Looking Forward By Delving Deeper Into The Past
Utter the name Ritchie Blackmore, and you're likely to invoke the image of a thunderous hard rock guitarist whose masterful licks and solos shook arenas worldwide for 25 years. These days, however, the legendary axeman has traded in volume and excess for renaissance pop of a gentler nature. Formed in 1996, after he and singer Candice Night had already met and begun collaborating on songs, Blackmore's Night has blossomed into a successful worldwide enterprise. Their third and newest album, Fires at Midnight, continues their tradition of well-crafted songs spotlighting Night's beautiful vocals and Blackmore's refined playing on instruments like acoustic guitar and mandolin. The music itself encompasses a wide range of emotions, from quiet and forlorn (the ballad "Again Someday") to vibrant and majestic (the Middle Eastern-influenced title track). It can be playful, introspective, lively, and mysterious.
For some fans of Ritchie's older work, this newer musical direction may seem like a stretch at first, but remember that Blackmore was influenced by Baroque music during his tenure in Deep Purple and Rainbow. Nor has he left his trusty electric guitar behind. It surfaces on a few tracks on Fires At Midnight, but it is there to enhance the songs rather than overwhelm them. The driving acoustic tune "The Storm" also proves that this group can be equally aggressive and energetic in a seemingly less volume-driven format. In fact, Blackmore remarks that renaissance pageantry music ("majestic, bombastic brass music") is not that far removed from rock 'n' roll, especially as it utilizes fat-sounding instruments like the sackbut, shawm, crumhorn, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdy. In translating that aesthetic into this predominately acoustic ensemble—by either utilizing such instrumentation or transcribing their parts onto acoustic guitar or keyboards—he proves his point.
After decades of rockin' and rollin' around the world, Ritchie Blackmore has reinvented himself in a most unusual and exciting way via the Teutonic-inflected renaissance sounds of Blackmore's Night. Furthermore, the fact that he and Night have been doing this for five years proves that this is not a side-project or distraction as some critics believe it to be. The couple is in this for the long run.
NAV recently sat down with Ritchie and Candice for a delightful dinner at an inn near their home in Long Island. Contrary to his perceived reputation as being difficult to interview, Blackmore was congenial and thoughtful with an understated sense of humor. Night was cheerful and reflective, and both were passionate about the music that they make together.
NAV: Why go from blistering hard rock to 16th century music?
Ritchie Blackmore: For me, it's much more challenging. It's a lot more technical. Your technique has to be very even. When you're plugged into a Marshall and cranked up, you can be incredibly sloppy. As long as you get a certain sustain and bend the notes, the effect comes across. But playing the acoustic guitar is, for me, very tricky, but it's good for tidying up my technique.
NAV: You can't fudge anything.
Blackmore: No, not at all. You can't let the note ring and sustain and pull it and bend it. You have to say something with that note.
NAV: You never struck me as a sloppy electric guitar player.
Blackmore: Yes and no. I tended to get into a rut with the rock stuff. It's very easy to go onstage and do the act and swing around the country in a rocking chair, as it were, with the security that you play all the old songs and everybody's happy, especially the management and the promoters. But for me, I needed to reach a little bit deeper. At the risk of blowing it, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to dig a little bit deeper than the normal crap that goes around. Without sounding pretentious, we're just trying to be a little bit different. The songs that we put together are not the obvious songs that a lot of bands would put together. That, to me, is a challenge, and it's fresh and it's risky. I think that is stimulating at this point in my career.
NAV: There are no "Greatest Hits" to worry about.
Blackmore: No. There will be, obviously. Not that I minded playing "Smoke on the Water," it's just everything else that went with it. I think a band that's been going for a long time can get set in their ways, and you've got a lot of egos flying around. I don't think any music really gets created at all. It's all about what can we get by with, and do we need to rock the boat as we are selling out stadiums?
NAV: Do you feel less pressure now that you're playing smaller venues?
Blackmore: It's a different pressure. It's pressure that I have to turn down and play through an amplifier that's 15 watts as opposed to 500. People are actually listening now. A lot of people have gotten older with me, strangely enough. I don't know why. I always thought people stayed the same age, except for me. I've kind of mellowed and I think our audience has. We have a lot of letters coming in saying "I got a little bit fed up with the Rainbow and Purple stuff that you were doing, now I'm getting back in sync with what you're doing," which is a great compliment. I mean, I didn't do it for that. I did it because I had to change my music. But it was very interesting to see that people were thinking along the same lines.
NAV: Some people have said that your music is medieval rather than renaissance in nature.
Blackmore: We often tell people that we play medieval music, which we don't, although one of our tunes was written by King Alfonso the Tenth, which was [from the] mid-13th century in Spain. We quite often mention the word medieval because it seems to click with these people. "Oh, medieval, that's old."
NAV: But it's actually pre-renaissance.
Blackmore: Of course, the purists know that, but to anybody in the street, sometimes we just say "we play medieval music."
NAV: Medieval music can be a bit darker then renaissance music.
Blackmore: Renaissance music is really dance music, and heaven forbid I would be into music for wriggling, because I think too many people wriggle today as it is. Everything is based around wriggling, have you noticed that? [Candice laughs] People are obsessed with wriggling as they drink on the beach.
NAV: You just had that waitress tell you she gets naughty to your music. Do others fan say that?
Candice Night: Not as graphically as she does. [Laughs] She breaks it to you while you're eating. Some people tell us that our music is what love sounds like, which I think is a beautiful description.
NAV: Do you play songs live the same way twice?
Blackmore: No, absolutely not. To my detriment, I wish I could repeat myself and just play the same thing because very often, I'll put it down and the producer will hear it and say, "That's great, let's do it!" And when we put it on record, he'll say, "What are you doing? You're overplaying, you're playing much too hard, your timing's gone to pieces." Because I'm thinking about something. So one can overthink. My best playing, personally, comes from watching the television or watching something else and just playing, and emoting without being self-conscious.
NAV: When the tape's not rolling?
Blackmore: Yeah, and you know what? I'm beginning to think I'm going to take a lot of televisions into the studio and have them blasting so I'm involved in some sort of film and just play.
Night: The best I have heard you play is when you go outside on the deck and the birds are going overhead. He serenades these birds, and they all do these dives. It's so amazing—it's like magic.
Blackmore: We're very lucky where we live, right on the sea. We sometimes have rehearsals on the balcony. A lot of our music is waltz music. You see the birds coming in and dive-bomb. Yesterday we had mockingbirds, and they all hang around. They're like fans.
NAV: What are the most personal lyrics on the new album? Any favorites that have the most meaning?
Blackmore: "Again Someday."
Night: Absolutely. I think my favorite story song on there is "Hanging Tree." I really like the way that one came out.
NAV: What inspired those songs?
Night: "Hanging Tree" was inspired by a tree that is actually down the road from our house. You drive down the road through these fields, and out of nowhere there's this old, gnarled, dead tree. There are no other trees around it. It's completely black and its branches are always reaching up. It can definitely inspire poetry and art. It's just an incredible tree. We call it the "Hanging Tree" all the time. It has this amazing energy to it. The funny thing is I actually know people who have insulted the tree while driving past, and the tree has killed their battery right at the base of it, so it's very powerful. There's some kind of vortex going on at this tree. [Laughs] So you never insult the tree. Its energy is overwhelming.
Every time we go past it, we always wave to it and say, "Hi, Hanging Tree!" We talk to it; we let it know that it's loved and that we appreciate it. The story that we got from it is the fact that we're so aware that there are so many different kinds of lifeforms, whether you're talking about animal, bird, human, or trees and flowers. The point being that, because there are so many lifeforms, how do we know, just because we can't or don't know how to communicate with them, if they have memories or not?
So this is really the story of the memories that this tree went through that spanned through centuries, and what humans basically designated it's job to be, which was to steal lives away from people that they decided to punish. And this tree had absolutely no choice in the matter, to see her own strength being used for such a destructive purpose. Centuries later, she will never forget that's happened, but hopefully at this stage in her life, she is able to appreciate the beauty that she has now. Yet somewhere in the back of her mind, she will always remember what she went through. That story breaks my heart, but it gives you that sense of hope.
And "Again Someday"… [looks to Ritchie]
Blackmore: We're big animal lovers, and a couple of our animals died last year. I was trying to write something that would be respectful of my cat. I found it very difficult. I just couldn't reach that deep into sorrow to write something. However, after about 6 months, I came up with a bit of a melody, which is "Again Someday." For me, it's about my cat, and for Candy, it's her dog. It's just a little token of our farewell—"see you again someday"—because I believe that you do see people again—you do see energies again. The only problem is, playing this song onstage is going to be so sad, it's going to be hard not to stop crying. It's a very deep song. It only lasts about a minute or so, yet to us it's very meaningful.
NAV: What was the decision to put "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on the album?
Blackmore: I love Bob Dylan. I love his anti-show business stance. It's fantastic that the man has made it without wriggling like the rest of them. We're back to wriggling again. Bob doesn't wriggle on stage, and I applaud him for that. The man is 60 years old, and he's come out with some incredible music. We often play songs around the house for our friends just for the fun of it. We did that one, and Candy sang it so well, I said, "You know, it might be interesting to get that one down someday on tape." Bob Dylan's always been a big hero of mine. Ian Anderson, Bob Dylan, and John Cleese are my heroes.
NAV: What is a Blackmore's Night audience like?
Night: It's actually fascinating. I used to go on the road with Ritchie when he was in Purple, and 90 percent of the people in the audience, especially in Europe, used to be men, and the 10 percent that were girls were dragged there by their boyfriends. I didn't believe him at first, but it's true. All the guys were into shaking their fists and really getting into the intensity of the hard rock stuff.
Now, as Ritchie was saying, people have grown up and their musical tastes have matured with him, so when they went out and bought the album because Ritchie's name was on it, they brought it home and their wives would say, "Wait a second, who's that?" And the wife would never have bought that with Ritchie's name on it because she would immediately put him in the category of hard rock music. But the minute you start playing the music at home, the women start getting into it because it is softer music, and maybe because there is a female singer, and it is melodic, and the lyrics are about stories and fables and fairytales and love and romance.
The funny thing is that their children also get into it. Their children are probably at the age where they want to dress up like Robin Hood. We have so many little kids running around like Robin Hood and Maid Marion at our shows. The gender [mix] is probably 50-50 at this point, and the age range goes from 5 years old [on]. Actually, we've had children as young as 6 months old. We always encourage people to dress up in renaissance costumes.
NAV: When you're onstage, do you ever imagine that you're back in the renaissance period?
Blackmore: Not so much onstage, but we do when we're writing these songs. One of my hobbies is having séances. I've communicated with quite a few people in the other realm, as I like to call it. Once Candice and I were in the kitchen of our house, and we were practicing "Catherine Howard's Fate"…
Night: It was the very first time we ever played the song in a completed version. As I was singing, all of a sudden I looked up and there was this mist. The whole kitchen was foggy. I said, "Do you see that?" He looked at me and said, "You mean the fog?" He knew exactly what it was! It was so thick, and it was really heavy. We finished the song, and it slowly dissipated. It was amazing. Funny enough, that's when we do séances, when we communicate with another realm. When you look around you, that's how you know that you've gone into another dimension. This physical realm starts to get fuzzy.
To answer your question—when you're playing in 12th to 14th century castles, and you're onstage in the courtyard, surrounded by the castle walls and the moon is rising and all the people in the audience are dressed in renaissance garb, you can't help but be magically transported to that other era. It is absolutely incredible to be able to make that connection. It's time travel.
Bryan Reesman, New Age Voice August 2001