My introduction to Phil Furneaux was at an unassuming open mic night in Cumbria, UK. After the local roots guitars were finished, there was just enough evening left for a tall, bespectacled man to plug in an iPod, and improvise his way through several original songs - on a tenor saxophone.
It's hard to imagine that same man gracing stages across the globe, but Phil Furneaux's instrumental music has found a certain public resonance, and his fledgling music taken flight. For now, Phil is content to travel wherever it leads, and so far this has included the United States, Tanzania, France, and now Spain.
We have arranged to meet at his home in Cumbria. As Phil makes filter coffee for us all, the sun is streaming in through a Velux in the vaulted ceiling, striking the crisp white walls and setting a bright and optimistic mood. Welsh-born Phil spent much of his life in teaching, so I asked him if there was a defining moment when he decided to pursue music instead.
"At the age of 40. I didn't get a job promotion, so I decided to put my energies into performing, and to learn the guitar."
Phil's first live venture, a function outfit called "Heidi and the Soul Merchants", played locally, serving a blended mix of soft jazz, soul and blues, the music that had inspired Phil in his youth.
But Phil's music, which he records in his studio attic, some two floors above us, has variously been described by critics and fans as "evocative", "beautiful", "dramatic", and "very effective" - hardly superlatives that "easy listening" should attract.
"I was really into it. When I was a teenager, all the famous soul bands came to the Lido in Prestatyn, and I saw all the greats: The Drifters, The Temptations, Diana Ross."
Phil's love of the saxophone stems from this love of soul music, and the instrument has continually held his fascination, even though he was not to pick it up until later life. Commenting on his free-playing and deliberately loosened improvisational approach, he cites influence from Junior Walker, Jan Garbarek and Snake Davis.
I asked Phil how he would describe his music. After a brief pause, he states carefully: "Soft jazz. Easy listening."
It was a family tragedy that was to be the catalyst that would provide Phil's playing greater depth and draw out his creativity, as he came to terms with the loss of his daughter who was claimed in a road accident in 2009, very shortly after she had been awarded her Ph.D. The music that would collectively become known as "Kate's Tunes" has taken Phil some time, as he has personally voyaged the highs and lows since - and reckoned the technical skill required to make some uniquely personal recordings on his own terms.
"Kate’s Tunes are the record of my journey over the last 2 years. Working on them has enabled me to completely absorb myself with thoughts of Kate, but to use these thoughts creatively and in a positive way. I am very much indebted to David Day who has helped me to make these acceptable, and put down some amazing keyboard."
Although the "easy listening" tag would certainly describe the content in terms of its instrumentation, the description is naive in the extreme, and denies some genuine artistry. This music is raw, uninhibited, and honest. But despite its catharsis, the music is not self serving. Somehow Phil has succeeded in fusing his emotion with a genuine desire to capture something of his daughter's essence in a tangible way and share it with others for the good. The resulting soundscape is exploratory, brave, deep, intense - and quite offers the listener a variety of construction and landscape.
I asked Phil about his creative process.
"I can hear the riff in my head, and the rest follows from that. I search for a groove in the drum library, and get that right, and put down chords afterwards. I have also been making music with my wonderful friend Krys Markowski, who plays piano on "Sunday In The Morning". We recorded that track in his flat in Paris."
"Moonlight With Piano" was the first tune as it is such a sad melody. The track was taken from the internet but the pianist remains unknown. I approached "Sarah’s Letter" by putting riffs to adjectives describing Kate which came from a letter by her friend Sarah. "Hi Dad How Are You" came by putting a riff to Kate’s opening conversation on the telephone. And the riff for "Where Are You Now" came from inspiration I found in a forest in New Hampshire, USA."
Performing live is important to Phil, and especially so with these tunes.
"I felt I had to play them in public, otherwise they are meaningless. I tried out all my tunes at the Pavilion in Lanercost. I find gigging really focuses the music. Going to Paris also provided opportunity for me and Krys to gig together at a friend's 60th birthday. It was good to work with a keyboard player, I'm keen to do that again in future."
With the acceptance of Kate's Tunes by a wider public came the confidence Phil needed to perform to his Welsh family and some close friends at a small chapel on the Llyn Peninsular in Wales. He remembers it as being difficult, both for him as an artist and for his family, but also identifies it as a significant moment in his life.
"The performance went really well, and we all ended up smiling and dancing, which is the way Kate would want it."
With an upcoming gig in Spain and plans for a CD of Kate's Tunes, Phil's eye is fixed firmly on the future. He sets out some of his more interesting ideas, which build on what he has learned and move it on another step.
"I have been experimenting with a loop station, trying to develop the skill of recording loops live, and constructing the tune in front of the audience. I am also looking to work alongside a keyboard player, and see where that leads."
Phil is clearly optimistic at the prospect of his onward musical journey. We wish him every success.
Author: David Day, January 2012.
Photography: Rhonda Perfitt.