Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk and also recalls the gorgeous country ballads of ‘60s Scott Walker and the Spaghetti Western themes of Ennio Morricone.
I spoke to him about retro synths, otherworldly vibes and capturing the sound of sweet sadness…
How are you? It’s been a while since we last chatted…
Nev Cottee: I’m good. Cold, but good. Just waiting for the Manchester Ice Age to pass and to feel the sun on my face again.
And talking about sun, you’re gearing up for the release of your new album Strange News From The Sun. Have you heard any strange news recently?
NC: It’s all strange, isn’t it? Doublespeak has won the day – truth is portrayed as fiction and vice versa. What’s strange is how people don’t seem to be that bothered. Sorry, were you after something light-hearted?
It’s a great album title. Can you explain it?
NC: The title is a reference to JG Ballard and his ability to find wonder in even the most banal circumstances. There’s no need to look anywhere else for inspiration – there’s all you need in your head. Although I am open to alien communication…
On my first album Stations, the lyrics were preoccupied with other things, but with this album they’re more earth bound and more about us lot down here.
You say that, but, musically, the new album does have an otherworldly quality to it. The first track I heard from it – the epic, psychedelic single If I Could Tell You – sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk…. Is that a fair description?
NC: I’ll use that one on the poster if that’s ok with you? So the lyrics are more earthbound, but the music is bigger this time around. More cinematic and more synths. I think anytime you use a synth it’s always going to sound like the future isn’t it? Even retro synth sounds – Moogs and the like… That’s why Kraftwerk still sound ‘modern’, no?
I think some of your songs have a Scott Walker feel to them. Annie reminds me of one of Scott’s ’60s country ballads, like Duchess, from Scott 4. Is he a big influence on you?
NC: Without a doubt – and that’s a good reading of that particular track. I wanted to write a song that had that classic Walker vibe – without it being a complete rip off, just a partial one… If I can get anywhere near those classic Scott albums, I’d be a very happy man indeed.
There’s more of a country feel to this album than its predecessor. What was your intention with this record? What sounds were you after? At times, it has a more expansive sound than the first one, doesn’t it?
NC: I didn’t particularly want a country sound. I think a few of the tracks go that way because of the pedal steel – it’s the opposite of a synth, no? Put a pedal steel on a track and it instantly becomes a country song… The guy playing those wonderful parts by the way is Chris Hillman – not the Chris Hillman [from The Byrds], but a great musician coming out of Manchester. I’ve got him in the band as well, which I’m very happy about. They’re a rare breed – the ones who can actually play as well as he does.
Me and Mason Neely, who produced the album, decided pretty early on that this album was going to have a more expansive sound and have a lot more instrumentation going on. He’s done a great job on the album…
Last year, you went to San Francisco for a while. Did that rub off on the new album? Did you write any songs while you were there?
NC: I wrote some of the lyrics out there, but, if anything, I wanted them to be more English than American – it can all get a bit clichéd if you’re looking to California for inspiration. Before you know it, you’re singing about highways and the like. Maybe it gave me a good contrast – writing about ‘cold English lanes’ [on the song Follow The Sun] while wandering around Big Sur. I love it out there, so maybe the freeway album is one for the future…
Musically it’s kind of inevitable that it seeps into the record, because I love all those classic west coast bands – The Byrds, Neil Young, Love etc.
Can you talk me through the recording & writing process for the new album?
NC: I had about five songs ready by the time Stations was released [in 2013], so I knuckled down to get five more finished. Just me at home with my acoustic guitar. Then last July I went to Cardiff where Mason has a small recording space. We got the main structures down to tape with Carwyn Ellis popping in to do some keyboard parts here and there. Then we had a period where Mason sat with the songs for a while and we started a back and forth process of adding and fine-tuning what we had. It’s a collaborative way of working that I like – you just have to be open about something and not rush to a judgement. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s worth it.
Who did you work with on this record – musicians, engineers, producer?
NC: So, Mason is all of those things… As I’ve said Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, Chris on the pedal steel, plus Rod Smith, who is my right hand man in the band, on guitars and backing vocals.
Follow The Sun is my favourite track on the record – a gorgeous country-pop song that reminds me of Lee Hazlewood, The Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell. I love the twangy guitar solo, the gospel-tinged backing vocals and the pedal steel. Can you tell me more about this song?
NC: I guess it is the most traditional, straightforward song on the album – just a simple chord sequence – and I definitely had the likes of Glen Campbell in mind. Rod really brings a lot with his backing vocals. He’s way up there, which is the perfect counterpoint to my low tones…
Lyrically it’s got quite an uplifting sentiment. The girl is going but I’m just saying ok, good luck, go follow the sun. There are loads of Neil Young songs I like which have the same sentiment. Have you seen the film Inherent Vice? There are lots of Neil Young on the soundtrack and I read that the director Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a film that felt like a Neil Young song – so it had that sweet sadness to it. That’s the vibe on Follow The Sun – sweet sadness.
Opening track When I Was Young is very dramatic and cinematic, with a nod to film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. What was the inspiration for this song?
NC: Rod wrote this song and we used to play it with his band – completely differently. I had an idea to make it more cinematic, dramatic and, yes, Morricone it up. Morricone conducted at the O2 recently and I missed it. You can’t go wrong taking inspiration from all those wonderful compositions. I’m just trying to convince Rod to really go for it live with those shrieking vocals Morricone had on his records…
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
NC: We’re going to do an album launch – one in Manchester and one in London. Then there’s a few festivals later in the year. All to be confirmed…
What music – new and old – are you digging at the moment?
NC: Ryley Walker’s Tim Buckley vibe is good. I also like Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album. I saw him live and it was even better – JJ Cale southern rock and roll. To be honest, though, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’ career, album by album – about a week on each one. It’s just unbelievable how good he is and how he always keeps moving forward.
Have you started thinking about your next record already? Any ideas?
NC: I’m stuck into it already. As soon as the last one is recorded, you have to move on and start writing again. I’ve actually got two on the go. One is acoustic, looking towards John Martyn, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, just with a guitar and double bass, and the other is more electronic with long repetitive loops. Maybe the two will come together. It’s early days…
Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, is out on June 1, on Wonderfulsound.