Best Acoustic Performer at the 2013 awards.) Instead Marcus found himself unable to progress. Having been dropped by his first record label, he’d started making an album for another one, but was dropped again.
‘It had been almost two years since the last release and I had no money, no record deal and no way to make an album, so I was in a bit of a situation,’ he says. ‘And that’s when Jigsaw came out of nowhere and offered me an amazing opportunity to do the record at the Grange Studios in Norfolk.’
A lifeline then? ‘Yeah. It came out of me taking a step back and going: “Right, what the hell am I going to do here?” I was weighing up alternatives. I realised I didn’t have any, and that’s when Jigsaw came in. That was great.’
Marcus has promoted the album with band dates, but has now chosen to showcase some of the songs on an acoustic tour of the UK in February and March, initially as support to The Straits, followed by his own shows.
‘I played solo acoustic for many years before I ever got a band and I still do,’ he says. ‘I enjoy the freedom of playing acoustic because the arrangement of the tune and the temperature of the tune – how quickly, how slowly, what mood you play it – can all change at the drop of a hat without any conferring, whereas with the band, everyone’s got to be on the same page.’
Will the tour help him reach a wider audience? ‘I hope so,’ he answers. ‘I always hope that with tours, and I’ve seen that throughout my career.’
It’s a lengthy career that began classically at the age of eight with Marcus – born in North London to Anglo-Italian parents – playing trumpet at school and, later, in youth orchestras. ‘Yeah, I did grades and stuff. From 12 I was touring with orchestras around Europe. I was convinced I wanted to be a classical trumpet player. But from about 15, I started messing about on my mum’s old acoustic. When I was 16 I got into Led Zeppelin and started listening to heavier music. I went out, got a job, and bought an electric guitar. My mum wasn’t keen on that, so when she was in the house I’d play acoustic and work out Beatles songs, Cat Stevens tunes, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Then, as soon as she left, I’d put the acoustic down and get the electric out and smash down on that for a bit. My dad was a big music lover, too. He’s from Italy. We’d sit round and listen to Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.’
In 2001, Marcus went to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. ‘I’d only been playing guitar for two and a half years so, when I got there, I was probably the least adept guitarist in the college. But it was good because it kicked me into gear and I put in a lot of work. It was a turning point because it got me into shape, but at the same time I realised that the college wasn’t for me.’
Marcus quit the Institute and started gigging around Liverpool. ‘There were so many bars there it meant I could play every single night from 10pm to 2am. That was my life for a couple of years and it helped me as a guitar player.’
In 2007, having saved money to finance his career, he moved to London, playing sessions and releasing his first album. ‘I was playing purely acoustic and going up and down the country, my gig money ranging from £200 to the price of my train fare to even losing money to open for an artist where I thought I might have a chance of gaining some fans. From that, all the way up to what I’m doing now, I still go out playing shows and expose my music to more people. That’s what I’m hoping on this February tour as well. I don’t stand still for long. I’m looking ahead. I’ve got big plans, especially in the genre of blues music. I want to do something different and show people that it isn’t a genre that’s full of long boring guitar solos and songs that are written purely to get you to a guitar solo. I want to show people that the blues is so much more than that and there should be a wider appeal to it than there is.’
So you’re on a mission? ‘Yeah, but it’s achievable – at least I hope it is. If not, I will have wasted my life, but I will have had a bloody good time doing it!’
For solo shows, Marcus Bonfanti plays a Gibson Hummingbird True Vintage with a spruce top, mahogany body and neck, and a rosewood fretboard.
‘It was a straight acoustic, so I had Gibson fit a Fishman Pro AG undersaddle pickup,’ says Marcus. He DIs in to the PA. ‘It sounds great and the pickup doesn’t colour the sound. It gives a true representation of how good this guitar is.’
For all band gigs – and solo shows abroad – Marcus uses a Dean Resonator CE, with a mahogany body, a rosewood fretboard and biscuit bridge. ‘It’s a versatile and underrated instrument.’
He plays it through a valve DI – an ART Tube MP Studio V3 – via a Boss OD-3 into his Fender Blues Junior. ‘I get a great sound. It’s got an amazing, distinctive tone.’
His other acoustic is his mum’s 1970s Martin copy. ‘I learnt how to play on this instrument, so I do much of my songwriting on it. It doesn’t record great, but it plays nice, like an old friend.’
Marcus’s electric guitars include a 1974 Gibson SG and a 2005 Fender Telecaster, played through his Blues Junior. He also has a Gretsch G5422TDC Electromatic and a Hofner Senator for studio use.