Martin Carr’s latest album, New Shapes of Life, was written in the aftermath of Bowie’s death and is a wonderful collection of electronic-tinged, honest and reflective, futuristic-soul songs, but making the record took its toll on his mental health. We spoke to him to find out more…
When we last chatted to former Boo Radleys songwriter Martin Carr, back in 2014, he’d made The Breaks – his second solo album under his own name.
One of our favourite records of that year, it was full of instant, warm-sounding, lush, guitar pop songs influenced by Simon and Garfunkel, Love, Ennio Morricone and Barry White.
Martin told us at the time, “I wanted to make an immediate sounding record that I could stand up and play on my acoustic guitar”.
Fast forward three years and we’re in very different territory – Martin’s latest album, New Shapes of Life, is much more electronic than its predecessor. The title track has a streamlined funk-soul-jazz-pop groove, Damocles is synth-heavy, frenetic, dramatic and cinematic, and A Mess of Everything is a stately song with a big, swelling, gospel-tinged chorus. There’s also a gorgeous, spacey, piano-led ballad called Future Reflections, while Three Studies of the Male Back melds a galloping rhythm with siren-like sounds.
“I really didn’t want to play anything. Most of the music is stuff I sampled and fucked with and then played it back on a keyboard. I don’t think I picked up the guitar once,” says Martin.
Asked what he thinks of The Breaks now, he tells us: “It’s fine. I don’t listen to indie guitar music any more – I haven’t for a long time, so once it was done, I was bored of the whole thing. I didn’t really enjoy playing it live beyond the ‘getting drunk and playing music with my friends’ element. To me it sounded like an old man playing old man’s music for old men.”
‘I don’t listen to indie guitar music any more – I haven’t for a long time’
Written in the aftermath of Bowie’s death, New Shapes of Life wasn’t an easy album to make. In fact, the process was seriously detrimental to its creator’s health: “I had pushed and pushed until my mental wellbeing had begun to suffer – I became paranoid and anxious. I was talking to myself and waving my arms around until I finally broke down, told my family and called the doctor.”
Now on medication, Martin is in a much better place: “It feels like making this record was the end of that part of my life – now I’m on the other side of the glass, where everyone else is. I still don’t fit, but I’m fine with that.”
Q & A
When we chatted in 2014, you said you’d never made a record that sounded like you, but with your new album, you’ve said this is the first one that does. What’s changed?
Martin Carr: There are a couple of reasons – the first one being that I now have my own space, where I can shut the door, create and think. I’ve never had that before – I’ve always been relegated to the corner of a room, or in a cold, damp studio space where nothing ever sounds the same. Somebody I don’t know personally lent me the money to build a studio in my house and I will be forever grateful. I’m hoping to record and mix the next one myself there.
I wrote and recorded it at home. I would have a melodic idea, which I would play with until I had the start of something, then I would write a lyric and find a melody. I wrote and recorded at the same time.
The other reason is that I knew what I wanted to do before I started. Normally, I wait until I have enough songs to make an album and then I do it, so there is no real cohesion, whereas this time I knew the themes I wanted to explore and the sound I wanted to make.
I was very strict with myself – especially lyrically. So much of my stuff is unlistenable to me because of the lyrics. This time I made sure I was happy with every line and every word.
How did you approach the new record and what did you want it to sound like? It’s very different from The Breaks. It’s more electronic and it feels like it has more of a common thread than its predecessor…
MC: My starting point was listening to Bowie for a couple of months after his death – Heroes and Low, Station To Station and Blackstar – as well as Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen.
There was no sonic template in mind, though I was listening to a lot of soul music – Philly, Northern, Motown – along with the Bowie stuff. I wanted to change the way I sang.
I spent more time trying to find a voice I could use. My natural voice is much lower than the one I normally use. I can get right down there, but I normally go for the top of my range, which is why it can sound reedy and thin.
I don’t know how much Bowie figured musically – he was more of a guide. For me, art is self-expression and nobody expressed themselves as beautifully as David Bowie. I was trying to write songs for other people but getting nowhere – you have to do so much more than come up with a song nowadays. They need finished tracks and my production chops just aren’t up to it.
You’ve been very honest about having personal issues while writing and recording the new album. Was it a difficult record to make?
MC: I think it was a combination of an intense period of work and how deep I was digging internally. The more I wrote and recorded, the more erratic my behaviour became. I was paranoid and anxious, waving my arms about and ranting to myself. I kept at it though – once you’re under a creative spell, you don’t want to change anything. Once I’d finished, I got the help I should have asked for years ago and now I feel great. I love the record – I think it’s my best.
‘The more I wrote and recorded, the more erratic my behaviour became. I was paranoid and anxious, waving my arms about and ranting to myself’
Musically, it doesn’t sound like a dark record, but, lyrically, it’s honest and confessional. Damocles feels like it was written about your anxiety. What can you tell us about that song?
MC: That was the last song written for the record, I was in full breakdown mode and just wrote down what was happening to me. I was in a manic state – I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t sleep.
A Mess of Everything has a big, anthemic chorus. Where did that song come from?
MC: A lot of the album was inspired by art. I was describing things in paintings that I identified with. That came from a painting of a fisherman alone on a boat – behind him on the shoreline are his family. He feels pressure to provide, but his nets are empty.
Three Studies of the Male Back has one of the best opening lines of a song we’ve heard all year: ‘Holy Moses, I’m stoned as a goose and I’ve talked all day…’ What inspired that song?
MC: Again it’s a song inspired by a painting. Three Studies of the Male Back is a painting by Francis Bacon, who has long been one of my favourite artists and who took on extra significance last year. The colours and the twisted reality… I felt like I was in tune with them.
What music – old and new – are you currently listening to?
MC: Oddisee, Four Tet, Michele Mercure, Sleaford Mods, Strange U and Tanika Charles.
‘If bands are getting back together to make a bit of money then I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not for me’
So, what’s next? Any gigs coming up?
MC: I’ve got a Tapete show in London this month [November 18 – The Lexington, London] and I’ll be touring properly in February/March. It’ll just be two of us, with a few amps and various machines.
A lot of other bands from the ’90s/ Britpop era have reformed? Any chance The Boo Radleys will ever get back together? What do you think when you see contemporaries of yours on the reunion circuit?
MC: I don’t have any desire to do that, I don’t see the point. Yes it would be great to get on a big stage again and make a huge noise in front of a lot of people, but I can’t see a time when that could happen. If bands are getting back together to make a bit of money then I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not for me.
New Shapes of Life by Martin Carr is out now on Tapete Records.
Martin is playing at The Lexington, London on November 18, as part of a Tapete record label showcase event.