‘I didn’t do this album because I felt like I needed to make a record – it was to stop myself going mad’

Michael Weston King

The Struggle, the new record by singer-songwriter, Michael Weston King, is his first solo album in 10 years.

It’s also one of the best albums of the year so far – a stunning collection of moving, well-crafted and wonderfully arranged songs, recorded in rural Wales, with producer, engineer and musician, Clovis Phillips.

The album sees Weston King stepping away from his day job, as one half of husband-and-wife country / Americana duo, My Darling Clementine (with Lou Dalgleish), and, instead, mining a rich seam of late ’60s/ early ’70s singer-songwriters, like Mickey Newbury, Dan Penn, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Bobby Charles and early Van Morrison.

Mixed at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with Weston King’s long-time collaborator/producer, Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley / Jarvis Cocker), musically, it embraces country-soul, Celtic folk and jazz, and lyrically it tackles subjects including the Trump presidency, mental health issues, loneliness, death and the tales of a wayfaring singer-songwriter. 

Two of the songs are co-writes. Sugar was penned with US singer-songwriter, Peter Case, while Theory of Truthmakers sees Weston King putting music to unused lyrics by his friend, Scottish songwriter and musician, Jackie Leven, who died in 2011.

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Weston King on the phone – he was at his home in Manchester – and asked him to tell us the stories behind the writing and recording of the songs.

He also got to ask us an all-important question: “Have you ever been to Southport?”

Q&A

The Struggle is your first solo album in 10 years and it was recorded in a remote Welsh studio – Add-A-Band, in Newtown. How did the record and the sessions come about?

Michael Weston King: My friend, Jeb Loy Nichols, told me about a small studio in Mid Wales and the guy who runs it – Clovis Phillips. The name alone was enough to entice me. Anybody called Clovis has got to have something going for him.

I went down there, fell in love with the place and got on well with him. It was very cathartic for me – it got me out of the house. It’s about a two-hour drive from Manchester and it was a much-needed change of scenery. It was also a creative outlet – I didn’t do it because I felt like I needed to make a record. It was to stop myself going mad. I wanted to do something constructive.

‘It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…’

And you recorded it between winter 2020 and spring 2021…

MWK: Yeah – I had little trips down there, for two or three days. I rented a cabin nearby. I didn’t have all the songs ready to go, so I went away and wrote a couple more once I saw how the album was going.

After that, we mixed it in Yellow Arch, Sheffield, with Colin Elliot. There was no sort of deadline that it had to be done by, so I just did it as and when – I set my own deadlines, which is what I’ve done for the past 20 years. I’m a great prevaricator – if I don’t set deadlines, I’ll put things off. It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…

How did you approach writing and recording this album? It’s very much in the vein of singer-songwriter records from the late ‘60s/ early ’70, rather than ‘Americana,’ isn’t it? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?

MWK: Yeah – if I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970, but that would’ve meant an orchestra on every track. One of the songs, Another Dying Day, was the starting point – it was the most Newburyesque song. We put strings on it and approached it in the same way that he’d recorded a lot of his stuff, with a lot of nylon-strung guitar. Some of the other songs happened organically and went off in other directions.

I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it –  a bit of a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham vibe. We have some Wurlitzer on there.

‘I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record. If I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970’ 

Weight of The World has a country-soul feel, and I love the guitar break on it… There are some lovely arrangements on the record.

MWK: Thanks, man. I did the arrangements, but Clovis did all the playing from, apart from specialist stuff, like trombone. I sang it and he played it, basically. I didn’t want any drums on the record, but there is one track with drums on – he played those, as well as the bass and pretty much all the guitars. He takes a lot of credit for what he contributed.

Let’s talk about Weight of the World, which was the first song you shared from the album. It’s written from the point of view of a Washington D.C. policeman who votes for Trump due to peer pressure but regrets his actions. It was inspired by Trump’s horrible PR stunt outside St. John’s Church in Washington, wasn’t it?

MWK: Absolutely – you’ve summed it up perfectly. There were many grotesque things that happened during Trump’s presidency but for some reason I found that more grotesque than anything – the way protesters were swept off the streets like they were rioters.

Picture by Ronald Reitman.

I didn’t feel I could write about it as if was there – I wasn’t – and I’m not American, so I put the song and the voice in the hands of someone who was there. That day, a lot of people who voted for Trump might’ve thought better of their actions – it was a turning point for a lot of people.

The song Sugar is a co-write with Peter Case…

MWK: I was out at a songwriting retreat in Lafayette [Louisiana] – Peter was there too. We’ve known each other for years and done stuff together before. He kicked it off – it’s more his song than mine. He had an idea that he wanted to write a song about sugar. For me, that could be anything – is it drugs, or is it a woman? It’s vague – anything that intoxicates you is what sugar represents in the song. It’s got Peter’s stamp on it and I liked it. I started playing it with Clovis and it came together nicely. It’s one of those songs that kind of just plays itself, and it was nice to have a collaboration with one of my favourite songwriters on the record.

There are some sad songs on the record. The Hardest Thing Of All deals with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Those themes also crop up on Another Dying Day, and the title of the album reflects those issues too…

MWK: Yeah – the daily struggle. We’ve all been through that in the past couple of years, but, equally, regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time for a lot of people – and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder.

I’ve had problems with my mental health over the past few years. The Hardest Thing Of All is about that feeling when you don’t want to get up or do anything – you just want to hide away. It kind of all fell out and tumbled into that song. It’s not a new message, but I think it’s a commonplace one. Quite a lot of people I know who’ve heard the album have related to it.

Even though The Hardest Thing Of All deals with a dark subject matter, it has a lovely warm arrangement, with some great Southern soul organ…

MWK: It’s a very melodic and kind of uplifting tune set against some pretty dark lyrics – I like that juxtaposition. Clovis played some fantastic organ on it. When I listen back to that song, and when we play it live, I can imagine it with a bigger arrangement – it would really lend itself to drums.

What can you tell us about Another Dying Day? It has some wonderful, subtle strings on it…

MWK: Thanks. That’s an older song – it was written when I was still living in Birmingham. I used to have a neighbour who was always very hale and hearty – everything was “top of the morning”. If you looked at his garden, everything was growing and blooming, but mine was overgrown and needed weeding. It was a metaphor for his life and how I was feeling at the time.

If you’re a ‘pub person’, you see so many people who, the minute the door’s open, are there for the rest of the day. At times, I’ve almost got to that point – the song is about that battle to try and kill the day and do something constructive. It’s something we could all easily fall into if we let it.

‘Regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder’

The Final Reel is a folk song, with a Celtic feel. It reminds me of early Van Morrison…

MWK: That was the idea – it was written about Jackie Leven. He was hugely influenced by Van – Jackie had one large foot in the folk/ Celtic world and, if you were describing him, you could call him a “Celtic soul singer.” I wanted to try and write a song that was in his style.

I wrote it a long time ago – the week before Jackie died. I was doing a concert in Perth [Scotland] – on the way there, I was driving past Loch Leven, so I stopped, walked along the shore and gave Jackie a ring to see how he was doing – he was already in hospital at that point and it was clear he wasn’t coming out.

I thought I’d give him a ring and tell him where I was – we had a chat and a laugh and when I hung up, that was the last time I spoke to him. The song is a reflection of that – it sets the scene of where I wrote it and it’s also about what he and I did, as wandering minstrels. We did hundreds of shows together – the tales of the wayfaring singer-songwriter. That’s what I tried to convey in the song.

Picture by Ronald Reitman.

This seems like a good moment to talk about the song Theory of Truthmakers, which is based on unpublished lyrics by Leven, which you’ve set music to…

MWK: Yeah – we had a mutual friend, called Allan Black, who is a great painter who lives in Glasgow – a lovely, unassuming guy. Jackie used his art on one of his albums. They were travelling together one day and Jackie wrote some lyrics – for some reason, he gave them to Allan, who kept them as a souvenir. He mentioned it to me and I said, ‘I’d love to see them,’ so he sent them to me and I thought I would try and put them to music. The idea was that the song would go on a Jackie tribute album that I curated last year, but it didn’t get finished in time, so it’s on this record.

It has a cinematic feel and is slightly jazzy… 

MWK: Yes, and the song The Old Soft Shoe on the record has a bit of a jazz feel… The chord pattern on Theory of Truthmakers isn’t the sort of thing I usually write. For the chorus, I was trying to write something big, like Heroes, or a song I could imagine Scott Walker singing.

You mentioned The Old Soft Shoe – that’s another sad song, with mournful trombone on it. It’s about loneliness – a man is lamenting the loss of someone, and he’s dancing alone,  practising steps… 

MWK: Exactly – it’s the guy’s memories of his wife or partner, and dancing was their thing. He doesn’t having a dancing partner any more, but he still dances on his own at home. I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just the most beautiful song –  a few years ago, he sang it it on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV show and it killed everybody. Any songwriter who saw it must’ve just thought ‘oh my God – let’s see if I can have a go at writing something like that.’ I was the only one stupid enough to try it.

‘I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just beautiful’

And so to another sad song… Valerie’s Coming Home. It’s really poignant and is about the end of someone’s life and sorting through their possessions…

MWK: Valerie was Lou’s mum – she died just before Covid hit. It was a blessing in a way, because we didn’t have to go through all the estrangement that would’ve happened with Covid. The song just sort of happened – I had quite a close relationship with Lou’s mum. There’s a line in it about me opening a window – like a classic old person, her room was always boiling hot. It also says, ‘Oh, close it Frank, you’ll let the heat out’ – for some reason, even though I knew her for 23 years, she always called me Frank. Apparently he was some kind of old family member who was a bit of a wide boy – a ladies’ man. So, why she associated him with me…. Anyway, I was “Frank” for many years.

Funnily enough, the next song on the album after that one is called Me & Frank

MWK: [laughs]

Lyrically, it’s a bit Springsteenesque – a story song about the antics of two young boys, which includes stealing a horse…

MWK: Yeah – it’s my attempt at John Prine, rather than Springsteen, but I know what you mean – that Nebraska feel. It has an American folk song narrative.

When I was in my teens, I used to hang out with a guy called Anthony. We lived in Southport – he lived very near the sea – and he always had these schemes about making money. Have you ever been to Southport?

No, I haven’t…

MWK: The sea hardly ever comes in – it’s a bit of a running joke. There’s a lot of grass on the beach – we used to collect grass seeds, bag them up and sell them door-to-door to make money. His family were fishing people – his dad was a shrimper – and they used to give us mackerel, which we sold.

‘Some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse’

We were scallywags, selling what we could to make a bit of money. I wanted to write a song about that, but it needed to be a bit more interesting than that, so some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse, but there was a horse at the back of his garden.

The funny thing is that Anthony has gone one to become a millionaire landscape gardener – one of his clients is Dave Gilmour. From selling grass seeds, all these years later gardening has become his chosen profession.

Picture by Steve Lavelle.

So, what’s next? Can we expect another My Darling Clementine record anytime soon?

MWK: One of the reasons I did the solo album was because the songs I was writing didn’t feel right for My Darling Clementine. When I write for My Darling Clementine, I’m writing for two voices – it’s a very different song. These songs were for one voice, hence that’s why it’s a solo record. We’ll see – hopefully Lou has been grafting away and coming up with some songs too.

If we do any recording this year, it will be for My Darling Clementine, but I’m not sure in what guise. It could be full-blown, or we might make an acoustic record. I don’t know – I’ve got one or two songs that would work.

Maybe you could do an album of songs themed around people called Frank?

MWK: [laughs].

To Be Perfectly Frank? Actually, that sounds like the title of one of those awful Robbie Williams swing albums.

MWK: Yes – it does…

The Struggle by Michael Weston King is out now on Cherry Red Records.

https://michaelwestonking.com/

‘Online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing’

My Darling Clementine – picture by Marco Bakker

UK husband and wife duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – are set to release the second four-track EP from their Country Darkness project next month. 

It picks up where Volume 1. left off and sees the pair reinterpreting the country and country-soul songs of Elvis Costello, aided and abetted by keyboardist Steve Nieve (The Attractions and The Imposters), as well as members of Richard Hawley’s backing band: Colin Elliot (bass), Shez Sheridan (guitar) and Dean Beresford (drums). 

In an exclusive interview, Michael talks us through the songs on the new record – Either Side Of The Same Town, I Lost You, Different Finger – the first single from the EP – and Too Soon To Know; reveals how he’s been occupying his time during lockdown and shares his hopes and fears for what will happen to live music when we emerge from the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Picture by Nick Small

 

Q & A

How are you? How have you been coping with lockdown? 

Michael Weston King: Up and down to be honest. Some days I feel okay with it – I rather like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?’ To quote Charles Bukowski, “I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what?”

Any advice on how to get through it?

MWK: Advice? I’m not sure I am the man for that, but maybe try and achieve something by the end of the day. That could be anything – even if it’s just tidying a room, or clearing stuff out. Set a small task and do it. There is a sense of purpose to be gained from it. Little victories. And go for walks. It’s not always easy, depending on where you live, but natural light is important.

A close friend of mine lives in rural, idyllic Herefordshire and I am very jealous of him at times like these. I live in Manchester – it’s not the greenest of cities, but everywhere looks better when the sun is shining, and, thankfully, it has been of late.

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music have you been listening to –  old and new?

MWK: I have mainly been listening to our daughter, Mabel, practising piano, recorder and drums, and singing at full volume, but when that subsides, it has been a mix of old and new: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Heron, early ‘70s Springsteen, Jessie Winchester, Crazy Horse (without Neil Young) and Jim Ford. I’ve also been getting back into Levon Helms’ Dirt Farmer album.

One of my favourite ever artists / songwriters is Roddy Frame and somehow I had missed out on his album The North Star, which is from 1998.

My pal Danny Champ reminded me about it, saying it was his favourite Roddy album, so that has been a fabulous (re)discovery. God, that album should have made him huge. It has some of his best songs on it – and that is saying something. And, of course, after the terribly sad news about John Prine, I revisited his whole back catalogue.

New releases? I have been enjoying the new Laura Marling album – she is a marvel. There aren’t many who are coming close to her right now. The new album, Song For Our Daughter, is yet to reach the heights of its predecessor, Semper Femina, yet. Maybe it will after a few more plays.

‘Some days I feel okay with lockdown – I like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?”

I’m also loving the new A Girl Called Eddy [aka Erin Moran]  album Been Around. Her debut – and last album – from well over 10 years ago, was coincidentally co-produced by Colin Elliot, who I have been working with for the last few years on My Darling Clementine releases. I recall Erin and I did a joint show many years ago, along with Peter Bruntnell and Thea Gilmore, for Mojo magazine. I have not seen her since but we reconnected again online recently.

I checked out new albums from Logan Ledger (produced by T. Bone Burnett) and Pokey LaFarge while I was out for a walk recently. The jury’s still out on both of those for me, though Logan has covered what I consider something of a lost country classic, Skip A Rope. Originally recorded by Henson Cargill in the late ’60s, it is a kind of a country protest song.

Have you written any new songs during lockdown? When we last spoke, in October 2019, you said you’d been suffering from writer’s block. Has that passed?

MWK: I wouldn’t say it has passed, but it has eased a little. I still have far too many unfinished songs, and now have an increasing number of new, unfinished ideas. I need a target, a deadline to make me get my ass in gear, a date for when things have to be ready by. I am currently living by the Irish mantra: “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

I have written and completed a new song, called No One Comes Close. It’s about the way the NHS staff have been treated by the Tory government for the past 10 years, and how the likes of Johnson and Gove are now fawning all over the health workers.

It was not long ago they were cheering in the House of Commons, having won a vote not to increases nurses’ wages. It is hypocrisy on the grandest of scales. I feel sick every time I see them clapping on a Thursday night. The song is up on YouTube as part of the Artists4NHS campaign, and I hope it will raise a few quid.

You had plans for a new solo album. What’s the latest on that?

MWK: I don’t record at home – I always go into a studio with an engineer and a co-producer, so until we can do that again it remains just a plan and not a reality. I also have all those songs to finish, so I can’t say really, but I would like to at least record it this year. It has been a long time since I made a solo record, so maybe it could be a double album. One acoustic and one electric?

As professional musicians, how has Covid-19 affected you and Lou?

MWK: It has affected us greatly, as it has so many musicians, especially those of us who make most of our income from playing live. We have lost over 50 shows and I fear there is more to come. That is quite a chunk of change, and even though a good number of the shows have been rescheduled, it still means a long period without income.

Picture by Marco Bakker
Are you optimistic about the future? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’ Are you worried?

MWK: As for forward planning, the great uncertainty means many venues and promoters don’t want to commit just yet. Our next shows are in September and I am getting anxious that they might not happen too.

Long-term I do think it will get back to how it was. People like to commune and come together for things – there is nothing better than coming together for music. My fear is how many venues, promoters and even musicians will be out of business when things are ready to go back?

Even though it is proving a useful stopgap for musicians and music fans alike, online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing.

Last time we spoke, it was ahead of the release of Country Darkness Vol. 1 – your reinterpretations of country and country-soul songs written by Elvis Costello.
You recorded the tracks with Steve Nieve, keyboardist with The Attractions and The Imposters, and members of Richard Hawley’s band. Vol. 2 is out in June. What can you tell us about the new record? When and where was it recorded and how were the sessions?

MWK: We did exactly what we did with Vol 1. Lou, Steve and I got together to decide on the key, the tempo and the basic arrangement, then we left Steve to record a solo piano or keyboard track from his studio in Paris, setting the feel for the songs, before sending it to producer Colin Elliot back in England. We would then go into Yellow Arch Studio in Sheffield and complete the full arrangement with the band.

Once again, you’ve put your own stamp on the songs. How did you tackle the arrangements and decide on the feel and treatments?

MWK: We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so. Also for Steve, who played on some of the originals, he was keen to do something different.

Let’s talk about the songs. The first track is Either Side Of The Same Town

MWK: Without question, it’s one of our favourite Elvis Costello songs, of any style. I think Elvis must have been listening to a lot of Dan Penn when he wrote this. It is a song mined from the same seam as his song, The Dark End Of The Street, which was a hit for James Carr.

Either Side… was originally written for another great soul voice, Howard Tate, who recorded it before Elvis did.

In 2006, Lou was on tour with The Brodsky Quartet and they performed a version of this song, arranged for quartet and voice by Brodsky viola player, Paul Cassidy, which was based on the original demo Elvis had given to Paul. It’s quite a lot different from how it ended up on Elvis’s The Delivery Man album, and in turn, very different from our version.

We have kept the country-soul feel, but added an extra verse to accommodate a guitar solo and also gone with a more understated vocal approach to it.

‘We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so’

What about I Lost You?

MWK: That song comes from Elvis’s more acoustic, bluegrass album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and is co-written by Jim Lauderdale, who was also part of the touring ensemble Costello put together at that time.

Lou and I shared a festival bill with Jim at the River Town Festival in Bristol in 2017 and our paths have crossed a few times, most recently at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. Jim is one of the sweetest and funniest guys, and a master of the high harmony. He’s a very fine songwriter too.

The original version of this opens with a guitar riff, which then reoccurs later. We replaced that with Steve’s arpeggiated piano motif. Although written originally for one voice, the song works particularly well as a conversational duet.

What about the first single from the EP, Different Finger?

MWK: It’s a song that just had to be done for this project. It’s one of Elvis’s most authentic honky-tonkers. Like Stranger in the House [which is on the first Country Darkness EP], it is a classic country song, although still with a few songwriting idiosyncrasies that are totally Costello, as opposed to the simplicity of say Harlan Howard or Merle Haggard.

Steve had played on the original, so we wanted to find a different approach, as we have tried with all of these songs, so for this we went with the Marty Robbins treatment. Hats off to Piero Tucci for some stunning accordion playing, and also the beautiful Spanish guitar styling of Shez Sheridan.

The final track on the new EP is Too Soon To Know

MWK: This song turned out much more moody and atmospheric than any of us thought. In 2016, Darlene Love recorded it, duetting with Bill Medley – she approached it in that true ‘60s soul style she is famous for.

I had initially thought we may also go in that direction, but once Steve had set the tone with his spooky keys, and sombre feel, the song went somewhere else altogether, and I would argue it’s all the better for it.

We have taken a more understated vocal approach to try and set it apart from previous versions. Of any of the songs we have cut so far, this track personifies the phrase ‘Country Darkness.’

Picture by Marco Bakker
You have one more Country Darkness EP to release – Vol. 3 – followed by an album of the same name, which will include all of the songs from the project.
What’s the latest on the third volume and when will the album come out?  Have you recorded the next EP?

MWK: Lou and I had got together with Steve in Manchester in March, on a day off during the recent Elvis Costello tour. We were due to go into the studio a few days later, but that turned out to be the week lockdown came into effect. It should have all been done by now. We have five more Costello songs to record, plus a new My Darling Clementine song. It’s so frustrating. I just hope we can resume ASAP.

Do you know if Elvis has heard the first EP?

MWK: We saw him very briefly after the Manchester show and he thanked us for the record. We didn’t really get chance to talk about it much, as he was being ushered out the venue, plus Lou was busy wisecracking with him about his choice of stage exit music – Ken Dodd’s We Are The Diddy Men!

Finally, this country – and many others – has experienced a lot of darkness recently. What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is lifted?

MWK: I have a list of five things:

1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.

2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.

3) Getting back on stage.

4) Getting back in the studio.

5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there!

I actually re-wrote the lyrics for Tom T Hall’s very sweet, but rather saccharine song I Like, and called it I Miss. I’m not sure it needs to be committed to YouTube or Facebook, or maybe it will be, one night, after a bottle of wine… I had a line about missing browsing in record shops, with you in mind, Sean, but I haven’t found the second line yet. Anyway, in answer to your question, here is what ‘I Miss.’

I Miss

I miss
going to her house, sitting on the couch, her upon my knee
and tea
I miss climbing up some hill, dragging them against their will, saying theirs legs ache
and cake
And I miss you too

——–

I miss
going to the game, walking home in the rain, calling out the team,
and dreams
I miss going to the pub, giving friends a hug, putting the world to rights,
curry nights
And I miss you too

——–

I miss getting on the stage, thinking I’m all the rage
Drinks in hotel bars, and cars
I miss driving through the night, crossing borders when it’s light, hearing another voice
and choice
And I miss you too

Country Darkness Vol.2 by My Darling Clementine is released on June 5 (Fretsore Records). The single, Different Finger, is available to stream and download now. 

You can pre-order the 12in EP here: https://linktr.ee/countrydarknessvol2

www.mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/