More than 12 months ago, British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) embarked on a project called Country Darkness, which saw them reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.
This month sees the release of their third Country Darkness EP, Vol.3, which will be followed by an album, also called Country Darkness, in November. The album gathers together all of the songs from the three EPs, but also throws in an added bonus, a brand new My Darling Clementine composition called Powerless, which is a majestic country-soul track that’s easily up there with the best of Costello.
Like its predecessors, the new EP was co-produced by Weston King, Nieve and Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Duane Eddy). Pre-production for the four tracks – I’ll Wear It Proudly, The Crooked Line, Indoor Fireworks and Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? – took place at Nieve’s home in France and then the recording sessions moved to Yellow Arch Studios, in Sheffield.
On the album, Elliot, who is a member of Richard Hawley’s backing band, played bass and cello and also arranged the strings and horns. He is joined by fellow musicians Shez Sheridan (guitars) and Dean Beresford (drums) – both Hawley stalwarts – as well as former Van Morrison and Nick Lowe horn players Matt Holland and Martin Winning.
To tie-in with the release of each of the three EPs – the first one came out in October last year – Say It With Garage Flowers has been publishing a series of in-depth interviews with Weston King in which he sheds some light on the Country Darkness project.
Here’s the third and final interview in the series, which focuses on the new EP. Weston King also gives us a teaser of what we can expect from his next solo record – he’s going into the studio this month to start work on it – and shares his views on life after lockdown…
Last time we spoke, in May of this year, you were in lockdown in Manchester and you told me you were having good and bad days. How are you doing now?
Michael Weston King: Like so many of us, I guess, on a day-to-day basis I’m still up and down. I’m trying to keep busy and proactive, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated.
Not being able to tour and perform for an audience is very frustrating, and a worry financially of course. Our beloved government is hardly helping musicians out with that worry, either.
We have a couple of socially-distanced shows taking place this autumn, in Liverpool and Manchester, and we’re doing the occasional live stream too, but nothing beats touring and that feeling of getting better each night as you get up to “match fitness”. I miss the travel and I miss the engagement with people.
When we spoke in May, you were still looking to record the third and final volume in your series of Country Darkness EPs. That’s now in the can. How did you manage to get it laid down? Did lockdown affect your plans?
MWK: Steve was stuck in France, but we did what we’d done with the other recordings – he sent piano tracks over to us and then Lou and I went into the studio to build on them, before sending them back to him to add additional keys where he felt necessary.
The issue was not getting together with Steve, but being able to get into Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and getting together with the other musicians. We were held up by that in April and May, but, come June, as things eased, we did get back in there and carried on. It was a great distraction from the mundanity of lockdown and a joy just to be hanging out with other musicians, and friends again. Although, not going to the pub after the sessions was a strange, unheard of, experience!
Let’s talk about the songs on Country Darkness Vol.3. What can you tell me about your take on I’ll Wear It Proudly? It’s a song from King of America, which is one of my favourite Costello albums, and one of yours, I’m assuming?
MWK: Yes, it is. I love pretty much everything on King of America. It is certainly in my top three Costello albums.
I used to play Sleep Of The Just, which is from that album, years ago in my solo shows. Covering I’ll Wear It Proudly was a late decision, as it was not on my original list. By the time we had cut the first eight songs [for the Country Darkness project], our choices for the final four songs were tempered by what we already had in the bag, and the need to look for other types of songs, with variety in mind for the full album.
When approaching what to do with this song, my original thought was to give it the “boom-chikka-boom” Johnny Cash treatment – kind of in keeping with King of America, yet still different from the Costello version.
However Steve heard it differently and suggested we try a “Bruce Springsteen Streets of Philadelphia” era-approach. That was a brilliant idea – one that would not have occurred to me – and it really works. It has become one of our favourite tracks on the album.
On the new EP, you’ve chosen to cover Indoor Fireworks, which is also from the King of America album. It’s one of my favourite Costello songs. What can you tell me about your version? You’ve slowed it down and made it a smouldering, piano-led ballad. Hasn’t Lou done a solo version of the song before?
MWK: Yes – this song had been in Lou’s solo repertoire for years, performed simply, with just piano and voice. She also recorded it on her solo album, Calmer, back in the late ‘90s.
Once we started on this Country Darkness project, and adapted our live shows to include a “Costello song segment” – it just made sense to do this song again and make it into a duet. It has since become a firm audience favourite, so we just had to include it on Vol. 3 and the album. We decided to keep it simple and record it just as we have been doing it live – two voices and Lou at the piano. So, this is the only track Steve does not appear on.
The Crooked Line, which was the first single from the new EP, is the most upbeat of all the songs you’ve done for the Country Darkness project. I love your version – Steve plays some groovy organ on it. What inspired that arrangement? The Costello version has a bluegrass feel…
MWK: There is a moment on our version of Different Finger, from Country Darkness Vol.2, where Steve plays some Augie Meyers-type organ. I really loved it, so when it came to doing The Crooked Line I wanted us to go full Sir Douglas Quintet on it and really highlight that organ sound. The Costello original has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel to it, with fiddles and mandolins playing the instrumental passages, but we went with Vox Continental.
What about the song Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? Why did you choose it and how did you approach it? Costello wrote it for soul singer Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), but he turned it down. Your version reminds me of the material Costello did with Bacharach, as it has a bit of an Easy Listening feel, arrangement-wise…
MWK: That will be the flugel horns. Add those and suddenly it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach. It wasn’t an obvious choice, as it is not really a country or country-soul song – it’s a little bit musical theatre in places, and it even becomes quite Brechtian by the end. It is a hard song and we all had moments where we regretted getting into it. The producer, Colin Elliot, really didn’t like it at first, but it has since become his favourite track.
‘Costello’s original version of The Crooked Line has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel, with fiddles and mandolins, but we went with Vox Continental’
What drew us to it was the fact that there is a male verse which starts: “Why can’t a man stand alone?”, and the second verse is a female one: “Why can’t a woman be just what she seems? So that immediately felt right for a duet.
Lyrically it also asks an import question in these current times. I notice that Costello used some lines from it in his 50 Songs For 50 Days playlist, in the run-up to the presidential election, and it is clear why, with these lines: “Why can’t a man stand alone? Must he be burdened by all that he’s taught to consider his own? His skin and his station, his kin and his crown, his flag and his nation. They just weigh him down.”
I would love to have heard Sam Moore sing it, as am sure Costello would have too. Sadly, he will just have to make do with hearing us sing it! I’d also recommend you check out this 1998 live version, which Costello did on Later… with Jools Holland.
All of the songs from the three Country Darkness EPs feature on your new Country Darkness album, which is out in November. As an added bonus, there’s also a brand new My Darling Clementine song on it – a country-soul tune called Powerless. What can you tell me about it?
MWK: I had the title Powerless for a while – I thought it was good. We so often hear people say they are powerless to something, certainly when it comes to falling for someone. In this song, the female protagonist is leaving her partner of many years for someone else and despite the kids and the history they have, she is just powerless to the charms of the other guy and off she goes.
Lou and I have both had that experience, but I am not telling you which way round…Musically there is a little nod to a Costello song I particularly like from his National Ransom album, which is called That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.
Have you heard any of the songs from Costello’s forthcoming album, Hey Clockface? Any thoughts on them?
MWK: I have heard them, but not played them repeatedly, or really got into them, mainly because they are only out on streaming services, which is not really how I listen to music.
When the album is out, then I will spend some real time with it, while driving – the car is my favoured place to listen to music. Of the four songs he’s released so far, I think my favourite is We Are All Cowards Now.
You’re also working on a new solo album. What can we expect?
MWK: Songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs! There will be no songs about lockdown though, so be grateful for that.
Have you written many new songs recently? What’s been inspiring you?
MWK: Certainly not lockdown or Covid-19. Most of the songs that will go on the album have been kicking around in one form or another for a good few years. Many were unfinished, as I knew they were not right for My Darling Clementine, but I started to go through them, finish those I thought deserved finishing and discard the others. There are also two or three brand new ones.
One of them is sung from the perspective of a Washington DC policeman who votes for Trump, mainly due to peer pressure, and then starts to regret his actions as he sees what a monster this guy is, and how he is dividing the nation. In the final verse he is asked to be one of the cops on duty when Trump goes to stand outside St John’s Church in that awful PR stunt, when he held up the Bible. Our cop has to stand by him, ‘protecting’ him.
‘My new solo album will have songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs!’
Finally, back in May, I asked you what you wanted to do after lockdown was lifted. You said you had a list of five things:
1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.
2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.
3) Getting back on stage.
4) Getting back in the studio.
5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there.
How many of them did you manage to achieve? Obviously you did number four on the list, as you made the new EP….
MWK: Well, three out of five. But at least one of those was seeing the kids and grandkids, by far the most important. Yes, we got into the studio, but we haven’t yet got back on stage. We didn’t get out of the country, though we did get into the countryside: Wales, Herefordshire and Dorset, which was a blessing
My desire to go to the pub has diminished in light of everything – it just doesn’t have the same appeal right now. Table service? Early closing? People anxious about being in close proximity? It’s not ideal.
A couple of my favoured old boozers in Birmingham, including The Wellington on Bennetts Hill are, or were, still allowing drinkers to order at the bar. It is also usually only ever half-full, so there are no worries about social distancing! Writing this, I am suddenly feeling the urge. I’m off!
‘This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now’
We have been to the cinema a few times and that still holds a great joy for me. Cinemas, theatres and music venues are all under threat – it’s a travesty and so sad to see. They are such a part of the fabric of our way of life – they have to be preserved and supported.
This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now.
Country Darkness Vol.3 by My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve will be released on October 23 on Fretsore Records. It will be available on limited edition 12in vinyl, as well as streaming and digital services. The album, Country Darkness, will follow on November 6 (CD and digital).
For more information, visit: https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/