Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Broken Flowers, is his best yet. His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship.
Nev’s rich, baritone voice – think Lee Hazlewood and Scott Walker – is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves.
I spoke to him about writing songs in India, ’70s drum sounds and descending into madness, and asked him if this album is his Blood On The Tracks…
How the hell are you?
Nev Cottee: I’m good and I’m excited to get this album out, as the process seems to have taken a while. The record was finished in November last year and has been delayed due to record label stuff, artwork and admin. It was frustrating not to get it out earlier, but now it’s out, I’m completely happy. I’d rather do an album every year, because I seem to be able to write that many songs. Back in the day, bands would do it – The Beatles and The Stones and The Beachboys – put out an album every year and a few singles that weren’t on the album.
I think Broken Flowers is your best album yet. Do you agree?
NC: Yes – I do. It’s a more consistent record. The album was intended to be a unified whole. It’s not a concept album, but it’s got themes. I wanted to take the listener on a journey. Where that journey begins and ends, I have no idea…
When you released your last album, Strange News From The Sun, two years ago, I said that the first single, If I Could Tell You, sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a space walk. This time around, I’m saying that your new single, Open Eyes, sounds like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar. This joke’s going to run and run, isn’t it?
NC: Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar? I’m always going to have the same voice – that can never change – so I’m always going to be coming at it from a Lee Hazlewood kind of angle. The sound of it does have a bit of modernity – that Cafè del Mar thing. Incidentally, I was on a Cafè del Mar compilation album, so I’m just awaiting my private jet to be sent over, so I can do a six-month residency in Cafè del Mar. I’m still waiting on that email…
Open Eyes is very chilled-out. It’s one of the lighter songs on the album and has a country feel…
NC: Open Eyes has got the wonderful Chris Hillman playing pedal steel on it – he’s a fantastic musician and a great lad. I was very lucky to have him play on one of my albums again. I’ve played with a lot of musicians and Chris is the best. He’s so intuitive and a born natural.
Initially, the song was influenced by Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. I was listening to some of the amazing songwriting on that album, which is very simple – some of the songs have two chords. Neil Young is fantastic at creating a mood with very little. Two chords, an acoustic guitar, a pedal steel, a light drum sound and his voice. He creates a whole world out of some very basic elements.
I wanted to keep it simple, but to evoke something – you don’t need a lot to make it sound special.
Open Eyes sets the tone for the album, without going too dark early on. It’s a twilight moment that lets you know that you’re going somewhere – the sun’s setting and you’re going to be in for a dark ride. There’s still an element of sanity that you can hold on to before you plunge into the next track, which is quite dark and foreboding and has a deeper meaning.
‘I wasn’t interested in writing verse, chorus pop songs. I wanted to delve into the songs a bit more, indulge myself and see where they went’
Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s a very dark record in places…
NC: I didn’t want it to be an easy listen – that was a conscious decision. I wanted to make the listener have to work – I wasn’t interested in writing verse, chorus pop songs. I wanted to delve into the songs a bit more, indulge myself and see where they went.
Me and Mason Neely, who produces my albums, made a very conscious decision for this album not to sound like a ’60s record, which my second album did – it was aping Lee Hazlewood, Scott Walker and a few other choice references.
For this album, we got a very, tight and clean ’70s drum sound. I’m not a big Fleetwood Mac fan, but it was that kind of drum sound – you hear it on modern recordings by Beck, who uses it quite a bit. It’s a cool sound and it was Mason who brought it to the table. We instantly felt that it would change the whole sound of the album. Saying that, there aren’t a lot of drums on the album, but the sound infused the feel of it.
I wanted to make a modern record.Yeah – it has elements of the ’60s and the ’70s, but there are also a lot of synthesiser sounds and strings. It’s not completely modern or completely retro – I wanted to leave it open. It’s sat in a weird place and I’ll let the listener decide where that place is.
What was the writing process for the record? How did the songs come about?
NC: I was out in India for four months. I set aside time to write and demo the songs. Looking back, it was an amazing time. I was able to get so much work done there. It was a beautiful place to be – there were no distractions. I was leading a nice life and the weather was good. It gave me the distance to reflect on things and some of the stuff that I wanted to write. I was coming out of a relationship with the person I thought I was going to be with for the rest of my life – the rug got pulled from under me. Everyone’s been there and it’s a bit of a clichè to write about it, but I felt I had to do something to get it off my chest. I wanted to explore what that meant. It was more lyrically-based than I’ve previously looked at things. I was spending a lot of time thinking about the lyrics.
When I came back from India, I went to Mason’s studio in Cardiff – I used a lot of the musicians I’ve used before, but they were supplemented with a lot of string work by friends of Mason’s. There were some amazing viola players and cellists. We made a decision to use real strings. You can get away with a lot on the computer, but these songs were too good to not use the real thing.
What were your musical influences for this album?
NC: I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits while I was away – I went through his entire back catalogue very slowly, which was an amazing journey. He’s a genius – all those different phases of his career, of which I think the latter period – like Dylan – stands up against – and even betters – some of his earlier work. The Waits album Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, which is a triple album, was a major influence – and also Blue Valentine.
He writes confessional songs with a great lyrical turn of phrase. I can only dream of getting near what he achieved.
Leonard Cohen’s last album was a revelation and I was also listening to Mark Lanegan’s covers album Imitations, which is brilliant.
You mentioned Dylan earlier. Is Broken Flowers your Blood On The Tracks? Most of – if not all – the songs on the album are about the end of a relationship…
NC: I guess it is. Looking back, it was a long time ago and things move on, but I had to document it. it. You’ve got to write about what’s happened in your life and in the world and explore those themes, otherwise you’re just writing about nothing. I wanted to go deep and explore what it meant. Without sounding too pretentious, I was reading Baudelaire and I’ve quoted some of his poems on the back of the album cover – it’s about looking at the darker side of the human condition and what that means. When you’re truly alone and what you can do with what you have. Do you descend into madness? On some of the tracks, I’ve tried to mirror that anguish and inner turmoil that you go through. I hope that’s reflected in the songs that appear later on the album – it’s a descent into abstract madness, when everything’s turned upside down.
The track I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is stunning – a big, melancholy song, with sweeping, dramatic strings. Richard Ashcroft would kill to have written it.What’s the story behind it? It seems to deal with the death of a relationship and also finds you and the song’s other protagonist listening to Prince…
NC: I wanted to write a song with a disjointed story – not a narrative – that was completely non-linear and confused. When you do split up with someone, you question everything and you lose your grip and all your bearings. Your take on reality seems to go out of the window, yet you still have moments of clarity when you remember conversations and situations.
Be On Your Way is another moody, orchestrally-aided song. It reminds me of Richard Hawley’s last few records. The big, bluesy electric guitar solo is awesome! Is that you playing it?
NC: It’s not me playing guitar – I wish I could play like that. It’s a guy called Alex Foote, who’s a friend of Mason’s.
What were you channelling with that song?
NC: It’s a straightforward melody – Hawley is a good reference and he will always be an inspiration, but I was looking more to Serge Gainsbourg and trying to tap into that Histoire de Melody Nelson vibe. We got into a groove where we wanted to take it musically into a bit of madness – so you can drift away. It builds and builds into a beautiful, confusing mess.
Tired of Love is an epic – almost nine minutes. The wonderful, haunting arrangement reminds me of John Barry or Ennio Morricone – it has a cinematic feel. What can you tell me about that song?
NC: For me, that was the big one for the album.The whole album was moving towards it – it’s the culmination of the journey. I said to Mason, ‘it’s a simple song, but we’ve got to make it go from nothing to everything’. It’s tapping into a hypnotic vibe that you get with some dance music – you lose where you are in the song. It’s a repetitive psych vibe – I wanted it to confuse people. You start hearing weird noises – maybe the noises are there, or maybe they’re just in your head. We spent a lot of time making that track – I’m really proud of it. Mason’s string arrangement is absolutely phenomenal.
You’ve also been moonlighting as a DJ on Soho Radio, with your own monthly show. I’m really enjoying it – you play some great, eclectic tunes, there are seasonal themes, gardening tips and also advice on birdwatching and flora and fauna. Is it fun to do?
NC: I love doing the radio show and the interaction – there’s nothing better than turning someone on to a record. It brings me a lot of joy. Soho Radio is a great station – they let me just get on with it and do what I want to do. I’ve got mates who do shows on it. Everyone should check it out.
Any live shows coming up?
NC: I’m playing in Liverpool on May 27 and then I’m DJing at Spiritland in London on May 28 – that’s an album playback. On June 9, I’ll be playing at The Deaf Institute in Manchester – that’s the album launch – and Lee Southall, who used to be in The Coral, will be supporting me. There will also be Aficionado DJs – it will be a great night. All are welcome.
Finally, what’s on your hi-fi at the moment?
NC: The new Mac DeMarco album – This Old Dog – is superb – well worth checking out – and Mark Lanegan’s new album, Gargoyle, is great. I’m spinning that.
Nev Cottee’s Broken Flowers is released on May 26 on Wonderful Sound.
For more information visit : https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/nev-cottee-broken-flowers