It is one of the most unlikely albums of the year, possibly any year. My Book of Answers, the new album by Ken Hensley, to be released on 5th March, came about following Ken’s chance meeting with a fan at the airport near his home in Spain. The result is a fine album, Ken’s first new studio output for eight years.
I was privileged to speak to Ken about the album, by phone from his home just outside Alicante, on 2nd November 2020. Ken was really upbeat and spoke excitedly about the project and also reflected on his career: his time with, and life after, Uriah Heep. Little did we know that this would be Ken’s last interview as, two days later, he would suddenly be lost to us.
Ken Hensley’s work with Uriah Heep in the 1970s helped to make the band hugely influential. Keyboard player, guitarist and vocalist, Ken was also Uriah Heep’s principal song writer during his decade with the band, responsible for such classics as Lady In Black, Easy Livin’ and Look At Yourself, providing them with much of their musical direction. Leaving the band in 1980 to pursue a solo career, he also collaborated with Florida-based hard rock band Blackfoot and L.A. metal bands W.A.S.P. and Cinderella. “Ken Hensley wrote the rule book for heavy metal keyboards as far as I’m concerned”, W.A.S.P.’s frontman Blackie Lawless is quoted as saying.
Ken’s solo career saw him work with leading artists across the globe. A very spiritual person, Ken became an inspiration to many and known for encouraging talented young artists. He enjoyed the love and respect of fans the world over.
My Book of Answers is a wonderful tribute to this rock legend. The album is the intriguing result of a collaboration with one of Hensley’s fans, following their airport meeting, as he turns dreams into a reality. Over a two year period, the collaboration with Russian fan Vladimir Emelin saw Ken transform Vladimir’s poems into an album’s worth of songs, a series of videos, a concert and an illustrated lyric book charting the progress of each piece from Russian poem to English rock song. And all of this was produced in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
“It’s been fascinating since day one”, Ken told me in November. “It’s somewhat miraculous how it all came together and how it’s continued to grow and develop, even through the crisis, to where it’s at today and where it’s going to go tomorrow, pretty amazing!
“We first met in early 2018. Vladimir has a home up on the Costa Blanca and he’s here to visit his children and his grand-children as often as visas will permit. On this occasion I was flying to Moscow, en-route to somewhere to do a show, and he was on his way home to Moscow. We ended up on the same plane, same cabin.
“Vladimir saw me at the airport and he’s been a fan since he was a kid. He asked me for a picture and an autograph, which I was happy to give him, and for an email address. A few weeks later I heard from him and he asked if I would go up and play a concert for his best friend’s birthday, a solo concert. That was our next personal encounter.
“We stayed in touch and in the summer of 2018 we met in Alicante and he brought his English speaking friend with him. He explained that Vladimir wanted me to take some of his poems and turn them into songs. I tried a couple of songs, although I didn’t know if I could do it because I’ve never done it before. He loved it and he wanted me to do more and more until we ended up with an album’s worth of songs.
“I popped it over to my manager Steve Weltman and typically, before I know it, he’s got the guys at Cherry Red interested in it! The whole thing takes on another dimension.”
Emelin asked if they could create some videos and, eventually, they had one for each song, nine in all. Finally, they also filmed a live (socially distanced, without fans) concert close to Ken’s home in Agost. “We’re busy editing that now, and trying to fix all the blunders and everything where I forgot words”, he laughs. “We’ll fix it all and it’ll be a nice little additional piece, it’ll be a collector’s item!
“I made most of the album under lockdown, under Coronavirus restrictions, and that was easy because it was just file-sharing over the internet with the musicians, the singers and my engineer and it was relatively easy. What we had to do was make sure we didn’t compromise any quality.
“I’ve never done anything like this before and, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t recall anybody else doing this before, with a video for every song on the album. I’m developing a lyric book, which will be a beautiful piece. Each song feature’s the original Russian lyric, which no-one outside of Russia will understand. There’s the translation by Vladimir’s friend and my notated stuff where I changed the words of the poem into a song and created verses, bridges and choruses. The fans can see all the changes I made, and understand why I made them, and then there’s the final lyric that appears on the album. Alisia Vaselieva, a wonderful illustrator and friend of Vladimir’s, has done an illustration for each song, so five pages for each song and it will be a deluxe hard-back package – a collectors’ item. We’ve got more stuff than we can market!”
I suggested that this project had given Ken a real focus because it has been a horrible year for everyone.
“That point is definitely not lost on me, Geoff. I’ve got so many friends who are really stuck, right now, because there’s no work, they can’t go out, can’t do shows. It’s not just the artists, it’s the venues and the infrastructure. I read that 170,000 people in the British entertainment industry were about to become redundant.
“Nobody wants to be confined to quarters but what’s the alternative? I was forced to stay home and had all the time in the world to work with Vladimir on this project. So while all my friends are struggling to find work – and I gave a few of them work – I had this massive project to work on and the restrictions of the virus meant I was able to do that.
“It also meant I didn’t have to go to the airport three or four times a month, what a blessing that was! In 2019 I practically killed myself flying all over the place doing shows.”
Drawing on the strong faith of both Ken and his collaborator, opens the album with Lost (My Guardian), a spiritual quest as they search for a light in the darkness: The track is driven along by a strong riff, as Ken calls on his half-century of creating classic rock. There is also a vulnerability in his voice reflecting the struggle Ken says he had to find his own identity following his departure from Uriah Heep.
“I lived in America for twenty years after I left Uriah Heep”, Ken explained, “and I really needed time to rediscover myself, get rid of my drugs habit and see if there was anything left of a human being in me after my life had been buried in Uriah Heep for ten and a half years. It took a long time to get there but I got there in the end.”
Stand (Chase The Beast Away) is another track that bears all the hallmarks of a life spent crafting classic rock music, an anthem of hope as we draw on the strength of love and friendship to confront our demons. The chorus soars “Stand up, stand strong, Stand together and stand for as long as it takes”, and together we are capable of great things.
The song mirrors Ken’s early career as the creative force behind Uriah Heep.
“We weren’t a hit with the critics but we listened to the people who bought tickets and albums and, unfortunately, the critics ignored them”, said Ken as he looked back with affection for his time with the band. “It just went on and on and on. We pulled together and achieved everything we set out to achieve. It was a wonderful life and career. My life has been fantastic but it’s not been easy, it was a lot of hard work but when you do what you love best it doesn’t seem like hard work.
“It has been a great career”, he continued. “I can’t look through the (Uriah Heep) box set (released just three days earlier) without having a huge smile on my face! To be celebrating this music 50 years on is really quite something.”
There is a wonderful loyalty among Uriah Heep’s fanbase, something that Ken has carried with him through the decades of his solo career, and brought him to his meeting with his Russian fan and collaborator.
“It’s enduring and I’m happy that most of them are still alive!” he laughs. “I love to meet them when I go out on the road but at the moment that’s not possible. Social media helps a little bit there, and hopefully this new product will pull everybody together. When we release My Book Of Answers they can look at what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half.
“I’m really happy with it – and I have a huge yardstick to measure it by! When I sent it over to Steve, for the first time, it was with a little bit of trepidation but, at the back of my mind I was thinking ‘This isn’t bad, this is really not bad.’ There’s some pretty good songs and pretty good performances, the sound’s not bad and won’t disappoint anybody. It’s been team work all the way through and it seems as though it was meant to happen.”
After twenty years in America, Ken and Monica, whom he married in 2004, returned to Europe. “I met Monica and we lived together for a couple of years and then I wanted to move back to Europe to be closer to family.
“America was going down the tube, so we thought we’d give England a try. Monica had never been there before, she’s Spanish, but she didn’t understand why it rained all the time. So we very quickly abandoned that and moved to Spain. We’ve built a nice little bubble for ourselves, here, with a nice big farm – lots of sheep, goats, chickens, pigeons and we’ve rescued a lot of abandoned dogs and cats.
“We are in splendid isolation and fortunate, because people who live in apartments don’t have room to roam. We’ve got 80,000 square metres here where we can go walking without any risk. We have to give thanks for that. I can’t criticise any one without remembering how lucky I am.”
Ken’s untimely passing came as a huge shock. Tributes poured in from former band mates and from the wider music community after the announcement on social media by his brother Trevor:
“I am writing this with a heavy heart to let you know that my brother Ken Hensley passed away peacefully on Wednesday (4 November) evening. His beautiful wife Monica was at his side and comforted Ken in his last few minutes with us.
“We are all devastated by this tragic and incredibly unexpected loss and ask that you please give us some space and time to come to terms with it.
“Ken has gone but he will never be forgotten and will always be in our hearts.”
[You can read Graham Thomas’ review of Ken Hensley’s My Book of Answers HERE.]