The Struggle, the new record by singer-songwriter, Michael Weston King, is his first solo album in 10 years.
It’s also one of the best albums of the year so far – a stunning collection of moving, well-crafted and wonderfully arranged songs, recorded in rural Wales, with producer, engineer and musician, Clovis Phillips.
The album sees Weston King stepping away from his day job, as one half of husband-and-wife country / Americana duo, My Darling Clementine (with Lou Dalgleish), and, instead, mining a rich seam of late ’60s/ early ’70s singer-songwriters, like Mickey Newbury, Dan Penn, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Bobby Charles and early Van Morrison.
Mixed at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with Weston King’s long-time collaborator/producer, Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley / Jarvis Cocker), musically, it embraces country-soul, Celtic folk and jazz, and lyrically it tackles subjects including the Trump presidency, mental health issues, loneliness, death and the tales of a wayfaring singer-songwriter.
Two of the songs are co-writes. Sugar was penned with US singer-songwriter, Peter Case, while Theory of Truthmakers sees Weston King putting music to unused lyrics by his friend, Scottish songwriter and musician, Jackie Leven, who died in 2011.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Weston King on the phone – he was at his home in Manchester – and asked him to tell us the stories behind the writing and recording of the songs.
He also got to ask us an all-important question: “Have you ever been to Southport?”
The Struggle is your first solo album in 10 years and it was recorded in a remote Welsh studio – Add-A-Band, in Newtown. How did the record and the sessions come about?
Michael Weston King: My friend, Jeb Loy Nichols, told me about a small studio in Mid Wales and the guy who runs it – Clovis Phillips. The name alone was enough to entice me. Anybody called Clovis has got to have something going for him.
I went down there, fell in love with the place and got on well with him. It was very cathartic for me – it got me out of the house. It’s about a two-hour drive from Manchester and it was a much-needed change of scenery. It was also a creative outlet – I didn’t do it because I felt like I needed to make a record. It was to stop myself going mad. I wanted to do something constructive.
‘It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…’
And you recorded it between winter 2020 and spring 2021…
MWK: Yeah – I had little trips down there, for two or three days. I rented a cabin nearby. I didn’t have all the songs ready to go, so I went away and wrote a couple more once I saw how the album was going.
After that, we mixed it in Yellow Arch, Sheffield, with Colin Elliot. There was no sort of deadline that it had to be done by, so I just did it as and when – I set my own deadlines, which is what I’ve done for the past 20 years. I’m a great prevaricator – if I don’t set deadlines, I’ll put things off. It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…
How did you approach writing and recording this album? It’s very much in the vein of singer-songwriter records from the late ‘60s/ early ’70, rather than ‘Americana,’ isn’t it? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
MWK: Yeah – if I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970, but that would’ve meant an orchestra on every track. One of the songs, Another Dying Day, was the starting point – it was the most Newburyesque song. We put strings on it and approached it in the same way that he’d recorded a lot of his stuff, with a lot of nylon-strung guitar. Some of the other songs happened organically and went off in other directions.
I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it – a bit of a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham vibe. We have some Wurlitzer on there.
‘I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record. If I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970’
Weight of The World has a country-soul feel, and I love the guitar break on it… There are some lovely arrangements on the record.
MWK: Thanks, man. I did the arrangements, but Clovis did all the playing from, apart from specialist stuff, like trombone. I sang it and he played it, basically. I didn’t want any drums on the record, but there is one track with drums on – he played those, as well as the bass and pretty much all the guitars. He takes a lot of credit for what he contributed.
Let’s talk about Weight of the World, which was the first song you shared from the album. It’s written from the point of view of a Washington D.C. policeman who votes for Trump due to peer pressure but regrets his actions. It was inspired by Trump’s horrible PR stunt outside St. John’s Church in Washington, wasn’t it?
MWK: Absolutely – you’ve summed it up perfectly. There were many grotesque things that happened during Trump’s presidency but for some reason I found that more grotesque than anything – the way protesters were swept off the streets like they were rioters.
I didn’t feel I could write about it as if was there – I wasn’t – and I’m not American, so I put the song and the voice in the hands of someone who was there. That day, a lot of people who voted for Trump might’ve thought better of their actions – it was a turning point for a lot of people.
The song Sugar is a co-write with Peter Case…
MWK: I was out at a songwriting retreat in Lafayette [Louisiana] – Peter was there too. We’ve known each other for years and done stuff together before. He kicked it off – it’s more his song than mine. He had an idea that he wanted to write a song about sugar. For me, that could be anything – is it drugs, or is it a woman? It’s vague – anything that intoxicates you is what sugar represents in the song. It’s got Peter’s stamp on it and I liked it. I started playing it with Clovis and it came together nicely. It’s one of those songs that kind of just plays itself, and it was nice to have a collaboration with one of my favourite songwriters on the record.
There are some sad songs on the record. The Hardest Thing Of All deals with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Those themes also crop up on Another Dying Day, and the title of the album reflects those issues too…
MWK: Yeah – the daily struggle. We’ve all been through that in the past couple of years, but, equally, regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time for a lot of people – and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder.
I’ve had problems with my mental health over the past few years. The Hardest Thing Of All is about that feeling when you don’t want to get up or do anything – you just want to hide away. It kind of all fell out and tumbled into that song. It’s not a new message, but I think it’s a commonplace one. Quite a lot of people I know who’ve heard the album have related to it.
Even though The Hardest Thing Of All deals with a dark subject matter, it has a lovely warm arrangement, with some great Southern soul organ…
MWK: It’s a very melodic and kind of uplifting tune set against some pretty dark lyrics – I like that juxtaposition. Clovis played some fantastic organ on it. When I listen back to that song, and when we play it live, I can imagine it with a bigger arrangement – it would really lend itself to drums.
What can you tell us about Another Dying Day? It has some wonderful, subtle strings on it…
MWK: Thanks. That’s an older song – it was written when I was still living in Birmingham. I used to have a neighbour who was always very hale and hearty – everything was “top of the morning”. If you looked at his garden, everything was growing and blooming, but mine was overgrown and needed weeding. It was a metaphor for his life and how I was feeling at the time.
If you’re a ‘pub person’, you see so many people who, the minute the door’s open, are there for the rest of the day. At times, I’ve almost got to that point – the song is about that battle to try and kill the day and do something constructive. It’s something we could all easily fall into if we let it.
‘Regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder’
The Final Reel is a folk song, with a Celtic feel. It reminds me of early Van Morrison…
MWK: That was the idea – it was written about Jackie Leven. He was hugely influenced by Van – Jackie had one large foot in the folk/ Celtic world and, if you were describing him, you could call him a “Celtic soul singer.” I wanted to try and write a song that was in his style.
I wrote it a long time ago – the week before Jackie died. I was doing a concert in Perth [Scotland] – on the way there, I was driving past Loch Leven, so I stopped, walked along the shore and gave Jackie a ring to see how he was doing – he was already in hospital at that point and it was clear he wasn’t coming out.
I thought I’d give him a ring and tell him where I was – we had a chat and a laugh and when I hung up, that was the last time I spoke to him. The song is a reflection of that – it sets the scene of where I wrote it and it’s also about what he and I did, as wandering minstrels. We did hundreds of shows together – the tales of the wayfaring singer-songwriter. That’s what I tried to convey in the song.
This seems like a good moment to talk about the song Theory of Truthmakers, which is based on unpublished lyrics by Leven, which you’ve set music to…
MWK: Yeah – we had a mutual friend, called Allan Black, who is a great painter who lives in Glasgow – a lovely, unassuming guy. Jackie used his art on one of his albums. They were travelling together one day and Jackie wrote some lyrics – for some reason, he gave them to Allan, who kept them as a souvenir. He mentioned it to me and I said, ‘I’d love to see them,’ so he sent them to me and I thought I would try and put them to music. The idea was that the song would go on a Jackie tribute album that I curated last year, but it didn’t get finished in time, so it’s on this record.
It has a cinematic feel and is slightly jazzy…
MWK: Yes, and the song The Old Soft Shoe on the record has a bit of a jazz feel… The chord pattern on Theory of Truthmakers isn’t the sort of thing I usually write. For the chorus, I was trying to write something big, like Heroes, or a song I could imagine Scott Walker singing.
You mentioned The Old Soft Shoe – that’s another sad song, with mournful trombone on it. It’s about loneliness – a man is lamenting the loss of someone, and he’s dancing alone, practising steps…
MWK: Exactly – it’s the guy’s memories of his wife or partner, and dancing was their thing. He doesn’t having a dancing partner any more, but he still dances on his own at home. I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just the most beautiful song – a few years ago, he sang it it on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV show and it killed everybody. Any songwriter who saw it must’ve just thought ‘oh my God – let’s see if I can have a go at writing something like that.’ I was the only one stupid enough to try it.
‘I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just beautiful’
And so to another sad song… Valerie’s Coming Home. It’s really poignant and is about the end of someone’s life and sorting through their possessions…
MWK: Valerie was Lou’s mum – she died just before Covid hit. It was a blessing in a way, because we didn’t have to go through all the estrangement that would’ve happened with Covid. The song just sort of happened – I had quite a close relationship with Lou’s mum. There’s a line in it about me opening a window – like a classic old person, her room was always boiling hot. It also says, ‘Oh, close it Frank, you’ll let the heat out’ – for some reason, even though I knew her for 23 years, she always called me Frank. Apparently he was some kind of old family member who was a bit of a wide boy – a ladies’ man. So, why she associated him with me…. Anyway, I was “Frank” for many years.
Funnily enough, the next song on the album after that one is called Me & Frank…
Lyrically, it’s a bit Springsteenesque – a story song about the antics of two young boys, which includes stealing a horse…
MWK: Yeah – it’s my attempt at John Prine, rather than Springsteen, but I know what you mean – that Nebraska feel. It has an American folk song narrative.
When I was in my teens, I used to hang out with a guy called Anthony. We lived in Southport – he lived very near the sea – and he always had these schemes about making money. Have you ever been to Southport?
No, I haven’t…
MWK: The sea hardly ever comes in – it’s a bit of a running joke. There’s a lot of grass on the beach – we used to collect grass seeds, bag them up and sell them door-to-door to make money. His family were fishing people – his dad was a shrimper – and they used to give us mackerel, which we sold.
‘Some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse’
We were scallywags, selling what we could to make a bit of money. I wanted to write a song about that, but it needed to be a bit more interesting than that, so some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse, but there was a horse at the back of his garden.
The funny thing is that Anthony has gone one to become a millionaire landscape gardener – one of his clients is Dave Gilmour. From selling grass seeds, all these years later gardening has become his chosen profession.
So, what’s next? Can we expect another My Darling Clementine record anytime soon?
MWK: One of the reasons I did the solo album was because the songs I was writing didn’t feel right for My Darling Clementine. When I write for My Darling Clementine, I’m writing for two voices – it’s a very different song. These songs were for one voice, hence that’s why it’s a solo record. We’ll see – hopefully Lou has been grafting away and coming up with some songs too.
If we do any recording this year, it will be for My Darling Clementine, but I’m not sure in what guise. It could be full-blown, or we might make an acoustic record. I don’t know – I’ve got one or two songs that would work.
Maybe you could do an album of songs themed around people called Frank?
To Be Perfectly Frank? Actually, that sounds like the title of one of those awful Robbie Williams swing albums.
MWK: Yes – it does…
The Struggle by Michael Weston King is out now on Cherry Red Records.