‘I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll’

New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom’s second solo album, Circles, is one of our favourite records of the year. This time around, the former frontman of  Tennessee band Tenderhooks has cranked up the guitars and embraced his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, power-pop and country rock. 

Speaking from his New York apartment, which he describes as “a shoebox”, he says: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”

He’s certainly achieved his goal – recent single, the brilliant What’s The Over/Under?, is an infectious power-pop song  – “I’ve never had too much of a handle on what I want until I fuck it up” – with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on its predecessor, the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom does his best Marc Bolan impression.

Circles is full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.

Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, has echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard is reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.

Winstrom, who is 37, also looks to the ’90s and early Noughties for inspiration –  on the moving, cello-assisted ballad, I Walk In Circles, he channels Elliott Smith.

Two years in the making –  writing and recording –  Circles was produced by drummer Jeff Bills (The V-Roys and Steve Earle), who also worked on Winstrom’s debut album. The songs were committed to tape just before the coronavirus hit. 

‘The world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one’

“We were lucky for sure – we were basically 99 percent done, so we were able to lean on some very talented friends with home studios to add the odd overdub here and there,” he says.  “And engineers John Harvey and Mary Podio were super-savvy to invent a new workflow that let us finish mixing remotely.”

He adds: “We were really fortunate. I mean, obviously, the world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one.

“For my own sanity, I feel like I’ve been working up to this album my whole life. I’m 37 years old – it’s 37 minutes long. Coincidence? I think not. But I do feel like a good chunk of my lifetime is living in these songs. The highs, lows and in-betweens, to quote Townes Van Zandt. I hope folks dig it. I do.”

Q&A

How are you doing? Congratulations on Circles – it’s a great record.

Jake Winstrom: I’m good – just chugging along and trying to stay safe, like everybody. Thanks so much. I’m very happy to hear you dig the record.

You’ve said that your first solo album, Scared Away The Song, had too many “singer songwriter” type songs on it and not enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock and roll tunes. With Circles, that’s not something you can be accused of. How did you approach this album?

JW: I definitely wanted to broaden the musical spectrum on this album. The last one, maybe due to time and cost constraints, ended up veering a bit too much toward what folks call “Americana”, I guess – lots of acoustic guitar-based, rootsy-sounding songs and what have you.

I had several more rock songs written for that record, including What’s The Over/Under? but we ran out of time on the day we tracked with a full band. So with this one we moved full band, electric songs to the top of the pile. And I wanted more moments of fun and levity in the songwriting. I think I had Bruce Springsteen’s The River in mind. What’s the saying? Shoot for the stars but settle for the moon? Hah. I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll.

How were the recording sessions? You worked with drummer / producer Jeff Bills again on this album. What did he bring to the process? Why do you like collaborating with him?

JW: The recording sessions were so much fun. I love recording and Jeff is just fantastic. He brings so much to the process. He has a real ear for songwriting and arranging.

I’d send him my four-track demos as soon as they were done and then we’d start ping-ponging arrangement ideas. And his production process is all about the song. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds on minute lyric edits and things like that. He really hammered this record into existence. He also has a great talent and Zen-like patience for mixing. Which I do not. Hah! So it’s a good musical marriage.

You have a great band on the album. How did you choose the musicians that you wanted to work with?

JW: We did have a truly great band for these sessions. Putting it together was easy – I just rang up my friends and they very graciously all said yes. On the last record, Jeff and I had kind of a rotating cast of musicians from song to song, depending on the sound we were going for. On this one I wanted more cohesion, but we didn’t have time to rehearse.

I knew we’d need a versatile group that could hammer out arrangements on the fly. We ended up with a veritable wrecking crew: Jeff on drums, Peggy Hambright on keys, Dave Nichols on bass, Greg Horne and George Middlebrooks on guitar, and Jeff Caudil on backing vocals. That’s some serious muscle.

Some of the takes are live, aren’t they? Do you normally record that way? My Hiding Place was done in one take, wasn’t it? 

JW: Everything started with us playing a song three or four times to get a good live take. My Hiding Place was one where it all just kinda fell into place in the room – even the vocal. I think it must’ve been the mood lighting in Scott Minor’s studio. Hah.

‘The studio where we recorded half a dozen songs is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic’

Where did you make the album?

JW: We did it in Knoxville [Tennessee], with the exception of some vocals recorded in Brooklyn. We started at Scott Minor’s Wild Chorus studio, early last year. We recorded half a dozen songs there. The studio is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic. I wanted to record there because one of my favourite bands, Count This Penny, did their absolutely gorgeous album A Losing Match there.

It had a live room with no dividers between the guitar amps and drums, which made Jeff a little nervous, but I loved it. To quote the Rolling Stones – let it bleed! A little Telecaster in the cymbal track never hurt anyone. And that’s where My Hiding Place was recorded. It definitely has that room’s stamp on it.

We recorded the second batch of songs at Top Hat Recording [in Knoxville] last fall. The engineers are a super-sweet married couple – John Harvey and Mary Podio – who built a house with their dream studio inside. It’s a fabulous, comfy place to hunker down and make a racket. We mixed the entire thing there too. We still had six songs to mix when lockdown hit, but John and Mary were very savvy and invented a new workflow that allowed us to finish things up. They’re really smart, great people.

Luckily, you pretty much finished the album prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. How was isolation for you? Did you write any new songs during lockdown? Did it inspire you?

JW: It’s been fine for me. I’m thankful to still be gainfully employed. I guess I’ve mostly been entertaining myself by getting this record finished and out into the world. So after September 25 [album release date] it’s time to find a new hobby!

I’ve written a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found it to be a particularly inspiring time. I miss hearing snippets of subway conversations and weird one-sided cell phone arguments while walking down the sidewalk.

You’ve relocated from Knoxville, Tennessee to New York? How’s that? Do you like living in New York? How has it influenced your writing and music?

JW: I love New York! I’ve been here for eight years now, I think. I reckon once I hit the decade mark I’ll be ‘official’. Hah. I like to think about songs while I’m walking, so New York is perfect for that. You can get into kind of an unconscious rhythm zigzagging through neighbourhoods while turning things over in your mind. I remember coming up with What’s The Over/Under? and My Hiding Place while making my way through the East Village.

What’s The Over / Under? is one of my favourite songs on the record. What can you tell me about the track? It’s a great power-pop song, with a killer chorus, Rickenbackers and horns. 

JW: I think I was in a hardcore Buddy Holly phase when I wrote that. I wanted to write lots of strummy, propulsive, open chord songs without too many minor chords. It’s easy to disappear down the minor chord rabbit hole sometimes. I remember coming up with the chorus, then having to Google what “over/under” actually meant. I don’t do sports betting or anything. It’s funny the things that tumble out of your subconscious mind sometimes…

 

The first single, Come To Texas She Said, reminds me of T-Rex – it’s a glam-rock-country-boogie!

JW: Hah – that’s awesome! “Glam-rock-country-boogie” sounds like my ideal genre. I was ruminating on the title Come To Texas She Said for a while. And once I kinda broke the verse melody everything else fell into place. It’s a song that’s gotten a big reaction live since I started playing it a year or so ago.

Jeff and I had many conversations about the arrangement. He actually went rogue – as he is wont to do – and initially produced a whole different version from his home studio, overdubbed on top of my four-track demo. It was actually really cool. The track included a mini V-Roys reunion, with Paxton Sellers laying down a groovy walking bass part. It had horns too. But ultimately we felt it was too Americana-y. Too much like the last record. I wanted to let it rip.

We recorded what became the album version during the Top Hat sessions. Dave Nichols’s elastic bass line really makes it for me. And Peggy Hambright’s call-and-response electric piano is so great – it reminds me a little bit of Harry Nilsson’s records.

‘I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-’70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma’

There are several classic rock ‘n’ roll influences on the album. Think Too Hard reminds me of The Beatles, Revolver-era, Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror has a Tom Petty / Springsteen feel, and My Hiding Place and Kilimanjaro have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe. Are those artists all big influences on you? What were your musical reference points for this record? 

JW: Wow, thank you – that’s extremely high praise. Yes – I love everyone you just mentioned. I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-‘70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma. And I think Peggy channelled a little E Street magic with her organ part on Loose Change, so those were all reference points I had in mind.

It’s funny, though – Jeff absolutely hates it when I say something like “hey, why don’t we try playing this song like Tom Petty, or The Bangles, or Syd Straw?” He’ll really flip his shit! He thinks bringing up musical reference points cheapens the creative process or something. He’s a purist I guess – hah. So I have to go and whisper those ideas to the rest of the band when he’s not paying attention…

I Walk In Circles has an Elliott Smith feel, doesn’t it? Are you a big fan?

JW: It does. I was trying to emulate his kind of hushed, double-tracked vocals. His records are so beautifully crafted. I actually came to his music late. I saw one of my favourite artists, Marika Hackman, cover his song Between The Bars when her tour came through Brooklyn last year, and that kind of set me off on an Elliott Smith tangent.

Some of your songs have a country influence. Did you grow up with country music in Tennessee? What were your influences when you were younger?

JW: Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.

I think during my sophomore year I picked up Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road at the Disc Exchange and fell in love with everything about it – the songs and the sound, which actually has some Beatles-y touches, thanks to the Twangtrust production. That led me to Lucinda co-conspirator and Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris, as well as The V-Roys.

Then it was down the yellow brick road to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and on and on and on.

‘Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.’

What’s your songwriting process?

JW: Songwriting for me almost always begins with improvising – picking up a guitar and strumming/singing while I walk around the apartment. Maybe getting the gears moving by playing someone else’s songs and then seeing if I can hit on a melody or chord change that peaks my interest.

Those ideas will usually live in my iPhone audio notes for a while, waiting for words to flesh them out. That’s when I find it helps to walk around the block and get a change of scenery. Anything to trick myself into not thinking! Staring at a blank page isn’t the way to do it – at least not for me.

Are you hoping to play live when things get back to normal?

JW: I hope so. I’ve had offers to do outside things during the pandemic, but it’s just so dicey, safety-wise. Plus a lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play, so I’m basically a public safety risk! We’ll definitely do something once life gets back to normal. It would be fun to play the record in sequence. Of course, by the time it’s safe to do that, I’m sure I’ll be on to the next album.

‘A lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play live, so I’m basically a public safety risk!’

How hard has it been as a musician being unable to play gigs to promote your new record? Are you worried about the future of the live music scene?

JW: I’m lucky in that I have a day job. I’m gutted for my friends that make their living playing music. It’s a really brave, hard life. And then to have the rug yanked out from under you by this…

Yeah – I’m really worried for the small venues. The sweaty little clubs that are so important for artists honing their craft. I’m terrified that by 2022 all the ones here in New York are going to be replaced by Chase Banks and Chipotles. And watching concerts on Zoom and Instagram Live ain’t gonna cut it. The pandemic has proven that much.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? 

JW: Stay vertical! I hope to venture down to Tennessee to spend Christmas with my family. We’ll see what the state of the world is by then. Fingers crossed.

Can you recommend some music – new and old? What are you into at the moment?

JW: Ooooh – let’s see. X’s new album Alphabetland is frenetic and fabulous. Girl Friday, this L.A. band I saw last year and fell in love with, just put out their first LP, Androgynous Mary. It’s a total blast. Great harmony singing and fiery guitar playing with stellar songwriting and arrangements that twist and turn. I’ve also had the new Haim record on repeat since it came out this summer.

As far as oldies, Fire On The Bayou by The Meters has found its way back to my turntable many times this summer. I’ve also been digging into Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love album, which includes several Elvis Costello covers.

Finally, have you heard Nick Piunti, who’s a power-pop singer-songwriter from Detroit? Your music often reminds me of his – I think you’d like him. I’m going to recommend that he checks you out. Have a listen to this:

JW: I haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation. I really dig this song! It reminds me a bit of Cheap Trick, in the best way. Total melodic confidence and barnstorming guitars.

Circles by Jake Winstrom is released on September 25 – it’s available on streaming and download services, as well as vinyl.

For more information, visit: https://jakewinstrom.bandcamp.com/

 

 

 

 

‘I hope my next album will sound like Scott 4. You’ve got to aim high’

 

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s 2013 debut album, Stations, has just been reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day by his record label, Wonderfulsound. 

It sounds like Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized and when Say It With Garage Flowers first heard it, seven years ago, we said: “his atmospheric, late-night laments are steeped in Northern melancholy and laced with psychedelic effects and gorgeous string arrangements.”

We also compared his baritone voice to Scott Walker, Richard Hawley and Leonard Cohen, and named his haunting country-folk song Oslo as one of our favourite tracks of that year.

To celebrate this year’s vinyl release of Stations, we spoke to Nev about his memories of writing and recording his debut album, asked him about his misspent youth trawling Manchester record shops, and got the inside track on his next album – a collection of orchestral songs inspired by Scott 4. 

Q&A

How does it feel to have Stations out on vinyl?

Nev Cottee: It feels very good. I’m in-between albums at the moment – I’m in the process of finishing the next one – so it’s good to keep the momentum going and to keep things ticking over. It never came out on vinyl. For the first album, I wasn’t on Wonderfulsound – I did it off my own back, with a couple of actor mates, Jeff Hordley and Graeme Hawley, who, very generously, paid for some of the recording and for it to come out on CD and digitally. I wanted to get it out on vinyl eventually – it’s always nice to have it on a bit of plastic, with some lovely artwork. It was good timing with Record Store Day – it all came together.

Do you buy much vinyl?

NC: I used to – I buy the odd thing now and again. I dip my toe in. I did all my record buying as a youth. I used to spend an absolute fortune, when I had no money – we all did the same, didn’t we? Scouring the record shops of Manchester – that’s when I was really into it. Then I had to buy them all again on CD… Now I’m streaming and I think, ‘wow – I think I’ve bought this record three times now.’

I like to buy records at gigs – if I go to a gig and see a band I like, I’ll make a point of going to the merch stall. My vinyl days are done, but I DJ a lot and that’s when I get back into playing records – it’s a chance to dust off the collection. That’s when I’m thankful for my misspent youth. At home, I spin the odd record, but I listen to a lot of radio shows on my computer.

Do you have a favourite record shop?

NC: There are two in Manchester that I like – one is Vinyl Revival. It’s run by an old friend of mine, Colin White, and it’s been going for years. It’s a great shop – he’s a lovely guy and really knowledgeable. It’s great to go in, have a chat with him and see what he’s got.

I also like Piccadilly Records – I can remember when it used to be just off Market Street. They were friendlier in Piccadilly Records than they were in Eastern Bloc, where I had a bad experience with a condescending geezer behind the counter. I think everyone’s had an experience like that. I was only a kid – I was 14. He gave me grief for something I bought. I think my brother had recommended a band to me – it might have been The Inspiral Carpets, but I’m not sure. He took the mickey out of me – he was trying to be cool. When you went in Piccadilly there was a lovely, friendly vibe.

Stations was your solo debut. How do you feel about it now? Have you listened to it recently?

NC: I remember seeing George Harrison speaking on The Beatles Anthology documentary series – he said he’d not listened to Revolver since the day it came out. I thought, ‘bollocks – no way! Everyone listens to Revolver every day.’ I’m not comparing myself to George Harrison, but, in recent years, after releasing my own records, I’ve realised there’s no point listening to your own records, because all you hear are the mistakes and you think about the choices you should’ve made, but didn’t. It’s quite a frustrating experience – there’s not much pleasure to be gained from it. Plus the fact that while you’re making it, you’re listening to it continually for the whole process – mixing, mastering… Those songs become lodged in your brain. If you hear them out of context, like when you walk into a bar, it can be pleasurable. Saying that, I think Stations still stands up – it sounds pretty good and it’s quite lo-fi.

There are a few things I might have done differently, like made it a bit bigger production-wise, but maybe that’s its charm. It has almost a demo quality to it – we used a really basic drum machine on some of the tracks. Carwyn Ellis had a retro drum machine app on his phone. I like the feel of it. I wasn’t coming out all guns blazing – it’s a gentle introduction.

What are your memories of writing the songs and recording the album? 

NC: Writing the songs was a long process – it’s the same with every band’s first album, isn’t it? They’ve had a collection of songs that they got together when they started the band and they build on that. The songs were from over a five-year period. You’re always trying to second guess the first album, saying it will be the best one ever, but as you move on and do the next album, you’re less questioning – you just get on and do it.

‘I lead quite a solitary existence, so lockdown wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs’

Recording it was a very quick process – we did it in Carwyn’s house, in Cardiff – me, Carwyn and Mason Neely, who has produced all my albums. We were up early doors and we did it in five or six days. It was very intense and it was good – we worked hard at it, from nine in the morning to seven or eight at night, but we broke off for a cup of tea every now and again. Everyone was really productive and it was really enjoyable.

Do you have a favourite song from it?

NC: Oslo – it’s the one that really came together and it has some great bass playing from Mason, which elevated what was a folky, picking song to something completely different. When he threw that bassline down, it blew my mind and I saw where we could go. That’s the joy of working with top mates and musicians who come up with great ideas and take songs to the next level. It’s a great collaborative process.

Let’s talk about 2020. How were you during lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis?

NC: I was OK – I lead quite a solitary existence anyway, so it wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I was in Manchester – I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs. For the first few weeks it was quite a novelty, but then you just have one of those days… you’ve not seen many people, or spoken to anyone. We’re social animals and we need interaction – even if it’s just a quick ‘hello’ on the street. It must’ve been terrible for some people.

What can you tell us about the next album?

NC: I’m finishing my new album. I’m hoping to get it done by the end of the year. It has the working title of Solitary Singer. I’ve been listening to a lot of Scott Walker – again. I’m putting strings on it – I’m going big and I’m hoping to go to Prague to work with an orchestra. I hope it will sound like Scott 4. You’ve got to aim high. Watch this space.

For my sins, I’ve also written another album – I’ve created a Lee Hazlewood alter ego and I’m channelling the whole Hazlewood vibe. I wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre and I’m very excited by them.

Stations by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound.

https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/stations-2020

 

‘My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ever since’

Picture by Autumn Dozier

Emma Swift’s new album of Bob Dylan reinterpretations, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, is one of the best covers records we’ve ever heard.

The Australian-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter has put her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she’s remained reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.

“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”

Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.

She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Swift even reinterprets one of the songs from Dylan’s latest record, Rough and Rowdy Ways, on hers – the reflective and stately ballad I Contain Multitudes. Her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.

“Like many of the great Bob Dylan songs, I Contain Multitudes is a magnet, a fly’s eye view of the cultural miasma in which we wander,” says Swift. “It’s magnificent and heartbreaking –  a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and all that might be redeemed. To me this song has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”

Blonde On The Tracks is a record that was born out of crisis, as Swift explains: “The idea for the album came about during a long depressive phase – the kind where it’s hard to get out of bed and get dressed and present [yourself] to the world as a high-functioning human. I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively.”

She adds: “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but this period was especially wordless. Sad, listless and desperate, I began singing Bob Dylan songs as a way to have something to wake up for.”

Work on the album began at Magnetic Sound Studio, Nashville, in 2017, but it was the Covid-19 lockdown that brought the rest of the project to fruition. Swift worked with Sansone over email to polish up the six songs that had already been recorded, but her versions of I Contain Multitudes and Simple Twist of Fate were laid down in April and May this year, at home, and overdubbed via correspondence.

The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.

Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Swift during lockdown in Nashville, to find out why Dylan’s music means so much to her, why Blonde On The Tracks, which can be purchased via Bandcamp and from record stores, won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites, and her plans for her new independent label Tiny Ghost Records.

Q&A

How has lockdown in Nashville been for you? How have you coped – both personally and professionally?

Emma Swift: I have been in lockdown and haven’t left the house since the beginning of March, so although I am technically in Nashville, it feels, in a way, like I am on an island. I don’t see any of my friends or colleagues or even venture to the supermarket. All communication – for food, for friendship and for work – has been done online and it’s definitely weird.

The idea of “coping” is one I struggle with because, in many ways, we’re still deep in this Covid experience, so it’s hard for me to have perspective on it. Am I coping? I don’t know. Right now, the virus is worse than it’s ever been in Tennessee. Each day brings new challenges. On the one hand, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work from home, on the other, my primary source of income is as a touring musician and all that work is not going to return for a long time, so that weighs heavy on my mind. I am constantly seeking distractions. I read a lot.

I have insane, one-way conversations with my cat [Ringo]. “Who’s a good boy? Yes, Ringo’s a good boy! Oh, Ringo you’re such a good boy. Ringo have I ever told you what a good boy you are? Look at your little face! You’re such a good boy.” There’s a lot of that.

How did you first get into Dylan’s music and what does it mean to you?

ES: I’m not from the generation that grew up when Dylan began making records, so for many years most of my discoveries were made well after that – through albums I bought at record fairs and charity stores and songs I heard on the radio. My first memory of hearing a Bob Dylan song is The Byrds version of Mr Tambourine Man, which got played a lot on the golden oldies station I listened to as a kid.

I can remember watching clips of the Traveling Wilburys on music TV – I adored Handle With Care, though Roy Orbison was the one I was drawn to at the time. My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde, which I must have acquired when I was 17 or 18. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ever since. My love of the artists that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t exclusive to Bob Dylan though. I’m just as influenced by Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Gene Clark and Lou Reed to name a few. I’m a kid of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m quite old-fashioned really.

You’ve recorded a version of I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t it brave to tackle a brand new Dylan song?

ES:It didn’t feel brave to me – it just felt like a song I was utterly magnetised by and compelled to do. For me, it’s a love song to all that is great about music and art and poetry. It’s a confession, a hymn, a celebration. Like many of the Dylan songs I am drawn to, it’s a little bit funny and a little bit sad. I laughed out loud the first time I heard him sing: “I paint landscapes/ And I paint nudes.”

As for my interpretation of it, it’s very lo-fi. It was recorded in the lounge room at my place on a Zoom recorder, with Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, and then sent to my producer, Patrick Sansone, for overdubs. Patrick’s a brilliant man who can do a lot with not very much. I’m lucky to know him.

Interestingly, on your versions of the songs, you haven’t changed any of Dylan’s lyrics to make them sound like they’re being sung from a woman’s point of view. What was your thinking behind that?

ES:They are being sung from a woman’s point of view – mine. I just haven’t changed any of the gender pronouns to make it sound like it’s coming from a heteronormative context. It’s not how I view the world.

Picture by Autumn Dozier

You’ve said that you can learn a lot about melody by singing someone’s else’s songs? Can you elaborate on that? What has making this album taught you?

ES: I’m pleased that the record is coming out because historically it hasn’t always been easy for me to put music out. I can be apprehensive. I can be scared. I can be very self-critical. People can be brutal. And you have to feel safe enough in yourself to be able to say, ‘I like it and no-one else’s opinion matters’, to be able to release music. It took me a while to get to that point.

As for learning about melody, every time I put a record on I become a student. My ears are primed. For that matter you can learn a lot about harmony too, if you let the recording take the lead and try to find a different part.

Which other singers / artists do you admire, other than Dylan? Who inspires you?

ES:Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power, Sandy Denny, Nick Cave, Billie Holiday, David Berman, Robyn Hitchcock, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, Patti Smith, Johnny Marr. Even though it’s music, I guess what inspires me musically is artists who really love words. Artists who read books. Artists who care about the world.

Am I right in thinking Blonde On The Tracks won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites? You have strong views on streaming and royalties / payments to artists, don’t you?

ES: Blonde On The Tracks is available as a digital download, vinyl, CD and cassette. I’m selling it through Bandcamp online and it has distribution, so folks will be able to go and pick it up from their favourite local record store as well. There’s never been a better time to support small business.

You are right, I’ve been quite outspoken online about wage exploitation from mainstream streaming services. I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that these outlets are good for “exposure”, while some of the best musicians I know find themselves now out of a job due to Covid-19. You can’t eat exposure! You can’t pay your rent with exposure. It’s just another bullshit argument for trickle-down economics – an argument which fails to take into account that the music industry is bigger than its bigger name stars.

‘I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that mainstream streaming services are good outlets are good for “exposure.” You can’t eat exposure!’

What’s the latest on your planned album of original songs, Slow Dancing With Ghosts? Have you been writing any new material? Is there another record in the offing?

ES:Slow Dancing With Ghosts is all set for release in January 2022. I have recorded eight songs so far, but they are not quite finished as all the overdub sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19. There are some really lovely people playing on this record. I’m pleased to say that once my depression lifted I was able to write new songs, and that will be what is on offer here.

What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently and how do you listen to it?

ES: I listen to music through digital downloads, the Bandcamp streaming app, vinyl and CD. Though it’s been brutal on other fronts, 2020 has been a great year for new music and I’ve been enjoying the recent albums from Marchelle Bradanini, Luke Schneider and Becca Mancari.

I just bought the Prince Sign o’ The Times 7in singles collection that Third Man is releasing and I’m excited about that. And I’ve got the new Dylan album, plus quite a large vinyl collection that goes back decades. I come back to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira probably more than any other record.

What are your plans for the rest of the year when things get back to normal?

ES: I have big plans to play this album – and my own new songs – live. I’m just not sure when it will be safe for me to make that happen.

You’ve started your own label,Tiny Ghost Records. Any plans to sign any other artists to it and put out their records?

ES: One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence. I couldn’t find a record label in 2020 that was artist-friendly enough for me. Even the cool ones are still in bed with the streaming services, so that wasn’t really an option. The new Robyn Hitchcock album will come out on Tiny Ghost in 2021. I’d love to sign other artists eventually, I just have to get the business off the ground first. I’d also encourage any artists who are looking for a label to consider starting their own. If it works for Gillian Welch and Courtney Barnett, it can work for you too.

‘One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost Records was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence’

What are some of your favourite cover versions of Dylan songs?

ES:Okay so what’s wild here is that I could list versions of just one song and it would go on for pages. I could talk about Joan Baez’s Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind for days. Betty Lavette’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, particularly when sung live, is glorious. Robyn Hitchcock doing Visions of Johanna is pure heartbreak. I have to say, with this project, I couldn’t really listen to other people’s Dylan songs for a while because I needed to just be with the source material. I’m also not too interested in a rigid list of favourites – the list is ever changing.

Finally, did you ever think about calling the new album Blood On The Blonde? Maybe that could be your next record reinterpretations of Dylan’s murder ballads?

ES: [laughs] No, I didn’t…

Blonde On The Tracks by Emma Swift is released on August 14 (Tiny Ghost Records).

https://emmaswift.bandcamp.com/

 

 

 

 

‘I wrote the best part of my next novel in lockdown’

 

Mark Billingham

It’s almost 20 years since Mark Billingham’s debut novel, Sleepyhead, was published –  a highly original and riveting crime thriller that first introduced us to the character of Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, who is based in North London, loves country music, enjoys a beer and is passionate about Tottenham Hotspur. In case you were wondering, Mark shares two of those interests with his creation – he supports Wolverhampton Wanderers.

When Sleepyhead came out, in August 2001, it entered the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list and ended up being the biggest selling debut novel of that summer. Since then, Mark has become one of the UK’s most successful crime writers.

This month sees the publication of his latest novel, Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the Dark, Rush of Blood and Die of Shame.

Cry Baby is a Thorne origins novel – a prequel to Sleepyhead, it’s set in 1996. In an exclusive interview, Mark talks to Say It With Garage Flowers about life during the Covid-19 lockdown, looks back at how his career in crime writing started, reflects on the enduring appeal of Thorne, gives us a sneak preview of the new book and tells us what he was getting up to in 1996.

Q&A

How did you cope with lockdown? As a writer, aren’t you used to lengthy periods of being at home on your own, shut off from the outside world?

Mark Billingham: On a day-to-basis, it’s not actually been very different – like a lot of writers, I’m looking for any old excuse to spend the day in my pyjamas.

I’ve been writing a lot. I know that a lot of people have found it very difficult to write – some have found it very difficult to read, for God’s sake – but I actually wrote the best part of my next novel in lockdown. I know plenty of people who have been very productive, but I completely understand why some people haven’t.

I wrote this next book very quickly, but sometimes, at the end of the day, I’d look at what I’d written and I’d think ‘what’s the point? It’s just a bloody crime novel. What does it matter in the scheme of things?’ Especially if the news that day was really bad. People are dying and the country’s going to shit! You just have to keep trying to lift yourself to get it done.

What has been different is that I haven’t been able to go out to promote my new book and do festivals and events – everything is now online. That’s what I’ve found the hardest part because I love doing all that stuff, but, again, in the scheme of things, it’s a very minor niggle.

‘I’m not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, they will want something that’s more escapist or cosier’

Has anything from the Covid-19 crisis filtered through into the book you’ve just finished writing?

MB: We’ve all got to make a decision, which I suspect is too early to make – how do you reflect lockdown and the pandemic in works that are yet to come out? I certainly reference it in the next book, but I’m hoping that by the time the book comes out, the virus won’t still be on everybody’s minds 24 hours a day.

I’m also not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, whatever that means, people might well want something that’s more escapist or a little cosier. Having lived through the pandemic, will people want to read fiction about it? We’ll have to see. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of so-called ‘cosy crime fiction’ was between the wars. After the horror of the First World War, people wanted something that was more…healing.

So you’ve spent lockdown writing, but did you have much time to do any reading?

MB: Yes – I’ve been reading tons. I’ve read an awful lot of new novels that have been sent to me, as well as some old favourites and bits of non-fiction. The last novel I read was Michael Connelly’s new book [Fair Warning], which is absolutely fantastic.

I loved Craig Brown’s book about The Beatles [One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time] – I’ll read pretty much any book about The Beatles.

What was your lockdown soundtrack? What new or old music have you been listening to?

MB: I’ve been listening to old music – I’m such an old fart. I just tend to walk into the kitchen and go: ‘Alexa, play Elvis Costello’, or ‘Alexa, play Graham Parker’. But just to evidence the fact that my finger is still on the pulse, I’ve been listening a lot to the new Bob Dylan album [Rough and Rowdy Ways], which just gets better each time I hear it.

A few years ago, you collaborated with country duo My Darling Clementine for the music and spoken word album The Other Half. Have you listened to their recent Country Darkness EPs, which are cover versions of Costello’s country and country-soul songs, recorded with Steve Nieve?

MB: Yes I have and they’re great – fantastic stuff. I’ve also been following the stuff that Steve’s been doing online with Costello.

You’re a huge Costello fan. Have you heard the recent singles he’s put out: No Flag and Hetty O’Hara Confidential?

MB: Yes – I really like them. I love No Flag because he sounds properly angry again – he’s back to full strength and on fire. I wonder if the new one [Hetty O’Hara Confidential] is from one of the musicals he’s been writing? I don’t know. I know he’s written one with Burt Bacharach, A Face In The Crowd, and has been playing a few songs from it in his live shows for a couple of years.

Let’s go back to your writing. It’s almost 20 years since your first novel, Sleepyhead, was published, back in 2001. How does it feel looking back at that time now?

MB: I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was. I was on holiday with my wife and kids in Corfu. My kids were very young and every night after we’d put them to bed, my wife and I would sit outside this villa we’d rented – she’d have a glass of wine and I’ve have a bottle of beer – and I’d start scribbling ideas in a notebook.

At the end of the fortnight’s holiday, I did a word count and realised I’d written about 30,000 words. I knew that would be about one third of a novel, so I started to think that maybe this novel-writing lark wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be.

When I got home, I tarted up the 30,000 words and I sent them to an agent – they sent them to a bunch of publishers who wanted it, there was an auction and I was off! I still hadn’t finished the book when I got my deal. I can remember being in Brent Cross shopping centre when my agent called and said that a publisher had made an offer – that’s the moment you always remember. I didn’t really know what I was doing – that was when the hard work started!

What drew you to the crime fiction genre?

MB: I think it was when I read Sherlock Holmes at a very young age, but the more important moment was my first exposure to ‘popular’ crime fiction. When I started buying books for myself they were all blockbusters like Jaws and The Godfather.

When I became a student, I discovered Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I got all those big Picador editions – and bloody loved them. I started with noir and hard-boiled American fiction and then discovered the likes of John Harvey and Ian Rankin. I devoured everything I could get. I started hanging about on the fringes of the crime fiction community – I would go to festivals and I started reviewing books so I could get them for nothing. The missing piece of the jigsaw was to try and write one.

When you created Thorne, did you ever envisage that he would endure for so long? 

MB: No – when I wrote the first book, I never imagined that it would be the start of a series. I needed a copper because there had been a crime committed. In my head, Thorne wasn’t even the main character. I wanted the book to be about the victim – a woman called Alison Willetts, who’s in a coma for the whole of the novel. I was in a very fortunate position, in that a number of publishers wanted the book, so I had to go and meet them all. The first question they all asked was: ‘is this the start of a series?’ I thought, ‘well – it better had be then!’ So I wrote another Thorne novel, little knowing that I’d still be writing about him nearly 20 years later.

How have you – and Thorne – stayed the course for almost 20 years?

MB: I’ve not constantly written about him – I’ve taken breaks to write stand-alone books and to collaborate with people on other projects whenever I’ve felt the need to. Why have readers stuck with Thorne? I don’t know, but, God, I’m very grateful for it! One of the things that has stood him in good stead I think is that I’ve never had a plan for him, or a dossier on him – the reader knows as much about him, book on book, as I do. They put flesh on the character’s bones.

I’ve never described him, so the readers have their own idea of what he looks like. Hopefully, he stays unpredictable and interesting, because I genuinely have no bloody idea about what he’s going to do next! I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s managed to stick around for the best part of two decades.

To tie in with the twentieth anniversary, a few months ago Sleepyhead was reissued as a special, limited edition hardback, with a foreword by Lee Child…

MB: It was hugely generous of Lee to write that. I’d gone back to Sleepyhead reasonably recently anyway, because I was doing the unabridged audio versions of all my early books. I’d read it again – it’s quite a sobering experience going back and reading something you’ve written 20 years ago.

How was it?

MB: There were certainly things I’d do very differently now, but you live with it – you learn as you go. Hopefully you make your mistakes early on – well, you never really stop making mistakes – but, hopefully, you get better as you go on. I did change one or two tiny things for the special edition, but I don’t think people will notice them. There are things I could’ve changed that I didn’t – like the weird thing I did with Thorne’s music taste.

You mean the bit where he’s listening to trip-hop and speed garage, as well as his beloved country music?

MB: Yeah – I thought, ‘shall I take that out?’ But I then said, ‘ do you know what? I did it – leave it in.’ I quickly dropped it after the first book…

I did take out the tiny bit of Thorne’s physical description – I’ve never done it since and I wish I’d never done it then. So, it’s gone. If it’s a character that readers are going to read about for 20 years, I’d rather they painted the pictures.

Let’s talk about your latest book, Cry Baby – the seventeenth Thorne novel and your twentieth book. It’s a prequel to Sleepyhead and it’s a Thorne origins novel, set in 1996…

MB: Yes – that’s exactly what it is. Because it was the twentieth book, I’d been thinking about it for a while and I wanted to do something a bit different and special. The more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘what a great idea – I wish I’d done this before’.

If I have one slight regret about Thorne it’s that I perhaps made him too old to begin with – he started off aged about 40, which was around the same age I was when I wrote the first book. I haven’t aged him in real-time, so he hasn’t aged as quickly as I have. With Cry Baby, I had the chance to take him back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about – and both his parents are still alive. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about – how did he become the character that then appears in Sleepyhead?

I could also go back to a time that I remember really well, but which also feels like ancient history now – if you wanted to get pictures developed, you went to a chemist, and if you wanted to get somewhere, you wandered around with an A-Z in your hand.

Crucially, in terms of technology, it’s pre-internet, pre-mobile phones and pre-CCTV – all the stuff that makes the life of a contemporary crime writer very hard, because you’ve got to deal with all that stuff.

‘I had the chance to take Thorne back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about’

Was it a fun book to write, or was it challenging?

MB: Oh, it was a lot of fun. There was enjoyable research, like finding out what was on the telly and the radio back then – all that popular culture stuff, which is never a chore to do.

I also had to find out how police procedure was back in those days – I worked with an ex-Detective Superintendent, a guy called Graham Bartlett, who works with a lot of crime writers, including Peter James. He was really helpful, because he was serving back then, so he could tell me exactly what things were like. He could tell me how many women were on a team of detectives back then, or how many black and Asian officers there were – it was a lot fewer than there are now, that’s for sure.

He could also tell me how things worked in terms of technology. The most technologically advanced bit of kit that Thorne has is a pager, but not even one with text on it. It just beeps and he has to go to a phone box to ring police control. You can have a lot of fun with that stuff – ‘these stupid mobile phones are never going to catch on…’

Thorne and his soon-to-be ex-wife are selling their house and he is gobsmacked that they can get £150,000 for a three-bedroom house in North London! It’s ridiculous – there will be hollow laughter from people now that can’t buy a one-bedroom flat for that.

How easy was it to go back and create Thorne’s origins?

MB: I had the tent pegs for it – knowing who somebody becomes gives you a few decent clues as to who they were. It’s not like he’s a radically different character, but there were crucial domestic things that were fun to write, like scenes with his parents, or his wife, who by the time of Sleepyhead he’s divorced from. During Cry Baby, they’re going through the hell of all that. I didn’t have to reinvent him – I just had to imagine what he might have been like in his thirties, as opposed to his forties.

What music is Thorne listening to in Cry Baby?

MB: Oh, he’s still listening to George Jones and Hank Williams, but the piece of music he hears most during the book is Three Lions, because it’s all set during Euro 96. That’s the first thing he hears when the turns the radio on, although at one point George Michael’s Fastlove comes on. He’s not listening to too much Britpop – it’s all Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, which pisses him off, because one of them’s a Chelsea fan.

 

What were you doing in 1996?

MB: I was still doing stand-up, but I was a few years away from thinking about writing that first book. I hadn’t gone through my brush with violent crime (In 1997, Mark became a crime victim, when he and his writing partner Peter Cocks were held hostage and robbed in a Manchester hotel room). I was enjoying Euro ‘96 – I was there at Wembley the night England stuffed Holland 4-1. It was a lovely, footloose summer – I was 35.

How were your team, Wolves, doing then?

MB: Oh, they were doing terribly – they were not the team they are now, or in the ‘70s. They were in the doldrums.

Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a bit about the plot of Cry Baby?

MB: Even though it’s been a number of years, Thorne is still reeling from a case – the Frank Calvert case – that is also referenced in Sleepyhead. A piece of misjudgement on Thorne’s part, or a lack of confidence, that tragically resulted in the death of three little girls and their mum. That still disturbs him and some of the other cops that he works with remind him about it and wind him up about it.

‘There are a few little reverse Easter eggs in Cry Baby that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line’

Thorne then has a new case come along – a young boy goes missing and then various people start to die. He knows that they must be connected to the missing boy – there are a couple of murders and he knows that solving them is going to be the way to find the boy, whether he’s alive or dead. He’s not going to fuck this one up!

He teams up with a young pathologist for the first time – who [regular] readers will know ends up becoming his closest friend [Phil Hendricks]. It’s the first time they meet and I had a lot of fun with that. I’d already decided that they weren’t going to get on. When they first meet, they have a big row and they fall out.

There are a few little reverse Easter eggs that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line. At the very, very end of the book, we catch up with where Thorne is now – I tee him up for the next book, which won’t be out until the year after next, because the one before that is a stand-alone novel.

There’s an audio book of Cry Baby coming out too, which features David Morrissey as Thorne – a role he previously played in the Sky One TV series Thorne, which was based on adaptations of your novels Sleepyhead and Scaredycat

MB: We’ve recorded it – it was a lot of fun. I played the part of Hendricks.

Are there any plans for more of your books to be turned into TV dramas?

MB: There are adaptations in the pipeline, but it’s always so hard to talk about these things. Hopefully, there’s going to be an American adaptation of one of the stand-alones, but I can’t say too much about it and it’s all on hold because of Covid-19. Just before lockdown, because of Cry Baby, there was a suggestion of a reboot of Thorne, but, again, it’s all gone very quiet.

Finally, I have a quandary. I have all your books on a shelf at home and they’re in order of publication, but, as Cry Baby is a prequel, should I put it before Sleepyhead, or, as it’s brand new, should it go after your last novel, Their Little Secret? This has been keeping me awake at night…

MB: [laughs]: I think you’ve got to stick with the order of publication – you’ve got to put it after Their Little Secret. One of the questions people are asking me is if they haven’t ready any of my books, is Cry Baby a good entry point? Of course it is, as, in theory, it’s the first case, but if you’ve read all the Thorne books you’ll hopefully get as much fun from it as if it was the first one you’d picked up.

 

Cry Baby by Mark Billingham is published by Little, Brown on July 23: https://markbillingham.com/

 

 

‘The worst thing about music these days is that it’s ego-based and no one is telling stories…’

RW Hedges : picture courtesy of @drunktankphoto https://www.instagram.com/drunktankphoto/

RW Hedges (Roy Hedges) makes beautiful music that harks back to a golden age of songwriting and belongs in a different time and place.

His latest 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, out now on Wonderfulsound – includes three tracks taken from last year’s album, The Hills Are Old Songs, which was inspired by the American Old West and was one of our favourite records of 2019.

The title track of the EP is a lovely, timeless, acoustic-led ballad with a bossa nova feel, a twangy electric guitar solo and early Beatles harmonies, while Prairie Moon sounds like it’s from a classic Broadway musical set in the Wild West, and Trail of the Setting Sun is an atmospheric and cinematic instrumental that doffs a cowboy hat to the Spaghetti Western soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone, who died earlier this month.

Like cowboy campfire stories, The Hills Are Old Songs features a whole host of characters – alluring women, strangers with no names, outlaws and river boatmen of old Missouri.

A record that’s been lovingly crafted by Roy and his co-writer, producer, musical partner and label mate, Luca Neiri, it’s the follow-up to the 2018 album, The Hunters In The Snow, which was a more melancholy and personal collection of songs, autumnal and perfectly suited to late-night listening.

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Roy and Luca to find out about their relationship, the art of songwriting and their influences and inspirations.

Luca Neiri and RW Hedges

 

Q&A

How did you two first meet?

Luca Neiri: We went to the same school – we did art and drama together when we were teenagers.

Roy Hedges: We were 13. Someone said to me, ‘there’s this new guy who is quite funny, he’s like you – I think you’d like him.’ I said, ‘what? I’m not happy about that.’ I met him and I thought he was fantastic! I can remember that day quite clearly.

LN: We ended up being in bands together – we had a band called Starky when we were 15. I moved away to Brighton to study fine art.

RH: Starky were the most famous band who were never famous – we were so famous that no one knew who we were. Sam Williams, who worked on  I Should Coco for Supergrass, produced some of our stuff. People could see we were good…

After you went your separate ways, you both decided to work together again after a few years apart, didn’t you? How did you hook up?

LN: I was working with Colorama [Carwyn Ellis] – in the studio, doing production, and also doing The Monks Kitchen [London-based band]. Roy and I met up again in Hyde Park – I hadn’t seen him for about five years and I told him that I wanted to work with him again, to help him develop his songs. That was the beginning of The Hunters In The Snow.

RH: I was a bit shocked.

 

 

[To Roy]: Prior to working with Luca on your last two albums, you’d put out your debut record, Almanac, in 2008, and an EP called A Heart Broken, which was released in 2014…

RH: At the time of the first album I was listening to a lot of jangly, layered guitar music, like Buffalo Springfield and The Kinks. It’s somewhere between Scott Walker and The Beatles, but it’s also a bit of a bedroom record, with some Beck and Evan Dando influences. It’s a bit obvious, with riffs, but it’s done quite well, although some of it is too fast. Our production is a lot more gentle and considerate.

LN: At that time, you were still learning how to make records.

You record your music in your shed studio, which is in the back of beyond, in the Buckinghamshire countryside. What’s it like and how does it influence you?

RH: It’s on the site of a mini Victorian gardenette and it really helps us and the music that we record – it’s very beautiful.

LN: It’s like Watership Down.

RH: We’ve written an album of animal songs that we hope to put out in the future. Being in a place where you’re surrounded by animals, it can’t help but feed into the music.

LN: It’s inspiring.

RH: I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have. The only way I want to get prestige is in the music that Luca helps me to make. I don’t want to be regarded as someone who is up his own arse. Even though I’m outspoken, I have a tender centre and I need to be outside of that realm.

Do you write together or separately?

LN: A bit of both.

RH: We do work together… On The Hunters In The Snow, I wrote most of the lyrics.

LN: It was what he wanted to say, but what I wanted to play and produce. On the last record [The Hills Are Old Songs] we both wrote the lyrics. Roy would have an outline of an idea and then we’d have a conversation and try and get into the character and what he’s trying to say. He would be pacing up and down…

RH: He’s Richard Rodgers and I’m Larry Hart. One of our things is that ‘song is king’ – it’s a bit cheesy, but it makes sense for us. Those old songwriters bound their songs to their themes and characters. When Luca is producing, he answers to the song and so do I, when I’m writing a melody or a part that I think it needs. You have to constantly challenge yourself or each other, but in a gentle way.

LN: The first album we made together was more about Roy and his feelings…

RH: It was about my sadness.

LN: The Hills Are Old Songs was written from other people’s points of view – we took Roy’s character out of it.

‘I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have’

How do you write songs? Do you sit down with an acoustic guitar?

RH: Nowadays I write in the shower, or when I’m on a bike or a bus.

Let’s talk about The Hills Are Old Songs. It was inspired by the Old West and cowboy ballads, but you’re also influenced by the Great American Songbook and old Broadway musicals, aren’t you? How did the concept for the album come about?

LN: It was happenstance, but I’d read books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. We’d also studied the music of Broadway and we’d watched Oklahoma! I had an idea about the Old West.

RH: In August 2018 I bought a book, in Devon – The Westerners, by Dee Brown, and I already had a book on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as well as Badmen of the West and The Oxford History of the American West. I suddenly realised I had all these books and it came together.

I like western noir and I also had an epiphany watching South Pacific. We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side of the West, like brutal hangings. We tried to put some of that into The Hills Are Old Songs – in the second song [Deep In The Valley] the protagonist is an outlaw who is killed by his father.

LN: On this album, we knew what were doing and where we were heading. We tried to make it like a soundtrack, as it had a theme – it has a soundscape element.

We were listening to a lot of Marty Robbins and people like that. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and quiet drums in the background – neat and simple. We took that on board. For me, as a player and a producer, I was thinking: ‘what are the pieces in the puzzle?’ There’s a framework that’s already there – country music – but we’re reupholstering it.

RH: Haven’t Seen Her In A While was recorded first – that gave us the vision – and My Dearest kept us going until the end.

We’ve made a playlist of songs that inspired the sound of The Hills Are Old Songs: Sam Cooke’s I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, I’ll Be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding

‘We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side, like brutal hangings’

What is it about the Great American Songbook that inspires you?

RH: Yip Harburg was the guy who wrote the lyric for Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? He knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality – we like to think that we do too. It’s a fine balance between being sentimental and being cheesy and overly saccharine, or coming across as creepy or disingenuous. In that respect, our song Old Missouri was the hardest song to do, as I’m not a river boatman…

The worst thing about music these days is that it’s ego-based and no one is telling stories. In the modern world, everything is so complicated and everyone’s in such a rush. One of the most important things in songwriting is coherency – especially in lyrics. Nobody writes coherent lyrics [nowadays].

The Great American Songbook writers used to marry the lyrics together and the subject matter was things that human beings find eternally fascinating – like a city or a blue moon. Nowadays it’s ‘I have a feeling,’ and ‘I do this…’ I don’t care how they feel or give a fuck about what they had for breakfast! The problem is that nowadays we live in a time of individualism, whereas in those days [of the Great American Songbook], it was a time of collectivism – we need to return to a time of collectivism in order to progress.

Luca Neiri and RW Hedges

[To Roy]: You also like doo-wop and old rhythm and blues music, don’t you?

RH: If Luca wasn’t producing some of my stuff, it would sound more like the Traveling Wilburys, but, thankfully, it sounds a little bit more like The Fleetwoods.

What other projects are you working on? What would you like to do in the future?

RH: We’ve been writing two other albums – one is an album of animal songs and the other is a love album. Hopefully Luca and I will write some songs that someone else will sing, rather than me – to send a nice song out there [to someone else] is such a nice goal. I want to be a songwriter more than I want to be anything else – I don’t see myself as a singer per se, I see myself as a songwriter.

I want to get my songs out there, but I want them to be understood in the right way. We can’t wait for the world to catch up – it has to catch up with us.  We are a bit scruffy and rough around the edges, and we’re getting on a bit, but we really love doing music.

The limited edition 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, and the album  The Hills Are Old Songs by RW Hedges are both out now on Wonderfulsound. Luca Neiri’s latest album, Always You, is available on the same label.

 

‘I have always wanted my music to be authentic and true to my own experiences’

Picture by Nicola Davison-Reed

 

Matt Hill is the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner. For his new album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators – he’s decided to put it out under his own name, rather than the moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.

“In 2020 I turned 50 – it seemed the right time to ditch the Quiet Loner name and to release this album under my own name. Finally, I’m Matt Hill again,” he says.

Fittingly, it’s an album that sees him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which is the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, are set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile of DH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB. The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”

Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.

It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.

This makes for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear  – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.

Lench plays cello on Billy’s Prayer, which was written about a fairground boxer  – Billy Marchant – who turned professional and became a sensation in America, while singer-songwriter Kirsty McGee provides backing vocals on several songs. For the bluesy and upbeat opener, Stone & Bone, in which the undead rise from their graves in an ancient cemetery to terrorise the Stock Exchange in the City of London, she plays a musical saw in a stairwell, which creates an eerie and ghostly effect. She also adds flute to the gorgeous, pastoral, folk ballad, If Love Should Rise, which was inspired by the stunning landscapes of the Peak District, which is where Hill now lives.

Diehard Quiet Loner fans will be glad to know that Hill has resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the new record, although it’s now called Gary Gilmore’s Last Request – a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, sadly, we couldn’t get Johnny Cash on the phone, but we did manage to have a chat with Hill about his new album, which we think is his best yet, his musical influences, his love of Elvis Presley, his upbringing and, er, his appearances on daytime TV…

Q&A

You have described Savage Pilgrims as “Americana rooted in British history, based on your own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Why do you think US culture played such an important role in your younger years and in the lives of some of the people in the area where you grew up?

Matt Hill: It’s undoubtedly true that American culture dominated working class culture – it still does, except now it’s hip-hop and gaming. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, country music was still a strong influence. I think Western movies played a big part in that too. It wasn’t unusual to see blokes dressed up as cowboys. I don’t think it was just in the coal mining areas – it was right across the UK. But it seemed particularly strong in Nottinghamshire – we even had nodding donkeys, like on Dallas. People probably don’t know, but Nottinghamshire actually had its own oilfield. We had a long-running Americana festival in Newark and there was even a theme park just up the road from me, called the American Adventure. Notts is the Texas of the UK.

 

While we’re on the subject of classic US culture, you’re an Elvis fanatic, aren’t you? How and why did your obsession with the King come about?

MH: I became obsessed with him when I was about eight years old. It was just after he died and his films were on TV a lot. All I wanted to do was listen to him and read about him. It sounds crazy, but there was actually an Elvis shop about three miles from my house. It turned out it was the only one in the UK and it was in a Derbyshire mining town! The guy who set it up ran the British Elvis fan club too and had a direct line to Elvis and The Colonel [Tom Parker – Elvis’s manager] from his Derbyshire home!

At the very end of your song Gary Gilmore’s Last Request, it sounds like you’re doing a slight Elvis croon. Was that intentional?

MH: As for the Elvis inflection in my voice, people usually spot Costello, but, yeah, Presley is in there too.

Gary Gilmore’s Last Request is one of the more Americana / country tracks on the new record. It’s a very old song – it used to be called Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone –  and is a Quiet Loner cult classic and live favourite. Why did you resurrect it for the new album?

MH: I wrote that song in the late ‘90s, after reading Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song. Here was a guy on death row and the one thing he asked for was to speak to Johnny Cash. That one detail blew me away. I did record it around 2001 – for one of those very early Matt Hill EPs. I recorded it again for my aborted second album in 2004, and it was on the shortlist for my Spectrology album in 2010, but it just never seemed to fit on anything. Once the songs for this new record started to come together, as being more narrative and story-based, then it was really clear that Gary Gilmore belonged on this record.

If you were on death row, what would be your last request?

MH: A phone call from Johnny Cash would be right up there on my list too. But he’s not with us, so I’d probably ask for a phone call from Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. They’re probably the closest we’ve got to Johnny.

‘The songs that most appealed to me as a kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child’

Did you get into country music and then Americana from Elvis? Was it a natural step?

MH: Elvis is such a good person to listen to for a musician because he has so many different elements in his music. You will find country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, folk and soul. He really did create a kind of “cosmic American music” of his own in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. I think country music came to me around the same time I start listening to Elvis.

Once I knew about Sun Records, that introduced me to Johnny Cash. I also watched The Dukes of Hazzard and loved the theme song. And then Dr. Hook and Don Williams were two formative influences because that’s what my dad was listening to. I loved the stories in the songs – I hear things very visually, so those songs painted pictures in my head. It’s fascinating to me how the songs that most appealed to me as a 10 or 11 year-old-kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child.

You’ve published a zine to accompany the launch of your new album. In one of the articles in it, you say that an English folk singer once said he couldn’t understand why you sang in an American accent and played country. Ironically, you were being authentic to your English roots by playing music that’s come from the US the stuff you grew up with.

You also say that English folk music wasn’t on your radar until you were in your 20s. Over the past few years, you’ve embraced more folk music though, haven’t you? Songs like If Love Should Rise, Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer feel like they come more from the English folk tradition than US roots music…

MH: I feel like I’ve embraced a lot of different influences on this album and, yes, some of it is more rooted in English folk, but very loosely, because I don’t have much grounding in it. Other than Nick Drake I’ve not listened to a lot. In the early ‘90s I was briefly in a band called Seven Little Sisters that did a lot of Irish folk, as well as bluegrass, so I learned a lot from that.

‘American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing’

You mentioned that folk person who said I wasn’t being authentic. That really troubled me for a long time, because it’s true that I don’t sing in a Nottingham accent. In fact I’ve moved around so much in my life I don’t even speak with a Nottingham accent anymore. But I have always wanted my music to be authentic and true to my own experiences, so that comment really did bother me at first. But that person was wrong – American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing.

I’ve worked in prisons – all the lads there rap in American accents but it’s real to their lives. They can identify with the whole ‘gangsta’ thing because it’s about crime, money, family and tough working class upbringings. Just like country music was for a previous generation. To me, authenticity comes from the purity of your intention. The sound of a voice, like the sound of a guitar, or the way you rap, are all just stylistic. The substance of music comes from purity of intention and opening up a channel to the heart.

Picture by Nicola Davison-Reed

There are two songs about boxers /fighters on the new album: Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer. Are you trying to tell us something? Morrissey went through a phase where he was obsessed with boxers. Is it a melancholy, Northern singer-songwriter thing? Are you handy in the ring?

MH: To be honest, I’m not a fan of boxing. I find it brutal and I see a class aspect to it that I really don’t like. It’s controlled by very rich people, paying ridiculous amounts of money to watch working class men and women beat each other up. But, on the other hand, boxing gyms play an important role in working class communities. A gym can give kids hope and discipline and self-belief in environments where that stuff is in short supply. So I have mixed feelings about it. But I’m always in search of a good story and Bendigo is a great story and connects to my family and roots. The story of Billy Marchant is fascinating, so I had to put that song on the album too.

Did you have a long list of songs for the new album?

MH: I started with about 25 songs. I worked with Kirsty McGee on the pre-production. She has such a good grasp of songwriting and I really value her opinion. We’d also done a fair bit of touring together, I’d been to Holland and Germany with her and so she knew my live set pretty well, so she helped me whittle down 25 songs into an album. For me, when I’m making an album I always have so many songs – it’s not a case of picking the best 11, but of finding the songs that belong together. I’m passionate about albums for that reason and I get sad that technology formats are rendering them obsolete.

Savage Pilgrims is a musically diverse record: folk, blues, country/ Americana, gospel and spirituals. What kind of inspirations and influences were you drawing on?

MH: This comes back to what I was saying about Elvis – all those American music forms you mention. I’ve spent my life listening to those, so they come out in the way I perform. Some of that comes from the choices we made when recording too. Sam Lench is really knowledgeable about folk music, so when he added a guitar part on If Love Should Rise he chose a weird guitar tuning, so it sounds proper folky. Four Corners is about a crossroads, so I wrote blues influences into that from the very start. Those sort of musical choices really colour the music.

Picture by Nicola Davison-Reed

What inspired the striking album art? I really like the moody, black and white look you’ve gone for – the photos of you are great…

MH: I put out four albums as Quiet Loner and nowhere on any of those albums will you find a photograph of me – not even on the inside. That was a choice. So because this was a fresh start, I decided I would go in the opposite direction and stick a photo of myself on the cover. So then I had to find the right person to work with. I was really drawn to working with Nicola Davison-Reed, after seeing her portrait work online. I talked to her about the sound of the record and the vintage sounds we used – she did the rest. She’s an incredible artist and I’m delighted with the results that she got.

As well as Savage Pilgrims, you’ve also put out a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection. It’s called Twenty/Twenty – An Introduction To Matt Hill and is available as a free 20-track download from your website. How was it going through your back catalogue to put that together?

MH: Prior to lockdown I’d been rehearsing regularly with James Youngjohns, who I’ve been making music with for 20 odd years. James encouraged me to delve into the back catalogue and we were playing songs from that first album. So when it came to putting 20 tracks together, I’d already been looking back and deciding what I liked and what I didn’t.

There are some rarities on it, like She Means Everything, which is Matt Hill does pop-soul! Do you have a lot of unreleased stuff in the vaults? Isn’t there a ‘lost’ album? Will it ever see the light of day?

MH: There is indeed a lost album and that song, She Means Everything, is from it. I recorded it in 2004 – the year Secret Ruler of the World [debut album] came out.  I wasn’t a happy person at the time and my anxieties and insecurities got the better of me and I ended up shelving it. It’s something I now regret. That album means a lot to me because it features my friend Chris Evans. He and Mike Harries put a tremendous amount of work into that album and it would be nice to get it released at some point. Chris took his own life in 2013. A few days before he died we had met up and were reminiscing about that lost album and making plans to work together on a new one. It was not to be.

Have you written any new songs recently? Has lockdown inspired you?

MH: I have written some new songs but I’m definitely not getting any inspiration from lockdown. I’ve got a few political songs and there are a couple that I think are decent – one about a soldier coming back from World War II and another about living with chronic illness. I probably only release about a third of all the songs I write.

‘I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living’

What are your plans for the rest of 2020?

MH: I’m hopefully releasing a new album with a band project called The Low Drift, but, aside from, that I really don’t know. So much of how I make my living is tied up in delivering songwriting workshops. These are usually delivered in community settings, like at a homeless centre, in a prison, or at a dementia care home. None of those sessions have been able to continue, but I’m hoping to begin work on a songwriting project that’s being done over the phone.

Picture by DMC Photographic

Longer term, I think we will see a massive crash in the economy and that always hurts funding for the arts and charities. I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living this time next year. Sadly there will be many people in that position – not just musicians and artists.

Finally, you’ve had several brushes with fame – and infamy. You’ve appeared on daytime TV – Flog It! and The Jeremy Kyle Show – played at Glastonbury, thanks to Billy Bragg; you once had to shake Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hand, and you spoke with Jimmy Savile about Elvis! How would you like to be remembered?

MH: Thanks for reminding me of some of my darkest days! Yes, it’s true – I have met more than my fair share of villains! For many years I had to go to all the Party Conferences for my job, so I have met so many politicians and journalists, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for meeting Jeremy Kyle, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jimmy Savile! I would be happy to settle for simply being remembered fondly by my surviving friends and family.

Savage Pilgrims by Matt Hill is released on July 6 (Quiet Loner Records).

There will be an online album launch event on Sunday June 28, at 8pm: details on Matt Hill’s Facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/matthillsongwriter/

https://matthillsongwriter.com/

https://quietloner.bandcamp.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the North West was won

Remember life before lockdown? At the start of the year, all we had to worry about was how to cope with a massive, post-Christmas comedown – little did we know what was around the corner…

Luckily, as 2020 kicked off, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we had the debut single by UK Americana band West on Colfax, from Preston, to cheer us up. As we said at the time:Influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt, it’ll put a jangle in your January… two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.’

West on Colfax – left to right: Pete Barnes (lead guitar and vocals), Alan Hay (vocals and guitar), Mike Lambert (drums) and Scott Carey (bass)

Now, five months later, after two more singles – the similarly jangly and equally irresistible Misty Morning Blue and the ragged country-rock of Barfly Flew By – as well as an impromptu EP called Lockdown Lowdown, which was hastily put together while the band members were in isolation and showcases a more mellow, acoustic side to their sound, including the gorgeous, banjo-assisted ballad, Back Out On The Run, West on Colfax are gearing up to release their first album Barfly Flew By.

It’s already one of our favourite records of the year. From the ’70s Rolling Stones country feel of The Line, with its bluesy guitar licks and warm Hammond organ, to the late-night barroom romance of Cowgirl of the County (“She was the cowgirl of the county – she leant into me gently. We chose the songs on the jukebox – I don’t think I’ve been as happy”), the twangy Tinsel Heart, the rough and ready, battered and beaten-up road trip of Tyre Marks (“The tyre marks you left across my heart are all that’s now left…”) and the world-weary, yet, ultimately, optimistic, electric piano-led ballad, Light Again, which closes the album, it’s clear West on Colfax wear their classic country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana influences on the sleeves of their well-worn plaid shirts. These are songs that are best listened to while staring at the bottom of your glass, but they also have a reassuring warmth to them. The band describe their music as, ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives but with hope.’

In an exclusive interview, we chat to Alan Hay (vocals and guitar); Scott Carey (bass) and Pete Barnes (lead guitar and vocals) about the roots of the band, get the inside story on the writing and recording of the new LP, find out how these barflys have been coping with the Covid-19 lockdown and ask them to tell us what music has been keeping them sane…

Q&A

How did the band come together?

Alan Hay: I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in! We were just doing cover versions and it was very casual, but, after a while, I approached Scott with the idea of doing some original stuff and taking things a bit more seriously.

Scott Carey: I met Alan when I was in a fledgling Americana covers band called The Low Highway and we needed a singer. Alan answered the ad and although he’d never sung in a band before there was something about him. We became friends very quickly, bonding over our love of Americana music. Someone suggested doing a couple of our own original songs. I was reticent at first, as it’s hard pushing your own stones up a hill.

The covers we were doing were fairly obscure to your average pub punter – Wilco, The Jayhawks, Mudcrutch, Richard Hawley, The Band etc. Alan asked me if had any lyrics? I said, ‘No – but leave it with me.’ That night I sent him the words to The Line, which is the second track on our album, and he turned it into a song that we actually liked.

Alan Hay: vocals and guitar

That opened the floodgates and led to The Low Highway set becoming mostly originals. Since then we’ve written enough for four albums and we’re still going. We had some line-up changes and then Alan and I decided to give it a go [as West on Colfax]. We then found a great lead guitar player, Pete Barnes, through an advert, and changed our drummer three times! We’ve just got together with a multi-instrumentalist called Ian Aylward-Barton, who has provided the final piece of the puzzle.

‘I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in!’

Pete Barnes: I joined Alan and Scott in very early 2018. They already had the band name and were working on some originals of theirs with a drummer, Adrian, and keyboard player, Nick. I was looking for something to do musically and their ad caught my eye, as it was very different to the usual – it was specific, pretty straightforward and name-checked some lesser-known bands that I was into, like Whiskeytown. The problem was that the ad was for a drummer, not a guitar player. I answered it anyway, and I thought, ‘well I can probably hire a kit for a bit and I know I can bash out a basic beat’.

As it transpired, the original drummer, Adrian, had re-joined the band in the meantime, so Scott, having discovered I was really a guitar player, asked me to come down and try out on guitar. I quickly relaxed and realised they were a good bunch of guys – the music came together really naturally. We played a few gigs and recorded a couple of songs, Stars and The Line, then, a bit later, Adrian decided playing originals wasn’t really his thing so he left, followed by Nick a few months later. Eventually we found Mike to play the drums, and then Ian joined more recently.

The band name is a reference to the work of songwriter and author Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines), isn’t it? The first album by The Delines is called Colfax

SC: Yes. I had the phrase ‘West on’ for a couple of days and was playing Colfax by The Delines. I asked Alan if West on Colfax would be a cheesy name? He said it wouldn’t. Shortly afterwards I went to a book reading and a performance by Willy Vlautin and The Delines. I told him about the name and he seemed genuinely chuffed. He signed my copy of his novel Don’t Skip Out On Me: ‘To West on Colfax – good luck with your band!’

You’re based in Lancashire – the North West. What’s the Americana scene like there?

SC: We all live about a 20-mile radius away from our base, which is Preston. We have been trying to start a scene there, putting on a quarterly Americana night at The New Continental, whose promoter, Rob Talbot, is really supportive of us.

We’ve built it up with regular people returning and we’ve been making friends along the way with local bands that we’ve put on : Red Moon Joe, The Amber List, Simon James and the River Pilots, and The JD Band, as well as artists from Manchester: Matt Grayson lead singer of The Swells, and Cornelius Crane.

We’ve played with Matt Hill [aka Quiet Loner] – I worked with him in London – and Nev Cottee, who I played with in Seventh House and also in the first line-up of his solo band. We’d like them to appear with us in Preston in the future.

You’ve had a busy year so far. You put out your debut single, Choke Hold, in January, then you followed it up with two more, plus the Lockdown Lowdown EP, and now your debut album is out soon. How has the Covid-19 lockdown affected you as a band? Obviously it’s meant that you haven’t been able to play any gigs…

SC: The album was going to have three different songs on it, but lockdown put that on hold, so we’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound, which we will be exploring more in the future, in tandem with the more upbeat material.

AH: The lockdown has probably affected the band more than any other part of my life – a lot of things have just carried on as normal, but with minor disruption. Yes, we’ve had to rethink our plans for 2020, but I suppose we’re fortunate that we don’t rely on our music to make a living. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to carry on going out to work as normal, so haven’t had the psychological or financial worries that a lot of people have had during lockdown.

Scott Carey: bass

‘We’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound’

PB: Lockdown has been strange for us, as it has for everyone. We are all key workers, so we’ve still been going to work, or working from home, but obviously, we’ve had no rehearsals or been meeting up. On the flip side, it has been quite productive, as we’ve produced the Lockdown Lowdown EP, which contains songs that may not have come out yet under normal circumstances. In fact they weren’t originally planned for the LP, but we decided to put them together with some stuff we recorded late last year, to balance the album out.

I think it makes for an interesting listening experience overall. Also it’s a good indication of where the band are at right now and where we may be heading in the future, as there is a broader mix of styles on there than we might have had if it were not for the lockdown changing everyone’s circumstances.

Let’s talk about your album, Barflew Flew By. How was it written and recorded?

SC: Alan and I wrote most of the songs on the album, but I wrote the lyrics for the track Barfly Flew By and Pete turned it into a song. He also wrote Back Out On The Run, which is wonderfully catchy and mellow – it’s our Elizabeth My Dear.

The process is that I write the lyrics, which are mainly about lessons learnt through life and past experiences, or imaginary characters, like in Barfly Flew By and Cowgirl of the County.  Then I give them to Alan, who has the hard job of making them into something we want people to hear. For every track that makes it, there are two that don’t.

AH: We didn’t have to write songs specifically for the album – a lot of the songs had been around in the live set for a few years, but some weren’t intended for this record. We had about half the album recorded, but lockdown forced us to re-think. It’s not the album we intended to make, it’s born out of circumstance, but I’m glad about that. I think it’s got more balance to it than it might have had.

PB: Whoever has an idea brings it to rehearsal and we all try to contribute and improve on it. It’s a fairly democratic process and I have found there is a lot of room in Scott and Alan’s songs for me to add things and play quite freely. The arrangements get shaken out a bit during rehearsals and, again, it’s quite open. We seem to have a pretty natural chemistry, so it never feels like we have to force anything – it tends to come quite easily. We’re just moving into me doing lead vocals for my own songs, like Back Out On The Run, which, hopefully, will broaden our sound a bit more.

‘We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track – it’s not perfect, but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful!’

SC: We recorded the album with Matt Gallagher and his pal David Shurr, who are both really good artists in their own right, at The Premises in Preston. Wilco are one of Matt’s favourite bands and Sky Blue Sky is his favourite LP – I agree with him on that, so I knew he was the right person to record with. We hit it off instantly.

We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track, like bands used to do. It means it’s not perfect but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful! They’re a much better band than us, but we love that vibe.

The first single, Choke Hold, reminds me of Teenage Fanclub…

SC: Yes – we’re huge fans. Teenage Fanclub sound like Big Star, who in turn, wanted to be The Byrds – it’s linear. We’re all looking back to go forward. That said, we believe we have something to offer – we’re more than a tribute act and we are proud of our songwriting. Our other influences are Drive-By Truckers, Richmond Fontaine, The Byrds, R.E.M, Golden Smog…

AH: We have some of the same influences as Teenage Fanclub – The Byrds, Big Star etc. I’m a big fan. Wilco are a huge influence as well – the list is endless, I think all the music you absorb during your lifetime has some influence, whether you realise it or not.

PB: Alan and Scott love Teenage Fanclub – that comparison has been made a lot. They never featured in my imagination much, to be honest, but since joining the band I’ve listened to them for the first time and appreciate them a bit more.

Pete Barnes: lead guitar and vocals

We all have different influences. Aside from the obvious Americana ones we share, like Neil Young, War On Drugs, Wilco, Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks, The Byrds etc, I also listen to other genres – all sorts. I think the other guys are the same. We like anything that’s good, really – we’re all massive music fans. Sixties stuff like Love, as well as folk music, like Bert Jansch and John Martyn, are influences.

‘Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting’

I’m getting into Townes Van Zandt and I also quite like some early ‘90s shoegaze-type bands like Slowdive – their most recent album is fantastic. Those very early Verve singles and their b-sides, Gravity Grave, She’s A Superstar and Feel, as well as their first album, A Storm In Heaven, meant a lot to me growing up, along with some some ‘70s punk and New Wave. The Pogues and The Dubliners are in there too, as well as Miles Davis and Can, and some ambient/electronic music too. Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting. I think, in truth, we’re all probably more obsessed with our own band than any other.

I think your song The Line sounds like The Rolling Stones at times…

SC: I’ll leave Alan to answer that, but being told we sound like The Stones and Teenage Fanclub is okay by me.

AH: It’s a fair comment. I love The Stones and I wrote the music in an open G tuning, on a Telecaster, so maybe that was inevitable. The Line was the first song Scott and I wrote together. I love the lyrics – there are some great lines in there.

Back Out On The Run is one of my favourite songs on the album – it has a more stripped-down, traditional country/ Americana feel than some of the others. What can you tell me about it?

PB: The song is a pretty dark, small town love story about truth, retribution and freedom. It’s about long-lost lovers brought back together by seismic events. It’s quite a short track on the album, but it’s like a mini movie in my head.

‘I’ve gone through some bleak years, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything’

I wrote the song pretty quickly and recorded it at home. It’s really just me playing guitar and singing, with a bit of extra guitar and backing vocals, so it is simple and stripped-back. A bit later Ian put his banjo on and that was it. I really like the energy and simplicity of it. It does sound a bit different to the other songs and it’s a new direction for us, which I’d like to take further and build on.

SC: Pete sings on it and he has just a natural ability to sound melancholy, but be darn catchy while doing it. I wake up with that song and Light Again in my head a lot.

Let’s talk about Light Again, which is the final song on the album. It’s about being world-weary – someone who is being dragged down by the toil of everyday life, but it’s ultimately an optimistic song isn’t it? It feels apt for these times.

SC: Yes – exactly. It’s about depression and how it’s circular. Dark times and good times. It’s a message of hope, of saying: ‘look you’re down now, but hang on, you’ll get through it’. I’ve gone through some bleak years recently, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything.

In true Americana fashion, there’s a fair amount of melancholy, heartbreak and drinking on the album. When it comes to the drinking, I’m particularly thinking of the title track and Cowgirl of the County. What can you tell me about those songs?

SC: Barfly and Cowgirl are two sides of one coin. They are about how men in general deal with problems from the bottom of a jar. The character in Cowgirl realises he’s just like his dad but is rescued by love. The Barfly character has no such luck – he’s damaged and broken and lives out his days in a perma-neon lit gloom, where hope is for others. The guy and his ‘friends’ who live this life aren’t hopeless, but have resigned themselves to it – that is all there is for them.

 

Are you big drinkers?

SC: I used to drink heavily, but not now, as it doesn’t help me.

AH: I’ll give you the same answer I give my doctor – I enjoy a small sherry on the Queen’s birthday.

PB: I think we all like to have a drink to unwind sometimes.

Have you written and recorded any new songs during lockdown?

SC: I’ve written five new lyrics, which I’ve sent to Alan. He’s put them on the pile and I’m waiting to see how they’ll turn out.

AH: We’ve always got songs on the go. We recorded our EP in lockdown but didn’t write the songs at that time.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will there be another single from the album? Will you be playing gigs when the live music scene returns?

SC: We have some songs we’ve already worked on that are lined up for another album – we’re getting them to a stage where we can record again. We want to play some gigs. There’s a country music festival in Wrexham at the end of August – I just hope it happens. We were looking at doing an Americana all-dayer at The New Continental – it may now have be a Christmas special.

AH: I don’t see another single coming from this album, so the next release will be something new. We had a couple of exciting gigs lined up that had to be postponed, so we’re looking forward to new dates for those.

You’re releasing your material on your own label, Greenhorse Records. Do you plan to sign any other artists to it?

SC: Yes. For now it’s a vehicle for West on Colfax, but I want to put out a compilation of the bands that have played our Americana night. In the future we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album.

 

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? Any recommendations?

PB: I’ve quite liked the quieter lifestyle to be honest, and having some time to be more relaxed and not rushing about everywhere. Music-wise, I spend a lot of time listening to our band or my own songs that I’m working on. Other than that I’ve been listening to The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass for the first time in a long while, and I’ve heard a bit of the new Jason Isbell album [Reunions], which is quite good. I’ve also been listening to Tennessee Square by Whiskeytown and I’ve really got into Sunflower Bean over the past couple of years. I think they’re a brilliant group  – a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band and great musicians and songwriters.

‘Our label, Greenhorse Records, is a vehicle for West on Colfax, but we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album’

I heard Elephant Tree on the radio recently for the first time and I really like their new album Habits – it’s a bit like Alice In Chains meets Slowdive. It’s not very Americana, but I’m into any genre really, as long as it is good music and moves me.

I briefly met Joana Serrat after she supported The Delines in Bury last year and I picked up a copy of her record Dripping Springs, which is a great album. The songs are simple but well arranged and accompanied. It sounds very natural and immersive – she has a beautiful voice.

AH: There’s so much good, new music around and it’s so accessible that it’s hard to keep up. My daughter bought me the re-release of OK Computer on vinyl, which has rekindled my love of Radiohead so, yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead.

SC: Of late I’ve been listening to Dropkick – we want them to come to Preston, so we’ve discussed gig swapping in the future. I’ve been watching Peter Bruntnell’s home gigs streams, as well as Wilco gigs on YouTube, and I’ve been listening to Jeff Parker’s new LP, as well as various old stuff. I’ve made a Spotify playlist – some of the tunes that are helping us keep sane.

 

You can listen to West on Colfax’s lockdown soundtrack here.

Barflew Flew By (Greenhorse Records) is released on June 17.

https://westoncolfax.bandcamp.com/

 

 

 

 

 

‘Online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing’

My Darling Clementine – picture by Marco Bakker

UK husband and wife duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – are set to release the second four-track EP from their Country Darkness project next month. 

It picks up where Volume 1. left off and sees the pair reinterpreting the country and country-soul songs of Elvis Costello, aided and abetted by keyboardist Steve Nieve (The Attractions and The Imposters), as well as members of Richard Hawley’s backing band: Colin Elliot (bass), Shez Sheridan (guitar) and Dean Beresford (drums). 

In an exclusive interview, Michael talks us through the songs on the new record – Either Side Of The Same Town, I Lost You, Different Finger – the first single from the EP – and Too Soon To Know; reveals how he’s been occupying his time during lockdown and shares his hopes and fears for what will happen to live music when we emerge from the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Picture by Nick Small

 

Q & A

How are you? How have you been coping with lockdown? 

Michael Weston King: Up and down to be honest. Some days I feel okay with it – I rather like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?’ To quote Charles Bukowski, “I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what?”

Any advice on how to get through it?

MWK: Advice? I’m not sure I am the man for that, but maybe try and achieve something by the end of the day. That could be anything – even if it’s just tidying a room, or clearing stuff out. Set a small task and do it. There is a sense of purpose to be gained from it. Little victories. And go for walks. It’s not always easy, depending on where you live, but natural light is important.

A close friend of mine lives in rural, idyllic Herefordshire and I am very jealous of him at times like these. I live in Manchester – it’s not the greenest of cities, but everywhere looks better when the sun is shining, and, thankfully, it has been of late.

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music have you been listening to –  old and new?

MWK: I have mainly been listening to our daughter, Mabel, practising piano, recorder and drums, and singing at full volume, but when that subsides, it has been a mix of old and new: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Heron, early ‘70s Springsteen, Jessie Winchester, Crazy Horse (without Neil Young) and Jim Ford. I’ve also been getting back into Levon Helms’ Dirt Farmer album.

One of my favourite ever artists / songwriters is Roddy Frame and somehow I had missed out on his album The North Star, which is from 1998.

My pal Danny Champ reminded me about it, saying it was his favourite Roddy album, so that has been a fabulous (re)discovery. God, that album should have made him huge. It has some of his best songs on it – and that is saying something. And, of course, after the terribly sad news about John Prine, I revisited his whole back catalogue.

New releases? I have been enjoying the new Laura Marling album – she is a marvel. There aren’t many who are coming close to her right now. The new album, Song For Our Daughter, is yet to reach the heights of its predecessor, Semper Femina, yet. Maybe it will after a few more plays.

‘Some days I feel okay with lockdown – I like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?”

I’m also loving the new A Girl Called Eddy [aka Erin Moran]  album Been Around. Her debut – and last album – from well over 10 years ago, was coincidentally co-produced by Colin Elliot, who I have been working with for the last few years on My Darling Clementine releases. I recall Erin and I did a joint show many years ago, along with Peter Bruntnell and Thea Gilmore, for Mojo magazine. I have not seen her since but we reconnected again online recently.

I checked out new albums from Logan Ledger (produced by T. Bone Burnett) and Pokey LaFarge while I was out for a walk recently. The jury’s still out on both of those for me, though Logan has covered what I consider something of a lost country classic, Skip A Rope. Originally recorded by Henson Cargill in the late ’60s, it is a kind of a country protest song.

Have you written any new songs during lockdown? When we last spoke, in October 2019, you said you’d been suffering from writer’s block. Has that passed?

MWK: I wouldn’t say it has passed, but it has eased a little. I still have far too many unfinished songs, and now have an increasing number of new, unfinished ideas. I need a target, a deadline to make me get my ass in gear, a date for when things have to be ready by. I am currently living by the Irish mantra: “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

I have written and completed a new song, called No One Comes Close. It’s about the way the NHS staff have been treated by the Tory government for the past 10 years, and how the likes of Johnson and Gove are now fawning all over the health workers.

It was not long ago they were cheering in the House of Commons, having won a vote not to increases nurses’ wages. It is hypocrisy on the grandest of scales. I feel sick every time I see them clapping on a Thursday night. The song is up on YouTube as part of the Artists4NHS campaign, and I hope it will raise a few quid.

You had plans for a new solo album. What’s the latest on that?

MWK: I don’t record at home – I always go into a studio with an engineer and a co-producer, so until we can do that again it remains just a plan and not a reality. I also have all those songs to finish, so I can’t say really, but I would like to at least record it this year. It has been a long time since I made a solo record, so maybe it could be a double album. One acoustic and one electric?

As professional musicians, how has Covid-19 affected you and Lou?

MWK: It has affected us greatly, as it has so many musicians, especially those of us who make most of our income from playing live. We have lost over 50 shows and I fear there is more to come. That is quite a chunk of change, and even though a good number of the shows have been rescheduled, it still means a long period without income.

Picture by Marco Bakker
Are you optimistic about the future? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’ Are you worried?

MWK: As for forward planning, the great uncertainty means many venues and promoters don’t want to commit just yet. Our next shows are in September and I am getting anxious that they might not happen too.

Long-term I do think it will get back to how it was. People like to commune and come together for things – there is nothing better than coming together for music. My fear is how many venues, promoters and even musicians will be out of business when things are ready to go back?

Even though it is proving a useful stopgap for musicians and music fans alike, online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing.

Last time we spoke, it was ahead of the release of Country Darkness Vol. 1 – your reinterpretations of country and country-soul songs written by Elvis Costello.
You recorded the tracks with Steve Nieve, keyboardist with The Attractions and The Imposters, and members of Richard Hawley’s band. Vol. 2 is out in June. What can you tell us about the new record? When and where was it recorded and how were the sessions?

MWK: We did exactly what we did with Vol 1. Lou, Steve and I got together to decide on the key, the tempo and the basic arrangement, then we left Steve to record a solo piano or keyboard track from his studio in Paris, setting the feel for the songs, before sending it to producer Colin Elliot back in England. We would then go into Yellow Arch Studio in Sheffield and complete the full arrangement with the band.

Once again, you’ve put your own stamp on the songs. How did you tackle the arrangements and decide on the feel and treatments?

MWK: We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so. Also for Steve, who played on some of the originals, he was keen to do something different.

Let’s talk about the songs. The first track is Either Side Of The Same Town

MWK: Without question, it’s one of our favourite Elvis Costello songs, of any style. I think Elvis must have been listening to a lot of Dan Penn when he wrote this. It is a song mined from the same seam as his song, The Dark End Of The Street, which was a hit for James Carr.

Either Side… was originally written for another great soul voice, Howard Tate, who recorded it before Elvis did.

In 2006, Lou was on tour with The Brodsky Quartet and they performed a version of this song, arranged for quartet and voice by Brodsky viola player, Paul Cassidy, which was based on the original demo Elvis had given to Paul. It’s quite a lot different from how it ended up on Elvis’s The Delivery Man album, and in turn, very different from our version.

We have kept the country-soul feel, but added an extra verse to accommodate a guitar solo and also gone with a more understated vocal approach to it.

‘We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so’

What about I Lost You?

MWK: That song comes from Elvis’s more acoustic, bluegrass album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and is co-written by Jim Lauderdale, who was also part of the touring ensemble Costello put together at that time.

Lou and I shared a festival bill with Jim at the River Town Festival in Bristol in 2017 and our paths have crossed a few times, most recently at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. Jim is one of the sweetest and funniest guys, and a master of the high harmony. He’s a very fine songwriter too.

The original version of this opens with a guitar riff, which then reoccurs later. We replaced that with Steve’s arpeggiated piano motif. Although written originally for one voice, the song works particularly well as a conversational duet.

What about the first single from the EP, Different Finger?

MWK: It’s a song that just had to be done for this project. It’s one of Elvis’s most authentic honky-tonkers. Like Stranger in the House [which is on the first Country Darkness EP], it is a classic country song, although still with a few songwriting idiosyncrasies that are totally Costello, as opposed to the simplicity of say Harlan Howard or Merle Haggard.

Steve had played on the original, so we wanted to find a different approach, as we have tried with all of these songs, so for this we went with the Marty Robbins treatment. Hats off to Piero Tucci for some stunning accordion playing, and also the beautiful Spanish guitar styling of Shez Sheridan.

The final track on the new EP is Too Soon To Know

MWK: This song turned out much more moody and atmospheric than any of us thought. In 2016, Darlene Love recorded it, duetting with Bill Medley – she approached it in that true ‘60s soul style she is famous for.

I had initially thought we may also go in that direction, but once Steve had set the tone with his spooky keys, and sombre feel, the song went somewhere else altogether, and I would argue it’s all the better for it.

We have taken a more understated vocal approach to try and set it apart from previous versions. Of any of the songs we have cut so far, this track personifies the phrase ‘Country Darkness.’

Picture by Marco Bakker
You have one more Country Darkness EP to release – Vol. 3 – followed by an album of the same name, which will include all of the songs from the project.
What’s the latest on the third volume and when will the album come out?  Have you recorded the next EP?

MWK: Lou and I had got together with Steve in Manchester in March, on a day off during the recent Elvis Costello tour. We were due to go into the studio a few days later, but that turned out to be the week lockdown came into effect. It should have all been done by now. We have five more Costello songs to record, plus a new My Darling Clementine song. It’s so frustrating. I just hope we can resume ASAP.

Do you know if Elvis has heard the first EP?

MWK: We saw him very briefly after the Manchester show and he thanked us for the record. We didn’t really get chance to talk about it much, as he was being ushered out the venue, plus Lou was busy wisecracking with him about his choice of stage exit music – Ken Dodd’s We Are The Diddy Men!

Finally, this country – and many others – has experienced a lot of darkness recently. What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is lifted?

MWK: I have a list of five things:

1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.

2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.

3) Getting back on stage.

4) Getting back in the studio.

5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there!

I actually re-wrote the lyrics for Tom T Hall’s very sweet, but rather saccharine song I Like, and called it I Miss. I’m not sure it needs to be committed to YouTube or Facebook, or maybe it will be, one night, after a bottle of wine… I had a line about missing browsing in record shops, with you in mind, Sean, but I haven’t found the second line yet. Anyway, in answer to your question, here is what ‘I Miss.’

I Miss

I miss
going to her house, sitting on the couch, her upon my knee
and tea
I miss climbing up some hill, dragging them against their will, saying theirs legs ache
and cake
And I miss you too

——–

I miss
going to the game, walking home in the rain, calling out the team,
and dreams
I miss going to the pub, giving friends a hug, putting the world to rights,
curry nights
And I miss you too

——–

I miss getting on the stage, thinking I’m all the rage
Drinks in hotel bars, and cars
I miss driving through the night, crossing borders when it’s light, hearing another voice
and choice
And I miss you too

Country Darkness Vol.2 by My Darling Clementine is released on June 5 (Fretsore Records). The single, Different Finger, is available to stream and download now. 

You can pre-order the 12in EP here: https://linktr.ee/countrydarknessvol2

www.mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/

‘I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown’

Robin Bennett

In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, singer-songwriter Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires and Bennett Wilson Poole)  reflects on lockdown, looks back at the making of his 2005 solo mini-album Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, which has just been made available online for the first time, and updates us on the eagerly-awaited second album from Bennett Wilson Poole.

One of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is that lockdown has given musicians more time to dig around in their vaults and release rare or unheard material online for their fans to enjoy while stuck indoors.

Oxford-based singer-songwriter Robin Bennett, who is one third of Americana and jangle-pop supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole and, with his brother Joe, is one of the main members of The Dreaming Spires, has made his hard to find 2005 solo mini-album, the eight-track Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, available to stream or download from Bandcamp.

Released under the pseudonym Dusty Sound System, it was written and recorded over a week in Los Angeles, California, in January 2005, at the time of the Iraq War. The songs, which were laid down in a day, were composed with his friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power (The And/Ors).

Robin and Danny spent most mornings watching the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back before getting down to songwriting and it shows – album opener, the riotous, bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll  of The One And Only Lost Boy, sounds like a homage to mid-’60s electric Dylan, while Nation At War and I’m A Soldier are both folky protest songs.

Nothing I Can’t Do Without  is a lovely, fragile acoustic ballad, You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is anthemic country rock, the sombre, piano-led ballad As I Lay Dying has a Lennon feel, and Don’t Sleep Alone is yet more raw, Dylanesque rock ‘n’roll.

The album was recorded in a studio owned by Rob Campanella ( Brian Jonestown Massacre) and features a cast of friends and local musicians, including Bobby Bones, Darren Rademaker (The Tyde) and Jason Anchondo (The Warlocks).

Mixed back in England with Rowland Prytherch, after the addition of harmony vocals by Piney Gir and Cat Martino, the album was mastered by Tim Turan in Oxford and originally released in 2005 on Truck Records.

Ironically, considering its title, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror sometimes sounds like it’s gone for a great night out on the town – one of the songs is called It Takes No Talent To Party – but, more often that not, it’s waking up the morning after, bleary-eyed and melancholic.

“There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California –  it must have been the sunshine,” says Robin.

Q&A

How are you and how have you been coping with lockdown?

Robin Bennett: I live in a somewhat isolated spot anyway, so, in some ways, not a lot has changed, although my children are at home. Thankfully the weather has mostly been good and we are lucky enough to have a garden. A lot of the meetings I have to attend due to my council work (Robin is a cabinet member for development and regeneration at South Oxfordshire District Council) have moved online, so I’m pretty busy. I’ve also got a small home recording set-up to keep my musical side occupied.

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

RB: I’ve definitely been drawn to listening to music, old and new. I bought a new record player from Danny Wilson’s [Bennett Wilson Poole, Danny and the Champions of the World] shop, Union Music Store, to help me make the most of my vinyl collection.

I’ve also joined in with a few of Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – diverse selections from The Chemical Brothers to The Flaming Lips, which was stuff from when I was first getting into music and going out. My old band Goldrush supported The Flaming Lips in 2002 and went on to record with Dave Fridmann.

The other night I went back to some classics on vinyl that I haven’t listened to in a while, due to over-familiarity – like Neil Young’s After the Goldrush. I like the way the internet allows shared listening. I joined in with the Clubhouse Records crew, who were listening to The Band’s Stagefright last weekend. Opinion was divided on whether it’s a lost classic.

‘The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past’

We’ve also got a crappy Dansette in the shed, where we’ve been dancing to 7-inch singles with the kids, mostly The Beatles or stuff from the Britpop era, when I was buying 7-inches.

Although it’s a pain for artists – including Bennett Wilson Poole – that the release cycle has been disrupted, it’s created an interesting pause in the normal torrent of attention-grabbing. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past. The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia.

Have you written any new songs during lockdown?

RB: Not really. I have demoed a whole pile of songs from my notebook though – some of them are going back years. I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown.

During lockdown, you’ve decided to make your 2005 Dusty Sound System mini-album, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror available on Bandcamp. What was the thinking behind that?

RB: It was partly because of just having the time and space to do it. Although it was originally released in a pretty minimal way, it has a bit of a reputation in some circles, and I wanted people to be able to hear it – those who didn’t have one of the few original CD copies.

The album is 15 years old. How you do feel about it now? How old were you when you made it and what music were you into at the time?

RB: Um… I was 26! One thing I remember from the time is that Bright Eyes was just releasing his two albums on the same day, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. I was very impressed by that – the US press were calling him ‘the new Bob Dylan’ at the time.

Since first going to the US in 2003, to record and tour with Mark Gardener of Ride, my Goldrush bandmates and I had been introduced to a whole swathe of US independent acts, from Death Cab For Cutie to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I met, or played with, many of them.

I was impressed how the scale of the US allowed these bands to have a viable career without signing to a major label, which was more or less impossible in the UK at the time.

There were also records that were more abundant in American record stores, like Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash, that I’d not really come across before. Big Star and Gram Parsons loomed large too. I also got into The Jayhawks around then –I’m not sure how I’d avoided them previously. We also listened to a lot of old Bob Dylan – especially The Bootleg Series Volume 2.

What’s the story behind the album? How did it come about? You went to L.A. and  you wrote the record in a week, with your friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power – and you recorded in it a day. That must have been a hell of a week!

RB: I’d always largely been the lyric writer in Goldrush – in the early days, songs used to come together in a somewhat miraculous way, without a lot of forethought, but, of course, that method can dry up. When we went to record with Dave Fridmann in 2003, I was still finishing lyrics in the studio, which stressed me out no end. I knew there had to be a more structured way of writing.

I worked with Mark Gardener on some of the songs for his solo album, and found that I could be useful as a co-writer. Then, with Danny, we found such a close rapport that extending into co-writing happened almost by default.

‘L.A. was a whole different world and very inspiring. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying doughnuts and coffee, and then trying to write’

Goldrush had US visas, so we took the opportunity to spend as much time there as we could, staying in Brooklyn, or at Danny’s house in L.A., even when not touring. I applied for a PRS grant, which gave me the chance to go over and do some writing with Danny in January 2005. He lived just off Sunset Boulevard, between Echo Park and Silverlake, in a shared house, with a few bohemian friends who were always welcoming.

It was a whole different world and very inspiring for me. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching bits of Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying some doughnuts and coffee – vital – and then trying to write. I also had an obsession with Gatorade – the US version. I still do.

On previous visits we’d become good friends with Rob Campanella of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who had an excellent studio in his house. We’d written enough songs for an album, so we thought we should get them down for posterity and we invited some of the aforementioned people along for a day in the studio, setting up live and rattling through the whole lot in one day, pausing only for sandwiches from the deli and the odd beer. It was all so much fun and we knew that we had something.

Danny Power and Robin performing together at Pappy & Harriet’s, near Joshua Tree National Park, California. in 2008

Danny Power has been a big influence on you musically, hasn’t he? He’s inspired several Dreaming Spires songs and he got you into Big Star. How did you meet him?

RB: Danny Power was initially our West Coast tour manager, but he was – is – a musician too and we wound up becoming close friends. Mark Gardener had discovered Danny after his band, The And/Ors, opened for Mark’s solo tour, so when we came over as Mark’s backing band, he asked Danny to supply a van and equipment, which he did – rickety vintage gear you’d rarely see in the UK.

Danny worked printing art posters for the famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in a large warehouse in downtown L.A., so that’s where we rehearsed. It was an amazing scene to be part of. It was next to the American Apparel factory, in an eerie industrial district patrolled by homeless people pushing shopping trolleys, and there were also furtive porn movie shoots in warehouses – or so we heard. The Dreaming Spires song Singing Sin City describes meeting Danny and his van, which was named Darla.

You said that you were watching Don’t Look Back most mornings in L.A. The first song on Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror is The One And Only Lost Boy, which is a mid-’60s electric Dylan homage, isn’t it?

RB: Yes, certainly – though one of my earliest influences, like Dylan, was Chuck Berry, and it has a bit of that about it too.

The song is about your experiences as a Brit in L.A. What did you make of it?

RB: My experiences of L.A. were completely overwhelming – I’d been there once, aged 18, but not really found any of its secrets, but going there again in 2003, even after the thrill of touring the East Coast, was something else. It seemed like another planet and we were lucky enough to be introduced to some amazing places and people. We were probably as exotic to the Californians as they were to us.

Jason Anchondo, Danny Power and friends at a party

I can’t remember writing The One And Only Lost Boy, but all the people mentioned in it are real people we used to hang out with. Bobby (Bones), Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo and Dave ‘The Kid’ Koenig all play on the record so it’s very self-referential. Caroline and Abigail lived in Danny’s house. I really did get called Lindsay after [film director] Lindsay Anderson on account of my British accent, and on that writing trip it rained for several days, which was a real novelty in L.A. It caused many plants to bloom and gave me severe hay fever, enough to somewhat affect the sound of my voice on the record.

Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely song. It sounds like a more stripped-down version of what you went on to do with The Dreaming Spires, but minus the jangly guitars. What can you tell me about it?

Nothing I Can’t Do Without was written on Danny’s porch, throwing phrases back and forth in a rapid fashion. The house was in sight of Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, is named after the amazing California sunsets, which are made more spectacular by a layer of smog.

I was definitely moving away from writing verse-chorus type songs, and getting more narrative in style. I was probably listening to Another Side…era Dylan, which seeped into the guitar style. It does sound a bit like the cover of Girl From The North Country that The Dreaming Spires started our career with. I basically used the same chords under the Dylan lyrics for that, as I didn’t know the correct chords.

As I Lay Dying is one of the darker songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? The piano sounds quite Lennonesque, and it’s a sad song…

RB: As I Lay Dying was written after a trip, so to speak, to Joshua Tree National Park, on one of our regular pilgrimages to the desert. It provided a very different perspective on life and the song was written down pretty much directly as we experienced it.

Robin at the piano, recording the album

‘When we mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe’

The title was from the William Faulkner novel. I was into trying to describe out-of-body or near-death experiences at the time, as also on the Goldrush album, The Heart Is The Place. The song There’s A World by Goldrush, on the Ozona album, is also based on being at Joshua Tree. It became one of our favourite places to go when in the US. We played at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s and stayed on Victoria Williams’ ranch and at number of other interesting spots. I seem to recall when Rowland Prytherch and I mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe.

Where did the song It Takes No Talent To Party come from? Great title! I can imagine there was a lot of partying during your week in L.A… 

RB: The title was a saying from Dave Koenig, who, at the time, was the bass player in The Brian Jonestown Massacre, or he may have just left the band. He was kind enough to play bass on the album. He was a very funny guy and a master storyteller –  it was his phrase to describe some of the characters who populated the L.A. scene, which was to some extent surface over content. There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California –  it must have been the sunshine.

The record is one of highs and lows – there are musically upbeat songs, like The One And Only Lost Boy and Don’t Sleep Alone, but it’s often a melancholy, reflective record, isn’t it? What kind of frame of mind were you in when you made it? 

RB. My default song setting was melancholy, at least up to that point, so I’m glad I was able to produce some upbeat songs. It was a relatively carefree time if you could ignore all the wars and so on…

Let’s talk about that. The Iraq War was happening at the time you were making the album and it inspired some of the songs, like I’m A Soldier and Nation At War, which are folky protest songs. What was your take on the war at the time and what was it like being in the US while it was happening? 

RB: The TV was still filled with images of the post-9/11 Middle Eastern wars and Dubya was still President. The heavy post-9/11 security measures were very much in place and paranoia was in the air. We must have watched plenty of TV because the news filtered through into the songs. I remember sitting in a café and writing out the lyrics to Nation At War in a matter of minutes. I’m A Soldier covers the plight of returning veterans and is simple, but it holds up well, I think.

You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has a country rock feel…

RB: Country rock loomed large in our lives, having recently got deep into Sweetheart of the Rodeo [The Byrds] and The Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. We loved going to thrift stores and Mexican markets to pick up quirky shirts –  they were hard to get hold of back then. It fascinated me to be in the same spot, making records as those individuals, as indeed it did no doubt for excellent local bands like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde.

Darren from The Tyde and Bobby Bones play excellent guitar lines on the track, which makes the song. Rob Campanella’s brother Andy stepped in on drums, and his more languid style suited the song, with its unpredictable timings. As I recall, I played piano and sang live vocals on almost every song, apart from the acoustic picking numbers.

There are quite a few guests on the album…

RB: Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo was one of two drummers in The Warlocks, who were staples of the shoegazey revival scene, alongside The Brian Jonestown Massacre – we encountered numerous members of both bands. We’d met on our first trip when The Warlocks and Mark Gardener/Goldrush played in New York and we all jammed a version of Tomorrow Never Knows. I’d like to hear a recording of that!

Bobby Bones was a mysterious but delightful character, who looked like he could easily have been in The Rolling Stones. Darren Rademaker from The Tyde joined us too and contributed some wonderful guitar lines.

Back in England, I felt some female vocals would improve things – I was perhaps enjoying Emmylou Harris’ contributions to the Bright Eyes album –  and asked Piney Gir, who was a friend, and part of our Truck Records roster, to come and sing on a few tracks. Furthermore, Cat Martino, another US singer from Brooklyn, who became a great friend, sang on Nation At War, which was actually recorded in England that summer, when she visited.

What happened to the album at the time? Did it have a proper release and did you tour to support it?

RB: It didn’t have a major release – it came out on the label Truck Records, which I ran with friends. Most of the effort in 2005 went on tours to support the US and European releases of Goldrush’s Ozona album. I did play some really fun shows, however, and put together a great UK band including Loz Colbert from Ride on drums, Andrew Mitchell from Ralfe Band, Garo and Nick (Growler) from Goldrush and Rowland Prytherch on bass. We often joined by Piney as well, and sometimes later on by Danny Wilson – we’d just started becoming friends. There were plenty of others who jumped in on occasion –  almost too many to list!

The songs were simple enough to show people in a few minutes and usually it came off well. We played at The Social and The Borderline [in London], at a festival in Devon with Mojave 3, and quite a few other places. There were also a couple of gigs in L.A. with some of the original band, or perhaps just one – it’s shown in the video for The One And Only Lost Boy.

The album was credited to Dusty Sound System, rather than Robin Bennett. Where did the pseudonym come from?

RB: ‘Dusty’ was a nickname given to me be a friend from the village where I grew up – it was short for Dusty Bookworm, on account of how I liked to read and my dad was a bookseller.

By the time of the album, quite a lot of people called me Dusty, so it seemed a suitable pseudonym. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to perform under my given name. I really can’t remember how Sound System got added – it meant that there didn’t have to be a fixed band, or it could just be me. The pseudonym gave me freedom to have fun.

Bennett Wilson Poole – photo by John Morgan

Let’s leave 2005 behind and fast forward to 2020, to talk about Bennett Wilson Poole.

Last year, you had to postpone your headlining London show, at the Islington Assembly Hall, as Tony Poole was unwell, and, this year, you were due to appear at the Ramblin’ Roots festival, which had to be postponed due to Covid-19. Are you hoping to gig later this year – all being well – and how’s Tony doing?

RB: Tony seems well currently, which is great. I’ve spoken to him a few times during lockdown. The first thing we did when we heard about the virus, even pre-lockdown, was cancel a Bennett Wilson Poole rehearsal – we need to look after Tony, in particular.

‘The second Bennett Wilson Poole album is written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it’

I’m not very optimistic about indoor concerts taking place anywhere during 2020, so we may have to wait a little longer.

What’s the current state of play with Bennett Wilson Poole? Is your eagerly-awaited second album written and recorded?

RB: It’s written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

One of the great things about Bennett Wilson Poole for me is the songwriting partnership Danny Wilson and I have developed. After it became impossible to write with Danny Power, I didn’t know if I’d find the same thing again, but we have struck up a similar ability to write songs and write them quickly. We both love the excitement of songwriting.

The Dreaming Spires: Robin and Joe Bennett

At this year’s Ramblin’ Roots, The Dreaming Spires were also due to play. Do you think there will be another Dreaming Spires record in the future?

RB: It’s hard to say. We are all still good friends and enjoying getting together to play now and then. We’re very proud of the albums we did. The songs all fit together as a set, so, if there was a new album, it would have to have some different subject matter.

As a professional musician and also a festival promoter what are you most worried about because of the Covid-19 crisis? Are you optimistic about the future? Will things get back to normal? What’s your take on it? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’

RB: I suppose, like most people, I am worried about my health and that of those close to me – and it’s clearly going to have a heavy impact on the live music business – indeed it already is. Looking for a positive, I think that connection and culture have grown in importance for us all as we’re stuck in our homes, and I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene. It’s hard to say exactly what that will look like, as we are still learning about how the virus operates.

‘Connection and culture have grown in importance as we’re stuck in our homes. I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene’

Clearly, some of the remote working and live streaming events will continue in the future, and we will be wary of cramped gatherings for a while. I’ve always been drawn to locally-oriented events, and perhaps there will be more of those as people resist long-distance travel. Also it’s opportunity to make sure all that back catalogue stuff is out there and available.

What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown is lifted?

RB: Going to play, or watching a band in a cramped pub, preferably The Betsey Trotwood. I might have to wait quite a while for that to happen, so in the meantime a socially-distanced cup of coffee in a café will do.

Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror by Dusty Sound System is available to stream or purchase at:  https://dustysoundsystem.bandcamp.com/

For more on Bennett Wilson Poole, visit: https://www.bennettwilsonpoole.com/

‘I’m trying not to watch too much news – I’ve been playing a lot of guitar…’

Picture by Tim Meeks

Detroit power-pop singer-songwriter Nick Piunti’s new album has an apt title for these days of global lockdown – it’s called Downtime.

“It’s a bit too timely. My daughter, Megan, actually came up with it after listening to the record. In the song Never Belonged To Me there’s a lyric that says: “Don’t know what to do with the downtime.”

“The word ‘time’ also shows up in a few of the other songs,” says Nick, whose latest record – his sixth – is the first with his new band, The Complicated Men.

The album has all the usual Piunti hallmarks – raw vocals, infectious melodies, crunching guitar riffs and sweet, ’60s-style harmonies – but, this time around, the sound is fleshed out with Hammond organ.

First single, All This Time, is anthemic and urgent indie rock ‘n’ roll, the opening track, Upper Hand, is chugging and New Wavey, while Going Nowhere has some breezy ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals and a killer, fuzzed-up, melodic guitar solo. There are also some quieter and more reflective moments – the ballads All Over Again and Good Intentions.

So what is Nick doing with his downtime and how’s he coping with lockdown and the COVID-19 crisis?

“For the first three weeks, I was working at our restaurant, as we transitioned into ‘carry-out’ orders only. The staff did a great job, but, as time went on, the stress was getting to everyone, so we decided to close up shop until we’re able to be a full-service restaurant again,” he says.

“I admit that I brought my amp and guitar to work and was making quite a bit of noise between orders. I’m happy to say that not one person on our staff became ill while we were still in business, and, so far, everyone has remained healthy.

“I’ve been trying not to watch too much news. I want to stay informed, but it can take a lot out of you. I’ve been playing a lot of guitar, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. I have our restaurant to worry about, as well as keeping our family safe.”

He adds: “Our oldest daughter has moved back in temporarily, as she’s working from home, and that’s been really nice. We’re hardly fighting at all! Our middle daughter is out-of-state, finishing up her senior year, so it’s been hard being away from her.

“Our youngest is running the household as usual, watching too much TV and telling us what she wants for dinner every night. I’m the only male in the house, so I look for a corner I can hide away in, to work on new songs.

“Back in February, when the consensus was that the virus was only dangerous for a portion of the population, it seemed manageable, but it really hit home when my friend, Chris Plum, came down with it.

“He contributed to the new album as a special guest, adding some great harmonies on a few of the songs and synth on another. He’s a super-talented guy. He became very ill with COVID-19, but, luckily, he’s recovered – he actually followed some alternative methods that saved his life.”

Q&A

Let’s talk about your new band, The Complicated Men. What’s the line-up?

Nick Piunti: The Complicated Men are officially: Jeff Hupp (bass); Ron Vensko (drums) and Kevin Darnall (keys), plus special guests Ryan Allen (harmony vocals, guitar, percussion) and Chris Plum (harmony vocals, synth, percussion).

It was cool having both Ryan and Chris guest on the album. Side one of the record is more Chris and side two’s more Ryan. Both of them are super-talented musicians who work really quickly. I loved hearing what they would add to the songs.

Where did the band name come from?

NP: Ryan came up with it – I think he had it in his back pocket for one of his bands, but he never used it. Are they really that complicated? Well, they’re a bunch of middle-aged dudes playing rock stars, so, yeah, I guess so.

Jeff Hupp actually brought the band together. Donny Brown and Andy Reed were my band for several albums, but we all live quite a distance from each other, so rehearsals rarely happened and we didn’t play many shows. Jeff asked if I wanted a bass player for an upcoming solo show. He then brought Ron in and, a bit later, Kevin. Ryan was in the band for a minute, but realised he couldn’t put the time in for rehearsals and shows.

‘With the addition of a keyboard player, I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do’

How did you approach the writing and the recording for the new album?

NP: I wrote the songs pretty much like I always do, except I refrained from recording any demos – I worked them out with the band before we hit the studio.

The last four albums began with me in the studio, laying down a rough rhythm guitar track and a guide vocal, building the songs from there. It would usually be just Geoff Michael – the producer – and I to start with, and then Donny Brown would lay down the drums.

We’d work on the guitars and vocals and Andy Reed would add the bass guitar towards the end. I kind of have a sound – guitars and a few more guitars, and this voice I was born with. I said born, not blessed. And I like what I like, so there’s not a reinvention of the wheel by any means.

The Complicated Men (picture by Tim Meeks)

With the addition of a keyboard player I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do, for the most part. Although I wrote the songs, the band were definitely integral to the arrangements and they all composed the parts they played on the record.

Some of the songs were more of a group effort in their arrangements, while others were pretty much like I wrote them. Ryan, who’s been a long-time contributor, had quite a bit to do with the first batch of songs we recorded as The Complicated Men.

Where did you make the album?

NP: Once again we did it with Geoff Michael at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We started the record in March last year, took a break, recorded five more songs in late spring, added some overdubs in the fall, and mixed it at the end of 2019. You could make a baby quicker than I make an album!

Geoff and The Complicated Men are listed as producers. It was a team effort, but I know when to stay out of Geoff’s way.

The first single from the album was All This Time. It sounds like another classic Piunti ‘relationship gone wrong’ song. It has a great rock ‘n’ roll feel – the organ has really filled out your sound.

NP: Yeah! All This Time was written on a Sunday and recorded the following weekend, if I remember correctly. The band took to it really fast.

Yes – love gone wrong. Not that I know anything about that, as I’ve been happily married for 25 years. The song is not autobiographical – it’s actually about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time.

In fact, a few of the songs on the album were written standing in someone else’s shoes – enough to make my wife request a disclaimer on the album stating: ‘These songs are not about my wife.’ I forgot to add it, but all of the love songs on the album are about her. There are a few…

Kevin played a Hammond B3 on that song. There’s nothing like the real thing.

The latest single, Upper Hand, has a bit of a New Wave sound, with its chugging guitar. Where did that song come from?

NP: I actually wrote the chorus in the shower. It’s best not to picture that! I think it was the first song I wrote for the new album, so it was appropriate to kick the record off with it.

It’s about giving up control, which is something I’m getting better at as I get older. If you’re going to stay married for 25 years, I find that’s it not healthy to try and control everything.

New Wave? Yeah – I do like to rely on guitar riffs for a lot of my songs. I grew up in the ‘70s – it’s in my DNA.

Picture by Tim Meeks

You rock out on Going Nowhere, which is one of the heavier and ‘crunchier’ tracks on the album. I love the ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals, the harmonies and the organ. It has a nice, melodic guitar solo, too.

What’s the song about? You sing: “The ship was going down… it looks like we might drown…. I’m the captain of this ship and we’re all on the same trip going nowhere.”  It sounds like it’s a comment on the state of US politics and the Trump presidency, or am I reading too much into it?

NP: That song was a total team effort. Chris came up with the harmonies, which were possibly suggested by Jeff, if I remember correctly.

I had the guitar solo in my head, but it still needed something, so we added some fuzz and an octave to it. I need to do more of that!

‘I actually wrote the chorus to Upper Hand in the shower. It’s best not to picture that!’

Going Nowhere was the last song on the album that needed lyrics. I was stuck, so I asked Ryan if he could help me with it. I sent him the basic tracks and hummed the melody and phrasing, and in about 15 minutes he came up with the first verse in a text. Half an hour later he sent me the rest of the lyrics. They were perfect – I didn’t need to change a word.

It does sound like it could be a Trump-inspired song, but Ryan says it’s about dealing with depression and trying to navigate your way through it, with some days better than others. I could see a video with a cartoon Trump singing it, but we’ll leave it to the listener’s imagination instead.

Nick Piunti and Ryan Allen (Picture by Tim Meeks)

All Over Again is one of the album’s slower and more laid-back moments – it’s a ballad…

NP: I actually recorded that song in the studio with just Geoff and myself. It was in November – a couple of months before the first Complicated Men studio date.

I wrote it really quickly and wanted to record it before the feeling passed. The song is different to the rest of the album, but I wanted to include it – it’s kind of sad, but still hopeful. It’s one of my songs that someone half my age should cover.

The final song on the record, Good Intentions, is another slowie. It’s lovely – a reflective way to end the album…

NP: I wrote that song as my mom was nearing the end of her life. She passed away in February 2019. I don’t know if I was writing it from her viewpoint, or from what I might want to say when the time came. It’s a song to my daughters, maybe? I intended to write a second verse, but the song really felt complete with just the one verse and chorus.

On that note, sadly, one of your musical heroes and influences, Adam Scheslinger, from Fountains of Wayne, recently died as a result of COVID-19 complications? How are you feeling about his passing? What did his music mean to you?

NP: I didn’t know Adam personally, but I met him at a show and actually asked if he would mix my album, 13 In My Head, to which he said “sure”…

Fountains of Wayne are not only one of my favourite bands, but it was the one group that my wife Kelli and I both loved to the same degree. The night we met Fountains of Wayne, Adam brought Kelli on stage to play tambourine during Hey Julie.

Picture by Chris Richards

Their songwriting is ridiculously clever – the funny lyrics, the sound, the hooks, Chris’s Collingwood’s vocals, the whole band… I love [guitarist] Jody Porter’s playing. I don’t have his chops, but I often find myself thinking: “what would Jody play?”

I loved every record Fountains of Wayne did. I admit I can’t always tell which is a Chris song and which is an Adam song, as they usually wrote separately, but it’s obvious they were both influenced by each other.

Adam was only 52. I heard that he was in hospital but would recover. It stopped me in my tracks when I read the news that he passed. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne lately. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist.

Other than Fountains of Wayne, what music – new and old are you currently enjoying? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

NP: Before my recent Fountains of Wayne listening binge, my favourite recent album was Mo Troper’s Natural Beauty. He’s a fantastic indie-pop artist from Portland, Oregon. I was planning to see him on tour until he had to cancel.

‘I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist’

The latest Pernice Brothers album is great. A new Chicago band called Rookie has been getting some spins and I also dig White Reaper. I love the new Brendan Benson single, Richest Man, and, of course, I’ve been going back to listen to John Prine.

Did you have any live shows planned around the launch of the new album? If so, what’s happened to those?

NP: We had two record release shows planned in May. We were going to do a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B’ show. It looks like those will have to be postponed for the time being. I don’t think anyone wants to be packed in like sardines for a while.

What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown has been lifted?

NP: I miss making noise at rehearsals with the band. I miss going outside without wearing a mask. I miss seeing people walk through the door of my restaurant. I’m hoping we all appreciate the little things we take for granted.

I’m praying they find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, and also find out why some people are susceptible while others may not even be aware they have contracted the virus.

I hope to keep writing and being inspired. I have a few dozen new songs in the works and I’m looking forward to seeing what the band can do with them. I really hope we can have a show soon and we’re really looking forward to May 22, when the album is finally released.

I’m really happy I get to share this release with the band, as I’m really proud of it. It sounds like me, but I can hear the difference in the way it was recorded, with all of us tracking together. It really sounds like a band.

Downtime by Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men is released on May 22  (Jem Records).

https://nickpiuntimusic.bandcamp.com/album/downtime

https://nickpiunti.com/