In a muddy windbreak atop the Pennines, three fields over from Hadrian’s Wall, stands a 19th-century stone farmhouse where Michael Chapman has lived with his partner, Andru, “happily unmarried”, for the past 45 years. It is a dark winter night, and in their crimson-walled parlour, faces lit by the roaring fire, stories are being told. Chapman has just related the tale of the weathered Martin D-18 guitar in the corner of the room, played by Jimi Hendrix in Soho’s Les Cousins club, while Chapman slept, mid-set, in the car outside. Now the couple are recalling the night in Hull in 1969 when Nick Drake came to stay.
“He’d played the Haworth Arms [in Hull],” says Chapman, “and they’d hated him. He never never lifted his head between songs. I felt sick watching him, but what he played was incredible.” The Haworth Arms, for what it’s worth, now has Drakes Bar, “named after the famous folk musician who played here in the 60s”.
After the gig, Andru saw Drake standing alone under a street lamp. “I asked where he was staying,” she says. “He had nowhere. I said: ‘Come with us.’”
This is how an evening with Chapman goes: reminiscences and memories, told with a dry-stone Yorkshire poetry, and red wine top-ups, the host assuming a quiet supporting role in the three-act dramas of the more famous.
In theory, we’re here to discuss Chapman’s new studio album. Named 50, after his years on the road, and produced by the US guitarist Steve Gunn at Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York, it’s a rich, haunting, collection of forlorn love songs, apocalyptic picaresques and bewitching instrumentals that marks the latest stage in a remarkable career renaissance, fuelled by experimental solo guitar LPs, an impressive reissue campaign, and collaborations with Hiss Golden Messenger and the No-Neck Blues Band, that has seen this granite-faced 76-year-old Yorkshireman hailed by the likes of Meg Baird, William Tyler and Ryley Walker as the godfather of new cosmic Americana.