‘It feels good to finally have a solo record out – it should have come out years ago…’

Sophia Bye Bye

UK singer-songwriter Sophia Marshall has just released her first solo album, Bye Bye. Formerly one half of Americana duo The HaveNots, from Leicester, Sophia decided to go it alone in 2015.

Bye Bye is a strong, confident and varied debut record – from the killer, radio-friendly guitar pop of Losing You, to the gorgeous, late-night, organ-soaked country of  Flares, the jaunty, ’50s rockabilly of Missing Piecethe edgy and disturbing, trip-hop-tinged Hey Al, Woah! and the sea shanty Drunken Sailor.

I spoke to Sophia to find out how the album came together…

Q & A

Hello Sophia, but I should really say ‘Bye Bye’… How does it feel to have your first solo album out there? Was it scary going it alone?

Sophia Marshall: It feels good to finally have a solo record out – I feel like it should have come out years ago. It’s actually not too scary going it alone, as, funnily enough, I have managed to surround myself with even more influential musicians and confidants, which is very different from previously being in a duo.

Are you pleased with the record? 

SM: I’m really pleased with it, considering it was mostly done on a shoestring, pulling in favours. I like to think we did well. And I’m proud to have worked with some wonderful musician friends, including Andy Jenkinson, who produced the album. He breathes life into my ideas. And lets me try silly things.

Did you have a big pool of songs to dip into? How did you decide which ones made the final cut? It’s quite an eclectic album – pop, country, rockabilly, a sea shanty and even a bit of trip-hop…

SM: At first, the songs were recorded fairly sporadically. I only really wanted to get polished versions of some old songs down. There was no real deadline set initially, but. at the start of 2017, I decided it needed to be completed and officially released. Conveniently, I was inspired to write some new songs, which were added to the list.

Where was the album recorded and what was the process like? Was it an enjoyable record to make?

SM:It was partly recorded at Andy’s home studio, definitely all mixed there, and partly recorded at The Paddocks Studios, [in Melton Mowbray] – a place I once lived and worked.

Normally, I demo the songs on my own before taking them to the band, or sometimes just Andy, to see how they can be developed. It’s the people who make the process enjoyable. It was great working on my own material, but, at the end of the day, the people around me inspired and encouraged me, which is a real blessing.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. Losing You is a big, guitar pop tune – very instant and infectious. Where did that track come from? It sounds like your shot at getting on the Radio 2 playlist…

SM: That’s a fair comment. Radio 2 airplay would be splendid. Losing You was actually on the never released, third HaveNots album, Weakender.

Liam Dullaghan [from The HaveNots] and I wrote the song in a slow, acoustic fashion, but I had wanted to pump some indie-pop/ folk-rock life into it for a long time. My new bandmates helped me to do exactly that. I also added the middle eight, which I guess came from some Britpop musical influences of my teenage years.

‘Flares was written by candlelight, under the influence of red wine, on an acoustic guitar’

Flares is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track?

SM: What can I tell you about Flares? It was written by candlelight, under the influence of red wine, on an acoustic guitar, in a house I had been in for less than a year, after a huge chapter of my life had ended. I was finally switching my focus from looking backwards to looking forwards.

When we came to record it, I had been listening to Frazey Ford’s Indian Ocean. Obviously I had listened to it non-stop when Sarah [Marshall – Sophie’s sister] and I were backing vocalists for her on that first album tour of the UK, but it wasn’t until about a year later the album stopped feeling like homework and I could enjoy it for all that it was. So I think there’s a sprinkle of Frazey in Flares.

Missing Piece is very ’50s/ rockabilly-country. Where did that track come from? 

SM: It was originally written in the same vein as a Camera Obscura song called Fifth In Line to the Throne – a lot slower and ballad-like, but I think this changed around the same time I decided to shake up Losing You. I guess I was fed up with the melancholy sound of things for a while. It’s about the realisation that you don’t actually mean all that much to a person who had once made you feel like a huge and special part of their life.

Hey Al, Woah? is one of the darker songs on the album – arguably the darkest. It features the lines: “You can’t go around saying shit like that to girls”, and “you should know no means no”…

Where’s that track coming from lyrically and musically? It’s very personal – a disturbing and edgy song, with shades of ’90s trip-hop. It has echoes of Martina Topley-Bird, who sang with Tricky…

SM: It was a very late addition to the album – a very new song. I spent a lot of time with a songwriter who loved Portishead. I think the feel of Hey Al… comes from that, but, lyrically, it was inspired by a person who I had exhausted my every effort of politely saying ‘no’ to. I’m not easily intimidated, but the psychological disturbance got to me – something snapped. I started worrying that the next girl may find his approach threatening…

Earlier this year, you played live in the basement of The Green Note in Camden, supporting  US singer-songwriter Chris Mills – you did two nights in a row. I went to both shows – they were great. Chris has been a big help and influence on your career, hasn’t he? He worked with you in The HaveNots. Aren’t there some unreleased songs from the recording sessions you did with Chris?

SM: Chris has always been a great help and, indeed, a great influence on me, musically. There is a whole album of HaveNots songs still unreleased, which Chris Mills produced.

Losing You, as I mentioned earlier, was one of them, and, actually, also Beauty Sleep, which I used on my album. I just didn’t want those songs to go to waste after all the hard work Chris and the team in Chicago had put into them. But even before that, Chris had helped Liam and I get over to tour America and release our first album Bad Pennies over there, too. Chris has a great heart and is a great songwriter.

Full Band Promo Pic

How did you launch your new album? Didn’t you do a six-hour, live-streamed house concert tour of the Midlands? How was that? You’ve been touring with Case Hardin, too. What was that like?

SM: I did more than a six-hour tour! It was more like 12 hours and it was a great, Challenge Anneka-style adventure. Pulling up at my old music college where I met Liam, racing off to a coffee shop near where I live now, and then over to a music shop in Nottingham, where I have a habit of drooling over all the acoustic guitars.

Then we started running behind schedule, when another Leicester venue performance at Firebug was late, which made us late for our Melton Mowbray appearance, to the point where the venue’s owners apologised, but said they couldn’t put us on, as the main band had arrived. But, as we walked off, people who had been waiting ran after us and managed to set up a last-minute gig at a bar down the road. Then we stopped to eat and catch our breath before an intimate. live-streamed performance of Flares, while we waited for the Simon and Garfunkel tribute band to finish at The Musician, so we could serenade people out the back of the bus while they left the gig.

We had a handful of shows with Case Hardin and Samantha Parton and Jolie Holland (The Be Good Tanyas), who were all so nice to catch up with again after years of being out of the scene myself. We also opened for The Sadies in Bristol and we had a sold-out show with Eilen Jewell.

What music – new and old – are you currently listening to?

SM: I’ve been enjoying the Samantha Parton and Jolie Holland album Wildflower Blues. The title track is my favourite. I also made a point of revisiting the Tom Petty album Wildflowers, which I thought was a good one to follow that. Also Mountaintop Junkshop, who are from my hometown.

Finally, what are your plans for 2018?

SM: I’ll be catching up with admin, checking the festivals and, hopefully, starting work on some new material. We have gigs in March 2018 and I’m working on a monthly, free download EP, having a bit of fun with some pop songs.

Bye bye, Sophia…

Sophia Marshall’s album Bye Bye is out now: http://www.sophiamarshall.co.uk/

 

‘I love this record – I think it’s my best’

 

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Picture of Martin Carr by Mary Whycherley

Martin Carr’s latest album, New Shapes of Life, was written in the aftermath of Bowie’s death and is a wonderful collection of electronic-tinged, honest and reflective, futuristic-soul songs, but making the record took its toll on his mental health. We spoke to him to find out more… 

When we last chatted to former Boo Radleys songwriter Martin Carr, back in 2014, he’d made The Breaks – his second solo album under his own name.

One of our favourite records of that year, it was full of instant, warm-sounding, lush, guitar pop songs influenced by Simon and Garfunkel, Love, Ennio Morricone and Barry White.

Martin told us at the time, “I wanted to make an immediate sounding record that I could stand up and play on my acoustic guitar”.

Fast forward three years and we’re in very different territory – Martin’s latest album, New Shapes of Life, is much more electronic than its predecessor. The title track has a streamlined funk-soul-jazz-pop groove, Damocles is synth-heavy, frenetic, dramatic and cinematic, and A Mess of Everything is a stately song with a big, swelling, gospel-tinged chorus. There’s also a gorgeous, spacey, piano-led ballad called Future Reflections, while Three Studies of the Male Back melds a galloping rhythm with siren-like sounds.

“I really didn’t want to play anything. Most of the music is stuff I sampled and fucked with and then played it back on a keyboard. I don’t think I picked up the guitar once,” says Martin.

Asked what he thinks of The Breaks now, he tells us: “It’s fine. I don’t listen to indie guitar music any more – I haven’t for a long time, so once it was done, I was bored of the whole thing. I didn’t really enjoy playing it live beyond the ‘getting drunk and playing music with my friends’ element. To me it sounded like an old man playing old man’s music for old men.”

‘I don’t listen to indie guitar music any more – I haven’t for a long time’

Written in the aftermath of Bowie’s death, New Shapes of Life wasn’t an easy album to make. In fact, the process was seriously detrimental to its creator’s health: “I had pushed and pushed until my mental wellbeing had begun to suffer – I became paranoid and anxious. I was talking to myself and waving my arms around until I finally broke down, told my family and called the doctor.”

Now on medication, Martin is in a much better place: “It feels like making this record was the end of that part of my life – now I’m on the other side of the glass, where everyone else is. I still don’t fit, but I’m fine with that.”

Q & A

When we chatted in 2014, you said you’d never made a record that sounded like you, but with your new album, you’ve said this is the first one that does. What’s changed?

Martin Carr: There are a couple of reasons – the first one being that I now have my own space, where I can shut the door, create and think. I’ve never had that before – I’ve always been relegated to the corner of a room, or in a cold, damp studio space where nothing ever sounds the same. Somebody I don’t know personally lent me the money to build a studio in my house and I will be forever grateful. I’m hoping to record and mix the next one myself there.

I wrote and recorded it at home. I would have a melodic idea, which I would play with until I had the start of something, then I would write a lyric and find a melody. I wrote and recorded at the same time.

The other reason is that I knew what I wanted to do before I started. Normally, I wait until I have enough songs to make an album and then I do it, so there is no real cohesion, whereas this time I knew the themes I wanted to explore and the sound I wanted to make.

I was very strict with myself – especially lyrically. So much of my stuff is unlistenable to me because of the lyrics. This time I made sure I was happy with every line and every word.

How did you approach the new record and what did you want it to sound like? It’s very different from The Breaks. It’s more electronic and it feels like it has more of a common thread than its predecessor…

MC: My starting point was listening to Bowie for a couple of months after his death – Heroes and Low, Station To Station and Blackstar – as well as Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen.

There was no sonic template in mind, though I was listening to a lot of soul music – Philly, Northern, Motown – along with the Bowie stuff. I wanted to change the way I sang.

I spent more time trying to find a voice I could use. My natural voice is much lower than the one I normally use. I can get right down there, but I normally go for the top of my range, which is why it can sound reedy and thin.

I don’t know how much Bowie figured musically – he was more of a guide. For me, art is self-expression and nobody expressed themselves as beautifully as David Bowie. I was trying to write songs for other people but getting nowhere – you have to do so much more than come up with a song nowadays. They need finished tracks and my production chops just aren’t up to it.

You’ve been very honest about having personal issues while writing and recording the new album. Was it a difficult record to make?

MC: I think it was a combination of an intense period of work and how deep I was digging internally. The more I wrote and recorded, the more erratic my behaviour became. I was paranoid and anxious, waving my arms about and ranting to myself. I kept at it though – once you’re under a creative spell, you don’t want to change anything. Once I’d finished, I got the help I should have asked for years ago and now I feel great. I love the record – I think it’s my best.

‘The more I wrote and recorded, the more erratic my behaviour became. I was paranoid and anxious, waving my arms about and ranting to myself’

Musically, it doesn’t sound like a dark record, but, lyrically, it’s honest and confessional. Damocles feels like it was written about your anxiety. What can you tell us about that song?

MC: That was the last song written for the record, I was in full breakdown mode and just wrote down what was happening to me. I was in a manic state – I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t sleep.

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A Mess of Everything has a big, anthemic chorus. Where did that song come from?

MC: A lot of the album was inspired by art. I was describing things in paintings that I identified with. That came from a painting of a fisherman alone on a boat – behind him on the shoreline are his family. He feels pressure to provide, but his nets are empty.

Three Studies of the Male Back has one of the best opening lines of a song we’ve heard all year: ‘Holy Moses, I’m stoned as a goose and I’ve talked all day…’ What inspired that song?

MC: Again it’s a song inspired by a painting. Three Studies of the Male Back is a painting by Francis Bacon, who has long been one of my favourite artists and who took on extra significance last year. The colours and the twisted reality… I felt like I was in tune with them.

What music – old and new – are you currently listening to?

MC: Oddisee, Four Tet, Michele Mercure, Sleaford Mods, Strange U and Tanika Charles.

‘If bands are getting back together to make a bit of money then I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not for me’

So, what’s next? Any gigs coming up?

MC: I’ve got a Tapete show in London this month [November 18 – The Lexington, London] and I’ll be touring properly in February/March. It’ll just be two of us, with a few amps and various machines.

A lot of other bands from the ’90s/ Britpop era have reformed? Any chance The Boo Radleys will ever get back together? What do you think when you see contemporaries of yours on the reunion circuit?

MC: I don’t have any desire to do that, I don’t see the point. Yes it would be great to get on a big stage again and make a huge noise in front of a lot of people, but I can’t see a time when that could happen. If bands are getting back together to make a bit of money then I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not for me.

 

New Shapes of Life by Martin Carr is out now on Tapete Records.

Martin is playing at The Lexington, London on November 18, as part of a Tapete record label showcase event.