Q&A with Jon Cleave from Fisherman’s Friends
The rise to fame of the Fisherman’s Friends has proved to be one of the music industry’s most unexpected success stories of this century. Do you still look back with an element of surprise at how the group seemingly became famous overnight?
Jon Cleeve: “We will always be amazed at how it happened for us. Suddenly entering the realm of rock ‘n’ roll was quite an experience, especially for gentlemen of a certain age like us. We always joke that, contrary to popular belief, ours is a ‘riches to rags’ story – haha!”
Legend has it that you were spotted singing sea shanties in your local village pub in Port Isaac in Cornwall ten years ago by a music industry executive who was on holiday?
JC: “Yes, that’s absolutely true. The music producer Rupert Christie saw us singing down by the harbour at Port Isaac, just as we had done for many years previously, and he liked what he heard. A week or so afterwards, Rupert rang us and said, “Would you boys fancy making a record? I’m sure I can get you a deal.” The rest, as they say, is history.
After performing together for many years beforehand, how did it feel to see your debut album ‘Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends’ become the album first traditional folk act to make the UK Top 10 album chart, selling 150,000 copies and being certified gold?
JC: Sounds mad, doesn’t it? Considering that before we released the album nobody outside of Cornwall had ever heard of us, it was difficult to comprehend. It didn’t seem real. A good example is when we were booked to appear on breakfast TV and they surprised us by presenting us with these gold discs. We just assumed our manager had made them on his kitchen table at home and done it for a laugh. However, it was all genuine, and each of us now has one on our wall at home to prove it!
Why do you think the style of music performed by the Fisherman Friends suddenly connected with the way it did with the public?
JC: “I think it has something to do with the fact that Fisherman’s Friends are a real group of old friends having fun, which people can relate to. I also think there’s element of the songs and their style being part of our collective psyche, what with many of the songs we perform being 200 years old. We’re from the wild and rugged coast of north Cornwall and the people there love the songs of the sea. We sing in a very Cornish way, in a circle or semi-circle, harmonising with one another with sparse instrumentation. Everybody who comes to see us perform seems to grasp hold of what the songs mean and love to join in and singalong with us, which is wonderful.
You must be proud that Fisherman’s Friends are synonymous with Cornwall, which itself has such a strong sense of identity?
JC: Absolutely. It’s a very important part of what we are, and we’re extremely proud to represent where we from around the rest of country. Likewise, we think it’s lovely that there are people who come back down to Port Isaac every year to hear us sing.
Has the success of the Fisherman’s Friends increased the number of tourists each year to Port Isaac?
JC: “It must have. We’ve had to curtail playing down by the harbour to just once a fortnight, because if you’ve got a spring tide that’s right up there’s no longer enough room for everyone. These days, we do it on a neap tide every couple of weeks so there’s plenty of room for everybody on the beach.”
Has the success of the group enabled you to give up your day jobs?
JC: “No – but we would want to, either. We make a little bit on the side with the singing, but we’ve got nice lives and we all love our day jobs. We’ve got several fishermen in the group, I run a shop and I write books, Bill Hawkins is a potter, Johnny Mac is a builder, Johnny Lethbridge works as a marine engineer, John Brown works as a tour guide around the village and Toby Lobb is a filmmaker. Being self employed really helps, as it enables us to schedule our working lives to fit around the group’s touring.
The latest chapter in the Fisherman’s Friends story is the film about the group’s rise to fame, which is released in cinemas across the UK on March 15th…
JC: Yes, it’s been made by the same production company that made Finding Your Feet, and this is their follow-up to that. It’s great fun; one of these uplifting, heart-warming, feel-good British films. The narrative is roughly based around our story, and there’s a huge amount of anecdotal stuff and shenanigans that we’ve got involved with over the years since we got our recording contract included in the film. The film crew came down to Port Isaac in May with a terrific cast, who we worked with to try and help make the film as authentic as possible.
So who portrays you in the film?
JC: Thankfully, we’re not depicted as individuals in the film, which is something we’re all quite happy about. I mean, I’m fairly tall with a very bald head and a handlebar moustache – none of the actors look like that, although one of the actors does have a moustaches, albeit not quite as luxuriant as my facial topiary! Seriously, though, the actors in the film don’t look like us individually, but collectively they look like us a group. They are what I like to describe as a very good approximation.
What’s the best thing about touring?
JC: Apart from the fact we really enjoy it? The loveliest thing of all has to be the engagement we get with our audiences. We love having a good yarn with people after the show, so if you’re coming to see us be sure to hand around afterwards. It’s a genuine pleasure to meet you.
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The original sole men, Cornwall’s tightest band of brothers and its best-known musical export, the Fisherman’s Friends will be heading back on the road for a run of UK tour dates in the Spring.
In a show that’s guaranteed to warm the cockles, the group’s eight good men brew up a heady mix of hearty song, salty banter and tall tales from the high seas that involves the audience at every turn. As well as meeting up with old friends, the Fisherman’s Friends are sure to make plenty of new ones as they play eleven dates, starting at Ilkley King’s Hall on 16th February and ending at Wimborne Tivoli Theatre on 31st March.
“We can’t wait to get back to performing live – it’s the reason we started the Fisherman’s Friends in the first place,” says MC and bass man Jon Cleave, he of the flamboyant moustaches.
This Spring tour ties in with the release of the eagerly awaited eponymous new film about the band which will arrive in cinemas on 15th March along with an album of music from the film.
The movie is based on the true story of this West Country musical phenomenon that got to together 30 years ago to raise money for local charities by performing sea shanties on the beach in Port Isaac and managed to conquer the top 10 in 2010. They also performed on Glastonbury’s legendary Pyramid Stage, the prestigious Royal Albert Hall and subsequently have toured all over the UK.
The film of their meteoric rise features 17 songs recorded in their local church in St Kew. Some new, some borrowed and some slightly blue. While only making cameo appearances in the film the bands unique songs and voices weave their way through the heartfelt, poignant and at times hilarious narrative, providing the bedrock for what has already been hailed as one of the film highlights of 2019.
The Fisherman’s Friends are: fisher brothers John and Jeremy Brown; writer/shopkeeper Jon Cleave; potter Billy Hawkins; smallholder and engineer John ‘Lefty’ Lethbridge; builder John McDonnell (a Yorkshireman who visited Port Isaac more than 30 years ago and never left); Padstow fisherman Jason Nicholas and film maker Toby Lobb.