Wandercease, the title of the latest album from Hudson Valley, New York-based singer-songwriter Ryan Martin, is very appropriate for these days of lockdown, but funnily enough, the name wasn’t intended as a comment on the Covid-19 crisis.
“I never made that connection!” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers. “The title comes from my great grandmother, who was a poet. When she found the home that she knew she would settle in and raise my grandfather in, she gave it the name ‘Wandercease’. It represents the dream that I’m always searching for.”
The record came out late last year and soon found its way on to our ‘Best Albums of 2020′ list, thanks to its stunning and infectious pop melodies, rich and layered symphonic sounds, loops and electronic touches, and occasional nods to Americana.
Epic opener, At Dusk, has a glorious ’70s AM radio/ soft rock and pop feel, I Just Wanna Die is a galloping country song, with twangy guitars, and the shuffling groove of Fathers To Daughters is fleshed-out with pedal steel, organ and horns.
The album is full of irresistible melodies, but there’s an underlying sadness to many of the songs, like the achingly beautiful chamber pop of the title track, on which Martin sings, “My love, here is the song I meant to give you long ago, but I just couldn’t find the words – a songwriter’s curse”, and the first single, Coma Kiss, which is a bouncy, soulful, retro pop tune, but was written about a failed relationship.
“I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them,” says Martin.
Described as his ‘most musically adventurous and emotionally dynamic record to date,’ Wandercease took shape after his relocation to the Hudson Valley from New York City. It was produced by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim, Joseph Arthur, Chuck Prophet) at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Pixies, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr.).
Siegal called on a whole host of local musicians to play on it —some of whom were fresh from working with artists such as David Byrne, Cibbo Matto, and Lana Del Rey. Guests include singer-songwriter and classically-trained harpist Mikaela Davis, who sings harmony vocals on Coma Kiss and also appears on several other songs.
“Kenny brought in Mikaela because they’re friends,” explains Martin. “Her voice blended with mine in a way I hadn’t heard before and it was exciting. She’s a massive talent and I’m grateful she was a part of this record.”
How was 2020 for you and how has the Covid-19 crisis affected you?
Ryan Martin: Things are OK, more or less. I haven’t missed a meal. I get to see my family. I have good friends around me. The pandemic made it harder for the release of Wandercease, I think. I can’t tour, so that’s a bummer, but I’m happy it came out when it did. I just hope to continue writing songs and recording, and hopefully play some shows in 2021.
Are you worried about the future of live music? Will it ever get back to normal, or will it just have to adapt?
RM: I worry, yes. I think it may take some time to get back to the way it was. I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute. I’m looking forward to doing my part and playing a lot when I can and when it’s safe.
Let’s talk about Wandercease. It’s your most musically adventurous record yet – it has a lovely, rich, lush and layered sound. How did you approach the record? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
RM: Thanks. I kinda brought the songs and let the sounds come to the group and have everyone collaborate. I’ve kinda had the chance to make the records I wanted, and now I felt like opening the door to other ideas. A lot of the credit goes to Kenny Siegal and the musicians, but I think you’ll find my ideas there too, like the woodwind and strings.
‘I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute’
On that note, there are some great arrangements on the album. What influenced and inspired the treatments of the songs? The record has a warm feel and is heavy on melodies. There are strings, horns, woodwind, synths, vibes, organ, pedal steel, loops, backing vocals…
RM: Yes I’m a melody guy I think, above all other things. I hear that first usually. And then you get to find other melodies within the songs, as you start to record and arrange. I think Jared Samuel [keys player ] is also great at that. He and I have a similar production sensibility – we both kept feeding each other’s enthusiasm for trying new ideas.
How were the sessions for the album? It was produced by Kenny Siegal at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, New York, and mixed by Paul Kolderie. What was Siegal like to work with? Did you enjoy making the record? Was it an easy record to make?
RM: It was a really great experience. Kenny has become a friend and I would work with him again any day. Old Soul is a special place. There’s so much there in terms of instruments and the rooms all bleed together, so it inspires musicians to play together and record live, which we did for a lot of the record. It was easy, but I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be on it and to rise to the level of talent I was surrounded by.
There are a lot of musicians on the album…
RM: Bringing everyone in for overdubs was great. Most of the musicians were Kenny’s friends and musicians from up in the Hudson Valley.
‘I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create – the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day’
You’ve relocated from New York City to the Hudson Valley. How’s that working out and did it have an influence on the new record, from a sonic point of view, or from the songwriting and the subject matter?
RM: Yeah – well the move was a part of a larger change, so I think it influenced the music and the songs. I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them. I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create. It’s helpful and the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day.
What’s your approach to songwriting? What process works best for you?
RM: My approach is to try and keep the channel open and hope that something comes out that inspires me. Once it moves me I can keep it around and hopefully finish it sooner rather than later. Sometimes they come quick, but some I’ve been sitting on for months and years. It’s not something I can force. It loses its power to me if I try and finish lyrics for the sake of finishing a song. But at the same time there’s something to be said for completing it as an exercise, but I’m not that good at that. I usually have to care deeply to be motivated.
Let’s talk about some of the songs and get your thoughts on them. At Duskis an epic way to start the album – it feels almost like a symphonic, ’70s pop/soft-rock song, but in a good way! What can you tell us about it? It’s a big-sounding song…
RM: I’ll take that! Thanks. I think this song was about embracing the pop elements – bringing attention to the hooks and the big moments. I’m happy with how the band came together on that one and how the vocals were arranged. Also Paul Kolderie did an outstanding job realising the true nature of the song in the mix.
Coma Kiss is a great, instant pop song. Where did it come from and what inspired it musically? It has a kind of breezy, retro, soulful feel…
RM: The core of the song came out quickly and flushing out what I wanted to say came further down the road, which is usually the process. I think Kenny was big on making it feel really good and danceable, which I was on board with.
I Just Wanna Die is one of my favourite songs on the record – it has more of a traditional Americana / country-rock feel than some of the other tracks…
RM: That came about quickly – it’s a fun song that has a heavy topic. That’s kinda been my calling card I guess – you can dance to it, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s anything but carefree and easy to swallow. We experimented with the arrangement of that song – there’s a great version where we slowed it down and wrote a bridge, but in the end I thought that the fast-paced, ‘train beat’, ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach was the way it should be and it was the way it was written.
Orphan Song is another Americana-type song. What inspired it?
RM: That song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out.
Fathers To Daughters sticks out on the record, as it has loops and is more rhythmic than some of the other songs. Did becoming a dad for the first time inspire the lyric?
RM: Yeah – wandering around New York with my daughter, when she was two and three inspired it. Watching her experience all the joy and magic of the world, and the innocence she had. My role as her father hit me profoundly and still does. I’m gonna be a big part of this person’s life and I need to take responsibility for that. And also the overwhelming, overflowing love I have for her and creating that bond in her earliest years of life. Falling in love is the best thing in the world and it makes me wanna sing about it!
‘Orphan Song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out’
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations?
RM: Yeah. I’ve listened to a lot of Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and also some instrumental music like Hammock, as well as Sigur Ros – heavy, melodic, beautiful music. Right now I’m listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 a lot.
What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?
RM: My preferred way would be to listen to vinyl records in the living room with no distractions, because it’s the best way to get absorbed by the music. A second way would be to listen to CDs in my car. I played a CD on my computer for the first time in over a year or two and after listening to MP3s for so long I was blown away by how good it sounded. I like to listen with intent and be captivated, as opposed to a passive kinda background thing. Though I do that too.
So what’s next for you in 2021?
RM: I’m gonna keep writing and finishing some songs and recording at home. Maybe I’ll tour in the fall and spend some time in Europe, when the pandemic calms down.
This year will go down in history because of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 crisis on society, but here at Say It With Garage Flowers we’re hoping it will also be remembered for a more positive reason – the sheer amount of great music it produced.
When the global live music scene had to be put on hold due to the virus, artists had to look at other ways to get themselves heard, such as holding online concerts, or streaming performances.
‘This year, Say It With Garage Flowers’s ‘Best Of’ list includes 65 albums, which is the largest amount we’ve featured in an end of the year round-up since we first started publishing more than 10 years ago’
One of the few positive things to emerge from the pandemic was that musicians had more time to concentrate on recording or finishing off albums in their home studios, so it meant that there was a glut of new material out there that we could enjoy while we were in lockdown.
This year, Say It With Garage Flowers’s ‘Best Of’ list includes 65 albums, which is the largest amount we’ve featured in an end of the year round-up since we first started publishing more than 10 years ago. I’ve written in depth about several of the albums, but not all of them (!) and have included a Spotify playlist to go with this year’s selection. Are you ready? Here we go…
Straight Songs of Sorrow by Mark Lanegan was our favourite album of 2020. The twelfth solo record by gravel-voiced grunge survivor Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) was inspired by him writing his autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, which also came out this year.
The book, described by the publisher as ‘a brutal, nerve-shredding read, recounting his journey from his troubled youth in eastern Washington, through his drug-stained existence amid the ’90s Seattle rock scene to an unlikely salvation at the dawn of the 21st century’ was brilliant, yet deeply harrowing, and so was the album which accompanied it.
Talking about his autobiography and the album, Lanegan said: “Writing the book, I didn’t get catharsis – all I got was a Pandora’s Box full of pain and misery. I went way in and remembered shit I’d put away 20 years ago. But I started writing these songs the minute I was done, and I realised there was a depth of emotion because they were all linked to memories from the book. It was a relief to suddenly go back to music. Then I realised that was the gift of the book – these songs. I’m really proud of this record.”
And so he should be. Straight Songs of Sorrow is one of the best –and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made. It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases. Like the book, the shadow of death hangs over these songs, and there’s plenty of drugs and [self] destruction thrown in for good measure too.
One of the songs is called Ketamine – although, amusingly, Lanegan admits that is actually one of the few narcotics he hasn’t taken… On the seven-minute epic Skeleton Key, over a moody, throbbing electronic bassline and synthesised strings, he sings: “I spent my life trying every way to die – is it my fate to be the last one standing?”
Similarly, on Hanging On (For DRC) – a pretty and delicate acoustic ballad that’s dedicated to his friend Dylan Carlson, from drone doom group Earth, who, like Lanegan, is also a survivor of the Seattle rock and roll scene, he tells us: “By all rights we should be gone, but you and me are still hanging on.”
‘Straight Songs of Sorrow is one of the best – and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made. It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases’
Ballad Of A Dying Rover is very uncomfortable – a suffocating, electro-goth dirge with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones providing some eerie Mellotron. “Death is my due’ – I’m just a sick, sick man… my days are numbered,” laments Lanegan.
With its fingerpicking and mournful strings, Stockholm City Blues is stunning. A haunting ballad about heroin addiction – “I pay for this pain I put into my blood” – it sees him staring out of a hotel window in the rain-soaked Swedish capital city, full of remorse.
His wife, Shelley Brien plays Nancy Sinatra to his Lee Hazlewood on the duet This Game Of Love – it recalls Lanegan’s collaborations with Isobel Campbell, but with an electronic edge – while on At Zero Below, he ropes in The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis to play some sinister country fiddle – backing vocals are courtesy of Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), who was Lanegan’s partner in crime in the Gutter Twins side-project. Thanks to its electronic sounds and skittering beats, Internal Hourglass Discussion brings to mind late-period Radiohead, or Thom Yorke’s solo material – Lanegan’s current favourite instrument to compose on is a miniature computer-synth called an Organelle.
Portishead’s Adrian Utley provides atmospherics on Daylight In The Nocturnal House – adding some echo-laden, twangy and bluesy guitar to a horror-folk ballad, which also features mandolin. Jack Bates, son of Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), plays bass on Churchbells, Ghosts – a hypnotic, ambient soundtrack for a gruelling life spent on a tour bus.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. On the final song, the hopeful and spiritual-like Eden Lost and Found, with gospel organ, Lanegan says: “Sunrise coming up baby – to burn the dirt right off of me.” After accompanying him on his harrowing and emotionally draining journey, it feels good to finally emerge from the darkness. How about adopting it as an anthem for a post-coronavirus world?
Darkness also features heavily on one of our other favourite albums of this year, Wednesdays by Ryan Adams, who is also no stranger to the art of self-destruction.
A surprise release – it’s currently only available on streaming and download services, but CD and vinyl are due in March 2021 – it was understandably overshadowed by the allegations of emotional and sexual abuse which first emerged against Adams last year, but, ironically, it’s the best record he’s made in 20 years, although many media outlets have chosen to completely ignore it.
Wednesdays was essentially the album I’d been waiting for Adams to make since his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker – a return to his country roots, rather than the disappointing soft rock that’s he churned out over the past few years.
‘The release of Wednesdays by Ryan Adams was understandably overshadowed by the allegations of emotional and sexual abuse which first emerged against him last year, but, ironically, it’s the best record he’s made in 20 years, although many media outlets have chosen to completely ignore it’
A sad, mostly-stripped down record, it opens with the stunning and beautiful I’m Sorry and I Love You, which, with its falsetto vocals, piano and sweet strings sounds like vintage ’70s Neil Young. A classic breakup song, equally, it could also address the recent issues that have blighted Adams’s career and seen many people turn their backs on him – tellingly, in the opening lines, he sings: “I remember you before you hated me, before you traded me for someone new.”
There’s some lovely, Nick Drake-style acoustic guitar picking on the gorgeous and folky Who Is Going To Love Me Now, If Not You– once again, that title speaks volumes – and So, Anyways has some haunting, wailing harmonica that recalls Come Pick Me Up from Heartbreaker, my favourite song by Adams.
On the superb and anthemic country rock of Birmingham, which is the album’s most upbeat moment – and arguably its best song – there’s some great organ playing by Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers), which gives the song a serious swagger. If you can separate the art from the artist, which I can, Wednesdays is a truly rewarding listen.
And, on a similar note, the ever-controversial Morrissey released a strong collection of songs in 2020. I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, his thirteenth studio album, included several late career highlights, such as the dramatic and sardonic opener Jim Jim Falls, which starts with an explosive eruption of ’90s rave-like synths, and has him crooning “If you’re going to kill yourself now, then to save face, get on with it” to someone who is looking to commit suicide by throwing themselves off a waterfall in Australia. Classic Mozzer.
The jangly guitar pop of What Kind of People Live In These Houses? was laugh-out-loud funny “What kind of people live in these houses?T-shirts or blouses? Torn jeans or proper trousers” – and brought to mind Girlfriend In A Coma-era Smiths, while first single, Bobby Don’t You Think They Know? was a powerful and unusual duet with soul/ disco diva Thelma Houston, and had a crazy, ’60s-style psychedelic organ solo and skronking sax. Stop me, but we hadn’t heard Morrissey like this before…
Say It With Garage Flowers favourites The Hanging Stars released their third and best album this year, A New Kind of Sky. The London band’s cosmic country songs and shimmering psychedelic sounds owe a large debt to The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bert Jansch and Fred Neil, as well as Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
The bulk of A New Kind Of Sky was recorded live at Echozoo studio in the Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne. The sessions were produced by Dave Lynch and took place shortly after The Hanging Stars had returned from a tour of Germany – Lynch really captured the energy of the band.
Speaking to me earlier this year for an interview with consumer magazine Hi-Fi+, Sam Ferman,bassist with the band, said: “When we started The Hanging Stars, we had a definite idea of what we wanted our first record to be like – cosmic, psychedelic, spacey country music.
“With our second album, other influences came in and it was a bit of a transitional period, as our original keyboardist and pedal steel player had both left. I love the last record for its variety.”
He added: “The new one could’ve been a completely different album – we talked about what type of band we were and what the core of the record should be. There was the potential for it to be more of an acoustic country rock album. When we did the recording sessions in Echozoo, we’d just come back from a tour of Germany – we were playing the new songs in our set and by the last date of the tour something magical happened, because we were so synced-in with playing with each other. We wanted to capture that energy from the tour, so we recorded most of the songs live at Echozoo in three days, playing as a full band.”
‘The Hanging Stars released their third and best album this year, A New Kind of Sky. The London band’s cosmic country songs and shimmering psychedelic sounds owe a large debt to The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bert Jansch and Fred Neil, as well as Spaghetti Western soundtracks’
As I wrote in Hi-Fi+, there are several cinematic songs on the album. Three Rolling Hills has Mariachi horns and a Spaghetti Western vibe; the trippy Lonely Rivers has an electric piano-led groove and echoes of Pink Floyd, while the spiritual and hymn-like I Was A Stone opens with a church organ and has a brass arrangement reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral.
I Will Please You is a catchy, glam-rock-tinged sing-along; the stripped-down, acoustic ballad Song For Fred Neil is a paean to the ‘60s and early ‘70s singer-songwriter; Heavy Blue is classic-sounding country rock and first single, (I’ve Seen) The Summer In Her Eyes is pastoral, Byrdsian jangle-pop. The band are currently working on their fourth album – I can’t wait to see which direction it will take them in.
Duo The Lost Doves – North West-based singer-songwriters Ian Bailey and Charlotte Newman – are also no strangers to retro jangle pop. Their debut album, Set Your Sights Towards The Sun, was in thrall to The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as vintage psychedelic sounds. On the optimistic and anthemic title track, Bailey’s 12-string Rickenbacker rings out like bells (of Rhymney), and it also adds a gorgeous shimmer to the melancholy She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes.
There’s a country tinge to the beautiful, acoustic ballad You Stop Me From Falling, a Lennon feel to the haunting Sally Weather, a hint of Eastern mysticism on More Than I and some seriously heavy psych on the dark, trippy instrumental, The Clowns Are Coming To Town.
“I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s,” Bailey told us, in an exclusive interview. He certainly achieved his goal… Check out his latest release, an EP co-written with former Cosmic Rough Rider, Daniel Wylie,here.
This year was a great one for releases by singer-songwriters. The daddy of them all, Bob Dylan, put out Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was his best album since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Preceded by the surprise single, Murder Most Foul, a wry, moving and masterful 17-minute epic about the assassination of JFK and its part in political and cultural history, Rough and Rowdy Ways was at times stripped-down and delicate, but also raw and bluesy, however, it was always cryptic and fascinating – an essential listen.
On her album of Dylan cover versions, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, Australian-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Emma Swift included her take on I Contain Multitudes, from Rough and Rowdy Ways. A reflective and stately ballad, her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.
Blonde On The Tracks is one of the best covers records I’ve ever heard. Swift puts her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she remains reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.
“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”
‘Blonde On The Tracks is one of the best covers records I’ve ever heard. Emma Swift puts her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but remains reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them’
Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.
She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Another great covers album from this year was Country Darkness by British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions).
The record, which also featured members of Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley’s band, was a collection of reinterpretations of some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs. For their choice of covers, My Darling Clementine didn’t go down an obvious path. Indoor Fireworks, which they slowed down and turned into a smouldering, piano-led ballad, was arguably the most well-known Costello track on the record – it’s from his 1986 album King of America.
Elsewhere they resurrected some of his more obscure offerings, such as the Paul McCartney co-write That Day Is Done, which had a gospel and New Orleans funeral feel, thanks to the brass arrangement, and the melancholy Heart Shaped Bruise, which was a collaboration between Costello and Emmylou Harris. My Darling Clementine’s version was stripped-down, emotional and dramatic, with Nieve on piano.
Stranger In The House, a song Costello recorded as a duet with country music star George Jones, was reinvented as a rumba, while Different Finger, a tale of infidelity from Costello’s album Trust, was given a Marty Robbins, Tex-Mex treatment, with some great accordion and gorgeous, Spanish-style guitar.
The Crooked Line was the most upbeat track on the record, powered by some groovy organ from Nieve, while penultimate song, the haunting, sombre and atmospheric Too Soon To Know, was the very essence of ‘country darkness’. Majestic, country-soul closer Powerless – a My Darling Clementine original – was easily up there with the best of Costello.
Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the album, Weston King said: “We had a long list of songs to choose from – some got the chop because we felt they’d been done quite a lot before, or because, lyrically, they didn’t translate so well into being done by a duo. I also didn’t want our record to be totally country – I wanted a country soul vibe.”
My Darling Clementine weren’t the only male/female due to explore country darkness this year. Black Angel Drifter, the seventh album by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence – songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin, was a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of ‘gothic country’ songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.
The record also included a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which was even more sinister than the original.
Telling Say It With Garage Flowersabout how and why they tackled the Dylan song, Jessett said: “It’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.
“I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.”
From The Man In The Long Black Coat to The Man In Black… Johnny Cash was just one of the characters who found themselves mentioned on Matt Hill’s album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators. It was the first album Hill put out under his own name, rather than the Quiet Loner moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.
Fittingly, it was album that saw him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which was the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, were set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile ofDH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB.
The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”
Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.
‘Hill wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs’
It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.
This made for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.
Hill resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the album, but with a new title Gary Gilmore’s Last Request. It’s a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.
Talking to me for the website Americana UK, Hill said of his latest record: ” I’m really proud of this album and especially of how it sounds. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. As a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, there is always a dilemma involved when making an album. I didn’t want it to be a full-on production that I could never replicate live. But, equally, a simple solo acoustic record can often sound a little thin, so I tried to go somewhere in the middle.”
He added: “My role was to rehearse like mad and to turn up knowing those songs inside out. The rest was down to Sam’s production skills. We both really enjoyed the process too, so hopefully that comes over. The most important part was in capturing the core live performance of me singing and playing exactly as you would see at a gig. Once we had those performances, we built everything else around it. The King’s Arms was a great place to record, with atmosphere and history, so that really helped make it feel special as we were making it.”
A band I discovered in 2020 via a connection between one of its members – bassist Scott Carey – and Hill was UK Americana act West On Colfax, from Preston, Lancashire.
Their debut single,Choke Hold, was influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt. Say It With Garage Flowers described it as: “Two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.”
The band’s album, Barfly Flew By, was one of my favourite records of 2020. From the ’70s Rolling Stones country feel of The Line, with its bluesy guitar licks and warm Hammond organ, to the late-night barroom romance of Cowgirl of the County (“She was the cowgirl of the county – she leant into me gently. We chose the songs on the jukebox – I don’t think I’ve been as happy”), the twangy Tinsel Heart, the rough and ready, battered and beaten-up road trip of Tyre Marks(“The tyre marks you left across my heart are all that’s now left…”) and the world-weary, yet, ultimately, optimistic, electric piano-led ballad, Light Again, which closes the album, it was clear West on Colfax wear their classic country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana influences on the sleeves of their well-worn plaid shirts. These were songs that were best listened to while staring at the bottom of your glass, but they also had a reassuring warmth to them. The band describe their music as, ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives but with hope.’
Classic rock ‘n’ roll influences were also all over Circles – the second album by New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks cranked up the guitars and also embraced his love of power-pop and country rock.
Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers, he said: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”
He certainly achieved his goal – the brilliant What’s The Over/Under? was an infectious power-pop song with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom did his best Marc Bolan impression.
‘Classic rock ‘n’ roll influences were also all over Circles – the second album by New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks cranked up the guitars and also embraced his love of power-pop and country rock’
Circles was full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.
Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, had echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard was reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.
Funnily enough, Piunti also released a great album in 2020, which a title that was very apt for these days of global lockdown – it was called Downtime.
Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the name of the record, he said: “It’s a bit too timely. My daughter, Megan, actually came up with it after listening to the album. In the song Never Belonged To Me there’s a lyric that says: “Don’t know what to do with the downtime.”
“The word ‘time’ also shows up in a few of the other songs,” said Piunti, whose latest record – his sixth – was the first with his new band, The Complicated Men.
The album had all the usual Piunti hallmarks – raw vocals, infectious melodies, crunching guitar riffs and sweet, ’60s-style harmonies – but, this time around, the sound was fleshed out with Hammond organ.
First single, All This Time, was anthemic and urgent indie rock ‘n’ roll, the opening track, Upper Hand, chugging and New Wavey, and Going Nowhere had some breezy ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals and a killer, fuzzed-up, melodic guitar solo. There were also some quieter and more reflective moments – the ballads All Over Again and Good Intentions.
English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard released his seventeenth album in 2020. To The Left of the Moon’s Reflection was a set of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sang lead and backing vocals and played all the instruments.
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio – he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain – during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020. Talking to me about the album, Howard said: “It does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.”
He added: “It became very clear early on that there was a wistfulness about the new songs – a reflective quality – so that drove the arrangements.”
When the coronavirus pandemic forced Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger to cancel his European and UK spring tour, he turned a negative situation into a positive one by hastily putting together a brand new, digital-only album called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it was made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that he’d demoed and quickly forgotten about.
It was a brilliant collection of intimate Americana and Dylanesque folk-blues tracks.
The loose, raw and lo-fi recordings really hung together well as an album, and, if anything, it demonstrated that Leger’s discarded songs were better than many artists’ officially released ones.
“Basically before making an album I probably would have 30 or so songs and we’d pick 15-18 to go into the studio with and then 10 or 12 would make the cut. Some really great ones are never returned to after the initial demo and that’s because they may not fit the feel I’m going for at the time, or it’s a similar idea or sound to a different song that I prefer. For example we recorded Tomorrow In My Mind and Ticket Bought for Time Out For Tomorrow [2019 album] and I felt they both had a similar feel, so I decided on the former.”
Leger is looking to put out a limited edition vinyl version of Songs From The Apartment in 2021. He is also a fan of an artist who appears on my ‘Best of 2020’ list – legendary Southern soul singer, songwriter, musician and record producer, Dan Penn, who I was lucky enough to interview for Hi-Fi+magazine this year.
In the ‘60s, Penn, who is 78, co-wrote massive soul hits including The Dark End of the Street, Do Right Woman, I’m Your Puppet,Cry Like A Baby and It Tears Me Up. His songs have been sung by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Janis Joplin, Solomon Burke, Elton John, James Carr, Bobby Womack and Diana Ross.
This year saw him releasing his new album, Living On Mercy, which was a collection of songs written with collaborators including his long-term musical partner, Spooner Oldham, as well as fellow songwriting masters Wayne Carson (Always On My Mind), Gary Nicholson, Carson Whitsett, Will McFarlane, Bucky Lindsey, Buzz Cason and the Cate Brothers.
For the most part, Living On Mercy had a reassuring, warm, slick and smooth country soul sound, like the gorgeous, Hammond organ-led title track, which was about the intoxicating effects of falling in love, the tight and funky groove of Soul Connection, and the sad Blue Motel, which, rather neatly, namechecked one of Penn’s most famous songs, The Dark End of the Street, in the lyric.
Elsewhere on the record, Edge Of Love was a heavy, bluesy rocker with horn blasts, and One Of These Days, the final song, was a moving, reflective gospel ballad about changing your ways before it’s too late and you’ve gone to the great songwriting gig in the sky.
Living On Mercy was Penn’s first studio album in nearly 30 years – his last one, Do Right Man, was released in 1994. When I asked him about the warm sound of the record, he told me: “I tried my best do to that and it’s what makes it different I guess, because there ain’t a lot of warmth out there these days.”
‘Living On Mercy had a reassuring, warm, slick and smooth country soul sound, like the gorgeous, Hammond organ-led title track, which was about the intoxicating effects of falling in love, the tight and funky groove of Soul Connection, and the sad Blue Motel, which, rather neatly, namechecked one of Penn’s most famous songs, The Dark End of the Street’
He added: “I cut the first bunch of six songs in Creative Workshop, Nashville – it’s my friend Buzz Cason’s studio. I liked what we got – I had a fantastic band. I tried to get things back together in Nashville a month or so later, but it didn’t work out, so I finally figured it out in Sheffield, Alabama and we cut seven songs there. It was a fun record to make – everybody was loose. The album was a little troublesome to mix, but they all are.”
Soulful, warm sounds were also the order of the day on Humanism, the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys.
Recorded in Spain last summer, the album was a colourful collection of jazzy, folky and soulful songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. Humanism was the perfect record to listen to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown.
Fleming belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, while Capaldi sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.
Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sang on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shared vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lent her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.
Also on the album were drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.
The Spanish sunshine worked its magic, as there was a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs on the record. In an interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, Dr Robert said of the album: “It was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.
‘Recorded in Spain last summer,Humanism by Monks Road Social was a colourful collection of jazzy, folky and soulful songs -the perfect record to listen to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown’
“My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.”
On the sound of the album, he said: “The fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet. Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.”
For more soulful sounds, try It’s Only Us, the latest album by San Francisco-based psychedelic-soul band Monophonics. Heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye, it’s a sociopolitical record that tackles subjects including violence and gun crime and mental health issues, as well as good, old fashioned affairs of the heart.
Recorded on eight-track reel-to-reel tape in the group’s Transistor Sound Studio in Marin County, it’s lush and sweet, but also dark, cinematic and edgy. First single Chances is funky, up-tempo Northern Soul, Last One Standing is an epic floor-filler in the vein of Mayfield’s Move On Up, while tracks like Suffocating and Run For Your Life were inspired by the band’s love of ‘60s psych-rock.
I interviewed lead singer Kelly Finnigan, who co-wrote, produced, recorded and mixed the album, for Hi-Fi+ magazine. He told me: “We like our sound to be warm, raw, gritty and fat, but inviting. It was a very organic and spontaneous process. We definitely had a vision from the start, but we still like to let things happen naturally and go with the flow of where the music and mood takes us.
‘It’s Only Us, the latest album by San Francisco-based psychedelic-soul band Monophonics, was heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. It’s a sociopolitical record that tackles subjects including violence and gun crime and mental health issues, as well as good, old fashioned affairs of the heart’
“We had ideas about what we wanted, but we are never married to things so much that it clouds our vision and causes us to be compulsive about what the end result is. It was influenced by love, loss, violence, heartbreak, the power struggle of our industry, personal relationships and the overall trip of life as a human living in the current world.
“Musically it’s influenced by great artists from the past like Curtis Mayfield, Rotary Connection, Brothers of Soul, Isaac Hayes, Vanilla Fudge, Pink Floyd, The Zombies and current artists like Michael Kiwanuka, Kevin Parker and Richard Swift. Our taste in music is very eclectic and we like all types of styles and genres. A lot of the band are into classic soul, but we all love psychedelic music, whether it’s The Beatles, David Axelrod, Norman Whitfield, Charles Stepney or Tame Impala.”
Classic retro influences are also integral to the sound of The Explorers Club, who released two albums this year – a self-titled album and To Sing And Be Born Again, a 10-track collection of covers of songs from 1965-68 that were originally performed by artists including The Zombies, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Herb Alpert, Frankie Valli and The Lovin’ Spoonful.
During the first Covid-19 lockdown, one of the albums that kept me sane was The Explorers Club. Paying homage to the lush orchestrations of Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, as well as the ‘60s sunshine pop of The Beach Boys – circa Pet Sounds – The Turtles and The Association, it was an ambitious collection of songs, with gorgeous, aching melodies and wonderful, rich arrangements for strings, horns and vocals.
The bouncy, harmony-drenched first single Ruby could be the sister of Elenore by The Turtles, Mystery,Don’t Cry and Look To The Horizon are perfect pocket symphonies, Dawn has a bossa nova feel, the guitar-led Say You Will is infectious, driving beat-pop, and Somewhere Else – the heaviest moment on the album – is far out and groovy, Byrds-like psychedelia. It’s hard to believe these songs haven’t been around for years – they sound like long-lost classics.
‘During the first Covid-19 lockdown, one of the albums that kept me sane was The Explorers Club. Paying homage to the lush orchestrations of Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, as well as the ‘60s sunshine pop of The Beach Boys, The Turtles and The Association, it was an ambitious collection of songs, with gorgeous, aching melodies and wonderful, rich arrangements for strings, horns and vocals’
In these dark times we’re living in, the record is a perfect summer soundtrack that will take you away to a different place – specifically the West Coast of America, in the mid to late ‘60s.
Speaking to me for Hi-Fi+ magazine, Jason Brewer, the mastermind behind The Explorers Club, who founded the US band in his native Charleston, South Carolina, before relocating to Nashville, said: “I have this vision of creating classic sounds that send people on a musical vacation. I’m inspired by classic records made by The Wrecking Crew [famous, LA-based, ‘60s and ‘70s session musicians], as well as vintage movies with dreamy scores and soundtracks. I’m always aiming to take the listener away from modern constraints to a place where the melody and sound just take over.”
My favourite song on The Explorers Club is the last track, Look To The Horizon, which seems like a fitting way to finish an article that’s published at the end of the year. Here’s hoping that we can look forward to yet another year of great music in 2021 and, more importantly, an end to these worrying times we’ve been living through during the past 12 months.
In the meantime, here’s my list of the Best Albums of 2020 – I didn’t include stopgap live albums, like Nick Cave’sIdiot Prayer and Vinny Peculiar’sLoot, although I enjoyed those records – and a Spotify playlist to accompany it. Please note, not all the albums I’ve chosen are currently available to stream.
As 2020 draws to a close, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’re compiling our best albums of the year list. One of the late contenders is Black Angel Drifter, by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence, who are songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin.
The record – their seventh – which came out in November, is a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.
It also includes a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which is even more sinister than the original. In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Jessett about the band’s ‘gothic country’ sound, being outsiders and receiving death threats.
“I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, but I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never been much of a junkie,” he tells us…
How did Morton Valence come together?
Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett: Blimey, how long have you got? OK, so Anne was a dancer in a quite well known contemporary dance company, where I was employed as a musician, after just having done a short stint playing with Alabama 3. We toured around all these small-town theatres, and up until this point I’d always thought that dancers were clean living – I was wrong. We developed this nightly ritual of boozy sing-alongs after the shows – Anne was clearly equally in her element singing as she was dancing.
We were both fans of what most people perceived as Okie country singers, like Iris Dement or George Jones, which was quite unusual at the time. Singing harmonies together seemed effortless. Our party piece was Iris Dement’s Our Town, and well, it kind of developed from there.
I think our first proper gig was at Come Down and Meet the Folks – [in London]. We collaborated with a guy called Chuck E Peru and before we knew it we’d morphed into a band. We played some interesting shows back then, touring in Germany with the late St. Thomas (Thomas Hansen), who had an influence on us. He was clearly a troubled soul, but there was honesty and beauty in his music that seemed unconcerned with reality, and he clearly wasn’t playing the game, like most people do when they start in the music biz.
Jeffery Lewis was another great songwriter we played with early on. Anyway, here we are seven albums later, with absolutely no plans for retirement, and hopefully album number eight coming in 2021.
You live in Spain and Anne is based in London. How does the band work? Does it make things difficult?
RJ: I moved to Madrid in 2018, after just having recorded our previous album Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape. I did so for a variety of reasons that I don’t have time to go into here.
I’m now lucky enough to live in the beautiful province of Granada. I think the last thing we did in the UK was to play some shows with The Long Ryders, back in 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago. As for the practicalities of Anne and me living in different countries, it just gives us a good excuse to travel, and actually, when we get together, it’s always really productive, as there’s a finite amount of time to get things done, which kind of focuses the mind.
How has Covid affected you as a band? Did it thwart any plans you had? How’s 2020 been for you?
RJ: The two adjectives I’d use to describe 2020 would be ‘productive’ and ‘boring’. I think boredom is a great creative motivator and gets a bad rap. So, the great vacuum that is 2020 gave us time to write a new album and make a film, so creatively, 2020’s been good.
Tell us about the film…
RJ: We describe it as an autobiographical, DIY ‘punkumentary’. It started about 10 years ago on a tour of Germany, when these two American filmmakers, both called Mike, tagged along with us with the idea of making a live performance DVD – remember them?
The tour was pretty chaotic, as they usually are, and when the Mikes got the footage back to America, they dismissed it as being unusable, due to the low-quality production values of the film stock. Eventually, we inherited the footage, and yes, it was most certainly rough and ready, but, rather than making us wince, it had the opposite effect. Paradoxically, its graininess, gritty sound and anachronistic video format seemed to essentially capture a spirit of rock ‘n’ roll that we like, so we patchworked a narrative around the footage, archives from our own film experiments and moments from some of our favourite B movies.
Even though Anne and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing, out of the chaos, somehow, we were finally looking at a cohesive piece of work that we called This Is A Film About A Band – literally no other name seemed to suffice. We didn’t want to make another rockumentary of talking heads and tour bus anecdotes and the like – in fact there’s virtually no dialogue at all, but instead it’s captioned, a bit like Top of the Pops 2.
Even though I would describe the film’s protagonist as the music, it does tell our story, and probably the story of lots of bands. Our original idea was to just stick it up on YouTube or Vimeo for our fans, but on the advice of a friend who works in the movie biz, we entered it into a few film festivals where it started to gather a bit of momentum.
We had it premiered at the Doc’N Roll film festival, which is probably the most prestigious film festival of its type in the UK, and we’ve been awarded other laurels. The feedback we’ve had has been incredible, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen in 2021.
Let’s talk about your latest album, your seventh, Black Angel Drifter. It was actually recorded in 2016. Why has it been reissued this year and can you tell us about the vinyl version, which is due out soon?
RJ: For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it – this is all documented in our film by the way.
We’d had some bad experiences, but hey, who hasn’t in the music biz, right? We sincerely believed we could circumvent the middleman, which we did to a point with our own label Bastard Recordings, but there’s only so far you can go with that, and you end up spending more time looking at Excel spreadsheets than you do creating music.
‘For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it’
Finally, a label called Cow Pie, run by BJ Cole, Hank Wangford and Patrick Hart, came to our rescue. They completely get us – we’re not an easy fit that’s for sure. We’re kind of too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we call it ‘urban country’, mainly because we want to have an answer when people ask ‘what kind of music do you make?’
Cow Pie are clearly kindred spirits when it comes to some of our slightly more leftfield ideas – they even put out a track of ours that’s half an hour of crickets chirping, although there is a hidden song in the middle of that one. But of course, their main thing is vinyl, which we’re dead excited about.
The new record originally started life as something by your experimental side-project. How did it end up being a Morton Valence album?
RJ: Back in 2016, we had two bands going in parallel – I guess we’re sadomasochistic… Black Angel Drifter was the name of our other band. We played one gig and recorded an album. Our plan was to make something that not only sounded auto-destructive, but actually was auto-destructive, hence the sole gig.
Songwriting-wise it’s probably the most collaborative effort we’ve put out – we’re really proud of the songs and feel they deserve more of an airing, hence the fact that we’ve taken off the mask and re-released them as Morton Valence. In 2016, Morton Valence were working on a multilingual covers album called Europa, which was a visceral response to Brexit. OK, retrospectively it was very naive – we were trying to avoid being overtly political and simply add something positive to what was an extremely toxic narrative. But we ended up getting trolled with the most sickening death threats – and worse – imaginable, which is what partly prompted me to leave the UK.
So, with everything that was going on in 2016, Black Angel Drifter was put on a hiatus. Fast forward four years, and everything that seemed so terrible in 2016 has been completely eclipsed by 2020, so it just seemed like a perfect time to resurrect Black Angel Drifter.
‘If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning’
Let’s talk about the sound of the record. What were you aiming for and what were the sessions like? You produced it yourselves, didn’t you?
RJ: Much like our film, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, which maybe adds to its idiosyncratic nature. All our other albums have been with a producer of some description.
We recorded it partly down at [pedal steel guitarist] Alan Cook’s garage, my flat in south London and Bark Studio [in Walthamstow, London]. Our sole technical remit to ourselves was ‘does it sound shit? Or do we like it?’ If it was the latter, we just went with it. But if we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country, whether or not we hit the target, I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Can we talk about a few of the songs? The opening track, Skylines Change/ Genders Blur, has a dark, menacing, twangy Morricone/Spaghetti Western-meets-country feel, but also reminds me of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as The Jesus & Mary Chain…
RJ: It’s actually an old song that was co-written with Johny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy – a fantastic band that I was lucky enough to play with back in the day. Apart from me shamelessly lifting from Morricone, it definitely owes more than a passing debt of gratitude to Nancy and Lee.
‘If we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country’
If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning, so yes, you’re absolutely spot on about that. It being the opening gambit on the album, we wanted to go straight for the jugular – do something that would either make the listener baulk and go immediately for the eject button, or have the opposite effect. The logic being, if you live through this, you’ll make the whole album.
Black-Eyed Susanis a moody and sinister murder ballad. What inspired it? It’s a disturbing tale…
RJ: It’s another collaboration – this time with the Scottish poet David Cameron, someone who could not be more opposite than his unfortunate namesake. The plot comes from his novel The Ghost of Alice Fields, and he asked me to adapt his poem into a song. I’d never done anything like that before. I write 99 percent of our lyrics, so I guess technically that makes me a lyricist, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a poet. A storyteller, maybe?
I think only certain song lyrics can crossover as poetry, which to me is simply defined by whether something reads well without its given musical accompaniment. Anyway, I was really unsure at first, simply because most individuals have a particular timbre of their own.
I intonate words in a particular way that work their way around a melody, usually as I’m strumming a guitar, and it happens very naturally, so to try and shoehorn someone else’s words into that scenario felt a bit weird. But I was flattered to have been asked, so I gave it a go, and I guess my fears were unwarranted, as the resultant song works well in my humble opinion.
As far as its content goes, songs mean different things to different people. I’ve had people come up and say stuff like, ‘I love that song you wrote about such-and-such, we played it last week at me dad’s funeral’ or whatever, and I’m like, wow, I’m honoured. But I had no idea it was about such-and-such, but that’s the beauty of a song.
‘The Man In The Long Black Coat is a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell’
You’ve covered one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, The Man In The Long Black Coat, and you’ve made it sound even more menacing than the original. Good work!
RJ: As you rightly point out, it’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.
I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.
Playing in tune is a doddle, but to get the sound I was after, the guitars needed to be out of tune, but not just any old ‘out of tune’, it was actually something very precise.
I knew how I wanted the note to sound, but finding something that doesn’t actually exist in any tangible way can be problematic. I suppose I was looking for an optimised sort of disharmony that would really suit the song. You might think that sounds pretentious, but when you listen to the song, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, we found the note we were looking for in the end, it was perfectly out of tune, and we’re very happy.
On If I Could Start Again, a man recounts his misspent life from a prison cell. It sounds like a classic, strung-out country ballad, but it also reminds me of Spiritualized at times. Where did that song come from?
RJ: Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie. But when I look back, of course there are things I’d do differently, as would anyone, right? Of course, to look back in such a way is also an exercise in futility, which is a good place to start writing a song.
‘I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie’
I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, and yes, it’s definitely got a dose of Spiritualized, and maybe a touch of Tom T Hall. I create a character, and see where that character goes. This guy is a nice middle-class kid who gets it all wrong. He could’ve been an IT consultant or an operations research analyst, but he assumes there’s more to life, he’s a romantic, and the rest is self-explanatory. There’s certainly nothing cryptic in this song, and in terms of my life in music, I’ve made every mistake there is, and if I could start again, I really wonder what I’d do, and as for real life, well I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Sister Painis one of the bluesier songs on the album. Any thoughts on it?
RJ: It’s actually a slowed-down version of Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle, set to a sludgy spiritual blues chant, backed by an imaginary version of The Stooges as the house band, so it’s kind of like a revue show in a song.
The album features Alan Cook on pedal steel. He’s become a regular member of the band, hasn’t he? How did you get together and what’s it like to work with him? I know Alan from his work with Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) and UK country duo My Darling Clementine...
RJ: Alan provides the backbone of our sound, in particular on Black Angel Drifter, where he’s pretty much ubiquitous throughout. His sound was perfectly described in one review as something that ‘fills the void like a guilty conscience’, and without him the atmosphere would change completely. I’m not sure how we met to be honest, through mutual musician friends I suppose, but he’s been with us for quite a few years now, and he’s obviously extremely tolerant to put up with me.
‘Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever’
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?
RJ: Wow, that’s always a tough one. All sorts of people are inspiring to me, but very few of them are musicians or famous people. My sister and her colleagues for starters – she’s a nurse busting a gut at the NHS, which trumps everything in my opinion. And I suppose I’ve always admired people who don’t care about being popular or how others judge them.
Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever – a world where you put one foot wrong, you’re an instant pariah. No one gets through life without someone cutting us some slack from time to time, right? Yet we’re so quick to judge and condemn others, and shout about it as loudly as possible, usually on social media.
So, I’m inspired by people who pronounce schedule with a ‘k’ and don’t give a shit, that kind of thing, and far as a main musical influence, that would be my mum for turning me on to The Beatles before I could even walk. Thanks, Mum.
You’re currently planning your eighth album, which is pretty much written and demoed. You plan to record it in London, with pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole producing. What can we expect? Any idea what it will sound like?
RJ: Well nothing’s signed and sealed yet, but the songs are pretty much there, and the provisional plan is to release it on Cow Pie, and yes, we’ve had discussions with BJ. He’s an artist we are huge fans of and who I briefly crossed paths with years ago, when I was knocking around with Alabama 3. But it’s a bit premature to talk about it at this stage to be honest.
Black Angel Drifter is a very produced album, in the sense that a lot of how it sounds was created in the studio. I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact, it’s what The Beatles used to do, but it’s just one way of doing things, and it allows you more space to experiment.
With each album we’ve always tried something different – that’s one bonus of being independent – and with the next one we plan to get the songs as tight as we can first, then go in and record them pretty much live. One of my favourite albums ever is The Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies, which was of course recorded completely live. But it’s early days still, so let’s wait and see.
What are your plans for Christmas? Will it be a dark one, rather than a white one?
RJ: It will be a sunny one actually, because I’ll be in Andalucía.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
RJ: My album of 2020 is definitely Distance is the Soul of Beauty by Michael J Sheehy – it really is an astounding piece of poetic beauty. Michael sent me a copy in the post when I was living in Madrid in the summer, and I haven’t stopped listening to it ever since. It’s one of those records where you feel like he’s having a conversation with you personally, rather than playing to an audience, which is a rare talent that very few singers are able to do.
I also love The Delines, and went to see them play just before the lockdown, Willy Vlautin is so talented, it’s ridiculous, and it was good to see Amy Boone in great form after that terrible accident. But my tastes are very catholic, I love the Fat White Family, maybe I’m biased because I’m from Brixton. They remind me a bit of The Country Teasers, who have a film on at Doc’N Roll that I can’t wait to see.
Anne and I have always been fans of John Prine, Tim Hardin and The Carpenters, as well as movie soundtrack composers like Roy Budd or Michel Legrand. These are just the first things that have popped into my head. On another day, it would be a completely different list.
Black Angel Drifter by Morton Valence is currently available to stream and download on digital platforms. A vinyl version will be released by Cow Pie in early 2021.
Nashville-based duo Until the End of the World – husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Ian Webber and Meg Olsen – have a name that’s very apt for these dark times we’re living in, but they actually took their moniker from the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same name. In fact, their debut single, Just Let Go, which came out this summer, was influenced by Wenders’s road movies, as well as the films of David Lynch.
It’s a gorgeous, stripped-down, six-minute ballad, with Olsen on lead vocals and Webber on guitar and backing vocals, that recalls the fragile, dreamy, country-psych-folk of Mazzy Star.
New single, another slow song, the equally lovely Stars Fall Down, has a slight ‘50s feel, thanks to its twangy, late-night guitar sound. “I was imagining Richard Hawley-esque guitar tones and I’ve been inspired by a French band called The Limiñanas – it’s like lo-fi Velvet Underground meets Serge Gainsbourg and I love the vibe,” says Webber.
Adds Olsen: “When I first heard the music for Stars Fall Down, it set an immediate tone and mood for me. I gravitate towards melancholy themes – love gone wrong, etc. The lyrics flowed really easily from that initial mood that was set by Ian’s guitar. I think I wrote the first draft in an hour and we finessed it slightly from there. I was genuinely happy with it, which is rare for me.”
The Until the End of the World project began in April this year, during lockdown, as Olsen explains: “We started very superficially working on ideas together on piano and guitar in our living room, but then Ian started composing things up a storm. He encouraged me to sit down with the piece of music that would become Just Let Go and he just kept it really low-key and simplistic. We liked the end result, so we kept going from there.”
Talking about Just Let Go, Webber says: “It was a lot of me figuring out how to record everything myself, without a producer or engineer. When I was recording the basic tracks, I wasn’t sure if I had reached three minutes or not, so I kept going, so that’s why it ended up a six-minute song.”
‘I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me’
The duo are planning to release an album in the first part of next year – hopefully in the spring. “It’s a little over halfway done and it’s been an interesting and exciting process,” says Olsen. “And it’s something that I’m not sure would have happened without the lockdown.”
She adds: “This project has been such an interesting learning curve for both of us. Ian has had to navigate recording and producing, and I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. I normally go into the studio with finished, or almost finished, songs. In this case, I was coming into fully-formed music and having to work out melodies and lyrics from there. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me and for both of us as artists.”
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but they feel fine…
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, one of the recent albums that has helped us to stay positive during these tough times – and has been a shining light in the darkness – is the aptly-entitled Set Your Sights Towards The Sun, the debut record by UK duo The Lost Doves, who are North West-based singer-songwriters Ian Bailey and Charlotte Newman.
It’s a superb collection of songs that’s in thrall to classic ’60s jangly and harmonic guitar pop, like The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as vintage psychedelic sounds. On the optimistic and anthemic title track, Bailey’s 12-string Rickenbacker rings out like bells (of Rhymney), and it also adds a gorgeous shimmer to the melancholy She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes.
There’s a country tinge to the beautiful, acoustic ballad You Stop Me From Falling, a Lennon feel to the haunting Sally Weather, a hint of Eastern mysticism on More Than I and some seriously heavy psych on the dark, trippy instrumental, The Clowns Are Coming To Town.
“I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s,” Bailey tells us, in an exclusive interview. He’s certainly achieved his goal…
Hi Ian. How’s it going?
Ian Bailey: Well, things could be better gig-wise, as you can imagine, but being able to work and record from home has been a lifeline for me.
I’m based in Leyland, near Preston. Pre-Covid, Preston’s music scene was bustling and bright. The city played host to several fantastic local acts and artists – many of whom I’ve been lifelong friends with – as well as touring bands. All play and perform regularly at great venues, like The Ferret and The Continental.
Have you heard of Preston-based Americana band West on Colfax, who released a great debut album, Barfly Flew By, earlier this year?
IB: Scott [Carey – bass] from West on Colfax was in touch recently, after seeing one of my videos on the Americana UK website. He has invited me to play at their Americana night at The Continental, so I’m looking forward to that once venues can open again.
How has the Covid-19 crisis affected you, and what are your hopes and fears for the future of live music?
IB: I’ve been a self-employed musician for many years. At the onset of the first lockdown, back in March, I was really worried for the careers of fellow musicians, venues and everyone else working within the arts sector – the sound engineers, stage crew, lighting techs, the list goes on… Sadly, it appears to be an industry that was first to shut and looking like the last to open. Encouraging audiences to be confident to attend gigs again is another story…
‘Nobody should be excluded or made to retrain – that’s just the highest insult you can give any creative person. It’s a tough time, but I believe music, arts and culture builds bridges and has the power to heal’
It’s also concerning to see so many people in the arts slipping through the net and not being eligible for financial support, like the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). I know the Musicians’ Union and other organisations are lobbying for it and I really hope something can be done for everyone in the arts world. Nobody should be excluded or made to retrain – that’s just the highest insult you can give any creative person. It’s a tough time, but I believe music, arts and culture builds bridges and has the power to heal. I truly hope the live scene will return bigger than ever.
Let’s talk about your latest project – The Lost Doves. How did you end up working with Charlotte Newman? You both complement each other well – your voices sound great together…
IB: Thank you. I really enjoy working with Charlotte – she’s a real natural talent. We met at a gig on the back of a lorry (laughs) a few years ago, and, a couple of years later, we decided to do something together. We started rehearsing various songs – covers and originals – and subsequently called the rehearsals ‘The Green Tea Sessions’, due to the copious amount we consumed. From thereon, we started recording a few tracks and that’s what spurred us on to create the album together.
You recorded it at your home studio, between late 2019 and pre-lockdown this year. How were the sessions and what’s your set-up like at home?
IB: They were all great sessions – quick and productive. Most of what you hear on the album were first takes. My studio, Small Space Studios, is in fact my daughter Sacha’s old box bedroom – it’s very small. I inherited the valuable space when she moved to Liverpool to start university.
A couple of years ago, I bought a 360 12-string Mapleglo Rickenbacker, which is the guitar you hear on the album. I use a jangle box with the Ricky, which is basically a compression pedal. It gives the guitar sustain and ‘that’ sound, and I just go straight into the desk with it. I bought some half decent mics, an £80 keyboard, an old Boss BR900CD [portable multi-track recorder] complete with flash cards, a drum machine, an old amp and monitors. That’s it really.
You co-produced the record with Charlotte and you both played all the instruments, apart from the drums, which were by ‘local legend’ Little Bobby Rockin’ Box. Tell us about Bobby…
IB:Well, Bobby is the pseudonym for my wonderful old Alesis drum machine that I bid for and won on eBay. We used Bobby’s talents throughout the album, before adding tambourine and shakers to complement his impeccable timing. We thought that by giving him credit and accolade as a local legend he’d be up for doing another album!
‘I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s’
How did you approach the album? What kind of sound and feel were you going for?
IB: That’s a really good question. When we embarked on the project, I was going to keep everything stripped-back and understated, but it soon became apparent that it would be a big mistake to leave out things like Charlotte’s wonderful lead guitar playing, our built-up harmonies and the way we blended the instruments, so I started to look at the majority of the album being full ‘band’ tracks, but with the occasional stripped-back song in there to give some balance.
With regards to the sound, I wanted the album to feel like an album you’ve had in your collection for years – warm and inviting. I guess I was always trying to create an album that was in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s.
Were all the songs written especially for The Lost Doves project, or did you already have some of them?
IB: Not all the songs were written specifically for the album. You Stop Me From Falling is one I wrote several years ago, but after performing the song in rehearsal acoustically with Charlotte, it felt natural to include it on the album.
See Saw and She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes were originally written for my stripped-back, acoustic album Empty Fields, but I really wanted to give them a bigger sound and production, so it felt right to include them on the album too.
Where did the name The Lost Doves come from?
IB: I was originally working on a psychedelic ‘60s-style name, you know like Jack & Jill’s Incredible Grooving Satanic Barber Shop Bungee Jumping Santa Machine, but I was having no such luck coming up with something that had any relevance.
So I basically went back to the drawing board and hit upon the idea of two white doves escaping from a magician’s cage and flying for days, possibly weeks, over the sand and sea, to find a new home in the sun, away from the conjuror’s clutches, but, unfortunately, getting lost and losing their bearings somewhere along the way. I liked the way it also worked with The Byrds theme.
On that note, the jangly title track, which is one of my favourite songs on the album, has a definite Byrds feel, with 12-string Rickenbacker, harmonies and a great poppy melody…
IB: It feels very relevant for the hard times we’re living in. It’s a hopeful song about bringing some light into the darkness. It’s one of our favourites too.
What inspired it? Was it written in response to the Covid crisis?
IB: It was written pre-Covid and lockdown – in fact it was the first track we finished for the album. I wanted to write a song that delivered a positive message on life. It’s about helping each other, not looking back, and finding that even the smallest chink of light in the darkest room can bring hope – the bad days will pass. Its sentiment means more now than ever. I like the way the album hangs off the back of it too.
Several of the songs deal with hope and looking towards a better, brighter time. Was that intentional? They feel like they have a common theme…
IB: I guess it wasn’t intentional, but it seemed to flow that way. I’ve found that listening to certain music, using certain instruments and working with certain musicians brings out different sides to my songwriting and it’s confirmed to me that it’s good to be around positive folk.
‘I wanted the guitars to sound like Crosby and McGuinn in the left and right speakers, and the harmonies to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash’
She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes is also very Byrds-like…
IB: Yes indeed, I wanted it to sound like The Byrds had just got back together. Musically I think it has a Chimes of Freedom feel. I like the words – they’re pretty melancholy really. It’s about a couple going their separate ways, but he wants her to stay and pleads with her, but how can he possibly change her mind? Will she believe him that it will all be different, when all she’s felt is loneliness and neglect day-after-day? I wanted the guitars to sound like Crosby and McGuinn in the left and right speakers, and the harmonies to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Why do you like the Rickenbacker sound so much? Are you a Byrds and Beatles fanatic? Who are your main influences?
IB: I’ve loved The Beatles and The Byrds since I was at school. I got my first Rickenbacker 12-string when I was 18, from Hobbs Music in Lancaster, after falling in love with the look and that unmistakable jangly sound. My dad was kind enough to sign the never-never form and I paid him back £10 a week. I still have the guitar to this day. I have a few different guitars, but the Rickenbacker always comes out of the case first.
My friends and I formed our first band together while we were at school and eventually turned ourselves into a great mod band, playing the scooter rallies in and around Lancashire. Bands like The Jam, The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks all featured heavily in those days.
As the years went by, I was listening to artists like The Moody Blues, Simon & Garfunkel – in fact most of the stuff from my dad’s record collection. Little Richard, John Denver, Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Bread, Procol Harum, Traffic – those kind of artists. Later I was introduced to the such greats as Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, David Olney, Emmylou Harris….the list goes on.
Your song Sally Weather has a Lennon/ Beatles feel…
IB: It was based on a riff and an idea I’d had for around 20 years. The lyrics are based on a person I knew who had fallen into an abusive relationship. I’m glad to say she is now happy and loving her life again.
I always think it sounds like a cross between Girl and something else I can never quite put my finger on, but I guess something from the Revolver-era. The keyboard solo was inspired by House Of The Rising Sun by The Animals. I like the lines “insanity’s a point of view, so close your eyes you’ll miss the truth.”
You Stop Me From Falling is more stripped-down. It’s a gorgeous acoustic ballad. Where did that song come from?
IB: It was written and dedicated to a dear friend who helped me through some rough times. It was my way of giving them something back.
It’s been through a few different guises, but, primarily, when I was writing it, I had in my head the scene from The Shining, where all the ‘ghosts’ are in the big concert room in their 1920s regalia and the band are playing. It’s slightly odd I know, but you can never tell what will inspire a song sometimes.
The Clowns Are Coming To Town is a heavy, psychedelic instrumental. I really like it, but it feels a bit out of place on the album. Is it your Revolution 9 moment?
IB: I wanted a track that would crash down and create some waves. I love the whole psychedelia scene from the late ‘60s onwards – it had a big effect on me. I remember hearing White Rabbit [by Jefferson Airplane] for the first time and immediately heading into town, straight to Action Records [in Preston] and buying it.
‘I wanted a track that would crash down and create some waves. I love the whole psychedelia scene from the late ‘60s onwards – it had a big effect on me’
Watching the Monterey Pop Festival and seeing Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, and hearing Tomorrow Never Knows, Eight Miles High, Soft Machine, Piper at The Gates of Dawn and Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast all had a big influence on me.
We had a lot of fun recording The Clowns Are Coming To Town – we were bouncing guitars along tables, pinging rulers, reversing organs, radios and guitars, backwards pianos, distorted bass, sending political leaders’ speeches backwards… that sort of thing. It started its days by being loosely based around The Byrds’ Stranger In A Strange Land, but it quickly turned into Revolution 9 part two.
More Than I also has a Beatles feel, as well as some slight Eastern vibes, as does the final track, which is a short, backwards, psychedelic instrumental, entitled Isolation. Is that you embracing your inner George Harrison?
IB:More Than I was written for my daughter while we were on holiday in Cornwall. We had gone down to the beach – the weather was beautiful, the sun was high, the sky was blue and I just had the line “Like a child on the sand who doesn’t feel the land as its fear” running through my head. I love Charlotte’s harmonies on that song.
Musically it’s inspired by Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’, The Beatles’ Across The Universe and George Harrison’s Here Comes The Moon. I use an electric sitar on it, just tickling through in the mix. I’m greatly inspired and influenced by George Harrison’s music and his spiritual values. He was a great man.
There are two cover versions on the album – and they’re both songs I love, the standard, Autumn Leaves, and Scott Walker’s Duchess. Why did you choose them?
IB: When Charlotte and I started rehearsing, we had one of those ‘OK, what songs have you got?’ moments. She played me Autumn Leaves and I was astounded. It was beautiful. I knew then it just had to go on any future album we made. I like to call it the ‘candlelit room with a glass of wine, next to a crackling California fire and looking out onto the setting sun’ moment on the album.
Scott Walker’s Duchess was played to me around 20 years ago after a long studio session. I’d never heard anything quite so enchanting, beautiful and dark. I would play it on repeat for months after and still do. It felt like the perfect choice to honour and celebrate this wonderful song and the great Scott Walker.
Waves, which is the only song written by Charlotte on the album, has the sound of the sea from Barbados on it. Were you tempted to put any sound effects from Lancashire on the album? What would you have chosen?
IB: Charlotte loves travelling and she has a real sense of wanderlust. While she was away playing the cruise ships around the Caribbean, we stayed in touch and one cold, frosty morning she sent me a video recording of the Barbados sea lapping against the sun-drenched sandy shore. When she returned, we recorded Waves and I secretly added the waves to the final mix. She was delighted. Charlotte plays the beautiful lead guitar throughout that song – it reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham’s playing. What North Western sound effect would I have chosen? Probably the wind and the rain.
Can you tell us about your musical background? You’ve had four solo albums out since the ’90s…
IB: I was born in Blackpool in 1969 and spent my formative years living in various parts of The Fylde before moving to Preston in 1980. I started playing in bands when I was at secondary school, although I had a Bontempi guitar as a five-year-old and dug Blockbuster by The Sweet. When I left school, I got my first job as an apprentice at Fylde Guitars in Kirkham. During that time, I formed a mod band called Class A. It was taken from a Marlboro packet I seem to remember.
We went through various guises, but as the mod flame dimmed to a flicker, we attempted to resurrect ourselves. Sometimes we were psychedelic and sometimes gothic, but never with direction. We stuck together right through the early ‘90s until around ‘96/’97.
During that time, I met and married my soulmate Rachel and we had two wonderful daughters, Jose and Sacha. Rachel and the girls keep me on track through thick and thin. In 1998, I met Gary Hall through a mutual friend, Lee, who I was playing with in our band MellowDrive. We recorded our debut album and everything else after with Gary, in ’98, and he soon became a friend, producer and mentor.
He introduced me to great music I’d never heard before and songwriters whose lyrics cut deep. I recorded four solo albums with Gary and we both produced other artists over a 11-year or so period at his Voodoo Rooms Studio. That was a valuable experience for me and gave me the knowledge and tools to pave the way for me to start recording and producing from my own homegrown studio.
As well as Charlotte, you’re also working with singer-songwriter, Daniel Wylie, the former frontman of Cosmic Rough Riders. You’re releasing an EP of co-written songs, aren’t you? I’ve had a sneak preview of two tracks, Take It Or Leave It, which has a ’60s, jangly pop feel, with keys and brass, and Slow Down River – another summery, Byrdsy song about the sun. What’s the plan for the EP?
IB: I’m loving working with Daniel. We’ve been Facebook friends for several years. His songs, music and stories, and his ability to pull brilliant melodies out of the air are inspiring.
During lockdown, I began recording some new solo songs – Dangerous Clowns and TV Land. My daughter, Sacha, acted as video producer for my lockdown sessions. I sent Daniel the videos and he loved them. We got chatting about music we both enjoyed and I suggested we should do a co-write at some point. He was really into the idea and he sent over four song ideas.
The first track we finished was What’s Happening Now?, followed by Take It Or Leave It, and then Slow Down River. We are both really pleased with how they are all sounding. We plan to do more co-writes after this EP.
I’m producing and performing the songs in my home studio and I’m finding it to be such a great way to work. Daniel and I really are both enjoying the whole process. It’s also bringing out a different side to me as a songwriter and producer, which I’m loving. Daniel has been playing a couple of the tracks to a few record company friends and getting some great feedback. Nothing is finalised yet regarding the release, but we’re excited about it.
As you mentioned, you’ve been putting out some solo songs on YouTube. Any plans for another solo album? If so, when will it come out and what can we expect?
IB: Yes – so far I’ve recorded two tracks which will be on my new solo album. I have a bunch of songs ready to go and record. You can expect more jangle from the Rickenbacker, and a possible duet or two. There’s no release date as yet, but hopefully it will be towards next summer.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? What have been your favourite albums of 2020?
IB: That’s a great question. Well, recently I’ve been tuning in to a great American radio station called Radio Free Phoenix, which plays some fantastic music.
On my recent playlists there’s been The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Doors, Townes Van Zandt, The Cure, Ravi Shankar, Buddy Holly, Dylan, Lennon, R.E.M, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Daniel Wylie, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Syd Barrett, Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Janis Joplin, The Mamas and the Papas, Creedence, George Harrison, Steve Hillage, Bob Marley, Little Richard, Mickey Newbury, The Who, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Vaughan Williams, Tom Baxter, Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, Crowded House, Miles Davis, Vivaldi, Steve Marriott, Martin Simpson, and, worth mentioning again, The Byrds!
I enjoyed the coverage on the radio for John Lennon’s 80th birthday too and I’ve had Ray LaMontagne’s Monovision on repeat. There’s some real gems on that album. My daughter Sacha introduced me to a band called Flyte – I love the harmonies and they are great musicians. I’ve been enjoying Homegrown by Neil Young. I also listened to the new Paul Weller album [On Sunset] the other evening. I really like the album before it, True Meanings, too.
Finally, what are your plans for Christmas? Will your 12-string Rickenbacker be ringing out?
IB: Well, I would usually be busy gigging in December, but I think this year it will be nights by the fire, finishing songs, spending time with my family and recording the new album. I’m sure the Ricky will be making an appearance. I might even record a jangly Christmas carol for you.
Set Your Sights Towards The Sun by The Lost Doves is out now on Green Tea Productions.
It’s been a busy year for English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard. He’s published the second instalment of his autobiography, Illusions of Happiness, and released his latest album, the brilliant To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection.
The new record – his seventeenth – is a collection of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sings lead and backing vocals and plays all the instruments.
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio – he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain – during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020.
Howard, who is 67, grew up in Lancashire and trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven – he started playing when he was four. His debut album, Kid In A Big World, featuring the single Goodbye Suzie, was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple studios in 1974 and came out the following year.
“The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers.
“I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.”
During the summer, you published the second volume of your autobiography, lllusions of Happiness, which goes up to 1986. There’s a third and final instalment planned in the not-too-distant future. How have you found writing the books? Has it been cathartic? What have you learnt from the process?
John Howard: To be honest, I didn’t know there’d be a second volume when I wrote the first one, Incidents Crowded With Life. It was intended as an online chapter-by-chapter series of events in my life up to my accident, when I broke my back, in 1976. I was astonished when Fisher King told me they wanted to publish it. But reviews were excellent and Fisher King asked me to write a second instalment.
Originally, it was going to go from 1976 to 2000, covering my recovery from the accident through to returning to recording with Trevor Horn and Steve Levine and my move into working in the music business in A & R and Licensing through the ‘80s and ‘90s; meeting my husband Neil, leaving London for Oxfordshire, and finally in 2000 for Pembrokeshire. But Fisher King suggested I split it into two books. So I decided to end Illusions of Happiness in 1986, just before I met Neil, having split from my then partner of eight years, changed jobs and moved into my own apartment. It seemed a good narrative point to finish the book.
‘I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang’
I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang. So writing the book felt very natural, and yes, a little cathartic. It sounds silly in a way, but quite a few members of my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s, so being practical, I wanted to get as much of my life down in writing now just in case there comes a time when “I can’t even remember my name”, as a line in the song Injuries Sustained In Surviving [from the new album] goes.
I didn’t really learn anything from writing the book, as I knew it all already! But it did help put some things into a clearer view in my mind. What I never did, in either book, was comment or judge, I just told what happened – as I saw it – and let the reader decide on who was right or wrong, on whether I, and other people in my life at the time, made the right decisions. What was, was. What happened, happened. There’s no changing that. I just wanted to put it down on paper.
Hopefully, the third book will be published sometime in 2022 – there were two years between books one and two being published, so I’m guessing there’ll be a similar gap before the third is out there. It’s more or less written – there’s just some tweaking and editing to do over the next weeks and months.
The new album is very reflective, nostalgic and melancholy at times. What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the songs? It has a lot of reminiscences on it… Do you think writing your autobiographies made you write more songs about your past?
JH: I think writing the two autobiographies – so far – certainly put a lot of things in perspective. I have an excellent memory but actually writing stuff down that happened 40, 50-plus years ago captured those memories for good and finally gave them placement and sense.
As I say, I’m not one to look back most of the time, but being ‘forced to’ when you’re writing your life story – or a bit of it – did remind me of people, events, experiences, and that would automatically seep into my songwriting. The two processes sit side by side.
Getting older too, of course, one remembers and reflects, rather than anticipating a whole lot more! It is a strange feeling knowing I have probably – if I’m lucky and healthy – another 20, or 25, years left, whereas in my twenties that was indeed a lifetime, with 60 years ahead to look forward to and plan for. It isn’t being maudlin or morose admitting that – it’s a fact.
The album has a pastoral theme – there are a lot of references to nature in the lyrics and also the title…
JH: Yes – the album does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.
The album title is taken from a line in the song Water, which is the closing track on the record and features the sound of crickets on it. Why did you choose it for the name of the album?
JH:Water is based on a dream I had, floating above a lake like a watching spirit. I wrote the lyric as an observer of a scene in which he/she is gradually drawn in until they’re completely part of it. I wanted the track to have an atmosphere of stillness, of silently watching something develop before your eyes – something you don’t understand at first.
Our skies here are very dark at night, so there is always a sense of connection to ‘the beyond’, being able to see the universe above us, watching the shooting stars, listening to the crickets all round us every night, and feeling a kind of wonder about it all. As a songwriter that must affect me.
Once I’d finished the album and needed a title, the line in Water’s lyric, “What’s that beam of light on the lake, to the left of the moon’s reflection?” described for me the vibe of the album – the second part of the line especially. It also lent itself to a sleeve design very well too.
The song My Patient Heart is about living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where you and your husband, Neil, used to be based, and also references Murcia, in Spain, where you live now. Can you tell me more about your inspiration for it?
JH: It’s one of my scene-setting songs, describing life here in the village, which is still very rural, families working in the olive and almond groves, the local church ringing its bells every day on the hour – usually about ten minutes slow!
Our neighbour gives us bottles of his homemade olive oil, others bring us home-grown spinach and various vegetables, and a chap in his nineties gives us jars of his home-made honey. When we had hens we gave people eggs and every summer families from the village come and collect fruit from our Chinese Meddler tree. They seem very pleased to have us as part of the village, which is heart-warming.
But the song also looks to Wales and our life there, which was also very rural. Though no one worked in the fields any longer in Pembrokeshire, everyone had an orchard, cherry trees, gooseberry bushes, wild berries growing in hedgerows. And seasons!
That’s what I miss the most – the seasons. They were definite, expected and regular as clockwork. It’s November here and in the mid-twenties. Sounds great, I’m sure, but my Northern English psyche still expects it to be minus two! I’m not sure I will ever lose that natural expectation. Neil and I do intend to return to Wales, someday, hence My Patient Heart. Everything is about timing, when it’s right. We’re very lucky to be in a position where we can decide when that is.
Let’s talk about Injuries Sustained In Surviving. It’s a great song – quite folky – and I love the title…
JH: Thanks. It was the first song I wrote and recorded for the album. I had Marrakesh Express in my mind when I wrote it, and carried that through to the vocals, where there are no ‘backing vocals’ per se, more three-and-four-layered harmony lead vocals. I became Crosby, Stills & Nash for a day!
The narrative covers childhood, youth and ageing all in one. I have memories of the railway lines behind my parents’ house in Heywood in the ‘50s and going out on day trips as a family in an old Austin jalopy. We went all over the place in that old car until finally one of its wheels fell off and dad abandoned it in a garage, getting ten quid for the scrap value!
The song develops through to more recent thoughts, “Yes, kid, I remember the fire burning, I recall every song I was singing” – I’m talking to myself really.
There’s a bit which is a reflection on my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s, “Don’t wait until your body is a shell of a stranger locked inside a lonely cell, with a thousand silent tales he’ll never tell.” But it ends on a higher note, “Sometimes good things come along you’d never planned, somebody might just sprinkle stardust in your hand.” There’s always a chance.
I think Echoes of Pauline sounds like a standard, or maybe something from a stage musical. What inspired it? Who is Pauline?
JH: Pauline is a real person. I was at school with her in the ‘60s in Lancashire and we were very close, like brother and sister in many ways. She introduced me to artists like Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
I’ve written about her before, in The Flame on Kid In A Big World, and in Pauline’s Song, which I wrote in 1970, but only recorded in 2009. She also gets a mention in a line from Small Town, Big Adventures… “I was Toad, Eniluap was Mole”, referring to when we were both in the school play Toad of Toad Hall in 1968. We always called each other by our names backwards. Don’t ask me why. We were young and did daft things!
We fell out badly in 1970 and our friendship didn’t recover. I can’t actually remember now why we had a row, a really bad argument, but I’m sure it was my fault. I think of her still and hope she’s okay and happy. She was a great person. I did try finding her on Friends Reunited years ago to no avail. Echoes of Pauline is my way of offering her a way back to our friendship if she ever hears the song, which she’s unlikely to do of course. That’s how the lyric began really, a letter to a friend, which will probably not be read.
I wanted the track to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie, keeping the piano quite restrained, not using it to drive the song along with rhythmic chords, but as an occasional texture, letting the song develop slowly without driving it. I used a simple string wash and sparse percussion to build to its more rhythmic end.
‘I wanted the track Echoes of Pauline to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie’
I think that track took me the longest to get right. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound – I listened to Cilla’s track several times before going into the studio – but it was a new way of working for me. I also wanted the lead vocals to be multi-tracked and very smooth, with just occasional harmony lines, using no backing vocal ‘oohs and ahhs’.
I also developed a different way of singing for it, keeping my vocal restrained, not ‘soaring’ which is my usual style, singing from the back of the throat – more soulful rather than a dramatic pop style.
Your latest album is your seventeenth and, this year, it’s 45 years since you first started your recording career. How does that make you feel? You’re in your late sixties now. As a young man in his twenties, did you ever envisage you’d still be making records when you were a pensioner?
JH: Yeah! Who’d have thought it? But in some ways 17 albums in 45 years doesn’t sound that many!
Of course, I had a 20-year break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I worked ‘on the other side of the desk’, in the music industry. In the ‘70s I only made three albums – and two of them went unreleased – so 14 new albums since 2004 sounds much more impressive! The ‘70s and all that went on then feels like a lifetime ago, as though I’m watching it all happen in a movie in my head. I guess 45 years since my debut album came out makes me feel…in my late sixties!
The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious. And yes, I did imagine I’d still be recording now, but I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.
What have you learnt during your career? What have been the highs and lows?
JH: What have I learnt? I guess not to look back too much. I always try to look forward to the next project, the next album – though that’s sometimes difficult when people still – of course – want to talk and reminisce about Goodbye Suzie and Kid In A Big World. Nostalgia is very comforting for people, though my memories of those days are not so rosy. It was a very frustrating and disappointing period for me on the whole, in terms of what eventually happened in my career anyway.
The other thing I’ve learnt is not to have regrets. I’m still in one piece, physically and mentally – most of the time – thank goodness – which many of my contemporaries when I was starting out are not.
‘The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world’
Fame would have been fun, of course, I would’ve loved it, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure about that! Leaving that world of recording in the mid-‘80s and ‘getting a proper job’ in the industry gave me a different perspective – a security I’d never had before.
Also, working as I did with so many established artists over those 20 years and hearing from them how their careers and the music business had treated them, often not well at all, gave me a view of life from the top. I saw it from a different angle – someone else’s experience of what fame can do to you. I think I became less selfish during that time than I had been as a recording artist, when my everyday had been all about “Me, me, me”.
Having to think about and be responsible for other artists’ careers and record releases taught me to be more considerate, more measured. It was my job not to have a meltdown when something didn’t go quite right. I became other people’s buffer, which is quite strengthening.
Now I’m a recording artist again, I happily don’t have the pressure I’d had the first time round from managers, promoters, big record execs and, deadlines. Recording now is done on my own terms, when I want to, how I want to. It’s much more relaxing and no longer about ambition. Being largely unknown does have its plusses! ‘Niche’ is good.
As a professional musician, in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, are you worried about the future of gigs, tours and venues? Will things ever get back to normal? What are your hopes and fears for 2021 and beyond?
JH: I don’t actually gig very much at all – never have. I love performing, but the opportunities haven’t arisen very much in recent years, just the occasional gig in London whenever I’m invited to perform. The last one was at The Lexington in 2019, with Vinny Peculiar, Simon Love and Rogers & Butler, which was really enjoyable.
I gigged a lot in the early ‘70s when I lived with my parents in Lancashire, but once I got to London and signed with a management and record company, recording became my way of life – and it still is.
But yes, I do feel for musicians and bands who can’t gig now. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums. So a whole income stream is cut off straight away.
Who knows where this will all end? Certainly, there will be venues which close and can’t afford to open again. It’s really sad. My husband is a retired actor, and he too has seen friends in the theatre who haven’t worked for months, with no sign that things are going to change for the foreseeable future. Pretty grim.
‘I feel for musicians who can’t gig. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums’
Home shows have helped some musicians, in terms of being able to perform and staying connected to fans, and some artists have monetised their performances, which keeps some income coming in at least. Who knows when we’ll be able to step back onto a stage in front of a live audience again?
What music – new and old – have you been listening to recently? Any recommendations?
JH: A lot of the music I listen to now is old. I will always love and enjoy hearing The Beatles, The Searchers, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Judee Sill, Barry White, Paul Simon, Kate Bush and Roy Harper. They never grow old in my mind – the albums still sound as fresh today as they did when I first bought them, though my vinyl collection was sold off before we moved to Spain, I’m sad to say. Finding room for over 40 boxes of LPs was no longer viable. But I replaced all my favourites with CDs, and that’s still how I listen to music most of the time.
We recently bought a record player, simply because some of my albums, new and old, were being issued and reissued on LP and I wanted to hear them in that format. That led to us buying some of our old favourites on vinyl again. Also a lot of my friends were releasing their latest albums on vinyl – Robert Rotifer and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge, for example – so I wanted to hear those on LP.
More recently, I’ve become a big fan of the band Ex-Norwegian – they have a lovely Syd Barrett psychedelic-pop vibe. I’ve also fallen in love with the music of the French singer-songwriter Olivier Rocabois, the highly talented Joel Little and John Cunningham, whose album Fell, is gorgeous. The Norwegian singer-songwriter-pianist Cecilie Anna, who my friend, the poet Robert Cochrane introduced me to, is also remarkable. I have two of her albums and they’re beautiful.
Finally, you’re a very prolific songwriter? What’s on the horizon? Another album? Any other projects you can tell us about?
JH: ‘Prolific’ is my middle name! Though I do often take months of doing nothing between albums, once I have a project in my head I work for weeks on end until it’s finished. I’ve been having a lovely time recently recording vocals and piano for various friends’ projects, doing tracks and writing occasional songs for them. They’re all hush-hush at the moment and due out next year, but they are very diverse!
‘The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one!’
What I can give you a heads-up on is a very exciting project for me. Kool Kat Musik in the States, which issued To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection in August – my first US release – will be putting out a 2CD ‘Best of JH’ next spring. It will be my first commercially-released Best Of! Edward Rogers (of Rogers & Butler) is curating the collection, Ian Button will be mastering it and doing the artwork, and Ray Gianchetti will be releasing it on his Kool Kat Musik label. I’m very excited about it! Edward has put together an intriguing collection of tracks from across my career, some of them never released commercially on CD before. Watch this space for more details early next year.
I’ve also been sketching out some new song ideas over the past few weeks, which I will start recording probably at the end of this year, or early next. The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one! The story is set in my head, the characters are developing in my mind and, the narrative is growing, I just need to sit at the piano and see if it sounds any good! It will be a challenge, but I love a challenge. Otherwise I might discover what boredom feels like. I can’t have that. Put the pipe and slippers away!
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection by John Howard is out now on CD – in the UK, it’s released on his own label, which is also called John Howard. You can find out more information at his website: http://kidinabigworld.co.uk/
The album is also available in the US – on CD – via Kool Kat Musik, and can also be purchased from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos, which has released several of his albums already.
His latest book, Illusions of Happiness – the second volume of his three-part autobiography – is published by Fisher King Publishing.
When Say It With Garage Flowerslast spoke to singer-songwriter Pete Gow, it was in a North West London pub in early 2019, ahead of the release of his first solo album, the brilliant Here There’s No Sirens.
The record was a surprising departure for Gow, who, at the time, was the frontman of UK Americana / alt-country band Case Hardin. As we wrote last year, it was deeply personal and confessional and, musically, it saw Gow exploring new territory. Gone were the big electric guitars, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen-like anthems and raw, kicked-around country songs of Case Hardin. Instead, it was an album of stripped-down acoustic tunes, with stirring string arrangements, fleshed out by piano, brass, organ and drums.
Talking about his solo side project, Gow assured us that everything was hunky dory in the Case Hardin camp and that the band were due to start work on their next album – the follow-up to 2015’s Colours Simple. However, things didn’t go as planned – the group split up last year.
Since then, Gow has established himself as a solo artist and followed up Here There’s No Sirens with a mini-album, The Fragile Line – another fine collection of orchestrally-aided songs, which, like its predecessor, saw him collaborate with producer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett (Dreaming Spires, Co-Pilgrim, Raving Beauties and Paul McClure).
This month sees the release of Gow’s brand new single – a double A-side, Cheap and Shapeless Dress / Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar.
Coming out on Clubhouse Records as a limited edition, 7in heavyweight vinyl single – sorry, there’s no digital or CD version, folks – it sees Gow reuniting with Bennett, who plays bass and keyboards and arranges the strings and horns.
The two songs act as a teaser for Gow’s third album, which is due out sometime in early 2021. They contrast each other nicely – the former, which is described as ‘a ramshackle celebration of the bacchanalia of youth’, is a rollicking, full-band country-rock track, with Mariachi horns on it, while the latter, which documents the meeting of two estranged friends after decades apart – “we moved the rug back to hide the drugs and found the dust we’d swept inside” – is another of Gow’s downbeat and reflective, drinking-themed songs.
In an exclusive interview, we talk to Gow about his new single and get the lowdown on his next album, but first we have to ask him to set the record straight about the demise of Case Hardin. During our last chat, it really didn’t seem like things were well and truly over for the band – they had a new album in the pipeline… So what happened?
“Well, when we last chatted I also didn’t feel it was over for Case Hardin,” he says. “It wasn’t over, like you say – we had firm plans for a new album, but it just didn’t work out the way I hoped those next few months would.
“For the longest time, I was equal parts saddened and angered at the unsatisfying manner in which we closed the book, but now I can look back on our four albums with an immense pride and am occasionally reminded how much love there was for the band, our records and our live sets.”
So is there a lost Case Hardin album in the vaults? What happened to the songs you’d written for it?
“Oh – there’s no lost album, sadly. Most of the songs have been reworked, or reimagined for the subsequent Pete Gow albums. I’m just not prolific enough to let an album’s worth of songs go to waste!”
How are you? What’s lockdown and the past few months been like for you?
Pete Gow: Well… personally, I’ve been okay. I’ve been able to keep my day job and I’ve been able to largely do it from home. I’ve managed to keep my health etc., so, given the experience of so many others during these past few months, I feel largely unscathed.
How has the crisis affected your musical plans? Have you adapted and performed online? What challenges have you faced?
PG: To be honest, as a performer, I haven’t really embraced the online shows, but, as a fan, I’ve seen some great ones! In the early days, I couldn’t figure out my way past the limitations of a live broadcast on a platform like Facebook. I had neither the hardware, nor the knowhow, to establish a robust, sustainable signal, so I made the decision to try other ways to communicate musically.
We had a ‘watch party’ for our 2019 concert film, One Live One-Night Stand, very early on in lockdown, then a month or so later I pre-recorded an acoustic set that we played out as an event – Almost Live in Acton – but, other than that, I have done one guest appearance on a friend’s Instagram Live – the fantastic Hannah Scott – and my first proper live online show will be this Friday (October 23) – the same day as the single comes out. I’ll be doing a ‘Virtual Green Note’ set in the company of Sam Coe and fellow Clubhouse dweller, Luke Tuchscherer.
The new single is a double A-side and it’s only available on vinyl – there’s no digital version. What prompted it?
PG: It was pretty organic. Since March, there have been several discussions with Clubhouse Records, brainstorming what can be done to keep our music out there, but trying to do something a little different every time and a little different from everyone else. It came from those discussions – over Zoom, naturally.
Let’s talk about the new songs: Cheap and Shapeless Dress and Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar. What can you tell us about them? They’re both observational songs…
PG: I think the best way to frame the new songs is through the new album. Until we decided to take these particular tracks away and call them a single, they were part of the larger story of the new record.
I wouldn’t say age is a preoccupation on the next album, but it does colour some of the songs. I turned 50 this year. That’s hardly old age, but I have allowed it to be marked, both in my thinking and in my songwriting, in ways that surprised me. I am increasingly aware that I don’t have an infinite window in which to right some of the wrongs I have chalked up in my life. I have one eye on the clock and the clocks of those around me.
I think the narrator in Cheap and Shapeless Dress is how the fantasy me takes life in his stride, but I probably handle conflict closer to the two old friends awkwardly meeting up after decades, in Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, than I’d care to admit.
‘I wouldn’t say age is a preoccupation on the next album, but it does colour some of the songs. I turned 50 this year’
They’re very contrasting songs musically, and, interestingly, both tracks feature hotels in the lyrics. Is that a coincidence? It’s a double A-side with a double room…
PG: Hah! Well, I never noticed the hotel connection until now – an oversight made moderately worse by the fact we originally had a different track to pair with Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, but at the eleventh hour, Joe spotted that song also had a bar in the title. Clearly we didn’t look closely enough at the replacement….
The song choice was very much motivated by the point you raise in your question. It’s a single – a stand-alone project – but it also has a job to do, previewing the next record. We had seven or eight tracks to choose from, so the pairing for the single was a legitimate consideration.
The new songs see you reunited with Joe Bennett, whom you worked with on your last two records – your solo debut, Here There’s No Sirens and the mini-album, The Fragile Line. He’s provided bass and keys, and arranged the strings and horns. Prior to lockdown, you and drummer, Fin Kenny, went to Farm Music Studios, in Oxford, with Joe, to record drums, guitar and guide vocals for your next album. How was that? How much did you get done?
PG: Well, if this was a regular cycle for recording a new record, we’d say we didn’t achieve much – album-ready drum tracks, guide vocals and guitars. Then all the rules changed… Suddenly what we left Joe with was all he really needed to start building an album when no one else was able to record and to give him a project when most other studios were shuttered. In late February, it really wasn’t much at all, but by early March, it was everything.
‘I am increasingly aware that I don’t have an infinite window in which to right some of the wrongs I have chalked up in my life’
So what can you tell us about the next album and when will it be coming out?
PG: It’s in a reasonably advanced state, for all the reasons we just discussed, and we were even able to pull the two tracks for the single from our stockpile and still get back in to Farm Music Studios last week and replenish it.
As to when it will come out, it’s too early to tell. There’s certainly no reason from my end that it couldn’t come out in early 2021, but there are a few stars that will need to align before we can fix a date… not to mention figuring out what releasing an album even looks like for someone who has historically relied on merchandise sales at live shows.
Are the songs on the single representative of the new album?
PG: I think the single does point the way…
Are you still sticking with the orchestral backing you debuted on Here There’s No Sirens and also used on The Fragile Line?
PG: There is a move from the emphasis on strings to favouring horns. In the main it’s also a ‘livelier’ collection of songs as regards tempos, arrangements etc., but let’s not get carried away, or try to fool the people – it’s never going to go down as my party album…
The lyrics of Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar reference the traditional end of year sing-along Auld Lang Syne. On that note, what are your plans for the rest of 2020, and your hopes and fears for 2021? How will you remember 2020?
PG: I’m genuinely not sure how safe it might be yet to start making plans, certainly not musical ones. I’m still trying to take the wider view on that. I want to get back to being a working musician, but I want it to be right – not to mention safe – for everyone. It’s good that people are start to figure out how all this might look going forward. The folks at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival – Tristan Tipping and Noel Cornford – are putting their heads above the parapet, with some live shows later this year, as are others.
But listen; honestly, 2020 in review will actually be quite conflicted for me. Outside of all the crazy stuff, a number of significant, positive things have happened to me this year – things that rightly refuse to allow them to be wholly overshadowed by the bigger picture. There’s a line in Auld Lang Syne that translates as: “There’s seas between us broad have roared.” That’s been my 2020.
Any current musical recommendations – old and new? What’s been your 2020 soundtrack?
PG: Thank you for asking. In no particular order, the new Michael Kiwanuka album is as good a record as I have heard this year. Danger Mouse produced it and it’s so, so good – brilliantly put together. Courtney Marie Andrews’s Old Flowers is a break-up album to rank alongside the very best. Looking backwards, I discovered two albums by Eugene McDaniels from the early ‘70s: Outlaw and Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. The musical range of both those records is amazing – it’s like Gil Scott-Heron by Lloyd Webber in places, but in a good way!
Finally, it’s happy hour at the lobby bar and Say It With Garage Flowers is buying. What are you having?
PG: I actually miss being in pubs less than I thought, or presumed I would, but the thought of never again seeing a well-poured pint of Guinness settle before me, then marvel at the perfect cream circles as I savour it, depresses me immensely. So mine’s a stout. Slainte.
Pete Gow’s new, limited edition double A-side single, Cheap and Shapeless Dress / Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, is out on October 23 (Clubhouse Records).
On the same day, he will be performing a virtual gig for The Green Note, with Clubhouse labelmate Luke Tuchscherer, and Sam Coe. The show will be live streamed from 8pm. For more information, click here.
You can also see Gow play two, special, socially-distanced shows for the Ramblin’ Roots Revue with Joe Bennett, plus Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett (Bennett Wilson Poole) on Dec 11-12, at Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe. Info here.
More than 12 months ago, British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) embarked on a project called Country Darkness, which saw them reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.
This month sees the release of their third Country Darkness EP, Vol.3, which will be followed by an album, also called Country Darkness, in November. The album gathers together all of the songs from the three EPs, but also throws in an added bonus, a brand new My Darling Clementine composition called Powerless, which is a majestic country-soul track that’s easily up there with the best of Costello.
Like its predecessors, the new EP was co-produced by Weston King, Nieve and Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Duane Eddy). Pre-production for the four tracks – I’ll Wear It Proudly,The Crooked Line, Indoor Fireworks and Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? – took place at Nieve’s home in France and then the recording sessions moved to Yellow Arch Studios, in Sheffield.
On the album, Elliot, who is a member of Richard Hawley’s backing band, played bass and cello and also arranged the strings and horns. He is joined by fellow musicians Shez Sheridan (guitars) and Dean Beresford (drums) – both Hawley stalwarts – as well as former Van Morrison and Nick Lowe horn players Matt Holland and Martin Winning.
To tie-in with the release of each of the three EPs – the first one came out in October last year –Say It With Garage Flowers has been publishing a series of in-depth interviews with Weston King in which he sheds some light on the Country Darkness project.
Here’s the third and final interview in the series, which focuses on the new EP. Weston King also gives us a teaser of what we can expect from his next solo record – he’s going into the studio this month to start work on it – and shares his views on life after lockdown…
Michael Weston King: Like so many of us, I guess, on a day-to-day basis I’m still up and down. I’m trying to keep busy and proactive, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated.
Not being able to tour and perform for an audience is very frustrating, and a worry financially of course. Our beloved government is hardly helping musicians out with that worry, either.
We have a couple of socially-distanced shows taking place this autumn, in Liverpool and Manchester, and we’re doing the occasional live stream too, but nothing beats touring and that feeling of getting better each night as you get up to “match fitness”. I miss the travel and I miss the engagement with people.
When we spoke in May, you were still looking to record the third and final volume in your series of Country DarknessEPs. That’s now in the can. How did you manage to get it laid down? Did lockdown affect your plans?
MWK: Steve was stuck in France, but we did what we’d done with the other recordings – he sent piano tracks over to us and then Lou and I went into the studio to build on them, before sending them back to him to add additional keys where he felt necessary.
The issue was not getting together with Steve, but being able to get into Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and getting together with the other musicians. We were held up by that in April and May, but, come June, as things eased, we did get back in there and carried on. It was a great distraction from the mundanity of lockdown and a joy just to be hanging out with other musicians, and friends again. Although, not going to the pub after the sessions was a strange, unheard of, experience!
Let’s talk about the songs on Country Darkness Vol.3. What can you tell me about your take on I’ll Wear It Proudly? It’s a song from King of America, which is one of my favourite Costello albums, and one of yours, I’m assuming?
MWK: Yes, it is. I love pretty much everything on King of America. It is certainly in my top three Costello albums.
I used to play Sleep Of The Just, which is from that album, years ago in my solo shows. Covering I’ll Wear It Proudly was a late decision, as it was not on my original list. By the time we had cut the first eight songs [for the Country Darkness project], our choices for the final four songs were tempered by what we already had in the bag, and the need to look for other types of songs, with variety in mind for the full album.
When approaching what to do with this song, my original thought was to give it the “boom-chikka-boom” Johnny Cash treatment – kind of in keeping with King of America, yet still different from the Costello version.
However Steve heard it differently and suggested we try a “Bruce Springsteen Streets of Philadelphia” era-approach. That was a brilliant idea – one that would not have occurred to me – and it really works. It has become one of our favourite tracks on the album.
On the new EP, you’ve chosen to cover Indoor Fireworks, which is also from the King of America album. It’s one of my favourite Costello songs. What can you tell me about your version? You’ve slowed it down and made it a smouldering, piano-led ballad. Hasn’t Lou done a solo version of the song before?
MWK: Yes – this song had been in Lou’s solo repertoire for years, performed simply, with just piano and voice. She also recorded it on her solo album, Calmer, back in the late ‘90s.
Once we started on this Country Darkness project, and adapted our live shows to include a “Costello song segment” – it just made sense to do this song again and make it into a duet. It has since become a firm audience favourite, so we just had to include it on Vol. 3 and the album. We decided to keep it simple and record it just as we have been doing it live – two voices and Lou at the piano. So, this is the only track Steve does not appear on.
The Crooked Line, which was the first single from the new EP, is the most upbeat of all the songs you’ve done for the Country Darkness project. I love your version – Steve plays some groovy organ on it. What inspired that arrangement? The Costello version has a bluegrass feel…
MWK: There is a moment on our version of Different Finger, from Country Darkness Vol.2, where Steve plays some Augie Meyers-type organ. I really loved it, so when it came to doing The Crooked Line I wanted us to go full Sir Douglas Quintet on it and really highlight that organ sound. The Costello original has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel to it, with fiddles and mandolins playing the instrumental passages, but we went with Vox Continental.
What about the song Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? Why did you choose it and how did you approach it? Costello wrote it for soul singer Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), but he turned it down. Your version reminds me of the material Costello did with Bacharach, as it has a bit of an Easy Listening feel, arrangement-wise…
MWK: That will be the flugel horns. Add those and suddenly it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach. It wasn’t an obvious choice, as it is not really a country or country-soul song – it’s a little bit musical theatre in places, and it even becomes quite Brechtian by the end. It is a hard song and we all had moments where we regretted getting into it. The producer, Colin Elliot, really didn’t like it at first, but it has since become his favourite track.
‘Costello’s original version of The Crooked Line has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel, with fiddles and mandolins, but we went with Vox Continental’
What drew us to it was the fact that there is a male verse which starts: “Why can’t a man stand alone?”, and the second verse is a female one: “Why can’t a woman be just what she seems? So that immediately felt right for a duet.
Lyrically it also asks an import question in these current times. I notice that Costello used some lines from it in his 50 Songs For 50 Days playlist, in the run-up to the presidential election, and it is clear why, with these lines: “Why can’t a man stand alone?Must he be burdened by all that he’s taught to consider his own? His skin and his station, his kin and his crown, his flag and his nation. They just weigh him down.”
I would love to have heard Sam Moore sing it, as am sure Costello would have too. Sadly, he will just have to make do with hearing us sing it! I’d also recommend you check out this 1998 live version, which Costello did on Later… with Jools Holland.
All of the songs from the three Country Darkness EPs feature on your new Country Darkness album, which is out in November. As an added bonus, there’s also a brand new My Darling Clementine song on it – a country-soul tune called Powerless. What can you tell me about it?
MWK: I had the title Powerless for a while – I thought it was good. We so often hear people say they are powerless to something, certainly when it comes to falling for someone. In this song, the female protagonist is leaving her partner of many years for someone else and despite the kids and the history they have, she is just powerless to the charms of the other guy and off she goes.
Lou and I have both had that experience, but I am not telling you which way round…Musically there is a little nod to a Costello song I particularly like from his National Ransom album, which is called That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.
Have you heard any of the songs from Costello’s forthcoming album, Hey Clockface? Any thoughts on them?
MWK: I have heard them, but not played them repeatedly, or really got into them, mainly because they are only out on streaming services, which is not really how I listen to music.
When the album is out, then I will spend some real time with it, while driving – the car is my favoured place to listen to music. Of the four songs he’s released so far, I think my favourite is We Are All Cowards Now.
You’re also working on a new solo album. What can we expect?
MWK: Songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs! There will be no songs about lockdown though, so be grateful for that.
Have you written many new songs recently? What’s been inspiring you?
MWK: Certainly not lockdown or Covid-19. Most of the songs that will go on the album have been kicking around in one form or another for a good few years. Many were unfinished, as I knew they were not right for My Darling Clementine, but I started to go through them, finish those I thought deserved finishing and discard the others. There are also two or three brand new ones.
One of them is sung from the perspective of a Washington DC policeman who votes for Trump, mainly due to peer pressure, and then starts to regret his actions as he sees what a monster this guy is, and how he is dividing the nation. In the final verse he is asked to be one of the cops on duty when Trump goes to stand outside St John’s Church in that awful PR stunt, when he held up the Bible. Our cop has to stand by him, ‘protecting’ him.
‘My new solo album will have songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs!’
Finally, back in May, I asked you what you wanted to do after lockdown was lifted. You said you had a list of five things:
1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.
2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.
3) Getting back on stage.
4) Getting back in the studio.
5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there.
How many of them did you manage to achieve? Obviously you did number four on the list, as you made the new EP….
MWK: Well, three out of five. But at least one of those was seeing the kids and grandkids, by far the most important. Yes, we got into the studio, but we haven’t yet got back on stage. We didn’t get out of the country, though we did get into the countryside: Wales, Herefordshire and Dorset, which was a blessing
My desire to go to the pub has diminished in light of everything – it just doesn’t have the same appeal right now. Table service? Early closing? People anxious about being in close proximity? It’s not ideal.
A couple of my favoured old boozers in Birmingham, including The Wellington on Bennetts Hill are, or were, still allowing drinkers to order at the bar. It is also usually only ever half-full, so there are no worries about social distancing! Writing this, I am suddenly feeling the urge. I’m off!
‘This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now’
We have been to the cinema a few times and that still holds a great joy for me. Cinemas, theatres and music venues are all under threat – it’s a travesty and so sad to see. They are such a part of the fabric of our way of life – they have to be preserved and supported.
This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now.
Country Darkness Vol.3 by My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve will be released on October 23 on Fretsore Records. It will be available on limited edition 12in vinyl, as well as streaming and digital services. The album, Country Darkness, will follow on November 6 (CD and digital).
New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom’s second solo album, Circles, is one of our favourite records of the year. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks has cranked up the guitars and embraced his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, power-pop and country rock.
Speaking from his New York apartment, which he describes as “a shoebox”, he says: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”
He’s certainly achieved his goal – recent single, the brilliant What’s The Over/Under?, is an infectious power-pop song – “I’ve never had too much of a handle on what I want until I fuck it up” – with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on its predecessor, the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom does his best Marc Bolan impression.
Circles is full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.
Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, has echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard is reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.
Winstrom, who is 37, also looks to the ’90s and early Noughties for inspiration – on the moving, cello-assisted ballad, I Walk In Circles, he channels Elliott Smith.
Two years in the making – writing and recording – Circles was produced by drummer Jeff Bills (The V-Roys and Steve Earle), who also worked on Winstrom’s debut album. The songs were committed to tape just before the coronavirus hit.
‘The world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one’
“We were lucky for sure – we were basically 99 percent done, so we were able to lean on some very talented friends with home studios to add the odd overdub here and there,” he says. “And engineers John Harvey and Mary Podio were super-savvy to invent a new workflow that let us finish mixing remotely.”
He adds: “We were really fortunate. I mean, obviously, the world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one.
“For my own sanity, I feel like I’ve been working up to this album my whole life. I’m 37 years old – it’s 37 minutes long. Coincidence? I think not. But I do feel like a good chunk of my lifetime is living in these songs. The highs, lows and in-betweens, to quote Townes Van Zandt. I hope folks dig it. I do.”
How are you doing? Congratulations on Circles – it’s a great record.
Jake Winstrom: I’m good – just chugging along and trying to stay safe, like everybody. Thanks so much. I’m very happy to hear you dig the record.
You’ve said that your first solo album, Scared Away The Song, had too many “singer songwriter” type songs on it and not enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock and roll tunes. With Circles, that’s not something you can be accused of. How did you approach this album?
JW: I definitely wanted to broaden the musical spectrum on this album. The last one, maybe due to time and cost constraints, ended up veering a bit too much toward what folks call “Americana”, I guess – lots of acoustic guitar-based, rootsy-sounding songs and what have you.
I had several more rock songs written for that record, including What’s The Over/Under? but we ran out of time on the day we tracked with a full band. So with this one we moved full band, electric songs to the top of the pile. And I wanted more moments of fun and levity in the songwriting. I think I had Bruce Springsteen’s The River in mind. What’s the saying? Shoot for the stars but settle for the moon? Hah. I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll.
How were the recording sessions? You worked with drummer / producer Jeff Bills again on this album. What did he bring to the process? Why do you like collaborating with him?
JW: The recording sessions were so much fun. I love recording and Jeff is just fantastic. He brings so much to the process. He has a real ear for songwriting and arranging.
I’d send him my four-track demos as soon as they were done and then we’d start ping-ponging arrangement ideas. And his production process is all about the song. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds on minute lyric edits and things like that. He really hammered this record into existence. He also has a great talent and Zen-like patience for mixing. Which I do not. Hah! So it’s a good musical marriage.
You have a great band on the album. How did you choose the musicians that you wanted to work with?
JW: We did have a truly great band for these sessions. Putting it together was easy – I just rang up my friends and they very graciously all said yes. On the last record, Jeff and I had kind of a rotating cast of musicians from song to song, depending on the sound we were going for. On this one I wanted more cohesion, but we didn’t have time to rehearse.
I knew we’d need a versatile group that could hammer out arrangements on the fly. We ended up with a veritable wrecking crew: Jeff on drums, Peggy Hambright on keys, Dave Nichols on bass, Greg Horne and George Middlebrooks on guitar, and Jeff Caudil on backing vocals. That’s some serious muscle.
Some of the takes are live, aren’t they? Do you normally record that way? My Hiding Place was done in one take, wasn’t it?
JW: Everything started with us playing a song three or four times to get a good live take. My Hiding Place was one where it all just kinda fell into place in the room – even the vocal. I think it must’ve been the mood lighting in Scott Minor’s studio. Hah.
‘The studio where we recorded half a dozen songs is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic’
Where did you make the album?
JW: We did it in Knoxville [Tennessee], with the exception of some vocals recorded in Brooklyn. We started at Scott Minor’s Wild Chorus studio, early last year. We recorded half a dozen songs there. The studio is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic. I wanted to record there because one of my favourite bands, Count This Penny, did their absolutely gorgeous album A Losing Match there.
It had a live room with no dividers between the guitar amps and drums, which made Jeff a little nervous, but I loved it. To quote the Rolling Stones – let it bleed! A little Telecaster in the cymbal track never hurt anyone. And that’s where My Hiding Place was recorded. It definitely has that room’s stamp on it.
We recorded the second batch of songs at Top Hat Recording [in Knoxville] last fall. The engineers are a super-sweet married couple – John Harvey and Mary Podio – who built a house with their dream studio inside. It’s a fabulous, comfy place to hunker down and make a racket. We mixed the entire thing there too. We still had six songs to mix when lockdown hit, but John and Mary were very savvy and invented a new workflow that allowed us to finish things up. They’re really smart, great people.
Luckily, you pretty much finished the album prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. How was isolation for you? Did you write any new songs during lockdown? Did it inspire you?
JW: It’s been fine for me. I’m thankful to still be gainfully employed. I guess I’ve mostly been entertaining myself by getting this record finished and out into the world. So after September 25 [album release date] it’s time to find a new hobby!
I’ve written a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found it to be a particularly inspiring time. I miss hearing snippets of subway conversations and weird one-sided cell phone arguments while walking down the sidewalk.
You’ve relocated from Knoxville, Tennessee to New York? How’s that? Do you like living in New York? How has it influenced your writing and music?
JW: I love New York! I’ve been here for eight years now, I think. I reckon once I hit the decade mark I’ll be ‘official’. Hah. I like to think about songs while I’m walking, so New York is perfect for that. You can get into kind of an unconscious rhythm zigzagging through neighbourhoods while turning things over in your mind. I remember coming up with What’s The Over/Under? and My Hiding Place while making my way through the East Village.
What’s The Over / Under? is one of my favourite songs on the record. What can you tell me about the track? It’s a great power-pop song, with a killer chorus, Rickenbackers and horns.
JW: I think I was in a hardcore Buddy Holly phase when I wrote that. I wanted to write lots of strummy, propulsive, open chord songs without too many minor chords. It’s easy to disappear down the minor chord rabbit hole sometimes. I remember coming up with the chorus, then having to Google what “over/under” actually meant. I don’t do sports betting or anything. It’s funny the things that tumble out of your subconscious mind sometimes…
The first single, Come To Texas She Said, reminds me of T-Rex – it’s a glam-rock-country-boogie!
JW: Hah – that’s awesome! “Glam-rock-country-boogie” sounds like my ideal genre. I was ruminating on the title Come To Texas She Said for a while. And once I kinda broke the verse melody everything else fell into place. It’s a song that’s gotten a big reaction live since I started playing it a year or so ago.
Jeff and I had many conversations about the arrangement. He actually went rogue – as he is wont to do – and initially produced a whole different version from his home studio, overdubbed on top of my four-track demo. It was actually really cool. The track included a mini V-Roys reunion, with Paxton Sellers laying down a groovy walking bass part. It had horns too. But ultimately we felt it was too Americana-y. Too much like the last record. I wanted to let it rip.
We recorded what became the album version during the Top Hat sessions. Dave Nichols’s elastic bass line really makes it for me. And Peggy Hambright’s call-and-response electric piano is so great – it reminds me a little bit of Harry Nilsson’s records.
‘I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-’70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma’
There are several classic rock ‘n’ roll influences on the album. Think Too Hard reminds me of The Beatles, Revolver-era, Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror has a Tom Petty / Springsteen feel, and My Hiding Place and Kilimanjaro have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe. Are those artists all big influences on you? What were your musical reference points for this record?
JW: Wow, thank you – that’s extremely high praise. Yes – I love everyone you just mentioned. I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-‘70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma. And I think Peggy channelled a little E Street magic with her organ part on Loose Change, so those were all reference points I had in mind.
It’s funny, though – Jeff absolutely hates it when I say something like “hey, why don’t we try playing this song like Tom Petty, or The Bangles, or Syd Straw?” He’ll really flip his shit! He thinks bringing up musical reference points cheapens the creative process or something. He’s a purist I guess – hah. So I have to go and whisper those ideas to the rest of the band when he’s not paying attention…
I Walk In Circles has an Elliott Smith feel, doesn’t it? Are you a big fan?
JW: It does. I was trying to emulate his kind of hushed, double-tracked vocals. His records are so beautifully crafted. I actually came to his music late. I saw one of my favourite artists, Marika Hackman, cover his song Between The Bars when her tour came through Brooklyn last year, and that kind of set me off on an Elliott Smith tangent.
Some of your songs have a country influence. Did you grow up with country music in Tennessee? What were your influences when you were younger?
JW: Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.
I think during my sophomore year I picked up Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road at the Disc Exchange and fell in love with everything about it – the songs and the sound, which actually has some Beatles-y touches, thanks to the Twangtrust production. That led me to Lucinda co-conspirator and Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris, as well as The V-Roys.
Then it was down the yellow brick road to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and on and on and on.
‘Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.’
What’s your songwriting process?
JW: Songwriting for me almost always begins with improvising – picking up a guitar and strumming/singing while I walk around the apartment. Maybe getting the gears moving by playing someone else’s songs and then seeing if I can hit on a melody or chord change that peaks my interest.
Those ideas will usually live in my iPhone audio notes for a while, waiting for words to flesh them out. That’s when I find it helps to walk around the block and get a change of scenery. Anything to trick myself into not thinking! Staring at a blank page isn’t the way to do it – at least not for me.
Are you hoping to play live when things get back to normal?
JW: I hope so. I’ve had offers to do outside things during the pandemic, but it’s just so dicey, safety-wise. Plus a lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play, so I’m basically a public safety risk! We’ll definitely do something once life gets back to normal. It would be fun to play the record in sequence. Of course, by the time it’s safe to do that, I’m sure I’ll be on to the next album.
‘A lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play live, so I’m basically a public safety risk!’
How hard has it been as a musician being unable to play gigs to promote your new record? Are you worried about the future of the live music scene?
JW: I’m lucky in that I have a day job. I’m gutted for my friends that make their living playing music. It’s a really brave, hard life. And then to have the rug yanked out from under you by this…
Yeah – I’m really worried for the small venues. The sweaty little clubs that are so important for artists honing their craft. I’m terrified that by 2022 all the ones here in New York are going to be replaced by Chase Banks and Chipotles. And watching concerts on Zoom and Instagram Live ain’t gonna cut it. The pandemic has proven that much.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
JW: Stay vertical! I hope to venture down to Tennessee to spend Christmas with my family. We’ll see what the state of the world is by then. Fingers crossed.
Can you recommend some music – new and old? What are you into at the moment?
JW: Ooooh – let’s see. X’s new album Alphabetland is frenetic and fabulous. Girl Friday, this L.A. band I saw last year and fell in love with, just put out their first LP, Androgynous Mary. It’s a total blast. Great harmony singing and fiery guitar playing with stellar songwriting and arrangements that twist and turn. I’ve also had the new Haim record on repeat since it came out this summer.
As far as oldies, Fire On The Bayou by The Meters has found its way back to my turntable many times this summer. I’ve also been digging into Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love album, which includes several Elvis Costello covers.
Finally, have you heard Nick Piunti, who’s a power-pop singer-songwriter from Detroit? Your music often reminds me of his – I think you’d like him. I’m going to recommend that he checks you out. Have a listen to this:
JW: I haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation. I really dig this song! It reminds me a bit of Cheap Trick, in the best way. Total melodic confidence and barnstorming guitars.
Circles by Jake Winstrom is released on September 25 – it’s available on streaming and download services, as well as vinyl.
Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s 2013 debut album, Stations, has just been reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day by his record label, Wonderfulsound.
It sounds like Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized and when Say It With Garage Flowers first heard it, seven years ago, we said: “his atmospheric, late-night laments are steeped in Northern melancholy and laced with psychedelic effects and gorgeous string arrangements.”
We also compared his baritone voice to Scott Walker, Richard Hawley and Leonard Cohen, and named his haunting country-folk song Oslo as one of our favourite tracks of that year.
To celebrate this year’s vinyl release of Stations, we spoke to Nev about his memories of writing and recording his debut album, asked him about his misspent youth trawling Manchester record shops, and got the inside track on his next album – a collection of orchestral songs inspired by Scott 4.
How does it feel to have Stations out on vinyl?
Nev Cottee: It feels very good. I’m in-between albums at the moment – I’m in the process of finishing the next one – so it’s good to keep the momentum going and to keep things ticking over. It never came out on vinyl. For the first album, I wasn’t on Wonderfulsound – I did it off my own back, with a couple of actor mates, Jeff Hordley and Graeme Hawley, who, very generously, paid for some of the recording and for it to come out on CD and digitally. I wanted to get it out on vinyl eventually – it’s always nice to have it on a bit of plastic, with some lovely artwork. It was good timing with Record Store Day – it all came together.
Do you buy much vinyl?
NC: I used to – I buy the odd thing now and again. I dip my toe in. I did all my record buying as a youth. I used to spend an absolute fortune, when I had no money – we all did the same, didn’t we? Scouring the record shops of Manchester – that’s when I was really into it. Then I had to buy them all again on CD… Now I’m streaming and I think, ‘wow – I think I’ve bought this record three times now.’
I like to buy records at gigs – if I go to a gig and see a band I like, I’ll make a point of going to the merch stall. My vinyl days are done, but I DJ a lot and that’s when I get back into playing records – it’s a chance to dust off the collection. That’s when I’m thankful for my misspent youth. At home, I spin the odd record, but I listen to a lot of radio shows on my computer.
Do you have a favourite record shop?
NC: There are two in Manchester that I like – one is Vinyl Revival. It’s run by an old friend of mine, Colin White, and it’s been going for years. It’s a great shop – he’s a lovely guy and really knowledgeable. It’s great to go in, have a chat with him and see what he’s got.
I also like Piccadilly Records – I can remember when it used to be just off Market Street. They were friendlier in Piccadilly Records than they were in Eastern Bloc, where I had a bad experience with a condescending geezer behind the counter. I think everyone’s had an experience like that. I was only a kid – I was 14. He gave me grief for something I bought. I think my brother had recommended a band to me – it might have been The Inspiral Carpets, but I’m not sure. He took the mickey out of me – he was trying to be cool. When you went in Piccadilly there was a lovely, friendly vibe.
Stations was your solo debut. How do you feel about it now? Have you listened to it recently?
NC: I remember seeing George Harrison speaking on The Beatles Anthology documentary series – he said he’d not listened to Revolver since the day it came out. I thought, ‘bollocks – no way! Everyone listens to Revolver every day.’ I’m not comparing myself to George Harrison, but, in recent years, after releasing my own records, I’ve realised there’s no point listening to your own records, because all you hear are the mistakes and you think about the choices you should’ve made, but didn’t. It’s quite a frustrating experience – there’s not much pleasure to be gained from it. Plus the fact that while you’re making it, you’re listening to it continually for the whole process – mixing, mastering… Those songs become lodged in your brain. If you hear them out of context, like when you walk into a bar, it can be pleasurable. Saying that, I think Stations still stands up – it sounds pretty good and it’s quite lo-fi.
There are a few things I might have done differently, like made it a bit bigger production-wise, but maybe that’s its charm. It has almost a demo quality to it – we used a really basic drum machine on some of the tracks. Carwyn Ellis had a retro drum machine app on his phone. I like the feel of it. I wasn’t coming out all guns blazing – it’s a gentle introduction.
What are your memories of writing the songs and recording the album?
NC: Writing the songs was a long process – it’s the same with every band’s first album, isn’t it? They’ve had a collection of songs that they got together when they started the band and they build on that. The songs were from over a five-year period. You’re always trying to second guess the first album, saying it will be the best one ever, but as you move on and do the next album, you’re less questioning – you just get on and do it.
‘I lead quite a solitary existence, so lockdown wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs’
Recording it was a very quick process – we did it in Carwyn’s house, in Cardiff – me, Carwyn and Mason Neely, who has produced all my albums. We were up early doors and we did it in five or six days. It was very intense and it was good – we worked hard at it, from nine in the morning to seven or eight at night, but we broke off for a cup of tea every now and again. Everyone was really productive and it was really enjoyable.
Do you have a favourite song from it?
NC: Oslo – it’s the one that really came together and it has some great bass playing from Mason, which elevated what was a folky, picking song to something completely different. When he threw that bassline down, it blew my mind and I saw where we could go. That’s the joy of working with top mates and musicians who come up with great ideas and take songs to the next level. It’s a great collaborative process.
Let’s talk about 2020. How were you during lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis?
NC: I was OK – I lead quite a solitary existence anyway, so it wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I was in Manchester – I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs. For the first few weeks it was quite a novelty, but then you just have one of those days… you’ve not seen many people, or spoken to anyone. We’re social animals and we need interaction – even if it’s just a quick ‘hello’ on the street. It must’ve been terrible for some people.
What can you tell us about the next album?
NC: I’m finishing my new album. I’m hoping to get it done by the end of the year. It has the working title of Solitary Singer. I’ve been listening to a lot of Scott Walker – again. I’m putting strings on it – I’m going big and I’m hoping to go to Prague to work with an orchestra. I hope it will sound like Scott 4. You’ve got to aim high. Watch this space.
For my sins, I’ve also written another album – I’ve created a Lee Hazlewood alter ego and I’m channelling the whole Hazlewood vibe. I wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre and I’m very excited by them.
Stations by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound.