‘I just wanted to make a Neil Young record, but it didn’t end up like that…’

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, River’s Edge, is a beautiful, pastoral record that’s influenced by the countryside, ’70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tom Waits. 

He tells Say It With Garage Flowers why he’s had enough of the city and how he likes to write songs sat in his garden, strumming his acoustic guitar, listening to the birds…

When we last spoke to Nev Cottee, in 2017, the Mancunian singer-songwriter with a rich baritone voice that plumbs the same depths as Lee Hazlewood, had just made Broken Flowers – his darkest album to date.

Written in the aftermath of a failed relationship, it wasn’t an easy listen. Heavy at times, it was moody, melancholy and psychedelic, with lengthy songs swathed in dramatic orchestral arrangements and haunting vintage synth sounds.

This time around, for his fourth album, River’s Edge, he’s in a much better place emotionally, and the music reflects that. A pastoral record, it sees Nev getting back to nature and at peace with himself. It’s much lighter than its predecessor.

Produced by regular collaborator Mason Neely (Wilco, Edwyn Collins), it’s a beautiful album. Opener, the nocturnal, Tom Waitsian piano and brass lullaby Nightingale takes the listener down to the river’s edge and from there we’re on a journey into gorgeous, Nancy and Lee-style balladry with Roses, which is a duet with guest vocalist Veronica, who sounds like Nico; and then plunged into cinematic psych-rock, with the first single, Hello Stranger.

The sublime I’m Still Here is laced with late-night pedal steel by Chris Hillman (Billy Bragg, Ethan Johns), while The Hollywood Sign recalls vintage Neil Young, The country-folk of You Can Help Me, featuring James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders) on guitar, also mines ’70s Laurel Canyon, with its Crosby, Stills & Nash three-part harmonies, and the chilled-out, optimistic  Morning Sun sees Nev leaving the darkness behind to embrace a brand new day… “Here I am, back in the game,” he sings, over a warm backing of simple acoustic guitar and tinkling piano.

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers quizzes him about the making of the new record…

Q & A

This album is a lot mellower and much lighter than its predecessor, Broken Flowers. You sound more contented on this record…

Nev Cottee: If you compare it with Broken Flowers, this album is easier on the ear – it’s less arranged and orchestral, and the songs are shorter. It’s more concise – the songs follow a traditional pattern. I wanted to get away from that Broken Flowers thing – I’d done that – and the songs just came that way. It was time to move on.

The four albums are a bit of journey – out of a relationship and reaching a promised land, a place of sanctuary. I had that idea in mind – the river’s edge is a place where everyone wants to be, whiling away the afternoon, as the water trickles by.

I’ve reached a plateau where I’m content, but that doesn’t necessarily create great art, does it? Let’s see… I can only do what I can do.

So how did you approach this record?

NC: In a way, I just wanted to make a Neil Young record. I was listening to Comes A Time, On The Beach, Zuma and After The Goldrush – that classic ‘70s Neil Young period.

Comes A Time is a really underrated album – it was a massive inspiration. Some of the songs aren’t finished on that record – on first listen, you think it’s a bit throwaway, but the songs are so good…

I wanted to do something that was acoustic-based and had a few piano songs – to take it into Neil Young territory, but, in the end, it didn’t end up like that, as other influences got in the way. Ultimately, what I found out is that only Neil Young can do Neil Young songs and I’ve got to do mine.

With Neil Young, it’s all about the voice. Obviously the tunes are great, but once you put his voice on them… It would be interesting to see what his songs would sound like with a normal range vocal on them. Would they be as good? Probably not – they wouldn’t be as unique, would they? Anyway, I digress…

Would you say River’s Edge is a concept album?

NC: It’s not a concept album – they always run away from you… There are those classic ones, where the mood is maintained and it’s a concise piece that all adds up, but, if you’re just writing songs, you have to restrict yourself if it’s going to be a concept album. In the end you just go off in several directions… It’s loosely based on a pastoral, bucolic idea behind the songs, but then you’ve got Hello Stranger, which is completely different to the title track… You’ve just got to follow each individual song to where it takes you.

Let’s talk about Hello Stranger. It’s the first single from the album. Ironically, it’s one of the moodier songs on the record. It sounds like it could’ve come from Broken Flowers, with its cinematic, psych-rock feel…

NC: Yeah – I had a few two or three tracks that were quite acoustic and piano-based, but I wanted a few songs that we could go for it on and get the electric guitars out! In the end, I lost a couple of them because they didn’t sit well on the album – they’re in the vaults, so I might drag them out.

Hello Stranger really worked – I love it. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album. I like the lyric – it explains the moving on from Broken Flowers – it’s all about the past fading away and all those memories becoming less intense…

I think the song has real power. We got the guitar nailed on that – we were taking inspiration from Neil Young and trying to channel him. The guitarist is Alex Foote, who played on the last album. He’s American and a friend of Mason Neely’s – he just gets my thing.

Nick McCabe from The Verve played on the album sessions. Is he on the record?

NC: He’s on the two tracks that I dropped – he did some amazing stuff, that was classic McCabe, but he’s not on the album. I’ve spoken to him about doing some gigs – he’s always up to something. Fingers crossed – that could be one for the future. Get him up on stage and see what happens. Watch this space.

‘The river’s edge is a place where everyone wants to be, whiling away the afternoon, as the water trickles by’

Earlier, you mentioned the pastoral and bucolic feel that some of the songs have. You live in a city – Manchester. Are you a country boy at heart? Was this album a deliberate reaction to your urban living?

NC: It definitely was. I’ve lived in Manchester for 20 years on and off. I’ve had enough of the city – I think it’s an age thing. The city is a young man’s game – I want to get out. I don’t really go out much – I do like the hustle and bustle of the daytime, but more often than not, when it’s a decent day, I get out of Manchester. It’s a very dark, foreboding and shadowy city – you’ve got to get on a bus or a train and get out of there. I’m a child of nature – I’ve got a garden and I love going walking in Derbyshire. It’s definitely more of an inspiration at the moment, but who knows?

You wrote some of Broken Flowers while you were in India. Where did you write this album?

NC: In Majorca and in my garden, which is out of town [Manchester] – there’s no river there, but that’s my equivalent place. I like playing the guitar outside – it’s different from strumming in a room and you get the birds singing. A lot of the songs were written out in the open, so maybe that was an unintentional influence.

‘Manchester is a very dark, foreboding and shadowy city  – I want to get out. I’m a child of nature’

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album… Nightingale opens the record. It’s gorgeous and has a late night, Tom Waits feel. I love the brass and the piano…

NC: Yeah, Tom Waits, as well as Neil Young, is a massive influence. There’s a triple album he did called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. For me, it’s one of his best albums. The Bawlers part of the album is up there with anything else he’s ever done – there are some stunning tracks on there – loads of outtakes that he had never released. I always listen to it late at night. I kept listening to it and listening to it. He’s one of the great songwriters. I wanted the opening song to set the scene and take you down to the river’s edge, with the moon, the nighttime and birds singing.

River's B copy small

Roses is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a duet with a mysterious girl named Veronica and it reminds me of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. I also think the female vocal sounds like Nico…

NC: Roses is going to be the second single – a 7in on Wonderfulsound. I was going to get Tess Parks to sing on it. She did a vocal on an early incarnation of the song, but it didn’t have the right flavour. I befriended the mysterious Veronica, of whom we know very little, other than that she is a Nico-inspired chanteuse from Madrid. I got her to sing on it – it’s a really delicate, sweet vocal. I really like the juxtaposition. It’s the first time I’ve done a duet, but there maybe more to come from Veronica…

I’m Still Here is a country song and features Chris Hillman (Billy Bragg, Ethan Johns) on pedal steel…

NC: This was originally supposed to be a Dylanesque jazz boogie like Spirit On The Water [from Modern Times]. We had a nice version and then Chris Hillman got his hands on it and ruined it! Hah! No – he slowed it all down and did an amazing version that was even better. It’s lovely and it’s a great performance – the best one on the album.

The song The Hollywood Sign mentions ‘prairie wind’ in the lyric. Is that a nod to the Neil Young album and song of the same name?

NC: It’s my homage to Neil Young – it also has a Crosby, Stills & Nash Helplessly Hoping vibe, with the guitar picking. It’s a nod to the great man, Neil Young – everyone goes on about Dylan, but if you look at Neil Young’s back catalogue, he’s definitely the greatest rock ‘n’roll singer-songwriter there is. No one else has written a song like Old Man and a song like Like A Hurricane – a well-crafted country tune and a rock ‘n’ roll song with amazing wig-out guitar.

‘I befriended the mysterious Veronica, of whom we know little about, other than that she is a Nico-inspired chanteuse from Madrid’

You Can Help Me has a Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash feel, too, and James Walbourne (The Rails and The Pretenders) plays guitar on it…

NC: I wanted to get that Crosby, Stills & Nash three-part harmony. James was playing in Manchester and he managed to whack an overdub down. I’d love to do something live with him, but he’s the busiest man in showbiz – he’s in about 40 bands! Let’s see, eh? One day…

You’ve been working with some great musicians recently….

NC: You’ve got to search out the great players – Hillman, McCabe and Walbourne… That’s not a bad line-up, is it? We need to get a supergroup off the ground and call it Hillman, McCabe and Walbourne – keep it old school.

You recorded the album in Manchester in two weeks. How were the sessions?

NC: I had the demos for quite a while. I’m quite meticulous, in that I’ll demo, then I’ll do another demo and fine tune it… I keep going, crafting it… I sent the songs to Mason and he said we had two weeks to do it – 9 to 5, clocking in. We worked throughout the day, drinking loads of tea  – we worked really hard, we kept it real and we got a lot of stuff done. We did it at Vibe Studios in Manchester, which is owned by Martin Coogan [The Mock Turtles], who’s a mate of mine. It’s New Order’s old rehearsal room and Doves used to rehearse there, as well. It was great – Mason is a grafter and I trust him implicitly in that he will know where to take a song. That’s the job of a great producer – to make suggestions, throw you ideas and see if you can do them. The man came up with the goods. 

What are your plans for the rest of the year? Any gigs?

NC: Yes – there will be gigs. I’m hoping to play Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and London. There’s a gig in Madrid lined up and I think I’m going to go to Paris.

You contributed to the recent Monks Road Social album, Down The Willows, – singing a Dr Robert [The Blow Monkeys] song called Still Got A Lot To Learn. Any more collaborations in the offing? How was the Monks Road Social project? The album has a lot of great musicians on it, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Dr Robert, Steve White and Mick Talbot (The Style Council)…

NC: They’re a good crowd – all really nice people. We recorded it in Wales, in Monnow Valley Studio and I’ve also done another song with Dr Robert – he sent it over and I added the vocal. I don’t know what the plan is with that yet. I think there’s going to be another Monks Road Social album and there’s talk of doing a gig with guest singers. Robert’s great –  it’s kind of weird, having grown up in the ’80s and seen him on Top Of The Pops. He’s a genuinely talented, warm and nice geezer.

What music are you listening to at the moment, old and new?

NC: Good question. I was listening to Aldous Harding the other day and getting into that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Gruff Rhys – he never gets the credit he deserves, does he? His last album [Babelsberg] was brilliant. I’ve also got into Kurt Vile’s last album [Bottle It In] and Kevin Morby, and I got into a bit of Joni Mitchell recently. Also, check out Matthew Halsall – a jazz guy from Manchester. He’s good.

Finally, you’re stood at the river’s edge – do you jump in?

NC: Never jump in – you don’t know what’s in there. It could be dangerous. For me, it’s safety first, fun later. I’m a side of the river guy – I’m sat there watching and listening. I’m not one of those wild swimmers. You won’t catch me naked in a river. 

River’s Edge by Nev Cottee is released on June 7 on Wonderfulsound

cover

Best albums of 2017

IMG_2717 (2)

This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.

Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…

In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.

John_Murry_1400_X1400

The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland –  A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.

Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age: ‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness –  it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’

Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.

Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.

‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’

Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.

It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson  (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.

Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”. 

They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.

My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement. 

A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments  – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.

Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass. 

The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.

It’s great to have him back.

This year also saw the return of another Say It With Garage Flowers favourite. Back in 2014, miserablist duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) released their debut album, Broken Heart Surgery, which topped my end of year poll.

2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year. 

As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’

And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year. 

His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.

Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks. 

Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.

Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and  ’60s organ –  it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records. 

Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record –  sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.

PP

Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.

Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River. 

Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.

The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…

L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams. 

I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.

And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018… 

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it:

1) John Murry – A Short History of Decay

2) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers We Are Millionaires

3) Morrissey – Low In High School

4) Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

5) Nev CotteeBroken Flowers

6) My Darling Clementine Still Testifying

7) Torn Sail This Short Sweet Life

8) The Rails Other People

9) Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won

10) Neil Young – Hitchhiker 

11) PP Arnold The Turning Tide

12) Gold Star – Big Blue

13) Richard Warren Disentangled

14) The Carousels Sail Home, St. Clair

15) Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

16) The Clientele – Music For The Age of Miracles

17) Ralegh Long – Upwards of Summer

18) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

19) Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

20) Alex Lipinksi Alex

21) Little Barrie – Death Express

22) The National – Sleep Well Beast

23) Juanita Stein – America

24) Martin CarrNew Shapes of Life

25) The Dials – That Was The Future

26) Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat

27) Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time

28) Liam Gallagher – As You Were

29) William Matheny – Strange Constellations

30) Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

31) Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever

32) Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Scenery For Dreamers

33) The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

34) Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes

35) Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution

36) Luke Tuchscherer Always Be True

37) Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

38) Sophia Marshall – Bye Bye

39) Co-Pilgrim – Moon Lagoon

40) GospelBeacH Another Summer of Love

41) Bob Dylan – Triplicate

42) Papernut Cambridge – Cambridge Circus

43) Luna – A Sentimental Education

44) Steelism – Ism

45) The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails

46) Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream

47) Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [UK version]

48) Alex Lowe – Rancho Diablo

49) The Blow Monkeys – The Wild River

50) Colman GotaFear The Summer

 

 

 

‘I knew the album had to be funky and soulful, but with elements of folk music’

FITA

A chance encounter at a party led to Blow Monkeys frontman Dr Robert collaborating with ’60s soul legend PP Arnold on the 2007 album Five In The Afternoon, which has just been released on vinyl for Record Store Day.

It’s a great record – a ‘lost’ classic – from the rootsy opener, Nothing But Love, to the laid-back, jazzy-blues groove of the title track, the classy soul ballad Stay Now, the pop-funk-flavoured I Saw Something and What Am I To Do?  and the album closer – the groovy, ’60s folk-psych-gospel song Satellite.

I spoke to Robert, who lives in the mountains, in Andalusia, Spain, to find out the story behind the making of the album.

How did you meet – and come to work with – PP Arnold?

Dr Robert: I met her at a party up here in the mountains, which was thrown by a mutual friend. There were some musicians there, including a drummer called The Baron, who played on some of Donovan’s stuff that I loved, like Wear Your Love Like Heaven. That’s what drew me to the party – normally I’m not much of a party person.

PP Arnold was there and I was singing some Curtis Mayfield songs and some Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary, I believe. Suddenly she’s on stage and we’re singing The First Cut Is The Deepest. So I talked to her and found out that she lived nearby and it just seemed the natural thing to do – to write an album for us to do together.

31207_1_dr-robert-of-the-blow-monkeys-heads-out-on-uk-tour_ban
Dr Robert

So did you write the songs with her in mind, or were any of them ones you had kicking around?

DR: I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I like deadlines. Once we had decided to do an album, the pressure was on me to come up with the songs. It’s a pressure I enjoy.

What did you want the album to sound like?

DR: I knew it had to be funky and soulful, but I also wanted to bring in elements of folk music – nothing too rocky, but just a platform to try and enhance the voices. I found the sax player, Jose Luis, busking in Granada.

Where did you record the songs?

DR: There was a great little studio [Gizmo 7] in the seaside port of Motril, in Spain. It was run by a guy from Cologne [Paul Grau], who had some amazing analogue gear. He was also an experienced engineer, so it was a real find. I had the songs and then contacted some old friends – Marco Nelson from The Young Disciples, who played bass, and Crispin Taylor from Galliano on drums.

‘I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I enjoy the pressure of deadlines’

How was PP to work with?

DR: She was an education. I had to remix the whole album because she thought the vocals were too low. She was right. The way she heard things was that the song supports the singer. It was a valuable lesson. She is an incredible singer – a proper soul singer – and we sang most of the stuff together. It was an honour.

DR and PP

Listening to the album now, how do you feel about it? Do you have any favourite songs? 

DR: I’m still happy with it, which I can’t say of everything I’ve done. It sounds fresh because we didn’t try any gimmicks, or attempt to make anything particularly contemporary. We just tried to keep it sparse and natural. My favourite song is probably Shape It For Me.

Why did you decide to put the album out on vinyl, for Record Store Day 2017?

DR: The original label it was on, Curb Records, went bust shortly after the original release in 2007 and the album had largely been unavailable since then. Richard Clarke at Monks Road Records came along and wanted to put it out there again – Record Store Day was a perfect way to get the ball rolling. It will come out on CD and download too

You’ve just come off a UK tour, playing solo acoustic shows with Matt Deighton and Chris Difford. How was that? I saw the London show and thought it was superb…

DR: It was the first time I’d met Matt. He’s a lovely guy – very gentle and one hell of a guitar player. I love his song Villager.

Playing solo is a challenge, after doing so much with the band over the last five years or so. But I love the freedom of just being able to take it where I want, to try and feel the audience vibe and respond to it. I love improvising basically and being solo allows me the freedom.

‘The new Blow Monkeys album is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is!’

You’re currently working on a new Blow Monkeys album. What’s it sound like and when can we expect to hear it? 

DR: It’s called The Wild River and it is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is! It’s luck and fortune, but sometimes things just fall into place. I hope everyone feels the same way when they hear it.

Five In The Afternoon by Dr Robert and PP Arnold is available now on Monks Road Records.  For more information, go to http://monksroad.com/

Best albums of 2016

005189101_500

Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.

The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.

All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.

Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.

I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”

When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.

On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.

I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.

Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe. 

My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars. 

Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.

It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds  (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute. 

the-hanging-stars-637x358
The Hanging Stars

Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.

The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list… 

Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.

This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…

  1. The Hanging Stars Over The Silvery Lake
  2. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
  3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key
  4. Peter BruntnellNos Da Comrade
  5. Vinny PeculiarSilver Meadows
  6. David Bowie – Blackstar
  7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  8. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  9. Ben Watt – Fever Dream
  10. Quiet Loner – The Battle For The Ballot
  11. Britta Phillips Luck Or Magic
  12. Nick Piunti Trust Your Instincts 
  13. Cotton MatherDeath of The Cool
  14. Robert Rotifer Not Your Door
  15. Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
  16. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  17. The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
  18. Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
  19. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  20. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  21. Wilco – Schmilco 
  22. Dr Robert Out There
  23. The Explorers Club – Together
  24. Cool Ghouls – Animal Races
  25. John HowardAcross The Door Sill
  26. The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
  27. 8 X 8 – Inflorescence 
  28. Ryan Allen & His Extra ArmsBasement Punk
  29. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
  30. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
  31. Paul McClure Songs For Anyone 
  32. The Monkees Good Times!
  33. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  34. Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [Japan only release]
  35. The Hosts – Moon

Doctor in the house

DrR_press_2 credit Michele Siedner.jpg
[Photo by Michele Siedner]

 

Out There, the new solo album by Dr Robert, frontman of pop-soulsters The Blow Monkeys, is a stripped-down, acoustic affair that was recorded on an old eight-track Tascam tape machine at his home in deepest Andalusia, Spain. I had an appointment with the Dr to find out how this raw and rootsy record came about…

With the new album, you’ve said it’s all about the groove of the songs – there are no middle eights, key changes or bridges. Why did you take that approach to this record?

Dr Robert: It was because I used a lot of open tunings on the guitar, which deliberately restricted my options. I wanted to avoid my usual progressions. I might try an album of just middle eights next…

It’s a very rootsy and primal record in places. Tracks like All The Way Back Home and Rack and Ruin are down and dirty, bluesy grooves, and there are some jazzy vibes on the album, too. (Lost in Rasa). Were you influenced by artists like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, whose work you’ve covered in the past?  

DR: Well, people like Hardin and Neil are part of my DNA now, so I tried not to edit myself. I just let it flow, like I was jamming in my kitchen.

 

One of my favourite tracks on the album is A Bottomless Pit. I think it sounds like Jacques Brel doing Johnny Cash. Can you tell me more about this song? Where did it come from?

DR: I don’t know where songs come from. That was an effortless one. Sometimes they come along fully formed. I was lucky.

For this record, you worked with drummer Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski, piano and accordion player Jos Hawken and saxophonist, Joe Degado. How did you hook up with those guys?

DR: They are friends. Richard goes way back. He’s a proper gent and an inspiration and he’s been in bands with both Strummer and Lydon, which is good enough for me! Jos is young and blessed with an innate calm and special talent. They both live nearby, so I always had them in mind.

What was the atmosphere like when you made this album? Was it loose and laid-back? From listening to the record, it certainly sounds like it…

DR: I tended to record the ‘takes’ in the morning. My voice works better then – especially on the low notes. I was alone most of the time. I was doing a take, then running to the tape machine to stop the tape unwinding!

How did writing and recording the album at home in Spain affect the sound of the record?

DR:I live in the mountains, south of Granada. Landscape and environment have always been a major inspiration. And smells. From the sugar beet on the Fens, to the orange blossom of the Lecrin Valley.

DrR_press_4_2703 credit Michele Siedner.jpg
[Photo by Michele Siedner]

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with acts including Paul Weller, Curtis Mayfield, PP Arnold, Beth Orton and Kym Mazelle.  Do you have any great memories from any of those collaborations? Is there anyone that you’d like to work with?

DR: They have all taught me something. Curtis was a humble soul. The best always are. I’d like to work with Tom Waits.

Out There is your tenth solo album. After more than 30 years in the business, do you feel like a prolific solo artist, or will you forever be a Blow Monkey? How does it feel now, looking back on your days as a ’80s pop star?

DR: I’m a prolific Blow Monkey. The ‘80s were the last great ‘pop’ decade. Things have changed. Mostly for the better.

How did it feel when you reformed The Blow Monkeys in 2007? Why did you decide to come back? Was it a case of unfinished business and how was it when you got back together to play and make new records? 

DR: I missed being in a band, but I wanted to make new band music. We are a strange mix. We all love different music, but we never argue. We’re a slightly dysfunctional family – like all the best bands.

blow monkeys.jpg

Any news on The Blow Monkeys? Do you have more new material or gigs planned?

DR: There are lots of gigs up on our website  and a new album proposed for spring 2017. I’m writing some punky soul anthems right now.

The Blow Monkeys were known for their left-wing political views. Does it seem strange to you that nowadays more mainstream artists don’t use their music to convey political views, or protest against wrongdoing or unjustness? 

DR: Some still do. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was a masterpiece in my opinion and Beyoncé did a fine thing at the Super Bowl.

There’s a track on your new album called I Ain’t Running Anymore, yet, after more than 30 years in the business, you seem to be busier than ever. What’s your secret?  You had a health scare a while back and you quit drinking. What effect has that had on you? Are you in a good place?

DR: I don’t have a secret. Just keep your eyes open and your lips pursed. I try to remember how it felt to hear Ride a White Swan for the first time. My whole world opened up.

What music – new and old – are you currently listening to and enjoying?

DR: Old – Bukka White. New – Kendrick Lamarr.

Finally, how ‘out there’ are you?

DR: Not enough, yet. I’m working on it.

 

Out There by Dr Robert is released on May 2 (Fencat Records).

For more information, go to http://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

out there small