Austrian-born, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is his most personal and autobiographical record yet, with songs about growing up in Vienna and the death of his grandmother, a Jewish communist and resistance fighter in the Second World War. I speak to him to find out why he felt the time was right to tell these stories and how they’re more relevant than ever in the current European political climate…
I’ve been listening to the new album a lot – it’s a great record…
Robert Rotifer: I’m glad and I’m grateful that you like it because I sometimes find it pretty hard going to listen to because it’s very intimate. People have been telling me they like it, but it was really hard for me to let go of some of the stuff. It’s quite intense and there are just ten songs – I felt that if I put 12 songs on it, it would’ve been too much. Also, these days, you want it to sound good on vinyl and the truth is, the less you put on there, the better it sounds.
I think it works really well on vinyl because, thematically, there are two distinct sides to the record. The first half of the album deals with contemporary subjects, including immigration and the smartphone generation, while the second half is a song cycle about you and your family’s experiences of growing up and living in Vienna.
RR: The songs on the first side give you the background to where the second side comes from. Side one should open your mind – ‘what is this guy talking about?’ – and on side two, you can see where I’m coming from. It has a dramatic curve.
I like the details in the lyrics and the stories that you tell in the songs…
RR: They’re compelling. I couldn’t take into account what people might make of it and I felt there were things that I just needed to write about, which should always be the case. I couldn’t edit myself accordingly to what was going to work with an audience, which was a real self-indulgence, but I’m aware of that.
It’s arguably your most personal and autobiographical record and it’s a Robert Rotifer album, rather than one by your band, Rotifer. Although the guys from Rotifer play on the record, was it always going to be a solo album?
RR: It just happened that all sorts of things conspired – Mike Stone, who plays bass, was very busy and Ian Button (drummer) was busy with Papernut Cambridge. I just felt that I had this personal stuff to get rid of and it seemed right to do the record by myself. Mike and Ian were absolutely fine with it – there was no animosity.
Some of the songs – the title track and Irma la Douce – are about your grandmother, Irma Schwager, who died last year. She was a Jewish communist who fled Austria to escape the Nazis during the Second World War and joined the French resistance. The title track sees you standing outside her old flat in Vienna…
RR: My grandmother died when she was 95. She met my grandfather during immigration, while they were part of the underground Austrian resistance in France – they were both Jewish – not religiously so – but by birth. My mum was born in France when she was in hiding during the Second World War.
My grandparents came back to Vienna in 1945 and moved into a flat that was right next to the Danube Canal – it’s the bit of the Danube that goes right into the city of Vienna. That was one of the last strongholds where the Nazis had hidden.
When my grandparents moved in to the flat, part of the outside wall had collapsed because the Russians had lobbed grenades into the building. Until the very end, you could see bullet scars in the doors and there was a hole in the wood panelling where they’d looked for hidden weapons. After my grandmother died, my mum found pictures of German soldiers in uniform having a jolly in the flat. It had belonged to a Jewish family and was taken over by a Nazi general.
When my grandparents came back, they were offered the flat. For me, it’s a symbolic place and has more to say than just my personal history. With the way politics is going in Central Europe at the moment, I think these stories need to be told – it’s essential to explain to people was it was actually like.
On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, there was a big do, because she was a little bit of a celebrity in leftie circles. I was invited to sing and I sang a song called The Frankfurt Kitchen, which is about a kitchen design from 1928 that was the daddy of all the Ikea kitchens. It was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was a friend of my grandmother’s.
I played it as a tribute to her friend, who had died, and as I was on stage and my grandmother was standing next to me, I said to her that I was glad that she came back to Vienna, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I asked her why she’d come back and, like a shot, she said that it was because they’d won. I thought that was the best reason ever.
When she died, it became obvious to me that that idea of her coming back had gone – I can’t rely on other generations having fought for me. It was really emotional for me and I felt all these songs about Vienna coming out. While they might be about me, they also say something about where Europe – and the world – is at the moment, from Trump all the way to Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer [the far-right Austrian presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated earlier this year].
I don’t want to get too political about it because it’s emotional for me, but it’s about feeling safe.
One of my favourite songs on the album is the opening track, If We Hadn’t Had You. It’s a very personal song that’s about your daughter and mentions an anti-war demo in Hyde Park that you took her to. Can you tell me about the background to the song?
RR: My daughter said I always writing depressing and sad stuff – she asked me to write something nice and I thought that if she’s said that, then the most obvious thing to do is to write a nice song about her. But I wanted to write a song that wasn’t mawkish.
I’ve tried to explain that parental happiness is also withdrawal from what happens around you – you’ve got the luxury of something which is so much more important… But I also wanted to make it clear that because you have kids you don’t have a higher calling. My daughter absolutely loves the song.
You’ve recorded two versions of If We Hadn’t Had You – the one on the album has a guitar solo by you, but the version you released on a EP earlier this year features a saxello solo by 80-year-old Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe, who played on John Martyn’s classic album Solid Air. How did you get him involved?
RR: Living in Canterbury, I was aware of Tony Coe – I’d seen him play at jazz gigs. He was around in the Ronnie Scott’s scene in the ‘50s.
He says that Solid Air was just a session for him – that it wasn’t a very exciting afternoon, but, for the rest of us, it’s good enough!
I got him to play on another album that I was co-producing with Andy Lewis and at the end of the session we still had some time, so I asked him to listen to If We Hadn’t Had You, which I thought could do with some saxophone on it. He really liked the song and I loved what he did.
When I’d mixed my album I knew that, thematically, If We Hadn’t Had You had to be the first song on it, but with the sound [of the saxello], you would expect the rest of the record to have that aspect to it, but it doesn’t – it’s like opening a door to a room that you then don’t use anymore. After thinking long and hard about it, I tried a guitar solo on it and, all of a sudden, it got a different flavour that fitted the rest of the album. I decided to do an EP with the Tony Coe version on it to give credit to it and not lose it.
Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s pretty stripped-down in places – there’s plenty of room for the songs to breathe, with acoustic guitar, organ and horn, but then there’s also some freewheeling electric guitar, heavier sounds and some psych-pop and jazzy touches. It’s a hard record to describe and nail down – it’s almost as if the songs are led by the lyrics, rather than the music…
RR: Yes – completely.
What were you aiming for with this record?
RR: I’m a big fan of French records from the ‘60s and ‘70s – what I like about them is the way the vocals are mixed right upfront, so you can hear what Jacques Dutronc or Serge Gainsbourg is telling you. That’s the opposite of what’s happened in the mastering wars of the zero years. This was the first time I’d ever mixed a record myself and I recorded almost all of it myself.
Writing-wise what I was aiming for with this record was that I wanted to get away from that guitarist’s thing of ‘here’s four chords and let’s sing over the top’. I wanted to write it more like a piano player would. I wrote some of the songs on piano.
I’d like to ask you more about your musical influences. You moved to England from Vienna just over 19 years ago, in early 1997, but you first visited England in 1982, as a 12-year old. What music were you into when you were young?
RR: My parents sent me to Canvey Island in 1982, when I was 12. Before then, I had been terribly Anglophile. It was a formative experience – in 1982 in Essex you saw second-generation mods running around and the look was magical to me. I was such a Beatles fan as a kid and I’d got into The Kinks and The Who.
So when you were growing up in Austria, you didn’t listen to local music?
RR: There was local rock music…. The case for Austrian indigenous pop music, whatever that means, because it’s a multicultural society, is quite important for me. I’ve been the co-founder and curator of the Vienna Popfest, which is a huge thing – it’s an annual festival where tens of thousands of people turn up. It’s anything that you could possibly describe as ‘pop’, but one of the great things about Vienna is that people are very schooled in the avant-garde – they keep an ear open for music that is odd. So at the Popfest you can have people playing something that in no other place in the world would be considered pop.
I like Austrian pop music, but when I lived there, there was this thing called Austropop, which was complacent, stolid and boring pop music. There were people with horrible hairdos and DX7 keyboards… As a teenager, I tried to get away from it as much as possible.
Then there was the Austrian version of Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave thing. It was a mixture of what the Germans did and Austropop, which was even more fake to me.
I sang in English and I always played in very Anglophile bands – there was a mod and ‘60s culture going on. I became a music journalist in ‘91/’92 – I was studying, but I was offered a job because I wrote an article about Billy Bragg that people liked. I then went freelance and got into radio, which I still do today.
I ended up being the Britpop correspondent – I went to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury and hung around the hospitality area. If you were accredited, you could stick a microphone in Jarvis Cocker’s direction and he would talk to you.
Your new album is being released on Gare du Nord Records – a label that you’re heavily involved with. Any other new records and projects in the pipeline?
RR: This is an exclusive. There’s a new Papernut Cambridge album already finished. One afternoon, we decided to try and organise something like The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus – it’s called The Cambridge Circus! I’m really looking forward to that.
Singer-songwriter and pianist John Howard’s latest project – John Howard & The Night Mail – could be the best pop album you’ll hear all year.
In the first of a two-part interview, I talk to him about writing and recording with his new band, ‘living in exile’ in Spain, his love of ‘60s pop culture, and why he’d rather listen to Revolver than Radio 1…
John Howard released his piano-driven debut solo album, Kid In A Big World, 40 years ago – back in 1975.
Criminally overlooked at the time, it’s now considered a cult classic, but the mid-70s music industry wasn’t ready for an openly gay, flamboyant singer-songwriter…
Late last year, John, who’s now 62, teamed up with musicians and songwriters Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis (Paul Weller’s bassist, DJ / Acid Jazz regular) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge, ex-Death In Vegas, ex-Thrashing Doves) to make a new album – his 15th.
Recorded over four days in November 2014, John Howard & The Night Mail will be released on the Tapete label on August 21.
It’s a wonderful collection of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop (Before) to slinky retro mod-soul (Intact & Smiling), glam-rock (ControlFreak), observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives (London’s After-Work Drinking Culture & Deborah Fletcher) and the moving paean to ‘60s pop culture that is In The Light of Fires Burning, which name-checks Joe Meek, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles and Telstar, among others…
How does it feel to be back, with a new album and a new band, too?
John Howard: It’s always good to have a new album out. I don’t feel I’m ‘back’ particularly, because I’ve been writing, recording and releasing albums each year since my real ‘comeback’ album, The Dangerous Hours, which came out in 2005.
What is great is to be working with these amazingly talented guys, Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis. They’re all fabulous musicians and songwriters, and great company, too.
I am really proud of The Night Mail album and knocked out it’s getting such a positive reaction.
It’s a great record…
JH: Thanks, Sean. I’m thrilled. It’s turned out sounding like we spent months recording it – it’s so polished and a really cohesive set of solid pop tracks, with some lovely songs.
This is an album I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have made on my own. They are songs I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have written on my own.
I love it. I listened to it again the other evening on our roof [in Spain] – the only cool place of an evening right now here – and was once again struck by how great it sounds.
That isn’t meant to be big-headed – it’s an acknowledgement of the terrific effort, time and talent that has gone into making the album by all four members of the band.
Several of the songs are observational – they’re populated with characters and their everyday lives. I’m thinking, in particular, of the tracks London’s After-Work Drinking Culture and Deborah Fletcher.
In my view, they’re up there with other great observational songs by Ray Davies, Blur, The Beatles, The Divine Comedy, and early Bowie… Do you write about real, or imaginary, characters?
JH: Well, those two songs you’ve mentioned have lyrics which were written by Robert and Ian, respectively, so that proves what great lyricists I’m working with!
London’s After-Work… particularly resonated with me, as the lyric described my own situation when I ‘worked for a living’ in the ‘80s and ‘90s at various music companies.
There was a definite belief system at work in all those companies that you had to be a member of The Team, and to prove your membership you were expected to go to the local wine bar after work and mix with your work buddies ‘til all hours.
I never went along with it, I used to purposely leave the office at six, making sure everyone saw me leave by waving and saying “‘bye!” loudly as I left.
I had a great guy waiting for me in our lovely home and there was simply no contest as to whom I wanted to spend my after-work time with.
I had some work colleagues who would get in at 7 a.m. and worked till 8 p.m. then went to the wine bar with other work colleagues and got home after midnight. They used to lecture me that I wasn’t doing my career prospects any favours by not doing the same.
My riposte was always the same, “when the company has done with you, they’ll get rid of you, no matter how late you stay or how many arses you lick while you’re here.”
And sure enough, they all became victims of the companies’ attitude to the ‘loyal’ office worker, the unspoken rulebook – ‘give everything, and get nothing but a salary for a while back.’
I remember one company I worked for arranged a ‘Team Building Awayday Event’ where we were all supposed to take part in sporting activities similar to those in the ‘70s TV programme It’s A Knockout. Each head of department was to ‘take a lead and build colleague brotherhood’.
The fact my department consisted of two girls and me went rather over their heads. I watched one of the first activities when we’d arrived at this damn thing, hurried back to my hotel room and stayed there reading for the rest of the day, claiming an asthma attack, when questioned about my absence that evening over dinner.
There was a definite sense that I’d let the side down – not from my two female departmental colleagues, who were actually just jealous that I’d managed to make such a crafty exit.
My own lyrics are usually about real people I’ve met, or around a story I’ve read or heard about, which then gets rather mangled into fiction as the song develops.
I don’t think Ian has ever actually met a sexual dominatrix like Debs Fletcher, but you’d have to ask him about that!
The opening song Before reminds of something from The Zombies album Odessey and Oracle…
JH: I love that album! Now you mention it, Before does have that Zombies feel about it. I hadn’t considered that until now. It’s my lyric which Robert set to music, so the beautiful structure of the song is all down to him.
I met Colin Blunstone [from The Zombies] when I was signed to CBS in ‘74/’75. He came to the launch concert I gave at London’s Purcell Room and sat next to me at the after-show lunch. I had to keep nipping myself that here was I, just down from sunny Ramsbottom, sitting next to one of the greatest pop vocalists ever whose recordings had filled my little transistor in my box room in Bury, listening to him telling me how much he loved my music!
Rod Argent from The Zombies played on your debut album, back in ’75, didn’t he?
JH: Yes, Rod played on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner on Kid In A Big World and also on the first unreleased (until 2004) version of Family Man, which was re-recorded at Apple when CBS rejected Tony Meehan’s production. I have great memories of Rod making faces like a naughty child in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 as he came up with ever more outrageous sound effects on his Moog for Guess… while Tony Meehan was jumping up and down at the control room window shouting “Yes! Yes!”.
One of my favourite songs on the new album is In The Light of Fires Burning. It’s a very nostalgic lyric, with references to early/mid ‘60s pop culture – Joe Meek/ Telstar, Pink Floyd, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles…
I really like the imagery of the fairground – it’s very atmospheric. Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind that song?
Was it inspired by listening to ’60s pop music as you were growing up?
JH: Ah – that’s one of my personal favourites on the album too. I was brought up in the ‘50s and ‘60s – by the age of nine or ten, I was a huge pop fan and I was surrounded by it on radio, TV and in the music papers and culture, generally.
I always saw the fairground as a kind of example of pop music of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s – all fun and lights and laughter and everyone having a great time with friends while their favourite pop songs blasted out into the evening air. It’s what Sedaka himself has called The Tra-La-La Days, which was what pop music generally felt like then.
By the mid-‘60s, things got much more serious and thoughtful and thought-provoking. Pop stars were no longer pin-ups in Jackie, they were people ‘with something to say’, and their views were often taken as gospel.
It became a kind of new belief system for ‘the youth of today’, Dylan was ‘a generation’s spokesman’, and with that new attitude, the lyrics of pop songs became much more than simply sad or happy tales of love lost and found. They turned into an inward way of viewing an ever-disturbing world, Vietnam, The Cold War, assassinations…
Drugs like LSD were getting many of the talented people around at that time out of what they found too sickening to dwell on. It all felt so positive in ‘67, but by ’69, it all started to go wrong, of course. Utopia did not exist after all.
New realities were being created through the medium of pop – or rock as it became. And with that new awareness of something more than falling in love with your best friend’s girl, and a growing interest in what could be achieved in recording studios sonically, came great records like Tomorrow Never Knows, See Emily Play, Purple Haze, God Only Knows and A Day In The Life.
For me, aged around 14 or 15, it was a terrific time to be a young record buyer. There was so much fabulous and fascinating stuff around it was a case of ‘what can I afford to spend my pocket money on this week?’.
The last part of the lyric for In The Light… tells of how The Beatles changed pop music forever, from playing All My Loving on Ed Sullivan to creating Sgt Pepper in just three years. Astonishing.
When I sent Ian the lyric, I knew he’d get into it and come up with something wonderful for the tune. His band Papernut Cambridge, which is basically Ian under another name, has a gorgeous mid-to-late ‘60s vibe about it.
I always think of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd when I hear Papernut stuff – it resounds with all the stuff I heard on the radio in that glorious ‘66/’67 period in pop and popular culture.
I knew Ian would create a brilliant song from the lyric and when we recorded it and the guys came up with that stunning psychedelic ending in the studio, I was in seventh heaven! How perfect that was.
The first single from the new album is Intact and Smiling, which was written with Andy Lewis. It’s a great ’60s-style mod-soul-pop song. Are you a ’60s pop obsessive?
JH: Obsessive, no. Fan, yes. Because I grew up into my teens in that decade, then ‘60s pop music is part of my DNA.
But I was never a soul fan per se. I bought a lot of Tamla Motown records like Baby Love, Tracks of My Tears, I Was Made To Love Her, etc, and adore all of Marvin Gaye’s stuff, especially his ‘70s material like What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.
I saw Marvin twice in concert in the ‘70s and he was truly sensational. The Mod movement never touched me – far too butch and confrontational for fey old me!
I was more of a studying hippie around the age of 15, and became a fully-fledged hairy by 1970. My pop heroes in the ‘60s were Dusty, P.J. Proby, Scott Walker, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Cilla, all the drama-pop artists. By the late ‘60s, I’d become infatuated by The Beatles, buying everything they’d done to date – every single and album I’d missed while drooling over Dusty and Sonny & Cher.
Once at art college I started buying records by, and going to see in concert, The Incredible String Band, Frank Zappa and Roy Harper – whose Stormcock album is still one of the greatest LPs ever recorded.
And I became a very belated Dylan fan, buying again every album I’d missed in the ‘60s. I’d raved about and bought Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street, but had never been fixated enough to buy his albums – until around late 1970).
The mod-soul influence on Intact & Smiling is all Andy’s, and I sent that lyric to him knowing he’d do something pop-soul with it, incorporating his own particular groove into the music. I loved singing it in the studio, it wasn’t a song I would ever have thought I’d sing, and I had a ball with such a fantastic backing track chugging along behind me. I didn’t however expect it to be the amazingly popular and catchy gem it has become!
The song Control Freak sounds like a nod to ‘70s glam-rock. Are you a control freak?
JH: Yes, more or less. I think that’s one of the reasons I began recording alone!
What has surprised me is how easy I’ve found it letting others take control of many of the aspects of this album. And because the recording sessions were so relaxed and also because I felt ‘in safe hands’ with the guys, I was happy to enjoy the team process when making the record.
The glam stomp thing of the track is down to Ian, who is quite the glam fan man. When Ian sent me his demo to my lyric, it reminded me of Bowie’s Jean Genie, so I decided to sing it with a faint circa ‘73 Aladdin Sane twang.
I actually wanted to re-do some of the vocals as I felt they were pretty rough in places, the double-tracking is very ‘out’ occasionally, but the boys all insisted it was ‘perfect’ and loved the out of phase double-tracking. ‘So authentically ‘70s.’
You can actually hear me right at the end of the track saying “Was that rough enough for you?”, directed at the control room. There was an unrecorded “Yes!” in reply.
Does it feel strange after having a period of keeping out of the limelight – when you were doing your own thing and releasing your own records – to be back working with a new band, co-writers and a new record label?
JH: I can’t say it feels ‘strange’ – I tend to respond to each situation as it comes. I’m quite adaptable as a person, and nothing ever truly surprises or shocks me.
I haven’t consciously kept out of the limelight – I think the limelight has had trouble finding me! Whoever’s operating that thing keeps missing me. ‘Hello! I’m over here!’ has been my mantra for quite some years.
Luckily for me, Robert and his Gare Du Nord compadre, Ralegh Long [English singer-songwriter] saw me waving in the distance and upped my profile considerably in 2013.
A musician friend of mine from way back, when I played him The Night Mail tracks, said “it isn’t better per se than what you’ve been doing by yourself in recent times, but this album will definitely take you to another level”, and that, certainly, the latter bit about ‘another level’, is true.
I can’t say what’s better or worse when it comes to my own recorded output. That’s up to whoever listens to my music to have an opinion.
Doing my own thing on my own label imprint (‘John Howard via AWAL/Kobalt’) for so long – since 2009 – meant I was in total control of what happened with it, who did the sleeve design, I handled all the arrangements and production, the title of each album, who mastered it, when it came out, what sort of promotion I’d do for it, etc. It was all down to me. So letting the reins slacken for this new album has been, well, actually rather relaxing. And I completely trust Tapete – they’re a great record label and they’re doing a wonderful job with the album. They have a fantastic roster of artists who we are now indirectly associated with as well.
It goes without saying, I wholly have faith in Robert, Andy and Ian who handled the production, mixing and mastering of The Night Mail album. My natural experience-created caution, when it comes to getting excited about anything I do, has meant I am weekly thrilled by what’s happening because of the album.
How easy was it to adjust to the process of writing, recording and playing with a new band?
JH: I’ve worked with musicians on and off over the years – obviously in the ‘70s I always worked with other musicians. In fact, when I recorded two singles with Trevor Horn in the late ‘70s, I didn’t play an instrument at all. I just wrote and sang the songs and then left them to Trevor and his fellows Geoff Downes, Anne Dudley and Bruce Woolley to do the rest. I recorded with what became Buggles and Art of Noise before they were Buggles and Art of Noise!
My 2005 Cherry Red release, As I Was Saying, was recorded with bassist Phil King (ex-Lush, now with The Jesus & Mary Chain) and guitarist Andre Barreau (Robbie Williams, The Bootleg Beatles), and we did a few gigs together to promote the album at the time.
Since then I’ve recorded entirely on my own. Circumstances dictated that really, and it was easier in terms of having as much time as I wanted to get something right. I could pop down to my studio at three in the morning and do a percussion overdub which had come into my head – having no neighbours helps – and take as long as I like to finish an album – usually about a year, playing everything myself.
What was it like making the new record?
JH: Writing the songs and making the Night Mail record was uncannily easy. I wrote lyrics with Robert, Ian or Andy in mind, in terms of how I imagined each one would write the melody and the style of song. The boys sent me their lyrics separately to put them to music.
It was always fascinating wondering what they’d do with my lyrics and, I guess, vice versa on their parts, too. Then, once the songs were written and we’d all sent our demos to each other and been very happy with the resultant ten songs, I then got to work demoing all of the songs on piano at home, with a few backing vocal and harmony ideas in there for future reference.
I initially had the idea that whoever wrote the lyric would sing the song, but Robert was very keen that I be the singer in the band.
I had originally imagined the project with just a band name, not with my name at the front. But again, Robert felt that the album should have my name on it. I think it was also Robert who came up with the Night Mail band name, and, of course, he did the front sleeve cover artwork too.
By the time we got to the studios in Ramsgate (Big Jelly) in November last year, I knew the songs like the back of my hand – I’ve always been a detail preparer by nature – and though the boys hadn’t routined the songs in the same obsessive way I had been doing for months beforehand – they are all rather busier than I am these days – as soon as recording began, they all fell into place beautifully. It was as though we’d been playing these songs together for years.
The sessions were so happy and convivial, like four guys having a great time, doing what they love doing. It was a lovely few days. The guys then got together a week or so later and mixed the tracks, then Andy did a final mix, and Ian mastered the album. It was a real team effort. None of it had been difficult. It had all been something of a breeze – much to my relief.
There are rumours that you’ve been ‘living in exile’ in Spain? Is this true?
JH: It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? ‘Living in exile’. But no, I wasn’t. My husband, Neil and I, decided to move to Spain in 2007, simply because we both felt that there was no professional reason to stay in the UK, much as we love the country and miss living in the UK every day.
It was mainly a financial decision to move here. Cost of living is much cheaper here – you get much more for your money with almost everything.
We’d had a large house in Pembrokeshire which we adored, bought for Neil’s parents to come and live with us in 2001, after I retired from working in the music business – which I’d done since the early ‘80s – and Neil had more or less retired from acting. Sadly Neil’s parents both died before they could move in, so we were rather rattling round in there.
Why were you lured out of Spain and tempted and intrigued by this latest project – The Night Mail?
JH: I’d come to a point in my career where the initial media excitement of the reissue of Kid In A Big World in 2003, and my ‘comeback’ to recording new material – which was greeted similarly to how The Night Mail album is being welcomed now – had died down.
I’d started off in 2004 playing some lovely gigs in great venues, like The Jermyn Street Theatre and Cecil Sharp House in London, but it had finally reached a point a couple of years later, where I was literally playing to eight people in clubs in Brighton and Chester.
I remember performing at The Tapestry open-air festival in 2006 and looking out at a field with about six people and a few bemused sheep looking back at me.
There was a sense that the 2004 rediscovery aura which had built up around me had evaporated to an “oh, he’s got yet another new album out now, has he?” attitude.
I’ve always been prolific when inspired, but it was actually beginning to work against me. One journalist was actually reported to me as saying, “the problem with John Howard is he brings out too much stuff, and the mystique simply disappears”.
My journalist and writer friend Rob Cochrane once told me, when I was musing over this apparent waning of interest in my music by 2006, “Your problem, John, is that you’re too happy, too sane and too un-fucked up to be of any interest to many music journalists. Get a drug habit which almost kills you and they’ll be all over you.”
It made me laugh anyway. I accepted it as a fact and decided to just carry on doing my own thing at my own pace, and basically thought ‘sod it if only a relatively few people want to hear it.’
I knew I had some really loyal fans who had stayed with me through thick and many thins and they are still there for me buying everything I bring out – God bless’ em.
But the media interest had completely disappeared by 2007, when my albums were getting no reviews at all.
The move to Spain also came at a fortuitous time, as in 2007 I coincidentally signed my Barefoot With Angels album to Spanish label Hanky Panky.
They organised two gigs for me in Bilbao and in Valencia but again, we had the same problem – getting enough people along to see me. Being a ‘legendary songwriter from the 1970s’ and ‘cult artist’, just two of the tags I’ve been labelled with over the last few years, didn’t, it seemed, mean many people wanted to pay good money to see me perform.
My fanbase, while extremely loyal, is spread thinly around the world, so expecting large turnouts at single venues with very little pre-promotion was frankly pie-in-the-sky by that time. And this was, of course, all before the joys of Twitter and Facebook, which has helped artists like me publicise our gigs much more widely enormously.
It was a chance reading in 2012 of an interview with songwriter Ralegh Long in the online magazine Neon Filler, where he mentioned me and Bill Fay as two of his greatest songwriting influences, which persuaded me to send the magazine a copy of my then new album, You Shall Go To The Ball – a studio re-approaching of some of my 1970s songs from Technicolour Biography, the unreleased (until 2004) follow-up to Kid In A Big World.
Joe Lepper, the editor, not only reviewed the album but also did a fabulous write-up of my music and career up to that point. It was the biggest write-up I’d had for years.
He also suggested I send a copy of You Shall Go To The Ball to Robert Rotifer, which I did.
Robert emailed back to say how much he loved the album and had actually been alerted to my music a couple of years earlier by [songwriter] Darren Hayman, who had attended my 2004 Jermyn Street Theatre show.
Robert interviewed me for his German radio programme on FM4 and during it he asked me if there was a possibility that I might go back to the UK to do some gigs.
I said if the venue was right and the gig was well-organised I would consider it. That was when the Rotifer Mission Machine really got into gear!
He and Ralegh asked me if I fancied playing a support slot at Ralegh’s Servant Jazz Quarters gig in 2013, which I did and it was a blast, so many people came along, the atmosphere was fantastic and it even spawned a live album in 2014, Live At The Servant Jazz Quarters. Robert had very cleverly manoeuvred the situation the previous few months into getting me a band for the gig – beginning by asking if I minded him accompanying me on a couple of numbers and then suggesting Ian as drummer and Andy as bassist for the evening. Unbeknownst to me, Andy had been a fan of Kid In A Big World for years, playing tracks like Spellbound on his DJ nights.
The publicity the gig received from various magazines like The Quietus, and a general buzz about it, generated by Robert, Ralegh and Ian’s label Gare Du Nord, resulted in my then current new studio album, Storeys becoming my most successful for years – even getting reviewed!
Robert’s plan B then sprang into action – he, along with Ian and Andy, wanted to record an album with me, but how to do it while I was living in Spain? There was the rub.
At first we mulled over maybe me recording piano and vocal tracks here in my home studio, then the guys overdubbing backings onto those in the UK. I wasn’t keen on that idea, there’s never a really cohesive sound to projects like that.
I eventually came up with the idea of the four of us writing songs together and really approaching a new album together as a band project. The guys loved that idea, and once we got into gear for that Robert came across Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, which he felt would be the perfect location to record the songs together.
He tied a UK visit by me for the recording sessions into another Servant Jazz Quarters gig, which meant it all made sense on many levels.
Who are your favourite songwriters and artists? What are you currently listening to – old and new artists?
JH: My ‘60s and early ‘70s musical heroes I’ve already covered earlier. Though in songwriting terms people like Randy Newman and Bacharach & David knock me out everytime I hear one of their songs.
Jimmy Webb is up there as a genius I wholly admire and adore and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell are simply astonishing.
I loved early Gilbert O’Sullivan, Brian Wilson’s ‘60s creations take my breath away and Leonard Cohen and Bill Fay are brilliant to listen to still.
I was a big fan of Bolan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, bought all his albums from My People Were Fair… to Slider. After that he got very samey and safe and just kept repeating the same ‘boogie riff’, which got very boring and creatively unchallenged.
I adored Bowie up to Low – that album was totally incredible, as was everything which went before. I still go back to Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Young Americans and Low when I want my fix of D.B.
I covered his tour de force, The Bewlay Brothers, for my 2007 EP of the same name, and it’s now one of my most downloaded tracks to date.
In the ‘80s I got into Prince’s music in a big way – I still love his Purple Rain period and I still enjoy some Prefab Sprout stuff, though the ‘80s Prophet synths all over their tracks make it a little difficult to listen to for me now.
k.d. lang is a genius, I have all her albums. She sings like Karen Carpenter did, hits it right in the middle of the note every time. Stunning.
One of my pet hates in the ‘80s was the way many singers tended to sing ‘sharp’, above the note. Boy George did it often and Tony Hadley did it most of the time – it was a weird symptom of singing in that decidedly odd decade.
Lennon often sang under the note, just under it, which is a lovely thing to hear. Above the note, however little, hurts my ears.
I enjoyed Blur in the ‘90s and I think Damon Albarn is a huge talent. But I loathed Oasis, that “we’re as big as The Beatles” rubbish the Gallaghers spouted in interviews used to leave me shouting at my music mags!
My problem with nearly all pop music now is the way it’s recorded. I absolutely revile auto-tuning, it makes every singer sound like a computer. All their natural vocal sound is removed, replaced by an always in-tune digital horror.
I have friends who can’t hear it and think I’m going bonkers bringing it up everytime they play me a new record they’re in love with.
And the way now that everything is recorded at the same level, loudly, with no light and shade in the productions, even what begin as acoustic-sounding tracks turn into auto-tuned platters from hell. Every nuance is destroyed by this need to shout at us in perfect tune.
I had a go at listening to Radio 1 a few months ago, which I hadn’t done for years. I had to turn it off after three records and felt as if someone had punched me in the face. I had been sonically abused, dear!
I see young new artists performing at some live event on TV, think, ‘they’re good’, then listen to their stuff on iTunes to see if I want to buy it and am immediately hit with a pointlessly auto-tuned voice. Very sad. I run back to Revolver and bask in the light of real talent being recorded with sensitivity, musicality and balance. And human-ness. What’s wrong with occasional vocal flaws? They’re what make a great record stand out from the crowd. Why do record companies insist on getting their artists to shout so perfectly at us? It’s very unpleasant and should be banned, darling.
On the plus side of ‘new music’, it won’t surprise you to hear that I really love Robert Rotifer’s work – he writes great songs with such a tremendous punch about them.
Andy Lewis comes up with some wonderful ‘60s mod-soul ‘classics that should have been’ and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge records are regular spins here at home.
Ralegh Long has a big future ahead of him, his new album Hoverance is a tour de force in fragility set to gorgeous melodies, like curtains blowing in a cool breeze. I also think Alex Highton is an enormous talent. His first two albums are standouts for me.
It’s so difficult though now to get an album by a new artist away, without that big record company ‘branding’ thing that goes on. It’s all so corporate now. Everything has to have a ‘sound’ to succeed in the mainstream, everything is a soap powder which washes all the ‘dirt’ away. I love a bit of dirt. I am a perfectionist in the studio, but I always try to maintain a human quality to my recordings, which all have a kind of ‘60s vibe about them.
Most of what I play on my albums is acoustic and recorded in real time, layering as I go through the song each time, no spinning in. Done ‘the old way’. It means I retain a sense of naturalness, which if any big label or producer got their hands on it would be turned to auto-tuned digital mush in no time.
But there is no chance that any big label or producer would have the slightest interest in me, so I’m safe!
Do you have plans to make another record with your current collaborators?
JH: Oh, I hope so! I’d love to make another one with the boys. In fact, if this one does OK, we’re contracted to do three albums for Tapete.
So, Night Mail fans, buy this one and we’ll get to do another!
To read the second part of my interview with John Howard, in which he talks about about being ‘rediscovered’, his childhood, how being openly-gay affected his pop career, and his plans for the rest of the year and beyond, click here.
John Howard & The Night Mail is released on August 21 (Tapete).