‘Nothing I write is directly taken from my life – some things are quite close, but everything is fiction…’

 

Best Western

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers talks to our new favourite band, Melbourne’s Best Western. 

A few weeks ago, I was asked to review the self-titled, four-track debut EP by Australian alt-country band Best Western for Americana UK and I fell in love with it after the first listen.

Best Western is a collaboration between songwriter Zack Buchanan (The Outdoor Type) and fellow Melbourne musicians Kieran Ebert, Harry Cook and Georgia Knight.

The record opens with the wonderfully cinematic Home – as I said in my review, it’s ‘a sublime and atmospheric male/ female duet with great twangy guitar and tinges of electronica,’ which builds to a psychedelic climax.

It’s also a reflective, nostalgic and observational song, with a lyric that, like Richmond Fontaine or The Delines, recounts tales of people’s everyday lives in the suburbs: “Could you pick me up from my place? She’s out of town for her brother’s birthday – the car’s broken down again.”  Musically, it’s very haunting, with echoes of Mazzy Star.

Second song, Peace of Mind, is similarly gorgeous, but more stripped-down – acoustic guitar and pedal steel – while the third, the mildly festive-themed Lemon Tree – “Christmas lights and drunken fights…” conjures up the same kind of mood as its predecessor, but adds some subtle orchestration.

Final track, the folky and pastoral Freedom Song,  is set in the last days of autumn, as the low winter sun threatens to creep up and cast shadows on the landscape.

After listening to the EP, I contacted Buchanan and asked if he’d up for an interview. He said ‘yes’, so here’s our chat. When we spoke, he’d just come back from recording their new EP, which is due out later this year.

Q&A

How’s it going?

Zack Buchanan: I’m good, thanks. I’ve just arrived home from a few days recording our second EP in the countryside. We worked with producer Josh Barber on his wonderful property in a converted church – bliss.

Great – I can’t wait to hear the results. How did Best Western come together?

ZB: I began writing the music that ended up becoming Best Western in mid-late 2019. At the time, The Outdoor Type was wrapping up and I was excited to explore some more story-based songs in a style that felt comfortable for me.

I had been making music with Harry and Kieran for a little while, so they were a natural fit for the band. Georgia on the other hand didn’t come along until we began recording the EP. We had decided that the song Home should be a duet and a friend sent me Georgia’s music. We were completely enamoured by her voice so invited her to sing on the track – she has sung on every song since.

‘Much of Best Western is informed by the characters and places of my youth’

Congratulations on your debut EP. I can’t stop playing it – it’s a great record. My favourite song on it is Home. What can you tell me about that track? How did you write it and what inspired it?

ZB: Thank you so much – that’s really lovely to hear. Home was sort of the genesis of Best Western. It was one of the first songs I wrote with a new project in mind. I would say that the song is inspired by my observations growing up in country Victoria. Much of Best Western is informed by the characters and places of my youth.

The song was originally going to be recorded with an acoustic guitar, strummed and a little more ’standard’. However, we found the more we stripped away from the song the better it sounded. The drum beat was inspired by some of Sharon Van Etten’s music – that gentle hypnotic pulse is something I keep coming back to.

Where did you record the EP? 

ZB: The EP was recorded at Sound Park studios in Melbourne. We self-produced the EP with engineer Andrew ‘Idge’ Hehir. Aside from the core band, we had our good friends, Holly Thomas and Claire Cross, on drums and bass, respectively.

Toward the end of the sessions we brought in Madeline Jevons (violin) and Matt Dixon (pedal steel) to complete the sound. The EP was recorded in about four days, and as mentioned, Georgia was originally brought in as a session singer for Home, so we were really flying blind to a degree – Best Western became a sort of happy accident.

The EP is digital-only. Will it be coming out as a physical release? A vinyl copy would be most welcome…

ZB: We are hoping so for sure. The plan may be to put our forthcoming EP out with the self-titled EP on vinyl.

What can you tell me about the song Peace of Mind, which is more stripped-down, with acoustic guitar and pedal steel?

ZB: We played around with different ways of recording Peace of Mind –  the arrangement was certainly more dense initially. As with many of the Best Western songs, we found that less was more.

Peace of Mind is the only track that is truly ‘live’ on the record – we all sat in a circle and played. It’s a restless song full of restless feelings. It’s about dealing with a lack of direction but an urge to act.

The song Lemon Tree is vaguely festive –  I like the line about “Christmas lights and drunken fights…” Where did that track come from? It has some subtle orchestration on it….

ZB: The orchestration of that song – and on the rest of the EP – was written by Harry, who also plays keys. He is a bit of a musical force. This song in particular perhaps reflects the imagery of growing up in my home town. I wrote that song last, leading into the EP sessions around Christmas time, so, yes, I guess it has been imbued with that festive spirit.

‘Peace of Mind is a restless song full of restless feelings. It’s about dealing with a lack of direction but an urge to act’

The final track on the EP, Freedom Song, is folky and pastoral, and it starts with an organ drone and what sounds like a guitar being plugged in. It has an autumnal / wintry mood, doesn’t it? Any thoughts on it?

ZB: Yes, I suppose you’re right. I would say it’s another yearning, or searching, song. We loved layering the harmonies on that one.

The songs on the EP tell stories and are influenced by real life, aren’t they?

ZB: Yes – I would say that I am inspired by my life experiences. Nothing I write is directly taken from my life – some things are perhaps quite close, but everything is fiction. I guess I’m inspired by people and relationships, rural life and the inherent struggles that come with that, and by class.

Who are your musical influences?

ZB: Oh, there are too many to list. All the usual ones I guess. If I had to list a few: Paul Kelly, Dylan, Lou Reed, Billy Bragg, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, The Go-Betweens. More contemporary artists might be Waxahatchee, Sharon Van Etten and Big Thief. Harry and Kieran love Sufjan Stevens.

I think Best Western have echoes of Mazzy Star and The Delines? How do you feel about those comparisons?

ZB: I love Mazzy Star and am very humbled that you would make that comparison. I must confess, I wasn’t familiar with The Delines, but have just given them a listen. They’re a great band and I’ll definitely be coming back to them. That song The Oil Rigs At Night … what a tune!

So, what’s the plan for 2022? There’s a new EP on the way… Is there an album coming, or live shows?

ZB: Hopefully all of that. We are in the midst of recording another EP now, which may turn out to be an album – we will have to wait and see.

I would hope the first track from that will come out around April/May. We are certainly wanting to do live shows. Things are a little touch and go due to Covid, but we will be out on the road as soon as we are able and it is safe to do so.

Recording the next EP, in a converted church in the country

Please can you come and play in the UK?

ZB: Hey, if you can hook us up with a few shows, we’ll be there!

What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?

ZB: It’s a year or two old now, but I have not stopped listening to Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud album – beautiful. I’ve also been going way back lately and digging into some Hank Williams. Also, Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby and lots of Townes Van Zandt. Oh and one last one, Adrianne Lenker’s Songs album.

‘If you can hook us up with a few shows in the UK, we’ll be there!’

Have you ever stayed in a Best Western hotel? If so, where, and what was it like?

ZB: I must admit, I have never stayed in a Best Western hotel. But believe me, after 10 years of touring in various bands, I’ve stayed in my fair share of Best Western-style hotels. Maybe we can get some sort of sponsorship going, then I can report back to you.

The self-titled debut EP from Best Western is available now digitally.

https://www.bestwesternmusic.com/

‘It’s been a long time since I was able to start a year and say: ‘I’ve got some new music coming out’ – it feels very special’

Matt James

 

Matt James, former drummer with ’90s anthemic indie-rockers Gene, has launched a solo career, and in February this year he will be playing his biggest show yet – a charity gig at Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight, as part of a tribute night to my dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, who died in September last year.

In an exclusive interview, he tells me what it’s like to be starting out on his own, teases his debut solo album, which is due out in July and was produced by Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths, Morrissey, The Cranberries, The Pretenders, The Rails) and explains why he’s excited about visiting the Isle of Wight for the first time…

“I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms,” he muses. “That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark…”

Q&A

Hi Matt. How’s it going?

Matt James: It’s going great currently, thanks. I’ve been lucky enough to be pretty healthy the past couple of years, when so many people haven’t, or have been affected in other ways. I moved from London to the country in 2015, which may have had something to do with it…

Thanks for agreeing to play my dad’s tribute concert – it’s great to have you on the bill. It means a lot to me, as Gene were one of my favourite bands and my dad liked them, too – in fact, he actually interviewed you before a gig at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I used to get him to talk to bands that I liked, and he enjoyed music by a lot of bands that I was into….

MJ: It’s a pleasure to do the show for you. My sincere condolences for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose your dad. Thanks for asking me. It’s great that John opened his ears to your taste. I’ll definitely be doing the same with my kids. These things should work both ways, no?

Poster design by @tica_attica

The gig is in Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight. The South Coast was good for Gene, wasn’t it? You played Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton several times. I was at most of those gigs, but you never made it across the Solent to the Island, did you?

MJ: We always returned to towns that liked us. There are mini music businesses and communities in every town, and you have to keep being good and pleasing them to preserve their loyalty.

I’m not sure why we never went to the Isle of Wight…Maybe the community there wasn’t up for us, or more likely I would think that our agent felt that we were covering the south by doing Portsmouth and Southampton. Anyway I’m really very excited about coming to the Isle of Wight now.

Have you ever visited the Island before?

MJ: Nope – I’ve never been there, which is rather strange, as I’ve travelled the UK extensively. I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms? That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark… ahem. Joking aside, it’s time to put the Isle of Wight in my treasured memory bank.

Maybe you could play the Isle of Wight Festival as a solo act? That would be great…

MJ: I would certainly love to play the festival if they would have me. It always looks amazing on the TV. I’ve just booked my ferry for your show and that gave me a tinge of excitement. If I was returning to play the festival, they’d need to tie me to the boat to stop me bouncing off…

Shanklin Theatre, which is the venue for the gig, is lovely. You should feel right at home there, as you like a bit of old school showbiz and glamour, don’t you? Gene always had a sense of drama to them…

MJ: Yes – we loved old theatres and treading hallowed boards.  That’s why we featured the Royal Albert Hall on the artwork for our second LP [Drawn To The Deep End].

My mum was an amateur opera singer and I can remember being a small boy and hiding in huge curtain folds, looking out at her singing live. I internalised that very deeply. I’ve been lucky enough to play in some smashing places in my time, but it’s been a while. This will only be my fourth solo gig –  and on the biggest stage I’ve done so far.

‘I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity’

Let’s talk about you ‘going solo’. After Gene and your next band, Palace Fires, broke up, you started a career in the wine industry, but now you’ve become a singer-songwriter. How is it being a solo artist? To quote a Gene song, are you, ahem, fighting fit and able?

MJ: It’s been a long, long time since I was able to start a year and say: ‘I’ve got some new music coming out’.

I’m sure you can imagine that it feels very special. I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity.

I’ve loved being a wine merchant and still do, but, if I’m honest, music is what I’m best at. Even when wine folk ask me about it, I always say: “I like wine almost as much as music!” I missed it so much, but I did need a long break.

You’ve released two great digital singles as a solo artist so far: A Simple Message and Snowy Peaks. Your debut song, A Simple Message, has a political message and a Gene-like sound – it’s down to the organ and the country-rock guitar – and the second, Snowy Peaks, is an anthemic love song. What can you tell us about those tracks? What inspired them?

MJ: I decided as I was starting from scratch as a solo artist that I would share quite a few tracks from the LP before releasing it, to give me a long build. There are three more songs to go before the LP is released in July and that feels right.

A Simple Message was the first one and, if I’m honest, it’s the one that’s most like Gene on the LP. For those people that know Gene, it has a Long Sleeves For The Summer-type jazzy drum shuffle and Steve Mason-esque guitar, although Steve [Gene guitarist] isn’t actually on that song – it’s me and Perry [Peredur ap Gwynedd] from Pendulum.

I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea making it the first release, but, in hindsight, it has worked out really well. It’s a decent song, in my opinion, with some understated charm, and I remembered that’s what worked for Gene with our first single, For The Dead.

The song is about how populist politicians rely so much on simple messages that are often completely inadequate instructions for people that need to determine quite complex and important issues.  I think it was Joseph Goebbels that called it ‘the big lie…’

Snowy Peaks is a simple love song I wrote for my other half – it was the first song I wrote for the LP, but it’s been through quite a few versions. I like what I ended up with, but now I’m trying to work out how to play it live on my own, so I’m changing it yet again.

Steve Mason plays guitar on Snowy Peaks, doesn’t he?

MJ: That’s the fella! Steve was a fan of the song and he kept me on my toes by getting me to try and improve it. He sent me off to write more bits when I thought it was finished.

I love writing with Steve – we are obviously quite long in the tooth in that department. He plays on four songs on the LP and Kev [Miles – bassist] from Gene is on five, which feels good. I was very careful not to make the LP ‘Gene without Martin’ [Rossiter – singer], though, so there are other people on it, too.

You’ve also been recording with keyboardist Mick Talbot (Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played with Gene…

MJ: Yes – Mick plays on five or six songs, and I was very privileged to have him involved. What a legend he is and what a talent – not to mention he’s so nice and made us all chuckle with his quips and stories. Having him in the room with Kev, who is also a master of comedy, made the proceedings such a fun time.

‘Stephen Street has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen’

Mostly it was me and [producer] Stephen Street working, but when people showed up it changed the vibe and provided some injections of energy and goodness.

Stephen has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen. With so many people releasing music and vying for attention these days, it’s so hard to get anyone to listen or take you seriously – especially when you’ve been round the block like I have. That’s where I’m so lucky that I have a past and some music mates.

I’ve known Stephen for 30 years. He ended up producing the LP after initially aiming to do just a few tracks. We got some momentum though and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I didn’t – and don’t – feel under any pressure at all to be successful. It really was just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record. Now that it’s made, I’m chuffed if people want to check it out.

 

‘I don’t feel under any pressure to be successful. It’s really just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record’

How and where did you make the album?

MJ: I wrote the record on my iPhone using GarageBand. I have a garden office and I worked in there.

I wrote 20 songs for it and 10 have made the LP. After it was written, we went to various places to do the drums and finally ended up at Stephen Street’s studio, The Bunker, which is a room he has at Damon Albarn’s studio in Latimer Road, London. It was nice to be in that kind of environment again. Damon came and said hello – he was nice.

We ended up using some of my original demos, as they just had a unique vibe that didn’t need to be recreated. It’s a nice mix and match of demos and new recordings, but Stephen is a master at mixing, so he polished it up very well.

 

There’s a new digital single, High Time, coming out on February 4 – just before the Isle of Wight gig. What can you tell me about that song?

MJ: Yes – February 4, which is just before your gig, so you can learn the lyrics and sing along. The song is about however much you try to control your life, it still throws dramatic unexpected events at you that can be good or bad, but have the power to swerve your life journey…

The song references a terrible road accident I was involved in 1991, with the lads from the band Spin, and also the random event of meeting Martin Rossiter a few months later in the Underworld [in Camden] completely by chance. That time it had a good outcome.

We were actually out with Stephen Street that night, so that’s another interesting link. There’s a mild religious element to the song too. I’m not an overly religious person, but I’m not an atheist either.

So, the album’s coming out in July…

MJ: Yes – July 2022 is my big moment. There are 10 songs – five on each side. I am making some vinyl…

It will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene – and one other band, Brassy-associated label, started by music journos Keith Cameron and Roy Wilkinson.

I always thought it was an amazing label name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it and changed to Polydor. They had signed us of course, so it wasn’t an option to use Costermonger anymore. Keith and Roy won’t be involved right now though, other than they are mates with trusted musical ears.

‘The album will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene label. I always thought it was an amazing name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it’

These days, with digital releases, a label doesn’t mean quite as much, unless you are in a stable of acts, but for the vinyl I wanted a label name with gravitas. I’m honoured that they’ve allowed me to resurrect it and start those catalogue numbers again. COST11 is coming soon – I’ll save the LP title for now… Who knows there may even be other acts on the label one day… it comes from a place of friendship but it’s mainly just me at the moment and Mrs James, who helps with the artwork.

I have had some help from the guys at Demon too, who did the Gene re-issues [in 2020], and some PR pals will be helping. It’s all very informal and fun – I’m loving it. I would say that eight of the 10 songs on the album could be singles – it’s that kind of record.

The fourth and fifth singles will have B-sides that are not on the LP. We consider those to be perhaps the best chance of piquing the interest of people who don’t know anything about me. Erm, so that’s nearly everybody!

Finally, we should raise a glass to my dad. Can you recommend a decent, affordable red wine?

MJ: Absolutely. I’ll bring one with me to the gig. If it’s a red, I love Bordeaux, something like Clos de L’Oratoire Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe. Chin-chin and all due respect to John for his great life achievements.

Matt James’s new single, High Time, will be released digitally on February 4. You can pre-save it here.  His debut solo album is due out in July this year.

Matt will be appearing at Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam: Sunday February 6 2022: a night of live music in memory of legendary Isle of Wight journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, who died in autumn 2021.

The gig will feature My Darling Clementine, Matt James (Gene), Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Matt Hill, Brian Sharpe, Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird, Bob and Bertie Everson.

Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital. Tickets are available here. 

2021: It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

2021 wasn’t a great year for me – my dad, show business broadcaster and journalist, John Hannam, died in late September, aged 80, after a short illness, and I had a lot to deal with, both emotionally and logistically.

I was very close to my dad and owe so much to him – he always supported me and offered encouragement, and he was responsible for getting me into music in the first place – when I was a child, he was always playing LPs in our house.

I can remember enjoying albums by Duane Eddy, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, The Shadows, Nancy & Lee and Scott Walker. I inherited my dad’s love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices.

Shortly before my dad died, he spent some time in hospital and I went to visit him in an end-of-life care ward. He was conscious, but heavily sedated – thankfully, we managed to share some precious moments  during the last few days of his life and listened to some music. There was a CD library in the ward, so I played him some albums that I knew we would both enjoy, including Paul Weller’s acoustic live record, Days of Speed, a ‘60s hits compilation and Best Of collections by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

‘When I was a child, my dad was always playing LPs in our house. I inherited his love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices’

One of the songs that I played several times while sitting with my dad was Dylan’s stately twilight ballad, Not Dark Yet, which is from his 1997 album, Time Out Of Mind.

It’s a hauntingly beautiful track and has been interpreted as Dylan contemplating his mortality: Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  I was born here, and I’ll die here, against my will. I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still…”

It’s a song I’ve always loved, but this time around, it took on added meaning and poignancy.

The last thing my dad said to me was “lovely music.” After he died, I took a few days off work and then decided to keep busy. I’m always getting sent new music to review and I threw myself into listening to a bunch of records that were due to be released in autumn / winter 2021.

The one that I kept going back to was Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers album by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, the producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin.

It’s a dark, intimate and moving record, which suited my mood, but, funnily enough, one of the 12 songs on it was a brilliant version of Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers overhaul the track and make it more dynamic, much heavier and even moodier.

‘The one album I kept going back to was Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers record by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, Rich Machin’

As Machin said when I interviewed him a few weeks ago: “It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.”

It certainly did, as did the rest of the record – Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear.

As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+ earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection of songs, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.

There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw,  trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.

‘Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear’

The majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.

Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing.

Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.

The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs – more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”

Imposter moved me and it became my soundtrack to the last few weeks of 2021.

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers: Photo: Spencer Ostrander

 

Following my dad’s death, my sister and I have inherited his extensive record collection – vinyl and CD. I’ve spent some time going through it and pulling out albums to listen to – so much so that, coupled with having to deal with my dad’s passing, I haven’t listened to as much new music as I perhaps should, however, there are still plenty of new records I’ve enjoyed, so here’s a rundown of some of them, plus a Spotify playlist to go with it.

Don’t worry – it’s not simply a list of intense, harrowing and miserable albums that I’ve liked during 2021. There’s still room for the odd power-pop song, jangly guitars, psych sounds and gorgeous harmonies. It’s not dark, but it’s getting there…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2021

  1. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Imposter
  2. The Coral – Coral Island
  3. John MurryThe Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes
  4. Peter Bruntnell – Journey To The Sun
  5. Dot Allison – Heart-Shaped Scars
  6. Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth – Utopian Ashes
  7. XIXAGenesis
  8. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage
  9. The Underground Youth –  The Falling
  10. Hans Zimmer – No Time To Die (original motion picture soundtrack)
  11. Whatitdo Archive Group The Black Stone Affair
  12. Starlight Cleaning Co. Starlight Cleaning Co.
  13. The Courettes – Back In Mono
  14. Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra-Vivid Lament
  15. Paul WellerFat Pop (Volume 1)
  16. Matt HillReturn of the Idle Drones (Greedy Magicians II)
  17. Matt McManamonScally Folk
  18. Brent WindlerNew Morning Howl
  19. Spearmint – Holland Park
  20. Starry Eyed and Laughing – Bells of Lightning
  21. Andrew Gabbard – Homemade
  22. Departure Lounge – Transmeridian
  23. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
  24. Cool GhoulsAt George’s Zoo
  25. Matthew Sweet – Cat’s Paw
  26. Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers This Heart Will Self Destruct
  27. The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here
  28. Steve CradockPeace City West (2021 remixed and reissued version)
  29. Teenage Fanclub – Endless Arcade
  30. Andrew Taylor and the Harmonizers – Andrew Taylor and the Harmonizers
  31. The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – Songs From Another Life
  32. M G Boulter – Clifftown
  33. Danny George WilsonAnother Place
  34. The Poppermost – Hits To Spare
  35. Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Atoms and Energy
  36. Ian M BaileySongs To Dream Along To
  37. Nelson Bragg – Gratitude Blues
  38. Tobacco City – Tobacco City, USA
  39. Rose City Band – Earth Trip
  40. Chrissie Hynde – Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan
  41. The Delines – The Night Always Comes (soundtrack to Willie Vlautin’s novel of the same name)
  42. Dean Wareham – I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor of L.A.
  43. TriptidesAlter Echoes
  44. Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant
  45. The Blow MonkeysJourney To You
  46. O’Connell & LoveWill You Be There?
  47. New Morning BluesLondon
  48. Dark Mark & Skeleton Joe – Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe
  49. The MarinersTales From The Great Central Line (Vol 1)
  50. Ryan AllenWhat A Rip
  51. Kevin Robertson – Sundown’s End
  52. RW HedgesYear After Year
  53. Steve DrizosAxiom
  54. Star CollectorGame Day
  55. Brand New Zeros –  Back To Zero
  56. Mark & The Clouds – Waves
  57. The Gary 7 – Three Of Our Agents Are Missing
  58. Alan Tyler – Made In Middlesex
  59. Steve RobertsAll Power to the Bookshop
  60. Dean Friedman American Lullaby

This year saw several of my favourite singer-songwriters release albums, including John Murry, Peter Bruntnell, Matt Hill and Paul Weller.

Like its two predecessors, The Graceless Age and A Short History of Decay, Murry’s The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes was a surprising, brilliant and inventive record – rough and raw, dark at times, but also not without its fair share of black humour.

It opened with the funky dub-meets-country groove of Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You) – an infectious pop song subverted with a disturbing lyric that referenced the Oklahoma City bombing.

The startling and moody title track, which started with the lines “Of course I’d die for you. You’d watch me, wouldn’t you?” rode on a wave of heavy, fuzzed-up guitars, over which Murry told us he’d been made in God’s image: “Born to die – to take love songs and crucify ‘em.”

Di Kreutser Sonata was a sparse ballad with haunting pedal steel guitar, which found Murry “stuck somewhere between a memory and a dream,” and wrestling with issues from his adopted family upbringing.

I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me had a New Wave / garage-rock feel, and the atmospheric Ones + Zeros was based on a pretty piano line and featured guest vocals from singer-songwriter, Nadine Khouri.

Murry also threw in an inspired, spacey and psychedelic cover version of Duran Duran’s ‘90s comeback single, Ordinary World, which was driven by a throbbing bassline and electric piano – both were played by Bristol-based John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Sparklehorse), who produced the album.

Speaking about working with Parish, Murry said: “It was interesting – I’ve never made a record like that before. It was uncomfortable and nerve-wracking to begin with, because I didn’t know where we were going.

“It was like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck’s going on, or if this is even a record,’ but then suddenly, he played me stuff back and it worked – we did more and more stuff in an uninhibited way, without thinking about it.”

He added: “It was like we were both trying to figure each other out the whole time – that process created the record. I didn’t have a lot of the songs finished – I just wanted to bring them in and see what happened. John has an incredible ability to create a collaborative process and space.”

Peter Bruntnell - Journey To The Sun

Peter Bruntell’s latest record, Journey To The Sun – his twelfth – was written and recorded during lockdown. It was more sparse and stripped-down than his last few releases – gorgeous, haunting and folky, but with some vintage electronica sounds and even a couple of spacey sci-fi instrumentals.

Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, was an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno; the lovely Lucifer Morning Star had warm, burbling synths and chiming 12-string guitar, while Heart of Straw was classic Bruntnell – an aching, acoustic, country-tinged ballad – and You’d Make A Great Widow was laced with his trademark wry humour and melancholy, but wrapped up in one of the prettiest melodies you were likely to hear all year.

Some of the songs were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie, while US musician and mastering engineer, Peter Linnane, laid down some Hammond and pump organ, concertina, Mellotron and piano, and Iain Sloan played pedal steel guitar on the track Dharma Liar.

Matt Hill

 

Nine years after the release of his 2012 live album, Greedy Magicians, UK Americana / folk/ protest singer Matt Hill – the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner –  recorded the follow-up, Greedy Magicians II – Return of the Idle Drones.

‘Greedy Magicians II was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry’

Released on CD and download via his Bandcamp site, it was a collection of ‘live in the studio’ modern protest songs. Recorded in two days by Hill, long-time associate, James Youngjohns (Last Harbour, Willard Grant Conspiracy), and engineer Adam Gorman of The Travelling Band, in a Victorian mill in the historic Ancoats district of Manchester, it was described as ‘the sound of two musicians sat two metres apart, as they rip through the songs as if they were playing a concert.’

It was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry.

“My original plan was to do this as a ‘10 years on’ project recorded in front of a live audience in the same venue, with the same musicians,” said Hill.

“Sadly, the pandemic scuppered that, so we did it as a ‘live in the studio’ album with just me and James. It allowed us a bit more freedom and I’ve tried to channel some broader musical influences here, such as Randy Newman, Scott Walker or Glen Campbell.”

The song Strike was about the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, while Talking It Out tackled billionaires, oligarchs and the super-rich.

Aside from social commentary, there were personal stories too – the middle-aged person struggling to work whilst chronically ill (Times Are Getting Tough), or the soldier and his wife trying to settle back to normality in post-war Britain (Making Sense of the War).

Aside from putting a stop to him playing live, lockdown was good for Paul Weller. In just under 12 months, the elder statesman of Britpop released two albums – the summery and soulful On Sunset and its follow-up, Fat Pop (Volume 1), which, like its predecessor, was one of the strongest records he’d ever made.

It was the latest in a purple patch that started with 2018’s True Meanings – his stripped-back and orchestrally-aided, introspective folk-rock album, which coincided with him turning 60. That was a career highlight and, along with his self-titled solo debut, from 1992, it’s easily one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite Weller records.

Some of Fat Pop (Volume 1) was cut from the same [three-button mod suit] cloth as the album that came before it. There was a strong soul and funk feel to a few of the songs, but there was also plenty of, er, fat pop.

It was a rich-sounding and eclectic record – vibrant and colourful – and, considering the wide range of influences and styles, it hung together really well and felt like a complete piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs.

Fat Pop (Volume 1) saw Weller continuing his working relationship with producer Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert, who has been at the helm since 2012’s Sonik Kicks.

Sadly, the first single and opening song, the psychedelic, synth-pop-meets-Krautrock of Cosmic Fringes, wasn’t about lockdown haircuts, although Weller was sporting long locks in the accompanying video.

Lyrically, the song concerned itself with a keyboard warrior: “I’m a sleeping giant, waiting to awake/I stumble to the fridge/then back to bed”, but to be fair, that did sound a lot like lockdown…

The punky True featured an unexpected jazzy sax break, as well as guest vocals by Lia Metcalfe of Liverpool alt-rock band The Mysterines, while the dramatic, soaring and symphonic Shades of Blue was co-written by his daughter, Leah, who shared vocal duties on the song.

The title track, a paean to the power of music, had a heavy, dubby bassline – Weller described it as “Cypress Hill doing something that sounds like a DJ Muggs production.”

Glad Times was beautiful and melancholic – space-age soul with strings – while Testify, with guest vocals by Andy Fairweather Low of ‘60s Welsh pop band Amen Corner, was a great, ‘70s-style, funk-soul strut, with flute and sax supplied by acid jazz veteran, Jacko Peake.

Pastoral and acoustic guitar-led ballad, Cobwebs/Connections, which could’ve come off True Meanings, featured a lovely string arrangement by Hannah Peel, who worked on that album. She also scored the gorgeous closing song, Still Glides The Stream – another reflective moment that was written as a remote collaboration between Weller and long-term guitarist Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene).

Paul Weller

If it was angry Weller you were after, you needn’t have worried, as he hadn’t completely mellowed with age. On the choppy, ska-tinged rallying call, That Pleasure, which was written as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter campaign and was swathed in lush, ‘70s Marvin Gaye-style strings, he urged us to “Lose your hypocrisy… lose your prejudice, lose this hatred,” adding, “It’s time to get involved.”

Weller’s orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, also worked on another of our favourite albums of 2021 – Dot Allison’s Heart-Shaped Scars.

On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, went back to nature.

Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs featured field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.

Dot Allison

Musically, she cited Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There was also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.

Heart-Shaped Scars was a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. After that, she took time out to start a family.

Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with arranger, Peel, Heart-Shaped Scars was a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments was called The Haunting and opened with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”

There was also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello.

In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far.

“I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she told Say It With Garage Flowers, in an exclusive interview.

Four of the songs featured a string quintet, and other instruments on the record included ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounded hushed and intimate.

Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long Exposure – Orchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.

‘Dot Allison has dabbled with pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far’

Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars referenced several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she said.

In fact, one of the songs was called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It was autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provided guest vocals.

The record’s most brooding and dark moment was Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.

Matt McManamon
Matt McManamon

Matt McManamon, the former frontman of noughties Scouse ska-punkers The Dead 60s, put out his debut solo album, Skally Folk this year, but don’t expect to be able to skank to it, though…  His first release in 13 years, it was a strong collection of reflective and autobiographical songs that were steeped in the tradition of Irish folk music – Liverpool-born McManamon’s family are from County Mayo – as well as the jangly Scouse indie sound of The La’s, and the Wirral psych-pop of The Coral, who were former Deltasonic label mates of The Dead 60s.

Mulranny Smile was a haunting, folky ballad that was shrouded in Celtic sea mist, and if Lee Mavers had had tunes like What About You?Out Of Time and Every Time I Close My Eyes up his sleeve, that second La’s album might’ve actually come out and been another classic.

For his latest record, Atoms and EnergyDaniel Wylie, the former frontman of late ’90s / early noughties, Alan McGee-endorsed jangle-poppers, Cosmic Rough Riders, reacted against his 2017 album, Scenery For Dreamers, which showcased his love of heavy Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like electric guitars and the chiming Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.

Atoms and Energy - Daniel Wylie

The follow-up was much more stripped-down than its predecessor. Young was still an obvious influence, but it was the Young of After The Goldrush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, rather than Cortez The Killer.

“I wanted to make a completely different album from [2015’s] Chrome Cassettes and Scenery For Dreamers. Both of those had a similar approach and vibe to them and I felt it was time for a change,” he told us.

“I wanted to write a classic ‘70s acoustic record, lyrically based around what was currently occupying my thoughts, and musically like my favourite ‘70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens and James Taylor records. That was the plan and I think we pulled it off pretty well.”

He certainly did.

One of our favourite country records of the year was This Heart Will Self Destruct, by Olkahoma-born, Essex-based Americana singer-songwriter, Bob Collum, and his backing band, The Welfare Mothers.

It covered lyrical themes including anxiety, hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love, disappointment, redemption and faith.

Judging by the subjects he chose to tackle, you won’t be surprised to find that the record was mostly written during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Collum said the album “began life on the cusp, before the insanity of 2020”, and added: “I think it captures the last year quite well.”

Bob Collum
Bob Collum

 

The Welfare Mothers comprise Mags Layton (violin and vocals), Martin Cutmore (bass) and Paul Quarry (drums and percussion).

Honorary member, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker and the Rumour, Nick Lowe, My Darling Clementine) played the Fender Stratocaster and Fender VI bass on the album, adding a mean, Duane Eddy-style, twangy solo to the jaunty Shake It Loose.

Belmont’s ‘70s pub rock influence also came across on Giving Up, which was an infectious power-pop song – kind of New Wave meets country.

Elsewhere, there was tongue-in-cheek country (the title track);  echoes of early R.E.M (Second Fiddle); a sad and reflective country ballad inspired by the likes of Johnny Cash (From Birmingham) and a raucous, fiddle-fuelled rockabilly cover of Saved, which is an R&B-flavoured song written by Leiber and Stoller and first recorded by Lavern Baker in the early ‘60s. Elvis Presley and Joe Cocker have released versions of it.

Collum also dipped into blues (Tall Glass of Muddy Water) and soul territory (Spare Me). On the latter, he was joined by Peter Holsapple (The dB’s and R.E.M.), who played a mean Hammond B3 organ and also sang backing vocals. The song was an intercontinental collaboration between him and Collum.

Cool Ghouls

 

2021 wasn’t just all about singer-songwriters – Say It With Garage Flowers fell in love with plenty of offerings from bands too – some old favourites, as well as new acts.

San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls turned 10 this year and released their fourth album, At George’s Zoo. It was their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.

The opening track, It’s Over, was wonderful, with a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-like intro and some lovely harmonies. There was also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it, with some psych-soul going on…

Surfboard was the song of the summer and I Was Wrong had a definite Pet Sounds Surf’s Up feel, while 26th St. Blues sounded more like the Cool Ghouls of old – very ’60s garage rock.

Triptides

There was more cool, summery psych-pop, but mixed with some far-out space rock, from L.A-based trio Triptides, on their album, Alter Echoes.

It was recorded prior to the pandemic, in Hollywood’s Boulevard Recording studio, which was previously the legendary Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and, er, Liberace made, or mixed, records.

Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the band’s sound, band’s frontman and multi-instrumentalist, Glenn Brigman, said: “There’s such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind. So many different groups. But I think being in L.A, working together as a band, touring together – it all influenced how the record came together. We knew each other’s strengths and made sure that we played to them.”

Meanwhile, back in the UK, ’60s-obsessed, East Midlands psych-pop band, The Mariners, released their second album, Tales From The Great  Central Line Volume One, which was less psych and more pop than its predecessor, The Tides of Time, but was essentially a similar trip down Dead End Street and Penny Lane, but with some added country rock and folk influences.

It contained no less than five songs with girls’ names in their titles – one of which, the first single, Dear Genevieve, was an irresistibly jaunty strum that was a love letter to frontman Luke Williamson’s young daughter.

The groovy, organ-led There Before Time was a close cousin of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, the gorgeous and reflective Catch My Breath was a stripped-down acoustic ballad, while Royston’s Lament was a yearning and melancholy tale of growing older by the day that lamented the loss of community and showcased a slightly darker side to the band’s sound.

In a similar vein to The Mariners, cosmic Scousers The Coral’s latest record, Coral Island, was the best thing they’ve ever done – an inventive and adventurous, 24-track double concept album, with spoken word passages narrated by 85-year-old Ian Murray (also known as The Great Muriarty), who was the granddad of band members James and Ian Skelly.

Coral Island was inspired by faded British seaside glamour, childhood holidays to North Wales, end-of-the pier amusements, pre-Beatles rock and roll, ‘death discs’ and jukebox pop.

Musically, its list of influences included Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Sun Records, Joe Meek, The Kinks, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Change Your Mind was Byrdsy jangly guitar pop with a great melody and harmonies, while Mist On The River was even more West Coast – it sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Autumn Has Come, which brought the first half of the record to a close, was very haunting and melancholy song. You could imagine Scott Walker or Richard Hawley singing it…

Golden Age had spooky organ and whistling on it, as well as a Johnny Cash ‘boom-chikka-boom’ rhythm, and sounded like the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western set in a haunted fairground…

In the age of streaming playlists or single songs, Coral Island was an album that needed to be sat down and listened to in its entirety, as a complete piece of work. It was available as a nice heavyweight, double vinyl package, with a book – truly an immersive experience.

XIXA

 

A band who take the Spaghetti Western sound to a whole new level are guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona.

Their second album, Genesis, was an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen –  an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone, Gothic horror, psych, rock, Latin, ’80s glossy pop, desert rock and electronica.

Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers, band member, Gabriel Sullivan, said: “The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.”

Starlight Cleaning Co.

The desert is also an influence on US duo Starlight Cleaning Co. (Rachel Dean and Tim Paul Gray) – hell, they actually live in the Mojave Desert!

Their self-titled album from this year was a wonderfully melodic record that was in love with ’70s/’80s New Wave guitar music, glossy L.A. pop, country rock, Americana and soft rock.

Opener, Don’t Take It Away, achieved jangle-pop perfection, with harmonies ringing out high over the desert landscape; the chugging, organ-fuelled and anthemic Train Wreck was like Tom Petty doing Springsteen’s Atlantic CityThe Race was melancholy and reflective dream-pop, with a superb haunting guitar solo by the late Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams, Circles Around The Sun), and Joy Killer and The Current had the swagger and style of vintage Pretenders.

Hip, Reno-based recording collective Whatitdo Archive Group are also used to hanging out in the desert – in fact they recorded a promo video for their album, The Black Stone Affair, in one…

 

To describe an album as “the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist” has become a music journalism cliché, but in the case of The Black Stone Affair it was perfectly true.

They wanted to create a record that encompassed everything they love and admire about old Italian film soundtracks and scores and bring that energy back into the spotlight.

They certainly achieved it, as The Black Stone Affair was dramatic, atmospheric, exotic – even erotic at times – and very, very authentic.

As well as musicians and recording engineers, the members of Whatitdo Archive Group are voracious vinyl collectors.

They spent nine months of research, digging through their records and studying the works of composers including the legendary Ennio Morricone, as well as Piero Piccioni, Stefano Torossi, François de Roubaix and Alessandro Alessandroni, before composing their imaginary cinematic soundtrack and working with over 24 other musicians – there are some superb orchestral and brass arrangements on the album.

Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers, the group described the album as ‘classic Spaghetti-acid-western-spy-crime-blaxploitation-giallo-adventure-noir.’ What’s not to like?

‘The Black Stone Affair is dramatic, atmospheric, exotic – even erotic at times – and very, very authentic’

Finally, one of Say It With Garage Flowers’s favourite records of 2021 was actually 10 years old…

Singer-songwriter, producer and guitarist, Steve Cradock, (Ocean Colour Scene, Paul Weller and The Specials) kept himself busy during lockdown by revisiting his 2011 solo album, Peace City West, which he remixed and remastered for its first ever vinyl release.

Recorded in December/ January 2010 at Deep Litter Studios, on a farm, in rural Devon, it’s a lost gem – a collection of 10 really strong and highly melodic songs, from the infectious and jangly, Beatles and Jam-like power-pop of opener Last Days Of The Old World, to the ’60s psych of The Pleasure Seekers, the pastoral cosmic pop of Kites Rise Up Against the Wind, the gorgeous and folky ballad Finally Found My Way Back Home –  co-written with Weller associate Andy Crofts and ’60s soul singer P.P. Arnold, who Cradock produced a solo LP for in 2019  – and the country-tinged Lay Down Your Weary Burden.

After the original version of Peace City West came out, Cradock decided he wasn’t happy with the final mix of the album, or the psychedelic instrumental interludes that he’d put in-between the songs, so, 10 years later, he decided to do something about it.

“We mixed it badly on a laptop in January 2011 and then it was finished, but listening back it just sounded bad because of the mix,” he told us. “It was time to re-do that, get rid of the interludes, make it sound like it should’ve done and put it on vinyl – those were the three things that were missing for me.”

We missed out on this record the first time it came out, so we’re really grateful that Cradock decided to reissue it.

Steve Cradock

 

“The new version gives it more focus,” he said. ” I like the fact that it’s now simple – it’s just the songs. Hearing the vinyl test pressing made me smile, which was good.”

He added: “There was a lot of meandering nonsense on the old version, but, at the time, that was where my head was at – I thought it was interesting. There were bits of road music on it, from when I was in Egypt. I recorded a guy saying a prayer. I was enjoying that self-indulgence, but, in 2020, I wasn’t.”

At the risk of us being self-indulgent, here’s a playlist of songs from some of our favourite albums of 2021.

Please note: not all the albums are on Spotify, but if you want to hear them, you can support the artists by purchasing their music on Bandcamp etc. That would make their year.

Best of 2021 Spotify Playlist

Imposter Syndrome

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers. Photo: Spencer Ostrander

Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen our favourite album of 2021 , and, shock, horror, it’s a covers record: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.

Not only that, but we’ve also got an exclusive interview with Rich Machin  – aka Soulsavers  – on the making of the album. This isn’t fake news – Imposter is for real.

“It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original versions,” says Machin. “It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.”

For the first time since we started publishing, Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen a covers record as our favourite album of the year.

But it’s not just any old covers record – it’s one of the best we’ve ever heard: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.

For their third album together, the Depeche Mode frontman and his musical partner, producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin, decided to work their black magic on other people’s songs, rather than write their own. Both of them came up with a long list of contenders and then narrowed them down to the final 12 that make up the record.

As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+ earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.

There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw,  trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.

One of the highlights is a dynamic take on Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers turn a stately twilight ballad into an altogether heavier beast. In fact, the majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.

Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing. Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.

The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs –  more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”

‘Many of the songs, which are dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing – he lives them and inhabits them’

The album was recorded with a 10-piece band at Rick Rubin’s famous Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California.

Musicians along for the ride included guitarist James Walbourne (The Rails and The Pretenders), keyboard player Sean Read (Dexys Midnight Runners, Edwyn Collins, Manic Street Preachers) on Hammond and piano, and Pornos For Pyros and Jane’s Addiction bassist, Martyn LeNoble.

Gahan says: “I know we made something special, and I hope other people feel that and it takes them on a little kind of trip – especially people who love music and have for years.”

He’s spot on. Imposter is the real deal. To get the full story behind the making of the record, I spoke to Rich Machin of Soulsavers.

“When I walked into the studio for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience,” he says.

“There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling…”

Q&A

Why did you choose to make a covers album this time around?

Rich Machin: To be fair, Dave floated the idea by me – he called me up and said, ‘Would you consider doing it?’ I said, ‘Well – I’ve done covers before, but never a covers record – let me think about it and I’ll come back to you.’

I thought about it – I had a long mental checklist of tracks that I could cover. Once I had several ideas bubbling away in my brain, we talked about it and then spent a while exchanging ideas of what could work. We formed a long list and then whittled it down. It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.

It’s a really varied collection of songs. There’s some stuff that maybe you would expect to hear on there, but also some surprises, which makes it an exciting record…

RM: Out of curiosity, which are the ones you would expect to hear?

The Mark Lanegan song, Strange Religion, and the PJ Harvey track, The Desperate Kingdom of Love – I know Dave’s a fan of both artists and you’ve worked with Lanegan… To be honest, I was expecting there to be a Nick Cave cover on there, but there is a song by Roland S. Howard, from The Birthday Party – Shut Me Down…

RM: We did talk about a couple of Nick Cave ideas, but Roland S. Howard and the whole Birthday Party / Bad Seeds crew were as equally influential on us.

Shut Me Down is such a great track and it was nice to give a nod to one of the lesser-known people from that group – it came from the Cave world and it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.

It’s great to have a Mark Lanegan track on the album, as your collaborations with him were how many people became aware of Soulsavers. It feels like you’ve come full circle by including one of his songs on the album…

RM: Mark Lanegan is one of my best friends – we speak three or four times a week. His presence is still heavily felt in what we do. At some point we’ll pick up where we left off.

The Dark End of the Street was the second single from the album. I love that song – especially the James Carr version – but your take on it is great, too… Was that one of your choices?

RM: Yeah – that was one of mine. I sat on it for a while because, to me, the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!

We had a couple of other tracks in the mix that I felt the same way about, but Dave was pushing them – Lilac Wine and Always On My Mind. Willie Nelson’s version of Always On My Mind is the one, but people always think of Elvis’s…

With The Dark End of the Street, I thought, ‘fuck it – let’s try it and see where we go…’ and I was pleasantly surprised how it came out. I was more than happy to leave it on the shelf if we hadn’t done it justice.

‘I sat on The Dark End of the Street for a while because the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!’

The version of Always On My Mind is brilliant. It closes the album, but you’ve resisted the urge to make it a Vegas-style showstopper – it’s stripped-down and understated, with gospel backing vocals and country guitar. The recording is very intimate – you can hear what sounds like the creaks from someone sitting on a seat…

RM: The only way for it to work was for it not to be overblown – it needed to be an intimate moment. We recorded the song live in the studio, on a Sunday night. Most people had left – there were just a couple of us left, and it had gone dark. We only had a couple of lights on – we wanted to capture the ambience of the room as much as the performance.

Most of what you can hear is the room mics. It makes you feel like you’re in the room with everybody performing – you can pick up all the creaks…

Your version of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet is superb – you’ve made it heavier, bluesier and much more dynamic than the original…

RM: It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.

You worked with a 10-piece band on the album. Some of the arrangements have a full band sound, but there are plenty of stripped-down moments, like your dramatic version of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, which is shorn of the original’s string arrangements, but, instead, has piano and strange spacey sounds. A lot of the songs have plenty of room to breathe…

RM: It’s just as important to know when not to use people – just because it’s there, you don’t have to wave it around. You have all the tools to be able to do what you want, but the key to making something work intimately isn’t just to fill the space with everything you’ve got.

The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs – it was about giving Dave’s voice room to really be the draw to what you’re listening to. The music is there to support the vocal.

‘The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs’

This album was recorded with a full band at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio, in Malibu. Didn’t you make the previous Dave Gahan & Soulsavers albums by working remotely?

RM: Kind of… That bit gets overstated – we did spend a lot of time together making those records. It wasn’t as disconnected as it sometimes gets portrayed. We wrote the songs for those albums remotely, but it wasn’t like this record, where we had 10 people in the studio.

When did you make the album?

RM: We recorded it before Covid, in November 2019. The first I knew of Covid was in January 2020, when I was in my hotel room, mixing the record. I was watching the news and saw something was happening in China. Our main concern at the time was the Malibu fires.

How were the recording sessions at Shangri-La?

RM: Terrible! [laughs]. I’m certainly not averse to a month of California sun in November.

It’s an incredible studio. When we were talking about places to record, Dave was very drawn to the idea of recording in Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of recording in L.A – I felt like I wanted us to be out of the city. I didn’t want us to have any distractions – Malibu is pretty much the city limits and it’s got a very different vibe.

‘Shangri-La is an incredible studio. It was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band’

Rich Machin

I’ve known Rick a long time, so I dropped him a text on the off chance that he wouldn’t be using the studio in November and he wasn’t, so it lined up perfectly. I floated the idea by Dave and he said yes. We got there and it was amazing.

When I walked in there for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience.

There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling – I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band.

After a few days, the history of the place gets to you. Dylan’s old tour bus is still outside – the inside of it has been turned into a recording studio. It’s a 30-second walk to Zuma Beach, so you can go there and clear your head in the morning, then stroll back, plug in and play, and make some music in the afternoon.

How did you first start working with Dave?

In 2o09, Soulsavers spent about three months on the road, opening for Depeche Mode – we became friends on that tour. When it finished, we stayed in touch and it blossomed from that.

‘It’s weird – Imposter is a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself’

Dave sounds like he’s lived some of these songs – often the lyrics are very apt for some of the experiences he’s had…

RM: It’s weird – it’s a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself. Because of the way he relates to the lyrics, it’s as if he’s telling a story.

Dave Gahan. Photo: Spencer Ostrander

Anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?

RM: I’m working on a couple of new things for next year, with some new and old faces. I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – she’s someone that I deeply admire as a person, a writer and a musician. She’s such an interesting and deep character – she’d be top of my list.

What music – new and old –  have you been enjoying recently?

RM: I’m just going to look at a stack of albums next to my record player…  that’s a good starting point. I’ve got piles here – Brian Eno… Every once in a while I get really into him –  that’s definitely been a regular thing. The Harmonia album [with Eno] is on the top of the pile – it’s possibly my most listened to album of the past however many years. It’s had quite a few outings recently.

I’ve also been listening to the Heliocentrics records a lot – they put out two albums last year that were just amazing.

I was really slow to hear Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. For whatever reason, when it came out I didn’t tune into it. Recently, I’ve gone, ‘Oh – this is good…’

‘I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – I deeply admire her as a person, writer and musician’

Do you stream music or buy CDs, or are you a vinyl-only guy?

RM: I’m pretty much all vinyl, but I do have a Spotify account. With new music – I like a lot of electronic stuff – rather than drop 25 quid on the vinyl, I will listen to it once or twice on Spotify to see if it’s worth the investment. I really only listen to anything on vinyl for enjoyment. I’ve got my set-up in the living room – that’s how I listen to music.

Finally, are you glad you made a covers album?

RM: Yeah – I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve made covers albums and they always say they’re the most enjoyable records to make. I’d never really figured that out for myself before, but they’re right – it was a lot of fun.


Imposter by Dave Gahan and Soulsavers is out now on Columbia Records.

http://www.davegahan.com/

https://www.instagram.com/theimposter/

 

Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam

John Hannam – photo by Craig Sugden.

This is the first blog post I’ve written since September. For those of you who don’t know, my dad, show business journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, died that month, following a short illness. He was 80. 

Following his death, I decided to take a few months off, to deal with family matters and try to come to terms with his untimely passing. However, in true entertainment tradition, the show must go on, so today I’m updating Say It With Garage Flowers with some news that also acts as a tribute to my dad’s extraordinary career and his wonderful legacy.

On Sunday February 6 2022, I am staging a charity concert in honour of my dad. It will take place at Shanklin Theatre, on the Isle of Wight, where my dad was born and bred and spent his life.

Dad loved the Island – he made a name for himself there and was never lured away by the bright lights of Fleet Street, or national radio, although his great reputation was known all over the UK and across the world.

During his amazing life – almost 50 years of it spent interviewing stars of stage and screen, as well as local people – he decided to stay on the Island, with his family and friends. Shanklin Theatre was a venue that my dad was very fond of – it’s where we held the wake for his funeral in November – so it’s very fitting that the tribute concert will take place there.

‘On Sunday February 6 2022, I am staging a charity concert in honour of my dad. It will take place at Shanklin Theatre, on the Isle of Wight, where my dad was born and bred and spent his life’

As a nod to the showbiz TV series, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, I’ve called the concert Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – A Tribute To John Hannam. The line-up of performers will include national and local musicians who dad liked, admired and supported – most of whom he interviewed at some stage during his career.

My Darling Clementine
Photo http://www.marcobakker.com

So, who’s on the bill? Headlining the night will be British husband-and-wife country duo, My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. Last year saw the release of their fourth album, Country Darkness – a project which saw them collaborating with Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) and reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.

Also performing on the night will be singer-songwriter, Matt James – the former drummer of ’90s anthemic indie-rockers Gene.

Matt James

Earlier this year, Matt launched his solo career with his debut single, A Simple Message. The follow-up, Snowy Peaks, is released digitally on December 10, and there’s an album planned for next year.

Also on the bill will be another Matt – singer-songwriter, Matt Hill, a folk and Americana artist from the North of England, whose latest album, the politically-charged Greedy Magicians II  – Return of the Idle Drones, came out earlier this year.

Matt Hill

The consumer magazine Hi-Fi+ called Matt, ‘A very gifted songwriter and a master of telling stories.’

Local Isle of Wight musicians, or those with a connection to the area, will also be performing on the night. There will be appearances from Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race and The Chesterfields); professional singer and actress Amy Bird; reformed ’80s band Bobby I Can Fly; Chris Clarke, who was the bassist in UK Americana act, Danny & The Champions Of The World and runs Reservoir Studios in North London; local guitar legend, Brian Sharpe (The Cherokees) and, finally, local duo Bob and Bertie Everson.

Tickets are available here and cost £10. Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight. Doors open at 7pm.

John Hannam

My dad loved music – of all different styles. Thanks to him, my sister Caroline and I are both big music lovers too. I have fond memories of him playing music in the house when we were growing up.

Through my dad, I got my passion for ‘60s music. For Christmas, birthdays and Father’s Day, I always used to buy him albums by current bands and artists that I thought he might like. Luckily, he always did – usually because they sounded like ‘60s acts he’d got me into in the first place…. I shall really miss our listening sessions and chats about music.

John Hannam meets Duane Eddy

Dad got me into legendary twangy guitarist Duane Eddy – one of dad’s musical heroes and also one of mine.

In 2018, Dad and I were lucky enough to be invited to see Duane play a gig at the London Palladium. We sat in on the sound check – it was basically our own private Duane Eddy gig – and then we watched the show and met Duane backstage.

It’s a night I’ll never forget, especially as when I shook Duane’s hand, he said to me: “This night is all about heroes.” I was with two of mine, and dad was with one of his. It was truly special.

Let’s make Sunday Night At Shanklin Theatre: A Tribute To John Hannam a night to remember too.

Please email me – hannamsean95@gmail.com – if you need any more information about the concert.

https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

https://musicmattjames.com/

https://matthillsongwriter.com/

Tickets here.

Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam: Sunday February 6 2022.

A night of live music in memory of legendary Isle of Wight journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, who died in autumn 2021.

Featuring My Darling Clementine, Matt James (Gene), Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Matt Hill, Brian Sharpe, Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird, Bob and Bertie Everson.

Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital.

‘An Indian summer would definitely suit our new single nicely…’

Brighton-based, jangle-pop collective Raving Beauties are back with a brilliant new single, This is the Train – an optimistic and summery song, with a hint of Northern Soul. It features special guest, James Walbourne (The Pretenders, The Rails), on twangy lead guitar, and was mixed by the Go!Team’s Ian Parton, who also plays organ, bass and glockenspiel on the track.

This is the Train is a taster from the group’s brand new album, Over Yonder, which is out next year. Raving Beauties started out in 2015, as a mysterious fictional band inspired by a short story written by frontman, Belfast-born Brian Bell. In an exclusive interview, he tells us all about the new single, so jump on board…

Q&A

How’s it going? How’s your summer been?

Brian Bell: Well there are a lot worse places to be than Brighton in the summer, especially as it gradually becomes more like its old self, with things opening up again. A big thing for me has been a conversion to sea-swimming and most days I can be found splashing around in the English Channel around sunrise. I love it!

Tell us about your great new single, This is the Train. It’s a bit of a different sound for the band, isn’t it? It’s twangy, rather than jangly, and has a slight Northern Soul feel. Where did the song come from? It was written with band member and multi-instrumentalist, Tom Collison, wasn’t it?

BB: One of the main influences on the album we’re gradually putting the finishing touches to – Over Yonder – is the early ‘70s Island Records vibe, and at one point we’d been thinking about covering a John Martyn or Nick Drake song in a more up-tempo. jangly style. We ended up binning that idea, but This is the Train emerged from me putting a new vocal melody and lyrics to some of the folky chord progressions that Tom had been playing around with during that process.

I love Motown and Northern Soul, so maybe it was a subliminal influence, but I think Ian Parton’s work on the mix, which involved him re-doing the bass to make it more punchy, adding glockenspiel and organ, and doing a lot of work on the individual drum sounds, probably influenced that feel a lot.

Raving Beauties
Raving Beauties: Tom Collison and Brian Bell.
Picture by John Morgan.

 

It’s an optimistic and summery song, isn’t it? It came out in early September, so are you hoping for an Indian summer, so it can be the soundtrack?

BB: Yeah – an Indian summer would definitely suit the track nicely, but this time of year is often associated with new beginnings too, and I’ve been thinking about that Dylan quote from the Scorsese No Direction Home documentary, when he says “always be in a constant state of becoming”. It would be lovely if the song evokes that kind of feeling in people.

‘Having James Walbourne play on your single is a bit like Messi being in your five-aside team for a kickaround in the park!’

There’s a special guest on lead guitar, James Walbourne (The Pretenders, The Rails), and the organ, bass and glockenspiel are by Ian Parton (The Go! Team), who also mixed the track. How did those guys get involved?

BB: Back in the spring, myself and Tom had finally got around to doing more work on the album in his home studio in Homerton, and during that time I’d arranged to meet up with James for a coffee while I was in the area. When I mentioned the Beauties recordings, he offered to play on something, which was exciting when you consider what a phenomenal guitarist he is. Sorry for the football analogy, but it’s a bit like Messi offering to be in your five-a-side team for a kickaround in the park!

Anyway, we sent him over a rough mix of This is the Train to add a lead guitar part to. When we heard what he’d contributed, we were beyond delighted.

As for Ian’s involvement, it’s been frustrating how much the pandemic has slowed down progress on the album, but I felt that if we could at least get a single mixed and out there, that would feel pretty satisfying. I’d set my heart on that, but the major snag was that by that stage, Tom had dismantled his studio and was in the midst of the huge upheaval of him and his partner upping sticks from London to their new home in Dumfries.

I know Ian through Bosie Vincent – a film-maker who made the video for the single – and we’re pretty friendly, so in the ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ spirit, I thought I’d see if he was up for helping out and luckily he was.

Tell us about the promo video. It’s cool – a bit summery and psych, with trains…

BB: As well as being one of my dearest pals, Bosie Vincent is very much part of the Beauties collective, having made all our other videos. For this one, he mixed up cool archive footage with footage that he got of a bunch of us having a sing-song to the tune around a campfire on Brighton beach. As he’s next-door neighbours with Ian, it was also pretty easy to get some nice close-ups of him bashing a customised Beauties tambourine in time to the tune! When I saw the finished video, I was so chuffed with it. I think he’s captured the feel of the song perfectly with those visuals.

The band line-up has changed since we last spoke. Scottish folknik and acoustic guitar maestro, Callum Johnstone, has joined. How did that come about?

BB: It sounds like something out of our ‘fictional band’ past but it’s actually true. We met at a Transcendental Meditation weekend and when we got chatting, it emerged that he was really into the Bert Jansch/Davy Graham school of finger-style acoustic guitar playing, which I was really keen to incorporate into the new album. When he checked out some of the previous Beauties stuff, he was impressed enough that he was keen to get on board. Let’s just say I ended up ditching the Maharishi but kept Callum!

It’s a nice bit of serendipity in that the original Raving Beauties album was a Belfast-Edinburgh alliance, with singer/songwriter Gordon Grahame, which has now neatly been re-established, as Callum is a proud Edinburgher. If you look closely at the Beauties logo, there’s a Shamrock and Thistle entwined, so I’m really glad to keep that Scots-Irish aspect alive.

Completing the new line-up is drummer Grant Allardyce. What’s his story and how does he fit in? Isn’t he a jazzer?

BB: Grant is another exiled Belfast boy on the local music scene and I’ve known him for donkey’s years. He plays with a fantastic alt-country folk band called the Mountain Firework Company, but he’s primarily a jazzer and is part of a jazz trio called the Lost Organ Unit. It was a massive influence on Grant’s style that he was originally tutored by a guy called Keith Copeland, who was renowned on the New York jazz scene. I wanted a looser, jazzier feel to the album, which is why I got him involved, and Tom came down to a wee studio in Lewes a while back to record all Grant’s drums.

‘We’re tantalisingly close to finishing the new record, but a 2022 release is looking more likely. We’re aiming for it to be just as melodic as the previous records, but with more of a loose, early ’70s vibe’

How’s the new album coming along?

BB: We’re still working on it, and aiming to reconvene at Tom’s new place in Scotland in the autumn, if we can fit that in with his other commitments, as he’s very much in demand as a gigging multi-instrumentalist.

I think we’re tantalisingly close to finishing the record, but a 2022 release is looking more likely now. Sound-wise, we’re aiming for it to be just as melodic as the previous records, but with more of a loose, early ’70s vibe, with lots of instrumental segues provided by Callum, who’s become such an invaluable asset to the project.

I’ve put together a Spotify playlist that’s full of the type of stuff that’s influenced the record:

On that note,  what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

BB: I love Fleet Foxes’ Shore –  it’s been a constant since it came out this time last year. I think Robin Pecknold is an incredible talent. Other than that, I’ve been on a bit of a John Fahey tip lately. There’s something about his playing that really gets under your skin. His Days Have Gone By album is a big favourite.

In recent times I think we’ve needed music to lift us and if ever there’s a tune that does that, it’s Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir, Like a Ship (Without a Sail), which you hear quite often popping up on 6 Music – what a belter!

Finally, when was the last time you took a train and what was it like?

BB: We went on a trip to Hastings a few weeks ago – there are some very nice Sussex Downs views and coastal scenery on that line. Also, when I get there, I always make a wee pilgrimage to John Martyn’s old gaff on Cobourg Place and imagine Nick Drake striding up those steep steps to West Hill, which he’d have done many times when he came down to visit John and Beverley.

This is the Train by Raving Beauties is out now as a digital-only single on Clubhouse Records.

http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk/

 

‘I approached this record with a no-holds-barred attitude from beginning to end’

Brent Windler
Brent Windler

Kansas City singer-songwriter Brent Windler has made the album of the summer, but he only just snuck in with it – his  solo debut, New Morning Howl, which is soaked in the sunshine sounds of The Beach Boys and classic West Coast ’60s pop, but with a hint of Americana, came out in late August. 

It’s a lush and lavish record, with rich arrangements – warm and optimistic. One of the songs is even called Mr Sun – a harmony-laden, Beatles-like hymn to the healing powers of that big golden globe in the sky.

Opening song and first single, Around The Bend, is gorgeous, Fountains of Wayne-style power-pop, with heavenly harmonies. Clocking in at around six minutes, My Josephine (Wildwood Flowers Are Where You Roam) is a Brian Wilson-esque, widescreen epic that’s symphonic and dream-like, while the title track, with its sweeping strings, uplifting chorus, bouncy melody and twangy guitar, is pure Pet Sounds.

The spectral and folky Spanish Jasmine is the perfect song to listen to as summer turns to autumn: Windler sounds like Simon & Garfunkel – with synths.

The Glitter and The Roar, features some great Easy Listening horns, and closing anthem,  In My Daze is a big, Beatlesy, psych-tinged anthem, with piano, slide guitar and massed harmonies.

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Windler about the new record.

“I didn’t really start with any direct influences in mind, but as the record came together, my ‘60s and ‘70s influences definitely started to crawl out,” he tells us.

Brent Windler

Q&A

Hi Brent. How’s it going? Where are you and what’s the vibe like?

Brent Windler:  I’m doing alright – thanks for asking. I’m in Kansas City and everything here is going alright. If I had to complain, it’s really hot here at the moment…

How was lockdown for you?

BW: It was pretty crazy, like it was everywhere. I was lucky enough to be able to work at home, so I had it better than a lot of folks. It was a strange blur of a year – lots of hanging out with friends and family through my computer screen, and the terrible feeling that everything was crumbling.

Congratulations on the new album. It’s a beauty. New Morning Howl is your first solo record. What took you so long? 

BW: Thank you. I’m happy you’re digging it. I actually started to record some solo material about seven years ago – some of it was released in 2019 –  but life got in the way, as it does sometimes, and I refocused on other musical projects I was involved with at the time.

I actually have a whole other solo record that is just waiting to be finished that I started around that time, but I have been enjoying writing new material so much I’m not sure when I’ll get back to it, if ever.

Did lockdown affect the record? The album feels warm and optimistic, despite the current state of the world…

BW: I definitely think it affected the album. The way it was made would have been completely different had lockdown never happened, but I’m happy that the album feels optimistic and has a warm quality to it. I’m not sure any of that was intentional, but we were definitely trying to stay as optimistic as humanely possible while recording it – even though we failed on a regular basis. I know we tried make it work the best we could, and I think it made for an interesting record.

What’s your musical background? You’re from the Midwest. How was it growing up there?

BW: I’m from Kansas City, Missouri. I didn’t have much of a musical background growing up. I’m self-taught –  a music obsessive –  and I just stuck with it. Kansas City was a great city to grow up in, but, like anywhere, it’s got its ups and downs. I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish we had a mountain range near us, or the ocean I could walk down to, but there is something beautiful, calm, and strange about the Midwest that I have grown to love.

‘I’m happy that the album feels optimistic and has a warm quality to it. I’m not sure any of that was intentional’

Brent Windler

What were your earliest music memories and influences?

BW: Hmmm…. Some of my earliest music memories are getting The Beatles and The Monkees Greatest Hits on cassette. Also I remember a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival being played on family road trips, as well as late ‘50s/ early ‘60’s rock n roll. I specifically remember loving the Monotones song The Book of Love – that always stood out to me when I was really little. As I got older, my influences definitely grew wider. I loved and still love everything from that era, but I got into a lot of punk and indie acts in my teens, and my palette grew to loving everything from Bob Dylan to My Bloody Valentine to Fugazi. There’s too many to name.

Have you been in many bands? When did you start writing songs?

BW: I have been in many bands over the years. I played in the indie rock group The Casket Lottery for a while, doing a record with them in 2012. I also played bass in the indie band The Republic Tigers, and I was putting out records with Sons of Great Dane, which was more of my songwriting vehicle.

I started really getting into songwriting in my early twenties and I became obsessed with the craft. I had dabbled in my teens, but there was really nothing worthwhile that came out of it. Honestly not until these past five or so years do I feel like I started to feel more comfortable as a songwriter.

Tell us about your group Sons of Great Dane…

Sons is a band that was started around 2007-2008 with my good friend and bass player, Nolle. I had just gotten off tour, and had been gone for about six months and needed a place to crash until I got my own place to stay.  He was nice enough to let me crash on his couch for a while, and I had written a batch of songs while I was out on tour, so we just started to play around with them and decided they were good enough to put together a band. We have released three records so far, and I’m sure we will get around to doing another in the future here if time permits.

Let’s talk more about your album, New Morning Howl. How did you approach the sound of the record? It often has a lush, widescreen, almost symphonic feel. The songs are layered, with rich arrangements. What were you aiming for from a sonic point of view? It has strings and horns – it’s a big-sounding record…

BW: I approached this record with a no-holds-barred attitude from beginning to end – every idea, whether it turned out good or bad, was tried.  On other albums I have made songs that were specifically written with a band or a time frame in mind, so there were lots of ideas that never got tried because it seemed like a bit much, or we just didn’t have enough time and/or money. I didn’t put a time frame on this record, which freed me up in a way. I enjoyed the idea of just writing whatever I wanted to, and not having any certain style or agenda in mind. Sonically it’s the type of record I have been wanting to make for a long while – big but not in the typical big guitar style. I have always been interested in other ways to colour songs with instrumentation, and I think I attempted that on this record. Not to say there aren’t a lot of guitars, because there are a shitload!

What were your influences for the record?

BW: I didn’t really start with any direct influences in mind, but as the record came together, my ‘60s and ‘70s influences definitely started to crawl out. It all came pretty naturally and glued together without a whole lot of thought at first. I think after we got the first few songs together, I started to see more of a vision of where the train was moving.

Brent Windler
Brent Windler at Courtesy Tone studio

How were the recording sessions? Where did you make the album?

BW: The sessions were done at a studio here in the city called Courtesy Tone, owned by a great engineer/mixer named Ryan Benton. We started to put together the record in early 2020, and when we really started to get going on it the pandemic hit and things slowed way down. We made it work the best we could though, doing things slowly and safely through the rest of the year. It was a very strange way to record a record, I would walk up to the studio and mask up, and then cut something quickly and then be on my way, so it was done in small pieces at a time. We also did a lot of things remotely as well. There are so many great musicians that played on the record that lived nowhere near us, and did an amazing job.

Were all of the songs written for the record, or are any of them old ones you’d been hanging on to?

BW: There were actually only a couple that were written during the recording process – all the others are songs had been floating around for quite a while. Some had been tried out for other projects, but were pulled away once I realised they were not going to fit. There was even one that I wrote in my early twenties that was revamped.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. If I pick a few and give you my thoughts on them, can you tell me yours?

BW: Sure – sounds good.

The first song on the record, Around The Bend, is gorgeous, melodic jangly guitar pop with a West Coast feel and also a Fountains of Wayne vibe. What can you tell us about it?

BW: This was the first song we started with at the beginning of 2020. It was actually a song that was written for another project I was working on called Dandelions, but as I was starting to think about what songs I wanted to do for the record, it seemed to fit with the batch I was imagining. The song was inspired by a friend lyrically and musically – he had been listening to a lot of jangle pop songs and I was inspired to write something in that vein. I really wanted to get a female vocal on it and was lucky enough to get the great musician, Heidi Gluck, to sing on it. She’s from Lawrence, Kansas, and vocals really give it a dream-like feel, which was perfect for the song.

On that note, My Josephine (Wildwood Flowers Are Where You Roam) is also dream-like, and lush – an almost six-minute epic…

BW: This one was written a little while ago, and honestly, I thought was it pretty boring at first. I always really enjoyed the verse progression, but nothing really stood out to me about it outside of that and the melody. I had a friend that really liked the song and would always request that one at solo acoustic shows, so I started to think maybe there was something there. Once I started to add parts over the top of it, the song came to life for me and I got excited about it. The ending I really wanted to be trance-like, almost like a mantra, so you could get lost in the repetition. Then having things coming in and out as the song goes on, but never losing that melody playing over and over. Now it’s one of my favourites on the record. I’m happy I stuck with it.

Spanish Jasmine is very haunting. It sounds like Simon & Garfunkel, but with synths… What’s your take on it?

BW: This is the song I was talking about earlier that was written in my early twenties. It’s definitely the oldest song on the record. I was going back through a bunch of old songs I had demoed back in the day and ran across this one. I felt it would fit the record well. I wanted some synths of some sort on it, so we reached out to a great musician named Nate Harold. He did an amazing job, and in my eyes, what he added gives the song its uniqueness.

The title track is another lushly orchestrated song. It has a Beach Boys feel. Would you agree?

BW: I agree – it definitely has a Beach Boys vibe going on. I borrowed a tenor ukulele from my good friend’s daughter, mainly just for fun, as I was bored with playing guitar. While I had it, I started to write a song and this was what came out of it. This song sort of became an experiment. We laid down the uke part and drums and main vocals, then sent it over to an amazing violinist and string arranger, Kaitlin Wolfberg, to have her arrange some strings over it. I didn’t want to put anything else down until we got back what she put down, as I wanted to build the rest of the song around her strings. It was a different way than I had ever put together a song, and I really enjoyed how this one came together.

The Glitter and the Roar has some great Easy Listening horns on it…

BW: There is a great author named Seth Borgen, and he put out a collection of short stories called If I Die in Ohio. One of my favourite stories from it is called The Glitter and the Roar, so the lyrics were inspired by that. I really like the way this one turned out both musically and lyrically. I really wanted the music to carry the lyrics and give them a big cinematic feel. It ebbs and flows throughout – one of those songs I hope gets better with more listens.

In My Daze is a big finish to the record. It’s quite Beatlesy and a bit psychedelic, with slide guitar. I like the strange ‘whistling’ sound on it. What’s that?

BW: This song is another old one. It was originally played by and written for Sons of Great Dane, but I never felt it was finished or fit very well. The whistling sound is me drenched in reverb. I’m not a great whistler, so that was a huge pain in the ass and took me forever to get right. The slide part was originally put down as a reminder of what I wanted the whistle to be, but I ended up really liking it in the mix, so we kept it. I knew from the beginning that I wanted this song to end the record, and I think it turned out well and wrapped things up nicely.

Brent Windler

What are your plans for the rest of the year? Any gigs planned?

BW: I’m playing some shows here and around the Midwest this fall and winter. I hope to get out and do a lot more in 2022, but will see how everything turns out. I’m also going to hopefully have a few more songs to share by the end of this year as well.

Can we expect to see you play in the UK one day?

BW: I would love that. Hopefully all the stars align and everyone can get back out there and touring on a more regular basis. If I can get over there, I’ll definitely come play some shows.

Finally, what music – new and old –  have you been enjoying recently?

BW: Hmmm… Here is a handful I have been listening to as of lately:

Liam Kazar – Due North

Mini Trees – Carrying On

The Beach Boys – Sunflower

Supergrass – Road to Rouen

New Morning Howl  by Brent Windler is out now on Goldstar Recordings.

https://brentwindler.bandcamp.com/

https://goldstarrecordings.bandcamp.com/music

 

 

‘The whole album is my attempt to make some kind of sense of all the crazy shit that’s gone on for the past six years’

Dean Friedman

 

Gun culture, genocide, Covid, environmental disaster, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and consumerism – these are just some of the themes that inform American Lullaby, the ninth studio album by Dean Friedman.

But, as is typical of the quirky, US singer-songwriter, who is best known in the UK for his 1978 number three hit, Lucky Stars, a duet with Denise Marsa, the wildly eclectic record, which includes pop, soul, jazz and funk, is loaded with off-the-wall humour, which means that even though Friedman is often tackling dark and disturbing subjects, the album isn’t a depressing or harrowing listen.

“I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of pretty gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us over Zoom from his home studio in Peekskill, NY.

It starts with the majestic and epic title track, which is one of the highlights – a lush, orchestrally-aided piano ballad with shades of Rufus Wainwright – and then heads straight into jazz territory with Too Much Stuff, a wry song about hoarding.

Halfway Normal Word laments how lockdown put a stop to some of the simple pleasures of everyday life,  the ukulele-led trad-jazz of The Swing of Things is an optimistic ditty about trying to return to some sense of normality after the pandemic, while on the tight, slick and smooth funk of The Russians Are Coming, Friedman sings in a Russian accent for this tale of political corruption and shadowy goings-on in the corridors of power.

There’s more politics and funk, but with a hint of electro, on Ridin’ With Biden, and final song, On A Summer’s Night, is an atmospheric, chilled-out ballad that calms things down after all the madness.

‘I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi’

We asked Friedman to tell us his thinking behind the new album and what inspired this collection of varied songs and styles, which he self-produced in his studio at home.

“I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music,” he says.

Q&A

Did you write the majority of the new record during lockdown?

Dean Friedman: Yes – 90 per cent of it.

Were you planning on making a new album anyway, or did being stuck at home accelerate your plans?

DF: Last March, I was just about to step on a plane and do a 40-city UK tour. Within 24 hours, it was blown out of the water. I had an album planned – I’ve been crowdfunding them for years. In fact, after Marillion, I was one of the first artists to crowdfund an album.

Keeping in mind the severe suffering that so many people have endured, I would say that lockdown imposed a pause on the planet, which I think most people found really refreshing. As a musician, it gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career. It was a pleasure to be able to really dig into the material. I had more time to explore and try and realise the vision that I had in my mind for how the songs should sound.

It’s a very rich-sounding album, with a lot of varied arrangements on it – strings, jazzy piano, harmonica, ukulele, soul, funk…

DF: I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music. Every song is different, but one of the common denominators is that I think of myself as someone who writes short stories set to music.

Once I’m into the early development of a song, it will generally suggest what sort of musical idiom it is and what sort of production treatment will favour it the most. I kind of let the story guide me, but there are also lots of juncture points in that process where I find myself making a conscious design. Do I want to do it on a ukulele or a guitar?

‘Lockdown gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career’

Or sing in a Russian accent, like on For the Russians Are Coming

DF [laughs]: For that, I had a tale I wanted to tell – it was a true story and I drew on source material – the Congressional Record and the Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the US election. I read a good part of a 1,000-page document and tried to make sure the song was accurate.

Once I’d written it, I tried to capture the essence of what I was trying to impart. It did occur to me that relaying it in a Russian accent would be appropriate. I’ve never done anything like that before. I took a wild shot – partly because of lockdown, the extra time and the lack of pressure, and the fact that everything was messed-up and bewildering – and in some ways it gave me the courage and licence to take chances that I might not necessarily have taken under normal circumstances. It cracks my friends up, but I’ve gotten really good responses from it so far. What’s your take on it?

SH: I think it’s fun – it made me laugh. It’s a good Russian accent.

The title track, which is the opener, is my favourite song on the album. It deals with gun culture, genocide, slavery, the 2017 Paradise shooting in Las Vegas and how America got to be in the state it is today. You then follow it with Too Much Stuff, which is a lightweight, jazzy number about being a hoarder. The first two songs are a real juxtaposition…

DF: I’ve always done that – even in my live shows. I don’t want to put people to sleep, and I want to present a broad palette of human experience and human nature. That element of humour is crucial to understanding and surviving our surreal existence here on this Earth. Without it, nothing makes sense.

The title track nicely sets up the album for some of the issues you go on to talk about, doesn’t it?

DF: It does precisely that – that was my conscious intent. The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery. The common denominator is our incomprehensible obsession with guns and the degree to which they make us adept killers. Why are we the number one military power, at least for the moment? It’s cos we’re really great at killing people! It’s one of our greatest talents. Look, I love our country and I’m proud to be an American, but not for every reason. On American Lullaby [the song] I’ve tried to tell a 400-year history in a six-minute pop song, which isn’t easy to do, in as gentle as way as possible.

‘The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery’

All lullabies tend to be infused with these horrible things that happen to babies – like the bough breaking and the cradle falling in Rock-A-Bye Baby. The poor kids falls out a tree and gets hit on the head by a cradle – the point being that, in a strange way, lullabies instil some kind of warning to those little humans just entering the world about all the perils that are out there in front of them, but in a way that doesn’t scare the hell out of them.

That to me is what the album is all about – to impart dire messages in comforting and soothing ways, like a lullaby. Be aware of all the horrible things that are going on in the world but try and avoid them.

The whole album is sort of my attempt, for myself and, potentially listeners, to make some kind of sense of all the crazy shit that’s gone on for the past six years – from the day America woke up to a failed gameshow host and con artist being president.

We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House. The world has gone so far astray that any sense of normality is hard to recapture.

Myself and everyone else on the planet had this sense of befuddlement and confusion – I was incredulous at what was going on, but we had to get on with our daily lives and get stuff done. I wanted to provide a context for that and to chronicle my experiences, my understanding and my bewilderment of the past six years.

Did you write the record as a concept album?

DF: After writing the first couple of songs, I realised that inadvertently what I was doing was chronicling these surreal experiences of current events. Once it dawned on me that was the case, I did consciously address topics that fell within that brief. There are a couple of songs that aren’t 100 per cent in the script, but even then I was leavening some of that heavy, sober and difficult material with some measure of humour and silliness.

‘We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House’

There’s been a low-key, underlying sense of anxiety about what’s going to happen next because, clearly, our leaders don’t have a fucking clue! Even if they did, they don’t have the competence to execute any kind of solution that’s appropriate.

For myself, I also felt compelled to write something that was optimistic and uplifting – a song like The Swing of Things. When you’re in a funk and you’re having a really tough time, you don’t want to get out of bed. That song tries to acknowledge that and people who are experiencing it, but also say, ‘that sucks but sometimes you’ve just got to get back into the swing of things.’

SH: We talked about lullabies earlier. What keeps you awake at night?

DF [laughs]Like every other indie artist, with rare exceptions, I serve as my own promoter for my tours and gigs. That means that all the responsibilities are down to me. So what keeps me awake at night is wondering whether I’m doing enough to let people know that I have a new album coming out, and that I have a tour coming up in April.

The other thing is that I have a little dog called Lola – she’s from the Czech Republic and she only weighs about four pounds. I live in a semi-rural part of New York State – about an hour north of New York City.

I worry that some kind of bird of prey, like a red-tailed hawk, will swoop down, see little Lola and think ‘what a tasty little snack.’  I’m always out in the backyard with an air horn to distract the hawks. So far it’s worked out okay.

Dean Friedman’s new album, American Lullaby, is released on August 27, on his Real Life Records label. 

He will be touring the UK from April 2022 – visit www.deanfriedman.com for more details.  

 

‘I find it interesting to explore new areas – I don’t want to stagnate’

Dot Allison

Heart-Shaped Scars, the new album by Scottish singer-songwriter, Dot Allison, just might be the most beautiful record you hear this year.

On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, has gone back to nature.

Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs feature field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.

Musically, she cites Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There’s also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.

“I love that soundtrack and film,” she tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us from her home in Edinburgh. “I got asked to sing a song from it, Gently Johnnny, with The Memory Band, at Glastonbury. I’ve bought the soundtrack on CD and vinyl – it’s featured in my world.”

Heart-Shaped Scars has been a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. Since then, she’s taken time out to start a family.

Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, who worked on the last three Paul Weller albums, it’s a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments is called The Haunting and opens with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”

There’s also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello. “That song started off as a poem called Church of Snow  – I wrote it when I was working with Massive Attack,” she says.

“I showed it to 3D from Massive Attack and he said he loved it. He got me to post it on their forum – that was in 2004. The song is quite different from the poem.”

In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars is her most rootsy sounding album so far. “I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she says.

Four of the songs feature a string quintet, and other instruments on the record include ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounds hushed and intimate.

Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long ExposureOrchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.

‘I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature’

Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars references several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she says.

In fact, one of the songs is called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It’s autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provides guest vocals.

The record’s most brooding and dark moment is Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.

“I wanted to write a song that was like a mantra, with blocks of vocals and more primary colours – a slab of melody, ” she explains. “I wanted the vocals to be like paintbrush strokes.

“The song has a Juno-106 [synth] on it. There’s a company called BrandNewNoise that makes these interesting little, experimental wooden bits and bobs, like a weird, mutated version of a glockenspiel, which has an internal mic to record what you’re doing, but also a modulation button, so you can loop what you’ve done and then fuck about with it.

“I used that on it. It’s like a marriage between a synth and a wooden glockenspiel. It’s mental the noises you can get out of it, like a moment that sounds like a weird, distorted star. I think I’ve hopefully brought the slightly left-field dance mentality to the sounds – even though they’re quite human.”

Q&A

Heart-Shaped Scars is a beautiful record. I can’t stop playing it…

Dot Allison: Thank you so much – I really appreciate it.

It’s been 12 years since your last album. Why did the time feel right to put out a new record?

DA: The time was right because my kids are older – I had more space to work on music and I also changed my manager in early 2018, which meant I started writing again, and then the album started coming together.

How did Covid-19 affect the album?

DA: Covid altered my plans, but, thankfully, I’d started the recording process – the bass and the drum, and the bones of the songs that were going to have a fuller band sound were laid down before lockdown. When it came to further recording and production and mixing, that all got delayed.

During lockdown, I started writing on a ukulele and ended up writing four extra songs [Long Exposure, Forever’s Not Much Time, Goodbye and One Love] which changed the plan for the record, because they were strong enough to bump other songs off. In a weird way, lockdown benefited the album.

The ukulele songs began on my phone – I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net. I get it all down, so I don’t miss anything.

Once I captured some bits and lovely moments, slowly, through repetition and playing them, the songs started to take shape and knit together in my head. I then laid them down in a studio at home – just rough recordings, with a ukulele and some harmonies on my voice. I sent voice notes on my phone to Hannah Peel and Fiona Cruickshank, who co-produced the album with me.

‘I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net’

You’ve worked with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, on the record – she’s collaborated with Paul Weller on his last three albums, True Meanings, On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1). How did you and her get together?

DA: I worked with Paul Weller years ago – we didn’t stay closely in touch, but I reconnected with him in 2018. I met up with him – I went to his Black Barn studio for a cup of tea, he played me some songs and he mentioned Hannah Peel. I’d been listening to his album, True Meanings, which I absolutely love. Hannah and I agreed to do something, which I was really pleased about – I love her work. Fiona Cruickshank is a really good engineer and she’d come very highly recommended as someone who could mix the album. She agreed to get involved.

You made some field recordings in the Hebrides, which found their way onto the album…

DA: I had a little handheld recorder – I went up there for the weekend, got up early one morning and went for a walk. I recorded the stream, the sea, birdsong and a rattling gate – I turned a corner around a cliff and there was a Force 7 gale! Suddenly, I couldn’t record anything. I also recorded some birds in Edinburgh – I collected a lot of sounds and created some loops in the studio.

The whole album sounds to me like it was written and recorded in a remote cottage in the Hebrides…

DA: Some of it was written there – Constellations was written on the island.

Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with so many great artists – sadly, some of them, like Andy Weatherall and Scott Walker, are no longer with us. Did their deaths have a big effect on you?

DA:I was devastated to hear about Andy – I loved him to bits. I was very shocked. It was weird because I’m met him only a few months before it happened, for the first time in ages. He was in Edinburgh, and he was with [singer] Denise Johnson…

Who, like Andy, also died last year…

DA: I know… He asked me if I was doing any music, and I said, ‘funnily enough – I am.’ He wanted to hear some of it, but I told him it was unplayable at that time, because it was all on my phone. He said, ‘what do you mean? It’s unlistenable!’ I was like, ‘probably…’

I was planning on sending him something… It was totally shocking and so premature. I also couldn’t believe that Denise had gone too – what the hell is going on? You’ve just reminded me that I’d asked her if she’d wanted to be on this record…

Scott Walker has been a big influence on you and you worked with him…

DA: He was a creative lawbreaker – he totally did his own thing. I ended up recording with him on a song he did with Sunn O))) called Bull.  Scott talked to my managers about my voice – we had the same management – and he said that I had ‘great pipes’.  I’m having that!

What have been some of your favourite collaborations?

DA: I’m really proud that I worked with Hal David – that was just insane. He got temporarily stuck on the chorus of  Did I Imagine You? He asked me to write him a dummy chorus, but he kept one of my lines! That was amazing. I loved working with Paul Weller too – he’s so lovely and he really put me at ease. I get so shy, it’s awful – such a burden.

‘Scott Walker said that I had ‘great pipes’.  I’m having that!’

Anyone you’d like to collaborate with?

DA: I’d like to work with Linda Perhacs [American psychedelic folk singer], who made the album Parallelograms – it’s a cult classic. She’s so talented, but she was written off and she became a dental assistant. I’d love to work with Brian Wilson too.

Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?

DA: I’ve been listening to Parallelograms and The Wicker Man soundtrack. I also got an album by My Solid Ground – I’m quite obsessed by a song called The Executioner. It’s quite prog. I’ve also been going back to The Beatles. I decided to listen to all their albums chronologically – it’s the craftmanship of the songs. I started at the beginning and then went, ‘fuck – that’s insane!’

Heart-Shaped Scars by Dot Allison is out now on SA Recordings. It’s available digitally and as a double gatefold vinyl (limited edition pressing of 500) – pre-order it here.

https://dotallison.com/

‘Do people want to read books or watch films about Covid? I don’t know – time will tell…’

Mark Billingham

When Say It With Garage Flowers last spoke to one of our favourite authors, UK crime writer Mark Billingham, it was exactly a year ago, for the publication of his novel Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the DarkRush of Blood and Die of Shame.

During that interview, he told us he’d written the majority of his next novel during lockdown. That book is published this month. It’s called Rabbit Hole and it’s another stand-alone, but, in typical Billingham style, it’s a highly original take on the locked-room murder mystery genre, with a great twist. No spoilers here, but it’s one of his best.

Written in the first person, it centres on the character of Detective Constable Alice Armitage, the novel’s narrator, who finds herself on the trail of a killer who has murdered a patient on an acute psychiatric ward. The problem is that Armitage is a patient too… and could she actually be the murderer? 

Despite its sensitive and often disturbing subject matter – severe mental health problems – Rabbit Hole is also a very funny book, full of darkly comedic moments.

Billingham started writing the novel in February last year – just before lockdown – and he finished it in four months. 

“I wrote it really quickly, because I couldn’t do anything else – I had nothing to do but write,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, sat outside a north London pub on a warm early evening in July. 

So did being locked-down at home while writing the novel inspire the subject matter of the book in any way? 

“It may have done subconsciously, but the more conscious decision was that I’d had some recent experience of that world, which was not something I’d known about until recently,” he says.

“It’s a personal book in many ways, because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward. I had a wealth of stories.

“Graham Greene said that writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice… I was confronted with a situation that was deeply unpleasant, traumatic, sad and disturbing, but, at the same time, there was part of me going, ‘wow – this would be a brilliant setting for a locked-room mystery.’”

He adds: “For every couple of horrible stories I heard, there were also some that were just hilarious, but in a dark way. Some of the more bizarre things in the book are completely true.”

Q&A

Mental health is a difficult subject to write about – it’s a sensitive topic. How did you approach the book to make sure you didn’t come across as patronising or ill-informed?

Mark Billingham: I was aware of that all the time – but you should always be aware, whatever you’re writing, of treating the subject with sensitivity and nuance.

I did a lot of personal research and I got to know some mental health professionals who were working in a ward and were kind enough to speak to me away from the location, off the record, as it were. There was always a conscious decision of what should I talk about, or not talk about, but you make those decisions all the time – every five minutes.

‘Graham Greene said writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice…’

Because I’d decided to write the book in the first person, which is something I’d never done before, and I knew I wanted to be with this character, that’s a big decision, because if you’re asking your reader to spend 400 pages inside the head of the same character, you need to make that person attractive and engaging, even though they’re infuriating, frustrating and sometimes unpleasant.

Alice Armitage is an interesting character. She’s an anti-hero, isn’t she?

MB: Yes – and right off the bat she says she’s unreliable because she’s medicated and paranoid. In a way, she’s the perfect narrator for the book.

Rabbit Hole references the Covid-19 pandemic, although not in a big way, and it’s dedicated to the doctors, mental health nurses and health care assistants who lost their lives to the virus. Was it important for you to mention Covid in the book, and, if so, why?

MB: It was a difficult choice or call to make because I knew roughly when the book would be coming out and, back then [when I was writing it], like everybody else, I had no idea what the situation would be like. Would Covid have gone completely? Obviously, we know now that it hasn’t, but you can’t predict the future.

With the majority of the book being set on a mental health ward, I had to reference it, but I didn’t want to make too much of it – I didn’t want to make it a ‘Covid book’. I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, or it wasn’t an issue, but I tried to make the references subtle. I didn’t want every other page to be about masks and hand sanitisers, but it’s obvious that it’s going on.

The reason I dedicated the book specifically to the medical professionals who’d lost their lives was because when I visited the ward, I got to know some of the mental health nurses – I spoke to one of them a lot outside the ward and she was very helpful.

She later told me that four of the nurses on that ward had died – nurses I’d met. What you extrapolate from that is, ‘Christ – if it’s four on one ward in North London, how many is it nationally?’ It felt like an appropriate thing to do.

‘It’s a personal book because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward’

Have you read many new books by fiction authors that are referencing Covid?

MB: Yes – I have. Some have done it really well and some it’s obvious that they’ve had a last minute ‘Covid edit’. They’ve gone through it and just thrown in some references to masks, hand sanitisers and PPE to make it current, so it doesn’t appear dated. That’s kind of an odd thing to do – I think you need to do it, or not do it. You could set the book in 2021, so it’s not an issue, or in 2024, and hope Covid has gone by then, or you do what I did, and say, ‘I guess Covid is still going to be knocking around and I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened…’

I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it – it made me think that people want to go somewhere where they can laugh at it or about it – the experiences they’ve had. Laughing about it is one thing, but do they want to read books or watch films about it? I don’t know – time will tell.

Directly after the Second World War, people didn’t want to read about it – the golden age of crime fiction happened between the wars because people had had enough of grief and violence on a massive scale.

‘I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it’

Another good example is the huge explosion in recent years of Northern Irish crime fiction – while the Troubles were happening, there wasn’t any, because people were living it and they didn’t want to read about it. Now enough time has passed, and writers are looking at it and examining it – it’s really interesting. You need a little bit of distance.

Your last stand-alone novel, 2016’s Die of Shame, was also a ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, and it too dealt with people suffering from mental health issues –  a therapy group full of recovering addicts. Do you see Rabbit Hole as almost a companion book to it?

MB: Do you know what? I hadn’t until you mentioned it, but it kind of is, I suppose. They’re both takes on a locked-room mystery and they both have at their hearts the same premise.

When you have a traditional locked-room mystery, the characters are all guests in a stately home, or passengers on a cruise ship, but addiction or mental health affects anybody and everybody. That means you can have people from all sorts of different backgrounds.

In Die of Shame, I had an incredibly disparate group of people in terms of social demographics – where they’re from, and how much they earn, and what class they’re from. The same is true of people who end up sectioned.

But the mental health ward in Rabbit Hole is a ‘locked room’ which people can come in and out of…

MB: Yes – it’s an air-locked room… there are ways the patients can get out, for some periods of time, like short trips, but, essentially, you’ve got a group of half a dozen people with incredibly different stories. And I wanted to tell their stories too.

Like your other novels, there’s a lot of dark humour in Rabbit Hole. Was it an enjoyable book to write?

MB: I’m not sure I’d say it was enjoyable – it was a hard book to write, because of my personal connection to it. There were definitely moments when I had to stop and go, ‘should I be writing this?’ but I would always say, ‘yes, you should’.

The people I know who are close to this situation all told me I needed to write it. It was also time to write something different I’d written three Thorne novels on the bounce.

There are some cameo appearances by regular characters from the Thorne series in Rabbit Hole, including Thorne himself. You usually do this in your stand-alone books, don’t you? That must be fun – you’re expanding the Thorne universe…

MB: I’ve probably done it in this one more than any of the other stand-alones. I knew Thorne was going to make an appearance, and, because I was dealing with psychiatric issues, I knew Melita Perera would be in it. Hendricks gets a mention too, in a way in which readers of the series will go, ‘oh – I know who they’re talking about…’

It’s fun. You’re creating this fictional universe and characters drift in and out of it  – they come into the spotlight and then recede into the background.

It’s like the Marvel Universe…

MB: [laughs].

 

And your last book, Cry Baby, was an origins novel…

MB: Yes both me and [crime writer] John Connolly wrote origin stories at the same time – me with Thorne and him with Charlie Parker [The Dirty South] – without us knowing we were both doing it. You can them prequels, but it’s more trendy to call them origin stories.

Could you ever see any of the other characters from the Thorne universe, like Nicola Tanner, getting her own series of novels?

MB: YesI think that’s perfectly possible. Or maybe Hendricks will get his own book, or I might revisit a younger Thorne again. I don’t know it will be whatever idea suits the story that’s in my head.

Let’s talk about the next book after Rabbit Hole, which is another Thorne novel…

MB: The next book is done – it will be out this time next year. I’m ahead of the game because I wrote two books back-to-back very quickly.

Can you tell us anything about the next one?

MB: I can it’s not a big secret. It’s called The Murder Book. Thorne is back, but so is his worst nightmare. It couldn’t be a more different book to Rabbit Hole – it’s real pedal to the metal.

Finally, was the working title of Rabbit Hole ever Who The F*** Is Alice?

MB: I’ve had a few emails asking me that…

Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham is out now and is published by Little, Brown.

www.markbillingham.com