Ian Prowse is a determined soul. As the first sentence he utters to me over a pint opposite Mathew Street reveals. It’s a determination that’s led to the release this week of a compilation of his best work – with his bands Pele and Amsterdam – from the last 20 years…
“I played my first gig as a teenager in Ellesmere Port Youth Centre in 1982. It would be nine years before my blind faith and dedication to my craft would finally lead to a record deal. That’s a very long time to wait for your life to start and your dream to come true. Thankfully I’ve been making records ever since…”
“In the absence of a huge hit single during my career, many people have heard of me, but never gotten involved with my music. This is a chance for that to happen I hope. Either way, it’s been a hell of a journey and genuinely wacky way to earn a living,” he laughs.
Collaborations and correspondence with the likes of Elvis Costello, Christy Moore and the late John Peel have kept the Merseyside songwriter’s star in the ascendency over the years. But it’s the connection his songs have had with those that have gotten involved with his work that has sustained an artistically rewarding career. Even during the lean years at the turn of the century…
“Giving up on seven years of hard work after Pele was very dispiriting. To go from full venues right back to the very start again was hard: playing gigs to 10 people in awful London venues, when two years before 700 cockneys loved us, felt like musical snakes and ladders. The first reality TV show to manufacture pop stars hit our screens around then too and the music industry deemed you were too old at the age of 25! For a few years Amsterdam just made music and waited for things to change,” he reveals.
Where did the self belief come from at that time? “I’ve no idea,” he smiles. “Absolutely nothing was going for us. But we had a work ethic. We’d meet every couple of months at an odd little studio in a Welsh town called Kidwelly and it was pretty depressing. I’d sit on the couch and play five or six songs from which he’d select three to record and mix over the next two days. Two days was all we could afford…”
It’s a discipline that’s rare today. Prowse and his revolving door of band members crafted their work and took care of how and when the fans heard it. It was a decision that paid off, as the band survived by releasing two albums via their website and existed – way before MySpace and the Arctic Monkeys’ phenomenon – as a purely digital, self sufficient entity.
“Those early Amsterdam songs sound better today than they ever did too! One of them (‘Takin’ on the World’) eventually became a single and battered the likes of Elbow and Manic Street Preachers in a public phone vote on the Radio 2 breakfast show. That made me smile thinking back to the decrepit couch I’d first started recording it on in Wales.”
It was a long road back for Prowse. And a familiar tale of music industry woe: “The A&R man who signed Pele left the label and the new fella’ tried to make his mark and make me go solo… and set my career back by seven years. We missed the Britpop boat and watched with great distress as all of our previous support bands like Cast, Travis and Sleeper hit the big time, while we argued with that idiot!”
Prowse built on Amsterdam’s emergence into the new decade and by 2006 was back in the Top 40 and perpetuating his unshakeable belief with regular sell out shows in Liverpool and London.
A new, but familiar, sound began to emerge in his music too. And the Ellesmere Port- born singer’s fascination with Celtic culture began to take hold of his muse: “Our contemporary sound was born around 2007 when Christy Moore narrated a poem I’d written on a song called ‘Nothing’s Goin’ Right’. That was a moment let me tell you. He’d covered my song ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?’ and we began a lasting friendship,” he says.
What is it about Ireland that enchants Prowse? “People often ask that. I took a year off from everything and completed a Masters degree and thesis on the subject, because that small island is like a magical fountain for the one thing in life that will never let you down, and that’s music.”
His best songs have that fervour too. A lot of people know Prowse’s name in Liverpool and beyond, but now maybe it’s time to concentrate on the music. As he’s right: it won’t let you down…
‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside: The Best of Ian Prowse’ is out now.
Amsterdam play The Kazimier on Saturday, April 21st.
– Alan O’Hare