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 AHeart 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.
Matt Hill is the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner. For his new album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators – he’s decided to put it out under his own name, rather than the moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.
“In 2020 I turned 50 – it seemed the right time to ditch the Quiet Loner name and to release this album under my own name. Finally, I’m Matt Hill again,” he says.
Fittingly, it’s an album that sees him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which is the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, are set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile ofDH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB. The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”
Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.
It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.
This makes for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.
Lench plays cello on Billy’s Prayer, which was written about a fairground boxer – Billy Marchant – who turned professional and became a sensation in America, while singer-songwriter Kirsty McGee provides backing vocals on several songs. For the bluesy and upbeat opener, Stone & Bone, in which the undead rise from their graves in an ancient cemetery to terrorise the Stock Exchange in the City of London, she plays a musical saw in a stairwell, which creates an eerie and ghostly effect. She also adds flute to the gorgeous, pastoral, folk ballad, If Love Should Rise, which was inspired by the stunning landscapes of the Peak District, which is where Hill now lives.
Diehard Quiet Loner fans will be glad to know that Hill has resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the new record, although it’s now called Gary Gilmore’s Last Request – a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, sadly, we couldn’t get Johnny Cash on the phone, but we did manage to have a chat with Hill about his new album, which we think is his best yet, his musical influences, his love of Elvis Presley, his upbringing and, er, his appearances on daytime TV…
You have described Savage Pilgrims as “Americana rooted in British history, based on your own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.”Why do you think US culture played such an important role in your younger years and in the lives of some of the people in the area where you grew up?
Matt Hill: It’s undoubtedly true that American culture dominated working class culture – it still does, except now it’s hip-hop and gaming. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, country music was still a strong influence. I think Western movies played a big part in that too. It wasn’t unusual to see blokes dressed up as cowboys. I don’t think it was just in the coal mining areas – it was right across the UK. But it seemed particularly strong in Nottinghamshire – we even had nodding donkeys, like on Dallas. People probably don’t know, but Nottinghamshire actually had its own oilfield. We had a long-running Americana festival in Newark and there was even a theme park just up the road from me, called the American Adventure. Notts is the Texas of the UK.
While we’re on the subject of classic US culture, you’re an Elvis fanatic, aren’t you? How and why did your obsession with the King come about?
MH: I became obsessed with him when I was about eight years old. It was just after he died and his films were on TV a lot. All I wanted to do was listen to him and read about him. It sounds crazy, but there was actually an Elvis shop about three miles from my house. It turned out it was the only one in the UK and it was in a Derbyshire mining town! The guy who set it up ran the British Elvis fan club too and had a direct line to Elvis and The Colonel [Tom Parker – Elvis’s manager] from his Derbyshire home!
At the very end of your song Gary Gilmore’s Last Request, it sounds like you’re doing a slight Elvis croon. Was that intentional?
MH: As for the Elvis inflection in my voice, people usually spot Costello, but, yeah, Presley is in there too.
Gary Gilmore’s Last Request is one of the more Americana / country tracks on the new record. It’s a very old song – it used to be called Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone – and is a Quiet Loner cult classic and live favourite. Why did you resurrect it for the new album?
MH: I wrote that song in the late ‘90s, after reading Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song. Here was a guy on death row and the one thing he asked for was to speak to Johnny Cash. That one detail blew me away. I did record it around 2001 – for one of those very early Matt Hill EPs. I recorded it again for my aborted second album in 2004, and it was on the shortlist for my Spectrology album in 2010, but it just never seemed to fit on anything. Once the songs for this new record started to come together, as being more narrative and story-based, then it was really clear that Gary Gilmore belonged on this record.
If you were on death row, what would be your last request?
MH: A phone call from Johnny Cash would be right up there on my list too. But he’s not with us, so I’d probably ask for a phone call from Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. They’re probably the closest we’ve got to Johnny.
‘The songs that most appealed to me as a kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child’
Did you get into country music and then Americana from Elvis? Was it a natural step?
MH: Elvis is such a good person to listen to for a musician because he has so many different elements in his music. You will find country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, folk and soul. He really did create a kind of “cosmic American music” of his own in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. I think country music came to me around the same time I start listening to Elvis.
Once I knew about Sun Records, that introduced me to Johnny Cash. I also watched The Dukes of Hazzard and loved the theme song. And then Dr. Hook and Don Williams were two formative influences because that’s what my dad was listening to. I loved the stories in the songs – I hear things very visually, so those songs painted pictures in my head. It’s fascinating to me how the songs that most appealed to me as a 10 or 11 year-old-kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child.
You’ve published a zine to accompany the launch of your new album. In one of the articles in it, you say that an English folk singer once said he couldn’t understand why you sang in an American accent and played country. Ironically, you were being authentic to your English roots by playing music that’s come from the US – the stuff you grew up with.
You also say that English folk music wasn’t on your radar until you were in your 20s. Over the past few years, you’ve embraced more folk music though, haven’t you? Songs like If Love Should Rise, Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer feel like they come more from the English folk tradition than US roots music…
MH: I feel like I’ve embraced a lot of different influences on this album and, yes, some of it is more rooted in English folk, but very loosely, because I don’t have much grounding in it. Other than Nick Drake I’ve not listened to a lot. In the early ‘90s I was briefly in a band called Seven Little Sisters that did a lot of Irish folk, as well as bluegrass, so I learned a lot from that.
‘American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing’
You mentioned that folk person who said I wasn’t being authentic. That really troubled me for a long time, because it’s true that I don’t sing in a Nottingham accent. In fact I’ve moved around so much in my life I don’t even speak with a Nottingham accent anymore. But I have always wanted my music to be authentic and true to my own experiences, so that comment really did bother me at first. But that person was wrong – American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing.
I’ve worked in prisons – all the lads there rap in American accents but it’s real to their lives. They can identify with the whole ‘gangsta’ thing because it’s about crime, money, family and tough working class upbringings. Just like country music was for a previous generation. To me, authenticity comes from the purity of your intention. The sound of a voice, like the sound of a guitar, or the way you rap, are all just stylistic. The substance of music comes from purity of intention and opening up a channel to the heart.
There are two songs about boxers /fighters on the new album: Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer. Are you trying to tell us something? Morrissey went through a phase where he was obsessed with boxers. Is it a melancholy, Northern singer-songwriter thing? Are you handy in the ring?
MH: To be honest, I’m not a fan of boxing. I find it brutal and I see a class aspect to it that I really don’t like. It’s controlled by very rich people, paying ridiculous amounts of money to watch working class men and women beat each other up. But, on the other hand, boxing gyms play an important role in working class communities. A gym can give kids hope and discipline and self-belief in environments where that stuff is in short supply. So I have mixed feelings about it. But I’m always in search of a good story and Bendigo is a great story and connects to my family and roots. The story of Billy Marchant is fascinating, so I had to put that song on the album too.
Did you have a long list of songs for the new album?
MH: I started with about 25 songs. I worked with Kirsty McGee on the pre-production. She has such a good grasp of songwriting and I really value her opinion. We’d also done a fair bit of touring together, I’d been to Holland and Germany with her and so she knew my live set pretty well, so she helped me whittle down 25 songs into an album. For me, when I’m making an album I always have so many songs – it’s not a case of picking the best 11, but of finding the songs that belong together. I’m passionate about albums for that reason and I get sad that technology formats are rendering them obsolete.
Savage Pilgrimsis a musically diverse record: folk, blues, country/ Americana, gospel and spirituals. What kind of inspirations and influences were you drawing on?
MH: This comes back to what I was saying about Elvis – all those American music forms you mention. I’ve spent my life listening to those, so they come out in the way I perform. Some of that comes from the choices we made when recording too. Sam Lench is really knowledgeable about folk music, so when he added a guitar part on If Love Should Rise he chose a weird guitar tuning, so it sounds proper folky. Four Corners is about a crossroads, so I wrote blues influences into that from the very start. Those sort of musical choices really colour the music.
What inspired the striking album art? I really like the moody, black and white look you’ve gone for – the photos of you are great…
MH: I put out four albums as Quiet Loner and nowhere on any of those albums will you find a photograph of me – not even on the inside. That was a choice. So because this was a fresh start, I decided I would go in the opposite direction and stick a photo of myself on the cover. So then I had to find the right person to work with. I was really drawn to working with Nicola Davison-Reed, after seeing her portrait work online. I talked to her about the sound of the record and the vintage sounds we used – she did the rest. She’s an incredible artist and I’m delighted with the results that she got.
As well as Savage Pilgrims, you’ve also put out a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection. It’s called Twenty/Twenty – An Introduction To Matt Hilland is available as afree 20-track download from your website. How was it going through your back catalogue to put that together?
MH: Prior to lockdown I’d been rehearsing regularly with James Youngjohns, who I’ve been making music with for 20 odd years. James encouraged me to delve into the back catalogue and we were playing songs from that first album. So when it came to putting 20 tracks together, I’d already been looking back and deciding what I liked and what I didn’t.
There are some rarities on it, like She Means Everything, which is Matt Hill does pop-soul! Do you have a lot of unreleased stuff in the vaults? Isn’t there a ‘lost’ album? Will it ever see the light of day?
MH: There is indeed a lost album and that song, She Means Everything, is from it. I recorded it in 2004 – the year Secret Ruler of the World [debut album] came out. I wasn’t a happy person at the time and my anxieties and insecurities got the better of me and I ended up shelving it. It’s something I now regret. That album means a lot to me because it features my friend Chris Evans. He and Mike Harries put a tremendous amount of work into that album and it would be nice to get it released at some point. Chris took his own life in 2013. A few days before he died we had met up and were reminiscing about that lost album and making plans to work together on a new one. It was not to be.
Have you written any new songs recently? Has lockdown inspired you?
MH: I have written some new songs but I’m definitely not getting any inspiration from lockdown. I’ve got a few political songs and there are a couple that I think are decent – one about a soldier coming back from World War II and another about living with chronic illness. I probably only release about a third of all the songs I write.
‘I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living’
What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
MH: I’m hopefully releasing a new album with a band project called The Low Drift, but, aside from, that I really don’t know. So much of how I make my living is tied up in delivering songwriting workshops. These are usually delivered in community settings, like at a homeless centre, in a prison, or at a dementia care home. None of those sessions have been able to continue, but I’m hoping to begin work on a songwriting project that’s being done over the phone.
Longer term, I think we will see a massive crash in the economy and that always hurts funding for the arts and charities. I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living this time next year. Sadly there will be many people in that position – not just musicians and artists.
Finally, you’ve had several brushes with fame – and infamy. You’ve appeared on daytime TV – Flog It! and The Jeremy Kyle Show – played at Glastonbury, thanks to Billy Bragg; you once had to shake Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hand, and you spoke with Jimmy Savile about Elvis! How would you like to be remembered?
MH: Thanks for reminding me of some of my darkest days! Yes, it’s true – I have met more than my fair share of villains! For many years I had to go to all the Party Conferences for my job, so I have met so many politicians and journalists, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for meeting Jeremy Kyle, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jimmy Savile! I would be happy to settle for simply being remembered fondly by my surviving friends and family.
Savage Pilgrims by Matt Hill is released on July 6 (Quiet Loner Records).
Remember life before lockdown? At the start of the year, all we had to worry about was how to cope with a massive, post-Christmas comedown – little did we know what was around the corner…
Luckily, as 2020 kicked off, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we had the debut single by UK Americana band West on Colfax, from Preston, to cheer us up. As we said at the time: ‘Influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt, it’ll put a jangle in your January… two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.’
Now, five months later, after two more singles – the similarly jangly and equally irresistible Misty Morning Blue and the ragged country-rock of Barfly Flew By – as well as an impromptu EP called Lockdown Lowdown, which was hastily put together while the band members were in isolation and showcases a more mellow, acoustic side to their sound, including the gorgeous, banjo-assisted ballad, Back Out On The Run, West on Colfax are gearing up to release their first album Barfly Flew By.
It’s already one of our favourite records of the year. From the ’70s Rolling Stones country feel of The Line, with its bluesy guitar licks and warm Hammond organ, to the late-night barroom romance of Cowgirl of the County (“She was the cowgirl of the county – she leant into me gently. We chose the songs on the jukebox – I don’t think I’ve been as happy”), the twangy Tinsel Heart, the rough and ready, battered and beaten-up road trip of Tyre Marks(“The tyre marks you left across my heart are all that’s now left…”) and the world-weary, yet, ultimately, optimistic, electric piano-led ballad, Light Again, which closes the album, it’s clear West on Colfax wear their classic country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana influences on the sleeves of their well-worn plaid shirts. These are songs that are best listened to while staring at the bottom of your glass, but they also have a reassuring warmth to them. The band describe their music as, ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives but with hope.’
In an exclusive interview, we chat to Alan Hay (vocals and guitar); Scott Carey (bass) and Pete Barnes (lead guitar and vocals) about the roots of the band, get the inside story on the writing and recording of the new LP, find out how these barflys have been coping with the Covid-19 lockdown and ask them to tell us what music has been keeping them sane…
How did the band come together?
Alan Hay: I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in! We were just doing cover versions and it was very casual, but, after a while, I approached Scott with the idea of doing some original stuff and taking things a bit more seriously.
Scott Carey: I met Alan when I was in a fledgling Americana covers band called The Low Highway and we needed a singer. Alan answered the ad and although he’d never sung in a band before there was something about him. We became friends very quickly, bonding over our love of Americana music. Someone suggested doing a couple of our own original songs. I was reticent at first, as it’s hard pushing your own stones up a hill.
The covers we were doing were fairly obscure to your average pub punter – Wilco, The Jayhawks, Mudcrutch, Richard Hawley, The Band etc. Alan asked me if had any lyrics? I said, ‘No – but leave it with me.’ That night I sent him the words to The Line, which is the second track on our album, and he turned it into a song that we actually liked.
That opened the floodgates and led to The Low Highway set becoming mostly originals. Since then we’ve written enough for four albums and we’re still going. We had some line-up changes and then Alan and I decided to give it a go [as West on Colfax]. We then found a great lead guitar player, Pete Barnes, through an advert, and changed our drummer three times! We’ve just got together with a multi-instrumentalist called Ian Aylward-Barton, who has provided the final piece of the puzzle.
‘I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in!’
Pete Barnes: I joined Alan and Scott in very early 2018. They already had the band name and were working on some originals of theirs with a drummer, Adrian, and keyboard player, Nick. I was looking for something to do musically and their ad caught my eye, as it was very different to the usual – it was specific, pretty straightforward and name-checked some lesser-known bands that I was into, like Whiskeytown. The problem was that the ad was for a drummer, not a guitar player. I answered it anyway, and I thought, ‘well I can probably hire a kit for a bit and I know I can bash out a basic beat’.
As it transpired, the original drummer, Adrian, had re-joined the band in the meantime, so Scott, having discovered I was really a guitar player, asked me to come down and try out on guitar. I quickly relaxed and realised they were a good bunch of guys – the music came together really naturally. We played a few gigs and recorded a couple of songs, Stars and The Line, then, a bit later, Adrian decided playing originals wasn’t really his thing so he left, followed by Nick a few months later. Eventually we found Mike to play the drums, and then Ian joined more recently.
The band name is a reference to the work of songwriter and author Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines), isn’t it? The first album by The Delines is called Colfax…
SC: Yes. I had the phrase ‘West on’ for a couple of days and was playing Colfax by The Delines. I asked Alan if West on Colfax would be a cheesy name? He said it wouldn’t. Shortly afterwards I went to a book reading and a performance by Willy Vlautin and The Delines. I told him about the name and he seemed genuinely chuffed. He signed my copy of his novel Don’t Skip Out On Me: ‘To West on Colfax – good luck with your band!’
You’re based in Lancashire – the North West. What’s the Americana scene like there?
SC: We all live about a 20-mile radius away from our base, which is Preston. We have been trying to start a scene there, putting on a quarterly Americana night at The New Continental, whose promoter, Rob Talbot, is really supportive of us.
We’ve built it up with regular people returning and we’ve been making friends along the way with local bands that we’ve put on : Red Moon Joe, The Amber List, Simon James and the River Pilots, and The JD Band, as well as artists from Manchester: Matt Grayson lead singer of The Swells, and Cornelius Crane.
We’ve played with Matt Hill [aka Quiet Loner] – I worked with him in London – and Nev Cottee, who I played with in Seventh House and also in the first line-up of his solo band. We’d like them to appear with us in Preston in the future.
You’ve had a busy year so far. You put out your debut single, Choke Hold, in January, then you followed it up with two more, plus the Lockdown Lowdown EP, and now your debut album is out soon. How has the Covid-19 lockdown affected you as a band? Obviously it’s meant that you haven’t been able to play any gigs…
SC: The album was going to have three different songs on it, but lockdown put that on hold, so we’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound, which we will be exploring more in the future, in tandem with the more upbeat material.
AH: The lockdown has probably affected the band more than any other part of my life – a lot of things have just carried on as normal, but with minor disruption. Yes, we’ve had to rethink our plans for 2020, but I suppose we’re fortunate that we don’t rely on our music to make a living. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to carry on going out to work as normal, so haven’t had the psychological or financial worries that a lot of people have had during lockdown.
‘We’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound’
PB: Lockdown has been strange for us, as it has for everyone. We are all key workers, so we’ve still been going to work, or working from home, but obviously, we’ve had no rehearsals or been meeting up. On the flip side, it has been quite productive, as we’ve produced the Lockdown Lowdown EP, which contains songs that may not have come out yet under normal circumstances. In fact they weren’t originally planned for the LP, but we decided to put them together with some stuff we recorded late last year, to balance the album out.
I think it makes for an interesting listening experience overall. Also it’s a good indication of where the band are at right now and where we may be heading in the future, as there is a broader mix of styles on there than we might have had if it were not for the lockdown changing everyone’s circumstances.
Let’s talk about your album, Barflew Flew By. How was it written and recorded?
SC: Alan and I wrote most of the songs on the album, but I wrote the lyrics for the track Barfly Flew By and Pete turned it into a song. He also wrote Back Out On The Run, which is wonderfully catchy and mellow – it’s our Elizabeth My Dear.
The process is that I write the lyrics, which are mainly about lessons learnt through life and past experiences, or imaginary characters, like in Barfly Flew By and Cowgirl of the County. Then I give them to Alan, who has the hard job of making them into something we want people to hear. For every track that makes it, there are two that don’t.
AH: We didn’t have to write songs specifically for the album – a lot of the songs had been around in the live set for a few years, but some weren’t intended for this record. We had about half the album recorded, but lockdown forced us to re-think. It’s not the album we intended to make, it’s born out of circumstance, but I’m glad about that. I think it’s got more balance to it than it might have had.
PB: Whoever has an idea brings it to rehearsal and we all try to contribute and improve on it. It’s a fairly democratic process and I have found there is a lot of room in Scott and Alan’s songs for me to add things and play quite freely. The arrangements get shaken out a bit during rehearsals and, again, it’s quite open. We seem to have a pretty natural chemistry, so it never feels like we have to force anything – it tends to come quite easily. We’re just moving into me doing lead vocals for my own songs, like Back Out On The Run, which, hopefully, will broaden our sound a bit more.
‘We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track – it’s not perfect, but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful!’
SC: We recorded the album with Matt Gallagher and his pal David Shurr, who are both really good artists in their own right, at The Premises in Preston. Wilco are one of Matt’s favourite bands and Sky Blue Sky is his favourite LP – I agree with him on that, so I knew he was the right person to record with. We hit it off instantly.
We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track, like bands used to do. It means it’s not perfect but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful! They’re a much better band than us, but we love that vibe.
The first single, Choke Hold, reminds me of Teenage Fanclub…
SC: Yes – we’re huge fans. Teenage Fanclub sound like Big Star, who in turn, wanted to be The Byrds – it’s linear. We’re all looking back to go forward. That said, we believe we have something to offer – we’re more than a tribute act and we are proud of our songwriting. Our other influences are Drive-By Truckers, Richmond Fontaine, The Byrds, R.E.M, Golden Smog…
AH: We have some of the same influences as Teenage Fanclub – The Byrds, Big Star etc. I’m a big fan. Wilco are a huge influence as well – the list is endless, I think all the music you absorb during your lifetime has some influence, whether you realise it or not.
PB: Alan and Scott love Teenage Fanclub – that comparison has been made a lot. They never featured in my imagination much, to be honest, but since joining the band I’ve listened to them for the first time and appreciate them a bit more.
We all have different influences. Aside from the obvious Americana ones we share, like Neil Young, War On Drugs, Wilco, Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks, The Byrds etc, I also listen to other genres – all sorts. I think the other guys are the same. We like anything that’s good, really – we’re all massive music fans. Sixties stuff like Love, as well as folk music, like Bert Jansch and John Martyn, are influences.
‘Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting’
I’m getting into Townes Van Zandt and I also quite like some early ‘90s shoegaze-type bands like Slowdive – their most recent album is fantastic. Those very early Verve singles and their b-sides, Gravity Grave, She’s A Superstar and Feel, as well as their first album, A Storm In Heaven, meant a lot to me growing up, along with some some ‘70s punk and New Wave. The Pogues and The Dubliners are in there too, as well as Miles Davis and Can, and some ambient/electronic music too. Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting. I think, in truth, we’re all probably more obsessed with our own band than any other.
I think your song The Line sounds like The Rolling Stones at times…
SC: I’ll leave Alan to answer that, but being told we sound like The Stones and Teenage Fanclub is okay by me.
AH: It’s a fair comment. I love The Stones and I wrote the music in an open G tuning, on a Telecaster, so maybe that was inevitable. The Line was the first song Scott and I wrote together. I love the lyrics – there are some great lines in there.
Back Out On The Run is one of my favourite songs on the album – it has a more stripped-down, traditional country/ Americana feel than some of the others. What can you tell me about it?
PB: The song is a pretty dark, small town love story about truth, retribution and freedom. It’s about long-lost lovers brought back together by seismic events. It’s quite a short track on the album, but it’s like a mini movie in my head.
‘I’ve gone through some bleak years, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything’
I wrote the song pretty quickly and recorded it at home. It’s really just me playing guitar and singing, with a bit of extra guitar and backing vocals, so it is simple and stripped-back. A bit later Ian put his banjo on and that was it. I really like the energy and simplicity of it. It does sound a bit different to the other songs and it’s a new direction for us, which I’d like to take further and build on.
SC: Pete sings on it and he has just a natural ability to sound melancholy, but be darn catchy while doing it. I wake up with that song and Light Again in my head a lot.
Let’s talk about Light Again, which is the final song on the album. It’s about being world-weary – someone who is being dragged down by the toil of everyday life, but it’s ultimately an optimistic song isn’t it? It feels apt for these times.
SC: Yes – exactly. It’s about depression and how it’s circular. Dark times and good times. It’s a message of hope, of saying: ‘look you’re down now, but hang on, you’ll get through it’. I’ve gone through some bleak years recently, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything.
In true Americana fashion, there’s a fair amount of melancholy, heartbreak and drinking on the album. When it comes to the drinking, I’m particularly thinking of the title track and Cowgirl of the County. What can you tell me about those songs?
SC: Barfly and Cowgirl are two sides of one coin. They are about how men in general deal with problems from the bottom of a jar. The character in Cowgirl realises he’s just like his dad but is rescued by love. The Barfly character has no such luck – he’s damaged and broken and lives out his days in a perma-neon lit gloom, where hope is for others. The guy and his ‘friends’ who live this life aren’t hopeless, but have resigned themselves to it – that is all there is for them.
Are you big drinkers?
SC: I used to drink heavily, but not now, as it doesn’t help me.
AH: I’ll give you the same answer I give my doctor – I enjoy a small sherry on the Queen’s birthday.
PB: I think we all like to have a drink to unwind sometimes.
Have you written and recorded any new songs during lockdown?
SC: I’ve written five new lyrics, which I’ve sent to Alan. He’s put them on the pile and I’m waiting to see how they’ll turn out.
AH: We’ve always got songs on the go. We recorded our EP in lockdown but didn’t write the songs at that time.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will there be another single from the album? Will you be playing gigs when the live music scene returns?
SC: We have some songs we’ve already worked on that are lined up for another album – we’re getting them to a stage where we can record again. We want to play some gigs. There’s a country music festival in Wrexham at the end of August – I just hope it happens. We were looking at doing an Americana all-dayer at The New Continental – it may now have be a Christmas special.
AH: I don’t see another single coming from this album, so the next release will be something new. We had a couple of exciting gigs lined up that had to be postponed, so we’re looking forward to new dates for those.
You’re releasing your material on your own label, Greenhorse Records. Do you plan to sign any other artists to it?
SC: Yes. For now it’s a vehicle for West on Colfax, but I want to put out a compilation of the bands that have played our Americana night. In the future we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? Any recommendations?
PB: I’ve quite liked the quieter lifestyle to be honest, and having some time to be more relaxed and not rushing about everywhere. Music-wise, I spend a lot of time listening to our band or my own songs that I’m working on. Other than that I’ve been listening to The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass for the first time in a long while, and I’ve heard a bit of the new Jason Isbell album [Reunions], which is quite good. I’ve also been listening to Tennessee Square by Whiskeytown and I’ve really got into Sunflower Bean over the past couple of years. I think they’re a brilliant group – a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band and great musicians and songwriters.
‘Our label, Greenhorse Records, is a vehicle for West on Colfax, but we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album’
I heard Elephant Tree on the radio recently for the first time and I really like their new album Habits – it’s a bit like Alice In Chains meets Slowdive. It’s not very Americana, but I’m into any genre really, as long as it is good music and moves me.
I briefly met Joana Serrat after she supported The Delines in Bury last year and I picked up a copy of her record Dripping Springs, which is a great album. The songs are simple but well arranged and accompanied. It sounds very natural and immersive – she has a beautiful voice.
AH: There’s so much good, new music around and it’s so accessible that it’s hard to keep up. My daughter bought me the re-release of OK Computer on vinyl, which has rekindled my love of Radiohead so, yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead.
SC: Of late I’ve been listening to Dropkick – we want them to come to Preston, so we’ve discussed gig swapping in the future. I’ve been watching Peter Bruntnell’s home gigs streams, as well as Wilco gigs on YouTube, and I’ve been listening to Jeff Parker’s new LP, as well as various old stuff. I’ve made a Spotify playlist – some of the tunes that are helping us keep sane.
You can listen to West on Colfax’s lockdown soundtrack here.
Barflew Flew By (Greenhorse Records) is released on June 17.
It picks up where Volume 1. left off and sees the pair reinterpreting the country and country-soul songs of Elvis Costello, aided and abetted by keyboardist Steve Nieve (The Attractions and The Imposters), as well as members of Richard Hawley’s backing band: Colin Elliot (bass), Shez Sheridan (guitar) and Dean Beresford (drums).
In an exclusive interview, Michael talks us through the songs on the new record – Either Side Of The Same Town, I Lost You,Different Finger – the first single from the EP – and Too Soon To Know; reveals how he’s been occupying his time during lockdown and shares his hopes and fears for what will happen to live music when we emerge from the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Q & A
How are you? How have you been coping with lockdown?
Michael Weston King: Up and down to be honest. Some days I feel okay with it – I rather like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?’ To quote Charles Bukowski, “I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what?”
Any advice on how to get through it?
MWK: Advice? I’m not sure I am the man for that, but maybe try and achieve something by the end of the day. That could be anything – even if it’s just tidying a room, or clearing stuff out. Set a small task and do it. There is a sense of purpose to be gained from it. Little victories. And go for walks. It’s not always easy, depending on where you live, but natural light is important.
A close friend of mine lives in rural, idyllic Herefordshire and I am very jealous of him at times like these. I live in Manchester – it’s not the greenest of cities, but everywhere looks better when the sun is shining, and, thankfully, it has been of late.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music have you been listening to – old and new?
MWK: I have mainly been listening to our daughter, Mabel, practising piano, recorder and drums, and singing at full volume, but when that subsides, it has been a mix of old and new: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Heron, early ‘70s Springsteen, Jessie Winchester, Crazy Horse (without Neil Young) and Jim Ford. I’ve also been getting back into Levon Helms’ Dirt Farmer album.
One of my favourite ever artists / songwriters is Roddy Frame and somehow I had missed out on his album The North Star, which is from 1998.
My pal Danny Champ reminded me about it, saying it was his favourite Roddy album, so that has been a fabulous (re)discovery. God, that album should have made him huge. It has some of his best songs on it – and that is saying something. And, of course, after the terribly sad news about John Prine, I revisited his whole back catalogue.
New releases? I have been enjoying the new Laura Marling album – she is a marvel. There aren’t many who are coming close to her right now. The new album, Song For Our Daughter, is yet to reach the heights of its predecessor,Semper Femina, yet. Maybe it will after a few more plays.
‘Some days I feel okay with lockdown – I like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?”
I’m also loving the new A Girl Called Eddy [aka Erin Moran] album Been Around. Her debut – and last album – from well over 10 years ago, was coincidentally co-produced by Colin Elliot, who I have been working with for the last few years on My Darling Clementine releases. I recall Erin and I did a joint show many years ago, along with Peter Bruntnell and Thea Gilmore, for Mojo magazine. I have not seen her since but we reconnected again online recently.
I checked out new albums from Logan Ledger (produced by T. Bone Burnett) and Pokey LaFarge while I was out for a walk recently. The jury’s still out on both of those for me, though Logan has covered what I consider something of a lost country classic, Skip A Rope. Originally recorded by Henson Cargill in the late ’60s, it is a kind of a country protest song.
Have you written any new songs during lockdown? When we last spoke, in October 2019, you said you’d been suffering from writer’s block. Has that passed?
MWK: I wouldn’t say it has passed, but it has eased a little. I still have far too many unfinished songs, and now have an increasing number of new, unfinished ideas. I need a target, a deadline to make me get my ass in gear, a date for when things have to be ready by. I am currently living by the Irish mantra: “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”
I have written and completed a new song, called No One Comes Close. It’s about the way the NHS staff have been treated by the Tory government for the past 10 years, and how the likes of Johnson and Gove are now fawning all over the health workers.
It was not long ago they were cheering in the House of Commons, having won a vote not to increases nurses’ wages. It is hypocrisy on the grandest of scales. I feel sick every time I see them clapping on a Thursday night. The song is up on YouTube as part of the Artists4NHS campaign, and I hope it will raise a few quid.
You had plans for a new solo album. What’s the latest on that?
MWK: I don’t record at home – I always go into a studio with an engineer and a co-producer, so until we can do that again it remains just a plan and not a reality. I also have all those songs to finish, so I can’t say really, but I would like to at least record it this year. It has been a long time since I made a solo record, so maybe it could be a double album. One acoustic and one electric?
As professional musicians, how has Covid-19 affected you and Lou?
MWK: It has affected us greatly, as it has so many musicians, especially those of us who make most of our income from playing live. We have lost over 50 shows and I fear there is more to come. That is quite a chunk of change, and even though a good number of the shows have been rescheduled, it still means a long period without income.
MWK: As for forward planning, the great uncertainty means many venues and promoters don’t want to commit just yet. Our next shows are in September and I am getting anxious that they might not happen too.
Long-term I do think it will get back to how it was. People like to commune and come together for things – there is nothing better than coming together for music. My fear is how many venues, promoters and even musicians will be out of business when things are ready to go back?
Even though it is proving a useful stopgap for musicians and music fans alike, online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing.
Last time we spoke, it was ahead of the release of Country Darkness Vol. 1 – your reinterpretations of country and country-soul songs written by Elvis Costello. You recorded the tracks with Steve Nieve, keyboardist with The Attractions and The Imposters, and members of Richard Hawley’s band. Vol. 2 is out in June. What can you tell us about the new record? When and where was it recorded and how were the sessions?
MWK: We did exactly what we did with Vol 1. Lou, Steve and I got together to decide on the key, the tempo and the basic arrangement, then we left Steve to record a solo piano or keyboard track from his studio in Paris, setting the feel for the songs, before sending it to producer Colin Elliot back in England. We would then go into Yellow Arch Studio in Sheffield and complete the full arrangement with the band.
Once again, you’ve put your own stamp on the songs. How did you tackle the arrangements and decide on the feel and treatments?
MWK: We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so. Also for Steve, who played on some of the originals, he was keen to do something different.
Let’s talk about the songs. The first track is Either Side Of The Same Town…
MWK: Without question, it’s one of our favourite Elvis Costello songs, of any style. I think Elvis must have been listening to a lot of Dan Penn when he wrote this. It is a song mined from the same seam as his song, The Dark End Of The Street, which was a hit for James Carr.
Either Side… was originally written for another great soul voice, Howard Tate, who recorded it before Elvis did.
In 2006, Lou was on tour with The Brodsky Quartet and they performed a version of this song, arranged for quartet and voice by Brodsky viola player, Paul Cassidy, which was based on the original demo Elvis had given to Paul. It’s quite a lot different from how it ended up on Elvis’s The Delivery Man album, and in turn, very different from our version.
We have kept the country-soul feel, but added an extra verse to accommodate a guitar solo and also gone with a more understated vocal approach to it.
‘We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so’
What about I Lost You?
MWK: That song comes from Elvis’s more acoustic, bluegrass album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and is co-written by Jim Lauderdale, who was also part of the touring ensemble Costello put together at that time.
Lou and I shared a festival bill with Jim at the River Town Festival in Bristol in 2017 and our paths have crossed a few times, most recently at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. Jim is one of the sweetest and funniest guys, and a master of the high harmony. He’s a very fine songwriter too.
The original version of this opens with a guitar riff, which then reoccurs later. We replaced that with Steve’s arpeggiated piano motif. Although written originally for one voice, the song works particularly well as a conversational duet.
What about the first single from the EP, Different Finger?
MWK: It’s a song that just had to be done for this project. It’s one of Elvis’s most authentic honky-tonkers. Like Stranger in the House [which is on the first Country Darkness EP], it is a classic country song, although still with a few songwriting idiosyncrasies that are totally Costello, as opposed to the simplicity of say Harlan Howard or Merle Haggard.
Steve had played on the original, so we wanted to find a different approach, as we have tried with all of these songs, so for this we went with the Marty Robbins treatment. Hats off to Piero Tucci for some stunning accordion playing, and also the beautiful Spanish guitar styling of Shez Sheridan.
The final track on the new EP is Too Soon To Know…
MWK: This song turned out much more moody and atmospheric than any of us thought. In 2016, Darlene Love recorded it, duetting with Bill Medley – she approached it in that true ‘60s soul style she is famous for.
I had initially thought we may also go in that direction, but once Steve had set the tone with his spooky keys, and sombre feel, the song went somewhere else altogether, and I would argue it’s all the better for it.
We have taken a more understated vocal approach to try and set it apart from previous versions. Of any of the songs we have cut so far, this track personifies the phrase ‘Country Darkness.’
MWK: Lou and I had got together with Steve in Manchester in March, on a day off during the recent Elvis Costello tour. We were due to go into the studio a few days later, but that turned out to be the week lockdown came into effect. It should have all been done by now. We have five more Costello songs to record, plus a new My Darling Clementine song. It’s so frustrating. I just hope we can resume ASAP.
Do you know if Elvis has heard the first EP?
MWK: We saw him very briefly after the Manchester show and he thanked us for the record. We didn’t really get chance to talk about it much, as he was being ushered out the venue, plus Lou was busy wisecracking with him about his choice of stage exit music – Ken Dodd’s We Are The Diddy Men!
Finally, this country – and many others – has experienced a lot of darkness recently. What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is lifted?
MWK: I have 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!
I actually re-wrote the lyrics for Tom T Hall’s very sweet, but rather saccharine song I Like, and called it I Miss. I’m not sure it needs to be committed to YouTube or Facebook, or maybe it will be, one night, after a bottle of wine… I had a line about missing browsing in record shops, with you in mind, Sean, but I haven’t found the second line yet. Anyway, in answer to your question, here is what ‘I Miss.’
I miss going to her house, sitting on the couch, her upon my knee and tea I miss climbing up some hill, dragging them against their will, saying theirs legs ache and cake And I miss you too
I miss going to the game, walking home in the rain, calling out the team, and dreams I miss going to the pub, giving friends a hug, putting the world to rights, curry nights And I miss you too
I miss getting on the stage, thinking I’m all the rage Drinks in hotel bars, and cars I miss driving through the night, crossing borders when it’s light, hearing another voice and choice And I miss you too
Country Darkness Vol.2 by My Darling Clementine is released on June 5 (Fretsore Records). The single, Different Finger, is available to stream and download now.
In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, singer-songwriter Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires and Bennett Wilson Poole) reflects on lockdown, looks back at the making of his 2005 solo mini-album Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, which has just been made available online for the first time, and updates us on the eagerly-awaited second album from Bennett Wilson Poole.
One of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is that lockdown has given musicians more time to dig around in their vaults and release rare or unheard material online for their fans to enjoy while stuck indoors.
Oxford-based singer-songwriter Robin Bennett, who is one third of Americana and jangle-pop supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole and, with his brother Joe, is one of the main members of The Dreaming Spires, has made his hard to find 2005 solo mini-album, the eight-track Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, available to stream or download from Bandcamp.
Released under the pseudonym Dusty Sound System, it was written and recorded over a week in Los Angeles, California, in January 2005, at the time of the Iraq War. The songs, which were laid down in a day, were composed with his friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power (The And/Ors).
Robin and Danny spent most mornings watching the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back before getting down to songwriting and it shows – album opener, the riotous, bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll of The One And Only Lost Boy, sounds like a homage to mid-’60s electric Dylan, while Nation At War and I’m A Soldier are both folky protest songs.
Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely, fragile acoustic ballad, You Can’tFool All The People (All The Time) is anthemic country rock, the sombre, piano-led ballad As I Lay Dying has a Lennon feel, and Don’t Sleep Alone is yet more raw, Dylanesque rock ‘n’roll.
The album was recorded in a studio owned by Rob Campanella ( Brian Jonestown Massacre) and features a cast of friends and local musicians, including Bobby Bones, Darren Rademaker (The Tyde) and Jason Anchondo (The Warlocks).
Mixed back in England with Rowland Prytherch, after the addition of harmony vocals by Piney Gir and Cat Martino, the album was mastered by Tim Turan in Oxford and originally released in 2005 on Truck Records.
Ironically, considering its title, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror sometimes sounds like it’s gone for a great night out on the town – one of the songs is called It Takes No Talent To Party – but, more often that not, it’s waking up the morning after, bleary-eyed and melancholic.
“There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California – it must have been the sunshine,” says Robin.
How are you and how have you been coping with lockdown?
Robin Bennett: I live in a somewhat isolated spot anyway, so, in some ways, not a lot has changed, although my children are at home. Thankfully the weather has mostly been good and we are lucky enough to have a garden. A lot of the meetings I have to attend due to my council work (Robin is a cabinet member for development and regeneration at South Oxfordshire District Council) have moved online, so I’m pretty busy. I’ve also got a small home recording set-up to keep my musical side occupied.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
RB: I’ve definitely been drawn to listening to music, old and new. I bought a new record player from Danny Wilson’s [Bennett Wilson Poole, Danny and the Champions of the World] shop, Union Music Store, to help me make the most of my vinyl collection.
I’ve also joined in with a few of Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – diverse selections from The Chemical Brothers to The Flaming Lips, which was stuff from when I was first getting into music and going out. My old band Goldrush supported The Flaming Lips in 2002 and went on to record with Dave Fridmann.
The other night I went back to some classics on vinyl that I haven’t listened to in a while, due to over-familiarity – like Neil Young’s After the Goldrush. I like the way the internet allows shared listening. I joined in with the Clubhouse Records crew, who were listening to The Band’s Stagefright last weekend. Opinion was divided on whether it’s a lost classic.
‘The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past’
We’ve also got a crappy Dansette in the shed, where we’ve been dancing to 7-inch singles with the kids, mostly The Beatles or stuff from the Britpop era, when I was buying 7-inches.
Although it’s a pain for artists – including Bennett Wilson Poole – that the release cycle has been disrupted, it’s created an interesting pause in the normal torrent of attention-grabbing. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past. The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia.
Have you written any new songs during lockdown?
RB: Not really. I have demoed a whole pile of songs from my notebook though – some of them are going back years. I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown.
During lockdown, you’ve decided to make your 2005 Dusty Sound System mini-album, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror available on Bandcamp. What was the thinking behind that?
RB: It was partly because of just having the time and space to do it. Although it was originally released in a pretty minimal way, it has a bit of a reputation in some circles, and I wanted people to be able to hear it – those who didn’t have one of the few original CD copies.
The album is 15 years old. How you do feel about it now? How old were you when you made it and what music were you into at the time?
RB: Um… I was 26! One thing I remember from the time is that Bright Eyes was just releasing his two albums on the same day, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. I was very impressed by that – the US press were calling him ‘the new Bob Dylan’ at the time.
Since first going to the US in 2003, to record and tour with Mark Gardener of Ride, my Goldrush bandmates and I had been introduced to a whole swathe of US independent acts, from Death Cab For Cutie to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I met, or played with, many of them.
I was impressed how the scale of the US allowed these bands to have a viable career without signing to a major label, which was more or less impossible in the UK at the time.
There were also records that were more abundant in American record stores, like Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash, that I’d not really come across before. Big Star and Gram Parsons loomed large too. I also got into The Jayhawks around then –I’m not sure how I’d avoided them previously. We also listened to a lot of old Bob Dylan – especially The Bootleg Series Volume 2.
What’s the story behind the album? How did it come about? You went to L.A. and you wrote the record in a week, with your friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power – and you recorded in it a day. That must have been a hell of a week!
RB: I’d always largely been the lyric writer in Goldrush – in the early days, songs used to come together in a somewhat miraculous way, without a lot of forethought, but, of course, that method can dry up. When we went to record with Dave Fridmann in 2003, I was still finishing lyrics in the studio, which stressed me out no end. I knew there had to be a more structured way of writing.
I worked with Mark Gardener on some of the songs for his solo album, and found that I could be useful as a co-writer. Then, with Danny, we found such a close rapport that extending into co-writing happened almost by default.
‘L.A. was a whole different world and very inspiring. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying doughnuts and coffee, and then trying to write’
Goldrush had US visas, so we took the opportunity to spend as much time there as we could, staying in Brooklyn, or at Danny’s house in L.A., even when not touring. I applied for a PRS grant, which gave me the chance to go over and do some writing with Danny in January 2005. He lived just off Sunset Boulevard, between Echo Park and Silverlake, in a shared house, with a few bohemian friends who were always welcoming.
It was a whole different world and very inspiring for me. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching bits of Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying some doughnuts and coffee – vital – and then trying to write. I also had an obsession with Gatorade – the US version. I still do.
On previous visits we’d become good friends with Rob Campanella of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who had an excellent studio in his house. We’d written enough songs for an album, so we thought we should get them down for posterity and we invited some of the aforementioned people along for a day in the studio, setting up live and rattling through the whole lot in one day, pausing only for sandwiches from the deli and the odd beer. It was all so much fun and we knew that we had something.
Danny Power has been a big influence on you musically, hasn’t he? He’s inspired several Dreaming Spires songs and he got you into Big Star. How did you meet him?
RB: Danny Power was initially our West Coast tour manager, but he was – is – a musician too and we wound up becoming close friends. Mark Gardener had discovered Danny after his band, The And/Ors, opened for Mark’s solo tour, so when we came over as Mark’s backing band, he asked Danny to supply a van and equipment, which he did – rickety vintage gear you’d rarely see in the UK.
Danny worked printing art posters for the famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in a large warehouse in downtown L.A., so that’s where we rehearsed. It was an amazing scene to be part of. It was next to the American Apparel factory, in an eerie industrial district patrolled by homeless people pushing shopping trolleys, and there were also furtive porn movie shoots in warehouses – or so we heard. The Dreaming Spires song Singing Sin City describes meeting Danny and his van, which was named Darla.
You said that you were watching Don’t Look Back most mornings in L.A. The first song on Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror is The One And Only Lost Boy, which is a mid-’60s electric Dylan homage, isn’t it?
RB: Yes, certainly – though one of my earliest influences, like Dylan, was Chuck Berry, and it has a bit of that about it too.
The song is about your experiences as a Brit in L.A. What did you make of it?
RB: My experiences of L.A. were completely overwhelming – I’d been there once, aged 18, but not really found any of its secrets, but going there again in 2003, even after the thrill of touring the East Coast, was something else. It seemed like another planet and we were lucky enough to be introduced to some amazing places and people. We were probably as exotic to the Californians as they were to us.
I can’t remember writing The One And Only Lost Boy, but all the people mentioned in it are real people we used to hang out with. Bobby (Bones), Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo and Dave ‘The Kid’ Koenig all play on the record so it’s very self-referential. Caroline and Abigail lived in Danny’s house. I really did get called Lindsay after [film director] Lindsay Anderson on account of my British accent, and on that writing trip it rained for several days, which was a real novelty in L.A. It caused many plants to bloom and gave me severe hay fever, enough to somewhat affect the sound of my voice on the record.
Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely song. It sounds like a more stripped-down version of what you went on to do with The Dreaming Spires, but minus the jangly guitars. What can you tell me about it?
Nothing I Can’t Do Without was written on Danny’s porch, throwing phrases back and forth in a rapid fashion. The house was in sight of Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, is named after the amazing California sunsets, which are made more spectacular by a layer of smog.
I was definitely moving away from writing verse-chorus type songs, and getting more narrative in style. I was probably listening to Another Side…era Dylan, which seeped into the guitar style. It does sound a bit like the cover of Girl From The North Country that The Dreaming Spires started our career with. I basically used the same chords under the Dylan lyrics for that, as I didn’t know the correct chords.
As I Lay Dying is one of the darker songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? The piano sounds quite Lennonesque, and it’s a sad song…
RB: As I Lay Dying was written after a trip, so to speak, to Joshua Tree National Park, on one of our regular pilgrimages to the desert. It provided a very different perspective on life and the song was written down pretty much directly as we experienced it.
‘When we mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe’
The title was from the William Faulkner novel. I was into trying to describe out-of-body or near-death experiences at the time, as also on the Goldrush album, The Heart Is The Place. The song There’s A World by Goldrush, on the Ozona album, is also based on being at Joshua Tree. It became one of our favourite places to go when in the US. We played at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s and stayed on Victoria Williams’ ranch and at number of other interesting spots. I seem to recall when Rowland Prytherch and I mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe.
Where did the song It Takes No Talent To Party come from? Great title! I can imagine there was a lot of partying during your week in L.A…
RB: The title was a saying from Dave Koenig, who, at the time, was the bass player in The Brian Jonestown Massacre, or he may have just left the band. He was kind enough to play bass on the album. He was a very funny guy and a master storyteller – it was his phrase to describe some of the characters who populated the L.A. scene, which was to some extent surface over content. There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California – it must have been the sunshine.
The record is one of highs and lows – there are musically upbeat songs, like The One And Only Lost Boy and Don’t Sleep Alone, but it’s often a melancholy, reflective record, isn’t it? What kind of frame of mind were you in when you made it?
RB. My default song setting was melancholy, at least up to that point, so I’m glad I was able to produce some upbeat songs. It was a relatively carefree time if you could ignore all the wars and so on…
Let’s talk about that. The Iraq War was happening at the time you were making the album and it inspired some of the songs, like I’m A Soldier and Nation At War, which are folky protest songs. What was your take on the war at the time and what was it like being in the US while it was happening?
RB: The TV was still filled with images of the post-9/11 Middle Eastern wars and Dubya was still President. The heavy post-9/11 security measures were very much in place and paranoia was in the air. We must have watched plenty of TV because the news filtered through into the songs. I remember sitting in a café and writing out the lyrics to Nation At War in a matter of minutes. I’m A Soldier covers the plight of returning veterans and is simple, but it holds up well, I think.
You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has a country rock feel…
RB: Country rock loomed large in our lives, having recently got deep into Sweetheart of the Rodeo [The Byrds] and The Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. We loved going to thrift stores and Mexican markets to pick up quirky shirts – they were hard to get hold of back then. It fascinated me to be in the same spot, making records as those individuals, as indeed it did no doubt for excellent local bands like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde.
Darren from The Tyde and Bobby Bones play excellent guitar lines on the track, which makes the song. Rob Campanella’s brother Andy stepped in on drums, and his more languid style suited the song, with its unpredictable timings. As I recall, I played piano and sang live vocals on almost every song, apart from the acoustic picking numbers.
There are quite a few guests on the album…
RB: Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo was one of two drummers in The Warlocks, who were staples of the shoegazey revival scene, alongside The Brian Jonestown Massacre – we encountered numerous members of both bands. We’d met on our first trip when The Warlocks and Mark Gardener/Goldrush played in New York and we all jammed a version of Tomorrow Never Knows. I’d like to hear a recording of that!
Bobby Bones was a mysterious but delightful character, who looked like he could easily have been in The Rolling Stones. Darren Rademaker from The Tyde joined us too and contributed some wonderful guitar lines.
Back in England, I felt some female vocals would improve things – I was perhaps enjoying Emmylou Harris’ contributions to the Bright Eyes album – and asked Piney Gir, who was a friend, and part of our Truck Records roster, to come and sing on a few tracks. Furthermore, Cat Martino, another US singer from Brooklyn, who became a great friend, sang on Nation At War, which was actually recorded in England that summer, when she visited.
What happened to the album at the time? Did it have a proper release and did you tour to support it?
RB: It didn’t have a major release – it came out on the label Truck Records, which I ran with friends. Most of the effort in 2005 went on tours to support the US and European releases of Goldrush’s Ozona album. I did play some really fun shows, however, and put together a great UK band including Loz Colbert from Ride on drums, Andrew Mitchell from Ralfe Band, Garo and Nick (Growler) from Goldrush and Rowland Prytherch on bass. We often joined by Piney as well, and sometimes later on by Danny Wilson – we’d just started becoming friends. There were plenty of others who jumped in on occasion – almost too many to list!
The songs were simple enough to show people in a few minutes and usually it came off well. We played at The Social and The Borderline [in London], at a festival in Devon with Mojave 3, and quite a few other places. There were also a couple of gigs in L.A. with some of the original band, or perhaps just one – it’s shown in the video for The One And Only Lost Boy.
The album was credited to Dusty Sound System, rather than Robin Bennett. Where did the pseudonym come from?
RB: ‘Dusty’ was a nickname given to me be a friend from the village where I grew up – it was short for Dusty Bookworm, on account of how I liked to read and my dad was a bookseller.
By the time of the album, quite a lot of people called me Dusty, so it seemed a suitable pseudonym. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to perform under my given name. I really can’t remember how Sound System got added – it meant that there didn’t have to be a fixed band, or it could just be me. The pseudonym gave me freedom to have fun.
Let’s leave 2005 behind and fast forward to 2020, to talk about Bennett Wilson Poole.
Last year, you had to postpone your headlining London show, at the Islington Assembly Hall, as Tony Poole was unwell, and, this year, you were due to appear at the Ramblin’ Roots festival, which had to be postponed due to Covid-19.Are you hoping to gig later this year – all being well – and how’s Tony doing?
RB: Tony seems well currently, which is great. I’ve spoken to him a few times during lockdown. The first thing we did when we heard about the virus, even pre-lockdown, was cancel a Bennett Wilson Poole rehearsal – we need to look after Tony, in particular.
‘The second Bennett Wilson Poole album is written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it’
I’m not very optimistic about indoor concerts taking place anywhere during 2020, so we may have to wait a little longer.
What’s the current state of play with Bennett Wilson Poole? Is your eagerly-awaited second album written and recorded?
RB: It’s written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
One of the great things about Bennett Wilson Poole for me is the songwriting partnership Danny Wilson and I have developed. After it became impossible to write with Danny Power, I didn’t know if I’d find the same thing again, but we have struck up a similar ability to write songs and write them quickly. We both love the excitement of songwriting.
At this year’s Ramblin’ Roots, The Dreaming Spires were also due to play. Do you think there will be another Dreaming Spires record in the future?
RB: It’s hard to say. We are all still good friends and enjoying getting together to play now and then. We’re very proud of the albums we did. The songs all fit together as a set, so, if there was a new album, it would have to have some different subject matter.
As a professional musician and also a festival promoter what are you most worried about because of the Covid-19 crisis? Are you optimistic about the future?Will things get back to normal? What’s your take on it? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’
RB: I suppose, like most people, I am worried about my health and that of those close to me – and it’s clearly going to have a heavy impact on the live music business – indeed it already is. Looking for a positive, I think that connection and culture have grown in importance for us all as we’re stuck in our homes, and I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene. It’s hard to say exactly what that will look like, as we are still learning about how the virus operates.
‘Connection and culture have grown in importance as we’re stuck in our homes. I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene’
Clearly, some of the remote working and live streaming events will continue in the future, and we will be wary of cramped gatherings for a while. I’ve always been drawn to locally-oriented events, and perhaps there will be more of those as people resist long-distance travel. Also it’s opportunity to make sure all that back catalogue stuff is out there and available.
What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown is lifted?
RB: Going to play, or watching a band in a cramped pub, preferably The Betsey Trotwood. I might have to wait quite a while for that to happen, so in the meantime a socially-distanced cup of coffee in a café will do.
Detroit power-pop singer-songwriter Nick Piunti’s new album has an apt title for these days of global lockdown – it’s called Downtime.
“It’s a bit too timely. My daughter, Megan, actually came up with it after listening to the record. In the song Never Belonged To Me there’s a lyric that says: “Don’t know what to do with the downtime.”
“The word ‘time’ also shows up in a few of the other songs,” says Nick, whose latest record – his sixth – is the first with his new band, The Complicated Men.
The album has all the usual Piunti hallmarks – raw vocals, infectious melodies, crunching guitar riffs and sweet, ’60s-style harmonies – but, this time around, the sound is fleshed out with Hammond organ.
First single, All This Time, is anthemic and urgent indie rock ‘n’ roll, the opening track, Upper Hand, is chugging and New Wavey, while Going Nowhere has some breezy ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals and a killer, fuzzed-up, melodic guitar solo. There are also some quieter and more reflective moments – the ballads All Over Again and Good Intentions.
So what is Nick doing with his downtime and how’s he coping with lockdown and the COVID-19 crisis?
“For the first three weeks, I was working at our restaurant, as we transitioned into ‘carry-out’ orders only. The staff did a great job, but, as time went on, the stress was getting to everyone, so we decided to close up shop until we’re able to be a full-service restaurant again,” he says.
“I admit that I brought my amp and guitar to work and was making quite a bit of noise between orders. I’m happy to say that not one person on our staff became ill while we were still in business, and, so far, everyone has remained healthy.
“I’ve been trying not to watch too much news. I want to stay informed, but it can take a lot out of you. I’ve been playing a lot of guitar, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. I have our restaurant to worry about, as well as keeping our family safe.”
He adds: “Our oldest daughter has moved back in temporarily, as she’s working from home, and that’s been really nice. We’re hardly fighting at all! Our middle daughter is out-of-state, finishing up her senior year, so it’s been hard being away from her.
“Our youngest is running the household as usual, watching too much TV and telling us what she wants for dinner every night. I’m the only male in the house, so I look for a corner I can hide away in, to work on new songs.
“Back in February, when the consensus was that the virus was only dangerous for a portion of the population, it seemed manageable, but it really hit home when my friend, Chris Plum, came down with it.
“He contributed to the new album as a special guest, adding some great harmonies on a few of the songs and synth on another. He’s a super-talented guy. He became very ill with COVID-19, but, luckily, he’s recovered – he actually followed some alternative methods that saved his life.”
Let’s talk about your new band, The Complicated Men. What’s the line-up?
Nick Piunti: The Complicated Men are officially: Jeff Hupp (bass); Ron Vensko (drums) and Kevin Darnall (keys), plus special guests Ryan Allen (harmony vocals, guitar, percussion) and Chris Plum (harmony vocals, synth, percussion).
It was cool having both Ryan and Chris guest on the album. Side one of the record is more Chris and side two’s more Ryan. Both of them are super-talented musicians who work really quickly. I loved hearing what they would add to the songs.
Where did the band name come from?
NP: Ryan came up with it – I think he had it in his back pocket for one of his bands, but he never used it. Are they really that complicated? Well, they’re a bunch of middle-aged dudes playing rock stars, so, yeah, I guess so.
Jeff Hupp actually brought the band together. Donny Brown and Andy Reed were my band for several albums, but we all live quite a distance from each other, so rehearsals rarely happened and we didn’t play many shows. Jeff asked if I wanted a bass player for an upcoming solo show. He then brought Ron in and, a bit later, Kevin. Ryan was in the band for a minute, but realised he couldn’t put the time in for rehearsals and shows.
‘With the addition of a keyboard player, I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do’
How did you approach the writing and the recording for the new album?
NP: I wrote the songs pretty much like I always do, except I refrained from recording any demos – I worked them out with the band before we hit the studio.
The last four albums began with me in the studio, laying down a rough rhythm guitar track and a guide vocal, building the songs from there. It would usually be just Geoff Michael – the producer – and I to start with, and then Donny Brown would lay down the drums.
We’d work on the guitars and vocals and Andy Reed would add the bass guitar towards the end. I kind of have a sound – guitars and a few more guitars, and this voice I was born with. I said born, not blessed. And I like what I like, so there’s not a reinvention of the wheel by any means.
With the addition of a keyboard player I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do, for the most part. Although I wrote the songs, the band were definitely integral to the arrangements and they all composed the parts they played on the record.
Some of the songs were more of a group effort in their arrangements, while others were pretty much like I wrote them. Ryan, who’s been a long-time contributor, had quite a bit to do with the first batch of songs we recorded as The Complicated Men.
Where did you make the album?
NP: Once again we did it with Geoff Michael at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We started the record in March last year, took a break, recorded five more songs in late spring, added some overdubs in the fall, and mixed it at the end of 2019. You could make a baby quicker than I make an album!
Geoff and The Complicated Men are listed as producers. It was a team effort, but I know when to stay out of Geoff’s way.
The first single from the album was All This Time. It sounds like another classic Piunti ‘relationship gone wrong’ song. It has a great rock ‘n’ roll feel – the organ has really filled out your sound.
NP: Yeah! All This Time was written on a Sunday and recorded the following weekend, if I remember correctly. The band took to it really fast.
Yes – love gone wrong. Not that I know anything about that, as I’ve been happily married for 25 years. The song is not autobiographical – it’s actually about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time.
In fact, a few of the songs on the album were written standing in someone else’s shoes – enough to make my wife request a disclaimer on the album stating: ‘These songs are not about my wife.’ I forgot to add it, but all of the love songs on the album are about her. There are a few…
Kevin played a Hammond B3 on that song. There’s nothing like the real thing.
The latest single, Upper Hand, has a bit of a New Wave sound, with its chugging guitar. Where did that song come from?
NP: I actually wrote the chorus in the shower. It’s best not to picture that! I think it was the first song I wrote for the new album, so it was appropriate to kick the record off with it.
It’s about giving up control, which is something I’m getting better at as I get older. If you’re going to stay married for 25 years, I find that’s it not healthy to try and control everything.
New Wave? Yeah – I do like to rely on guitar riffs for a lot of my songs. I grew up in the ‘70s – it’s in my DNA.
You rock out on Going Nowhere, which is one of the heavier and ‘crunchier’ tracks on the album. I love the ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals, the harmonies and the organ. It has a nice, melodic guitar solo, too.
What’s the song about? You sing: “The ship was going down… it looks like we might drown…. I’m the captain of this ship and we’re all on the same trip – going nowhere.” It sounds like it’s a comment on the state of US politics and the Trump presidency, or am I reading too much into it?
NP: That song was a total team effort. Chris came up with the harmonies, which were possibly suggested by Jeff, if I remember correctly.
I had the guitar solo in my head, but it still needed something, so we added some fuzz and an octave to it. I need to do more of that!
‘I actually wrote the chorus to Upper Hand in the shower. It’s best not to picture that!’
Going Nowhere was the last song on the album that needed lyrics. I was stuck, so I asked Ryan if he could help me with it. I sent him the basic tracks and hummed the melody and phrasing, and in about 15 minutes he came up with the first verse in a text. Half an hour later he sent me the rest of the lyrics. They were perfect – I didn’t need to change a word.
It does sound like it could be a Trump-inspired song, but Ryan says it’s about dealing with depression and trying to navigate your way through it, with some days better than others. I could see a video with a cartoon Trump singing it, but we’ll leave it to the listener’s imagination instead.
All Over Again is one of the album’s slower and more laid-back moments – it’s a ballad…
NP: I actually recorded that song in the studio with just Geoff and myself. It was in November – a couple of months before the first Complicated Men studio date.
I wrote it really quickly and wanted to record it before the feeling passed. The song is different to the rest of the album, but I wanted to include it – it’s kind of sad, but still hopeful. It’s one of my songs that someone half my age should cover.
The final song on the record, Good Intentions, is another slowie. It’s lovely – a reflective way to end the album…
NP: I wrote that song as my mom was nearing the end of her life. She passed away in February 2019. I don’t know if I was writing it from her viewpoint, or from what I might want to say when the time came. It’s a song to my daughters, maybe? I intended to write a second verse, but the song really felt complete with just the one verse and chorus.
On that note, sadly, one of your musical heroes and influences, Adam Scheslinger, from Fountains of Wayne, recently died as a result of COVID-19 complications? How are you feeling about his passing? What did his music mean to you?
NP: I didn’t know Adam personally, but I met him at a show and actually asked if he would mix my album, 13 In My Head, to which he said “sure”…
Fountains of Wayne are not only one of my favourite bands, but it was the one group that my wife Kelli and I both loved to the same degree. The night we met Fountains of Wayne, Adam brought Kelli on stage to play tambourine during Hey Julie.
Their songwriting is ridiculously clever – the funny lyrics, the sound, the hooks, Chris’s Collingwood’s vocals, the whole band… I love [guitarist] Jody Porter’s playing. I don’t have his chops, but I often find myself thinking: “what would Jody play?”
I loved every record Fountains of Wayne did. I admit I can’t always tell which is a Chris song and which is an Adam song, as they usually wrote separately, but it’s obvious they were both influenced by each other.
Adam was only 52. I heard that he was in hospital but would recover. It stopped me in my tracks when I read the news that he passed. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne lately. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist.
Other than Fountains of Wayne, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
NP: Before my recent Fountains of Wayne listening binge, my favourite recent album was Mo Troper’s Natural Beauty. He’s a fantastic indie-pop artist from Portland, Oregon. I was planning to see him on tour until he had to cancel.
‘I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist’
The latest Pernice Brothers album is great. A new Chicago band called Rookie has been getting some spins and I also dig White Reaper. I love the new Brendan Benson single, Richest Man, and, of course, I’ve been going back to listen to John Prine.
Did you have any live shows planned around the launch of the new album? If so, what’s happened to those?
NP: We had two record release shows planned in May. We were going to do a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B’ show. It looks like those will have to be postponed for the time being. I don’t think anyone wants to be packed in like sardines for a while.
What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown has been lifted?
NP: I miss making noise at rehearsals with the band. I miss going outside without wearing a mask. I miss seeing people walk through the door of my restaurant. I’m hoping we all appreciate the little things we take for granted.
I’m praying they find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, and also find out why some people are susceptible while others may not even be aware they have contracted the virus.
I hope to keep writing and being inspired. I have a few dozen new songs in the works and I’m looking forward to seeing what the band can do with them. I really hope we can have a show soon and we’re really looking forward to May 22, when the album is finally released.
I’m really happy I get to share this release with the band, as I’m really proud of it. It sounds like me, but I can hear the difference in the way it was recorded, with all of us tracking together. It really sounds like a band.
Downtime by Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men is released on May 22 (Jem Records).
If you’re looking for a new album to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown, then may we recommend the soulful, jazzy and folky Humanism, which is the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys.
Recorded in Spain last summer, it’s a warm and colourful collection of songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. It could be just what the doctor ordered…
Monks Road Social, the loose musical collective headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of last year – Down TheWillows and Out Of Bounds.
Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, both records made our best of 2019 list and we described them as: ‘two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas.’
The good news is that it’s now done and dusted, is out this month, and, like its predecessors, it’s a stunning and diverse record. It’s called Humanism and, this time around, the Spanish sunshine has worked its magic, as there’s a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs. In these worrying days of lockdown, it’s a perfect soundtrack to ease your mind and take you to a better place.
Special guests include Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies), who belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, and actor Peter Capaldi, who sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.
Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sings on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shares vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lends her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.
Also on the album are drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.
We spoke to Dr. Robert, who was on lockdown at his home in Andalusia, Spain – he lives in the mountains, south of Granada –to get the lowdown on how Humanism was written and recorded, and find out how he’s spending his time in the house…
How are you coping with the lockdown and isolation?
Dr. Robert: We are doing fine. It’s pretty isolated up here in the mountains anyway, to be honest. We are more concerned about our kids in London, but, thankfully, they are doing okay.
Spain has been hit very badly, especially in the cities. People are used to interacting socially here in a profound way. To take that away from them has been very tough, but they have responded magnificently and, like in the UK, you just have to marvel at the bravery and selflessness of the health workers. We must never call them ‘low-skilled’ and they must not remain ‘low-paid.’ Our value system is all wrong and we can’t go back there now.
Any advice for staying sane? What have you been up to during lockdown?
DR: It’s a great opportunity to reboot. I’m sure everyone says that, but it really does sort out your priorities. It’s the simple things – the way the light bounces off a whitewashed wall, or the birdsong in the morning. It’s like a veil has been lifted. This has changed us – let’s hope we stay awake…
During the lockdown, you’ve been playing some acoustic tracks online, including covers of Fred Neil, Marc Bolan and Tim Hardin songs. Any plans to do some more performances?
DR: Yes, I’ll do more, but I don’t want to flood a crowded market.
Have you been writing any songs during lockdown?
DR: Yes. I was already working on a new Blow Monkeys album for early next year, to coincide with our 40th anniversary, so it’s afforded me more time to really figure out what it is I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album! And what do I have to say? “Love is all that remains of us,” to quote a poet from Hull.
Let’s talk about the new Monks Road Social album, Humanism – the third in a trilogy. What were the recording sessions in Spain like?
DR: The album was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.
My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.
The main task is organisation and preplanning. My wife, Michele, is amazing. She manages The Blow Monkeys too. We had a great engineer called Ivan Moreno, who I ended up mixing the whole album with, plus the label boss, Richard Clarke, [Monks Road Records] has a very good antennae and always pitches in with interesting ideas. I’m just the ringmaster.
‘I’ve been working on a new Blow Monkeys album. The lockdown has afforded me more time to figure out what I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album!’
How do you think this album compares with the other two? There are fewer folk, country, blues and rock/psychedelic songs on it. It has more of a soul and jazz feel, with some Flamenco influences too…
DR: Well, yes – the fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet.
Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.
Did you write new songs specifically for this album?
DR: I did – songs like Egyptian Magic and Step By Step – and there were others that I had from before that I thought would work with different singers, like Sulene Fleming doing Said Too Much.
We are always on the lookout for people to add to the mix. A friend told me his daughter, Belle McNulty, could sing. I said I’d have a listen, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. She blew me away.
She did a fantastic job on On The Wings of the Morning and then she wrote the lyrics to a piece of music I had and we ended up with I Wish You Well, which is one of my favourite things we have ever done with Monks Road.
I just love working with great singers like Belle, Sulene, Romy, who is Matt Deighton’s daughter, Ximena and Angelina. It’s such a joy.
Were there any songs on this record that were left over from the previous sessions for the other Monks Road Social albums?
DR: Well, Step By Step emerged out of an remix of I Ain’t Running Anymore, and we had plenty left over from this session too – enough for another album to be honest.
Egyptian Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it?
DR: Matt Deighton and I share a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex – the era when Steve Peregrin Took was still with Bolan, but just before he left. Songs like Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia and Blessed Wild Apple Girl – all that stuff.
Egyptian Magic was inspired by a tub of hair product that my wife ordered from duty free on a plane! The lyric is a true story, which is unusual for me. Matt is a great player and does amazing harmonies. It’s pretty effortless between us. We hope to do an album one day.
Another of my favourite songs on the record is On The Wings of the Morning. It has some cool, funky ‘70s flute on it…
DR: Jacko Peake played the flute. He’s amazing and was in Push with Crispin Taylor and Ernie McKone, so there was a natural bond there already. I knew Jacko from my time playing with Paul Weller too, so it’s an old friendship.
I’m happy that On The Wings of the Morning turned out that way. I don’t think anybody in the country could play that groove like Crispin and Ernie. They are the best.
The first single, If I Could Pray, was written by actor Peter Capaldi – he also sings vocals and plays acoustic guitar on it. How did that collaboration come about?
DR: I met Peter a few years ago, as he comes to the valley in the summer, with his family. We started to play acoustic together at a friend’s party and our friendship grew out of that.
He was hanging out at the studio and then one day his wife, Elaine, mentioned he had a song. I was thrilled and we did it really quickly, which is always a good sign. He’s a natural – very unaffected.
What was it like for Dr. Robert to work with Doctor Who? So many doctors in the house…
DR: Although he’s obviously well known as an actor, Peter actually started out doing music, so there was nothing forced. He’s a delight to work with and very funny too.
The song Said Too Much is a great funk-soul-jazz track – the trumpet, which is played by Juan Carlos Camacho, is fantastic. Where did that song come from? What was the inspiration for it?
DR: Words that cut too deep – spoken out loud in drunken rages. Those days are behind me now – thank fuck! I love that trumpet too – it’s so Spanish. He gently seduces you.
Is Apricot Glow a Matt Deighton song? It’s gorgeous…
DR: Yes – that’s a lovely Matt Deighton composition. We double tracked his vocal and it really seems to suit the song. It’s a fragile beauty.
Any favourite tracks from the album? You mentioned I Wish You Well earlier…
DR: Well, it changes, but I love Sequiso, featuring Funk From Mali – it’s a proper groove. And, as I said, I Wish You Well is a personal fave. City Lights, too, with Neil Jones from Stone Foundation. I get to play bass on his tunes, which is one of my favourite things to do. That song has a great forward momentum and his girlfriend, Celia Carballo, sings really well on it too. Mick Talbot weaved his usual magic on it.
I managed to record a solo track with Mick when he was just warming up – New Arrivals. He was just sound checking my cheap car boot Casio and came up with this amazing piece. I asked him if it was okay to use it, as he wasn’t aware we had recorded it!
You said you had material left over from the sessions. Is there another Monks Road Social album planned?
DR: Yes.We have enough recorded material for a whole new album. It’s up to Richard how he wants to use it.
You were due to play the first Monks Road Social gig at the Jazz Café, in London, this May. Has it been rescheduled and what can we expect from the live show?
DR: It’s been rescheduled for August 25, but that may be optimistic – let’s see. If we have to delay it again, we will. It’s going to be fun – chaotic and possibly messy, but fun. There’s nothing else like it really.
There’s a new Blow Monkeys album due, too…
DR: Yes – it will be out early next year and will be crowdfunded, hopefully.
What music – new and old – are you listening to at the moment? What’s your lockdown soundtrack?
DR: I’ve been writing lots, so don’t tend to listen to too much, but that Nick Cave album, Ghosteen, is astonishing, and Paul Weller sent me his latest one, On Sunset, which is very special.
Other than that, just a drop of Fred Neil and a pinch of Van Morrison. Oh and the new Dylan single [Murder Most Foul] – all 17 minutes of it. Marvellous.
What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?
DR: Seeing my family.
Humanism by Monks Road Social is released on April 17 (Monks Road Records).
When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel his European and UK spring tour, Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger turned a negative situation into a positive one by hastily putting together a brand new, digital-only album called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it’s made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that he’d demoed and quickly forgotten about.
It’s a brilliant collection of intimate Americana and Dylanesque folk-blues tracks.
The loose, raw and lo-fi recordings really hang together well as an album, and, if anything, it demonstrates that Jerry’s discarded songs are better than many artists’ officially released ones.
In an exclusive interview from his apartment in Toronto, Jerry tells Say It With Garage Flowers how he pulled the album together so quickly, reveals details of a series of forthcoming online gigs streamed live on Facebook and suggests a suitable soundtrack for these days of isolation…
How’s it going? Are you safe? What’s the situation like in Toronto?
Jerry Leger: I’m well and doing what I can to stay safe and keep my distance during the handful of times I’ve had to leave my apartment. A state of emergency was announced in Toronto and everything is changing by the day – stores and other places are closing and there are more guidelines for what we need to do to protect ourselves and others. It’s a good thing to help us get through this as soon as possible.
Sadly the coronavirus has meant you’ve had to postpone your UK and European tour. How do you feel about that? What impact has it had on you financially?
JL: Well, it was a major blow, very disappointing and, as you can imagine, financially devastating. It’s being rescheduled for next spring – I’m hoping that things will have settled down by then. Of course, our health is the number one priority for all of us, but it is very stressful. You’re dealing with how the present has been affected and worrying about how the future looks.
After a few days I was able to calm my mind down a bit and not worry about things too far into the future. All it does is create more anxiety and I have enough of that already. The virus has put a lot of things into perspective for me. My girlfriend Laura has helped a lot and I’ve also been coping by staying busy and by thinking of creative things I can do from home.
I started the year off by catching up on a lot of reading and also writing more, so I’m gonna do more of that and get back to sketching, which I find stress relieving.
How are you coping with being indoors all the time?
JL: I’ve actually been enjoying it to some degree. I haven’t cracked up yet! After my big European and UK tour was postponed and Canadian dates were cancelled, the first few days of recommended isolation were spent dealing with that and what to do next.
I had started the year off writing a bunch of songs, but, of course, the pandemic put my creativity on hold. I’m easing back into the mindset for when the mood and inspiration strikes.
Can you recommend any songs for the period of isolation? What’s your soundtrack?
JL: I’ve had Gordon Lightfoot on – it’s comforting for me. It’s hard to say though, ‘cos I’m always listening to records if I’m home and now I’m home a lot, so a lot of records have been played.
I had Ray Charles, Irma Thomas and Kris Kristofferson on last night. For the first few days, I had a lot of Beatles and solo Beatles on, ‘cos I also find that comforting in moments of deep worry.
The first song I was ever obsessed with was In My Life, around the age of four. As I’m writing this, I have King Of America by Elvis Costello on.
Great choice! One of the positive things that’s emerged from the crisis is that you’ve released a new digital-only album, Songs From The Apartment, via Bandcamp. How did you manage to turn the project around so quickly?
JL: I thought it would be cool to release a surprise album and I had folders and folders of demos for songs that had never seen the light of day.
I think I needed a distraction last week after dealing with so much. I started listening to some of the tracks and heard a lot of merit in them. I also loved how relaxed, intimate and raw they were. I thought it was good timing, with a lot of us having to be indoors. We’re all in it together.
A fan sent me a message saying that he loved the sound of it – he said it sounded like I was right there in the room with him.
I put it together last Thursday [March 19] and chose 10 songs that I thought really worked. My buddy Aaron Comeau helped with EQing and doing the levels on them. The photo for the cover – by LPPhotographs – was one that I always loved. I always saw it as a cover and it worked perfectly ‘cos I’m sitting in my apartment with my acoustic guitar.The album is made up of unreleased songs you had lying around. Are there a lot of songs in your vaults? Was it easy to choose which songs to include?
JL: Yeah – there are a lot of songs that I have recorded in demo form and also some studio outtakes for that matter. I just write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere.
A bunch of the tunes I don’t even remember writing, which made it fun to listen to and put together. It also made it easier to choose certain ones ‘cos I’d have a less bias opinion coming back to them if they were good or not.
‘I write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere’
I think they’re all from the period of 2015-2018, except Leaving Now, which is from 2013. There are some that stayed in the back of mind as being good, but I doubted I’d return to them for a future album ‘cos time changes that for me.
I’m more focused and excited about what I’m writing in the moment. This worked perfectly putting the collection together.
Your ‘lost’ songs are better than a lot of artists’ officially released songs, aren’t they?
JL: Well that’s a matter of opinion!
Songs From The Apartment is a lo-fi, stripped down album. How and where were the songs recorded?
JL: They were recorded in my apartment on just a little recorder with an internal microphone. Very rough. They were all songs that were demoed and either not chosen to go into the studio with, or tried in the studio but left off the albums.
Basically before making an album I probably would have 30 or so songs and we’d pick 15-18 to go into the studio with and then 10 or 12 would make the cut.
Some really great ones are never returned to after the initial demo and that’s because they may not fit the feel I’m going for at the time, or it’s a similar idea or sound to a different song that I prefer. For example we recorded Tomorrow In My Mind and Ticket Bought for Time Out For Tomorrow [2019 album] and I felt they both had a similar feel, so I decided on the former.
You’re doing some online gigs on Facebook in the next few days, streamed live from your apartment?What can we expect from the performances?
JL: It’s gonna be interesting, I’ve never live streamed before and never had any interest in doing it.
I had thought about live streaming a show before ‘cos I found myself watching a couple of Lucinda Williams shows on her Facebook page and I loved them. It made me think ‘OK, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad’, but I never got around to doing it.
I think in these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do in the meantime and also try and keep afloat in an industry that has already been suffering for years. I’m doing these online shows for the folks that can’t come and see me and they’re cool with the virtual version for now.
Anyone can watch and I hope they do, but each show will also have a special hello to a country that we no longer will be visiting this spring. I completely understand if it’s not up some people’s alley and they’d rather not tune in. For me, I’m gonna do what I usually do when I’m around the house – play some music. I’ll play some new and old songs, plus some covers if it strikes me.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Traveler’s Prayer is one of my favourites. What can you tell me about it? I like the line – ‘trees blow in the Halloween air.’ It’s a very wintry song…
JL: That’s really interesting, as I got a couple of emails from fans in different countries that also love that song. I wrote the words first and set it to music, recorded the demo immediately afterwards and then completely forgot about. That recording is the only time I’ve ever played it. It’s so relaxed and unaffected.
That’s what I love about Songs From The Apartment. Nothing on it was intended to be heard by anyone other than myself or Mike Timmins, who produced the last few albums. It’s also why the guitar is out of tune – ha! I don’t remember the inspiration for that song, but I think the time period of Halloween recurs in my songs because I love that time of year.
‘In these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do to try and keep afloat in an industry that has been suffering for years’
Hoodoo Brownhas a Dylan feel. What was the inspiration behind it? It sounds like an outlaw blues song…
JL: Yeah – it’s an outlaw song. I read about Hoodoo Brown who was the leader of a gang in the late 1800s. I just dug the name and made up the rest.
I remember working on that song longer than some of the others and I felt it never got off the ground with the band. I couldn’t get the sound I wanted. This solo version has much more of the energy and urgency that it needed. Actually, that’s probably the Dylan connection – that and the fact there’s a lot of words crammed into some of the lines. I dig a lot of the words and ideas in it.
It was written specifically for the Nonsense side of my album Nonsense and Heartache, so that’s why it has that bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll feel to it.
Poor Man’s Farewell is a beautiful and poignant folky song. Where did that come from?
JL: I don’t really remember, but I think it was on my mind how a lot of us look down on the poor or the homeless and never think about their story. Everyone has a story.
I actually had an idea that it would be a secret song at the end of Nonsense and Heartache. Kind of like Train In Vain from The Clash’s London Calling, which is not listed on the sleeve.
Leaving Now is a sad song that’s about the end of relationship. Can you shed any light on it? I think has an early Dylan feel. It’s folky – almost ragtime…
JL: We tried that one for the Early Riser album, but I don’t think Mike Timmins felt it fitted, or was good enough. I always thought it was catchy, though – you could hear someone covering it. Yeah, you’re probably right. Dylan is such a big influence on me, that there are elements that have and always will continue to show up.
There are quite a few sad songs on the album. Is that a coincidence?
JL: The sad ones are always the best! It definitely wasn’t the concept, but I think I gravitate towards sad songs. So many Everly Brothers songs that I love are really just a drag, aren’t they?
What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?
JL: Seeing my friends, family and the band and playing on stage again in front of people. It’ll be nice to have the UK and European tour and other shows rescheduled to make up for lost time.
The title of your last album, Time Out For Tomorrow, seems eerily prescient in the light of the current situation, doesn’t it?
JL: I know! I couldn’t help but instantly think of that. The album title now has a whole new meaning.
To buy or stream Jerry Leger’s latest album, the digital-only Songs From The Apartment, go to his Bandcamp page here.
Country-folk-rock singer-songwriter Rebecca Turner is a serious music junkie. Her new album, The New Wrong Way – her first in 10 years – is essentially a love letter to records and music.
“It’s a record about records. I didn’t set out to do it that way at all, but it’s sort of the history of the past 10 years told in songs – music is always there for me,” she tells Say It With Garage Flowers.
“I’ve been embracing my musician-ness as well as my obsessive fandom more and more as I get older. It always seems to be what’s left at the end of the day.”
The New Wrong Way kicks off with the ’70s-rock of, er, Living Rock, which was written about a trip she made to Nashville – it describes how rock music has the ability to pull Rebecca through pretty much anything life throws at her.
The Cat That Can Be Alone was inspired by jazz singer Anita O’Day – Rebecca also covers O’Day’s Tenderly on the album, as well as an obscure, late ’60s Bee Gees B-side, Sun In My Morning, which she reinvents as a psych-tinged, country-rock song, with some lovely, haunting electric guitar.
Cassandra is about a Miranda Lambert gig that Rebecca saw in New York, What If Music? deals with how you can become obsessed with a song so much that you can’t get it out of your head, and Tom Tom recounts how a friend got through an alienating trip to Japan by watching a VHS compilation tape of XTC videos.
Rebecca, who lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, but has also resided in New York and L.A, was first influenced by ’70s FM radio and ’80s-era record stores. She says her musical allegiances have ranged over the years from Emmylou Harris to Liz Phair, from Doris Day to Tom Petty, from Goldfrapp to The Go-Gos.
The New Wrong Way is her third album and was partly recorded at Storybook Sound, the home-based studio which she runs with her husband and bassist Scott Anthony (Fond Farewells, Nu-Sonics). Two cover tracks were laid-down at the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis (Big Star, Al Green). Other musicians on the album include guitarist Rich Feridun (Tammy Faye Starlite, Jimmy LaFave, Amelia White) and drummer Sim Cain (Rollins Band, Chris Harford, Marc Ribot).
We asked Rebecca to tell us more about her musical obsessions and some of the stories behind the songs on her new album…
The New Wrong Way is your first album in 10 years. Why did you have a hiatus and how does it feel to be back with a new record?
Rebecca Turner: There was a long hiatus, but I hardly noticed it. Lots of things happened – normal adult life things. I’ve always had a full-time non-music job – I’m an e-commerce copywriter. My mom needed taking care of – she had Alzheimer’s. Plus my stepson was living with us, and went through his teens and off to college. But during that time I kept playing out and writing songs.
Why did the time feel right to bring it out?
RT: Around three years ago I started to get panicky that I might not ever make another album, so I stepped up my efforts with a goal of 2019, since that was 10 years since the last one. Also, because I am squarely in my fifties now, and it is a weird and scary time in this world, it felt important and positive to celebrate music, and my identity as a person who loves it and makes it.
As Scott, my husband, bass player and co-producer – says, these days making music feels like resistance – to awfulness, and other things. And most of the songs on the record are about music and what it does for people.
‘Around three years ago I started to get panicky that I might not ever make another album, so I stepped up my efforts…’
Was it a difficult record to make? What were the studio sessions like and how was it getting the songs together for it? Do all of the songs date from over the past 10 years? When were they written and how did you approach the recording of this album?
RT: Recording went insanely smoothly. All the songs had been written over the past 10 years. Music begets music, and I actually wrote a bunch right after finishing the last record.
I wanted it to be mostly live and unfussy, and there were a lot of vocals where we kept the first takes. That is unheard of for me. On my last records I felt like I did 900 takes of everything. I think I can put this down to experience, and also just the laziness of old age…I just didn’t want to labour over it. Plus, all the musicians were just amazing and had the perfect vibe right out of the gate. I’m really proud of it.
Were you apprehensive about making a record after so long away?
RT: I was apprehensive. The musical part turned out fine. Better than “just like riding a bicycle,” as recording went smoother than it ever had before. But the thing I was scared about, and that is always really hard, is the interpersonal part.
I really wonder how other people who are not full-time musicians or artists – and maybe even the full-timers – deal with the fact that when you put forth your art on even a small public level, you risk sort of turning into another person…it is inherently, I think, a narcissistic act.
You ask a lot of the musicians and your friends, too, and it’s easy to get caught up in the process and the emotions. One minute I’m ‘Divas Live’ and the next I’m super-down on myself, and I can lose myself and not see everything clearly. – especially at my age, when everyone has so much going on. I’m trying to figure out a better approach for next time.
Let’s talk about some of the musical styles on the album. Living Rock, which kicks off the record, has a ’70s rock feel. What can you tell me about that song?
RT:Living Rock is probably the hardest I ever rocked, and it started with just a fun chord change that Scott added a rocking bassline to, and then Rich Feridun’s guitar riff and Sim Cain’s drums just took it to the next level.
Sim played with the Rollins Band, so he has owned this stuff for decades, and Rich has this way of somehow delving on the spot into my past musical obsessions and coming up with the perfect guitar sound, whether it’s rock or country or whatever.
The song is really fun to sing and in creating it, I felt like I had turned into someone who could rock. It kind of changed me! And it’s about rock, too, so that helped.
‘Sonically, the songs dictated what they wanted to sound like – we just knew we wanted the album to sound real and as live as possible’
The album has a jazz moment – you cover Tenderly by Anita O’Day – and there are songs that are country and indie-rock. How did you approach this album from a musical point of view? Did you have a definite idea of the sounds and styles you wanted on the record? What was your starting point?
RT: Sonically, the songs dictated what they wanted to sound like – we just knew we wanted it to sound real and as live as possible. There is a big range of styles on this record and that was not by design, it just reflects 10 years of song accumulation and different genres that I’ve always loved.
I’m like a little kid – when I’m listening to country, I think “OMG, I love country music more than anything”…and when I listen to ‘40s big band stuff, I think “Why do I not listen to this all the time? It just sends me flying…” This veering intensely between styles I like is just getting more intense as I get older.
There are songs on the album inspired by female performers. The Cat That Can Be Alone was influenced by Anita O’Day, and Cassandra is about a Miranda Lambert show you saw. What’s so inspiring about those two artists?
RT: Yeah, The Cat That Can Be Alone is about Anita, and Tenderly, the old jazz tune, is tacked on to the end, as I learned it off of her record Anita Sings the Most. I read her autobiography and was really knocked out by it.
She had a rough childhood, rough relationships, and a heroin addiction, but music kept her going, as well as her own persistence. She talked about having to rely on herself and not get lonely, and said “The cat that can be alone is one up on the cat that can’t,” which I put into the song.
Cassandra was inspired by seeing an early Miranda Lambert show at Terminal 5 in New York, in 2010. She was just a force of country-rock nature, and still is, even with all the tabloid coverage.
I have a pic on my phone I will never delete, of her at this show, just being a dancing blonde blur. OMG, and she covered Rock and Roll, Hoochie Coo! And killed it 100%! I have a video of that I will likewise never delete. And like Anita’s story, Miranda’s music has given me a lot of confidence. So the song I wrote was an attempt to capture the feeling of the show.
Sun In My Morning is a cover of a Bee Gees song – it’s a great track and one I wasn’t familiar with. What’s the story behind choosing that song? I love the guitar solo on it…
RT: I am not usually an early Bee Gees fan…I’m more of a Jive Talkin’ person, with maybe with a little How Deep is Your Love thrown in, but somehow, among our pooled 45s was this record…. It was Scott’s and he’s not sure how it got into his collection.
We covered it once a long time ago, and Rich Feridun, who’d been playing guitar with us for a while, kept asking us to do it on this record. So we did, and he plays that absolutely stunning solo on it, on a beautiful vintage Gibson lent to us by beloved Memphian guitarist Robert Maché.
You recorded the song at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, which is managed by Jody Stephens, who was the drummer in Big Star. How was that? Are you a Big Star fan?
RT: Memphis came about because we were down South to see family, and yes, we are huge Big Star fans and wanted to see the studio, so we asked for a tour, not really thinking we’d ever record there. We made the appointment and the woman who answered the phone said, “Oh, Jody might be here to give you the tour himself!” Gulp! And he was and did…
Jody was so generous and spent hours taking us around and telling amazing stories, and everyone was so nice and the cost was really reasonable. So we came back exactly a year later with Rich and Sue Raffman, who sings beautiful harmonies on the record, and did the two cover songs and some overdubs on stuff we had started at home.
We were nervous, but our engineer, Mic Wilson, was the nicest, funniest person and put everyone at ease. The vibe is just mega-thick at Ardent and in Memphis in general…the food, the people, and the musicians.
Your song What If Music? is about being obsessed with a song. Can you tell me some of the songs you’ve been obsessed with – and why? And, on that note, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
Hah! I’ve basically lived my life from song obsession to song obsession. The first song I was ever nuts about was Lemon Tree by Peter, Paul, and Mary. My teacher played it in our nursery school classroom and I just stopped in my tracks. The harmonies! The rousing chorus!
‘In high school I would blow my ears out listening to Finding Out by Tom Petty on headphones in my ‘80s Los Angeles bedroom’
I’ll pick a random teenage obsession that has lasted forever – Finding Out, by Tom Petty, from Long After Dark. It’s typical of his mind-boggling ability to encompass punk, power-pop, classic rock, and a million other things in one super-fast little song.
In high school I would blow my ears out listening to it on headphones in my ‘80s Los Angeles bedroom. But you know how they say you shouldn’t meet your idols? One shouldn’t always sing your obsessions. I tried this at a recent Petty tribute show and it was fun, but very difficult. Now whenever I hear it, I remember struggling with the sneers and yells. I’m an OK singer, but I’m not sure I should sneer or yell.
One of the cool things about the last couple years is I’ve been going back and getting into music that I missed from oh, the last 50 years or so! The last old song I can think of getting obsessed with is So Begins the Task by Manassas…and also the Judy Collins version.
For a contemporary obsession I’m gonna say the mesmerising rocker Marathon, from the new Chuck Prophet album The Land That Time Forgot, and also the super-fun video they made for it, which Scott just showed me recently, in which he and Stephanie Finch dance and wear great outfits. It’s also one of the best male/female rock duets I’ve heard since John Doe and Kathleen Edwards’s Golden State – another obsession.
Do you collect vinyl? What’s your preferred way of listening to music?
RT: Yes, it’s all about vinyl for us now. Especially used vinyl, which is a cheap and harmless obsession. Unless you’re out of town in someplace like, say, Memphis, living out of a suitcase, and then you have a huge weight to carry home.
If we’re listening in the car, it’s satellite radio, or if I’m at work, I streaming internet radio archives – WFMU. If we’re in Scott’s truck, it’s cassettes! The vinyl obsession meant we had to make vinyl for the new record…and it’s such a colourful cover it looks extra-special nice on vinyl, if I do say so myself.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Any other projects and gigs? You and Scott run a home-based recording studio – Storybook Sound, in New Jersey. What are you working on?
RT: We have a bunch of smaller gigs lined up for my band this spring, and Scott is a bassist in a band called The Fond Farewells with Megan Reilly, Chris Mills and Steve Goulding – they’re playing around a bunch and recording too.
I run a songwriters’ series out here in New Jersey called the Saturday Afternoon Song Swap with another local artist, Deena Shoshkes. We feature six songwriters in the round, and we’ve been doing it off and on for around 10 years and we have one coming up in April.
I’m singing a Linda Ronstadt song in a voting rights benefit show in April, too. The bumper crop of tribute shows and benefits over the last few years has been a lot of fun to see and be a part of.
Our studio is primarily a mastering studio, but we do some mixing and recording too. Scott has his usual hodgepodge of mastering projects coming up, from The Feelies, to a new Alex Chilton reissue, to a double album of some crazy deep dub, and some classic jazz reissues.
Finally, will we have to wait 10 years for the next album?
RT: Nope, it’s started. I have four songs already. It’s going to primarily be a sort of jazz album. After we recorded Tenderly, all I wanted to do was wander around to bars singing old stuff. So the new one will be mostly a bunch of old covers – a Doris Day medley, for sure – and a new song or two made to sound old, but there will probably be a few rockers on it. Or, I’ll release the rockers separately to keep things thematically intact.
In any case, like I said, music begets music, and since the world’s kind of messed up, I’ll need to make a lot more of it to feel better.
Brighton-based singer-songwriter M.Butterfly (aka Martyn Lewis) describes himself as a ‘sadcore Americana artist’, but his latest single, Bughunt – available as a limited edition, lathe-cut 7in on the indie label Eyeless – is a departure from his usual sound. It’s harsh and abrasive – an industrial blues protest song, with distorted, howling vocals and a clanking rhythm. For a singer of sad country music, it’s a very angry record…
“It is quite abrasive, but hopefully under all the noise and drum machines, you’ll hear the heart of an angry country-blues song,” he says.
“It was written on guitar, but I found playing it that way was restricting me. The song is more rhythmic than melodic – when I perform it live, I sing it a cappella, with handclaps and foot stomps.
“When I came to record it, I started with the drum machine beat and fed it through some effects pedals to dirty it up. I knew I’d have to treat the rest of it the same and it came out like a Nine Inch Nails song! It was a lot of fun to do.”
The song has a political message – he describes it as: “a warning to the world on the dangers of fascism.”
Elaborating on this, he says: “I guess it’s a reaction to our times, as all protest songs are. I think extreme views are creeping back into the spotlight, and people only need to look the other way for it to become centre stage. We must stay vigilant and challenge this sort of thing when we see it.”
He adds: “The title of the song comes from something Private Hudson says in James Cameron’s film Aliens: “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?”
“He delivers the line with such disdain and malaise – almost annoyance. It’s exactly how I feel about seeing far-right groups rising up in the UK. How is this happening? What the f*** is going on? Don’t we have better things to do than to deal with these idiots?”
Do you play and record everything yourself? What’s your set-up like?
M.Butterfly: I usually play everything myself and record to a four-track tape recorder. When I started making music in the early Noughties, you could buy a brand new Tascam for about 50 quid, since digital was the new thing – that made it the cheapest option for recording at home.
What sound are you aiming for with your records? They’re lo-fi, stripped-down, intimate and raw…
M.B: I went to college and became enthralled with digital production, but over time I felt lost in the endless possibilities of digital. I had no idea when a song was finished, because you could always add more or take it away.
I went back to tape because I found I really thrived in the limitations of it. Everything has to be considered – sounds have to be found and captured, performances have to be complete, and that really works for me. That raw and lo-fi sound just comes with my preference for minimalism and restraint.
Your first album – 2017’s M.Butterfly I – had synths on it, as well as guitars, but your second album, M.Butterfly II, from last year, was largely more guitar-based, with slide and banjo, too. Is the sound of Bughunt representative of the musical direction you’re heading in next?
M.B: Bughunt is actually one song from a little family of harsher, more industrial songs. I also have another family of songs that sound great just on the acoustic guitar, with no other accompaniment.
I’m hoping I’ll settle on something in the middle – noisy and droney, but also acoustic and vulnerable. I’m writing about masculinity a lot at the moment, men’s mental health and the problems with machismo.
I have a song called The Sacred Art of the Wedding DJ, and another called Last English Elephant – they are both about masculinity.
You describe yourself as a singer of slow and very sad Americana, with outsider influences. Can you elaborate on that?
M.B: I like just about every genre of music. I’m convinced that every genre has at least one album you’ll like in it. I find myself drawn to country and Americana because of the emphasis on lyrical content and the simplicity of the music, but in that simplicity I think there is space to push it a bit, and bring in sounds and influences that you wouldn’t expect to hear.
I like music that is distorted and messy and I like music that is sparse and tiny. I like hip-hop beats and I like theatrical post-rock. I want to bring all of that into the space that country songwriting provides.
You don’t really fit into the country / Americana scene, do you? Are you happy about that?
M.B: It’s an odd thing really. I both love and hate being a bit of a sore thumb in the country scene. I’d love to be accepted into it and be a part of such a loving community – one that can have an audience as quiet as death one moment, and then laughing with rapture the next.
I’d love to be in a community where you know your lyrics are going to be listened to and loved. On the other side of that, I don’t want to have to follow the rules and well-worn paths to get there. I kind of want to bring whatever I like with me and have it be accepted.
I’ve had differing results so far. At times I’m told I’m too moody, or don’t have enough fiddle, etc. Other times I’m just told I’m too country sounding, and in the wrong place.
What is for certain though is that I’m not going to give up, and I’m going to drag Americana into the future, kicking and screaming. I’m going to play the AMA (Americana Music Association) UK showcase with a synthesiser and drum machine, I promise you!
I’d love to be signed to a label like Loose, I think they’d know what to do with me and they’d also take a chance on someone who doesn’t want to just regurgitate the country music canon.
‘I’m going to play the Americana Music Association (AMA) UK showcase with a synthesiser and drum machine, I promise you!’
Who or what are your main influences – musical or otherwise…
M.B: That’s so hard… trying to find the main threads of what I am. I love Townes Van Zandt – I think he was the greatest songwriter who ever lived. I love Low – what they are able to do with minimalism is unmatched, and they are also the most beautiful sounding band in the world.
PJ Harvey is a huge influence, with her disregard for trends and her artistic endeavour – she’s always done her own thing. Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, King Crimson, Gillian Welch, Earl Sweatshirt, Sparklehorse, Vic Chesnutt, Jason Molina… I’m going to try and avoid just reeling off a list of my favourite artists, as we’d be here forever.
I love hip-hop. I like the rhythms and how it’s complex and simple at the same time – a beat and a vocal, but both are difficult to get right.
Outside of music I love Hideo Kojima – the video game developer. I think he’s an artist before anything else and he’s used video games like an artist uses a canvas – it’s something you live rather than play.
I love the films of modern directors like Ari Aster and Yorgos Lanthimos – they are like moving poetry. It’s unbelievable. I love authors and poets like Sylvia Plath, JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Alan Moore and Yukio Mishima.
Lyrics are the part of songwriting I take the most seriously. I write every song about something, I don’t really buy in to the idea of vague lyrics that people attach their own meaning to, I want everything to have a story to it, even if it seems unclear at first.
My favourite lyricists are Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and David Berman of the Silver Jews. Emmylou Harris is a f***ing poet and never seems to get enough credit for it. Nina Simone is an astounding lyricist and she had the voice to match the ugliness she was singing about – just listen to Four Women or Mississippi Goddamn.
I have a lot of love for pop music, I love what Billie Eilish is doing – it’s so minimal and sparse and her voice is otherworldly. I love Beyoncé – her last record, Lemonade, was just phenomenal. I think pop artists get a lot of flack for not contributing enough to the music, but you need to think of someone like Beyoncé or Rihanna as film directors. They may not actually be behind the camera, or writing the script, but they’re choosing the people who are, and they’re making it all work together. They are in charge of every decision and I think the end result speaks for itself and can be seen alongside any record by Bob Dylan.
One of my favourite songs of yours is Flowers from Hell, which is from your second album, M.Butterfly II. It’s a simple, dark country song. What can you tell me about it? The title resonates with me, as my blog is called Say It With Garage Flowers, which takes its name from a country song I wrote with a friend…
MB:Flowers from Hell is about the late bisexual porn star Jon Vincent. I found him to be a fascinating man – his life seemed to be a series of wonderful moments ruined by something awful. He battled relentless drug addiction and originally wanted to be a baseball player, but his dreams were shattered when he was arrested for carrying drugs and was kicked off the team. It’s like the dream was always just out of reach for him – sure you can have some flowers, but they’re from Hell…
Bury The Living, also from your last album, is a beautiful, sad and haunting song. Where did that come from?
The main inspiration for the song was seeing a photo of a child refugee, who who washed up on a beach. The song is about the despair I feel for the human race. Everyone alive today could become a refugee, the chances may be low, but it could happen to absolutely anyone.
Looking at the lengths people go to escape a situation, what would you do? Would you cram yourself into a fuel tank on a boat to save a loved one? Would you cling to the underside of a lorry just for a taste of freedom? Everyone has a line that they would cross, and they don’t often have any say in it. Ultimately the song comes from my love of the world, and my frustration at the way we treat each other.
Can we expect a third album from you soon? M.Butterfly III?
M.B: I’m actually working on an album with a band – The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band. It’s a semi-improvised country noise outfit. The songs are long and noisy and the lyrics are dark. It’s an awful lot of fun to make a racket with some like-minded musicians.
Sam Collins, who played the slide guitar on Bury the Living, is one of the members. The album is being recorded slowly, on digital, would you believe. We just finished off the drums the other day. All of the songs swing in and out of time. It sounds like a beautiful mess.
As for M. Butterfly, I have so many songs and so many ideas, so there will absolutely be M.Butterfly III, but I have no idea when.
Tom House, who produced my first two albums, no longer lives in Brighton, so I’d need to find a new producer who gets my sound and what I’m trying to do. I’ve done some bits on my own, but I can get quite lost. I’d much rather have another person to play stuff to and have them say:”This is great, you are the best songwriter in the world,” or: “Get the f*** away from me!”
‘I’m working on an album with The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band. It’s a semi-improvised country noise outfit. The songs are long and noisy and the lyrics are dark’
You’re based in Brighton. How is it living and playing there? Do you get involved in the local scene?
M.B: I often gig in Brighton and I absolutely love the scene here. I’ve managed to get involved with the underground, more experimental part of the scene. I’m always surprised that my music goes down so well when I’m sandwiched between two post-rock bands.
I’ve learned the obvious truth that people are never what you perceive them to be, people are open-minded and just because they look like a goth or indie kid or whatever doesn’t mean they don’t like hip-hop, or country.
Brighton is expensive as hell to live in, and there are a lot of sayers and not many doers, but I love it and I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life here. The sea is the ultimate healer and we could all do with some healing.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
M.B: I’d really like to finish the album with The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band, and I’d really like to have another M. Butterfly release ready too. One thing I am determined to do is release a small ‘zine of the lyrics from my first two albums. I’ve had so many people ask for them and I think it would be a nice little project to do. I’m proud of those lyrics and I’d love to see them in a physical format.
Finally, what music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?
M.B: I love Earthen Sea, who is a sort of ambient electronic guy. The album An Act of Love is great. I’ve just broken through with Tangerine Dream, I’m loving a live album they have called Logos. It has a section of music that they wrote for a film called The Keep, which is how I got into them. I revisited Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe recently – it’s a hell of a comeback, with such wonderful textures.
Dr. Octagon, otherwise known as Kool Keith, has been a more recent obsession. The album Dr. Octagonecologyst is like nothing else. It’s hip-hop, but it’s messy and weird and the lyrics are like some bizarre theatre performance. My partner hates it and won’t be in the room with me when I listen to it.
Bughunt by M.Butterfly will be available soon as a limited edition, lathe-cut 7in single on the indie label Eyeless.