Ancestors who worked down the mines and who died in battle inspired Shakin' Stevens new album
With a new album Echoes Of Our Times out now, Eighties rocker Shakin' Stevens tell Kris Griffiths about growing up as one of 13 children, the recent death of his brother Jackie and why he said no to I'm A Celebrity...
Shakin' Stevens was one of the Eighties biggest-selling singles artist but now he is digging deep into his past to hone a much darker album, Echoes Of Our Times.
His new sound is a long way from well-loved hits such as This Ole House, Green Door and Merry Christmas Everyone which were jaunty tracks sure to get the party started.
The 68-year-old Welsh rock and roll singer, who was a milkman in Cardiff before pop stardom beckoned, says he only discovered family members he never knew existed as he prepared to record the new album.
"Growing up as one of 13 children in the Fifties and Sixties, in those days you were seen and not heard so nothing about the family was ever discussed while I and my siblings were around, so I had no prior knowledge of many of my relatives, all because of a family feud," he says.
By the time Shaky, real name Michael Barrett, was born in 1948 the oldest of his siblings were married and had children of their own.
His father, Jack, a First World War veteran and former miner, was then a builder, but refused to talk about his experiences during the war and indeed the mines which both claimed family lives.
It was only when Shaky was doing some family research did he discover some home truths.
"You come to a stage in life when you want to know more about them (my family), where they came from, what they did for a living. So it just happened that while recording a new album we were also researching the family as I'd realised I knew so little about my background. As each piece of information came to light, so characters came to life and dramatic stories unfolded."
He discovered he is from a long line of ancestors who were copper and tin miners in Cornwall, adding: "My grandfather, born in 1865, was a copper miner from the age of 10. The air down the mines was poisoned with arsenic, and working conditions were horrific. They only had candles for light, so they worked in a pitch-black environment. It wasn't unusual to have to climb down ladders for two hours before starting work, and some would fall off through fatigue. And there were children down there, like my great-great-uncle, who was working by the age of eight, and dying there that same year."
Seeking out the Barrett family tree also shed some light on why his dad Jack was reticent about talking about the war.
"My Uncle Leonard, who fought and died during the First World War, and my father and his brothers, who were fortunate to return from it, were an inspiration for this album. Leonard was injured by a shell and took eight days to die; sadly 11 days later his son was born. These stories taught me that freedom isn't a God-given right - you have to earn it.
"War affects people in different ways. My father just didn't want to discuss it. My brother Jackie, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, was torpedoed three times while in the Navy, but he was always prepared to talk about it. He was anxious for his younger siblings to see war as it is, rather than the glorified image sometimes portrayed on screen."
The personal losses to the family, though, touched the songwriter.
He says: "You couldn't help but be inspired as they unfolded, and the music just flowed from that. For instance Down in the Hole intentionally sounds dark, the rhythm structure based on the sound of hammer-on-metal. Artistically the whole album has been my most satisfying. It's a very personal album, and I'm very proud of it. It's great to be in full control, with the right team behind it who understand what I'm trying to do."
So is he worried Shaky fans may not relate to the new album?
"It's certainly a lot different to what people would normally expect from me - many who've listened to it don't recognise it's me. I moved on years ago, using mandolin, banjo, dobro and harmonica when playing live, and veering into rootsy blues and Americana, but if you haven't seen me on tour you won't know about that. With the songs on this album I've just taken it a step further. My musical style in the Eighties was different from everyone else out at the time, which led to developing a strong image - one I've spent the last 20 years trying to change, to allow me to move on.
As well as a musical departure this is his first album to be released without him on the cover.
"I purposely didn't want to be on it. I've had enough of the "look into my eyes" images from early days of success, when I was quite naive. I'm sure I'm not the only artist to flinch remembering some of the tacky merchandise sold at gigs - flags, pillowcases - which I'd only seen for the first time when they were already on sale in the foyer. That kind of marketing is all in the past now. So many acts don't understand that side of the music business - they just turn up and sing, like I did. Now it's just about the music.
But his famous moniker, however, will not change.
He says: "No, never. That'd be a total cop-out. It's Shakin' Stevens or Shaky. Changing my professional name now would be like suddenly releasing a rap record."
And no matter how much fans crave the nostalgia of his famous chart-topping hits, don't expect him to be on the bill at nostalgia gigs.
"I know people enjoy them, and I totally understand why some artists like to do them. But I'd rather not be confined to only performing past hits. When I'm on tour, of course I include some of the hits, but I also do new songs, obscure songs, album tracks and a few surprises."
He is now enjoying fame on his own terms ... and won't be a future line-ups of reality shows as so many of his contemporaries have already done.
"I've been offered I'm A Celebrity ... three or four times, but I don't care how much money they offer, I'm not sitting in a jungle eating kangaroo b**ls."
His big break came playing Elvis in a West End show, but he has no regrets about taking the part in 1977.
"When first offered the role I was warned this may follow me for years. But I needed the work, and secondly it brought me to the attention of CBS, which is how I landed a worldwide contract. I enjoyed the musical, which won awards. Many big names came to see it, including David Bowie, Diana Dors and Carl Perkins. Carl said my performance was very different from that of Elvis. Indeed producer Jack Good said he wasn't looking for another Elvis, but for performers who'd excite the audience in their own style."
With a new album out, he's hitting the road again, too.
"I'm looking forward to touring next year and performing the new songs. I've more to give, so why stop? To me, this is just a new beginning."
Echoes Of Our Times is out now on HEC