RW Hedges (Roy Hedges) makes beautiful music that harks back to a golden age of songwriting and belongs in a different time and place.
His latest 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, out now on Wonderfulsound – includes three tracks taken from last year’s album, The Hills Are Old Songs, which was inspired by the American Old West and was one of our favourite records of 2019.
The title track of the EP is a lovely, timeless, acoustic-led ballad with a bossa nova feel, a twangy electric guitar solo and early Beatles harmonies, while Prairie Moon sounds like it’s from a classic Broadway musical set in the Wild West, and Trail of the Setting Sun is an atmospheric and cinematic instrumental that doffs a cowboy hat to the Spaghetti Western soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone, who died earlier this month.
Like cowboy campfire stories, The Hills Are Old Songs features a whole host of characters – alluring women, strangers with no names, outlaws and river boatmen of old Missouri.
A record that’s been lovingly crafted by Roy and his co-writer, producer, musical partner and label mate, Luca Neiri, it’s the follow-up to the 2018 album, The Hunters In The Snow, which was a more melancholy and personal collection of songs, autumnal and perfectly suited to late-night listening.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Roy and Luca to find out about their relationship, the art of songwriting and their influences and inspirations.
How did you two first meet?
Luca Neiri: We went to the same school – we did art and drama together when we were teenagers.
Roy Hedges: We were 13. Someone said to me, ‘there’s this new guy who is quite funny, he’s like you – I think you’d like him.’ I said, ‘what? I’m not happy about that.’ I met him and I thought he was fantastic! I can remember that day quite clearly.
LN: We ended up being in bands together – we had a band called Starky when we were 15. I moved away to Brighton to study fine art.
RH: Starky were the most famous band who were never famous – we were so famous that no one knew who we were. Sam Williams, who worked on I Should Coco for Supergrass, produced some of our stuff. People could see we were good…
After you went your separate ways, you both decided to work together again after a few years apart, didn’t you? How did you hook up?
LN: I was working with Colorama [Carwyn Ellis] – in the studio, doing production, and also doing The Monks Kitchen [London-based band]. Roy and I met up again in Hyde Park – I hadn’t seen him for about five years and I told him that I wanted to work with him again, to help him develop his songs. That was the beginning of The Hunters In The Snow.
RH: I was a bit shocked.
[To Roy]: Prior to working with Luca on your last two albums, you’d put out your debut record, Almanac, in 2008, and an EP called A Heart Broken, which was released in 2014…
RH: At the time of the first album I was listening to a lot of jangly, layered guitar music, like Buffalo Springfield and The Kinks. It’s somewhere between Scott Walker and The Beatles, but it’s also a bit of a bedroom record, with some Beck and Evan Dando influences. It’s a bit obvious, with riffs, but it’s done quite well, although some of it is too fast. Our production is a lot more gentle and considerate.
LN: At that time, you were still learning how to make records.
You record your music in your shed studio, which is in the back of beyond, in the Buckinghamshire countryside. What’s it like and how does it influence you?
RH: It’s on the site of a mini Victorian gardenette and it really helps us and the music that we record – it’s very beautiful.
LN: It’s like Watership Down.
RH: We’ve written an album of animal songs that we hope to put out in the future. Being in a place where you’re surrounded by animals, it can’t help but feed into the music.
LN: It’s inspiring.
RH: I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have. The only way I want to get prestige is in the music that Luca helps me to make. I don’t want to be regarded as someone who is up his own arse. Even though I’m outspoken, I have a tender centre and I need to be outside of that realm.
Do you write together or separately?
LN: A bit of both.
RH: We do work together… On The Hunters In The Snow, I wrote most of the lyrics.
LN: It was what he wanted to say, but what I wanted to play and produce. On the last record [The Hills Are Old Songs] we both wrote the lyrics. Roy would have an outline of an idea and then we’d have a conversation and try and get into the character and what he’s trying to say. He would be pacing up and down…
RH: He’s Richard Rodgers and I’m Larry Hart. One of our things is that ‘song is king’ – it’s a bit cheesy, but it makes sense for us. Those old songwriters bound their songs to their themes and characters. When Luca is producing, he answers to the song and so do I, when I’m writing a melody or a part that I think it needs. You have to constantly challenge yourself or each other, but in a gentle way.
LN: The first album we made together was more about Roy and his feelings…
RH: It was about my sadness.
LN: The Hills Are Old Songs was written from other people’s points of view – we took Roy’s character out of it.
‘I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have’
How do you write songs? Do you sit down with an acoustic guitar?
RH: Nowadays I write in the shower, or when I’m on a bike or a bus.
Let’s talk about The Hills Are Old Songs. It was inspired by the Old West and cowboy ballads, but you’re also influenced by the Great American Songbook and old Broadway musicals, aren’t you? How did the concept for the album come about?
LN: It was happenstance, but I’d read books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. We’d also studied the music of Broadway and we’d watched Oklahoma! I had an idea about the Old West.
RH: In August 2018 I bought a book, in Devon – The Westerners, by Dee Brown, and I already had a book on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as well as Badmen of the West and The Oxford History of the American West. I suddenly realised I had all these books and it came together.
I like western noir and I also had an epiphany watching South Pacific. We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side of the West, like brutal hangings. We tried to put some of that into The Hills Are Old Songs – in the second song [Deep In The Valley] the protagonist is an outlaw who is killed by his father.
LN: On this album, we knew what were doing and where we were heading. We tried to make it like a soundtrack, as it had a theme – it has a soundscape element.
We were listening to a lot of Marty Robbins and people like that. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and quiet drums in the background – neat and simple. We took that on board. For me, as a player and a producer, I was thinking: ‘what are the pieces in the puzzle?’ There’s a framework that’s already there – country music – but we’re reupholstering it.
RH: Haven’t Seen Her In A While was recorded first – that gave us the vision – and My Dearest kept us going until the end.
We’ve made a playlist of songs that inspired the sound of The Hills Are Old Songs: Sam Cooke’s I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, I’ll Be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding…
‘We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side, like brutal hangings’
What is it about the Great American Songbook that inspires you?
RH: Yip Harburg was the guy who wrote the lyric for Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? He knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality – we like to think that we do too. It’s a fine balance between being sentimental and being cheesy and overly saccharine, or coming across as creepy or disingenuous. In that respect, our song Old Missouri was the hardest song to do, as I’m not a river boatman…
The worst thing about music these days is that it’s ego-based and no one is telling stories. In the modern world, everything is so complicated and everyone’s in such a rush. One of the most important things in songwriting is coherency – especially in lyrics. Nobody writes coherent lyrics [nowadays].
The Great American Songbook writers used to marry the lyrics together and the subject matter was things that human beings find eternally fascinating – like a city or a blue moon. Nowadays it’s ‘I have a feeling,’ and ‘I do this…’ I don’t care how they feel or give a fuck about what they had for breakfast! The problem is that nowadays we live in a time of individualism, whereas in those days [of the Great American Songbook], it was a time of collectivism – we need to return to a time of collectivism in order to progress.
[To Roy]: You also like doo-wop and old rhythm and blues music, don’t you?
RH: If Luca wasn’t producing some of my stuff, it would sound more like the Traveling Wilburys, but, thankfully, it sounds a little bit more like The Fleetwoods.
What other projects are you working on? What would you like to do in the future?
RH: We’ve been writing two other albums – one is an album of animal songs and the other is a love album. Hopefully Luca and I will write some songs that someone else will sing, rather than me – to send a nice song out there [to someone else] is such a nice goal. I want to be a songwriter more than I want to be anything else – I don’t see myself as a singer per se, I see myself as a songwriter.
I want to get my songs out there, but I want them to be understood in the right way. We can’t wait for the world to catch up – it has to catch up with us. We are a bit scruffy and rough around the edges, and we’re getting on a bit, but we really love doing music.
The limited edition 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, and the album The Hills Are Old Songs by RW Hedges are both out now on Wonderfulsound. Luca Neiri’s latest album, Always You, is available on the same label.