A cup of tea with Musician in Residence James Dey

Two Sides; The Visit - Tea - Lizzie Coombes

James Dey is a talented musician who runs our début prison Musician in Residence programme. We met up with him over a brew to ask him some questions:

ITT: How did you originally become involved in Music in Prisons? What made you want to work with prisoners?

James Dey guitar

The wonderful James Dey

James Dey: It was 2008, I’d just got back from some travelling and was looking for something to do! When I googled ‘music’ and ‘prisons’ the Irene Taylor Trust came top of the list and Sara Lee (ITT’s Artistic Director) was wonderful at answering e-mails – it went from there. I’d been interested in prisons since I was a teenager and oddly found myself gigging in a German prison. I met some of the men there and found it a really profound and rewarding experience. I think something from that stayed with me over the years and kept me wondering what it would be like to make music in prisons regularly.

ITT: What sort of things do you do in your sessions?

JD: I do a mixture of instrumental skills, composing, ensemble playing, recording and therapeutic work. A lot of the teaching revolves around guitar, it being an easily transportable and popular instrument. So I run guitar sessions where I get prisoners who are really musical and experienced teaching groups of learners. I also run accredited courses in Live Performance and Composition. Finally there’s an Open Mic Night I run every week to give the guys a chance to perform to others – this builds up to larger scale gigs 3 times a year.

ITT: How long do you work with participants for? Do you see a difference in participants over the weeks?

JD: I’ve worked with some people for the whole time I’ve been doing this, which is fantastic, a real privilege and has allowed me to see amazing progress in them. The guitar courses each last around 15 sessions and in this time I’ve often seen complete beginners progress to being able to play a few songs all the way through. The 30 session accredited course is exciting because a group of 5 prisoners who have never played together form a band and rehearse to put on a gig at the end. I think the challenge of this makes a real difference to those involved. They develop as musicians and also grow as people as they learn the personal skills needed to make this happen.

James Dey quoteITT: Have there been any recent project highlights for you?

JD: At the end of October the most recent group put on their final performance. It was a really special gig with a great atmosphere. One of the performers began the course doubting whether he had the confidence to perform in front of others – by the time of the gig he sang lead vocals on several of the songs and the show included 3 of his own compositions, so that was a lovely moment.

ITT: What’s your musical background? How important is music to you?

JD: I grew up in a musical household with 4 brothers who also play – we all used to get up to practice before school. I learnt drum kit, French horn and piano. I then studied Popular Music and Recording at Salford University, which led me towards composing as a real passion. Since then I’ve played with lots of bands, toured, released albums of my own songs and written for theatre productions. Music is like my inner world, I’m basically always listening to, playing, thinking about or dreaming up music!

MiP 3 (credit Lizzie Coombes)ITT: Is there a piece of music or song that has particularly inspired you

JD: When I was younger I think ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ by The Flaming Lips was an important song that just changed my musical landscape a bit, sent me off in a new direction. I still love The Flaming Lips album ‘The Soft Bulletin’.

ITT: Has working for Music in Prisons changed you as musician in anyway?

JD: Yes definitely, I’ve learnt so much from the musicians I’ve met in prison, they’ve inspired me enormously, both musically and personally. I’ve been introduced to artists I’d never heard before and I learn constantly from the experience of teaching folks. The chance to lead alongside some of Music in Prisons project team was a massive learning experience as I watched them draw incredible music from people that didn’t know it was inside them.

ITT: If you hadn’t pursued a career in music, what do you think you might be doing now instead?

JD: I’m not sure. I was never very good at anything else! I’d imagine something people-based, like social work or teaching or something. In my work in prisons music is like the pathway to connecting with others, it’s really in the people I get to meet that I find endless interest, inspiration and fun.

ITT: What do you like to get up to in your spare time?

Bird over the wire_Beyond ThisJD: I love going to gigs, cinema, reading. Oh and I’ve recently got into bird watching! Just brilliant. Some binoculars and a hide and I’m well happy.

ITT: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? Did you take it?!

JD: Hmm, tricky. I can’t think of anything so can I quote Mother Theresa?!

ITT: Please do.

JD: She said a cool thing – ‘we can do no great things, only small things with great love’. I like that, sometimes I use it as a little mantra, when I’m doing a bit of teaching or fixing a guitar string or something I try my best to do it with all the love I can.

ITT: That’s beautiful. Thanks James!

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