Still Testifying, the new album from husband and wife country duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – sees the band building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record The Reconciliation?
More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.
I spoke to Michael to find out more about My Darling Clementine’s love of sweet soul music and get the low-down on the stories behind the songs on Still Testifying.
Q & A
On your last album, The Reconciliation?, which was the follow up to your 2011 debut, How Do You Plead? you added some soul to your country sound. With the new record, Still Testifying, you’ve taken that even further and also thrown in some gospel for good measure.
What was your approach to this record? Why have you headed further down the Southern soul road, rather than gone back to your country roots?
Michael Weston King: We had a clear remit with How Do You Plead? – to make an album that sounded like George and Tammy in 1967.
How Do You Plead? was made up of old songs that had been deemed “too country” for either my former band, or my solo albums, along with some new songs written specifically for that album.
We didn’t really think beyond album one, but here we are, on album three, and our remit has changed. We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs.
We have both always loved soul music, and I have been driving Lou mad with all the old country soul stuff I have been listening to over the years, so it just felt a natural progression for us when making this new album.
We hinted at it with the song Our Race Is Run on our second album, but have given that country soul feel – and style of writing – to more songs on this album
‘We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs’
There are some great arrangements on the album – it’s a rich and full-sounding record that’s very rewarding.
I love the brass on the opening song, The Embers and The Flame – particularly the ‘bah-bah-bah’ instrumental break halfway through…
MWK: That was originally a guitar solo that I came up with when writing the song, but once we had added the brass to the arrangement, it was only natural they [the horn players] took the solo, too – the melody is the same, though.
The horns on Just A Woman sound like you’ve been listening to some old Burt Bacharach tunes…
MWK: Yes – that was producer Neil Brockbank’s idea and it was brilliantly brought to fruition by horn player and brass arranger Matt Holland.
The original piano and voice demo did not conjure up Bacharach & David to us, but it clearly did to Neil. And once the French Horns and trumpets went on there, well that was it, and we just fully embraced Burt!
Can you talk me through the writing and recording process for the new album? Did you do basic demos and then work out the full arrangements?
MWK: All our songs are demoed very simply, with voice and guitar or voice and piano. We then get together with the main core of the band and work through them. Most of the songs do tend to work themselves out – it is pretty clear how they should go. Also, working with guys that we have worked with for years now, and fully understand what we are striving for musically – and who share the same musical tastes and influences – makes coming up with the right approach and arrangements a lot easier
Did you have definite ideas for arrangements in your head before you went into the studio?
MWK: Yes – certainly for some of them, and then, as I just mentioned, more ideas came from kicking the songs round in rehearsals.
After that, once in the studio, the more fine-tuned arrangement ideas, and what additional instrumentation we felt was needed, came from the producer, Neil Brockbank.
‘Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, it was a fun album to make’
Was it a fun album to make, or was it difficult?
MWK: Like with all albums, you go through a roller coaster of emotions – “it’s the greatest record ever made”, or “it’s awful”, but as you get older and the more records you make, you know it will be like this and you just try and let those highs and lows pass you by. Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, yes, it was a fun album to make.
How do you feel listening back to it now?
MWK: Very pleased with it – especially its diversity. There really is an eclectic mix of styles on the album, which I love, but it still sounds like the same artist. It is held together by our voices.
It sounds like a record that could’ve been made in Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was recorded in Tooting Bec – it’s Southern soul from South London. How did you capture that authentic vibe in the studio?
MWK: Like we have done with all our albums – getting the right producer and the right team and the most suitable players. We used British musicians, but ones with a real love and understanding of Stax, Fame, Hi and mid ‘60s- era Atlantic Records. They’re players who, between them, have worked with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Ben E. King, Van Morrison, Dr John and Doug Sahm.
I think too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”. I would have been guilty of that years ago.
Yes, there are some great studios and people there, but also lots of mediocrity – just churning out generic stuff. I like the fact we recorded here with the finest of British players and producers and still captured the spirit we wanted.
‘Too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”’
What were your main musical influences for this album?
MWK: Delaney & Bonnie, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Mickey Newbury, Jim Ford, Goffin & King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, and, if you listen closely to the middle eight of Since I Fell For You, The Searchers and Helen Shapiro!
Yours Is The Cross That I Still Bear is a gospel-tinged track. What can you tell me about that song?
MWK: It was originally written for the German label, Bear Family Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with a triple album box set. They asked us to contribute a track – the caveat being all songs had to have the word ‘bear’ in the title. So I came up with that.
The version used on that album was just piano, guitar and vocals, but it did have a country soul / gospel groove to it, and I always planned to use it on this album. Lou took some convincing, but I think she really digs it now. The song has since been expanded and totally re-worked on our new album.
Lyrically, I had some old friends in mind when I wrote it. A shared history, a time when you did a lot together and then, as you get older, you drift apart and move on to other people and other places, but that bond you forged at an early age stays with you forever – even if you lose regular contact. Those shared times – both the good things and the bad things – are what bind you.
On your last album, there was a song called No Matter What Tammy Said – a retort to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man – and on this record there’s Jolene’s Story – a sequel to Dolly Parton’s song Jolene. Your song is written from Jolene’s point of view and we find out that she did take Dolly’s man…
I sense a theme going on. Can you think of any other classic country songs that deserve a follow-up? I feel a My Darling Clementine concept album coming on…
MWK: On our debut, we had Going Back To Memphis – which kind of picked up where the great Tom T. Hall song, That’s How I Got To Memphis, left off.
I think The Grand Tour by George Jones is rife for a follow-up song. Maybe about the people who bought and moved into the house. Or where the wife is now – the one who “left me without mercy”.
How about a sequel to Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe? Isn’t it about time we found out what was thrown off Tallahatchie Bridge?
MWK: Yes – that could be a good one. Lou has actually performed that song live, and does a rather fabulous version of it, I must say.
When we last spoke, in 2015, you’d just released The Other Half album – your music and spoken word collaboration with crime writer Mark Billingham. A couple of songs from that piece of work have ended up on your new record, albeit in slightly different guises – The Embers and The Flame and Friday Night, Tulip Hotel…
MWK: All the songs recorded for The Other Half album, either the older ones re-recorded, or the two ones written for the project, were recorded sparsely and acoustically, just guitars, mandolins, a bit of percussion, piano on one or two, but simple and sparse – the same as we performed them in the live show.
Both the new songs were very well received when played live and we always felt they could be enhanced even more by a fuller arrangement. We didn’t want them to remain just as acoustic recordings.
I am so glad we did that now, as they are both very different to the versions on The Other Half and we have also slightly changed the titles of them too for this album.
The Embers and The Flame was formerly called As Precious As The Flame. The fire burning out is an often-used country music metaphor for a relationship that has lost its spark. We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and After The Fire Is Gone are just two prime examples. We have somewhat inverted it here, suggesting that you don’t always need the spark, the flame or the fire. Sometimes the embers are just as important, perhaps even more so.
Mark Billingham wrote most of the original lyrics for it. We needed a “happy song” to end the story of The Other Half. The reworked version is bigger and bolder and brassier.
And the secret to a long and happy marriage? According to Mark it is “sticking around, no matter how shitty it gets”.
Friday Night, Tulip Hotel – formerly Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel – was written in the car park of The Golden Tulip Hotel, Rotterdam, while watching a couple check out very early, as indeed we had, though for different reasons. They were trying to be discreet about being there, about being with each other, but it was clearly a case of “same time, same place, next week”. We watched them drive off in opposite directions and drew our own conclusion as to how it ended.
Would you like to do another project in the same vein as The Other Half?
MWK: Yes, absolutely – we would love to do another, though maybe starting from nothing this time, with all new songs, as well as a brand new story. Oh, that suddenly now sounds like a musical!
There are the usual helpings of infidelity and heartache on Still Testifying that we’ve come to expect from My Darling Clementine songs, but Two Lane Texaco sticks out because it’s more of a political / issues-based song – it deals with the effect of the oil industry on small town America.
Can you tell me more about the background and inspiration for that song? It’s also one of the more ‘traditional’ country songs on the album. I can imagine Nick Cave doing a cover of it….
MWK: That would be nice, I must send it to him. The opening verse for it came to me while driving along a very unromantic, English motorway, crawling along, due to roadworks. They were widening the road. The song remained unfinished for quite a while until I was watching the Pixar movie Cars with our daughter Mabel. It was all there – this small town being bypassed due to a newly built highway and the town just dying.
‘The lyric owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s’
The lyric also owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s, such as American Hot Wax and American Graffiti, featuring the iconic DJs Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack, respectively.
Overall, the song is a hymn to the demise of small town America. In fact, small towns anywhere – Megawatt Valley is actually in Yorkshire. Towns that have been affected by an industry that was once its heart and soul, making it a thriving community. And then, that industry abandons the town, leaving the people left behind without work and without hope. And with a faith severely tested… “We’ve sold the family silver but there’s gold still buried underground.”
You’ve just come back from touring the States. How was that and where did you go?
MWK: We go to the US every April, during the school holidays, so our daughter Mabel can be with us too. Which is just as well, as she is now very much part of the show. She even made her New York debut this time, playing with us at City Winery, when we opened up for Ray Benson and Dale Watson.
The tour this time was along the eastern seaboard, from Rhode Island down to New Jersey, with some shows a little further west in Chicago, Detroit and over the border to London, Ontario [Canada].
You’re currently on a UK tour. What can we expect?
MWK: We are four days into an eight-date run of shows with the full band – they are going great. It’s always a joy, as they are such fine musicians, and for the London show [June 7 – The Islington] we will have the horn section too. It will be spectacular. Then we’re doing a run of more acoustic shows.
What’s a typical My Darling Clementine tour like? How rock ‘n’ roll are you?
MWK: Not very these days. I have pretty much given up drinking and so has Lou, and touring with your daughter also curtails too many rock ‘n’ roll activities. In fact, she is the one that wants to order room service at 1am and stay up watching TV, while we want to sleep!
Finally, I’m giving you a chance to testify. What would you like to bear witness to?
MWK: Well, my testimony may have been very different had we done this interview a few weeks ago, but in the light of the tragic events in Manchester, a city I love (and I think you do, too), and where two of my children live, and the news a few days ago that Neil Brockbank, who produced this record and our debut album, died suddenly of lung cancer, it is simply this: to cherish as much time with your family, friends and loved ones as possible.
Still Testifying – the new album by My Darling Clementine – is out now on Continental Song City: http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/
The band’s UK tour dates are:
June 9 – The Met, Bury
June 10 – The Hut, Corby
June 11 – The Old Stables, Crickslade
June 28 – Catstrand, Dumfries
June 29 – Clark’s On Lindsay, Dundee
July 1 – Old Fire Station, Carlisle
July 2 – Birnam Arts, Dunkeld
July 6 – Phoenix Arts, Exeter
July 15 – Americana Weekend, Bristol