I first heard West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski in November this year – he kindly invited me to the launch of his new album, Alex, at the Pretty Green clothes store in London’s Carnaby Street.
With his brother Adam on guitar, he played acoustic versions of several tracks from the record and I was really impressed – so much so that I bought a copy of the album on vinyl. Since then, it’s been on heavy rotation on my turntable and is one of my favourite albums of 2017.
Recorded and produced by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre at his studio in Berlin, it’s a raw and bluesy album and it sounds like Bob Dylan meets The La’s.
Dealing with the darker side of life, the songs are stripped-down and lived-in – the moody Dandylion Blues has a cool organ and electric guitar groove over which Alex warns of ‘dark skies on the rise’ and tells us that he’s ‘got to keep on keeping on’.
The folky strumming of Carolyn lightens the mood, but those dark skies soon return with Hurricane – one of my favourite songs on the album. Recalling Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams and Dylan circa Blood On The Tracks, it’s a stunning country ballad (acoustic guitar and harmonica) that’s a vicious put-down of an ex-lover: “You had it all worked out. All you do now is scream and shout, spilling worthless words from your mouth.”
I spoke to Alex to find out how the album came together, what it was like working with Anton Newcombe, and to see what his plans are for 2018…
Q & A
Hi Alex. It was great to meet you a few weeks ago, when I saw you play at Pretty Green, in Carnaby Street. Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed the gig.
Alex Lipinski: It was good to meet you, Sean – we had a really cool night at Pretty Green. It was a nice, intimate space to showcase the new songs and the guys there looked after us.
How does it feel to have the new album out there? It’s your second album – your debut, Lonesome Train, came out seven years ago. Why the big gap between albums?
AL: It’s a good feeling to finally have this album out. After Lonesome Train was released, I was working on the follow-up album, then I started a project with Bonehead [Oasis] called Phoneys & The Freaks, so that kind of took over for a year or so, then by the time I was ready to start the second album, I was working on a new bunch of songs that I felt were stronger. That was when Anton Newcombe contacted me…
How did you come to work with Anton?
AL: He saw a live video of one of my songs and contacted me saying he wanted to produce me and put my next record out.
We met a couple of times after Brian Jonestown Massacre gigs and discussed the direction. He had in mind these old ‘60s folk recordings, in essence, capturing the songs as stripped-back as possible – the bare bones – letting the voice, the songs and the performance come through.
We recorded the album in about eight hours in Anton’s studio in Berlin. My brother Adam [guitarist] joined me in Berlin and we set-up in Anton’s studio one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.
“We set-up in Anton Newcombe’s studio in Berlin one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings”
We bought some beers from the local shop, went back to the studio and recorded a couple of takes of each song, all live with no click track. We added some minimal overdubs later, but the nucleus of the record stemmed from that one night in Berlin.
Anton’s a pleasure to work with. He would give us enough space to let us do our thing, but he’d also suggest things that I would never have thought of, and taught me how to accept perfect mistakes. He’s also arguably the funniest person I’ve ever met.
Are you pleased with the new record?
AL: Yeah – I’m really pleased with it. Going into the recordings, this was the kind of album we wanted to make – the collection of songs work well together.
Some of the songs had been hanging around for a while, whereas a few others were a lot more recent. I think Carolyn may be the oldest song on the album. The lyrics on some of the older songs evolved over time to the point when we recorded them.
When I first heard the album, I described it as ‘Bob Dylan meets The La’s’. How do you feel about that description?
AL: It’s funny you say that because quite a lot of people have come up to me and said a similar thing. I guess it’s the kind of juxtaposition of both British and American influences you can hear in the songs.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on your album. Hurricane is a highlight and it’s one of the darker songs on the record. What can you tell me about it? It’s a heartbreaker and it doesn’t pull any punches…
AL: From what I remember, Hurricane was written very quickly. It’s one of those songs where you pick up a guitar and everything – the lyrics, melody and chords – all seamlessly fall together in about 30 minutes. It is really lucky when that happens. I guess you can say it’s pretty autobiographical. Everything I felt I needed to say about that particular situation is in the song.
Dandylion Blues is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? It’s another dark song, isn’t it? I like all the depressing songs on the album. I’m not sure what that says about me…
AL: Dandylion Blues stemmed from the groove and the lyrics followed to suit the moodiness of the track. Again it deals with the darker side of things. The lyrics in the verse especially are quite seductive and almost manipulative. It could be interpreted as two people having a conversation, or it could be seen as the voices within someone’s head.
The album is quite a dark record and it’s raw and bluesy – a lot of the songs deal with the darker side of relationships and life, don’t they?
AL: Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general, which completely works with the nature of these recordings. Capturing these songs in their rawest form gives them a greater power because the song and the performance are laid bare.
Like me, you’re a huge Dylan fan, aren’t you? He’s a huge influence on you, isn’t he? What do you like about him? Do you have a favourite Dylan album – and why?
AL: I think any singer-songwriter out there who says they’re not influenced by Bob Dylan in some way is lying through their teeth. His work is embedded in popular music in so many ways it’s difficult not to be influenced by him in some shape or form.
My brother gave me copies of Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks when I was 14 and it sparked a fuse and changed the way I listened to music – it opened my mind to a mystical world. I couldn’t pick a favourite record; it changes on a daily basis. The trio of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde are pretty hard to beat. The lyrical content on Freewheelin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ is untouchable.
“Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general”
Can you tell me some of your other musical influences?
AL: I’m the youngest of four and I grew up in a house where music always seemed to be playing. My parents grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so it was generally always rock ‘n’ roll – mainly The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Those early rock ‘n’ and roll records and ‘60s British bands had a huge influence on me from the start.
This developed into singer-songwriters, as I grew up and started taking songwriting and lyrics more seriously – specifically people such as Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan and Ryan Adams. Wilco are one of my favourite bands over recent times. The musicianship in that band is incredible. Richard Hawley is another of my favourites.
You grew up in Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset. How was that? You then moved to London… That must’ve been a big change for you – all that musical heritage to explore…
AL: I had a great time growing up in Weston. It’s a small seaside town and as a kid I enjoyed living by the sea. I was a bit of a daydreamer – I had these great visions and big ideas of getting out and making a footprint in the world.
Growing up, my life was completely absorbed by music, and the music I listened to would take me to a different world and spark my imagination. I think growing up in a small town can give you that hunger and desire for something greater, which is a good thing.
I lived in London for five years, which was great. I knew had to get out and start playing. The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street was my first point of call and I used to regularly play there. It’s a tragedy that venue no longer exists. And, of course, all the rich history that London had was amazing to an impressionable 19-year-old.
Where are you based now?
AL: I turned 30 last month and I’m currently living back in the West Country. The last year I lived in London I was pretty much out all the time, having too much fun, and I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be. I moved back to Weston, where there’s not a great deal happening, and I’ve been far more productive. It’s a strange mind-set but it works creatively.
It’s almost the end of 2017. How’s the year been for you? What are your plans for 2018? Can we expect another album and, if so, what’s it going to sound like?
AL: 2017 has been a productive year and I’m glad this album has seen the light of day. We’re in the process of booking dates for next year and the plan is to be on the road for most of it. I’m currently working on demos for the next record, which I’ll be recording with my full band.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you enjoyed this year?
AL: I tend to go back when searching for new music – there’s so much to discover. There’s a great Dion album produced by Phil Spector – Born To Be With You – that I heard recently and it’s amazing. Scott Walker’s Scott 3 and Scott 4 are both late discoveries. I was also late to the Big Star party, but what a band.
To be honest there hasn’t been a great deal this year that’s really excited me. I thought The Shins album was really good and the new War On Drugs record is phenomenal.
Alex by Alex Lipinski is out now on A Recordings.