“A privateer is what I am, really,” says Mark Knopfler.
The title track of the legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist’s eighth solo album evokes a swashbuckling era of seafaring plunder, merchant raiders and licensed pirates. But Mark finds an analogy with the modern rock and roll life. “I really get a buzz out of having this little group of people that sallies forth across the world. I enjoy being in command of it, the band, the crew, travelling through this ever changing landscape and playing in all these different places. You get where you get without any kind of assistance, really, making your own way in the world. There are no government grants to play this music. You’re a privateer. And that’s the way I like it.”
Privateering is Mark Knopfler’s first double album in a 35-year recording career. “The older I get, the more I want to write,” he says. “Whether that is just panic at time running out, I’m not sure. I’m enjoying the process more than ever, writing, recording and playing live, I enjoy all of it. I’m almost tripping over songs.”
These 20 tracks of consummately crafted folk, blues, country and rock originals reflect the creative exuberance of an artist whose exceptional abilities were recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Ivor Novellos. He has performed live in front of countless millions. He has collaborated with artists of the stature of Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris and Van Morrison. He has composed distinctive soundtracks for such classic films as Local Hero, The Princess Bride, Last Exit To Brooklyn and Wag The Dog. He has been regularly acclaimed as one of the greatest guitarists in the world. But what he sees himself as, first and foremost, is a songwriter. And this may be his finest-ever collection.
“I have always thought in terms of the transatlantic nature of music. My idea of heaven is somewhere where the Mississippi Delta meets the Tyne. What I wanted from the very first album with Dire Straits and songs like ‘Sultans of Swing’ was to write my own geography into the American music that shaped me, to identify the English, Irish and Scottish landmarks on Chuck Berry’s road. I think what I’m doing now is both synthesising those influences and separating them. The band I have is so talented, and so flexible, they give me the kind of palette to go anywhere I want, so I can jump from a hill farm in the north of England and go straight to the streets of New York City or go down into the delta for a straight-ahead blues.”
Privateering travels from the dreamy Americana of ‘Redbud Tree’, filled with trademark silvery Stratocaster licks, to the sea shanty pipes of ‘Haul Away’, the swaggering slide electric blues of -‘Gator Blood’ and the Celtic folk yearning of ‘Kingdom Of Gold’. It is full of drawn characters like the tough northern sheep farmer of ‘Yon Two Crows’ and the boastful gambler of ‘Hot Or What’, and evocative situations like the embattled lovers in the rain swept ‘Seattle’ and the mysterious contemplations of mortality of ‘Dream Of The Drowned Submariner’. The lyrical and musical detail in these songs is of the very first order, with Mark Knopfler’s singing and playing always bringing the story home on the back of one of the finest bands in the world. Privateering is not a concept album. It is not a song cycle. It is simply one of our finest and most distinctive musical talents doing what he does best.
“I chose to make a double album this time just because of the sheer volume of material. I didn’t want to separate songs into blues and folk and country and I didn’t want to leave songs on the shelf. I just wanted it to be a reflection of the fantastic sessions we had. With a great bunch of players, it’s the same as a great group of actors reading a script from the page, the thing can come alive in ways it just never has before. This is the band I have been working towards my whole life.”
The line-up of musicians Mark has been gathering around him since the mid-90s includes Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Richard Bennett (guitar), Jim Cox (piano), Glenn Worf (bass), Mike McGoldrick (whistle and flute) and John McCusker (fiddle) with the recent addition of the fantastic Ian Thomas (drums). Special guests included Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Phil Cunningham (accordion) and Tim O’Brien (mandolin). Ruth Moody of rising roots band The Wailin’ Jennys contributed her distinctive vocals. “To have Ruth singing on the record was very special for me,” says Mark. “She is on the very top level of singers and songwriters out there and I can’t take her off my jukebox.” The blues material was infused with the harmonica playing of Kim Wilson of legendary blues rockers The Fabulous Thunderbirds. “One of the most important things about the blues to me has always been the harp. Seeing Muddy Waters as a kid made a big impression on me, the harp was burbling away all the time, the band was swinging. And to me the greatest modern exponent is Kim Wilson, he’s been my top man for many years, so it was really great to have him on board. We hit it off straight away and got a great session going.”
Recorded in Mark’s own studio, British Grove, Privateering is a smart, subtle, soulful and utterly superb collection of songs from a class act with an unbeatable band. These are tough tales of real people, living hard lives in difficult times. And it is all carried off with the self-confident bravado of a latter-day privateer. The cover, featuring a battered van and a shaggy dog, says it all. “I remember in the early days, if you had a van you could get into a group, so band wagons have always had a special place in my heart. It was important to use something like that, to take it away from the nautical swashbuckler. To me a man in a van has got as much to do with privateering as a frigate or a gunboat or anything like that. He’s on the road, he’s making his own way, he’s doing his thing, the best way he knows how. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what we’re all trying to do.”