Nashville-based duo Until the End of the World – husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Ian Webber and Meg Olsen – have a name that’s very apt for these dark times we’re living in, but they actually took their moniker from the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same name. In fact, their debut single, Just Let Go, which came out this summer, was influenced by Wenders’s road movies, as well as the films of David Lynch.
It’s a gorgeous, stripped-down, six-minute ballad, with Olsen on lead vocals and Webber on guitar and backing vocals, that recalls the fragile, dreamy, country-psych-folk of Mazzy Star.
New single, another slow song, the equally lovely Stars Fall Down, has a slight ‘50s feel, thanks to its twangy, late-night guitar sound. “I was imagining Richard Hawley-esque guitar tones and I’ve been inspired by a French band called The Limiñanas – it’s like lo-fi Velvet Underground meets Serge Gainsbourg and I love the vibe,” says Webber.
Adds Olsen: “When I first heard the music for Stars Fall Down, it set an immediate tone and mood for me. I gravitate towards melancholy themes – love gone wrong, etc. The lyrics flowed really easily from that initial mood that was set by Ian’s guitar. I think I wrote the first draft in an hour and we finessed it slightly from there. I was genuinely happy with it, which is rare for me.”
The Until the End of the World project began in April this year, during lockdown, as Olsen explains: “We started very superficially working on ideas together on piano and guitar in our living room, but then Ian started composing things up a storm. He encouraged me to sit down with the piece of music that would become Just Let Go and he just kept it really low-key and simplistic. We liked the end result, so we kept going from there.”
Talking about Just Let Go, Webber says: “It was a lot of me figuring out how to record everything myself, without a producer or engineer. When I was recording the basic tracks, I wasn’t sure if I had reached three minutes or not, so I kept going, so that’s why it ended up a six-minute song.”
‘I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me’
The duo are planning to release an album in the first part of next year – hopefully in the spring. “It’s a little over halfway done and it’s been an interesting and exciting process,” says Olsen. “And it’s something that I’m not sure would have happened without the lockdown.”
She adds: “This project has been such an interesting learning curve for both of us. Ian has had to navigate recording and producing, and I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. I normally go into the studio with finished, or almost finished, songs. In this case, I was coming into fully-formed music and having to work out melodies and lyrics from there. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me and for both of us as artists.”
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but they feel fine…
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, one of the recent albums that has helped us to stay positive during these tough times – and has been a shining light in the darkness – is the aptly-entitled Set Your Sights Towards The Sun, the debut record by UK duo The Lost Doves, who are North West-based singer-songwriters Ian Bailey and Charlotte Newman.
It’s a superb collection of songs that’s in thrall to classic ’60s jangly and harmonic guitar pop, like The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as vintage psychedelic sounds. On the optimistic and anthemic title track, Bailey’s 12-string Rickenbacker rings out like bells (of Rhymney), and it also adds a gorgeous shimmer to the melancholy She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes.
There’s a country tinge to the beautiful, acoustic ballad You Stop Me From Falling, a Lennon feel to the haunting Sally Weather, a hint of Eastern mysticism on More Than I and some seriously heavy psych on the dark, trippy instrumental, The Clowns Are Coming To Town.
“I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s,” Bailey tells us, in an exclusive interview. He’s certainly achieved his goal…
Hi Ian. How’s it going?
Ian Bailey: Well, things could be better gig-wise, as you can imagine, but being able to work and record from home has been a lifeline for me.
I’m based in Leyland, near Preston. Pre-Covid, Preston’s music scene was bustling and bright. The city played host to several fantastic local acts and artists – many of whom I’ve been lifelong friends with – as well as touring bands. All play and perform regularly at great venues, like The Ferret and The Continental.
Have you heard of Preston-based Americana band West on Colfax, who released a great debut album, Barfly Flew By, earlier this year?
IB: Scott [Carey – bass] from West on Colfax was in touch recently, after seeing one of my videos on the Americana UK website. He has invited me to play at their Americana night at The Continental, so I’m looking forward to that once venues can open again.
How has the Covid-19 crisis affected you, and what are your hopes and fears for the future of live music?
IB: I’ve been a self-employed musician for many years. At the onset of the first lockdown, back in March, I was really worried for the careers of fellow musicians, venues and everyone else working within the arts sector – the sound engineers, stage crew, lighting techs, the list goes on… Sadly, it appears to be an industry that was first to shut and looking like the last to open. Encouraging audiences to be confident to attend gigs again is another story…
‘Nobody should be excluded or made to retrain – that’s just the highest insult you can give any creative person. It’s a tough time, but I believe music, arts and culture builds bridges and has the power to heal’
It’s also concerning to see so many people in the arts slipping through the net and not being eligible for financial support, like the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). I know the Musicians’ Union and other organisations are lobbying for it and I really hope something can be done for everyone in the arts world. Nobody should be excluded or made to retrain – that’s just the highest insult you can give any creative person. It’s a tough time, but I believe music, arts and culture builds bridges and has the power to heal. I truly hope the live scene will return bigger than ever.
Let’s talk about your latest project – The Lost Doves. How did you end up working with Charlotte Newman? You both complement each other well – your voices sound great together…
IB: Thank you. I really enjoy working with Charlotte – she’s a real natural talent. We met at a gig on the back of a lorry (laughs) a few years ago, and, a couple of years later, we decided to do something together. We started rehearsing various songs – covers and originals – and subsequently called the rehearsals ‘The Green Tea Sessions’, due to the copious amount we consumed. From thereon, we started recording a few tracks and that’s what spurred us on to create the album together.
You recorded it at your home studio, between late 2019 and pre-lockdown this year. How were the sessions and what’s your set-up like at home?
IB: They were all great sessions – quick and productive. Most of what you hear on the album were first takes. My studio, Small Space Studios, is in fact my daughter Sacha’s old box bedroom – it’s very small. I inherited the valuable space when she moved to Liverpool to start university.
A couple of years ago, I bought a 360 12-string Mapleglo Rickenbacker, which is the guitar you hear on the album. I use a jangle box with the Ricky, which is basically a compression pedal. It gives the guitar sustain and ‘that’ sound, and I just go straight into the desk with it. I bought some half decent mics, an £80 keyboard, an old Boss BR900CD [portable multi-track recorder] complete with flash cards, a drum machine, an old amp and monitors. That’s it really.
You co-produced the record with Charlotte and you both played all the instruments, apart from the drums, which were by ‘local legend’ Little Bobby Rockin’ Box. Tell us about Bobby…
IB:Well, Bobby is the pseudonym for my wonderful old Alesis drum machine that I bid for and won on eBay. We used Bobby’s talents throughout the album, before adding tambourine and shakers to complement his impeccable timing. We thought that by giving him credit and accolade as a local legend he’d be up for doing another album!
‘I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s’
How did you approach the album? What kind of sound and feel were you going for?
IB: That’s a really good question. When we embarked on the project, I was going to keep everything stripped-back and understated, but it soon became apparent that it would be a big mistake to leave out things like Charlotte’s wonderful lead guitar playing, our built-up harmonies and the way we blended the instruments, so I started to look at the majority of the album being full ‘band’ tracks, but with the occasional stripped-back song in there to give some balance.
With regards to the sound, I wanted the album to feel like an album you’ve had in your collection for years – warm and inviting. I guess I was always trying to create an album that was in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s.
Were all the songs written especially for The Lost Doves project, or did you already have some of them?
IB: Not all the songs were written specifically for the album. You Stop Me From Falling is one I wrote several years ago, but after performing the song in rehearsal acoustically with Charlotte, it felt natural to include it on the album.
See Saw and She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes were originally written for my stripped-back, acoustic album Empty Fields, but I really wanted to give them a bigger sound and production, so it felt right to include them on the album too.
Where did the name The Lost Doves come from?
IB: I was originally working on a psychedelic ‘60s-style name, you know like Jack & Jill’s Incredible Grooving Satanic Barber Shop Bungee Jumping Santa Machine, but I was having no such luck coming up with something that had any relevance.
So I basically went back to the drawing board and hit upon the idea of two white doves escaping from a magician’s cage and flying for days, possibly weeks, over the sand and sea, to find a new home in the sun, away from the conjuror’s clutches, but, unfortunately, getting lost and losing their bearings somewhere along the way. I liked the way it also worked with The Byrds theme.
On that note, the jangly title track, which is one of my favourite songs on the album, has a definite Byrds feel, with 12-string Rickenbacker, harmonies and a great poppy melody…
IB: It feels very relevant for the hard times we’re living in. It’s a hopeful song about bringing some light into the darkness. It’s one of our favourites too.
What inspired it? Was it written in response to the Covid crisis?
IB: It was written pre-Covid and lockdown – in fact it was the first track we finished for the album. I wanted to write a song that delivered a positive message on life. It’s about helping each other, not looking back, and finding that even the smallest chink of light in the darkest room can bring hope – the bad days will pass. Its sentiment means more now than ever. I like the way the album hangs off the back of it too.
Several of the songs deal with hope and looking towards a better, brighter time. Was that intentional? They feel like they have a common theme…
IB: I guess it wasn’t intentional, but it seemed to flow that way. I’ve found that listening to certain music, using certain instruments and working with certain musicians brings out different sides to my songwriting and it’s confirmed to me that it’s good to be around positive folk.
‘I wanted the guitars to sound like Crosby and McGuinn in the left and right speakers, and the harmonies to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash’
She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes is also very Byrds-like…
IB: Yes indeed, I wanted it to sound like The Byrds had just got back together. Musically I think it has a Chimes of Freedom feel. I like the words – they’re pretty melancholy really. It’s about a couple going their separate ways, but he wants her to stay and pleads with her, but how can he possibly change her mind? Will she believe him that it will all be different, when all she’s felt is loneliness and neglect day-after-day? I wanted the guitars to sound like Crosby and McGuinn in the left and right speakers, and the harmonies to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Why do you like the Rickenbacker sound so much? Are you a Byrds and Beatles fanatic? Who are your main influences?
IB: I’ve loved The Beatles and The Byrds since I was at school. I got my first Rickenbacker 12-string when I was 18, from Hobbs Music in Lancaster, after falling in love with the look and that unmistakable jangly sound. My dad was kind enough to sign the never-never form and I paid him back £10 a week. I still have the guitar to this day. I have a few different guitars, but the Rickenbacker always comes out of the case first.
My friends and I formed our first band together while we were at school and eventually turned ourselves into a great mod band, playing the scooter rallies in and around Lancashire. Bands like The Jam, The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks all featured heavily in those days.
As the years went by, I was listening to artists like The Moody Blues, Simon & Garfunkel – in fact most of the stuff from my dad’s record collection. Little Richard, John Denver, Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Bread, Procol Harum, Traffic – those kind of artists. Later I was introduced to the such greats as Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, David Olney, Emmylou Harris….the list goes on.
Your song Sally Weather has a Lennon/ Beatles feel…
IB: It was based on a riff and an idea I’d had for around 20 years. The lyrics are based on a person I knew who had fallen into an abusive relationship. I’m glad to say she is now happy and loving her life again.
I always think it sounds like a cross between Girl and something else I can never quite put my finger on, but I guess something from the Revolver-era. The keyboard solo was inspired by House Of The Rising Sun by The Animals. I like the lines “insanity’s a point of view, so close your eyes you’ll miss the truth.”
You Stop Me From Falling is more stripped-down. It’s a gorgeous acoustic ballad. Where did that song come from?
IB: It was written and dedicated to a dear friend who helped me through some rough times. It was my way of giving them something back.
It’s been through a few different guises, but, primarily, when I was writing it, I had in my head the scene from The Shining, where all the ‘ghosts’ are in the big concert room in their 1920s regalia and the band are playing. It’s slightly odd I know, but you can never tell what will inspire a song sometimes.
The Clowns Are Coming To Town is a heavy, psychedelic instrumental. I really like it, but it feels a bit out of place on the album. Is it your Revolution 9 moment?
IB: I wanted a track that would crash down and create some waves. I love the whole psychedelia scene from the late ‘60s onwards – it had a big effect on me. I remember hearing White Rabbit [by Jefferson Airplane] for the first time and immediately heading into town, straight to Action Records [in Preston] and buying it.
‘I wanted a track that would crash down and create some waves. I love the whole psychedelia scene from the late ‘60s onwards – it had a big effect on me’
Watching the Monterey Pop Festival and seeing Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, and hearing Tomorrow Never Knows, Eight Miles High, Soft Machine, Piper at The Gates of Dawn and Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast all had a big influence on me.
We had a lot of fun recording The Clowns Are Coming To Town – we were bouncing guitars along tables, pinging rulers, reversing organs, radios and guitars, backwards pianos, distorted bass, sending political leaders’ speeches backwards… that sort of thing. It started its days by being loosely based around The Byrds’ Stranger In A Strange Land, but it quickly turned into Revolution 9 part two.
More Than I also has a Beatles feel, as well as some slight Eastern vibes, as does the final track, which is a short, backwards, psychedelic instrumental, entitled Isolation. Is that you embracing your inner George Harrison?
IB:More Than I was written for my daughter while we were on holiday in Cornwall. We had gone down to the beach – the weather was beautiful, the sun was high, the sky was blue and I just had the line “Like a child on the sand who doesn’t feel the land as its fear” running through my head. I love Charlotte’s harmonies on that song.
Musically it’s inspired by Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’, The Beatles’ Across The Universe and George Harrison’s Here Comes The Moon. I use an electric sitar on it, just tickling through in the mix. I’m greatly inspired and influenced by George Harrison’s music and his spiritual values. He was a great man.
There are two cover versions on the album – and they’re both songs I love, the standard, Autumn Leaves, and Scott Walker’s Duchess. Why did you choose them?
IB: When Charlotte and I started rehearsing, we had one of those ‘OK, what songs have you got?’ moments. She played me Autumn Leaves and I was astounded. It was beautiful. I knew then it just had to go on any future album we made. I like to call it the ‘candlelit room with a glass of wine, next to a crackling California fire and looking out onto the setting sun’ moment on the album.
Scott Walker’s Duchess was played to me around 20 years ago after a long studio session. I’d never heard anything quite so enchanting, beautiful and dark. I would play it on repeat for months after and still do. It felt like the perfect choice to honour and celebrate this wonderful song and the great Scott Walker.
Waves, which is the only song written by Charlotte on the album, has the sound of the sea from Barbados on it. Were you tempted to put any sound effects from Lancashire on the album? What would you have chosen?
IB: Charlotte loves travelling and she has a real sense of wanderlust. While she was away playing the cruise ships around the Caribbean, we stayed in touch and one cold, frosty morning she sent me a video recording of the Barbados sea lapping against the sun-drenched sandy shore. When she returned, we recorded Waves and I secretly added the waves to the final mix. She was delighted. Charlotte plays the beautiful lead guitar throughout that song – it reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham’s playing. What North Western sound effect would I have chosen? Probably the wind and the rain.
Can you tell us about your musical background? You’ve had four solo albums out since the ’90s…
IB: I was born in Blackpool in 1969 and spent my formative years living in various parts of The Fylde before moving to Preston in 1980. I started playing in bands when I was at secondary school, although I had a Bontempi guitar as a five-year-old and dug Blockbuster by The Sweet. When I left school, I got my first job as an apprentice at Fylde Guitars in Kirkham. During that time, I formed a mod band called Class A. It was taken from a Marlboro packet I seem to remember.
We went through various guises, but as the mod flame dimmed to a flicker, we attempted to resurrect ourselves. Sometimes we were psychedelic and sometimes gothic, but never with direction. We stuck together right through the early ‘90s until around ‘96/’97.
During that time, I met and married my soulmate Rachel and we had two wonderful daughters, Jose and Sacha. Rachel and the girls keep me on track through thick and thin. In 1998, I met Gary Hall through a mutual friend, Lee, who I was playing with in our band MellowDrive. We recorded our debut album and everything else after with Gary, in ’98, and he soon became a friend, producer and mentor.
He introduced me to great music I’d never heard before and songwriters whose lyrics cut deep. I recorded four solo albums with Gary and we both produced other artists over a 11-year or so period at his Voodoo Rooms Studio. That was a valuable experience for me and gave me the knowledge and tools to pave the way for me to start recording and producing from my own homegrown studio.
As well as Charlotte, you’re also working with singer-songwriter, Daniel Wylie, the former frontman of Cosmic Rough Riders. You’re releasing an EP of co-written songs, aren’t you? I’ve had a sneak preview of two tracks, Take It Or Leave It, which has a ’60s, jangly pop feel, with keys and brass, and Slow Down River – another summery, Byrdsy song about the sun. What’s the plan for the EP?
IB: I’m loving working with Daniel. We’ve been Facebook friends for several years. His songs, music and stories, and his ability to pull brilliant melodies out of the air are inspiring.
During lockdown, I began recording some new solo songs – Dangerous Clowns and TV Land. My daughter, Sacha, acted as video producer for my lockdown sessions. I sent Daniel the videos and he loved them. We got chatting about music we both enjoyed and I suggested we should do a co-write at some point. He was really into the idea and he sent over four song ideas.
The first track we finished was What’s Happening Now?, followed by Take It Or Leave It, and then Slow Down River. We are both really pleased with how they are all sounding. We plan to do more co-writes after this EP.
I’m producing and performing the songs in my home studio and I’m finding it to be such a great way to work. Daniel and I really are both enjoying the whole process. It’s also bringing out a different side to me as a songwriter and producer, which I’m loving. Daniel has been playing a couple of the tracks to a few record company friends and getting some great feedback. Nothing is finalised yet regarding the release, but we’re excited about it.
As you mentioned, you’ve been putting out some solo songs on YouTube. Any plans for another solo album? If so, when will it come out and what can we expect?
IB: Yes – so far I’ve recorded two tracks which will be on my new solo album. I have a bunch of songs ready to go and record. You can expect more jangle from the Rickenbacker, and a possible duet or two. There’s no release date as yet, but hopefully it will be towards next summer.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? What have been your favourite albums of 2020?
IB: That’s a great question. Well, recently I’ve been tuning in to a great American radio station called Radio Free Phoenix, which plays some fantastic music.
On my recent playlists there’s been The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Doors, Townes Van Zandt, The Cure, Ravi Shankar, Buddy Holly, Dylan, Lennon, R.E.M, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Daniel Wylie, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Syd Barrett, Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Janis Joplin, The Mamas and the Papas, Creedence, George Harrison, Steve Hillage, Bob Marley, Little Richard, Mickey Newbury, The Who, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Vaughan Williams, Tom Baxter, Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, Crowded House, Miles Davis, Vivaldi, Steve Marriott, Martin Simpson, and, worth mentioning again, The Byrds!
I enjoyed the coverage on the radio for John Lennon’s 80th birthday too and I’ve had Ray LaMontagne’s Monovision on repeat. There’s some real gems on that album. My daughter Sacha introduced me to a band called Flyte – I love the harmonies and they are great musicians. I’ve been enjoying Homegrown by Neil Young. I also listened to the new Paul Weller album [On Sunset] the other evening. I really like the album before it, True Meanings, too.
Finally, what are your plans for Christmas? Will your 12-string Rickenbacker be ringing out?
IB: Well, I would usually be busy gigging in December, but I think this year it will be nights by the fire, finishing songs, spending time with my family and recording the new album. I’m sure the Ricky will be making an appearance. I might even record a jangly Christmas carol for you.
Set Your Sights Towards The Sun by The Lost Doves is out now on Green Tea Productions.
It’s been a busy year for English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard. He’s published the second instalment of his autobiography, Illusions of Happiness, and released his latest album, the brilliant To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection.
The new record – his seventeenth – is a collection of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sings lead and backing vocals and plays all the instruments.
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio – he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain – during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020.
Howard, who is 67, grew up in Lancashire and trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven – he started playing when he was four. His debut album, Kid In A Big World, featuring the single Goodbye Suzie, was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple studios in 1974 and came out the following year.
“The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers.
“I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.”
During the summer, you published the second volume of your autobiography, lllusions of Happiness, which goes up to 1986. There’s a third and final instalment planned in the not-too-distant future. How have you found writing the books? Has it been cathartic? What have you learnt from the process?
John Howard: To be honest, I didn’t know there’d be a second volume when I wrote the first one, Incidents Crowded With Life. It was intended as an online chapter-by-chapter series of events in my life up to my accident, when I broke my back, in 1976. I was astonished when Fisher King told me they wanted to publish it. But reviews were excellent and Fisher King asked me to write a second instalment.
Originally, it was going to go from 1976 to 2000, covering my recovery from the accident through to returning to recording with Trevor Horn and Steve Levine and my move into working in the music business in A & R and Licensing through the ‘80s and ‘90s; meeting my husband Neil, leaving London for Oxfordshire, and finally in 2000 for Pembrokeshire. But Fisher King suggested I split it into two books. So I decided to end Illusions of Happiness in 1986, just before I met Neil, having split from my then partner of eight years, changed jobs and moved into my own apartment. It seemed a good narrative point to finish the book.
‘I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang’
I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang. So writing the book felt very natural, and yes, a little cathartic. It sounds silly in a way, but quite a few members of my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s, so being practical, I wanted to get as much of my life down in writing now just in case there comes a time when “I can’t even remember my name”, as a line in the song Injuries Sustained In Surviving [from the new album] goes.
I didn’t really learn anything from writing the book, as I knew it all already! But it did help put some things into a clearer view in my mind. What I never did, in either book, was comment or judge, I just told what happened – as I saw it – and let the reader decide on who was right or wrong, on whether I, and other people in my life at the time, made the right decisions. What was, was. What happened, happened. There’s no changing that. I just wanted to put it down on paper.
Hopefully, the third book will be published sometime in 2022 – there were two years between books one and two being published, so I’m guessing there’ll be a similar gap before the third is out there. It’s more or less written – there’s just some tweaking and editing to do over the next weeks and months.
The new album is very reflective, nostalgic and melancholy at times. What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the songs? It has a lot of reminiscences on it… Do you think writing your autobiographies made you write more songs about your past?
JH: I think writing the two autobiographies – so far – certainly put a lot of things in perspective. I have an excellent memory but actually writing stuff down that happened 40, 50-plus years ago captured those memories for good and finally gave them placement and sense.
As I say, I’m not one to look back most of the time, but being ‘forced to’ when you’re writing your life story – or a bit of it – did remind me of people, events, experiences, and that would automatically seep into my songwriting. The two processes sit side by side.
Getting older too, of course, one remembers and reflects, rather than anticipating a whole lot more! It is a strange feeling knowing I have probably – if I’m lucky and healthy – another 20, or 25, years left, whereas in my twenties that was indeed a lifetime, with 60 years ahead to look forward to and plan for. It isn’t being maudlin or morose admitting that – it’s a fact.
The album has a pastoral theme – there are a lot of references to nature in the lyrics and also the title…
JH: Yes – the album does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.
The album title is taken from a line in the song Water, which is the closing track on the record and features the sound of crickets on it. Why did you choose it for the name of the album?
JH:Water is based on a dream I had, floating above a lake like a watching spirit. I wrote the lyric as an observer of a scene in which he/she is gradually drawn in until they’re completely part of it. I wanted the track to have an atmosphere of stillness, of silently watching something develop before your eyes – something you don’t understand at first.
Our skies here are very dark at night, so there is always a sense of connection to ‘the beyond’, being able to see the universe above us, watching the shooting stars, listening to the crickets all round us every night, and feeling a kind of wonder about it all. As a songwriter that must affect me.
Once I’d finished the album and needed a title, the line in Water’s lyric, “What’s that beam of light on the lake, to the left of the moon’s reflection?” described for me the vibe of the album – the second part of the line especially. It also lent itself to a sleeve design very well too.
The song My Patient Heart is about living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where you and your husband, Neil, used to be based, and also references Murcia, in Spain, where you live now. Can you tell me more about your inspiration for it?
JH: It’s one of my scene-setting songs, describing life here in the village, which is still very rural, families working in the olive and almond groves, the local church ringing its bells every day on the hour – usually about ten minutes slow!
Our neighbour gives us bottles of his homemade olive oil, others bring us home-grown spinach and various vegetables, and a chap in his nineties gives us jars of his home-made honey. When we had hens we gave people eggs and every summer families from the village come and collect fruit from our Chinese Meddler tree. They seem very pleased to have us as part of the village, which is heart-warming.
But the song also looks to Wales and our life there, which was also very rural. Though no one worked in the fields any longer in Pembrokeshire, everyone had an orchard, cherry trees, gooseberry bushes, wild berries growing in hedgerows. And seasons!
That’s what I miss the most – the seasons. They were definite, expected and regular as clockwork. It’s November here and in the mid-twenties. Sounds great, I’m sure, but my Northern English psyche still expects it to be minus two! I’m not sure I will ever lose that natural expectation. Neil and I do intend to return to Wales, someday, hence My Patient Heart. Everything is about timing, when it’s right. We’re very lucky to be in a position where we can decide when that is.
Let’s talk about Injuries Sustained In Surviving. It’s a great song – quite folky – and I love the title…
JH: Thanks. It was the first song I wrote and recorded for the album. I had Marrakesh Express in my mind when I wrote it, and carried that through to the vocals, where there are no ‘backing vocals’ per se, more three-and-four-layered harmony lead vocals. I became Crosby, Stills & Nash for a day!
The narrative covers childhood, youth and ageing all in one. I have memories of the railway lines behind my parents’ house in Heywood in the ‘50s and going out on day trips as a family in an old Austin jalopy. We went all over the place in that old car until finally one of its wheels fell off and dad abandoned it in a garage, getting ten quid for the scrap value!
The song develops through to more recent thoughts, “Yes, kid, I remember the fire burning, I recall every song I was singing” – I’m talking to myself really.
There’s a bit which is a reflection on my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s, “Don’t wait until your body is a shell of a stranger locked inside a lonely cell, with a thousand silent tales he’ll never tell.” But it ends on a higher note, “Sometimes good things come along you’d never planned, somebody might just sprinkle stardust in your hand.” There’s always a chance.
I think Echoes of Pauline sounds like a standard, or maybe something from a stage musical. What inspired it? Who is Pauline?
JH: Pauline is a real person. I was at school with her in the ‘60s in Lancashire and we were very close, like brother and sister in many ways. She introduced me to artists like Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
I’ve written about her before, in The Flame on Kid In A Big World, and in Pauline’s Song, which I wrote in 1970, but only recorded in 2009. She also gets a mention in a line from Small Town, Big Adventures… “I was Toad, Eniluap was Mole”, referring to when we were both in the school play Toad of Toad Hall in 1968. We always called each other by our names backwards. Don’t ask me why. We were young and did daft things!
We fell out badly in 1970 and our friendship didn’t recover. I can’t actually remember now why we had a row, a really bad argument, but I’m sure it was my fault. I think of her still and hope she’s okay and happy. She was a great person. I did try finding her on Friends Reunited years ago to no avail. Echoes of Pauline is my way of offering her a way back to our friendship if she ever hears the song, which she’s unlikely to do of course. That’s how the lyric began really, a letter to a friend, which will probably not be read.
I wanted the track to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie, keeping the piano quite restrained, not using it to drive the song along with rhythmic chords, but as an occasional texture, letting the song develop slowly without driving it. I used a simple string wash and sparse percussion to build to its more rhythmic end.
‘I wanted the track Echoes of Pauline to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie’
I think that track took me the longest to get right. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound – I listened to Cilla’s track several times before going into the studio – but it was a new way of working for me. I also wanted the lead vocals to be multi-tracked and very smooth, with just occasional harmony lines, using no backing vocal ‘oohs and ahhs’.
I also developed a different way of singing for it, keeping my vocal restrained, not ‘soaring’ which is my usual style, singing from the back of the throat – more soulful rather than a dramatic pop style.
Your latest album is your seventeenth and, this year, it’s 45 years since you first started your recording career. How does that make you feel? You’re in your late sixties now. As a young man in his twenties, did you ever envisage you’d still be making records when you were a pensioner?
JH: Yeah! Who’d have thought it? But in some ways 17 albums in 45 years doesn’t sound that many!
Of course, I had a 20-year break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I worked ‘on the other side of the desk’, in the music industry. In the ‘70s I only made three albums – and two of them went unreleased – so 14 new albums since 2004 sounds much more impressive! The ‘70s and all that went on then feels like a lifetime ago, as though I’m watching it all happen in a movie in my head. I guess 45 years since my debut album came out makes me feel…in my late sixties!
The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious. And yes, I did imagine I’d still be recording now, but I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.
What have you learnt during your career? What have been the highs and lows?
JH: What have I learnt? I guess not to look back too much. I always try to look forward to the next project, the next album – though that’s sometimes difficult when people still – of course – want to talk and reminisce about Goodbye Suzie and Kid In A Big World. Nostalgia is very comforting for people, though my memories of those days are not so rosy. It was a very frustrating and disappointing period for me on the whole, in terms of what eventually happened in my career anyway.
The other thing I’ve learnt is not to have regrets. I’m still in one piece, physically and mentally – most of the time – thank goodness – which many of my contemporaries when I was starting out are not.
‘The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world’
Fame would have been fun, of course, I would’ve loved it, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure about that! Leaving that world of recording in the mid-‘80s and ‘getting a proper job’ in the industry gave me a different perspective – a security I’d never had before.
Also, working as I did with so many established artists over those 20 years and hearing from them how their careers and the music business had treated them, often not well at all, gave me a view of life from the top. I saw it from a different angle – someone else’s experience of what fame can do to you. I think I became less selfish during that time than I had been as a recording artist, when my everyday had been all about “Me, me, me”.
Having to think about and be responsible for other artists’ careers and record releases taught me to be more considerate, more measured. It was my job not to have a meltdown when something didn’t go quite right. I became other people’s buffer, which is quite strengthening.
Now I’m a recording artist again, I happily don’t have the pressure I’d had the first time round from managers, promoters, big record execs and, deadlines. Recording now is done on my own terms, when I want to, how I want to. It’s much more relaxing and no longer about ambition. Being largely unknown does have its plusses! ‘Niche’ is good.
As a professional musician, in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, are you worried about the future of gigs, tours and venues? Will things ever get back to normal? What are your hopes and fears for 2021 and beyond?
JH: I don’t actually gig very much at all – never have. I love performing, but the opportunities haven’t arisen very much in recent years, just the occasional gig in London whenever I’m invited to perform. The last one was at The Lexington in 2019, with Vinny Peculiar, Simon Love and Rogers & Butler, which was really enjoyable.
I gigged a lot in the early ‘70s when I lived with my parents in Lancashire, but once I got to London and signed with a management and record company, recording became my way of life – and it still is.
But yes, I do feel for musicians and bands who can’t gig now. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums. So a whole income stream is cut off straight away.
Who knows where this will all end? Certainly, there will be venues which close and can’t afford to open again. It’s really sad. My husband is a retired actor, and he too has seen friends in the theatre who haven’t worked for months, with no sign that things are going to change for the foreseeable future. Pretty grim.
‘I feel for musicians who can’t gig. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums’
Home shows have helped some musicians, in terms of being able to perform and staying connected to fans, and some artists have monetised their performances, which keeps some income coming in at least. Who knows when we’ll be able to step back onto a stage in front of a live audience again?
What music – new and old – have you been listening to recently? Any recommendations?
JH: A lot of the music I listen to now is old. I will always love and enjoy hearing The Beatles, The Searchers, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Judee Sill, Barry White, Paul Simon, Kate Bush and Roy Harper. They never grow old in my mind – the albums still sound as fresh today as they did when I first bought them, though my vinyl collection was sold off before we moved to Spain, I’m sad to say. Finding room for over 40 boxes of LPs was no longer viable. But I replaced all my favourites with CDs, and that’s still how I listen to music most of the time.
We recently bought a record player, simply because some of my albums, new and old, were being issued and reissued on LP and I wanted to hear them in that format. That led to us buying some of our old favourites on vinyl again. Also a lot of my friends were releasing their latest albums on vinyl – Robert Rotifer and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge, for example – so I wanted to hear those on LP.
More recently, I’ve become a big fan of the band Ex-Norwegian – they have a lovely Syd Barrett psychedelic-pop vibe. I’ve also fallen in love with the music of the French singer-songwriter Olivier Rocabois, the highly talented Joel Little and John Cunningham, whose album Fell, is gorgeous. The Norwegian singer-songwriter-pianist Cecilie Anna, who my friend, the poet Robert Cochrane introduced me to, is also remarkable. I have two of her albums and they’re beautiful.
Finally, you’re a very prolific songwriter? What’s on the horizon? Another album? Any other projects you can tell us about?
JH: ‘Prolific’ is my middle name! Though I do often take months of doing nothing between albums, once I have a project in my head I work for weeks on end until it’s finished. I’ve been having a lovely time recently recording vocals and piano for various friends’ projects, doing tracks and writing occasional songs for them. They’re all hush-hush at the moment and due out next year, but they are very diverse!
‘The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one!’
What I can give you a heads-up on is a very exciting project for me. Kool Kat Musik in the States, which issued To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection in August – my first US release – will be putting out a 2CD ‘Best of JH’ next spring. It will be my first commercially-released Best Of! Edward Rogers (of Rogers & Butler) is curating the collection, Ian Button will be mastering it and doing the artwork, and Ray Gianchetti will be releasing it on his Kool Kat Musik label. I’m very excited about it! Edward has put together an intriguing collection of tracks from across my career, some of them never released commercially on CD before. Watch this space for more details early next year.
I’ve also been sketching out some new song ideas over the past few weeks, which I will start recording probably at the end of this year, or early next. The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one! The story is set in my head, the characters are developing in my mind and, the narrative is growing, I just need to sit at the piano and see if it sounds any good! It will be a challenge, but I love a challenge. Otherwise I might discover what boredom feels like. I can’t have that. Put the pipe and slippers away!
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection by John Howard is out now on CD – in the UK, it’s released on his own label, which is also called John Howard. You can find out more information at his website: http://kidinabigworld.co.uk/
The album is also available in the US – on CD – via Kool Kat Musik, and can also be purchased from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos, which has released several of his albums already.
His latest book, Illusions of Happiness – the second volume of his three-part autobiography – is published by Fisher King Publishing.
When Say It With Garage Flowerslast spoke to singer-songwriter Pete Gow, it was in a North West London pub in early 2019, ahead of the release of his first solo album, the brilliant Here There’s No Sirens.
The record was a surprising departure for Gow, who, at the time, was the frontman of UK Americana / alt-country band Case Hardin. As we wrote last year, it was deeply personal and confessional and, musically, it saw Gow exploring new territory. Gone were the big electric guitars, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen-like anthems and raw, kicked-around country songs of Case Hardin. Instead, it was an album of stripped-down acoustic tunes, with stirring string arrangements, fleshed out by piano, brass, organ and drums.
Talking about his solo side project, Gow assured us that everything was hunky dory in the Case Hardin camp and that the band were due to start work on their next album – the follow-up to 2015’s Colours Simple. However, things didn’t go as planned – the group split up last year.
Since then, Gow has established himself as a solo artist and followed up Here There’s No Sirens with a mini-album, The Fragile Line – another fine collection of orchestrally-aided songs, which, like its predecessor, saw him collaborate with producer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett (Dreaming Spires, Co-Pilgrim, Raving Beauties and Paul McClure).
This month sees the release of Gow’s brand new single – a double A-side, Cheap and Shapeless Dress / Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar.
Coming out on Clubhouse Records as a limited edition, 7in heavyweight vinyl single – sorry, there’s no digital or CD version, folks – it sees Gow reuniting with Bennett, who plays bass and keyboards and arranges the strings and horns.
The two songs act as a teaser for Gow’s third album, which is due out sometime in early 2021. They contrast each other nicely – the former, which is described as ‘a ramshackle celebration of the bacchanalia of youth’, is a rollicking, full-band country-rock track, with Mariachi horns on it, while the latter, which documents the meeting of two estranged friends after decades apart – “we moved the rug back to hide the drugs and found the dust we’d swept inside” – is another of Gow’s downbeat and reflective, drinking-themed songs.
In an exclusive interview, we talk to Gow about his new single and get the lowdown on his next album, but first we have to ask him to set the record straight about the demise of Case Hardin. During our last chat, it really didn’t seem like things were well and truly over for the band – they had a new album in the pipeline… So what happened?
“Well, when we last chatted I also didn’t feel it was over for Case Hardin,” he says. “It wasn’t over, like you say – we had firm plans for a new album, but it just didn’t work out the way I hoped those next few months would.
“For the longest time, I was equal parts saddened and angered at the unsatisfying manner in which we closed the book, but now I can look back on our four albums with an immense pride and am occasionally reminded how much love there was for the band, our records and our live sets.”
So is there a lost Case Hardin album in the vaults? What happened to the songs you’d written for it?
“Oh – there’s no lost album, sadly. Most of the songs have been reworked, or reimagined for the subsequent Pete Gow albums. I’m just not prolific enough to let an album’s worth of songs go to waste!”
How are you? What’s lockdown and the past few months been like for you?
Pete Gow: Well… personally, I’ve been okay. I’ve been able to keep my day job and I’ve been able to largely do it from home. I’ve managed to keep my health etc., so, given the experience of so many others during these past few months, I feel largely unscathed.
How has the crisis affected your musical plans? Have you adapted and performed online? What challenges have you faced?
PG: To be honest, as a performer, I haven’t really embraced the online shows, but, as a fan, I’ve seen some great ones! In the early days, I couldn’t figure out my way past the limitations of a live broadcast on a platform like Facebook. I had neither the hardware, nor the knowhow, to establish a robust, sustainable signal, so I made the decision to try other ways to communicate musically.
We had a ‘watch party’ for our 2019 concert film, One Live One-Night Stand, very early on in lockdown, then a month or so later I pre-recorded an acoustic set that we played out as an event – Almost Live in Acton – but, other than that, I have done one guest appearance on a friend’s Instagram Live – the fantastic Hannah Scott – and my first proper live online show will be this Friday (October 23) – the same day as the single comes out. I’ll be doing a ‘Virtual Green Note’ set in the company of Sam Coe and fellow Clubhouse dweller, Luke Tuchscherer.
The new single is a double A-side and it’s only available on vinyl – there’s no digital version. What prompted it?
PG: It was pretty organic. Since March, there have been several discussions with Clubhouse Records, brainstorming what can be done to keep our music out there, but trying to do something a little different every time and a little different from everyone else. It came from those discussions – over Zoom, naturally.
Let’s talk about the new songs: Cheap and Shapeless Dress and Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar. What can you tell us about them? They’re both observational songs…
PG: I think the best way to frame the new songs is through the new album. Until we decided to take these particular tracks away and call them a single, they were part of the larger story of the new record.
I wouldn’t say age is a preoccupation on the next album, but it does colour some of the songs. I turned 50 this year. That’s hardly old age, but I have allowed it to be marked, both in my thinking and in my songwriting, in ways that surprised me. I am increasingly aware that I don’t have an infinite window in which to right some of the wrongs I have chalked up in my life. I have one eye on the clock and the clocks of those around me.
I think the narrator in Cheap and Shapeless Dress is how the fantasy me takes life in his stride, but I probably handle conflict closer to the two old friends awkwardly meeting up after decades, in Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, than I’d care to admit.
‘I wouldn’t say age is a preoccupation on the next album, but it does colour some of the songs. I turned 50 this year’
They’re very contrasting songs musically, and, interestingly, both tracks feature hotels in the lyrics. Is that a coincidence? It’s a double A-side with a double room…
PG: Hah! Well, I never noticed the hotel connection until now – an oversight made moderately worse by the fact we originally had a different track to pair with Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, but at the eleventh hour, Joe spotted that song also had a bar in the title. Clearly we didn’t look closely enough at the replacement….
The song choice was very much motivated by the point you raise in your question. It’s a single – a stand-alone project – but it also has a job to do, previewing the next record. We had seven or eight tracks to choose from, so the pairing for the single was a legitimate consideration.
The new songs see you reunited with Joe Bennett, whom you worked with on your last two records – your solo debut, Here There’s No Sirens and the mini-album, The Fragile Line. He’s provided bass and keys, and arranged the strings and horns. Prior to lockdown, you and drummer, Fin Kenny, went to Farm Music Studios, in Oxford, with Joe, to record drums, guitar and guide vocals for your next album. How was that? How much did you get done?
PG: Well, if this was a regular cycle for recording a new record, we’d say we didn’t achieve much – album-ready drum tracks, guide vocals and guitars. Then all the rules changed… Suddenly what we left Joe with was all he really needed to start building an album when no one else was able to record and to give him a project when most other studios were shuttered. In late February, it really wasn’t much at all, but by early March, it was everything.
‘I am increasingly aware that I don’t have an infinite window in which to right some of the wrongs I have chalked up in my life’
So what can you tell us about the next album and when will it be coming out?
PG: It’s in a reasonably advanced state, for all the reasons we just discussed, and we were even able to pull the two tracks for the single from our stockpile and still get back in to Farm Music Studios last week and replenish it.
As to when it will come out, it’s too early to tell. There’s certainly no reason from my end that it couldn’t come out in early 2021, but there are a few stars that will need to align before we can fix a date… not to mention figuring out what releasing an album even looks like for someone who has historically relied on merchandise sales at live shows.
Are the songs on the single representative of the new album?
PG: I think the single does point the way…
Are you still sticking with the orchestral backing you debuted on Here There’s No Sirens and also used on The Fragile Line?
PG: There is a move from the emphasis on strings to favouring horns. In the main it’s also a ‘livelier’ collection of songs as regards tempos, arrangements etc., but let’s not get carried away, or try to fool the people – it’s never going to go down as my party album…
The lyrics of Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar reference the traditional end of year sing-along Auld Lang Syne. On that note, what are your plans for the rest of 2020, and your hopes and fears for 2021? How will you remember 2020?
PG: I’m genuinely not sure how safe it might be yet to start making plans, certainly not musical ones. I’m still trying to take the wider view on that. I want to get back to being a working musician, but I want it to be right – not to mention safe – for everyone. It’s good that people are start to figure out how all this might look going forward. The folks at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival – Tristan Tipping and Noel Cornford – are putting their heads above the parapet, with some live shows later this year, as are others.
But listen; honestly, 2020 in review will actually be quite conflicted for me. Outside of all the crazy stuff, a number of significant, positive things have happened to me this year – things that rightly refuse to allow them to be wholly overshadowed by the bigger picture. There’s a line in Auld Lang Syne that translates as: “There’s seas between us broad have roared.” That’s been my 2020.
Any current musical recommendations – old and new? What’s been your 2020 soundtrack?
PG: Thank you for asking. In no particular order, the new Michael Kiwanuka album is as good a record as I have heard this year. Danger Mouse produced it and it’s so, so good – brilliantly put together. Courtney Marie Andrews’s Old Flowers is a break-up album to rank alongside the very best. Looking backwards, I discovered two albums by Eugene McDaniels from the early ‘70s: Outlaw and Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. The musical range of both those records is amazing – it’s like Gil Scott-Heron by Lloyd Webber in places, but in a good way!
Finally, it’s happy hour at the lobby bar and Say It With Garage Flowers is buying. What are you having?
PG: I actually miss being in pubs less than I thought, or presumed I would, but the thought of never again seeing a well-poured pint of Guinness settle before me, then marvel at the perfect cream circles as I savour it, depresses me immensely. So mine’s a stout. Slainte.
Pete Gow’s new, limited edition double A-side single, Cheap and Shapeless Dress / Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, is out on October 23 (Clubhouse Records).
On the same day, he will be performing a virtual gig for The Green Note, with Clubhouse labelmate Luke Tuchscherer, and Sam Coe. The show will be live streamed from 8pm. For more information, click here.
You can also see Gow play two, special, socially-distanced shows for the Ramblin’ Roots Revue with Joe Bennett, plus Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett (Bennett Wilson Poole) on Dec 11-12, at Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe. Info here.
More than 12 months ago, British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) embarked on a project called Country Darkness, which saw them reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.
This month sees the release of their third Country Darkness EP, Vol.3, which will be followed by an album, also called Country Darkness, in November. The album gathers together all of the songs from the three EPs, but also throws in an added bonus, a brand new My Darling Clementine composition called Powerless, which is a majestic country-soul track that’s easily up there with the best of Costello.
Like its predecessors, the new EP was co-produced by Weston King, Nieve and Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Duane Eddy). Pre-production for the four tracks – I’ll Wear It Proudly,The Crooked Line, Indoor Fireworks and Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? – took place at Nieve’s home in France and then the recording sessions moved to Yellow Arch Studios, in Sheffield.
On the album, Elliot, who is a member of Richard Hawley’s backing band, played bass and cello and also arranged the strings and horns. He is joined by fellow musicians Shez Sheridan (guitars) and Dean Beresford (drums) – both Hawley stalwarts – as well as former Van Morrison and Nick Lowe horn players Matt Holland and Martin Winning.
To tie-in with the release of each of the three EPs – the first one came out in October last year –Say It With Garage Flowers has been publishing a series of in-depth interviews with Weston King in which he sheds some light on the Country Darkness project.
Here’s the third and final interview in the series, which focuses on the new EP. Weston King also gives us a teaser of what we can expect from his next solo record – he’s going into the studio this month to start work on it – and shares his views on life after lockdown…
Michael Weston King: Like so many of us, I guess, on a day-to-day basis I’m still up and down. I’m trying to keep busy and proactive, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated.
Not being able to tour and perform for an audience is very frustrating, and a worry financially of course. Our beloved government is hardly helping musicians out with that worry, either.
We have a couple of socially-distanced shows taking place this autumn, in Liverpool and Manchester, and we’re doing the occasional live stream too, but nothing beats touring and that feeling of getting better each night as you get up to “match fitness”. I miss the travel and I miss the engagement with people.
When we spoke in May, you were still looking to record the third and final volume in your series of Country DarknessEPs. That’s now in the can. How did you manage to get it laid down? Did lockdown affect your plans?
MWK: Steve was stuck in France, but we did what we’d done with the other recordings – he sent piano tracks over to us and then Lou and I went into the studio to build on them, before sending them back to him to add additional keys where he felt necessary.
The issue was not getting together with Steve, but being able to get into Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and getting together with the other musicians. We were held up by that in April and May, but, come June, as things eased, we did get back in there and carried on. It was a great distraction from the mundanity of lockdown and a joy just to be hanging out with other musicians, and friends again. Although, not going to the pub after the sessions was a strange, unheard of, experience!
Let’s talk about the songs on Country Darkness Vol.3. What can you tell me about your take on I’ll Wear It Proudly? It’s a song from King of America, which is one of my favourite Costello albums, and one of yours, I’m assuming?
MWK: Yes, it is. I love pretty much everything on King of America. It is certainly in my top three Costello albums.
I used to play Sleep Of The Just, which is from that album, years ago in my solo shows. Covering I’ll Wear It Proudly was a late decision, as it was not on my original list. By the time we had cut the first eight songs [for the Country Darkness project], our choices for the final four songs were tempered by what we already had in the bag, and the need to look for other types of songs, with variety in mind for the full album.
When approaching what to do with this song, my original thought was to give it the “boom-chikka-boom” Johnny Cash treatment – kind of in keeping with King of America, yet still different from the Costello version.
However Steve heard it differently and suggested we try a “Bruce Springsteen Streets of Philadelphia” era-approach. That was a brilliant idea – one that would not have occurred to me – and it really works. It has become one of our favourite tracks on the album.
On the new EP, you’ve chosen to cover Indoor Fireworks, which is also from the King of America album. It’s one of my favourite Costello songs. What can you tell me about your version? You’ve slowed it down and made it a smouldering, piano-led ballad. Hasn’t Lou done a solo version of the song before?
MWK: Yes – this song had been in Lou’s solo repertoire for years, performed simply, with just piano and voice. She also recorded it on her solo album, Calmer, back in the late ‘90s.
Once we started on this Country Darkness project, and adapted our live shows to include a “Costello song segment” – it just made sense to do this song again and make it into a duet. It has since become a firm audience favourite, so we just had to include it on Vol. 3 and the album. We decided to keep it simple and record it just as we have been doing it live – two voices and Lou at the piano. So, this is the only track Steve does not appear on.
The Crooked Line, which was the first single from the new EP, is the most upbeat of all the songs you’ve done for the Country Darkness project. I love your version – Steve plays some groovy organ on it. What inspired that arrangement? The Costello version has a bluegrass feel…
MWK: There is a moment on our version of Different Finger, from Country Darkness Vol.2, where Steve plays some Augie Meyers-type organ. I really loved it, so when it came to doing The Crooked Line I wanted us to go full Sir Douglas Quintet on it and really highlight that organ sound. The Costello original has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel to it, with fiddles and mandolins playing the instrumental passages, but we went with Vox Continental.
What about the song Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? Why did you choose it and how did you approach it? Costello wrote it for soul singer Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), but he turned it down. Your version reminds me of the material Costello did with Bacharach, as it has a bit of an Easy Listening feel, arrangement-wise…
MWK: That will be the flugel horns. Add those and suddenly it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach. It wasn’t an obvious choice, as it is not really a country or country-soul song – it’s a little bit musical theatre in places, and it even becomes quite Brechtian by the end. It is a hard song and we all had moments where we regretted getting into it. The producer, Colin Elliot, really didn’t like it at first, but it has since become his favourite track.
‘Costello’s original version of The Crooked Line has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel, with fiddles and mandolins, but we went with Vox Continental’
What drew us to it was the fact that there is a male verse which starts: “Why can’t a man stand alone?”, and the second verse is a female one: “Why can’t a woman be just what she seems? So that immediately felt right for a duet.
Lyrically it also asks an import question in these current times. I notice that Costello used some lines from it in his 50 Songs For 50 Days playlist, in the run-up to the presidential election, and it is clear why, with these lines: “Why can’t a man stand alone?Must he be burdened by all that he’s taught to consider his own? His skin and his station, his kin and his crown, his flag and his nation. They just weigh him down.”
I would love to have heard Sam Moore sing it, as am sure Costello would have too. Sadly, he will just have to make do with hearing us sing it! I’d also recommend you check out this 1998 live version, which Costello did on Later… with Jools Holland.
All of the songs from the three Country Darkness EPs feature on your new Country Darkness album, which is out in November. As an added bonus, there’s also a brand new My Darling Clementine song on it – a country-soul tune called Powerless. What can you tell me about it?
MWK: I had the title Powerless for a while – I thought it was good. We so often hear people say they are powerless to something, certainly when it comes to falling for someone. In this song, the female protagonist is leaving her partner of many years for someone else and despite the kids and the history they have, she is just powerless to the charms of the other guy and off she goes.
Lou and I have both had that experience, but I am not telling you which way round…Musically there is a little nod to a Costello song I particularly like from his National Ransom album, which is called That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.
Have you heard any of the songs from Costello’s forthcoming album, Hey Clockface? Any thoughts on them?
MWK: I have heard them, but not played them repeatedly, or really got into them, mainly because they are only out on streaming services, which is not really how I listen to music.
When the album is out, then I will spend some real time with it, while driving – the car is my favoured place to listen to music. Of the four songs he’s released so far, I think my favourite is We Are All Cowards Now.
You’re also working on a new solo album. What can we expect?
MWK: Songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs! There will be no songs about lockdown though, so be grateful for that.
Have you written many new songs recently? What’s been inspiring you?
MWK: Certainly not lockdown or Covid-19. Most of the songs that will go on the album have been kicking around in one form or another for a good few years. Many were unfinished, as I knew they were not right for My Darling Clementine, but I started to go through them, finish those I thought deserved finishing and discard the others. There are also two or three brand new ones.
One of them is sung from the perspective of a Washington DC policeman who votes for Trump, mainly due to peer pressure, and then starts to regret his actions as he sees what a monster this guy is, and how he is dividing the nation. In the final verse he is asked to be one of the cops on duty when Trump goes to stand outside St John’s Church in that awful PR stunt, when he held up the Bible. Our cop has to stand by him, ‘protecting’ him.
‘My new solo album will have songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs!’
Finally, back in May, I asked you what you wanted to do after lockdown was lifted. You said you had a list of five things:
1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.
2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.
3) Getting back on stage.
4) Getting back in the studio.
5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there.
How many of them did you manage to achieve? Obviously you did number four on the list, as you made the new EP….
MWK: Well, three out of five. But at least one of those was seeing the kids and grandkids, by far the most important. Yes, we got into the studio, but we haven’t yet got back on stage. We didn’t get out of the country, though we did get into the countryside: Wales, Herefordshire and Dorset, which was a blessing
My desire to go to the pub has diminished in light of everything – it just doesn’t have the same appeal right now. Table service? Early closing? People anxious about being in close proximity? It’s not ideal.
A couple of my favoured old boozers in Birmingham, including The Wellington on Bennetts Hill are, or were, still allowing drinkers to order at the bar. It is also usually only ever half-full, so there are no worries about social distancing! Writing this, I am suddenly feeling the urge. I’m off!
‘This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now’
We have been to the cinema a few times and that still holds a great joy for me. Cinemas, theatres and music venues are all under threat – it’s a travesty and so sad to see. They are such a part of the fabric of our way of life – they have to be preserved and supported.
This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now.
Country Darkness Vol.3 by My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve will be released on October 23 on Fretsore Records. It will be available on limited edition 12in vinyl, as well as streaming and digital services. The album, Country Darkness, will follow on November 6 (CD and digital).
New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom’s second solo album, Circles, is one of our favourite records of the year. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks has cranked up the guitars and embraced his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, power-pop and country rock.
Speaking from his New York apartment, which he describes as “a shoebox”, he says: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”
He’s certainly achieved his goal – recent single, the brilliant What’s The Over/Under?, is an infectious power-pop song – “I’ve never had too much of a handle on what I want until I fuck it up” – with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on its predecessor, the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom does his best Marc Bolan impression.
Circles is full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.
Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, has echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard is reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.
Winstrom, who is 37, also looks to the ’90s and early Noughties for inspiration – on the moving, cello-assisted ballad, I Walk In Circles, he channels Elliott Smith.
Two years in the making – writing and recording – Circles was produced by drummer Jeff Bills (The V-Roys and Steve Earle), who also worked on Winstrom’s debut album. The songs were committed to tape just before the coronavirus hit.
‘The world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one’
“We were lucky for sure – we were basically 99 percent done, so we were able to lean on some very talented friends with home studios to add the odd overdub here and there,” he says. “And engineers John Harvey and Mary Podio were super-savvy to invent a new workflow that let us finish mixing remotely.”
He adds: “We were really fortunate. I mean, obviously, the world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one.
“For my own sanity, I feel like I’ve been working up to this album my whole life. I’m 37 years old – it’s 37 minutes long. Coincidence? I think not. But I do feel like a good chunk of my lifetime is living in these songs. The highs, lows and in-betweens, to quote Townes Van Zandt. I hope folks dig it. I do.”
How are you doing? Congratulations on Circles – it’s a great record.
Jake Winstrom: I’m good – just chugging along and trying to stay safe, like everybody. Thanks so much. I’m very happy to hear you dig the record.
You’ve said that your first solo album, Scared Away The Song, had too many “singer songwriter” type songs on it and not enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock and roll tunes. With Circles, that’s not something you can be accused of. How did you approach this album?
JW: I definitely wanted to broaden the musical spectrum on this album. The last one, maybe due to time and cost constraints, ended up veering a bit too much toward what folks call “Americana”, I guess – lots of acoustic guitar-based, rootsy-sounding songs and what have you.
I had several more rock songs written for that record, including What’s The Over/Under? but we ran out of time on the day we tracked with a full band. So with this one we moved full band, electric songs to the top of the pile. And I wanted more moments of fun and levity in the songwriting. I think I had Bruce Springsteen’s The River in mind. What’s the saying? Shoot for the stars but settle for the moon? Hah. I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll.
How were the recording sessions? You worked with drummer / producer Jeff Bills again on this album. What did he bring to the process? Why do you like collaborating with him?
JW: The recording sessions were so much fun. I love recording and Jeff is just fantastic. He brings so much to the process. He has a real ear for songwriting and arranging.
I’d send him my four-track demos as soon as they were done and then we’d start ping-ponging arrangement ideas. And his production process is all about the song. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds on minute lyric edits and things like that. He really hammered this record into existence. He also has a great talent and Zen-like patience for mixing. Which I do not. Hah! So it’s a good musical marriage.
You have a great band on the album. How did you choose the musicians that you wanted to work with?
JW: We did have a truly great band for these sessions. Putting it together was easy – I just rang up my friends and they very graciously all said yes. On the last record, Jeff and I had kind of a rotating cast of musicians from song to song, depending on the sound we were going for. On this one I wanted more cohesion, but we didn’t have time to rehearse.
I knew we’d need a versatile group that could hammer out arrangements on the fly. We ended up with a veritable wrecking crew: Jeff on drums, Peggy Hambright on keys, Dave Nichols on bass, Greg Horne and George Middlebrooks on guitar, and Jeff Caudil on backing vocals. That’s some serious muscle.
Some of the takes are live, aren’t they? Do you normally record that way? My Hiding Place was done in one take, wasn’t it?
JW: Everything started with us playing a song three or four times to get a good live take. My Hiding Place was one where it all just kinda fell into place in the room – even the vocal. I think it must’ve been the mood lighting in Scott Minor’s studio. Hah.
‘The studio where we recorded half a dozen songs is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic’
Where did you make the album?
JW: We did it in Knoxville [Tennessee], with the exception of some vocals recorded in Brooklyn. We started at Scott Minor’s Wild Chorus studio, early last year. We recorded half a dozen songs there. The studio is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic. I wanted to record there because one of my favourite bands, Count This Penny, did their absolutely gorgeous album A Losing Match there.
It had a live room with no dividers between the guitar amps and drums, which made Jeff a little nervous, but I loved it. To quote the Rolling Stones – let it bleed! A little Telecaster in the cymbal track never hurt anyone. And that’s where My Hiding Place was recorded. It definitely has that room’s stamp on it.
We recorded the second batch of songs at Top Hat Recording [in Knoxville] last fall. The engineers are a super-sweet married couple – John Harvey and Mary Podio – who built a house with their dream studio inside. It’s a fabulous, comfy place to hunker down and make a racket. We mixed the entire thing there too. We still had six songs to mix when lockdown hit, but John and Mary were very savvy and invented a new workflow that allowed us to finish things up. They’re really smart, great people.
Luckily, you pretty much finished the album prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. How was isolation for you? Did you write any new songs during lockdown? Did it inspire you?
JW: It’s been fine for me. I’m thankful to still be gainfully employed. I guess I’ve mostly been entertaining myself by getting this record finished and out into the world. So after September 25 [album release date] it’s time to find a new hobby!
I’ve written a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found it to be a particularly inspiring time. I miss hearing snippets of subway conversations and weird one-sided cell phone arguments while walking down the sidewalk.
You’ve relocated from Knoxville, Tennessee to New York? How’s that? Do you like living in New York? How has it influenced your writing and music?
JW: I love New York! I’ve been here for eight years now, I think. I reckon once I hit the decade mark I’ll be ‘official’. Hah. I like to think about songs while I’m walking, so New York is perfect for that. You can get into kind of an unconscious rhythm zigzagging through neighbourhoods while turning things over in your mind. I remember coming up with What’s The Over/Under? and My Hiding Place while making my way through the East Village.
What’s The Over / Under? is one of my favourite songs on the record. What can you tell me about the track? It’s a great power-pop song, with a killer chorus, Rickenbackers and horns.
JW: I think I was in a hardcore Buddy Holly phase when I wrote that. I wanted to write lots of strummy, propulsive, open chord songs without too many minor chords. It’s easy to disappear down the minor chord rabbit hole sometimes. I remember coming up with the chorus, then having to Google what “over/under” actually meant. I don’t do sports betting or anything. It’s funny the things that tumble out of your subconscious mind sometimes…
The first single, Come To Texas She Said, reminds me of T-Rex – it’s a glam-rock-country-boogie!
JW: Hah – that’s awesome! “Glam-rock-country-boogie” sounds like my ideal genre. I was ruminating on the title Come To Texas She Said for a while. And once I kinda broke the verse melody everything else fell into place. It’s a song that’s gotten a big reaction live since I started playing it a year or so ago.
Jeff and I had many conversations about the arrangement. He actually went rogue – as he is wont to do – and initially produced a whole different version from his home studio, overdubbed on top of my four-track demo. It was actually really cool. The track included a mini V-Roys reunion, with Paxton Sellers laying down a groovy walking bass part. It had horns too. But ultimately we felt it was too Americana-y. Too much like the last record. I wanted to let it rip.
We recorded what became the album version during the Top Hat sessions. Dave Nichols’s elastic bass line really makes it for me. And Peggy Hambright’s call-and-response electric piano is so great – it reminds me a little bit of Harry Nilsson’s records.
‘I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-’70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma’
There are several classic rock ‘n’ roll influences on the album. Think Too Hard reminds me of The Beatles, Revolver-era, Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror has a Tom Petty / Springsteen feel, and My Hiding Place and Kilimanjaro have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe. Are those artists all big influences on you? What were your musical reference points for this record?
JW: Wow, thank you – that’s extremely high praise. Yes – I love everyone you just mentioned. I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-‘70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma. And I think Peggy channelled a little E Street magic with her organ part on Loose Change, so those were all reference points I had in mind.
It’s funny, though – Jeff absolutely hates it when I say something like “hey, why don’t we try playing this song like Tom Petty, or The Bangles, or Syd Straw?” He’ll really flip his shit! He thinks bringing up musical reference points cheapens the creative process or something. He’s a purist I guess – hah. So I have to go and whisper those ideas to the rest of the band when he’s not paying attention…
I Walk In Circles has an Elliott Smith feel, doesn’t it? Are you a big fan?
JW: It does. I was trying to emulate his kind of hushed, double-tracked vocals. His records are so beautifully crafted. I actually came to his music late. I saw one of my favourite artists, Marika Hackman, cover his song Between The Bars when her tour came through Brooklyn last year, and that kind of set me off on an Elliott Smith tangent.
Some of your songs have a country influence. Did you grow up with country music in Tennessee? What were your influences when you were younger?
JW: Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.
I think during my sophomore year I picked up Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road at the Disc Exchange and fell in love with everything about it – the songs and the sound, which actually has some Beatles-y touches, thanks to the Twangtrust production. That led me to Lucinda co-conspirator and Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris, as well as The V-Roys.
Then it was down the yellow brick road to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and on and on and on.
‘Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.’
What’s your songwriting process?
JW: Songwriting for me almost always begins with improvising – picking up a guitar and strumming/singing while I walk around the apartment. Maybe getting the gears moving by playing someone else’s songs and then seeing if I can hit on a melody or chord change that peaks my interest.
Those ideas will usually live in my iPhone audio notes for a while, waiting for words to flesh them out. That’s when I find it helps to walk around the block and get a change of scenery. Anything to trick myself into not thinking! Staring at a blank page isn’t the way to do it – at least not for me.
Are you hoping to play live when things get back to normal?
JW: I hope so. I’ve had offers to do outside things during the pandemic, but it’s just so dicey, safety-wise. Plus a lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play, so I’m basically a public safety risk! We’ll definitely do something once life gets back to normal. It would be fun to play the record in sequence. Of course, by the time it’s safe to do that, I’m sure I’ll be on to the next album.
‘A lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play live, so I’m basically a public safety risk!’
How hard has it been as a musician being unable to play gigs to promote your new record? Are you worried about the future of the live music scene?
JW: I’m lucky in that I have a day job. I’m gutted for my friends that make their living playing music. It’s a really brave, hard life. And then to have the rug yanked out from under you by this…
Yeah – I’m really worried for the small venues. The sweaty little clubs that are so important for artists honing their craft. I’m terrified that by 2022 all the ones here in New York are going to be replaced by Chase Banks and Chipotles. And watching concerts on Zoom and Instagram Live ain’t gonna cut it. The pandemic has proven that much.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
JW: Stay vertical! I hope to venture down to Tennessee to spend Christmas with my family. We’ll see what the state of the world is by then. Fingers crossed.
Can you recommend some music – new and old? What are you into at the moment?
JW: Ooooh – let’s see. X’s new album Alphabetland is frenetic and fabulous. Girl Friday, this L.A. band I saw last year and fell in love with, just put out their first LP, Androgynous Mary. It’s a total blast. Great harmony singing and fiery guitar playing with stellar songwriting and arrangements that twist and turn. I’ve also had the new Haim record on repeat since it came out this summer.
As far as oldies, Fire On The Bayou by The Meters has found its way back to my turntable many times this summer. I’ve also been digging into Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love album, which includes several Elvis Costello covers.
Finally, have you heard Nick Piunti, who’s a power-pop singer-songwriter from Detroit? Your music often reminds me of his – I think you’d like him. I’m going to recommend that he checks you out. Have a listen to this:
JW: I haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation. I really dig this song! It reminds me a bit of Cheap Trick, in the best way. Total melodic confidence and barnstorming guitars.
Circles by Jake Winstrom is released on September 25 – it’s available on streaming and download services, as well as vinyl.
Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s 2013 debut album, Stations, has just been reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day by his record label, Wonderfulsound.
It sounds like Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized and when Say It With Garage Flowers first heard it, seven years ago, we said: “his atmospheric, late-night laments are steeped in Northern melancholy and laced with psychedelic effects and gorgeous string arrangements.”
We also compared his baritone voice to Scott Walker, Richard Hawley and Leonard Cohen, and named his haunting country-folk song Oslo as one of our favourite tracks of that year.
To celebrate this year’s vinyl release of Stations, we spoke to Nev about his memories of writing and recording his debut album, asked him about his misspent youth trawling Manchester record shops, and got the inside track on his next album – a collection of orchestral songs inspired by Scott 4.
How does it feel to have Stations out on vinyl?
Nev Cottee: It feels very good. I’m in-between albums at the moment – I’m in the process of finishing the next one – so it’s good to keep the momentum going and to keep things ticking over. It never came out on vinyl. For the first album, I wasn’t on Wonderfulsound – I did it off my own back, with a couple of actor mates, Jeff Hordley and Graeme Hawley, who, very generously, paid for some of the recording and for it to come out on CD and digitally. I wanted to get it out on vinyl eventually – it’s always nice to have it on a bit of plastic, with some lovely artwork. It was good timing with Record Store Day – it all came together.
Do you buy much vinyl?
NC: I used to – I buy the odd thing now and again. I dip my toe in. I did all my record buying as a youth. I used to spend an absolute fortune, when I had no money – we all did the same, didn’t we? Scouring the record shops of Manchester – that’s when I was really into it. Then I had to buy them all again on CD… Now I’m streaming and I think, ‘wow – I think I’ve bought this record three times now.’
I like to buy records at gigs – if I go to a gig and see a band I like, I’ll make a point of going to the merch stall. My vinyl days are done, but I DJ a lot and that’s when I get back into playing records – it’s a chance to dust off the collection. That’s when I’m thankful for my misspent youth. At home, I spin the odd record, but I listen to a lot of radio shows on my computer.
Do you have a favourite record shop?
NC: There are two in Manchester that I like – one is Vinyl Revival. It’s run by an old friend of mine, Colin White, and it’s been going for years. It’s a great shop – he’s a lovely guy and really knowledgeable. It’s great to go in, have a chat with him and see what he’s got.
I also like Piccadilly Records – I can remember when it used to be just off Market Street. They were friendlier in Piccadilly Records than they were in Eastern Bloc, where I had a bad experience with a condescending geezer behind the counter. I think everyone’s had an experience like that. I was only a kid – I was 14. He gave me grief for something I bought. I think my brother had recommended a band to me – it might have been The Inspiral Carpets, but I’m not sure. He took the mickey out of me – he was trying to be cool. When you went in Piccadilly there was a lovely, friendly vibe.
Stations was your solo debut. How do you feel about it now? Have you listened to it recently?
NC: I remember seeing George Harrison speaking on The Beatles Anthology documentary series – he said he’d not listened to Revolver since the day it came out. I thought, ‘bollocks – no way! Everyone listens to Revolver every day.’ I’m not comparing myself to George Harrison, but, in recent years, after releasing my own records, I’ve realised there’s no point listening to your own records, because all you hear are the mistakes and you think about the choices you should’ve made, but didn’t. It’s quite a frustrating experience – there’s not much pleasure to be gained from it. Plus the fact that while you’re making it, you’re listening to it continually for the whole process – mixing, mastering… Those songs become lodged in your brain. If you hear them out of context, like when you walk into a bar, it can be pleasurable. Saying that, I think Stations still stands up – it sounds pretty good and it’s quite lo-fi.
There are a few things I might have done differently, like made it a bit bigger production-wise, but maybe that’s its charm. It has almost a demo quality to it – we used a really basic drum machine on some of the tracks. Carwyn Ellis had a retro drum machine app on his phone. I like the feel of it. I wasn’t coming out all guns blazing – it’s a gentle introduction.
What are your memories of writing the songs and recording the album?
NC: Writing the songs was a long process – it’s the same with every band’s first album, isn’t it? They’ve had a collection of songs that they got together when they started the band and they build on that. The songs were from over a five-year period. You’re always trying to second guess the first album, saying it will be the best one ever, but as you move on and do the next album, you’re less questioning – you just get on and do it.
‘I lead quite a solitary existence, so lockdown wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs’
Recording it was a very quick process – we did it in Carwyn’s house, in Cardiff – me, Carwyn and Mason Neely, who has produced all my albums. We were up early doors and we did it in five or six days. It was very intense and it was good – we worked hard at it, from nine in the morning to seven or eight at night, but we broke off for a cup of tea every now and again. Everyone was really productive and it was really enjoyable.
Do you have a favourite song from it?
NC: Oslo – it’s the one that really came together and it has some great bass playing from Mason, which elevated what was a folky, picking song to something completely different. When he threw that bassline down, it blew my mind and I saw where we could go. That’s the joy of working with top mates and musicians who come up with great ideas and take songs to the next level. It’s a great collaborative process.
Let’s talk about 2020. How were you during lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis?
NC: I was OK – I lead quite a solitary existence anyway, so it wasn’t a great shock to me. I was keeping it real and I was very productive. I was in Manchester – I had my studio set up and I started writing a lot of songs. For the first few weeks it was quite a novelty, but then you just have one of those days… you’ve not seen many people, or spoken to anyone. We’re social animals and we need interaction – even if it’s just a quick ‘hello’ on the street. It must’ve been terrible for some people.
What can you tell us about the next album?
NC: I’m finishing my new album. I’m hoping to get it done by the end of the year. It has the working title of Solitary Singer. I’ve been listening to a lot of Scott Walker – again. I’m putting strings on it – I’m going big and I’m hoping to go to Prague to work with an orchestra. I hope it will sound like Scott 4. You’ve got to aim high. Watch this space.
For my sins, I’ve also written another album – I’ve created a Lee Hazlewood alter ego and I’m channelling the whole Hazlewood vibe. I wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre and I’m very excited by them.
Stations by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound.
Emma Swift’s new album of Bob Dylan reinterpretations, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, is one of the best covers records we’ve ever heard.
The Australian-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter has put her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she’s remained reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.
“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”
Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.
She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
Swift even reinterprets one of the songs from Dylan’s latest record, Rough and Rowdy Ways, on hers – the reflective and stately ballad I Contain Multitudes. Her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.
“Like many of the great Bob Dylan songs, I Contain Multitudes is a magnet, a fly’s eye view of the cultural miasma in which we wander,” says Swift. “It’s magnificent and heartbreaking – a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and all that might be redeemed. To me this song has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”
Blonde On The Tracks is a record that was born out of crisis, as Swift explains: “The idea for the album came about during a long depressive phase – the kind where it’s hard to get out of bed and get dressed and present [yourself] to the world as a high-functioning human. I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively.”
She adds: “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but this period was especially wordless. Sad, listless and desperate, I began singing Bob Dylan songs as a way to have something to wake up for.”
Work on the album began at Magnetic Sound Studio, Nashville, in 2017, but it was the Covid-19 lockdown that brought the rest of the project to fruition. Swift worked with Sansone over email to polish up the six songs that had already been recorded, but her versions of I Contain Multitudes and Simple Twist of Fate were laid down in April and May this year, at home, and overdubbed via correspondence.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Swift during lockdown in Nashville, to find out why Dylan’s music means so much to her, why Blonde On The Tracks, which can be purchased via Bandcamp and from record stores, won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites, and her plans for her new independent label Tiny Ghost Records.
How has lockdown in Nashville been for you? How have you coped – both personally and professionally?
Emma Swift: I have been in lockdown and haven’t left the house since the beginning of March, so although I am technically in Nashville, it feels, in a way, like I am on an island. I don’t see any of my friends or colleagues or even venture to the supermarket. All communication – for food, for friendship and for work – has been done online and it’s definitely weird.
The idea of “coping” is one I struggle with because, in many ways, we’re still deep in this Covid experience, so it’s hard for me to have perspective on it. Am I coping? I don’t know. Right now, the virus is worse than it’s ever been in Tennessee. Each day brings new challenges. On the one hand, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work from home, on the other, my primary source of income is as a touring musician and all that work is not going to return for a long time, so that weighs heavy on my mind. I am constantly seeking distractions. I read a lot.
I have insane, one-way conversations with my cat [Ringo]. “Who’s a good boy? Yes, Ringo’s a good boy! Oh, Ringo you’re such a good boy. Ringo have I ever told you what a good boy you are? Look at your little face! You’re such a good boy.” There’s a lot of that.
How did you first get into Dylan’s music and what does it mean to you?
ES: I’m not from the generation that grew up when Dylan began making records, so for many years most of my discoveries were made well after that – through albums I bought at record fairs and charity stores and songs I heard on the radio. My first memory of hearing a Bob Dylan song is The Byrds version of Mr Tambourine Man, which got played a lot on the golden oldies station I listened to as a kid.
I can remember watching clips of the Traveling Wilburys on music TV – I adored Handle With Care, though Roy Orbison was the one I was drawn to at the time. My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde, which I must have acquired when I was 17 or 18. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ever since. My love of the artists that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t exclusive to Bob Dylan though. I’m just as influenced by Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Gene Clark and Lou Reed to name a few. I’m a kid of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m quite old-fashioned really.
You’ve recorded a version of I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t it brave to tackle a brand new Dylan song?
ES:It didn’t feel brave to me – it just felt like a song I was utterly magnetised by and compelled to do. For me, it’s a love song to all that is great about music and art and poetry. It’s a confession, a hymn, a celebration. Like many of the Dylan songs I am drawn to, it’s a little bit funny and a little bit sad. I laughed out loud the first time I heard him sing: “I paint landscapes/ And I paint nudes.”
As for my interpretation of it, it’s very lo-fi. It was recorded in the lounge room at my place on a Zoom recorder, with Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, and then sent to my producer, Patrick Sansone, for overdubs. Patrick’s a brilliant man who can do a lot with not very much. I’m lucky to know him.
Interestingly, on your versions of the songs, you haven’t changed any of Dylan’s lyrics to make them sound like they’re being sung from a woman’s point of view. What was your thinking behind that?
ES:They are being sung from a woman’s point of view – mine. I just haven’t changed any of the gender pronouns to make it sound like it’s coming from a heteronormative context. It’s not how I view the world.
You’ve said that you can learn a lot about melody by singing someone’s else’s songs? Can you elaborate on that? What has making this album taught you?
ES: I’m pleased that the record is coming out because historically it hasn’t always been easy for me to put music out. I can be apprehensive. I can be scared. I can be very self-critical. People can be brutal. And you have to feel safe enough in yourself to be able to say, ‘I like it and no-one else’s opinion matters’, to be able to release music. It took me a while to get to that point.
As for learning about melody, every time I put a record on I become a student. My ears are primed. For that matter you can learn a lot about harmony too, if you let the recording take the lead and try to find a different part.
Which other singers / artists do you admire, other than Dylan? Who inspires you?
ES:Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power, Sandy Denny, Nick Cave, Billie Holiday, David Berman, Robyn Hitchcock, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, Patti Smith, Johnny Marr. Even though it’s music, I guess what inspires me musically is artists who really love words. Artists who read books. Artists who care about the world.
Am I right in thinking Blonde On The Tracks won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites? You have strong views on streaming and royalties / payments to artists, don’t you?
ES: Blonde On The Tracks is available as a digital download, vinyl, CD and cassette. I’m selling it through Bandcamp online and it has distribution, so folks will be able to go and pick it up from their favourite local record store as well. There’s never been a better time to support small business.
You are right, I’ve been quite outspoken online about wage exploitation from mainstream streaming services. I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that these outlets are good for “exposure”, while some of the best musicians I know find themselves now out of a job due to Covid-19. You can’t eat exposure! You can’t pay your rent with exposure. It’s just another bullshit argument for trickle-down economics – an argument which fails to take into account that the music industry is bigger than its bigger name stars.
‘I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that mainstream streaming services are good outlets are good for “exposure.” You can’t eat exposure!’
What’s the latest on your planned album of original songs, Slow Dancing With Ghosts? Have you been writing any new material? Is there another record in the offing?
ES:Slow Dancing With Ghosts is all set for release in January 2022. I have recorded eight songs so far, but they are not quite finished as all the overdub sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19. There are some really lovely people playing on this record. I’m pleased to say that once my depression lifted I was able to write new songs, and that will be what is on offer here.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently and how do you listen to it?
ES: I listen to music through digital downloads, the Bandcamp streaming app, vinyl and CD. Though it’s been brutal on other fronts, 2020 has been a great year for new music and I’ve been enjoying the recent albums from Marchelle Bradanini, Luke Schneider and Becca Mancari.
I just bought the Prince Sign o’ The Times 7in singles collection that Third Man is releasing and I’m excited about that. And I’ve got the new Dylan album, plus quite a large vinyl collection that goes back decades. I come back to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira probably more than any other record.
What are your plans for the rest of the year when things get back to normal?
ES: I have big plans to play this album – and my own new songs – live. I’m just not sure when it will be safe for me to make that happen.
You’ve started your own label,Tiny Ghost Records. Any plans to sign any other artists to it and put out their records?
ES: One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence. I couldn’t find a record label in 2020 that was artist-friendly enough for me. Even the cool ones are still in bed with the streaming services, so that wasn’t really an option. The new Robyn Hitchcock album will come out on Tiny Ghost in 2021. I’d love to sign other artists eventually, I just have to get the business off the ground first. I’d also encourage any artists who are looking for a label to consider starting their own. If it works for Gillian Welch and Courtney Barnett, it can work for you too.
‘One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost Records was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence’
What are some of your favourite cover versions of Dylan songs?
ES:Okay so what’s wild here is that I could list versions of just one song and it would go on for pages. I could talk about Joan Baez’s Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind for days. Betty Lavette’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, particularly when sung live, is glorious. Robyn Hitchcock doing Visions of Johanna is pure heartbreak. I have to say, with this project, I couldn’t really listen to other people’s Dylan songs for a while because I needed to just be with the source material. I’m also not too interested in a rigid list of favourites – the list is ever changing.
Finally, did you ever think about calling the new album Blood On The Blonde? Maybe that could be your next record – reinterpretations of Dylan’s murder ballads?
ES: [laughs] No, I didn’t…
Blonde On The Tracks by Emma Swift is released on August 14 (Tiny Ghost Records).
It’s almost 20 years since Mark Billingham’s debut novel, Sleepyhead, was published – a highly original and riveting crime thriller that first introduced us to the character of Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, who is based in North London, loves country music, enjoys a beer and is passionate about Tottenham Hotspur. In case you were wondering, Mark shares two of those interests with his creation – he supports Wolverhampton Wanderers.
When Sleepyhead came out, in August 2001, it entered the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list and ended up being the biggest selling debut novel of that summer. Since then, Mark has become one of the UK’s most successful crime writers.
This month seesthe publication of his latest novel, Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the Dark, Rush of Blood and Die of Shame.
Cry Baby is a Thorne origins novel – a prequel to Sleepyhead, it’s set in 1996. In an exclusive interview, Mark talks to Say It With Garage Flowers about life during the Covid-19 lockdown, looks back at how his career in crime writing started, reflects on the enduring appeal of Thorne, gives us a sneak preview of the new book and tells us what he was getting up to in 1996.
How did you cope with lockdown? As a writer, aren’t you used to lengthy periods of being at home on your own, shut off from the outside world?
Mark Billingham: On a day-to-basis, it’s not actually been very different – like a lot of writers, I’m looking for any old excuse to spend the day in my pyjamas.
I’ve been writing a lot. I know that a lot of people have found it very difficult to write – some have found it very difficult to read, for God’s sake – but I actually wrote the best part of my next novel in lockdown. I know plenty of people who have been very productive, but I completely understand why some people haven’t.
I wrote this next book very quickly, but sometimes, at the end of the day, I’d look at what I’d written and I’d think ‘what’s the point? It’s just a bloody crime novel. What does it matter in the scheme of things?’ Especially if the news that day was really bad. People are dying and the country’s going to shit! You just have to keep trying to lift yourself to get it done.
What has been different is that I haven’t been able to go out to promote my new book and do festivals and events – everything is now online. That’s what I’ve found the hardest part because I love doing all that stuff, but, again, in the scheme of things, it’s a very minor niggle.
‘I’m not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, they will want something that’s more escapist or cosier’
Has anything from the Covid-19 crisis filtered through into the book you’ve just finished writing?
MB: We’ve all got to make a decision, which I suspect is too early to make – how do you reflect lockdown and the pandemic in works that are yet to come out? I certainly reference it in the next book, but I’m hoping that by the time the book comes out, the virus won’t still be on everybody’s minds 24 hours a day.
I’m also not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, whatever that means, people might well want something that’s more escapist or a little cosier. Having lived through the pandemic, will people want to read fiction about it? We’ll have to see. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of so-called ‘cosy crime fiction’ was between the wars. After the horror of the First World War, people wanted something that was more…healing.
So you’ve spent lockdown writing, but did you have much time to do any reading?
MB: Yes – I’ve been reading tons. I’ve read an awful lot of new novels that have been sent to me, as well as some old favourites and bits of non-fiction. The last novel I read was Michael Connelly’s new book [Fair Warning], which is absolutely fantastic.
I loved Craig Brown’s book about The Beatles [One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time] – I’ll read pretty much any book about The Beatles.
What was your lockdown soundtrack? What new or old music have you been listening to?
MB: I’ve been listening to old music – I’m such an old fart. I just tend to walk into the kitchen and go: ‘Alexa, play Elvis Costello’, or ‘Alexa, play Graham Parker’. But just to evidence the fact that my finger is still on the pulse, I’ve been listening a lot to the new Bob Dylan album [Rough and Rowdy Ways], which just gets better each time I hear it.
MB: Yes I have and they’re great – fantastic stuff. I’ve also been following the stuff that Steve’s been doing online with Costello.
You’re a huge Costello fan. Have you heard the recent singles he’s put out: No Flag and Hetty O’Hara Confidential?
MB: Yes – I really like them. I love No Flag because he sounds properly angry again – he’s back to full strength and on fire. I wonder if the new one [Hetty O’Hara Confidential] is from one of the musicals he’s been writing? I don’t know. I know he’s written one with Burt Bacharach, A Face In The Crowd, and has been playing a few songs from it in his live shows for a couple of years.
Let’s go back to your writing. It’s almost 20 years since your first novel, Sleepyhead, was published, back in 2001. How does it feel looking back at that time now?
MB: I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was. I was on holiday with my wife and kids in Corfu. My kids were very young and every night after we’d put them to bed, my wife and I would sit outside this villa we’d rented – she’d have a glass of wine and I’ve have a bottle of beer – and I’d start scribbling ideas in a notebook.
At the end of the fortnight’s holiday, I did a word count and realised I’d written about 30,000 words. I knew that would be about one third of a novel, so I started to think that maybe this novel-writing lark wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be.
When I got home, I tarted up the 30,000 words and I sent them to an agent – they sent them to a bunch of publishers who wanted it, there was an auction and I was off! I still hadn’t finished the book when I got my deal. I can remember being in Brent Cross shopping centre when my agent called and said that a publisher had made an offer – that’s the moment you always remember. I didn’t really know what I was doing – that was when the hard work started!
What drew you to the crime fiction genre?
MB: I think it was when I read Sherlock Holmes at a very young age, but the more important moment was my first exposure to ‘popular’ crime fiction. When I started buying books for myself they were all blockbusters like Jaws and The Godfather.
When I became a student, I discovered Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I got all those big Picador editions – and bloody loved them. I started with noir and hard-boiled American fiction and then discovered the likes of John Harvey and Ian Rankin. I devoured everything I could get. I started hanging about on the fringes of the crime fiction community – I would go to festivals and I started reviewing books so I could get them for nothing. The missing piece of the jigsaw was to try and write one.
When you created Thorne, did you ever envisage that he would endure for so long?
MB: No – when I wrote the first book, I never imagined that it would be the start of a series. I needed a copper because there had been a crime committed. In my head, Thorne wasn’t even the main character. I wanted the book to be about the victim – a woman called Alison Willetts, who’s in a coma for the whole of the novel. I was in a very fortunate position, in that a number of publishers wanted the book, so I had to go and meet them all. The first question they all asked was: ‘is this the start of a series?’ I thought, ‘well – it better had be then!’ So I wrote another Thorne novel, little knowing that I’d still be writing about him nearly 20 years later.
How have you – and Thorne – stayed the course for almost 20 years?
MB: I’ve not constantly written about him – I’ve taken breaks to write stand-alone books and to collaborate with people on other projects whenever I’ve felt the need to. Why have readers stuck with Thorne? I don’t know, but, God, I’m very grateful for it! One of the things that has stood him in good stead I think is that I’ve never had a plan for him, or a dossier on him – the reader knows as much about him, book on book, as I do. They put flesh on the character’s bones.
I’ve never described him, so the readers have their own idea of what he looks like. Hopefully, he stays unpredictable and interesting, because I genuinely have no bloody idea about what he’s going to do next! I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s managed to stick around for the best part of two decades.
To tie in with the twentiethanniversary, a few months ago Sleepyhead was reissued as a special, limited edition hardback, with a foreword by Lee Child…
MB: It was hugely generous of Lee to write that. I’d gone back to Sleepyhead reasonably recently anyway, because I was doing the unabridged audio versions of all my early books. I’d read it again – it’s quite a sobering experience going back and reading something you’ve written 20 years ago.
How was it?
MB: There were certainly things I’d do very differently now, but you live with it – you learn as you go. Hopefully you make your mistakes early on – well, you never really stop making mistakes – but, hopefully, you get better as you go on. I did change one or two tiny things for the special edition, but I don’t think people will notice them. There are things I could’ve changed that I didn’t – like the weird thing I did with Thorne’s music taste.
You mean the bit where he’s listening to trip-hop and speed garage, as well as his beloved country music?
MB: Yeah – I thought, ‘shall I take that out?’ But I then said, ‘ do you know what? I did it – leave it in.’ I quickly dropped it after the first book…
I did take out the tiny bit of Thorne’s physical description – I’ve never done it since and I wish I’d never done it then. So, it’s gone. If it’s a character that readers are going to read about for 20 years, I’d rather they painted the pictures.
Let’s talk about your latest book, Cry Baby – the seventeenth Thorne novel and your twentieth book. It’s a prequel to Sleepyhead and it’s a Thorne origins novel, set in 1996…
MB: Yes – that’s exactly what it is. Because it was the twentieth book, I’d been thinking about it for a while and I wanted to do something a bit different and special. The more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘what a great idea – I wish I’d done this before’.
If I have one slight regret about Thorne it’s that I perhaps made him too old to begin with – he started off aged about 40, which was around the same age I was when I wrote the first book. I haven’t aged him in real-time, so he hasn’t aged as quickly as I have. With Cry Baby, I had the chance to take him back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about – and both his parents are still alive. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about – how did he become the character that then appears in Sleepyhead?
I could also go back to a time that I remember really well, but which also feels like ancient history now – if you wanted to get pictures developed, you went to a chemist, and if you wanted to get somewhere, you wandered around with an A-Z in your hand.
Crucially, in terms of technology, it’s pre-internet, pre-mobile phones and pre-CCTV – all the stuff that makes the life of a contemporary crime writer very hard, because you’ve got to deal with all that stuff.
‘I had the chance to take Thorne back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about’
Was it a fun book to write, or was it challenging?
MB: Oh, it was a lot of fun. There was enjoyable research, like finding out what was on the telly and the radio back then – all that popular culture stuff, which is never a chore to do.
I also had to find out how police procedure was back in those days – I worked with an ex-Detective Superintendent, a guy called Graham Bartlett, who works with a lot of crime writers, including Peter James. He was really helpful, because he was serving back then, so he could tell me exactly what things were like. He could tell me how many women were on a team of detectives back then, or how many black and Asian officers there were – it was a lot fewer than there are now, that’s for sure.
He could also tell me how things worked in terms of technology. The most technologically advanced bit of kit that Thorne has is a pager, but not even one with text on it. It just beeps and he has to go to a phone box to ring police control. You can have a lot of fun with that stuff – ‘these stupid mobile phones are never going to catch on…’
Thorne and his soon-to-be ex-wife are selling their house and he is gobsmacked that they can get £150,000 for a three-bedroom house in North London! It’s ridiculous – there will be hollow laughter from people now that can’t buy a one-bedroom flat for that.
How easy was it to go back and create Thorne’s origins?
MB: I had the tent pegs for it – knowing who somebody becomes gives you a few decent clues as to who they were. It’s not like he’s a radically different character, but there were crucial domestic things that were fun to write, like scenes with his parents, or his wife, who by the time of Sleepyhead he’s divorced from. During Cry Baby, they’re going through the hell of all that. I didn’t have to reinvent him – I just had to imagine what he might have been like in his thirties, as opposed to his forties.
What music is Thorne listening to in Cry Baby?
MB: Oh, he’s still listening to George Jones and Hank Williams, but the piece of music he hears most during the book is Three Lions, because it’s all set during Euro 96. That’s the first thing he hears when the turns the radio on, although at one point George Michael’s Fastlove comes on. He’s not listening to too much Britpop – it’s all Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, which pisses him off, because one of them’s a Chelsea fan.
What were you doing in 1996?
MB: I was still doing stand-up, but I was a few years away from thinking about writing that first book. I hadn’t gone through my brush with violent crime (In 1997, Mark became a crime victim, when he and his writing partner Peter Cocks were held hostage and robbed in a Manchester hotel room). I was enjoying Euro ‘96 – I was there at Wembley the night England stuffed Holland 4-1. It was a lovely, footloose summer – I was 35.
How were your team, Wolves, doing then?
MB: Oh, they were doing terribly – they were not the team they are now, or in the ‘70s. They were in the doldrums.
Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a bit about the plot of Cry Baby?
MB: Even though it’s been a number of years, Thorne is still reeling from a case – the Frank Calvert case – that is also referenced in Sleepyhead. A piece of misjudgement on Thorne’s part, or a lack of confidence, that tragically resulted in the death of three little girls and their mum. That still disturbs him and some of the other cops that he works with remind him about it and wind him up about it.
‘There are a few little reverse Easter eggs in Cry Baby that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line’
Thorne then has a new case come along – a young boy goes missing and then various people start to die. He knows that they must be connected to the missing boy – there are a couple of murders and he knows that solving them is going to be the way to find the boy, whether he’s alive or dead. He’s not going to fuck this one up!
He teams up with a young pathologist for the first time – who [regular] readers will know ends up becoming his closest friend [PhilHendricks]. It’s the first time they meet and I had a lot of fun with that. I’d already decided that they weren’t going to get on. When they first meet, they have a big row and they fall out.
There are a few little reverse Easter eggs that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line. At the very, very end of the book, we catch up with where Thorne is now – I tee him up for the next book, which won’t be out until the year after next, because the one before that is a stand-alone novel.
There’s an audio book of Cry Baby coming out too, which features David Morrissey as Thorne – a role he previously played in the Sky One TV series Thorne, which was based on adaptations of your novels Sleepyhead and Scaredycat…
MB: We’ve recorded it – it was a lot of fun. I played the part of Hendricks.
Are there any plans for more of your books to be turned into TV dramas?
MB: There are adaptations in the pipeline, but it’s always so hard to talk about these things. Hopefully, there’s going to be an American adaptation of one of the stand-alones, but I can’t say too much about it and it’s all on hold because of Covid-19. Just before lockdown, because of Cry Baby, there was a suggestion of a reboot of Thorne, but, again, it’s all gone very quiet.
Finally, I have a quandary. I have all your books on a shelf at home and they’re in order of publication, but, as Cry Baby is a prequel, should I put it before Sleepyhead, or, as it’s brand new, should it go after your last novel, Their Little Secret? This has been keeping me awake at night…
MB: [laughs]:I think you’ve got to stick with the order of publication – you’ve got to put it after Their Little Secret. One of the questions people are asking me is if they haven’t ready any of my books, is Cry Baby a good entry point? Of course it is, as, in theory, it’s the first case, but if you’ve read all the Thorne books you’ll hopefully get as much fun from it as if it was the first one you’d picked up.
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.