‘Through this music, I realised grief can be life-affirming’

Toby Nuttall found writing a new album a comforting way to deal with loss. Dan Carrier talked to him about music’s healing power

Thursday, 26th May — By Dan Carrier

Toby Nuttall

Toby Nuttall

MUSIC has never been so intense for guitarist Toby Nuttall.

The singer, musician and composer lost his partner Jenny Baylis in 2018 – and the grief he felt has been channelled into writing a new album that explore loss and celebrates life.

For Toby, who lives in Dartmouth Park, it signifies a return to music after a 30-year hiatus for the academic.

Jenny was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2015 and died three years later. The couple had been together for three decades and the experience of losing a person he loved so completely was the starting point to return to the recording studio.

Toby used to gig for fun at open mic nights while he concentrated on teaching – and the album, called Plain Sailing, was like a lodestone as he processed his grief.

“I stopped working so I could look after her,” he says. “I found comfort in music. The tunes I wrote after she passed away are about death, but also rebirth, about how it can be a joyous thing. It is about trying to find something beautiful when you are in terrible pain. I think she would have liked it.”

In the immediate months after his loss, Toby began composing.

“I sat on my sofa and the songs almost wrote themselves. For me, creating the album was like focusing a lens. I would play around with my guitar and let it take shape,” he says.

The song titled It Takes Two, was written soon after Jenny died. “It’s about trying to accept and understand,” he adds.

“Through this music, I realised grief can be life-affirming. After losing Jenny, I know I profoundly believe we are not single, unique entities but we live biologically, spiritually and emotionally with each other. Our lives are only meaningful in terms of how they connect with everyone else. When someone close to you dies, a bit of you dies too.”

Toby’s musical odyssey began aged 14 when his father, an art lecturer in Bradford, brought him a guitar. His home was filled with music, and from an early age Toby was enthralled by the great guitar players of the era.

After leaving school, Toby moved to London in the mid-1970s. He settled in Carol Street, Camden Town, joining the area’s burgeoning squatting scene.

“My friends were getting jobs in factories. It did not appeal to me. I became a hippie drop-out. I moved to Leeds and joined a band,” he says. “My sister had moved to London and was living in a squat. I hitchhiked down in 1978 and squatted in Castle Road.”

Carol Street, Georgiana Street and Prince of Wales Road were full of empty homes that squatters had made safe.

“It was steeped in counter culture,” he recalls, with artists and musicians using the squats as a base to create. Next door to Toby lived the band Scritti Politti, while Camden Town pubs and clubs provided venues for artistically inclined squatters to perform.

“There was just so many empty homes,” says Toby. “London was still basically recovering from the war. Lots of councils had bought properties they could not afford to do up. It was a symbiotic thing. Squatters moved in, fixed the places up, and then people would take notice and start buying up the empty places.”

Toby worked on Hampstead Heath during the day, and hung out at Dingwalls, the Hawley and the Devonshire Arms at night.

“The pubs in Camden back then were fantastic,” he remembers. “Pop into the Devonshire and you’d meet the Pogues and Elvis Costello there. Squatting provided a network of different bands in different areas. We all knew each other and we were forming bands and playing music together all the time.

“Looking back, it was unique. It was what I had come to London to find. The squatting scene could be risky and dangerous. There were a lot of casualties, people who took drugs, and there were deaths – but for the most part it was about creating a society within a society for young people and that was beneficial.”

He joined a band called The Bones in the late 1980s and it was making waves. “We had a singer called Roland Gift,;’ recalls Toby.

Holloway-based Roland would go on to enjoy global fame in the band, The Fine Young Cannibals.

“The Bones were stripped back and minimal, just double bass, guitar, drums and Roland singing,” adds Toby.

“We played a lot of blues. Roland was really, really good – a fantastic singer and front man. We played Paul Robeson and Robert Johnson. One night, we were gigging at the Railway Tavern in West Hampstead and I was a bit surprised as Roland was really going for it, more so than usual, putting on a real show.

“Little did we know that he was being head hunted – two other members of the Fine Young Cannibals were in the audience and had come to check out our lead signer. It was shame – The Bones were a great band.”

Toby’s growing reputation as a guitarist and singer saw him in demand. He was a founder of a band called Smell Funky Beast in the late 80s and produced a critically acclaimed album. But the record company ripped him off – the owner registered the songs with the Performing Rights Society under his own name and essentially stole Toby’s work.

Dispirited with the music industry, Toby chose to play solely for fun and went to study a film studies degree at the Met University. After graduating was offered a job lecturing. It was while studying he met and fell in love with Jenny, a fellow student.

The songs draw on Toby’s long relationship with music and styles he has always loved.

“It started as a self-healing project right after my world had ended. As I grieved, I found myself drawn to music that felt traditional,” he said.

“I am not trying to break new ground, but instead trying to get into the soul of old ground.”

To obtain a copy of Plain Sailing, see http://toby.hearnow.com/plain-sailing

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