INTERVIEW – My Darling Clementine: “Art and real life tend to blur – it’s like we’re living in the storyline of a classic country song”

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Husband and wife country duo My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) prefer a strong cup of tea to Jack Daniels and debauchery, but can often be found arguing in the kitchen over chord progressions. I spoke to them about their latest single The Gospel According to George, which heralds a new, soulful direction, and their forthcoming album, which was recorded with Richard Hawley’s band in Sheffield.

Your new single – The Gospel According to George – is a tribute to the late, great country singer George Jones, who died in April of this year. Can you tell me more about the song and his influence on My Darling Clementine?

Michael Weston King: It was not intended to be the first single. In fact, it was not intended there would even be a single right now, but it only seemed right and fitting to mark the sad passing of the magnificent George Jones – a man who, both as a singer and a songwriter, was such a huge influence on me. The music and legacy of George and Tammy Wynette was very much the template for Lou and I when we began My Darling Clementine.

Two years ago, I read George’s amazing autobiography, I Lived To Tell It All. It makes Keith Richards’ biog seem like Enid Blyton. There were so many great lines in the book, so I started jotting a few down. The end result was the song The Gospel According To George.

We were playing in Kirkwall on the island of Orkney when we heard the news about George – we were just about to go on stage. We walked on and opened up with Good Year For The Roses. There was no alternative.

What can we expect your new album, The Reconciliation?, which is due out in October, to sound like? How will it differ from your debut album, 2011’s How Do You Plead?

MWK: We recorded the new album in Sheffield with producer Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Duane Eddy). We used Richard Hawley’s band, along with added violins and horns. There are some very interesting guest appearances, too – Kinky Friedman sings on one track and The Brodsky Quartet played strings on another. It’s less ‘old time country’ than our first album, How Do You Plead? It’s also more varied in style – there’s some country soul, country rock, Mexican and folk influences, too. All the songs are duets and lyrically they’re quite a bit darker.

How is it writing, recording and performing together as man and wife? Your songs are full of heartbreak, bitterness and regret. Is it difficult?

MWK: It’s very easy – they’re just songs of everyday life in our household! Only kidding. No – it’s not tough. Lou is such a fine singer that it makes my life easy – she does most of the harmonising with me. Lyrically, yes, there have been moments when we’ve been into the studio to do some vocals when we were less than happy with each other on that day, but that can make for an even more impassioned interpretation and performance, so, in a way, that’s good. Being married – and being together for 12 years – means there is definitely a sixth sense when it comes to singing together and phrasing etc. It happens without too much work – it’s a natural thing, I guess. However, we still find plenty of time to bicker about other things. Especially in the writing process, or over who is making dinner.

Lou Dalgleish: There is always an interesting mix of harmony and downright disharmony in our kitchen, which is where we tend to do most of our collaborating. It makes for quite an interesting domestic situation, as we thrash out who will win the battle of the chord or the melody line. Having said that, we usually know what each other wants and we usually agree. Art and real life do tend to blur sometimes. Although there are times when being married to one’s job can cause tensions  – it’s like we are actually living within the storyline of a classic country song – on the whole it is a privilege to be able to share the creative process with my husband. But don’t tell him I said that!

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Your songs are very much in the tradition of the great male and female country duets by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash and June Carter. Are they intended as a homage?

MWK: In many ways they are, but we did not want to cover their songs. It was all about re-creating that sound and feel, but with new songs written in that style. Lou and I had always envisaged doing something together, it just took us a long time to decide what. I was listening, as I often do, to my old George Jones records one day and it struck me when I heard his duets with Melba Montgomery and Tammy Wynette that this was it!

What’s the appeal of those songs and artists to you? Why are you drawn to them? 

MWK: Well, for a start they are older artists. The great songs of George and Tammy, Johnny and June etc were not sung by people who were kids or even in their twenties. These were people either in – or approaching – middle age, who had lived life and felt its pain and joy. Lou and I are both of that age so it fits. These songs are written and sung from a mature, seen-it-all view, and I love that.

Your songs have got a very authentic, American country sound, but your first album was recorded in London. How did you nail the traditional country vibe on that record?

MWK: By surrounding ourselves with the right players, the right producer and cutting most of the album live. There was a clear brief from me to the band and the producer on what we wanted, and they all immediately understood what we were after. I knew they would, that is why I picked them. They were all old school guys who understand and play country music better than anyone else in the UK.

Any good studio anecdotes?

MWK: No daring tales of drugs, Jack Daniels and debauchery, I’m afraid. We’re all a little too old for that now. However, there was strong tea, for sure. There were the odd moments of tension and domestic disharmony between Lou and I. And occasionally the band had to be nanny to mine and Lou’s daughter Mabel, when she was present at some of the sessions. But it all went pretty smoothly really.

One of my favourite songs of yours is Going Back To Memphis. Can you tell me more about it? It’s a classic-sounding, country-pop tune. 

MWK: I am a huge fan of Tom T Hall – our song is kind of a nod to his track That’s How I Got To Memphis. A couple of years ago I was driving from Nashville to Memphis, and we were going along Music Highway, passing signs for the Lorretta Lynn theme park.

I just started jotting a few ideas down, I think 24 Hours From Tulsa came on the radio too and it prompted me to think of a guy, who has been out on the road for too long, going back to someone he left behind, settling down etc.

One reviewer said Going Back To Memphis sounded like a lost Glen Campbell song. If only!

Some of your lyrics and your vocals remind me of Elvis Costello at times. Is he a big influence on you?

MWK: Lou and I are both huge fans of Elvis Costello – in fact, it was through him that we met, but that’s another story…  Almost Blue [Elvis Costello album] is what turned me on to country in the first place. His immaculate taste in song choices and songwriters opened up a new world of music for me. From there on it was Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Gram Parsons all the way.  It took Lou a little longer, as she was still entrenched in more jazz and pop in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but living with me, she had no choice but to listen to country.

LD: Although my family background was steeped in a love of jazz, The Beatles and pop music, I fell in love with Patsy Cline’s voice at an early age. It was like a guilty secret – listening to music that was considered very uncool and rather cheesy, but there was something so pure and beautiful about the way she sang. I had no idea then that I would go on to write and sing country music myself.

I was busy writing and performing within the “serious female singer songwriter” genre. Then, when I heard Costello’s Almost Blue, I realised that there was a whole other world of country music out there that didn’t have to be twee and embarrassing. Having said that, I have come to love the twee and embarrassing stuff quite a lot!

When I met Michael, he was way ahead of me in terms of country music awareness, and, to be honest, I resisted the call for some time. But before I knew it I was hooked, and, as it turns out, writing and performing as My Darling Clementine is proving to be my most artistically inspiring genre. And a lot of fun.

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I think your songs have a timeless, classic quality. What’s your songwriting process like?

MWK: I don’t have one – I’m constantly jotting and scribbling words down, mumbling into my phone, or, like most writers, just banging away on a guitar ’til I get a melody or chord progression I like.  In November last year, I was away on a solo tour of Europe for a month, so I did a lot of writing in the car while driving along the autobahns, singing into my iPhone. Then I fine-tuned the songs in hotel rooms. I have been soaking up country music for years – even more so since My Darling Clementine started. I’m hoping some of that classic stuff will rub off and come through in my new songs.

So, finally, what makes a good country song? 

MWK: The same thing that makes any good song – a strong melody and great lyrics. And where country music is concerned, the sadder the better.

My Darling Clementine’s new single The Gospel According to George is out now. Their second album, The Reconciliation?, will be released in October.

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