Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s brilliant Nonsense and Heartache – out now on Latent Recordings and produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies – is a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.
The first half – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.
Put them together and you have an album that reminds me of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good.
I spoke to Jerry, who with his band, The Situation, is on a tour of Europe and the UK, to find out why he decided to release a double album and to gauge if his current mood is nonsense, or heartache…
Nonsense and Heartache is a double album of 18 tracks, which is quite a brave move, isn’t it? You don’t hear of many double albums being released these days…
Jerry Leger: Yeah, it’s usually the artist who fights for a double LP, not the label, but, in this case, it was Mike Timmins and Latent who suggested it.
I dug that and I had more than enough songs and we had a bit of a concept behind it. I think it was a cool move, I mean why not? It seems these days a lot of people are gonna listen to it, or they’re not, whether there’s two or 200 songs. A lot gets lost – I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here.
How were the recording sessions for the album? Was it an easy or a difficult album to make? Did you have a lot of songs written before you went into the studio?
JL: They were easy – we all knew what we were there to do. Heartache was recorded first – that took about four or five days. Nonsense was recorded four or five months later – I think that took two days. I can’t quite remember how many songs I had lying around, but we recorded about 29 and chose 18.
‘I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here’
The album has a raw, live sound – Michael Timmins , who produced, recorded and mixed it, alsoworked on my favourite album of last year –John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, which is another raw, live-sounding record. How do Michael and you and your band manage to get that feel and sound in the studio? What’s your working relationship with Michael like?
JL: We just play live together in the studio. I also try to keep all the live vocals, but sometimes it’s not possible. There may be technical issues, or, if the band were cookin’ and I flubbed something that I really wanted to fix instead of leave in. Sometimes we just leave it in, though. Mike and I have a great working relationship – we like making the same kind of albums and we also like a lot of the same albums. He doesn’t get in my way creatively and when he makes a suggestion in the studio, it’s usually the right one. I respect what he does and what he has to say
One of my favourite songs on the Nonsense side of the album is Baby’s Got A Rare Gun – I think it channels ’65/’66 Dylan. Do you agree? It’s heavy, electric blues. What can you tell me about that track?
JL: Well, I love Chess Records – stuff like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. I think it came from that sort of place, but, of course, I love Dylan, too, and that period is ingrained. When we recorded it, I wanted to get that over-driven vocal and band sound that’s on those records and early Bobby Bland.
The Big Smoke Blues – another of my favourite tracks on Nonsense – has a bit of a New Wave feel to it. It reminds me of Ryan Adams fronting The Strokes. Is that a fair comment?
JL: That’s fair, but I’d say it’s more Lou Reed and The Velvets rock ‘n’ roll, just ‘cos I listen to and love those records. I did really like the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day! I never really followed their career after, though. TheBig Smoke Blues is a reference to Toronto, but it could be a lot of different places for the listener. It’s a tune for outsiders.
‘I really liked the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day!’
Let’s flip the record over and talk about the Heartache side. It kicks off with the first single, Things Are Changing Round Here, which sounds like a classic country-rock song. What inspired that track?
JL: The East End of Toronto, where I grew up, was the initial inspiration. I’m only 32 and the area I grew up in is a strange land to me now. A lot of the personality is being sucked out of it – they’re knocking down blocks of old homes to build up to the sky. The unique shops and bars that can’t make the inflated rent are being replaced by boring chains.
Another Dead Radio Star – I love that title – is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? I’ve heard that it was inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, which was voiced by Orson Welles…
JL: I was listening to a compilation of radio stars from the ‘30s. The song I’d Give A Million Tomorrows (For Just One Yesterday) was playing and it sparked the idea – it’s referenced in the song. I also had another record of old radio shows by The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks of Kansas City, so they got a plug.
Things come and go, but their shadows remain in one way or another, and I’m the kind of person that looks for them. My dad used to listen to The Shadow, The Creaking Door and others as a boy and that has always stayed with him. It’s theatre of the mind.
The last song on the album, Pawn Shop Piano, is a great way to close the record – a gorgeous piano ballad. Was it written and played on a pawn shop piano?
JL: Some of the lines and ideas I’d written down before, or had floating in my head just waiting to be used. The first time we toured in the States we stayed at a dingy motel called the Travel Lite Inn, or something like that… I just liked the way it sounded and we survived.
We played Johnson City in Tennessee a couple of times and I remember this pawn shop called Diamonds and Guns and it had this great hand-painted sign, too. I jotted that title down in a notebook and figured I’d use it for something some day. It’s one of my favourites on the record and it just has a lot of truth in it for me.
Who are your main musical influences?
JL: There’s a lot, but Hank Williams I’ve heard for as long as I can remember and I just don’t think it gets better than that. Bob Dylan changed the way I wanted to write, Lennon and The Beatles made me wanna start playing, and Lightnin’ Hopkins was the coolest. When I was 13, my grandparents’ neighbour was giving away blues records. I just thought Lightnin’ looked cool – I hadn’t heard of him. When I listened to it, it was just wild – so natural, no bullshit. Leonard Cohen was also an early influence – my dad came home one day and gave me the first Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man.
‘My dad came home one day and gave me the first Leonard Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man’
You’re heading out on a European and UK tour. What can we expect?
JL: I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be my first time overseas in general. They’re all full-band shows and this line-up has been together for over 11 years, so it’s nice to do this together for the first time. What can you expect? I don’t know – I’ll just be singing my songs. I’m not ready to do anything flashy yet.
What music – new and old – are you currently digging?
JL: Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone; Ronnie Lane – See Me; Graham Nicholas – Dial Tones And Pretty Notes, and Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand The Rain.
If I’m home I listen to a lot of music – the first thing I do when I wake up is put a record on. I don’t love silence.
So, what next? Can we expect a triple album?
JL: Why stop there?
Finally, what kind of mood are you currently in: Nonsense or Heartache?
JL: I’m in a Nonsense and Heartache selling mood.
Nonsense and Heartacheby Jerry Leger is out now on Latent Recordings. For a full list of European and UK tour dates, go to https://jerryleger.com/
Singer-songwriter John Howard – who turns 65 this year – is publishing his autobiography, Incidents Crowded With Life, has his 1975 debut album, Kid In A Big World, being re-issued on vinyl, along with a collection of ‘70s rarities, and is planning a new album this summer.
Earlier this year, he put out a five-track EP, Songs From The Morning, on which he paid tribute to some of his favourite songs by ‘60s and ’70s artists, including Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Sandy Denny.
In an exclusive interview, he tells me why he’s looking forward to becoming a pensioner and why recording music keeps him young and agile…
Q & A
Your latest release, Songs From The Morning, is a five-track EP, which features your versions of songs by artists that you admired when you were growing up. The tracks are Morning, Please Don’t Come (Tom Springfield), You Get Brighter (Mike Heron), The Lady (Sandy Denny), Morning Glory (Tim Buckley/Larry Beckett) and From The Morning (Nick Drake).
Can you tell me why those songs inspired you so much? What do you like about them and what memories do they bring back?
John Howard: They all bring back different recollections really, and all inspired me for different reasons. You Get Brighter, written by Mike Heron, was the first song I saw The Incredible String Band perform in Manchester in late ’69 – when I was 16 – at The Free Trade Hall. It was the first concert I’d ever been to. The song completely hooked me as soon as Mike sat at the piano and began singing it, and has always stayed with me. I’d been planning to record it for years.
From The Morning by Nick Drake blew me away the first time I heard it, on his final album, Pink Moon. Nick’s version features just him and his guitar, as does that entire album, but I always felt it was a great pop song that would suit a full backing. Some people refer to Nick as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs.
The truly uplifting lyric of From The Morning, written when Nick was at his lowest ebb, touches me deeply. What spirit that boy had. I tried to capture that innate, feel-good vibe of the lyric – Nick’s sense of wonder at everything in nature around him – with my interpretation.
‘Some people refer to Nick Drake as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs’
Sandy Denny’s The Lady impressed me when I heard it on a friend’s LP in 1972, but when I got a CD box-set by Sandy, a live version was on there and I loved that even more. Her introductory comment to her audience that “this song has a lot of chords” made me smile. She wrote it, and yet it daunted her. It’s the perfect pianist’s song, having as it does some very strange chord changes and progressions.
Morning, Please Don’t Come was a 1970 single by Dusty & Tom Springfield, which I heard on the radio at the time. I thought it was truly lovely, displaying Tom’s great songwriting skills, but by then the pop scene in the UK had radically changed and artists like Dusty, Cilla, Lulu and Sandie Shaw, who’d been so huge in the ‘60s, seemed to have lost their market.
I heard the song again only a couple of years ago, when DJ Rodney Collins played it on his weekly show – on ABC Oldies – and that inspired me to have a go at recording my own version.
I actually met Tom Springfield in 1975, at his flat, with a friend of mine who knew him quite well. It’s a visit he would want to delete from his memory I would imagine as, in ’75 – ’76, I was going through a heavy drinking period and behaved appallingly, like a really ranty queen, which makes me cringe now when I think about it. Tom very quietly asked my friend to take me home, which he did. If anyone who knows Tom reads this, please convey my abject apologies! Mea culpa!
The Tim Buckley song Morning Glory is on an LP I’ve had for years, Goodbye and Hello, and its lyric has always intrigued me. I’m still not sure what it’s about – and even the lyric writer, Larry Beckett, couldn’t fully explain its meaning in an interview a few years ago.
I interpret it as about the way some people can’t settle anywhere – they always have to be on the move, like a hobo, going from ‘fleeting house’ to ‘fleeting house’. I’m probably wrong but that interpretation does for me. It’s a wonderful song, whatever it’s about…
How did you approach the songs on the EP? What did you want to do with them? Is it hard to strike a balance between being respectful to the originals and also wanting to put your own stamp on them?
JH: Yes – that’s always a slight dilemma when recording other people’s songs, especially songs that are rooted deeply in many people’s minds and hearts by the original writers. I treat any recording the same way – I routine it on the piano until it starts to take shape, and then ideas begin pouring into my head for arrangements, vocal approaches and harmonies.
It’s never clear what I want from a song – whether it’s one of mine or someone else’s – until I begin the process of getting to know it really well, playing it many times until it feels like it’s reached the point of initial completion, before I start to build up the backings in my studio. I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions.
You actually can’t be too respectful when covering songs, or else you’d be slightly frightened of them, so you have to believe what you’re doing is working as a track. Once you’re in the studio, it’s no longer the song, it’s the recording you’re working on, getting the best out of a track that you can. What came before is what came before. You can only do what works for you now.
‘I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions’
How was it recording the EP? How did you play, arrange and record the songs?
JH: As all the songs were already very dear to me, I felt extremely close to them, like old friends. And, of course, as I record usually on my own, I can change things as I go along and try other things quite easily, I often spend weeks on a track, living with it for a while, then going back into the studio and either building on what I’ve done, or starting again from scratch. Happily, it’s the former usually…
Let’s talk about Nick Drake – one of my favourite singer-songwriters. A lot of people only discovered Nick’s music years after his death, which was in 1974 – a year before your debut album, Kid In A Big World, came out. Were you a fan of Nick’s during his lifetime? Isn’t it such a shame that he only got the recognition for his talent after he’d died? Why do you think that’s the case?
JH: I was aware of Nick’s music when I was at art college, as people played his stuff – certainly his first two albums – in the common room, and I liked what I heard. Back then he reminded me a little of Colin Blunstone [The Zombies] vocally.
‘I remember seeing Five Leaves Left in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni Mitchell’s Clouds’
I never bought any of Nick’s releases, as funds were obviously limited at that time, and with the money I had, I was buying albums by my current heroes Roy Harper, The Incredible String Band, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and – belatedly – Dylan.
I remember seeing Five Leaves Left [by Nick Drake] in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni’s Clouds instead, which my school friend Pauline had played me a few nights earlier.
I think that was Nick’s mainproblem – when his albums had just been released, in terms of gettinghis music across to people, you never heard him on the radio – or at least I didn’t. He didn’t perform live – again, if he did, I wasn’t aware of it – and I’ve since read he hated doing live performances. If I wanted to hear his albums they were usually lying in a pile beside the common room record player. The artists I spent my money on were those I’d seen and loved on stage, heard on the radio or watched on things like the In Concert TV series.
In the ‘80s, I think it was, I bought the four-CD set of Nick’s albums and outtakes and fell in love with him. What a talent and what a waste of a talent – to lose him so young. His songs really touched me and still do. When you read his life story – his sister Gabrielle’s biography of him [Remembered For A While] is superb – you realise what a fascinating guy he was.
I loved how he performed impromptu for The Rolling Stones in Tangiers in the late ‘60s, and he was a huge fan of Donovan’s – when Mr Leitch was no longer very cool to Nick’s mates. He’d been a really happy ambitious lad until the ‘black dog’, as he called it, came to rest on his young shoulders. Very sad.
His music has now benefitted from social media spreading the word among a wide, record buying-public, and is happily now loved by a large slice of lovers of good music. Good songs will out. Talent will out. I believe that. Sadly, we can never predict how long that will take…
I mentioned your ’75 debut album, Kid In A Big World, earlier. It’s being re-released on vinyl soon, isn’t it? How do you feel about that and how’s it come about? There’s also an album of John Howard rarities – from’73-‘79 – coming out, too, isn’t there? What can we expect?
JH: Yes! You Are The Cosmos, a great and highly-respected Spanish label, run by Pedro Vizcaino, is releasing Kid In A Big World and The Hidden Beauty – a new compilation of demos, outtakes and singles from my ‘70s back catalogue, both on LP. I’m, to say the least, thrilled. For many years people have been asking me if Kid… would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is.”
Pedro contacted me last year about releasing Kid… on LP and then he suggested an additional vinyl album of some of the demos and stuff I’d recorded from ’73 – ’79. The LPs look really great – Pedro and his designer have done a stellar job.
‘For many years people have been asking me if Kid In A Big World would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is”.’
The Hidden Beauty is a very interesting compilation, with some fascinating tracks on there – recordings that, in most cases, have never been available on vinyl before. There’s a Trevor Horn production from 1977 called Stay, which has never had a proper release (apart from online about 10 years ago) – it was the first track I recorded with Trevor and features a storming guitar solo by Bruce Woolley.
There are some of the demos I recorded in 1973, when I arrived in London, at Chappell’s studios in Hanover Square. There are also some late ‘70s demos, too – a song called Loving You, which I demoed in 1979, and which gets regularly downloaded, so that’s a great inclusion on the LP. Also, there are a couple of tracks I did with Trevor Horn in 1978 – Don’t Shine Your Light and Baby Go Now, which were released on a double A-side single in late ’79. Those two tracks feature the musicians who a year or so later formed Buggles and then The Art Of Noise (Geoff Downes, Luis and Linda Jardim, Anne Dudley, and, of course, Trevor).
Bruce Woolley is also on those two tracks, doing backing vocals with Linda.He co-wrote Video Killed The Radio Star with Trevor in 1979, and was signed to CBS when I returned to the label in 1980.
Kid… will have the original LP artwork, even including the same lyric sheet that came with the 1975 album. Pedro has done an amazing job – he’s showed a lot of love and respect for the recordings and that’s very nice to see.
It’s a busy time for you. … You’re working on your new album – your eighteenth – which will be out this summer, and you’re already working on the album after that! You’re very prolific. What’s your secret?
JH:Ha! If I knew the secret I’d probably stop doing it. I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording. The fact is I love recording. I love the whole process, and working as I usually do on my own, I have all the time in the world to work on ideas and try things out, with no pressure from anyone.
‘I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording’
I’m not sure yet who will release the new album. If I can’t find a label to put it out, I’ll do a self-release. I did several self-releases – 2009 – 2014 – before the John Howard & The Night Mail album came out on Tapete. Self-released albums don’t get the same exposure, of course, but at least they’re out there if people want to find them. I’ll keep putting stuff out while people want to hear it and – bless them forever – buy it.
A label release would be lovely, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not always easy to get deals with new material, which is by its very nature, and lack of history or a back story, not as immediate or immediately recognisable as a back catalogue release. I was very happy with how my last studio album, Across The Door Sill, was received. I can only hope this new one will also appeal. But about that I can do nothing. Only hope!
So what can we expect the new album to sound like? How’s it going?
JH: The new album was completed about two weeks ago. It contains ten new songs, and is probably more instantly ‘accessible’ than the stream-of-consciousness material on Across The Door Sill, in that the songs are basically pop songs (i.e. with a verse/chorus structure in most cases), but of course done in the John Howard pop way.
People who’ve heard the tracks in progress so far – friends like Kenji Kitahama from Friedrich Sunlight, Robert Rotifer,Ian Button – who will be mastering the album – and my ‘70s producer Paul Phillips – have all commented how I seem to have a new sound with these tracks, a ‘new palette’ as Paul put it recently. I don’t really – I just use what I have in my studio [in Spain] in different ways, putting together different combinations of instruments and percussion.
I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita! I play everything – the drums, the percussion, the guitars, accordion, and keyboards, but as I’m not a guitarist, or a drummer, it takes me weeks to do just one track, slowly building up sounds. But I love this acoustic way of recording. It’s as old school as it can be using a digital recording set-up – a 15-year-old Yamaha AW16G workstation – and I mixeverything in real time, too.
‘I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita!’
If a mix isn’t quite right, I scrap it and start again, I don’t ‘save’ mixes and just tweak things – it’s always instinctive and quite intense, often going to 12 or 13 mixes before I feel it’s right. It’s obviously very time-consuming – ask my husband, Neil, who hardly sees me when I’m in the middle of recording – but I love it and still look forward to trotting across our courtyard and opening the casita door. I say ‘hello’ to all the instruments and pieces of percussion sitting on various shelves, and begin the process of starting work on a new track, selecting this and that, trying them out, deciding what works and what doesn’t on that particular song. It’s a delight that I can still do it, still love doing it, and that people seem to like the results.
You’ve written your autobiography, too. It’s called Incidents Crowded With Life. When’s it coming out? How was it to write and should anyone be worried? Is there any scandal?
JH: Oooh! Scandal, such a scandal! I don’t think anyone needs to be particularly concerned by Incidents Crowded With Life. My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay or situations from anyone else’s points of view. I also don’t comment. That’s for the reader to do as the stories unfold. So I haven’t said things like “What a bastard!” about anyone, I’ve just told what happened and leave the reader to decide what they think.
‘My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay’
The book basically covers my life working towards and preparing for what became the recording and release of Kid In A Big World, the build up to it, and the aftermath of its failure to make an impact, up to when I broke my back in an accident at home in late ’76, just as things seemed to be indicating a turnaround for the better.
The only chapter that is constructed as a third-party observation is where I discuss glam rock, its stars, and their career paths and how their music affected and inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether an autobiography needed such a chapter, but I decided that, as glam made such an impact on me and my music, then I should talk about that. It truly changed the way I wrote songs from ’71 – ’73, and how I saw myself in the scheme of things.
The book is due out in the spring, published by Fisher King. I’m pleasantly surprised that the book has found a publisher, to be honest. I never expected that, as I never considered myself well known enough to warrant a publishing deal. I’d been posting it online, chapter-by-chapter, for about 18 months when a friend suggested I should get it published in book form. My reply was “How?” and he duly sent the online links to the managing director of Fisher King, and the rest is my history in print! How fabulous is that? Will there be a second book? Well, I’ve just begun writing it, so we’ll see…
This year, you turn 65 and you’re showing no sign of slowing down – you’re busier than ever! How does it feel becoming a pensioner?
JH: My husband is thrilled that I’m finally going to be bringing in some proper money! Being a ‘niche recording artist’ means I earn very little from my music, so that monthly cheque from April onwards will be extremely welcome.
I’ll continue to stay as busy as I want to be. As long as my voice holds up – and it seems to have done so far – I’ll carry on recording. I’m physically aware that I’m older, I get tired more quickly, the usual 60-years-plus aches and pains are quite bad some days – due, in part, to my injuries in ‘76 of course – but when I’m recording, I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s. The higher range is not so stratospheric as it once was, but my lower range is much richer now. People tell me I sound very young when I sing, and that’s because I feel young when I sing.
‘I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s’
Do you still have many musical ambitions left? Are there any songs by other people that you’d like to record, or anyone that you’d like to collaborate with?
JH: Ambitions? I don’t really have any. Back in my teens, of course, with the arrogance of youth, I was convinced I’d be an international superstar by the time I was 21! That didn’t happen of course, and the realisation that things are not that easy was a big part of my ‘Further Education In Life’ from thereon in. But now, I have no expectations, no ambitions, I just enjoy what I do. Most things tend to happen while I’m busy doing other things.
Kid… was reissued on CD in 2003 because people were discussing it on the internet, which piqued RPM and Cherry Red’s interest. The John Howard & the Night Mail album happened because Robert Rotifer encouraged me to start performing in public again and have a think about us doing something in the studio together.
Across The Door Sill was issued by Occultation because Nick Halliwell told me he thought it deserved to be out on LP and that he’d like to release it. Kid… is being re-released on vinyl because Pedro contacted me to say he would like to do it, and the autobiography is being published because a friend sent it to a book publisher. I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing.
Robert Rotifer and I sometimes talk about recording another Night Mail album with Ian Button and Andy Lewis, and I’d love to, but getting us all together at the same time is the difficult bit!
‘I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing’
I did contribute backing vocals and piano to The Granite Shore album, Suspended Second, last year, which was fun, and I’ve also contributed piano to other friends’ projects over the last few years – Papernut Cambridge’s Nutlets, Alex Highton’s Nobody Know Anything, Darren Hayman’s Secondary Modern, and Anthony Reynolds’ British Ballads. That’s always a nice thing to do, especially when you hear the finished tracks and go “Oooh! That’s me on that one!”
I’m sure there’ll be more EPs featuring covers of other people’s songs. I quite fancy doing an EP of Rufus Wainwright songs – and even a Marc Bolan EP – gosh! That would be fun. We’ll see…
Finally, what music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?
JH: I’m very into Judee Sill – I have been for months. I loved what she did back when I was a teenager in the ‘70s – Jesus Was A Crossmaker was a particular favourite when I was at college, but recently I’ve been given her lovely CD set by a friend and it’s gorgeous. What a superb songwriter and singer she was.
I still play Roy Harper’s astonishing Stormcock album – it still sends shivers down my spine. I recently bought the new version of Sgt Pepper… it’s very good. Giles Martin’s done a great job – he’s really brought the tracks to life again – though, note to Giles, Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite is far too loud compared to the other tracks. What’s that about then?
New stuff? Well, there’s a wonderful singer songwriter on You Are The Cosmos called Daniel McGeever – his album, Cross The Water, is one I play a lot. Excellent songs.
Daniel Wylie’s latest, Scenery For Dreamers, is fab, too, Ralegh Long’s Upwards of Summer is very uplifting guitar pop for the 21st century, and Alex Highton’s newie,Welcome To Happiness, is a synthesiser-fest of loveliness.
• John Howard’s Songs From The Morning EP is available to download from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, etc, and to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and Rhapsody.
Late last year, jangle-pop project The Raving Beauties, the brainchild of Belfast writer Brian Bell, who is now based in Brighton, teamed up with Oxford band The Dreaming Spires to release Raving For Bap, a 10in limited vinyl EP dedicated to singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy, who died in late 2016.
The record features five of Bap’s songs, which The Raving Beauties have made their own. The opening track, Walk In Love, is a joyous, chiming guitar anthem that’s befitting of The Byrds, while Moriarty’s Blues is a gorgeous, folky shuffle. The Way I Love Her is infectious, organ-driven power-pop, Hard Street is a down and out ballad with a country feel and Lonesome Lullaby is another Byrdsian belter – 12-string guitars, heavenly harmonies and a life-affirming chorus.
I spoke to Brian to find out more about the EP and to clear up some confusion over how the mysterious ‘fictitious’ band, The Raving Beauties, came into being…
Q & A
Let’s talk about your recent five-track EP, Raving For Bap, which was a tribute to Belfast singer-songwriter, Bap Kennedy (Energy Orchard), who died from cancer in 2016. Proceeds from the record are being donated to Belfast’s Marie Curie Hospice. How did the EP come about?
Brian Bell: I’d known Bap since the early Noughties, when a mutual friend, James Walbourne [The Rails, The Pretenders] introduced us on the basis that because we both came from Belfast, we’d probably get on, which we did, very much so. Aside from being such a talented guy, Bap was a very genuine, kind person and great company – his self-deprecating wit and killer one-liners were something to behold.
Before meeting him, I’d been aware of his music and really admired it. I really loved and connected with songs like Sailortown and Sweet Irish Rose, off the first Energy Orchard album, and I’d bought his Domestic Blues album when it first came out.
In the years that I was seeing Bap most regularly, I’ve fond memories of his legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers. Everybody would be lapping it up and the craic was tremendous.
In more recent years, I’d kept in touch with Bap when he moved back to Holywood in Northern Ireland and always looked forward to meeting up with him whenever I was back home visiting family.
‘I’ve fond memories of Bap’s legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers’
When we lost Bap to cancer, in November 2016, it was obviously a very upsetting and difficult time for everyone who knew and loved him. In the months after his passing, he was on my mind a lot and I guess my appreciation of his songs had deepened, which is probably when the idea for a tribute record started hatching. Bap’s widow Brenda has been doing an amazing job of looking after his legacy and continuing to share and celebrate his music, so I hope we can add to that in some way. It was also important from the outset that the record would be a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast, as Bap’s family think the world of the staff there for the care they gave Bap towards the end of his life.
The EP is a collaboration between The Raving Beauties and Oxford band The Dreaming Spires. What’s your relationship? How did you end up working together?
BB: In 2016, The Dreaming Spires included The Raving Beauties track Arrows on the guest artist side of their Paisley Overground 12in mini album and we were on the same label – At The Helm – at the time. We did a launch gig for the record together in Brighton, which went really well.
My friendship with the guys started there and we ended up doing another gig together as The Raving Beauties at Truck Festival in 2016, which was a lot of fun. I’d chatted with Joe Bennett [from The Dreaming Spires] about recording some new songs together, but with Bap being on my mind so much, I felt a tribute EP was what we should do next.
Luckily, Joe and the rest of the guys – Robin Bennett, Tom Collison and Fin Kenny – were well up for it, so we all got together at Joe’s studio in Oxford last Spring to start working on it, with Joe producing. There was a great vibe and a lovely spirit of camaraderie, which I hope comes across on the record.
With the EP, you and The Dreaming Spires have put your own spin on Bap’s songs – there’s a US West Coast, ‘60s jangle-pop feel to some of the songs. How did you approach the tracks and how did you decide which ones to cover?
BB: Joe, wisely I think, didn’t want to get too swayed by listening to Bap’s originals – he just wanted me to turn up with the chords and lyrics, so we could try to put our own stamp on them. You’re right about the American West Coast influence, and I suppose the idea was broadly along the lines of imagining how Bap’s songs might have been interpreted by a Californian guitar band in the late ‘60s. I can’t be too coy about the likes of Spirit, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Love and The Youngbloods all being an influence.
In terms of choosing songs, it was a case of picking songs I particularly loved that I imagined could also lend themselves to being done in a different way. There are other Bap songs that I love just as much, but I don’t feel would necessarily suit being re-worked in that style.
I want to ask you about the origins of The Raving Beauties. I’ve heard a rumour that the band doesn’t really exist – it’s fictitious… Can you clear this up?
BB: In the last 10 years, I’ve got into writing fiction – I did a Creative Writing MA and had a pulp fiction novella – Die Hard Mod – published under the pen name Charlie McQuaker.
One of my short stories that I’d read at spoken word nights in Brighton was called The Unsung Classic, which was about an ill-fated retro band of the ‘90s called The Raving Beauties. I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967 – that scene inspired the story. I then had the idea to make an EP of what this fictitious band might have sounded like and managed to convince Gordon Grahame – an incredibly gifted Scottish singer-songwriter/producer – to collaborate with me on some recordings.
‘I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967’
In 2015, The Raving Beauties released their debut album of ‘60s-inspired guitar pop….
BB: The original plan was to put a vinyl EP out as a ‘benign hoax’, purporting to be the lost recordings of some long-forgotten retro band called The Raving Beauties, but when I sent the tracks to Jim Walker, after his At The Helm label had just been launched, he said he loved the songs, but would only release something if we made a full album.
That gave myself and Gordon the impetus to go back into his home studio and, in a relatively short time, we came up with something that I’m still pretty proud of.
The finished album was a mix of my songs, Gordon’s songs and a few co-writes that came together really quickly. My abiding memory is of it being a huge buzz, like being a teenager again. We had this in-joke when something was going particularly well, when we’d just look at each other, do the double thumbs-up and say ”Brilliant!” in a comedy Scottish accent.
I knew at the time that Gordon was doing me a big favour by indulging me with this strange project and it was always pretty much with the understanding that it would be a one-off for him, but we’re still mates and it’s totally got his blessing that I’m keeping the project going. The plan is to make another album this year with the musicians from Raving For Bap and other collaborators.
The Raving Beauties have a gig coming up. You’re playing the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival in April (6-8, Bucks Students Union, High Wycombe). What can we expect?
BB: The plan is to do the Raving For Bap EP, plus some songs from the first album – The ‘Spires boys have kindly signed up to be honorary Raving Beauties.
I wish I could say we’ll be doing the set in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and we’ll all be sporting Roger McGuinn wigs, but, unfortunately, we haven’t budgeted for that!
Any plans to hold a tribute gig for Bap?
BB: Yes – we’re hatching a plan and hopefully will be able to confirm something soon. Fundraising-wise, we’ve joined forces with Bap’s sister, Marian, who has already raised over £2,000 for the hospice, and we’ve set ourselves the target of raising a grand total of £5,600 by June 17,when Bap would have been 56
What does the rest of 2018 hold for The Raving Beauties?
BB:Some Girls from The Raving Beauties’ first album is getting another lease of life thanks to You Are The Cosmos including it on their next 12 String High vinyl compilation. which is due out in April/May. I always felt that song could make an impact if it reached the right ears, so fingers crossed, it will happen this time around… I’ll also soon be starting work with the guys on the new Raving Beauties album. We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too.
Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently digging?
BB: I tend to mainly listen to instrumental stuff, particularly ‘50s jazz, so the likes of John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis and Chet Baker are on the stereo a lot. For anyone who likes that kind of thing, I’d recommend the soundtrack to Listen Up Philip by Keegan DeWitt.
‘We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too’
Another soundtrack that I keep coming back to is The Hired Hand by Bruce Langhorne, which is such a sparse, haunting and beautiful piece of music.
I’m always hoping to hear a new killer pop song on the radio, but, to be honest, the last one that really jumped out at me was Mean Streets by Tennis from a few year back.
I think Fleet Foxes are probably the band that has impressed me most in recent years, closely followed by Temples. I’ve loved Nick Drake and John Martyn since I was a teenager and that’s something I’ve been coming back to a lot recently too.
Bap’s album The Sailor’s Revenge has been another constant. It’s his masterpiece and deserves to be in any ‘Top 10 Greatest Irish Albums of All Time’ list.
•Raving For Bap by The Raving Beauties is out now on Farm Music – more info here.
Some things are meant to happen. The coming together of Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’) to form UK Americana supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole is one such thing…
Fate led to a meeting of minds and musical talent – and thank God it did, as it’s resulted in a wonderful, self-titled debut album that will undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018.
Produced by Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).
High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.
I met up with Bennett Wilson Poole in a North London pub after their second ever gig – at Islington’s Union Chapel – to find out why this collaboration was always on the cards, how the record was made and why they love working – and playing – together…
Q & A
You’ve formed a supergroup. Are you the new Traveling Wilburys or Crosby, Stills and Nash?
Danny Wilson: Yes! The name Bennett Wilson Poole does kind of have a similar feel to Crosby, Stills & Nash. People have been mentioning the Traveling Wilburys quite a lot. The supergroup thing is mad…
Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s there was a trend for supergroups, but it seems to have died off…
Danny: Maybe we’ve brought it back. Howard [Mills – the band’s manager] said that us getting together was inevitable because of where we’re coming from – we all write the same kind of music and we’ve done stuff together before.
So how did you all meet each other?
Robin Bennett: When I had the band Goldrush, we opened for Grand Drive a couple of times and we were fans of theirs. That’s when I met Danny – I then played with Danny and the Champions of the World and on their first couple of albums.
Danny: I made a record with Tony – he produced Hearts and Arrows [by Danny and the Champions of the World].
Tony Poole: I know Danny through a guy called Peter O’Brien, who had a magazine called Omaha Rainbow and who was a fan of my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing. He was a teacher at Danny’s school. Starry Eyed and Laughing played at the school, in Wallington, but Danny probably wasn’t born then…
What year was that?
Tony: 1872! No – it was about 1974.
Danny: Rock photographer Tom Sheehan’s first ever professional photography job was taking pictures of Starry Eyed and Laughing at my school!
So, it was fate that brought you together – it was meant to be…
Tony: Yeah – it’s kind of weird. I was a fan of Danny’s and he asked me if I’d work on Hearts and Arrows. I couldn’t say no – at that point I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing. We did the Hearts and Arrows album really quickly and everything came together – it was easy. I loved doing it and I loved the music. It was a rediscovery for me.
‘I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing’
Robin: I was playing a Dreaming Spires gig in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Tony was there and we got talking.
Tony: I went to their studio in Steventon to listen to some tracks and they put an electric 12-string Danelectro guitar in my hand… I ended up adding some stuff and mixing some of the tracks – it worked out really well.
So what prompted the move to form a supergroup and write and record your debut, self-titled album?
Tony: I got a call out the blue from either Robin or Danny to say they’d been writing songs together on FaceTime – that’s the modern world, isn’t it?
Danny: I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good. We’d written some songs and we both said that Tony would be perfect for them – we rang him and he was up for it.
Tony: How could I not be? Everything was so fast – they’d written most of the songs and when they came to my studio, I had some bits of songs that I’d started. All three of us finished them in the room in about 20 minutes – that had never happened to me before. It was unbelievable. We did two recording sessions and then one for overdubs – the spirit of it is the live thing that we did. It’s like Crosby, Stills & Nash – we were sitting around with three guitars and three voices and we recorded it. That’s the meat of it.
‘I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good’
The cover artwork of the album is a nod to the first record by Crosby, Stills & Nash, isn’t it? You’re all sat on a sofa, outside a saloon at Truck Festival, and, just like the Crosby, Stills & Nash cover, the names of the band members don’t match the order that you’re sat in the picture…
Tony: The Crosby, Stills & Nash photo is by Henry Diltz – the picture was taken before the band had decided on the order of the names. When they went back to reshoot the pictures, the house had been torn down.
Robin: What’s even more appropriate is that the structure in our photo also no longer exists…
Tony: The saloon at Truck has been destroyed…
There’s definitely a whole Crosby, Stills & Nash vibe to the record – in more ways than one..
Tony: We didn’t do it consciously, but it seemed natural. When we on our way to do a shoot with photographer John Morgan, we passed the saloon… He took four or five shots and that was it.
Maybe for the next album, you could recreate The Notorious Byrd Brothers cover and replace one of you with a horse?
Tony: It will be me!
Is it fun working together?
Robin: I kind of pinch myself – I just love these guys’ music.
Danny: The same here.
Tony: It’s so natural.
[To Tony]: You produced the album. How was that?
Tony: I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like – mostly anyway.
Danny: We love working with Tony. Not only are we all good friends, but me and Robin are massive, massive fans of Starry Eyed and Laughing and Tony’s production is so brilliant. He kept sending us stuff when we were working on the album and asked us for comments. We said ‘it’s brilliant – we love it!’
Robin: That’s not how things usually work…
‘I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like – mostly anyway’
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. The first single, Soon Enough, came out in early February. It’s a classic jangle-pop tune, isn’t it? It’s very Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty and The Byrds. You filmed the video at the Didcot Railway Centre museum. How was that?
Danny: The video is a knowing nod to the Traveling Wilburys song End of the Line – we wanted it to be like that.
Robin: It’s also quite A Hard Day’s Night. Quite a lot of our songwriting reminds me of that mid-’60s thing.
The track Hide Behind A Smile is a gorgeous, soulful ballad, but, lyrically, it talks about coping with depression and anxiety…
Danny: Me and Robin wrote that song. I think everyone will understand it – it’s something we all do. We all put on a brave face to mask things – a smile is obviously a facade at times.
The song Wilson General Store, which was written by Robin, was inspired by Danny’s family history. Danny’s grandparents had a shop in Melbourne, Australia called Wilsons Emporium…
Danny: That’s where my mum and dad met.
Robin: In the middle of our writing session, I went to bed and woke up with the idea – we’d been talking about the shop. By the time we started writing again the following morning, I’d already finished the song.
Danny: My folks are huge music fans. I gave my dad a copy of the album, but I forgot to mention Wilson General Store. When he heard it, he said, ‘Is this our song?’ He loved it – it’s his favourite on the album.
You’ve filmed a promo video for your PledgeMusic campaign in which you feature in a Two Ronnies-inspired comedy skit…
Danny: With that video and the one for Soon Enough, we’re quite happy to be humorous and have a laugh. I think it takes something to be removed from your ‘day job’ project and to give you the distance, so you can show your personality – there’s no trying to be cool. It just is what it is and it frees you up – it’s been a pleasure because it’s not too important. Sometimes the precious things that you hold on too tightly to can be crushed…
Hate Won’t Win is one of the songs on the album that has a darker edge. It’s a protest song and was written in response to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, in 2016. Musically, it’s a nod to Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s classic counterculture anthem about the Kent State University shootings in 1970, isn’t it?
Tony: Yes – when I heard the news about Jo Cox it was a Thursday [June 16, 2016]. I remember sitting in the garden with a guitar and I thought about the story behind Ohio. Neil Young had written the song, Crosby got them in the studio and the song was out a few days later.
My tune came from the same place – I wrote a verse that was kind of reportage and was quite vicious. I sent Danny and Robin a phone recording of it and when they turned up at mine on the Saturday, Robin had written another verse and we finished it off and recorded it – it was out on YouTube on the Monday [as Hate Won’t Win (Song For Jo Cox)]. It was an echo of the time of Ohio. What can you do? We can’t change the world, but we put it out there… On the album, we purposely haven’t used the subtitle (Song For Jo Cox), as it’s now universal, but it’s still a nod to her – she inspired the song.
With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface. But it’s not like ‘we’ve suffered for our art, now it’s your turn’ – we don’t do that.
Danny: Interestingly it’s the flip side of what I was saying about doing the videos. Working with these guys on a song like Hate Won’t Win is something that I wouldn’t approach in one of my normal projects – it gives me an extra dimension. It’s not a career move – it’s just something I really love doing. You can afford to be a bit more serious, or, like in the videos, a bit funny.
Robin: With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects.
The album closes with Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – another song that tackles a social issue. Tony, you started writing it after seeing a photo of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean adjacent to an article on selfies…
Tony: It was so vivid – the world we’re living in and the other world. I had the idea – picture yourself in that lifeboat. You can’t explain things too much – they just come out.
It’s a great song – with the heavy electric guitar, it’s very Neil Young-sounding. The lyric even mentions the phrase ‘on the beach’, which is the title of a 1974 Neil Young album…
Tony: We were sitting in the recording studio with a pad and it took five or 10 minutes.
Robin: I couldn’t tell what Tony was singing, so I just wrote down what I heard.
Tony: I was singing phonetic stuff and he turned it into words for the chorus.
‘With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects’
You’ve played a couple of gigs as Bennett Wilson Poole – one in Oxford and one in London, at the Union Chapel. What it’s like playing the album live?
Tony: It’s taken it to a new level – as we’re playing it, we grow into the songs. As we get further along, we’ll get right under the skin of them. It was quite a fast recording process, but it’s somehow like a record that was made by somebody else. I keep listening to it… Vanity, eh?
Robin: We are slightly distanced from it – it is like hearing someone else’s album. You’re not hearing your own voice all the time.
Danny: When I do a new album with the Champs, it’s so raw to me – I hate all of my vocals and the songs! It’s so difficult to listen to it, but with this album, I listen to it everyday! I don’t know what that says about me…
That you’re in the wrong band?
Tony: A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…
[To Robin]: I’d like to ask you about the song Find Your Own Truth, which you wrote. It’s not the first time one of your songs has dealt with the subject matter of looking for the truth. I’m thinking of the title track from the Dreaming Spires album Searching For The Supertruth…
Robin: The evidence is piling up! I don’t know why… I wrote Find Your Own Truth in five minutes, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s one of my more cosmic songs. I’ve been working on a solo album – I had a list of songs and that was one of them, but it really felt like it could be a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing.
Tony: Robin sent his home demo to me and we put some harmonies and electric guitar on it. The idea was for it to be a song like Helplessly Hoping [by Crosby, Stills & Nash] – that was my vision for it.
You’re launching the album with three gigs at the Betsey Trotwood in London – March 21-23. That’s a London residency…
Robin: When Danny suggested three nights at the Betsey, I thought he was insane, but they’re all sold out.
Can we expect a triple live album?
Danny: Good idea.
Robin: We are recording the shows – the Betsey is our spiritual home. We’ve all played there.
Tony: The lovely thing about doing three nights there is that even though we’re only playing to 30-40 people each night, it’s got the feeling of three nights at Wembley. Some people have bought tickets for every night, so we’re going to mix it up.
When you’re watching us, you can relax because we’re pals and you can see we’re all getting on. There are three times in my life I’ve had that happen – my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing; when I produced The Men They Couldn’t Hang in the ’80s; and with this band. Sometimes when you watch a band, you can see that they’re not getting on and it makes you feel bad…
So, can we expect a second album from Bennett Wilson Poole?
Robin: I think we could do it.
Tony: Absolutely. We’ve got an extra track that’s not on the album – it’s really good. It’s like a rare Beatles track.
•Bennett Wilson Poole release their self-titled debut album on April 6 (Aurora Records).
For information on their PledgeMusic campaign, please click here.
They will play three album launch shows at The Betsey Trotwood, in Clerkenwell, London – March 21-23. All three shows are sold out.
Bennett Wilson Poole will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.
Songs For Somewhere Else, the new album by London cosmic-country-psych-folk five piece The Hanging Stars, is the follow-up to their brilliant 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of that year.
The band’s latest release is even better than its predecessor and is a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there’s the beguiling and soporific Spiritualized-meets-Byrds groove of On A Sweet Summer’s Day, the heavenly, Big Star jangle-pop of Honeywater, menacing Spaghetti Western soundtrack Mean Old Man, the country-rock romp For You (My Blue Eyed Son) and the woozy and playful 1920s-style jazz-blues of Too Many Wired Hours.
I met singer-songwriter/ guitarist Richard Olson and bassist Sam Ferman in a basement bar in Soho to find out the stories behind these Songs ForSomewhere Else. Topics for discussion included the joy of listening to The Byrds, importing Ennio Morricone-style whistling from Portland, Oregon and funereal horns from Majorca, and why the flute is nothing to be scared of…
Q & A
How does it feel to have the new record done and dusted and out there?
Sam Ferman: It’s great – it’s funny, really because people who hear it will think that there’s been a two-year gap, but we started recording it before Over The Silvery Lake came out. It’s had a long gestation, but it’s the first one we’ve done with both Patrick [Ralla – guitar, keys and vocals] and Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel, dobro], who are now full-time members of the band. It’s a reflection of that set-up, whereas with the first one, there was a lot more toing and froing with members.
Richard Olson: Those days of saying ‘we’re going to make a record, write some songs over six months and record them in two weeks’ just don’t happen anymore. In some ways, maybe that would be nice, but it’s an ongoing, growing thing – it’s painstaking. Trying to get five people to do the same thing at the same time is hard enough – Sam and me have got bloody heads from banging them against the wall and trying to get things going and sew up this tapestry that we try and do. There are so many threads that need to be right. It’s almost surreal when you know the record is going to come out – sometimes you think that we’re going to make such fools of ourselves.
Why do you say that?
Sam: It’s self-doubt.
Richard: That’s the whole process – it’s painful as hell, but then a week later you think, ‘fucking hell – we’re very talented people!’
You are… and you’re very prolific…
Richard: We’re already halfway through the third record!
Sam: When Rich and me came to sequencing this album – which songs would go on it and in which order – that really put into perspective the arc of history over that two-year period. We listened back to stuff and realised how we’d changed in that time. It’s interesting how certain songs were recorded in a certain style.
For example, Pick Up The Pieces, which is on the album, was a song that we recorded for the first album, but, for a number of reasons, we felt that it didn’t work on that record.
Richard: It didn’t fit.
Sam: There was something missing at a certain point on the new album – it needed some energy – and putting Pick Up The Pieces on it gave it some more life.
This album was all recorded in Bark Studio, in Walthamstow, wasn’t it?
Sam: Apart from Pick Up The Pieces, which was done in L.A.
Richard: It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing.
The new album is richer and more eclectic than the first one. Was it a conscious decision to include a variety of musical styles this time around?
Richard: I tell you what was a conscious decision – we really wanted more of a collaborative effort and that’s one of the reasons… On A Sweet Summer’s Day – which is the first song on the record – is, musically, all Sam, but I put lyrics to it. I was like, ‘this is stunning – let me have a go at it.’ We’d never really worked like that before. I was really pleased with it. I was like, ‘that worked’.
‘It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing’
I have shedloads of songs lying around – playing with Joe and Patrick, who are both younger guys than me, has opened things up – it’s so much fun playing with those dudes and we all felt that we wanted to step up. They’ve made us up our game. For You (My Blue Eyed Son) is an old song of Patrick’s from a band he was in called the New County Flyers, and Honeywater was a collaboration between Patrick and me.
Sam: Doing the recording session for Honeywater really sticks out for me – we did everything in a day and then we mixed it a week later. It was really satisfying – we’d all been in the zone and put something down and there’s nothing I’d change about that song.
Sam: Thank you.
Richard: The gods were with us in the studio that day.
Sam: It was a ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ moment. We thought, ‘this one’s a real goer’.
Richard: It’s a cliché, but I felt like we’d won the Lottery, but trust me, we didn’t… It was like we’d been given a present – it was amazing.
Sam: One of the great things about this album is that you hear Patrick and Joe’s influence.
And it’s more of a representation of what you sound like live…
Sam: Exactly. They’re brilliant musicians and they’ve been involved in the writing process.
There are several other collaborations on the album – you’ve worked with guest musicians, including your US friends Collin Hegna (Federale, Brian Jonestown Massacre), Miranda Lee Richards – on the duet How I Got This Way – and Christof Certik (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Winter Flowers), as well as Alison Cotton on viola (Left Outsides, Eighteenth Day Of May), Luke Barlow (Nought) on flute and Thomas Wake on clarinet…
Richard: It’s so much fun – it’s lovely to play in a group and to play on bills with different people. One day, the Brian Jonestown dudes are in town and they’re staying at my house, or Miranda’s in town…. The fact that we can do that makes it great – it’s the sum of all the parts.
‘I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it’
You have the nucleus of the band, but it’s like an extended family – a collective…
Richard: Exactly – I love the idea of that and I’m proud of those people. I’ve known a lot of them for a long time. I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it.
Let’s talk about some of the songs. On A Sweet Summer’s Day has a hypnotic feel – it’s like early Spiritualized meets The Notorious Byrd Brothers…
Richard: Lazer Guided Melodies is one of my favourite records and there’s very much a Byrds thing going on, too.
Sam: When I first started playing with Rich, I was 24 – I’m 30 now – he said to me, ‘have you listened to The Notorious Byrd Brothers?’ I hadn’t – there were no famous hits on that record. I remember going out the next day and getting it on CD. It really made me think about how a lot of the music that I thought was quite left field was actually really middle of the road. It’s a really far-out record.
Richard: But it’s still so gentle on the ear – sonically and songwriting-wise, it’s so pleasing, When you discover it, it feels like one of those records that, wherever you are, whatever age you might be, it will make a mark on you – it’s like Love’s Forever Changes.
Moving on from The Byrds, what can you tell me about Mean Old Man, which is one of my favourite songs on the new album? It sounds like an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack – it has cool whistling on it…
Richard: Collin, who plays bass in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has his own band called Federale – they’re pure Spaghetti Western – and he’s a proper, shit-hot whistler. He’s on that track – he sent us his whistling from Portland.
The Good, the Bad and the Oregon?
Richard: Oh my lord – I can tell you’re a journalist…
Sam: It also has some Soviet rock oohs and aahs in the middle eight.
Too Many Wired Hours – the second track on the album – is a 1920s, jazzy, bluesy stomp. It has a clarinet on it and it reminds me of The Kinks and The Coral.
Richard: Yeah – I don’t mind that. The clarinet was Sam’s idea. In my mind, it sounds like David Lindley’s Kaleidoscope.
Sam: It totally does, but that’s a pretty niche reference.
Richard: I’m a big fan of Kaleidoscope.
The most country-sounding song on the album – and another of my favourites – is For You (My Blue Eyed Son). It’s like The Byrds, circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or The Flying Burrito Brothers…
Richard: It’s Patrick’s song, but I wrote quite a lot of the lyrics for it. It sits so comfortably on the album and with who we are – and it’s shitloads of fun to play!
Sam: It feels magical when we do it live.
Dig A Hole has a colliery brass band arrangement on it…
Richard: That was one of the songs that we worked the hardest on. It’s a story song… The brass was done by a friend of ours called Leon Beckenham, who was in the band Fanfarlo. He’s a fantastic horn player and he lives in Majorca – he did a great job.
So this album has whistling imported from Portland and horns from Majorca on it…
Sam: I can remember Rich playing the song to me on acoustic guitar in the backroom of his old house in Tower Hamlets Road about three years ago. I thought it had such a beautiful transition from a very melancholic, plaintive, beautiful verse to a countrified chorus.
Richard: We call it shoegaze-country.
Sam: With the horns, it sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album – I think it’s absolutely beautiful.
Richard: It’s a story about a failed relationship and trying to escape from it…
‘It sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album’
A lot of the songs on the album have references to drinking in them…
Richard: There’s a lot of regret and excess on this record – and the day after the excess… I write most of the lyrics. I worked really hard at it and I’m pleased with a lot of them.
The final track on the album, Water Song, has a flute on it. It’s not the first time a flute has been heard on a Hanging Stars album, is it? You’re not afraid to use a flute, are you?
Richard: There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute.
Don’t fear the flute!
Sam: I get Love, or Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter vibes on that track.
Richard: I would say Genesis – Selling England by the Pound. I’m not afraid to say that. Water Song is a lullaby.
Was the flute played in Walthamstow?
Sam: It was.
So, there’s whistling from Portland, horns from Majorca and flute from Walthamstow…
Sam: This album was nearly half flute-based! There are five songs that didn’t make the record and they were all flute-based.
You could release a mini-album of flute songs…
Sam: The idea has been floated.
Or should that be fluted?
Richard: [laughs] Jesus Christ!
‘There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute’
Sam: In sequencing the album, we had 16 or 17 songs… some of which might make the next record. We can’t be sure at the moment. The great thing about being in this band is because we’re constantly working and recording, every time it comes round to doing an album, there are songs that didn’t make the previous one and there are songs on the next one that might not make it. We are building a body of work. It’s about having the albums speak to us rather than having to cram stuff in.
Richard: I like that! Let the album speak to you.
The album title, Songs For Somewhere Else, sounds like you’re saying that this record is a means to escape from the troubled world we’re living in…
Sam: That makes sense – it is about escaping. The world is horrible and it always has been. Why do humans engage with music, art and literature? To rationalise the horror, or to escape it entirely. This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty. Some people will say it’s a coping mechanism to deal with the horrors of life, but I think it’s a way of seeing stuff that’s happened to you – or that you think about – in a new way.
‘This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty’
Where would you suggest that this album is best listened to?
Richard: On headphones, in the comfort of your own home. With any album that I’m involved in, all I want is for it to take you somewhere. I discover music all the time – it’s all about goosebumps and getting a present that you want to go back to. You just want to listen to it again – whether you’re at work, or at home, or wherever you are. That’s the stunning beauty of music – it’s magical.
You’ve achieved that with this record.
Richard: Thank you so much.
After the interview, Richard pulls out his phone and a pair of headphones and lets me listen to a rough demo of a new track that could be destined for the third Hanging Stars album. It’s another gorgeous, country-tinged gem, but it’s not for now – it’s a song for somewhere else…
• Songs For Somewhere Elseby The Hanging Stars is released on February 16 on Crimson Crow.
The band play an album launch party in London, at The Victoria, Dalston, on February 22.
What better way to banish the post-Christmas winter blues than by blasting out some sublime jangle-pop… and there’s plenty of it about.
Three of my favourite new albums of 2018 so far ring like the Bells of Rhymney and owe a large debt to the chiming, 12-string Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.
Coincidentally, as I’m sitting down to write this article, it happens to be ‘Blue Monday’ – (January 15), supposedly the most depressing day of the year, so it’s a perfect time to lose myself in some gorgeous, shimmering sounds.
Songs For Somewhere Else, the brilliant second album by London psych-folk-country band – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourites – The Hanging Stars – opens with the beautiful On A Sweet Summer’s Day, which creeps up on you like the first rays of the morning sun – a hazy, lazy ballad with pedal steel guitar and a hypnotic, Spiritualized-like groove.
The album’s first single, Honeywater, has a Big Star feel, the galloping Gram Parsons country-rock of For You (My Blue Eyed Son) could easily sit on The Byrds’ cult classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while Mean Old Man doffs its cowboy hat to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
Look out for an interview with The Hanging Stars – and a more in-depth piece about the album – on Say It With Garage Flowers soon.
Staffordshire four-piece Alfa 9 could be cosmic cousins of The Hanging Stars – they both share a love of psychedelic sounds and if you compared their record collections, I’m sure you’d find they both own plenty of albums by The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as cool, cult ‘60s film scores.
My Sweet Movida, the third album by Alfa 9, immediately takes the listener on a trip back to 1966 with the first song Smile Dog – think Revolver-era Fab Four, but with a harder, rockier edge.
Different Corner is a killer jangle-pop song and the moody Movida is The Byrds doing a Spaghetti Western theme – McGuinn meets Morricone. You certainly get your fistful of dollars’ worth with this album – there are yet more cinematic cowboy sounds on Darkest Sea, which is haunting gothic country.
The Byrds are also circling over the superb self-titled debut record by Bennett Wilson Poole – a supergroup formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and The Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (Starry Eyed and Laughing, who have been called ‘the English Byrds’).
Created in rural Oxfordshire, it was produced by 12-string Rickenbacker maestro Poole. High on harmonies and brimming with backwards guitar effects and soulful songs, it’s a shining light in these dark times that we’re living in, but it doesn’t shy away from tackling social issues – the blistering, anthemic protest rock of Hate Won’t Win addresses the murder of politician Jo Cox and brings to mind Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio, while the beautiful, sensitive, stripped-down ballad Hide Behind A Smile deals with depression.
‘High on harmonies and brimming with backwards guitar effects and soulful songs, it’s a shining light in these dark times, but it doesn’t shy away from tackling social issues – the blistering, anthemic protest rock of Hate Won’t Win addresses the murder of politician Jo Cox’
Things lighten up with the irresistible, bouncy sunshine pop of Wilson General Store, but the record ends with a brooding, dark and stormy, ragged Neil Young-style epic guitar workout called Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – its lyric even name-checks Young’s 1974 album On The Beach.
It would be wrong to write an article on jangle-pop without mentioning UK label Sugarbush Records, which continues to put out great, vinyl-only releases by bands whose ‘60s and ‘70s musical influences tend to be found in the ‘B’ section of a record shop – namely The Byrds, Big Star, The Beatles and The Beachboys.
Carlisle group Kontiki Suite fall firmly into that category – their 2015 album, The Greatest Show On Earth, which is the follow-up to their 2013 debut, On Sunset Lake, has been re-released on limited edition vinyl by Sugarbush, and is an essential listen if you dig psychedelic jangle-pop.
Harking back to the 1968 masterpiece The Notorious Byrd Brothers, there are gleaming guitar lines (Bring Our Empire Down), cool, country-rock cuts (the harmonica and pedal steel-flavoured My Own Little World and Pages of My Mind) and cosmic voyages (Burned), but also a hint of late ‘80s indie with the sweet, blissed-out Here For You Now, which sounds like it’s been hanging out in The Stone Roses’ Mersey Paradise.
Set the Rickenbackers for the heart of the sun and welcome to the jangle…
This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.
Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…
In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.
The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland – A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.
Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age:‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness – it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’
Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.
Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.
‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’
Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.
It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.
Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”.
They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.
My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement.
A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.
Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass.
The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. “I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.
2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year.
As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’
And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year.
His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.
Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks.
Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.
Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.
Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.
Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning.
Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and ’60s organ – it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.
Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records.
Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet.
A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.
Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record – sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.
Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.
Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River.
Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.
The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…
L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams.
I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.
And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018…
• Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it: