Ken Hensley has never been someone to do the obvious. If he had been, then there’s little doubt his lengthy and distinguished career would never have reached the rarefied heights it has achieved. So, the fact he’s collaborated on a new album with someone he met in a quite remarkable way at an airport should come as no surprise. And yes, this is exactly what happened! What makes this album even more significant now is that Hensley so sadly and suddenly passed away on November 4, 2020 at the age of 75. Therefore, this is poignantly his final recording.
But before we get to that important part of the story behind this album, here’s a brief reminder of why Hensley is respected and admired as one of the giants of rock music over the past five decades.
He forged his reputation with Uriah Heep. During their ’70s heyday, Hensley (as singer, multi-instrumentalist and writer) played a crucial role in propelling the band to iconic status. During this golden period, Heep recorded 13 studio albums and one live record, in the process gifting the world with so many timeless and inspirational songs, many written by Hensley.
After leaving the band in 1980, he relocated to North America. With three solo albums already to his name (starting with 1973’s ‘Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf’, continuing on to 1975’s ‘Eager To Please’ and finally ’80’s ‘Free Spirit’), Hensley joined southern rock masters Blackfoot in 1982, playing on two albums (‘Siogo’ and ‘Vertical Smiles’, in 1983 and ’84, respectively). Subsequently Hensley also had stints with young American bands W.A.S.P. and Cinderella. Such was his command and stature that he was keenly sought out by these artists to add his inimitable musical presence to their music.
After a short break, Hensley strode back into action with his 1999 album ‘A Glimpse Of Glory’, since when he’s been busier and more in demand than ever, both as a solo artist and also with the band Ken Hensley & Live Fire. All of which brings us to that fateful meeting at Alicante Airport in 2018 (Hensley has lived in the Alicante area of Spain now for some while), when he met Vladimir Emelin from Barnaul in Russia.
“I was at the airport ready to fly to Moscow,” recalls Hensley. “I’d been booked to do a gig somewhere in Russia. I was at the check in desk for the flight, when this person in a wheelchair appears with a couple of helpers. He sees me and goes bonkers.” The person in question was Emelin, who had been a massive fan of Hensley ever since he was a child.
“He sent over one of the people with him to ask me if I would have a photo taken with him, which I was very happy to do. It turns out we were on the same plane. While we were en route, Vladimir sent over a note from the other side of the cabin asking for my email address, which I was fine to pass on to him. And we kept in touch that way.”
In September of that year, Emelin came back over to Spain and while there asked Hensley if he would do him a favour and play a private concert for a close friend, which duly happened. So, the connection between the pair began to get stronger.
Mind you, communication wasn’t very easy.
“Vladimir doesn’t speak any English, and I certainly don’t speak Russian,” laughs Hensley. “Thankfully, he knows people in Spain who do talk good English, which made it easier for us to understand one another.” The connection was then taken to a new level, as the seeds for the collaboration on an album were sewn.
“Vladimir asked if I would turn a couple of his poems into songs; he’d been writing poetry for a long time. I agreed to do this, even though it was something I’d never attempted before. So, he sent me over English translations for these poems, which I then worked on. My first job was to correct the English language in these translations, which were thankfully good. I then had the challenge of turning these poems, which were of course very linear in structure, into songs. I had to develop verses, choruses and bridges, and slowly melodies started to creep in. It was a new experience for me, but one that I was enjoying.”
Hensley then recorded what he had composed. He played the Hammond organ and took care of the lead vocals. He brought in local drummer, producer and engineer Tommy Lopez to help him out, as well as other musicians from the area. The result turned out to be impressive enough for everything to be taken even further.
“Vladimir came to Tommy’s studio to listen to what we’d done and was in tears. He was so happy. I discovered that for him this was the fulfilment of a dream because he was such a huge fan of mine. And that’s when he told me that he’d like to do a whole album! I said, ‘OK, let’s do it’. Of course, we needed nine songs, so that meant going through something like 160 of Vladimir’s poems to select those which would work best. But I was becoming increasingly enthusiastic about what we were planning to do.”
By this time, the pandemic had taken a grip on the world, so the recording process was a lot more difficult. “I would sit down at the piano, play the songs and also do vocals. I’d record what I was doing onto my iPhone and then sent the file to Tommy. He would get in the musicians to record properly, send the results back to me and I would add my proper parts to this. So, it was all being done remotely.”
Lopez was an important part of the process. “Tommy worked quickly and well, and did so much work on these recordings that I have given him a credit on the album as the assistant producer (Hensley himself is the producer). Because he did more than just the engineering work on the album.”
Once the recordings were completed, there was no plan in place as to exactly what should be done with them. “Neither Vladimir nor I had any idea what we should do with these. Maybe we could privately press up a few copies on CD? We certainly had no ambitions for a proper release on a label.”
However, Steve Weltman (my manager) played it to Cherry Red Records who got to hear what had been done, and were very keen to put out the results as an official Ken Hensley album. And there’s more, because subsequently, the project has mushroomed even further on more than one front, as the man himself explains. “Vladimir wanted to do a video for the song called, ‘The Silent Scream’. So, I pulled a lot of favours and we managed to make the video very cheaply. Once we’d done that, he then wanted to take it a stage further and do videos for all nine tracks! Well, we succeeded in doing this, and at cost of only about £30,000.”
There’s also footage of a special live performance showcasing the entire album. “We did that at a venue local to me. There was even a small crowd present, who were socially distanced of course. I have to admit that I have no clue how this live show will be released. Nor, on what we will do with the videos for each song. But I am sure they will all come out soon.”
Oh, and there’s also a special lyric book being put together. “This is to have five pages for each song,” reveals Hensley. “It will have the original poem in Russian, the original translation into English, my annotated notes on each poem – I think fans will find this very interesting – and finally the lyrics for the song as they appear on the album. Olesya Vasileva, who is a friend of Tommy’s, has also done superb illustrations for each of the tracks. This will be a wonderful companion to the album.”
The record itself is to be titled ‘My Book Of Answers’. “That was Vladimir’s idea. He wanted to use this title from the start, and I had no problems with it at all.” What began as a chance encounter at an airport has taken on a life of its own. The poems and ideologies of Emelin, who like Hensley is a deeply spiritual person, has now been developed into a collection of evocative and inspiring songs thanks to the vision and gifted artistry of the man who has been his idol for so many years.
“I believe ‘My Book Of Answers’ sounds very different,” concludes Hensley. “People might say that meeting Vladimir the way I did was coincidence, and look at how it’s played out. But I am not someone who believes in coincidences. To me, it was a divine accident. Bu I am so pleased with the way we have worked together on this. I feel it will capture the imagination of listeners. And who knows where it might lead? For now, Vladimir and I both believe ‘My Book Of Answers’ defined itself as it went along, and we hope it will give people a lot of pleasure.”
Written by Malcolm Dome
London, November 2020