“There’s blood on the highway, and a lot of it is mine”. This confession might be as vainglorious as sincere, especially for an artist like Ken Hensley who rode the fame steed only to fall and fathom the depth reachable only to those who’d been at the top of their game. But he came alive of this experience, and now there’s no game, there’s only candor in the bleeding heart of the veteran’s new album, “Blood On The Highway” that follows hot on the heels of Hensley’s autobiography, “When Too Many Dreams Come True”. Somehow, though, he’s not afraid to be dreaming still, and the future looks bright for the artist. So is there peace of mind now? Our conversation suggests, there is.
– Autobiography in the form of book and record: looks like you’re taking stock of or summing up your life. But why now? There’s surely more words and music in you…
I am a creative writer so, when I had the time, I felt it would be useful to start telling the story of my personal and professional life in detail. When someone looks at a life like mine from the outside – which is what most people obviously do – they only see a tiny part of it all. I wanted to give people a deeper insight into all aspects of it in a truthful and, hopefully, useful way. But okay… I am “taking stock” or, rather, I did take stock! For a living person the story has no ending until… I think there are more words and music in me. In fact I know there are because of the new projects I am working on!
– The album title draws a Dylan allusion. Is it a deliberate link to “Blood On The Tracks”?
No. I am not aware of the record you refer to. As far as outside music is concerned, I live a relatively “sheltered” life.
– How did the concept of a rock opera come about – and is it an opera with no roles as such?
It’s not a rock opera… it’s an opus! It won’t be an opera of any kind, until the whole story has been told and that may be through the stage production. The original idea came from the boss of my record company who read the first edition of my book and asked if we could tell the story in words and music. As for opera… There were so many people involved in the real story that it would be practically impossible to cast, especially since I was there with the original members!
– The “Ken Hensley Story” tag is in the third person: does it mean you wanted to distance yourself and make the album’s message more universal?
It is a “universal message” in as far as the time period involved a lot of people, and I wanted the record to pay tribute to them all, but I could only tell the story as seen through my own eyes.
– How did you choose the singers? Was there anybody you’d like to have on the album but failed to get?
I chose the singers from artists I knew I would like to work with and who would portray the energy, styles and passion of the era. Eve Gallagher was recommended to me by a friend in Switzerland. There were some who were comfortably retired, some who were too expensive and others who, unfortunately, just can’t sing anymore!
– Did you write the songs with a specific singer’s voice in mind?
No. We made the decision to use different voices at the very beginning of the concept but, as the songs developed, I began the search for the “right” voices.
– Was there a special reason to cast Jorn Lande as a protagonist?
I didn’t!! Maybe it comes off that way but he has so many voices within his voice that I knew he could cover the songs I needed him to.
– Was the invitation of Lande a subconscious attempt to imagine how your songs would have sounded if David Coverdale joined HEEP back in 1976?
No. I had worked with Jorn and I just knew that his voices were perfect for those songs.
– Giving the songs to a different vocalist: doesn’t it chip away from the personality of the message or the experience put in the songs?
I don’t think so. We did this for three reasons. First, because I cannot sing hard rock songs. Second, because I wanted voices that were relevant to both the songs and the era. And third, because I really wanted different colors and characters throughout the story.
– Was it difficult to re-record old songs for the new album with, possibly, a new perspective?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I love to give old songs new life – I do this in my live show a lot! – so I welcomed the opportunity.
– Could, then, any of the HEEP songs have fit in this concept – save for the “Free Me” snippet, the “Come Back To Me” slide in “It Won’t Last” and the “Lady In Black” harmony of “The Last Dance”?
Yes. But you need to listen to “We’re On Our Way” again! The story is long and it can’t be told in its entirety in one CD but, before we go to “Volume 2” etcetera, we are looking at the idea of a theatrical presentation, which will enable me to really cover the whole thing fully.
– “The Magician’s Birthday” was a failed attempt of creating a concept album. Is your conceptual aspiration fulfilled now, with “Blood On The Highway”?
No! It’s another beginning.
– To what extent were you involved in the package artwork? Does the “Look At Yourself” cover’s reprise suggest a listener’s emotional involvement in your story?
I really wasn’t involved in the design process but, for possibly the first time in my career, I have a cover that matches the CD it encloses. The CD – lyrically speaking at least – covers the beginning to the natural end of a rock star’s career, thus it naturally and obviously attempts to trace key moments of the whole experience. It is much more than reflective, Dmitry, I had to re-live a lot of those experiences in order to capture the emotions. The mirror is a small part of the package and a symbol of that process. On “Look At Yourself” it was the whole cover!
– A cover that matches the album: wasn’t it the same when Roger Dean was in charge of the artwork?
Yes. I have never denied that.
– Was the making of “Highway” a cathartic process? You seem to have finally come to peace with your past that you’ve taken a belligerent position to before…
The song “I Did It All” sums things up pretty well I think. I have no particular attitude to the past… It is what it was… But instead of feeling bitter and angry about the way so many of us have been rejected by the industry we helped to build, I can look back and say, I did something that 99 per cent of the people in this world will never do, I made a difference and I have great life now. It doesn’t get any better than that!
– What’s next, now, that there’s a new beginning?
I have so many exciting projects on the horizon that we will need to do another interview to cover them all. I expect to make an announcement just before my birthday (August 28, – DME).
Having read the Mark Clarke interview, Ken remarked, “We are hoping to be able to get together soon actually!” Fingers crossed, then?