Wandercease, the title of the latest album from Hudson Valley, New York-based singer-songwriter Ryan Martin, is very appropriate for these days of lockdown, but funnily enough, the name wasn’t intended as a comment on the Covid-19 crisis.
“I never made that connection!” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers. “The title comes from my great grandmother, who was a poet. When she found the home that she knew she would settle in and raise my grandfather in, she gave it the name ‘Wandercease’. It represents the dream that I’m always searching for.”
The record came out late last year and soon found its way on to our ‘Best Albums of 2020′ list, thanks to its stunning and infectious pop melodies, rich and layered symphonic sounds, loops and electronic touches, and occasional nods to Americana.
Epic opener, At Dusk, has a glorious ’70s AM radio/ soft rock and pop feel, I Just Wanna Die is a galloping country song, with twangy guitars, and the shuffling groove of Fathers To Daughters is fleshed-out with pedal steel, organ and horns.
The album is full of irresistible melodies, but there’s an underlying sadness to many of the songs, like the achingly beautiful chamber pop of the title track, on which Martin sings, “My love, here is the song I meant to give you long ago, but I just couldn’t find the words – a songwriter’s curse”, and the first single, Coma Kiss, which is a bouncy, soulful, retro pop tune, but was written about a failed relationship.
“I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them,” says Martin.
Described as his ‘most musically adventurous and emotionally dynamic record to date,’ Wandercease took shape after his relocation to the Hudson Valley from New York City. It was produced by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim, Joseph Arthur, Chuck Prophet) at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Pixies, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr.).
Siegal called on a whole host of local musicians to play on it —some of whom were fresh from working with artists such as David Byrne, Cibbo Matto, and Lana Del Rey. Guests include singer-songwriter and classically-trained harpist Mikaela Davis, who sings harmony vocals on Coma Kiss and also appears on several other songs.
“Kenny brought in Mikaela because they’re friends,” explains Martin. “Her voice blended with mine in a way I hadn’t heard before and it was exciting. She’s a massive talent and I’m grateful she was a part of this record.”
How was 2020 for you and how has the Covid-19 crisis affected you?
Ryan Martin: Things are OK, more or less. I haven’t missed a meal. I get to see my family. I have good friends around me. The pandemic made it harder for the release of Wandercease, I think. I can’t tour, so that’s a bummer, but I’m happy it came out when it did. I just hope to continue writing songs and recording, and hopefully play some shows in 2021.
Are you worried about the future of live music? Will it ever get back to normal, or will it just have to adapt?
RM: I worry, yes. I think it may take some time to get back to the way it was. I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute. I’m looking forward to doing my part and playing a lot when I can and when it’s safe.
Let’s talk about Wandercease. It’s your most musically adventurous record yet – it has a lovely, rich, lush and layered sound. How did you approach the record? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
RM: Thanks. I kinda brought the songs and let the sounds come to the group and have everyone collaborate. I’ve kinda had the chance to make the records I wanted, and now I felt like opening the door to other ideas. A lot of the credit goes to Kenny Siegal and the musicians, but I think you’ll find my ideas there too, like the woodwind and strings.
‘I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute’
On that note, there are some great arrangements on the album. What influenced and inspired the treatments of the songs? The record has a warm feel and is heavy on melodies. There are strings, horns, woodwind, synths, vibes, organ, pedal steel, loops, backing vocals…
RM: Yes I’m a melody guy I think, above all other things. I hear that first usually. And then you get to find other melodies within the songs, as you start to record and arrange. I think Jared Samuel [keys player ] is also great at that. He and I have a similar production sensibility – we both kept feeding each other’s enthusiasm for trying new ideas.
How were the sessions for the album? It was produced by Kenny Siegal at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, New York, and mixed by Paul Kolderie. What was Siegal like to work with? Did you enjoy making the record? Was it an easy record to make?
RM: It was a really great experience. Kenny has become a friend and I would work with him again any day. Old Soul is a special place. There’s so much there in terms of instruments and the rooms all bleed together, so it inspires musicians to play together and record live, which we did for a lot of the record. It was easy, but I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be on it and to rise to the level of talent I was surrounded by.
There are a lot of musicians on the album…
RM: Bringing everyone in for overdubs was great. Most of the musicians were Kenny’s friends and musicians from up in the Hudson Valley.
‘I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create – the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day’
You’ve relocated from New York City to the Hudson Valley. How’s that working out and did it have an influence on the new record, from a sonic point of view, or from the songwriting and the subject matter?
RM: Yeah – well the move was a part of a larger change, so I think it influenced the music and the songs. I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them. I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create. It’s helpful and the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day.
What’s your approach to songwriting? What process works best for you?
RM: My approach is to try and keep the channel open and hope that something comes out that inspires me. Once it moves me I can keep it around and hopefully finish it sooner rather than later. Sometimes they come quick, but some I’ve been sitting on for months and years. It’s not something I can force. It loses its power to me if I try and finish lyrics for the sake of finishing a song. But at the same time there’s something to be said for completing it as an exercise, but I’m not that good at that. I usually have to care deeply to be motivated.
Let’s talk about some of the songs and get your thoughts on them. At Duskis an epic way to start the album – it feels almost like a symphonic, ’70s pop/soft-rock song, but in a good way! What can you tell us about it? It’s a big-sounding song…
RM: I’ll take that! Thanks. I think this song was about embracing the pop elements – bringing attention to the hooks and the big moments. I’m happy with how the band came together on that one and how the vocals were arranged. Also Paul Kolderie did an outstanding job realising the true nature of the song in the mix.
Coma Kiss is a great, instant pop song. Where did it come from and what inspired it musically? It has a kind of breezy, retro, soulful feel…
RM: The core of the song came out quickly and flushing out what I wanted to say came further down the road, which is usually the process. I think Kenny was big on making it feel really good and danceable, which I was on board with.
I Just Wanna Die is one of my favourite songs on the record – it has more of a traditional Americana / country-rock feel than some of the other tracks…
RM: That came about quickly – it’s a fun song that has a heavy topic. That’s kinda been my calling card I guess – you can dance to it, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s anything but carefree and easy to swallow. We experimented with the arrangement of that song – there’s a great version where we slowed it down and wrote a bridge, but in the end I thought that the fast-paced, ‘train beat’, ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach was the way it should be and it was the way it was written.
Orphan Song is another Americana-type song. What inspired it?
RM: That song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out.
Fathers To Daughters sticks out on the record, as it has loops and is more rhythmic than some of the other songs. Did becoming a dad for the first time inspire the lyric?
RM: Yeah – wandering around New York with my daughter, when she was two and three inspired it. Watching her experience all the joy and magic of the world, and the innocence she had. My role as her father hit me profoundly and still does. I’m gonna be a big part of this person’s life and I need to take responsibility for that. And also the overwhelming, overflowing love I have for her and creating that bond in her earliest years of life. Falling in love is the best thing in the world and it makes me wanna sing about it!
‘Orphan Song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out’
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations?
RM: Yeah. I’ve listened to a lot of Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and also some instrumental music like Hammock, as well as Sigur Ros – heavy, melodic, beautiful music. Right now I’m listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 a lot.
What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?
RM: My preferred way would be to listen to vinyl records in the living room with no distractions, because it’s the best way to get absorbed by the music. A second way would be to listen to CDs in my car. I played a CD on my computer for the first time in over a year or two and after listening to MP3s for so long I was blown away by how good it sounded. I like to listen with intent and be captivated, as opposed to a passive kinda background thing. Though I do that too.
So what’s next for you in 2021?
RM: I’m gonna keep writing and finishing some songs and recording at home. Maybe I’ll tour in the fall and spend some time in Europe, when the pandemic calms down.
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.
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.
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.
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).
RW Hedges (Roy Hedges) makes beautiful music that harks back to a golden age of songwriting and belongs in a different time and place.
His latest 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, out now on Wonderfulsound – includes three tracks taken from last year’s album, The Hills Are Old Songs, which was inspired by the American Old West and was one of our favourite records of 2019.
The title track of the EP is a lovely, timeless, acoustic-led ballad with a bossa nova feel, a twangy electric guitar solo and early Beatles harmonies, while Prairie Moon sounds like it’s from a classic Broadway musical set in the Wild West, and Trail of the Setting Sun is an atmospheric and cinematic instrumental that doffs a cowboy hat to the Spaghetti Western soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone, who died earlier this month.
Like cowboy campfire stories, The Hills Are Old Songs features a whole host of characters – alluring women, strangers with no names, outlaws and river boatmen of old Missouri.
A record that’s been lovingly crafted by Roy and his co-writer, producer, musical partner and label mate, Luca Neiri, it’s the follow-up to the 2018 album, The Hunters In The Snow, which was a more melancholy and personal collection of songs, autumnal and perfectly suited to late-night listening.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Roy and Luca to find out about their relationship, the art of songwriting and their influences and inspirations.
How did you two first meet?
Luca Neiri: We went to the same school – we did art and drama together when we were teenagers.
Roy Hedges: We were 13. Someone said to me, ‘there’s this new guy who is quite funny, he’s like you – I think you’d like him.’ I said, ‘what? I’m not happy about that.’ I met him and I thought he was fantastic! I can remember that day quite clearly.
LN: We ended up being in bands together – we had a band called Starky when we were 15. I moved away to Brighton to study fine art.
RH: Starky were the most famous band who were never famous – we were so famous that no one knew who we were. Sam Williams, who worked on I Should Coco for Supergrass, produced some of our stuff. People could see we were good…
After you went your separate ways, you both decided to work together again after a few years apart, didn’t you? How did you hook up?
LN: I was working with Colorama [Carwyn Ellis] – in the studio, doing production, and also doing The Monks Kitchen [London-based band]. Roy and I met up again in Hyde Park – I hadn’t seen him for about five years and I told him that I wanted to work with him again, to help him develop his songs. That was the beginning of The Hunters In The Snow.
RH: I was a bit shocked.
[To Roy]: Prior to working with Luca on your last two albums, you’d put out your debut record, Almanac, in 2008, and an EP called AHeart Broken, which was released in 2014…
RH: At the time of the first album I was listening to a lot of jangly, layered guitar music, like Buffalo Springfield and The Kinks. It’s somewhere between Scott Walker and The Beatles, but it’s also a bit of a bedroom record, with some Beck and Evan Dando influences. It’s a bit obvious, with riffs, but it’s done quite well, although some of it is too fast. Our production is a lot more gentle and considerate.
LN: At that time, you were still learning how to make records.
You record your music in your shed studio, which is in the back of beyond, in the Buckinghamshire countryside. What’s it like and how does it influence you?
RH: It’s on the site of a mini Victorian gardenette and it really helps us and the music that we record – it’s very beautiful.
LN: It’s like Watership Down.
RH: We’ve written an album of animal songs that we hope to put out in the future. Being in a place where you’re surrounded by animals, it can’t help but feed into the music.
LN: It’s inspiring.
RH: I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have. The only way I want to get prestige is in the music that Luca helps me to make. I don’t want to be regarded as someone who is up his own arse. Even though I’m outspoken, I have a tender centre and I need to be outside of that realm.
Do you write together or separately?
LN: A bit of both.
RH: We do work together… On The Hunters In The Snow, I wrote most of the lyrics.
LN: It was what he wanted to say, but what I wanted to play and produce. On the last record [The Hills Are Old Songs] we both wrote the lyrics. Roy would have an outline of an idea and then we’d have a conversation and try and get into the character and what he’s trying to say. He would be pacing up and down…
RH: He’s Richard Rodgers and I’m Larry Hart. One of our things is that ‘song is king’ – it’s a bit cheesy, but it makes sense for us. Those old songwriters bound their songs to their themes and characters. When Luca is producing, he answers to the song and so do I, when I’m writing a melody or a part that I think it needs. You have to constantly challenge yourself or each other, but in a gentle way.
LN: The first album we made together was more about Roy and his feelings…
RH: It was about my sadness.
LN:The Hills Are Old Songs was written from other people’s points of view – we took Roy’s character out of it.
‘I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have’
How do you write songs? Do you sit down with an acoustic guitar?
RH: Nowadays I write in the shower, or when I’m on a bike or a bus.
Let’s talk about The Hills Are Old Songs. It was inspired by the Old West and cowboy ballads, but you’re also influenced by the Great American Songbook and old Broadway musicals, aren’t you? How did the concept for the album come about?
LN: It was happenstance, but I’d read books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. We’d also studied the music of Broadway and we’d watched Oklahoma! I had an idea about the Old West.
RH: In August 2018 I bought a book, in Devon – The Westerners, by Dee Brown, and I already had a book on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as well as Badmen of the West and The Oxford History of the American West. I suddenly realised I had all these books and it came together.
I like western noir and I also had an epiphany watching South Pacific. We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side of the West, like brutal hangings. We tried to put some of that into The Hills Are Old Songs – in the second song [Deep In The Valley] the protagonist is an outlaw who is killed by his father.
LN: On this album, we knew what were doing and where we were heading. We tried to make it like a soundtrack, as it had a theme – it has a soundscape element.
We were listening to a lot of Marty Robbins and people like that. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and quiet drums in the background – neat and simple. We took that on board. For me, as a player and a producer, I was thinking: ‘what are the pieces in the puzzle?’ There’s a framework that’s already there – country music – but we’re reupholstering it.
RH:Haven’t Seen Her In A While was recorded first – that gave us the vision – and My Dearest kept us going until the end.
We’ve made a playlist of songs that inspired the sound of The Hills Are Old Songs: Sam Cooke’s I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,I’ll Be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding…
‘We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side, like brutal hangings’
What is it about the Great American Songbook that inspires you?
RH: Yip Harburg was the guy who wrote the lyric for Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? He knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality – we like to think that we do too. It’s a fine balance between being sentimental and being cheesy and overly saccharine, or coming across as creepy or disingenuous. In that respect, our song Old Missouri was the hardest song to do, as I’m not a river boatman…
The worst thing about music these days is that it’s ego-based and no one is telling stories. In the modern world, everything is so complicated and everyone’s in such a rush. One of the most important things in songwriting is coherency – especially in lyrics. Nobody writes coherent lyrics [nowadays].
The Great American Songbook writers used to marry the lyrics together and the subject matter was things that human beings find eternally fascinating – like a city or a blue moon. Nowadays it’s ‘I have a feeling,’ and ‘I do this…’ I don’t care how they feel or give a fuck about what they had for breakfast! The problem is that nowadays we live in a time of individualism, whereas in those days [of the Great American Songbook], it was a time of collectivism – we need to return to a time of collectivism in order to progress.
[To Roy]: You also like doo-wop and old rhythm and blues music, don’t you?
RH: If Luca wasn’t producing some of my stuff, it would sound more like the Traveling Wilburys, but, thankfully, it sounds a little bit more like The Fleetwoods.
What other projects are you working on? What would you like to do in the future?
RH: We’ve been writing two other albums – one is an album of animal songs and the other is a love album. Hopefully Luca and I will write some songs that someone else will sing, rather than me – to send a nice song out there [to someone else] is such a nice goal. I want to be a songwriter more than I want to be anything else – I don’t see myself as a singer per se, I see myself as a songwriter.
I want to get my songs out there, but I want them to be understood in the right way. We can’t wait for the world to catch up – it has to catch up with us. We are a bit scruffy and rough around the edges, and we’re getting on a bit, but we really love doing music.
Matt Hill is the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner. For his new album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators – he’s decided to put it out under his own name, rather than the moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.
“In 2020 I turned 50 – it seemed the right time to ditch the Quiet Loner name and to release this album under my own name. Finally, I’m Matt Hill again,” he says.
Fittingly, it’s an album that sees him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which is the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, are set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile ofDH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB. The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”
Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.
It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.
This makes for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.
Lench plays cello on Billy’s Prayer, which was written about a fairground boxer – Billy Marchant – who turned professional and became a sensation in America, while singer-songwriter Kirsty McGee provides backing vocals on several songs. For the bluesy and upbeat opener, Stone & Bone, in which the undead rise from their graves in an ancient cemetery to terrorise the Stock Exchange in the City of London, she plays a musical saw in a stairwell, which creates an eerie and ghostly effect. She also adds flute to the gorgeous, pastoral, folk ballad, If Love Should Rise, which was inspired by the stunning landscapes of the Peak District, which is where Hill now lives.
Diehard Quiet Loner fans will be glad to know that Hill has resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the new record, although it’s now called Gary Gilmore’s Last Request – a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, sadly, we couldn’t get Johnny Cash on the phone, but we did manage to have a chat with Hill about his new album, which we think is his best yet, his musical influences, his love of Elvis Presley, his upbringing and, er, his appearances on daytime TV…
You have described Savage Pilgrims as “Americana rooted in British history, based on your own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.”Why do you think US culture played such an important role in your younger years and in the lives of some of the people in the area where you grew up?
Matt Hill: It’s undoubtedly true that American culture dominated working class culture – it still does, except now it’s hip-hop and gaming. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, country music was still a strong influence. I think Western movies played a big part in that too. It wasn’t unusual to see blokes dressed up as cowboys. I don’t think it was just in the coal mining areas – it was right across the UK. But it seemed particularly strong in Nottinghamshire – we even had nodding donkeys, like on Dallas. People probably don’t know, but Nottinghamshire actually had its own oilfield. We had a long-running Americana festival in Newark and there was even a theme park just up the road from me, called the American Adventure. Notts is the Texas of the UK.
While we’re on the subject of classic US culture, you’re an Elvis fanatic, aren’t you? How and why did your obsession with the King come about?
MH: I became obsessed with him when I was about eight years old. It was just after he died and his films were on TV a lot. All I wanted to do was listen to him and read about him. It sounds crazy, but there was actually an Elvis shop about three miles from my house. It turned out it was the only one in the UK and it was in a Derbyshire mining town! The guy who set it up ran the British Elvis fan club too and had a direct line to Elvis and The Colonel [Tom Parker – Elvis’s manager] from his Derbyshire home!
At the very end of your song Gary Gilmore’s Last Request, it sounds like you’re doing a slight Elvis croon. Was that intentional?
MH: As for the Elvis inflection in my voice, people usually spot Costello, but, yeah, Presley is in there too.
Gary Gilmore’s Last Request is one of the more Americana / country tracks on the new record. It’s a very old song – it used to be called Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone – and is a Quiet Loner cult classic and live favourite. Why did you resurrect it for the new album?
MH: I wrote that song in the late ‘90s, after reading Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song. Here was a guy on death row and the one thing he asked for was to speak to Johnny Cash. That one detail blew me away. I did record it around 2001 – for one of those very early Matt Hill EPs. I recorded it again for my aborted second album in 2004, and it was on the shortlist for my Spectrology album in 2010, but it just never seemed to fit on anything. Once the songs for this new record started to come together, as being more narrative and story-based, then it was really clear that Gary Gilmore belonged on this record.
If you were on death row, what would be your last request?
MH: A phone call from Johnny Cash would be right up there on my list too. But he’s not with us, so I’d probably ask for a phone call from Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. They’re probably the closest we’ve got to Johnny.
‘The songs that most appealed to me as a kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child’
Did you get into country music and then Americana from Elvis? Was it a natural step?
MH: Elvis is such a good person to listen to for a musician because he has so many different elements in his music. You will find country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, folk and soul. He really did create a kind of “cosmic American music” of his own in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. I think country music came to me around the same time I start listening to Elvis.
Once I knew about Sun Records, that introduced me to Johnny Cash. I also watched The Dukes of Hazzard and loved the theme song. And then Dr. Hook and Don Williams were two formative influences because that’s what my dad was listening to. I loved the stories in the songs – I hear things very visually, so those songs painted pictures in my head. It’s fascinating to me how the songs that most appealed to me as a 10 or 11 year-old-kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child.
You’ve published a zine to accompany the launch of your new album. In one of the articles in it, you say that an English folk singer once said he couldn’t understand why you sang in an American accent and played country. Ironically, you were being authentic to your English roots by playing music that’s come from the US – the stuff you grew up with.
You also say that English folk music wasn’t on your radar until you were in your 20s. Over the past few years, you’ve embraced more folk music though, haven’t you? Songs like If Love Should Rise, Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer feel like they come more from the English folk tradition than US roots music…
MH: I feel like I’ve embraced a lot of different influences on this album and, yes, some of it is more rooted in English folk, but very loosely, because I don’t have much grounding in it. Other than Nick Drake I’ve not listened to a lot. In the early ‘90s I was briefly in a band called Seven Little Sisters that did a lot of Irish folk, as well as bluegrass, so I learned a lot from that.
‘American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing’
You mentioned that folk person who said I wasn’t being authentic. That really troubled me for a long time, because it’s true that I don’t sing in a Nottingham accent. In fact I’ve moved around so much in my life I don’t even speak with a Nottingham accent anymore. But I have always wanted my music to be authentic and true to my own experiences, so that comment really did bother me at first. But that person was wrong – American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing.
I’ve worked in prisons – all the lads there rap in American accents but it’s real to their lives. They can identify with the whole ‘gangsta’ thing because it’s about crime, money, family and tough working class upbringings. Just like country music was for a previous generation. To me, authenticity comes from the purity of your intention. The sound of a voice, like the sound of a guitar, or the way you rap, are all just stylistic. The substance of music comes from purity of intention and opening up a channel to the heart.
There are two songs about boxers /fighters on the new album: Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer. Are you trying to tell us something? Morrissey went through a phase where he was obsessed with boxers. Is it a melancholy, Northern singer-songwriter thing? Are you handy in the ring?
MH: To be honest, I’m not a fan of boxing. I find it brutal and I see a class aspect to it that I really don’t like. It’s controlled by very rich people, paying ridiculous amounts of money to watch working class men and women beat each other up. But, on the other hand, boxing gyms play an important role in working class communities. A gym can give kids hope and discipline and self-belief in environments where that stuff is in short supply. So I have mixed feelings about it. But I’m always in search of a good story and Bendigo is a great story and connects to my family and roots. The story of Billy Marchant is fascinating, so I had to put that song on the album too.
Did you have a long list of songs for the new album?
MH: I started with about 25 songs. I worked with Kirsty McGee on the pre-production. She has such a good grasp of songwriting and I really value her opinion. We’d also done a fair bit of touring together, I’d been to Holland and Germany with her and so she knew my live set pretty well, so she helped me whittle down 25 songs into an album. For me, when I’m making an album I always have so many songs – it’s not a case of picking the best 11, but of finding the songs that belong together. I’m passionate about albums for that reason and I get sad that technology formats are rendering them obsolete.
Savage Pilgrimsis a musically diverse record: folk, blues, country/ Americana, gospel and spirituals. What kind of inspirations and influences were you drawing on?
MH: This comes back to what I was saying about Elvis – all those American music forms you mention. I’ve spent my life listening to those, so they come out in the way I perform. Some of that comes from the choices we made when recording too. Sam Lench is really knowledgeable about folk music, so when he added a guitar part on If Love Should Rise he chose a weird guitar tuning, so it sounds proper folky. Four Corners is about a crossroads, so I wrote blues influences into that from the very start. Those sort of musical choices really colour the music.
What inspired the striking album art? I really like the moody, black and white look you’ve gone for – the photos of you are great…
MH: I put out four albums as Quiet Loner and nowhere on any of those albums will you find a photograph of me – not even on the inside. That was a choice. So because this was a fresh start, I decided I would go in the opposite direction and stick a photo of myself on the cover. So then I had to find the right person to work with. I was really drawn to working with Nicola Davison-Reed, after seeing her portrait work online. I talked to her about the sound of the record and the vintage sounds we used – she did the rest. She’s an incredible artist and I’m delighted with the results that she got.
As well as Savage Pilgrims, you’ve also put out a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection. It’s called Twenty/Twenty – An Introduction To Matt Hilland is available as afree 20-track download from your website. How was it going through your back catalogue to put that together?
MH: Prior to lockdown I’d been rehearsing regularly with James Youngjohns, who I’ve been making music with for 20 odd years. James encouraged me to delve into the back catalogue and we were playing songs from that first album. So when it came to putting 20 tracks together, I’d already been looking back and deciding what I liked and what I didn’t.
There are some rarities on it, like She Means Everything, which is Matt Hill does pop-soul! Do you have a lot of unreleased stuff in the vaults? Isn’t there a ‘lost’ album? Will it ever see the light of day?
MH: There is indeed a lost album and that song, She Means Everything, is from it. I recorded it in 2004 – the year Secret Ruler of the World [debut album] came out. I wasn’t a happy person at the time and my anxieties and insecurities got the better of me and I ended up shelving it. It’s something I now regret. That album means a lot to me because it features my friend Chris Evans. He and Mike Harries put a tremendous amount of work into that album and it would be nice to get it released at some point. Chris took his own life in 2013. A few days before he died we had met up and were reminiscing about that lost album and making plans to work together on a new one. It was not to be.
Have you written any new songs recently? Has lockdown inspired you?
MH: I have written some new songs but I’m definitely not getting any inspiration from lockdown. I’ve got a few political songs and there are a couple that I think are decent – one about a soldier coming back from World War II and another about living with chronic illness. I probably only release about a third of all the songs I write.
‘I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living’
What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
MH: I’m hopefully releasing a new album with a band project called The Low Drift, but, aside from, that I really don’t know. So much of how I make my living is tied up in delivering songwriting workshops. These are usually delivered in community settings, like at a homeless centre, in a prison, or at a dementia care home. None of those sessions have been able to continue, but I’m hoping to begin work on a songwriting project that’s being done over the phone.
Longer term, I think we will see a massive crash in the economy and that always hurts funding for the arts and charities. I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living this time next year. Sadly there will be many people in that position – not just musicians and artists.
Finally, you’ve had several brushes with fame – and infamy. You’ve appeared on daytime TV – Flog It! and The Jeremy Kyle Show – played at Glastonbury, thanks to Billy Bragg; you once had to shake Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hand, and you spoke with Jimmy Savile about Elvis! How would you like to be remembered?
MH: Thanks for reminding me of some of my darkest days! Yes, it’s true – I have met more than my fair share of villains! For many years I had to go to all the Party Conferences for my job, so I have met so many politicians and journalists, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for meeting Jeremy Kyle, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jimmy Savile! I would be happy to settle for simply being remembered fondly by my surviving friends and family.
Savage Pilgrims by Matt Hill is released on July 6 (Quiet Loner Records).
In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, singer-songwriter Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires and Bennett Wilson Poole) reflects on lockdown, looks back at the making of his 2005 solo mini-album Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, which has just been made available online for the first time, and updates us on the eagerly-awaited second album from Bennett Wilson Poole.
One of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is that lockdown has given musicians more time to dig around in their vaults and release rare or unheard material online for their fans to enjoy while stuck indoors.
Oxford-based singer-songwriter Robin Bennett, who is one third of Americana and jangle-pop supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole and, with his brother Joe, is one of the main members of The Dreaming Spires, has made his hard to find 2005 solo mini-album, the eight-track Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, available to stream or download from Bandcamp.
Released under the pseudonym Dusty Sound System, it was written and recorded over a week in Los Angeles, California, in January 2005, at the time of the Iraq War. The songs, which were laid down in a day, were composed with his friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power (The And/Ors).
Robin and Danny spent most mornings watching the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back before getting down to songwriting and it shows – album opener, the riotous, bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll of The One And Only Lost Boy, sounds like a homage to mid-’60s electric Dylan, while Nation At War and I’m A Soldier are both folky protest songs.
Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely, fragile acoustic ballad, You Can’tFool All The People (All The Time) is anthemic country rock, the sombre, piano-led ballad As I Lay Dying has a Lennon feel, and Don’t Sleep Alone is yet more raw, Dylanesque rock ‘n’roll.
The album was recorded in a studio owned by Rob Campanella ( Brian Jonestown Massacre) and features a cast of friends and local musicians, including Bobby Bones, Darren Rademaker (The Tyde) and Jason Anchondo (The Warlocks).
Mixed back in England with Rowland Prytherch, after the addition of harmony vocals by Piney Gir and Cat Martino, the album was mastered by Tim Turan in Oxford and originally released in 2005 on Truck Records.
Ironically, considering its title, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror sometimes sounds like it’s gone for a great night out on the town – one of the songs is called It Takes No Talent To Party – but, more often that not, it’s waking up the morning after, bleary-eyed and melancholic.
“There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California – it must have been the sunshine,” says Robin.
How are you and how have you been coping with lockdown?
Robin Bennett: I live in a somewhat isolated spot anyway, so, in some ways, not a lot has changed, although my children are at home. Thankfully the weather has mostly been good and we are lucky enough to have a garden. A lot of the meetings I have to attend due to my council work (Robin is a cabinet member for development and regeneration at South Oxfordshire District Council) have moved online, so I’m pretty busy. I’ve also got a small home recording set-up to keep my musical side occupied.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
RB: I’ve definitely been drawn to listening to music, old and new. I bought a new record player from Danny Wilson’s [Bennett Wilson Poole, Danny and the Champions of the World] shop, Union Music Store, to help me make the most of my vinyl collection.
I’ve also joined in with a few of Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – diverse selections from The Chemical Brothers to The Flaming Lips, which was stuff from when I was first getting into music and going out. My old band Goldrush supported The Flaming Lips in 2002 and went on to record with Dave Fridmann.
The other night I went back to some classics on vinyl that I haven’t listened to in a while, due to over-familiarity – like Neil Young’s After the Goldrush. I like the way the internet allows shared listening. I joined in with the Clubhouse Records crew, who were listening to The Band’s Stagefright last weekend. Opinion was divided on whether it’s a lost classic.
‘The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past’
We’ve also got a crappy Dansette in the shed, where we’ve been dancing to 7-inch singles with the kids, mostly The Beatles or stuff from the Britpop era, when I was buying 7-inches.
Although it’s a pain for artists – including Bennett Wilson Poole – that the release cycle has been disrupted, it’s created an interesting pause in the normal torrent of attention-grabbing. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past. The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia.
Have you written any new songs during lockdown?
RB: Not really. I have demoed a whole pile of songs from my notebook though – some of them are going back years. I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown.
During lockdown, you’ve decided to make your 2005 Dusty Sound System mini-album, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror available on Bandcamp. What was the thinking behind that?
RB: It was partly because of just having the time and space to do it. Although it was originally released in a pretty minimal way, it has a bit of a reputation in some circles, and I wanted people to be able to hear it – those who didn’t have one of the few original CD copies.
The album is 15 years old. How you do feel about it now? How old were you when you made it and what music were you into at the time?
RB: Um… I was 26! One thing I remember from the time is that Bright Eyes was just releasing his two albums on the same day, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. I was very impressed by that – the US press were calling him ‘the new Bob Dylan’ at the time.
Since first going to the US in 2003, to record and tour with Mark Gardener of Ride, my Goldrush bandmates and I had been introduced to a whole swathe of US independent acts, from Death Cab For Cutie to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I met, or played with, many of them.
I was impressed how the scale of the US allowed these bands to have a viable career without signing to a major label, which was more or less impossible in the UK at the time.
There were also records that were more abundant in American record stores, like Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash, that I’d not really come across before. Big Star and Gram Parsons loomed large too. I also got into The Jayhawks around then –I’m not sure how I’d avoided them previously. We also listened to a lot of old Bob Dylan – especially The Bootleg Series Volume 2.
What’s the story behind the album? How did it come about? You went to L.A. and you wrote the record in a week, with your friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power – and you recorded in it a day. That must have been a hell of a week!
RB: I’d always largely been the lyric writer in Goldrush – in the early days, songs used to come together in a somewhat miraculous way, without a lot of forethought, but, of course, that method can dry up. When we went to record with Dave Fridmann in 2003, I was still finishing lyrics in the studio, which stressed me out no end. I knew there had to be a more structured way of writing.
I worked with Mark Gardener on some of the songs for his solo album, and found that I could be useful as a co-writer. Then, with Danny, we found such a close rapport that extending into co-writing happened almost by default.
‘L.A. was a whole different world and very inspiring. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying doughnuts and coffee, and then trying to write’
Goldrush had US visas, so we took the opportunity to spend as much time there as we could, staying in Brooklyn, or at Danny’s house in L.A., even when not touring. I applied for a PRS grant, which gave me the chance to go over and do some writing with Danny in January 2005. He lived just off Sunset Boulevard, between Echo Park and Silverlake, in a shared house, with a few bohemian friends who were always welcoming.
It was a whole different world and very inspiring for me. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching bits of Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying some doughnuts and coffee – vital – and then trying to write. I also had an obsession with Gatorade – the US version. I still do.
On previous visits we’d become good friends with Rob Campanella of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who had an excellent studio in his house. We’d written enough songs for an album, so we thought we should get them down for posterity and we invited some of the aforementioned people along for a day in the studio, setting up live and rattling through the whole lot in one day, pausing only for sandwiches from the deli and the odd beer. It was all so much fun and we knew that we had something.
Danny Power has been a big influence on you musically, hasn’t he? He’s inspired several Dreaming Spires songs and he got you into Big Star. How did you meet him?
RB: Danny Power was initially our West Coast tour manager, but he was – is – a musician too and we wound up becoming close friends. Mark Gardener had discovered Danny after his band, The And/Ors, opened for Mark’s solo tour, so when we came over as Mark’s backing band, he asked Danny to supply a van and equipment, which he did – rickety vintage gear you’d rarely see in the UK.
Danny worked printing art posters for the famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in a large warehouse in downtown L.A., so that’s where we rehearsed. It was an amazing scene to be part of. It was next to the American Apparel factory, in an eerie industrial district patrolled by homeless people pushing shopping trolleys, and there were also furtive porn movie shoots in warehouses – or so we heard. The Dreaming Spires song Singing Sin City describes meeting Danny and his van, which was named Darla.
You said that you were watching Don’t Look Back most mornings in L.A. The first song on Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror is The One And Only Lost Boy, which is a mid-’60s electric Dylan homage, isn’t it?
RB: Yes, certainly – though one of my earliest influences, like Dylan, was Chuck Berry, and it has a bit of that about it too.
The song is about your experiences as a Brit in L.A. What did you make of it?
RB: My experiences of L.A. were completely overwhelming – I’d been there once, aged 18, but not really found any of its secrets, but going there again in 2003, even after the thrill of touring the East Coast, was something else. It seemed like another planet and we were lucky enough to be introduced to some amazing places and people. We were probably as exotic to the Californians as they were to us.
I can’t remember writing The One And Only Lost Boy, but all the people mentioned in it are real people we used to hang out with. Bobby (Bones), Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo and Dave ‘The Kid’ Koenig all play on the record so it’s very self-referential. Caroline and Abigail lived in Danny’s house. I really did get called Lindsay after [film director] Lindsay Anderson on account of my British accent, and on that writing trip it rained for several days, which was a real novelty in L.A. It caused many plants to bloom and gave me severe hay fever, enough to somewhat affect the sound of my voice on the record.
Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely song. It sounds like a more stripped-down version of what you went on to do with The Dreaming Spires, but minus the jangly guitars. What can you tell me about it?
Nothing I Can’t Do Without was written on Danny’s porch, throwing phrases back and forth in a rapid fashion. The house was in sight of Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, is named after the amazing California sunsets, which are made more spectacular by a layer of smog.
I was definitely moving away from writing verse-chorus type songs, and getting more narrative in style. I was probably listening to Another Side…era Dylan, which seeped into the guitar style. It does sound a bit like the cover of Girl From The North Country that The Dreaming Spires started our career with. I basically used the same chords under the Dylan lyrics for that, as I didn’t know the correct chords.
As I Lay Dying is one of the darker songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? The piano sounds quite Lennonesque, and it’s a sad song…
RB: As I Lay Dying was written after a trip, so to speak, to Joshua Tree National Park, on one of our regular pilgrimages to the desert. It provided a very different perspective on life and the song was written down pretty much directly as we experienced it.
‘When we mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe’
The title was from the William Faulkner novel. I was into trying to describe out-of-body or near-death experiences at the time, as also on the Goldrush album, The Heart Is The Place. The song There’s A World by Goldrush, on the Ozona album, is also based on being at Joshua Tree. It became one of our favourite places to go when in the US. We played at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s and stayed on Victoria Williams’ ranch and at number of other interesting spots. I seem to recall when Rowland Prytherch and I mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe.
Where did the song It Takes No Talent To Party come from? Great title! I can imagine there was a lot of partying during your week in L.A…
RB: The title was a saying from Dave Koenig, who, at the time, was the bass player in The Brian Jonestown Massacre, or he may have just left the band. He was kind enough to play bass on the album. He was a very funny guy and a master storyteller – it was his phrase to describe some of the characters who populated the L.A. scene, which was to some extent surface over content. There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California – it must have been the sunshine.
The record is one of highs and lows – there are musically upbeat songs, like The One And Only Lost Boy and Don’t Sleep Alone, but it’s often a melancholy, reflective record, isn’t it? What kind of frame of mind were you in when you made it?
RB. My default song setting was melancholy, at least up to that point, so I’m glad I was able to produce some upbeat songs. It was a relatively carefree time if you could ignore all the wars and so on…
Let’s talk about that. The Iraq War was happening at the time you were making the album and it inspired some of the songs, like I’m A Soldier and Nation At War, which are folky protest songs. What was your take on the war at the time and what was it like being in the US while it was happening?
RB: The TV was still filled with images of the post-9/11 Middle Eastern wars and Dubya was still President. The heavy post-9/11 security measures were very much in place and paranoia was in the air. We must have watched plenty of TV because the news filtered through into the songs. I remember sitting in a café and writing out the lyrics to Nation At War in a matter of minutes. I’m A Soldier covers the plight of returning veterans and is simple, but it holds up well, I think.
You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has a country rock feel…
RB: Country rock loomed large in our lives, having recently got deep into Sweetheart of the Rodeo [The Byrds] and The Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. We loved going to thrift stores and Mexican markets to pick up quirky shirts – they were hard to get hold of back then. It fascinated me to be in the same spot, making records as those individuals, as indeed it did no doubt for excellent local bands like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde.
Darren from The Tyde and Bobby Bones play excellent guitar lines on the track, which makes the song. Rob Campanella’s brother Andy stepped in on drums, and his more languid style suited the song, with its unpredictable timings. As I recall, I played piano and sang live vocals on almost every song, apart from the acoustic picking numbers.
There are quite a few guests on the album…
RB: Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo was one of two drummers in The Warlocks, who were staples of the shoegazey revival scene, alongside The Brian Jonestown Massacre – we encountered numerous members of both bands. We’d met on our first trip when The Warlocks and Mark Gardener/Goldrush played in New York and we all jammed a version of Tomorrow Never Knows. I’d like to hear a recording of that!
Bobby Bones was a mysterious but delightful character, who looked like he could easily have been in The Rolling Stones. Darren Rademaker from The Tyde joined us too and contributed some wonderful guitar lines.
Back in England, I felt some female vocals would improve things – I was perhaps enjoying Emmylou Harris’ contributions to the Bright Eyes album – and asked Piney Gir, who was a friend, and part of our Truck Records roster, to come and sing on a few tracks. Furthermore, Cat Martino, another US singer from Brooklyn, who became a great friend, sang on Nation At War, which was actually recorded in England that summer, when she visited.
What happened to the album at the time? Did it have a proper release and did you tour to support it?
RB: It didn’t have a major release – it came out on the label Truck Records, which I ran with friends. Most of the effort in 2005 went on tours to support the US and European releases of Goldrush’s Ozona album. I did play some really fun shows, however, and put together a great UK band including Loz Colbert from Ride on drums, Andrew Mitchell from Ralfe Band, Garo and Nick (Growler) from Goldrush and Rowland Prytherch on bass. We often joined by Piney as well, and sometimes later on by Danny Wilson – we’d just started becoming friends. There were plenty of others who jumped in on occasion – almost too many to list!
The songs were simple enough to show people in a few minutes and usually it came off well. We played at The Social and The Borderline [in London], at a festival in Devon with Mojave 3, and quite a few other places. There were also a couple of gigs in L.A. with some of the original band, or perhaps just one – it’s shown in the video for The One And Only Lost Boy.
The album was credited to Dusty Sound System, rather than Robin Bennett. Where did the pseudonym come from?
RB: ‘Dusty’ was a nickname given to me be a friend from the village where I grew up – it was short for Dusty Bookworm, on account of how I liked to read and my dad was a bookseller.
By the time of the album, quite a lot of people called me Dusty, so it seemed a suitable pseudonym. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to perform under my given name. I really can’t remember how Sound System got added – it meant that there didn’t have to be a fixed band, or it could just be me. The pseudonym gave me freedom to have fun.
Let’s leave 2005 behind and fast forward to 2020, to talk about Bennett Wilson Poole.
Last year, you had to postpone your headlining London show, at the Islington Assembly Hall, as Tony Poole was unwell, and, this year, you were due to appear at the Ramblin’ Roots festival, which had to be postponed due to Covid-19.Are you hoping to gig later this year – all being well – and how’s Tony doing?
RB: Tony seems well currently, which is great. I’ve spoken to him a few times during lockdown. The first thing we did when we heard about the virus, even pre-lockdown, was cancel a Bennett Wilson Poole rehearsal – we need to look after Tony, in particular.
‘The second Bennett Wilson Poole album is written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it’
I’m not very optimistic about indoor concerts taking place anywhere during 2020, so we may have to wait a little longer.
What’s the current state of play with Bennett Wilson Poole? Is your eagerly-awaited second album written and recorded?
RB: It’s written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
One of the great things about Bennett Wilson Poole for me is the songwriting partnership Danny Wilson and I have developed. After it became impossible to write with Danny Power, I didn’t know if I’d find the same thing again, but we have struck up a similar ability to write songs and write them quickly. We both love the excitement of songwriting.
At this year’s Ramblin’ Roots, The Dreaming Spires were also due to play. Do you think there will be another Dreaming Spires record in the future?
RB: It’s hard to say. We are all still good friends and enjoying getting together to play now and then. We’re very proud of the albums we did. The songs all fit together as a set, so, if there was a new album, it would have to have some different subject matter.
As a professional musician and also a festival promoter what are you most worried about because of the Covid-19 crisis? Are you optimistic about the future?Will things get back to normal? What’s your take on it? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’
RB: I suppose, like most people, I am worried about my health and that of those close to me – and it’s clearly going to have a heavy impact on the live music business – indeed it already is. Looking for a positive, I think that connection and culture have grown in importance for us all as we’re stuck in our homes, and I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene. It’s hard to say exactly what that will look like, as we are still learning about how the virus operates.
‘Connection and culture have grown in importance as we’re stuck in our homes. I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene’
Clearly, some of the remote working and live streaming events will continue in the future, and we will be wary of cramped gatherings for a while. I’ve always been drawn to locally-oriented events, and perhaps there will be more of those as people resist long-distance travel. Also it’s opportunity to make sure all that back catalogue stuff is out there and available.
What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown is lifted?
RB: Going to play, or watching a band in a cramped pub, preferably The Betsey Trotwood. I might have to wait quite a while for that to happen, so in the meantime a socially-distanced cup of coffee in a café will do.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel his European and UK spring tour, Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger turned a negative situation into a positive one by hastily putting together a brand new, digital-only album called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it’s made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that he’d demoed and quickly forgotten about.
It’s a brilliant collection of intimate Americana and Dylanesque folk-blues tracks.
The loose, raw and lo-fi recordings really hang together well as an album, and, if anything, it demonstrates that Jerry’s discarded songs are better than many artists’ officially released ones.
In an exclusive interview from his apartment in Toronto, Jerry tells Say It With Garage Flowers how he pulled the album together so quickly, reveals details of a series of forthcoming online gigs streamed live on Facebook and suggests a suitable soundtrack for these days of isolation…
How’s it going? Are you safe? What’s the situation like in Toronto?
Jerry Leger: I’m well and doing what I can to stay safe and keep my distance during the handful of times I’ve had to leave my apartment. A state of emergency was announced in Toronto and everything is changing by the day – stores and other places are closing and there are more guidelines for what we need to do to protect ourselves and others. It’s a good thing to help us get through this as soon as possible.
Sadly the coronavirus has meant you’ve had to postpone your UK and European tour. How do you feel about that? What impact has it had on you financially?
JL: Well, it was a major blow, very disappointing and, as you can imagine, financially devastating. It’s being rescheduled for next spring – I’m hoping that things will have settled down by then. Of course, our health is the number one priority for all of us, but it is very stressful. You’re dealing with how the present has been affected and worrying about how the future looks.
After a few days I was able to calm my mind down a bit and not worry about things too far into the future. All it does is create more anxiety and I have enough of that already. The virus has put a lot of things into perspective for me. My girlfriend Laura has helped a lot and I’ve also been coping by staying busy and by thinking of creative things I can do from home.
I started the year off by catching up on a lot of reading and also writing more, so I’m gonna do more of that and get back to sketching, which I find stress relieving.
How are you coping with being indoors all the time?
JL: I’ve actually been enjoying it to some degree. I haven’t cracked up yet! After my big European and UK tour was postponed and Canadian dates were cancelled, the first few days of recommended isolation were spent dealing with that and what to do next.
I had started the year off writing a bunch of songs, but, of course, the pandemic put my creativity on hold. I’m easing back into the mindset for when the mood and inspiration strikes.
Can you recommend any songs for the period of isolation? What’s your soundtrack?
JL: I’ve had Gordon Lightfoot on – it’s comforting for me. It’s hard to say though, ‘cos I’m always listening to records if I’m home and now I’m home a lot, so a lot of records have been played.
I had Ray Charles, Irma Thomas and Kris Kristofferson on last night. For the first few days, I had a lot of Beatles and solo Beatles on, ‘cos I also find that comforting in moments of deep worry.
The first song I was ever obsessed with was In My Life, around the age of four. As I’m writing this, I have King Of America by Elvis Costello on.
Great choice! One of the positive things that’s emerged from the crisis is that you’ve released a new digital-only album, Songs From The Apartment, via Bandcamp. How did you manage to turn the project around so quickly?
JL: I thought it would be cool to release a surprise album and I had folders and folders of demos for songs that had never seen the light of day.
I think I needed a distraction last week after dealing with so much. I started listening to some of the tracks and heard a lot of merit in them. I also loved how relaxed, intimate and raw they were. I thought it was good timing, with a lot of us having to be indoors. We’re all in it together.
A fan sent me a message saying that he loved the sound of it – he said it sounded like I was right there in the room with him.
I put it together last Thursday [March 19] and chose 10 songs that I thought really worked. My buddy Aaron Comeau helped with EQing and doing the levels on them. The photo for the cover – by LPPhotographs – was one that I always loved. I always saw it as a cover and it worked perfectly ‘cos I’m sitting in my apartment with my acoustic guitar.The album is made up of unreleased songs you had lying around. Are there a lot of songs in your vaults? Was it easy to choose which songs to include?
JL: Yeah – there are a lot of songs that I have recorded in demo form and also some studio outtakes for that matter. I just write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere.
A bunch of the tunes I don’t even remember writing, which made it fun to listen to and put together. It also made it easier to choose certain ones ‘cos I’d have a less bias opinion coming back to them if they were good or not.
‘I write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere’
I think they’re all from the period of 2015-2018, except Leaving Now, which is from 2013. There are some that stayed in the back of mind as being good, but I doubted I’d return to them for a future album ‘cos time changes that for me.
I’m more focused and excited about what I’m writing in the moment. This worked perfectly putting the collection together.
Your ‘lost’ songs are better than a lot of artists’ officially released songs, aren’t they?
JL: Well that’s a matter of opinion!
Songs From The Apartment is a lo-fi, stripped down album. How and where were the songs recorded?
JL: They were recorded in my apartment on just a little recorder with an internal microphone. Very rough. They were all songs that were demoed and either not chosen to go into the studio with, or tried in the studio but left off the albums.
Basically before making an album I probably would have 30 or so songs and we’d pick 15-18 to go into the studio with and then 10 or 12 would make the cut.
Some really great ones are never returned to after the initial demo and that’s because they may not fit the feel I’m going for at the time, or it’s a similar idea or sound to a different song that I prefer. For example we recorded Tomorrow In My Mind and Ticket Bought for Time Out For Tomorrow [2019 album] and I felt they both had a similar feel, so I decided on the former.
You’re doing some online gigs on Facebook in the next few days, streamed live from your apartment?What can we expect from the performances?
JL: It’s gonna be interesting, I’ve never live streamed before and never had any interest in doing it.
I had thought about live streaming a show before ‘cos I found myself watching a couple of Lucinda Williams shows on her Facebook page and I loved them. It made me think ‘OK, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad’, but I never got around to doing it.
I think in these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do in the meantime and also try and keep afloat in an industry that has already been suffering for years. I’m doing these online shows for the folks that can’t come and see me and they’re cool with the virtual version for now.
Anyone can watch and I hope they do, but each show will also have a special hello to a country that we no longer will be visiting this spring. I completely understand if it’s not up some people’s alley and they’d rather not tune in. For me, I’m gonna do what I usually do when I’m around the house – play some music. I’ll play some new and old songs, plus some covers if it strikes me.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Traveler’s Prayer is one of my favourites. What can you tell me about it? I like the line – ‘trees blow in the Halloween air.’ It’s a very wintry song…
JL: That’s really interesting, as I got a couple of emails from fans in different countries that also love that song. I wrote the words first and set it to music, recorded the demo immediately afterwards and then completely forgot about. That recording is the only time I’ve ever played it. It’s so relaxed and unaffected.
That’s what I love about Songs From The Apartment. Nothing on it was intended to be heard by anyone other than myself or Mike Timmins, who produced the last few albums. It’s also why the guitar is out of tune – ha! I don’t remember the inspiration for that song, but I think the time period of Halloween recurs in my songs because I love that time of year.
‘In these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do to try and keep afloat in an industry that has been suffering for years’
Hoodoo Brownhas a Dylan feel. What was the inspiration behind it? It sounds like an outlaw blues song…
JL: Yeah – it’s an outlaw song. I read about Hoodoo Brown who was the leader of a gang in the late 1800s. I just dug the name and made up the rest.
I remember working on that song longer than some of the others and I felt it never got off the ground with the band. I couldn’t get the sound I wanted. This solo version has much more of the energy and urgency that it needed. Actually, that’s probably the Dylan connection – that and the fact there’s a lot of words crammed into some of the lines. I dig a lot of the words and ideas in it.
It was written specifically for the Nonsense side of my album Nonsense and Heartache, so that’s why it has that bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll feel to it.
Poor Man’s Farewell is a beautiful and poignant folky song. Where did that come from?
JL: I don’t really remember, but I think it was on my mind how a lot of us look down on the poor or the homeless and never think about their story. Everyone has a story.
I actually had an idea that it would be a secret song at the end of Nonsense and Heartache. Kind of like Train In Vain from The Clash’s London Calling, which is not listed on the sleeve.
Leaving Now is a sad song that’s about the end of relationship. Can you shed any light on it? I think has an early Dylan feel. It’s folky – almost ragtime…
JL: We tried that one for the Early Riser album, but I don’t think Mike Timmins felt it fitted, or was good enough. I always thought it was catchy, though – you could hear someone covering it. Yeah, you’re probably right. Dylan is such a big influence on me, that there are elements that have and always will continue to show up.
There are quite a few sad songs on the album. Is that a coincidence?
JL: The sad ones are always the best! It definitely wasn’t the concept, but I think I gravitate towards sad songs. So many Everly Brothers songs that I love are really just a drag, aren’t they?
What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?
JL: Seeing my friends, family and the band and playing on stage again in front of people. It’ll be nice to have the UK and European tour and other shows rescheduled to make up for lost time.
The title of your last album, Time Out For Tomorrow, seems eerily prescient in the light of the current situation, doesn’t it?
JL: I know! I couldn’t help but instantly think of that. The album title now has a whole new meaning.
To buy or stream Jerry Leger’s latest album, the digital-only Songs From The Apartment, go to his Bandcamp page here.