Good music never dies: from Dire Straits’ classic rock to soloist’s folk, Americana and blues.
David Knopfler, born in Glasgow on 27th December 1952, is a British rhythm guitarist, pianist, singer-songwriter, record producer, poet and book writer.
In 1939 his father, Erwin Knopfler, who was a Jewish Hungarian architect, moved to Scotland, where he married Louisa Mary, a teacher. The family grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in England, where David attended the Gosforth Grammar School.
At 11 years old, the young talent owned a guitar, a piano and a drum kit. At 14, he was already playing and singing his own compositions in folk clubs.
He attended Bristol Polytechnic (now named University of the West of England) and then worked as a social worker in London, where he shared a flat with John Illsley. David introduced John (bass player) to his brother Mark. In 1977, together with Pick Withers (drummer), the four founded the well-known band Dire Straits.
During the recording of the third album Making Movies (Vertigo, 1980), David quitted the band to embark upon a solo carrier. He was left unaccredited on the album because Mark removed David’s guitar track.
In 1984 David Knopfler played at the Sanremo Music Festival his song Madonna’s Daughter, included in his first solo album Release.
In the ‘80s David scored the soundtracks for the movies and for German television: Shergar (1984), Laser Mission (1989), Treffer (1984), Jakob hinter der blauen Tür (1989) e Der grosse Bellheim.
His book Bluffers Guide to the Rock Music Business was published in 1996.
He is also an excellent poet. In 2005 Blood Stones and Rhythmic Beasts, David’s book of poetry, was published by BlackWing books.
Musical criticism appreciates a lot David’s work also about style research: he has his own and unique style as a singer-songwriter.
He has played with several musicians: Harry Bogdanovs, Bub Roberts, Martin Ditcham, Ensemble 05 (Lorenzo Micheli, Daniele Vineis, Daniele De Pascalis, Angelo Montanaro, Giorgio Dellarole, Massimo Felici), Mark Knopfler, John Illsley, Pick Withers, among many others…
David Knopfler performs in concerts all over the world.
Release (Paris Records/Polydor/Intercord/Peach River Records/…, 1983)
Behind The Lines (Intercord, 1984)
Cut The Wire (Intercord/Greenhill Records, 1986)
Lips Against The Steel (Paris Records/Polydor/Intercord/…, 1988)
Lifelines (Mercury, 1991)
The Giver (BMG Ariola, 1993)
Small Mercies (BMG Ariola, 1994)
Wishbones (Edel, 2001)
Ship Of Dreams (Edel Records/Paris Records, 2004)
Songs For The Siren (Blue Rose Records, 2006)
Acoustic feat. Harry Bogdanovs (Paris Records, 2011)
Made in Germany – Live Concert In Erfurt 2012 (2013)
Morning in Iowa (Soundset Recordings; 2013)
Singles and EPs
Soul Kissing (Peach River Records, 1983)
When The Rain Stops (Intercord, 1984)
Shockwave (Intercord, 1985)
Heart To Heart (Intercord, 1985)
Madonna’s Daughter (Intercord, 1985)
When We Kiss (Polydor, 1986)
Cut The Wire (Polydor, 1986)
The Hurricane (Intercord, 1987)
To Feel That Way Again (Intercord / Paris Records, 1988)
Heat Come Down (Cypress Records, 1988)
Lonely Is The Night (Mercury, 1991)
Yeah…But What Do Men Want? (Mercury, 1991)
The Heart Of It (Ariola/BMG, 1995)
If God Could Make The Angels (Edel Records, 2001)
Forty Days And Nights (Ariola/BMG, 1994)
with Dire Straits
Dire Straits (Vertigo Records, 1978)
Communiqué (Vertigo Records, 1979)
Money For Nothing (compilation, Vertigo, 1988)
Live At The BBC (Vertigo Records, 1995)
Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits (compilation, Mercury Records, 1998)
Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits And Mark Knopfler (compilation, Mercury Records/Vertigo Records, 2005)
How was the passion for music born? You and your brother Mark are great artists, is there anyone else in family who can play a musical instrument?
We had quite a bit of music in the family… musical Uncles, our mother could sight-read at the piano, and our older sister was pretty handy on the cello… she even had a bass guitar for awhile.
I imagine that dozens of journalists have put you through lots of questions about Dire Straits, the band that launched all of the members. I don’t want to talk about Dire Straits, because I respect your choice to quit. You had another kind of project as a musician. Groups usually come alive, grow up and finally break up. It’s typical in the world of music. Of course, I admire the praiseworthy value of your old band. I hadn’t been born yet when Dire Straits and you got famous. However good music lives forever.
I would like to talk about your musical evolution analyzing your solo albums instead. The ones of the ‘80s, like Release, Behind The Lines, Cut The Wire, Lips Against The Steel and Lifelines, are characterized by classic rock, typical at that time, the rock of Dire Straits’ sonorities too. The ones that were improved by your work and, at the same time, improved you too.
For the 90’s your style has been changed with The Giver, Small Mercies and Wishbones, maybe due to the insertion of the acoustic guitar, that makes everything more folk, Americana and pop rock, and due to the jazz structure and sounds, especially concerning the saxophone.
Ship of Dreams and Songs For The Siren are capital milestones to underline your stylistic research. They sound very folk, country and Americana. Acoustic feat. Harry Bogdanovs and Made in Germany – Live Concert In Erfurt 2012 express the musical maturity of the singer-songwriter, underlined by the arrangements (very blues and folk), the melodies and the lyrics. There is your personal and unique style.
What do you think about your ‘musical evolution’? How did you manage the different ‘phases’?
It’s been a journey. I’d always been a singer-songwriter, so the three years with Dire Straits felt a little constrained creatively for me as Mark organically and increasingly, dominated in that area, as one would have expected. However I’m grateful for the experiences it gave me. From there, making my first solo album was a much smaller step than it would have been if I’d just been starting out. I was at least studio savvy and knew how to arrange my work. I worked with several different line ups of musicians trying to find the best way forward before settling on working with well known record producer Hugh Murphy (of Gerry Rafferty Baker Street fame). Harry Bogdanovs provided some useful help as did a raft of other musicians.
CDs two through to five were really just a continuation along the same trajectory. In the 80s, the technology for recording was going through a modest revolution of sorts from analogue to digital and also with the rise of Midi and pre-programming songs in the computer. It was a useful way to keep recording costs down but probably for my songs not the most elegant way to work.
By CD5 I was seeing only too clearly the limitations of spending 4 months programming a record and then it sounding too unnaturally “perfect”.
By CD6 The Giver I was ready to be brave again – and with three other musicians, and performing organically and live in the studio, we laid down about 22 songs in less than a fortnight and we made the final album in about a month… It has some hand-made characteristics as a result… most of the vocals and piano parts are live as they went down together… but the trade is that you get something a bit more timeless and real.
With CD7 Small Mercies Harry [Bogdanovs] and I had become pretty comfortable in the Producers chairs working in this way and had become better adapted to minimising the innate shortcomings of the method.
By CD8 and CD9 this process was pretty well honed and in conjunction with putting in more live performances too, things were moving even more favourably and we were even able to incorporate real orchestras to the tracks that needed them.
Has the Scottish folk music (for example The Corries or other typical Scottish folk groups) conditioned your compositions?
I think, if you have folk roots, as I do, having started out performing my own songs (and cover songs) in folk clubs from about the age of 13 or 14, it’s almost inevitable that Celtic roots will play some kind of part in the composition of your works. The first song I could perform with a respectable finger-picking style would have been Don’t Think Twice – I’d heard both the Peter, Paul and Mary version and the Bob Dylan version (the composer) when only about 11 or 12.
Do you compose the music or the lyrics first?
There isn’t a formula. I started out with my songwriting coming up with tunes first and lyrics afterwards but as my confidence as a lyricist improved I began to find I could as easily write a set of lyrics and then lay a tune underneath it. These days I tend to start with a rough draft set of lyrics – get my first musical ideas – then redraft the lyrics – then rewrite the music and so on. The editing is usually a lot more work than the first burst of creativity. That said my last composition began as a tune. It’s all very fluid and organic and completely second-nature to me – everything works together in a fairly seamless process… though not every song makes the grade, even now, you have to know when to abort something that isn’t going to have that extra special something about it.
In my humble opinion the lyrics of 4U (Rabbit song) involve directly the listener. They are very illustrative, aren’t they?
It’s very heart-felt, I know that. Almost all of Ship Of Dreams is. As well as getting better at producing records over the decades I think I’ve become better at writing with more emotional honesty. When the song connects to you in that way, it is easier to them perform it with 100% commitment and I think, that in turn will tend to improve the odds that when someone hears it that the honesty will resonate with them.
What was the inspiration for the amazing When Will The Crying Stop?
I think with the whole Ship Of Dreams album there’s a common theme running through it and again it’s a very direct song expressing very direct emotions. We’ve all walked in those shoes of feeling that our love could be better requited.
Shall I ask you something personal? Did you write the fabulous and touching piece A Father And A Son thinking about your father?
I think the spark for it was probably more to do with being a father myself… but in the end the song was obviously about the process of creation whether it being a song or parenting. As a man it’s not hard to relate to both being the son and then the father and then losing a father… it’s the natural order of things.
You are also an excellent poet. What’s your relationship with the English poems, for examples the ones written by The Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, etc)? Has nature of your green Scotland and UK in general left a mark in your poetry?
I’m not too sure about the roots of my poetry. I pretty much devoured any poetry I could get my hands on. The Liverpool poets in the sixties struck a chord with me, especially Brian Patten but so did TS Eliot and DH Lawrence… then you know the usual culprits, Baudelaire, Rumi, Rilke. I realised, in my fifties, that I needed to study the theory and structure of poetry more before I’d be ready to produce work worth publishing despite having written it for four decades.
Let’s talk about your poem For the last kissed. What are the words of ‘We dug into the snow for warmth words written in code, hidden treasure’?
I like very much the imagine of ‘I complicated you away from me like a cat tugging at the thread, that unravels everything, even hope. Fear shredding our blessings’ How was this inspiration born?
And why did you choose magnolia instead of other flowering plants (‘How dreamland in magnolia’)?
I don’t remember too much about it to be honest. Maybe the idea of it was to say that relationships are built step by step and trust is reliably earned incrementally and you can’t bring too many expectations to bear too early?
I don’t think you can ever really totally deconstruct a poem… poems are written as they are because the ideas and emotions behind them rather defy dry analysis. I expect at the time I’d seen a rather beautiful magnolia, or maybe the magnolia has relevant symbolism or there’s a hidden piece of alliteration or all three reasons and more… the aesthetics of these things are usually fairly intuitive and instinctive. Trust the tale not the teller.
You have worked together with Italian musicians. Would you like to tell us please something about Morning in Iowa (2013), the album that presents the incidental music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (played by Ensemble 05) and Robert Nathan’s poems (narrated by your warm vocal timbre)?
Lorenzo Micheli approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in narrating the poem for a project he was working on. I read it and found it inspirational. We then spent a good amount of time trying to figure out exactly where all the pieces of music best fitted… we had a lot of the start points written into the original score but in several places we had to work quite hard to find the original intention of Nathan and Tedesco but we got there in the end and there followed from that several live performances and a recording. Sadly the backing track was recorded first rather than simultaneously with the narration and I think the final CD version pays a small penalty for that compared to the live versions. I hope we’ll get more chances to perform it again some day.
You have performed in several concerts around the world, what was the warmest audience you had the pleasure to enchant with your music?
My audiences are pretty great everywhere to be honest… I’m very blessed. They seem to like to listen and you can’t ask for more than that.
There’s a certain magic to play in the US where my lyrics are more comprehensively understood by the audience but we get treated really well everywhere from Turkey, through Germany and as far afield as Australia. I obviously reduce the amount of talking I do from the stage if I’m playing to say a Spanish speaking audience, 90% of whom would understand nothing of what I was saying.
You have just finished the tour in Germany. Would you like to tell us anything about this experience?
I’ve been touring Germany both with the band and as a duo with Harry pretty consistently now for about 13 years… I’d done a couple of tours there in the 1980s too but not like the work done there in more recent years and so there’s a trust and expectation that we’ll deliver an enjoyable and we don’t mess with that trust.
Can you give us previews of your next project please?
I’ve made a modest start on the next studio album and I hope to get together with the band in a couple of weeks and see if we can’t get something down worth releasing later in the year. I have an awful lot of songs piling up that need to be studio recorded.
Could you please send a message to the young singer-songwriters who dream a peaceful future in the world of music? Just some advices by a great specialist, please.
Do the work and then do it some more. There are no short-cuts to being good. Talent is 99% hard work. If you master the craft the art will look after itself. Better to be so good that people are begging you to come through their door rather than having to endlessly knock on doors that won’t open for you. Do the groundwork and be prepared to live in the now once you start recording and working with other musicians… sometimes the magic is in the way other players can contribute to your work.
On behalf of the magazine and all of the readers I thank you very much indeed. It’s been an honour for all of us having known you. We thank you to give us great emotions with your music.
The beauty of the musician job is in that magic you’ve said before, the one that has origin when you play with other musicians, everyone can be source of inspiration.
Visit the official David Knopfler’s website
Listen to his music on Spotify
Buy CDs on cdbaby