Salut! Sunderland readers know him as Jake. At Facebook, he lengthens the nom-de-plume to Jake Lark. But it is time for John Clark, illustrator and – late in life – musician to step out of the shadows of anonymity.
John, a retired railway engineer who has maintained his lifelong support for Sunderland from his Spanish exile, is one member of a trio, Murder Valley, that is on the brink of an impressive breakthrough.
The film director Zachary Cotler, whose first film Maya Dardel, was picked up by MGM and Samuel Goldwyn, and in his own words, “did rather well”, collecting the Best Director award at the 2017 Raindance Film Festival, stumbled on a clip of the band playing one of John’s songs, Cold Morning Light.
He liked it so much that he asked permission to use it in a new movie, a “tragicomic ensemble about an eccentric Mexican family in California” that is now at the editing stage. It stars Rosanna Arquette, Jackson Rathbone, Mariel Hemingway, and Esai Morales.
More clips of Murder Valley appear in a reworked version of this piece at Salut! Sunderland‘s little sister site, Salut! Live, which covers folk, folk-rock and related music.
Let John take up the story of his new pursuit.
In December 2016, for my 60th birthday, my wife Ana bought me a guitar.
So I started doing what I’d thought about doing for about 45 years. I learnt the basics, very raw to be honest, just plain strumming, still haven’t got around to picking.
A few months later I was introduced to Israel Quintana, a teacher of classical guitar and lover of many forms of music. We shared musical tastes and he suggested we get together to play a little.
He owns and plays a guitar-banjo, looks and sounds like a banjo but strung and tuned as a guitar. We immedietely enjoyed playing together, and I started to sing too, having never sung in public before.
A week or so later Israel’s friend Javier Ordás joined us. Javi is an accomplished guitar picker and we started to build a repertoire of folky/country songs. I would bang out the basic chords and sing while the other two concentrated on the fancy stuff.
We realised that quite a few of our songs were murder ballads so hit on the name Murder Valley. I tried my hand at writing songs, I was pleasantly surprised at the results. I’d never considered ever playing in front of a live audience but the other lads thought we were up to it and so we sought gigs in local bars.
We played our first in January of this year and we´ve played eight or nine since. We put together eight songs on our crudely home-recorded CD Rifles And Rope, four trad and four written by me.
Two of them are quite light hearted, My Baby’s Bad, on a man’s love for his crazy girlfriend/wife, and 39 Dollars, a story of drinking to forget a departed lover (trying to forget and failing).
The other two are a murder ballad parts one and two, Cold Morning Light and Blind Man’s Hill.
“It still hasn’t properly sunk in,” says John. “We don’t expect to make millions, and at this stage we don’t even know how the song is to be used in the film, it may be 10 seconds on a crackly radio in the background, or it may be the whole song, but either way it’s great exposure for our music.”
Further links to Murder Valley’s music:
On December 15, a few days before John’s 62nd birthday, he makes his solo debut, opening for friends who have a blues band.
And to extend the Salut! Sunderland link, here is a clip with Joan Dawson chipping in with backing vocals.
Joan was co-ordinator of 5573, which became Wear Down South (newsletter of the SAFCSA London branch), until she moved back to the North East a few years ago. She provided invaluable help when this site was launched in 2007 and her brother Malcolm is our deputy editor.
Joan sings and plays guitar in a band, Swap the Dog, whose music can be found at this link.