English rock violinist
"To me honesty is the most important thing with music. You just play and perform what you feel from the heart."
Busker and fiddler extraordinaire, Ed Alleyne-Johnson is best-known for his performances with New Model Army, although he has lately recorded a number of haunting albums on his own.
Born in Liverpool, he went on to Oxford University to study fine art, and began playing in the pubs and clubs around the area. Once he had completed his education, he took off for Europe with his home-made electric violin and all the paraphernalia needed to busk. During his travels he refined the style he had developed in England, which involved layering sounds one atop another. Fending off his critics, he said "It's continuing a tradition really. I've always thought people like Vivaldi and Bach, if digital delays had been around in their day, they'd have used them." Whether he is right or wrong, one thing is for certain - the 'soulless' technology he used produced a unique and haunting sound.
In 1989 he was approached by New Model Army to play on their single Vagabonds, and later on the album Thunder and Consolation. The five-year stint with the band took him all over the world, playing both violin and keyboards at some 500 concerts. He also recorded with the band on Impurity, Raw Melody Men and Living In The Rose, starting work on his own solo recording career in 1992.
In 1994 he teamed up with an old school friend, Denyze D'Arcy, who had lived at the other end of the street in his youth. While Ed was travelling the world, she had stayed in Liverpool, working with local bands and earning herself a reputation as a singer/songwriter. Although they had met before, when Denyze was playing saxophone at a school dance, this time it was for real. They married and settled in Liverpool, writing, recording and performing together. Although they still tour and play the big venues, Ed may still be seen where his roots are, playing to street audiences in his home town.
In the studio, Ed is an accomplished musician. Live, he is an superb performer - using a variety of effects pedals and creating layer upon layer of simple melodies, he gradually builds up haunting, ethereal pieces which build in depth to become so much greater than their components parts. He constructs a virtual orchestra, which shows many influences from chamber music onward. His first album has many elements drawn from Eastern European and North African sources, woven into a tapestry of hypnotic sound.
I first became aware of him when he was busking in Nottingham, in about 1990. I heard what sounded like whale song, followed it to see this strange Pied Piper character, surrounded by an entranced audience of about fifty people. I stood and listened for what seemed like hours, rooted where I stood, hypnotised by the music and the man. His focus was total - he barely looked up, but swayed to his own music, as though he were a snake charmer caught in his own spell. When he had finished, there was silence, even on the busy street, then the audience applauded, dropped money in the hat and walked slowly away. I could not, I had to know who he was, whether he had recorded anything, so I asked him. He said there was something in the pipeline, told me his name. Two years later I heard that Purple Electric Violin Concerto had been released, and rushed to the store to buy it.
The Purple Violin
His trademark violin is one he built himself, after consulting many other musicians from a wide variety of music genres, notably Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick and Ric Sanders. It is unusual in that it combines the best of the violin and viola, with five strings, tuned C, G, D, A, E. Solidly built in oak, walnut and maple, he added an ebony fingerboard and incorporated a Zeta pickup The result is a unique instrument for a highly demanding musician. "It's got a very heavyweight body - if you compare it to a guitar it's like a Gibson Les Paul. You get a lot of sustain and some really good rock distortion sounds out of it."
As time has moved along, so has Ed - his collaboration with Denyze has developed his range yet further into writing songs, and although many feel that he has lost the magic of PEVC, he has gained much in range. That he still busks tells me that he has not lost the spark.