‘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/

In my hour of darkness

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we love country and darkness, and we love My Darling Clementine and Elvis Costello, so we absolutely love Country Darkness Vol.1, the new four-track EP from My Darling Clementine, on which the UK husband and wife duo – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgliesh – reinterpret country songs written by Costello.

They’ve even roped in the bespectacled singer-songwriter’s right hand man, Steve Nieve – keyboardist with The Attractions and The Imposters – to play on it, and, as if that wasn’t enough, it also features members of ace Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley’s backing band…

Opening song Heart Shaped Bruise is a stunning and dramatic, melancholy piano-led ballad; Stranger In The House has been reinvented in a rhumba style; That Day Is Done is a gospel song with a New Orleans funeral feel and I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came is a classic-sounding country lament, with its themes of infidelity and regret…

We spoke to Michael and asked him to shed some light on the Country Darkness project…

 Q & A

In 1981, when you were 19, Costello’s album of country cover versions, Almost Blue, first turned you on to country music, didn’t it?

Michael Weston King: Until I heard Almost Blue, country music for me was the occasional Jim Reeves record on my parents’ stereo and also Glen Campbell, who I appreciated – he’s still one of my favourite artists.

When I was 19, I was going to see The Jam and Elvis Costello. I was into post-punk, power-pop, New Wave, Joy Division, The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen – I used to go to Eric’s in Liverpool. Suddenly, Costello – my main man – made a record on which he’d covered artists I’d never heard of, in a genre that took me by surprise.

To most 19 or 20-year-old kids who’d been brought up on Dr Feelgood and The Clash, it was like, ‘what the fuck’s this?’ At the same time, it was Costello, so it had to be paid attention to.

I liked the clever lyrics and the great songs. From that record, I discovered George Jones and The Flying Burrito Brothers and whoever else Costello covered on it… His version of Hank Williams’s Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)? is sped-up, trashy and rock ‘n’ roll – it had an edge to it.

I know so many people for whom country music became something of value once they’d heard Almost Blue. Not long after that, the New Country thing came along – you had bands like The Rain Parade, Green On Red and Jason and The Scorchers, who were from a punk-rock background, but had a love of country music. The first few albums by The Jayhawks were also a big influence on me – they were fantastic records.

The track listing for Country Darkness Vol. 1 is Heart Shaped BruiseStranger In The HouseThat Day Is Done and I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came. How did you choose which songs to record?

MWK: We had a long list of songs to choose from – some got the chop because we felt they’d been done quite a lot before, or because, lyrically, they didn’t translate so well into being done by a duo.

I’ve always loved I Felt The Chill… and That Day Is Done is one of Lou’s favourite songs ever – I’ve not heard anyone else do it. That Day Is Done is a hard song to sing because of the vocal range. I also didn’t want our record to be totally country – I wanted a country soul vibe, as well. That Day Is Done is kind of gospel…

Interestingly, for the EP, you’ve chosen to cover some of Costello’s less well-known songs. You didn’t go for some of his more obvious country tracks, such as material from his King of America album…

MWK: King of America is one of my favourite albums. It’s kind of like an American record, as it was recorded in The States with T-Bone Burnett and musicians who’d played with Elvis Presley. It’s a really great collection of songs – well-formulated and brilliantly written. It was also Costello’s first album without The Attractions, so it’s a departure… I love the sound of it.

We certainly could have done a number of songs from it. In fact, there are some songs from it that are still on our shortlist – I’ll Wear It Proudly and Our Little Angel, to name but two, and they may yet be covered.

Lou had already recorded a beautiful version of Indoor Fireworks on a solo album many years ago, and I used to perform Sleep Of The Just in my solo set, so we intentionally chose to avoid those.

‘I know so many people for whom country music became something of value once they’d heard Costello’s Almost Blue…’

You recorded some of the new EP at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield, with members of Richard Hawley’s backing band – Colin Elliot (production, bass, cello, backing vocals, string and horn arrangements), Shez Sheridan (guitars, backing vocals) and Dean Beresford (drums). They’d played on your second album, The Reconciliation? How was it reuniting with them?

MWK: They’re fabulous musicians – Dean has become a regular part of the My Darling Clementine touring band and Colin and Shez are exemplary players and singers – technically and inspirationally. They’re a safe pair of hands. I can play those guys something I want to hear and they get it straight away.

When we came to make this record, we had The Imposters [Costello’s backing band] on board, who were up for it, but we had to look at how and where we did it. Would it be in London or L.A? It got complicated. In the end, we did pre-production, Steve Nieve put the piano down and sent it to us and then we went into the studio with Colin, Shez and Dean and built the tracks around the piano. It was interesting – in a way, Steve was leading the direction and then we followed that and added to it.

Had you met Steve before you worked on this project?

MWK: No – apart from maybe a nod backstage at a Costello gig. We had musical friends in common. It was interesting to go from exchanging emails with him to staying at his house in Trouville-sur-Mer [in France], which is where he and his partner, the filmmaker Muriel Téodori, have a place. We got stuck into the project – we were fully immersed in it.

Picture of My Darling Clementine by Jeff Fassano

You’ve released four songs on the first Country Darkness EP. Are there any more in the can?

MWK: We’ve worked out another five songs with Steve and I think we’ll record them using the same process, because it’s manageable and affordable and the results are fantastic. Yes – it would be nice to go and record in L.A. with The Imposters, but we can’t find the money to justify it… We’ll see… who knows?

‘It was interesting to go from exchanging emails with Steve Nieve to staying at his house. We got stuck into the project – we were fully immersed in it’

The new EP is the first in a series of Costello covers records you’re planning. Can you tell us any of the other songs you’re going to record?

MWK: Our plan is to record three EPs and then they’ll all come out together as an album. Either Side Of The Same Town from The Delivery Man is a real personal favourite of mine – it may turn up at a later date… My feeling about that song is that it’s Costello trying to re-write the Dan Penn classic The Dark End Of The Street – something we may all be guilty of trying to do at some point… It’s arguably the greatest country soul song ever written, particularly when James Carr sings it.

So what are your plans for the rest of the year? 

MWK: I’ve got a solo record that’s on the cards – I’m four songs short of having a squad that I’m happy to go and start working on. Hopefully the writing will be done by the end of November. I am going into a studio in Norway in the next few weeks to start work on that.

There are also two songs that I’m going to record with Colin Elliot and the guys – they’re bigger sounding tracks and I can hear them doing them wonderfully.

Finally, can you tell us any albums from 2019 that you have been listening to and enjoying?

MWK: My favourite record of the year has been Springsteen’s Western Stars – I absolutely adore it. It’s such a good record it’s damned near perfect he’s singing beautifully and I love the arrangements.

My favourite record of the year has been Springsteen’s Western Stars – I absolutely adore it. It’s such a good record – it’s damned near perfect’

It’s a great album apart from one duff track, Sleepy Joe’s Café...

MWK: Why is that track on it? It ruins the record if he’d taken it off, he would’ve had almost the perfect album.

Another record I really like although, due to the things he’s been saying in recent times, he’s not a person to praise is Morrissey’s covers album [California Son.] I think it’s a brilliant record with a great choice of songs his singing is great and the production is fantastic. I love that he picked songs by Tim Hardin and Phil Ochs some of my favourite songwriters. It’s very much an American record… I wonder if he’s going to do another one of songs by British artists?

I should be listening to some much more younger and hipper things, but I can’t say I am, unfortunately…

Country Darkness Vol.1 by My Darling Clementine is out now on Fretsore Records. It is available to download and stream and also on limited edition vinyl. 

https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/

 

 

 

‘We’re talking about doing a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones’

My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham
My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham

Best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham first heard country duo My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) when he read about them on my blog back in 2013.

Since then he’s become a huge fan of the band – so much so that’s he’s recently collaborated with them on a new album and a touring live show called The Other Half.

A story of love, loss and murder told in words and music, The Other Half  is set in a rundown Memphis bar, and focuses on waitress Marcia – a former Las Vegas showgirl – who lives her life through her customers and their everyday, tragic tales of grief, heartbreak, lust, murder and domestic horror.

I talked to Mark to find out how My Darling Clementine’s songs inspired him to write a short story and why he’s a frustrated rock star…

So, what first attracted you to My Darling Clementine?

Mark Billingham: What’s not to love? The songs are wonderful and both Michael and Lou have voices to die for.

I’ve always loved country duets – Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash and June Carter – and My Darling Clementine are keeping that flame alive.

They honour that tradition, but bring it bang up to date with songs that reflect the modern world. And, above all, they are amazing storytellers.

We’ve talked before about the link between country music and crime fiction. You included a country music playlist, which featured My Darling Clementine, in your book, The Bones Beneath.

How easy was it to link the two genres in The Other Half? You used some My Darling Clementine songs as stepping stones to writing the narrative, didn’t you?

MB: Yes – the songs were very much the tent pegs around which I was able to construct the story.

There were some songs I knew I wanted to use straight away – By A Thread, which opens the show, No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) and, of course, The Other Half. This made it the easiest short story I’ve ever written.

I’ve always found short fiction much tougher to write than novels, but having the songs to work with made it so much easier.

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

MB: It’s a story told in words and songs. One of the real delights of this project is that people have come along to the shows not really knowing what to expect and have come away having loved it.

Both myself and My Darling Clementine are working outside our comfort zones and approaching our work in a new way and I think that excitement comes across.

It’s a gig, it’s a play, it’s a story – it’s all those things, but the mixture of the three makes it something entirely of its own, too.

 

 

Can you tell me about the writing process for The Other Half? How did you start it all off and come up with the concept of love, loss and murder in a Memphis bar and make it work with the My Darling Clementine songs?

MB: The songs suggested characters – falling in and out of love, dealing with loss and grief – and it was my job to figure out who they were, how they had come to the point that Michael and Lou were singing about, or what happened to them afterwards.

The bar seemed like the ideal setting for such a disparate bunch of characters and all I needed was someone through whose eyes we see them and that was where the character of Marcia the waitress came from.

She is someone whose life has not panned out the way she imagined – a faded Vegas showgirl who now lives her life vicariously through her customers.

A prime example of the process is No Matter What Tammy Said. It’s a hugely powerful song about a very dark subject and I was fired up to write about what happens to the people involved once the song has ended.

So, Marcia observes these people, talks to the woman involved and through Michael and Lou singing the song, we discover the truth. Then I’m able to move the story on and this was my chance to bring murder into the picture, which, as a crime writer, I am of course contractually obliged to do.

You’re a big fan of country music. What was it like working with My Darling Clementine in the studio and performing on stage? Did it take you back to your early days as a performer and doing comedy shows? 

Last year, I saw you sing and play guitar at The Other Half show in London, Islington. Are you a frustrated rock star?

MB: Oh, of course. At heart I’m a performer and though these days my performances take place on the page, I can’t resist any opportunity to show off.

I’m very comfortable on stage and it’s a real buzz sharing it with performers as great as Michael and Lou. It’s a huge pleasure hearing them sing every night and even though parts of the story are very dark, we have a lot of fun.

The piece, as a whole, is actually uplifting, I think. You can’t put together a show about grief and pain and death without a degree of redemption. And I love having a chance to sing and sometimes play guitar with My Darling Clementine at the end of the night.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

 

On the album The Other Half, you worked with actor David Morrissey, who played your fictional detective character Tom Thorne on TV, and musicians Graham Parker and The Brodsky Quartet. That must have been great…

MB: All those people were hugely generous with their time and very supportive of the project.

David came in as a favour to do some acting on the album, as did the phenomenal Graham Parker. I’ve loved Graham’s stuff since I was 15, so to work with him was a huge thrill.

He actually performed the show in its entirety – being me and reading the story – at a festival I couldn’t make in the Hague. So, when we were putting the album together, we asked him if he’d like to be involved and he said yes.

The Brodsky Quartet worked with Elvis Costello on his album The Juliet Letters. I know you’re a huge Costello fan, so that must’ve been very exciting for you to record with them…

MB: Michael and Lou had worked with the Brodsky Quartet before, and, yes, I do feel that their involvement brought me just a little closer to Elvis…

You co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine for The Other Half. What was that like? Was it a dream come true and would you like to write more lyrics?

MB: Absolutely. I’m working on it. The idea was always to close the show with a new song that we had written together.

It’s a song called As Precious As the Flame, which reflects the redemption I talked about earlier, and I love hearing it. I wrote some lyrics, which Michael and Lou improved, and then Michael wrote a fantastic tune.

Seeing great actors play characters I’ve created is a buzz and hearing singers and players of Michael and Lou’s calibre singing my words is equally thrilling.

What’s it like being on tour with a band? Have you picked up any rock and roll habits?

MB: Of course. My rider is outrageous! It’s a very different life from that of the touring author. It involves a lot more preparation for a start. It’s not like rocking up at some bookshop or literary festival ten minutes before I’m due on stage and thinking I can busk it.

We normally start setting up three hours or more before showtime. Of course, there are sound and lights to get right, but the show is very theatrical too, so we have a stage to dress and some audio-visual material to get set up. Then obviously there are the drugs and the hookers…

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine? Are you going to be a new supergroup?

MB: Well, we’re talking doing about a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones…

 

Time of Death

 

Moving away from The Other Half, let’s talk about your new Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, which came out recently. Without giving too much away, what’s it about?

MB: As with the previous novel – The Bones Beneath – I’ve taken Tom Thorne out of London.

This time, he and his girlfriend Helen Weeks have to travel back to the town where Helen grew up. Something bad has happened – of course – and for reasons Tom can’t quite understand, Helen feels compelled to return.

A man has been arrested for the abduction of two girls, but Tom is not convinced the police have the right man. Obviously, he can’t resist poking his nose in where it’s not wanted and soon his friend Phil Hendricks turns up.

The media has descended on the small town and Tom has to deal with them, as well as hostile cops, if he is to unearth the real killer and save a girl who may still be alive. And there’s some country music, but you’d probably guessed that. And pigs…

You’re currently working on a new standalone novel that will be published next year, aren’t you?

MB: Yes, I am. I’m giving Thorne a break, although, as with my previous standalone novels, he will make a cameo appearance. I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and I’m enjoying myself, but I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

Once that’s done, I’ll be getting involved with the TV adaptations of Time Of Death and In The Dark, which are very exciting. They will be broadcast next year and there will be another series, based on an altogether different book, coming in 2017.

I’m also very hopeful that we can adapt The Other Half  in some way. It’s a radio show waiting to happen. Or a movie. Or a theme park…

Finally, as we’re talking about music and fiction, what are you currently listening to and reading?

MB: I’m listening to a lot of old stuff, as always.

Aside from the two fabulous My Darling Clementine albums and a lot of Graham Parker, I’m on a real Everly Brothers kick at the moment, so Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is being played almost constantly. The two recent albums that I’ve enjoyed the most have been Jenny Lewis’s The Voyager and Colfax by The Delines.

Right now, I’m re-reading Peter Guralnick’s brilliant Last Train To Memphis (inspired by The Other Half, I think).

Actually, I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick recently and have loved So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.

My favourite novel of the last six months, hands down, has been Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson. Gobsmackingly good.

In terms of crime fiction, the best novel I’ve read recently is A Song Of Shadows by John Connolly and I’m very much looking forward to the new one from Dennis Lehane.

 

The Other Half

 

The Other Half  is now available on CD and as an audio download from Little, Brown.

Recorded in January 2015, it contains brand new versions of eight My Darling Clementine songs, Mark Billingham’s narration, and features special guest performances from David Morrissey (who played Mark’s detective Tom Thorne on TV), singer-songwriter Graham Parker and the Brodsky Quartet. 

For more information on The Other Half, My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham, please visit:

http://www.theotherhalfshow.com/content/

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

To read an interview with the other half of  The Other Half, My Darling Clementine, please click here. 

 

Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half
Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half

 

Blood on the tracks

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, includes a 40-song playlist intended to soundtrack a road trip that occurs in the book. I spoke to him about his love of country music, Elvis Costello and Morrissey and what makes the perfect pop song…

Mark Billingham: ©Charlie Hopkinson
Mark Billingham: © Charlie Hopkinson

“Country music is perfect for crime fiction – the stories are so dark, but also beautiful and entertaining,” says Mark Billingham, sipping a pint of lager in his favourite North London pub, The Spread Eagle, in Camden.

I’ve lured one of the UK’s top crime writers here to talk about his brand new book, The Bones Beneath, which is the twelfth novel in the bestselling Tom Thorne series – but also to quiz him on his love of music.

And quiz him I will, because he’s no stranger to having his music knowledge tested. In the last few months he’s won TV’s Celebrity Mastermind – his specialist subject was Elvis Costello – and triumphed on the game show Pointless Celebrities. He scored a pointless answer thanks to his knowledge of 1970s Elton John album tracks. But more about that later…

Mark – like his fictional creation Tom Thorne – loves country music, both dark and cheesy, although, as he is quick to point out, he hates Garth Brooks. Their mutual taste in music has manifested itself in a 40-song playlist, which is included in the hardback version of The Bones Beneath – published by Little, Brown on May 22. The list also includes explanations as to why each particular song was chosen.

The Bones Beneath

The Bones Beneath sees Thorne coming up against his old nemesis, serial killer Stuart Nicklin, and is partly set on a remote, windswept Welsh island that harbours some dark secrets. The first section of the book is a long road trip, which involves a six-hour drive, as Mark explains: 

“At one point, early on, the character Holland says to Thorne, ‘what are we going to be listening to?’ They joke about it – Thorne says that he’s got a Hank Williams playlist that will last all the way there. However, ‘stuff ‘ happens and they never get to listen to anything. Thorne would’ve had the playlist ready – obviously – so I just put it in at the end of the book, as a bonus for people who buy the hardback. It gave me a chance to include some of my favourite music and to talk about it.

“There were certain artists that were always going to be on there  – Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams – but I also wanted to put a few newer people on it, who maybe Thorne doesn’t listen to yet. So, I had to have some Richmond Fontaine and My Darling Clementine on there.

“The playlist is Thorne’s, it’s not mine, but a lot of those songs would also be in my list of my 40 favourite songs – He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and Galveston by Glen Campbell – but I’d also have God Only Knows by  The Beach Boys and any number of songs by Elvis Costello, The Smiths and The Beatles, who are bands I grew up with. I’m still inordinately fond of every piece of music that meant something to me from the age of 13. The stuff I listen to now tends to be country, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Slade, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Morrissey.

“I went from glam rock – I was watching it on Top Of The Pops when I was 12 – to prog. I was probably the world’s biggest Genesis fan…and then I got into punk, although it wasn’t an overnight thing. It wasn’t like I threw away all my Yes albums when the first Clash album came out!

“I went to see Television, supported by Blondie, at the Birmingham Odeon. That was a massive moment for me. From then on, I was into the tail end of punk…by the time punk reached Birmingham [where I grew up], everyone was already into post-punk. When I heard the first Elvis Costello album, I left prog behind, but it wasn’t always easy. I once got beaten up in Birmingham by two blokes and their girlfriends for wearing skinny jeans…”

I’d like to ask you about My Darling Clementine – a contemporary country act that we both love. You first got into them by reading an interview with them on my blog, didn’t you?

Mark Billingham: Yeah – you turned me on to them. They [husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish] are the modern George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They’re a married couple and they’re both fantastic singers and brilliant songwriters. They have an incredible chemistry and they put on a fantastic show. They’re just a kick-ass band – one of the best country acts I’ve ever seen. I’ve put 100,000 Words by My Darling Clementine on the playlist – it was the first song of theirs that I heard. I’ve always been a big fan of country duets.

One of  My Darling Clementine’s big influences is Elvis Costello. Wasn’t it Costello’s 1981 album Almost Blue – a record of country cover versions recorded in Nashville – that first got you into country music?

MB: Exactly – it completely opened my eyes. That album was massively important for me. I was vaguely aware of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but when I first heard  Almost Blue, I became a true believer. I bought it because I was a Costello fan, but it completely turned me on to country music and I think I’m right in saying it did the same for Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine.It’s the reason that the playlist in the book finishes with Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?) which is the first track on Almost Blue.

 

 

You’re also a big fan of  The Smiths and Morrissey, aren’t you?

MB: I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard This Charming Man. I had some speakers rigged up in the bathroom of my student flat and I connected them to a radio. I used to listen to John Peel in the bath. It was me that was in the bath, rather than John Peel. I can remember having one foot in the bath and one foot out of it when he played This Charming Man – I thought, ‘what the fuck is this?’ I went out the next morning and bought the first Smiths album. It absolutely changed everything – I adored The Smiths and I always will. I’m still a massive Morrissey fan, though I don’t think I’d want to meet him – I’ve heard a few stories about him…well, it’s all there in his book. The world needs Morrissey – I think he’s unique. He’s as good a lyricist now as he’s ever been. I saw The Smiths at a GLC gig [Jobs For A Change festival – County Hall, London, 1984] and can remember it vividly. They were incredible…

Have great lyricists like Costello and Morrissey influenced you as a writer?

MB: I’ve actually written a short story about Costello and Morrissey, and maybe one day I’ll find a home for it. It’s about them meeting at Heathrow airport on the day that Thatcher dies. They’re trying to get out of the country because they’re being hounded by the press for quotes because they wrote Tramp The Dirt Down [Costello] and Margaret On The Guillotine [Morrissey]. They’re just sitting there in the airport lounge. Actually, I don’t refer to them by name, I just call them The Hat and The Quiff – and they’re having a slightly awkward conversation about anger and notoriety, with Morrissey complaining about the tea…

What is it about crime writers and music? Some of your contemporaries, like Ian Rankin, who writes the Rebus novels, and Peter Robinson, who created Inspector Banks, also fill their books with music references. Music is very important to the central characters in those books, as well as to the authors themselves…

MB: I think it’s a particularly male thing. There was a radio show called Music To Die For a few years back, which was about crime writers and music. Ian Rankin presented it and it featured the likes of me, John Harvey and American writers like George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. It was really hard to find female crime writers who used music quite so much [as men do] in their books. There’s that kind of slightly tragic, sad, male thing going on. When male crime writers get together, they give each other compilation CDs! We don’t talk about books – we talk about music, almost exclusively. We can sit and talk for hours.

It’s a lot of fun hanging out with crime writers – it’s like being a member of a really cool gang. Somebody once described crime writers as being the smokers of the literary community – ever so slightly on the outside. They’re naughty, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves.

So many crime writers are basically frustrated musicians and the love of music that’s there in their books is not just a gimmick. Ian Rankin does genuinely adore Mogwai and The Rolling Stones and Peter Robinson loves the music he writes about. I’m equally passionate about country music. It’s great, because it means I can get characters to take the piss out of Thorne [for his country music taste]. I get the piss taken out of me too, but I’m not ashamed to say that I also really love the cheesy country stuff, too. He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones is consistently voted the best country song of all time and I’m not arguing. It’s got everything – a cheesy choir, a voiceover – Billy Sherrill [producer and arranger] basically threw the kitchen sink at it. It’s a fantastic story, with a brilliant twist. It breaks your heart…

 

 

Have you been on Desert Island Discs? 

MB: No, but I’ve been on several shows like it, and strangely, one of the songs I always pick is I Did What I Did For Maria  by  Tony Christie. It’s about someone who is about to be executed for killing the man who raped and murdered his wife. A nice, cheery pop song. It was actually the first single I ever bought – I must have been 12  or something like that. Maybe I liked it because of his voice or the horns, but the truth is it’s a really dark story. It’s weird that it was the first song that I wanted to go out and buy with my own money.

Maybe that’s what started off your interest in crime stories and dark tales….

MB: I’ve always loved story songs, like Ode To Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry. That’s another fantastic story hidden behind a gorgeous melody. I listen to music for pleasure – not necessarily to hear interesting chord progressions. Does the song do something to me?

He Stopped Loving Her Today makes me cry. Honey by Bobby Goldsboro –which is one of the cheesiest songs of all time – makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t explain it.

Books and films and plays have moved me, but nothing can affect me like the perfect three-minute pop song – like God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. They have the power that some literature or films simply don’t have. Whether it’s Wichita Lineman, I Want You or There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – they’re all twisted love songs and they’re all on my list [of favourite pop songs]. If you can write the perfect pop song… It’s like writing a wonderful short story. I think that a great short story is better than a good novel. If I had the choice of writing an opera that people would still be performing in 100 years’ time, or the greatest pop song ever written, I’d go for the pop song every time.

Would you like to write song lyrics?

MB: Oh god, yes. I’d love to. That’s the dream – Costello phones me up and says, ‘I’ve got this tune, but I can’t write any lyrics for it’.  Like that’s ever going to happen…

Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).
Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).

You’re a big Nick Lowe fan, aren’t you?

MB: Nick Lowe is awesome – he’s a master class in elegance – a quite brilliant songwriter. Lyrics like, ‘That untouched takeaway, I brought back the other day, has quite a lot to say’ – from his song Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. It’s just perfect.

What new music artists are you into? Have you bought any records by new bands recently?

MB: Well, I tend to wander round Fopp for an hour and just end up coming out with old stuff – some of which I’ve already got on cassette and vinyl. I must have every Costello album in six different versions…

What’s your favourite album of all time?

MB: If you made me pick one now it would probably be Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. If I could only take one album out of a burning house it would be that. I think Costello is the finest singer-songwriter of his generation, bar none.

You like The Beatles, too, don’t you?

MB: I’m a massive Beatles fan. How can you not be? Whenever I meet people who say they hate The Beatles, I want to slap them! Even if you don’t like what they were doing in ’62 or ’63, you’ve got to like Rubber Soul and Revolver! There’s never been another band in history that has progressed quite so much in five years. They were incredible – they turned the world upside down, like no other band has ever done. I’m actually working with someone right now who professes not to like The Beatles at all. He knows who he is!

Are you a Bob Dylan fan?

MB: I’m a Dylan fan, but I’m not a Dylan obsessive. For me, I can do with four or five of his albums – Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Desire.… There are a few other artists who I feel like that about – Tom Waits, Neil Young… Their back catalogues are so huge and too daunting. I’m much more excited about finding a band like My Darling Clementine [who’ve only had two albums out] – I’m in on the ground floor. And in five years’ time, when they’re massive, I can get quite cross about it. Tell people I was there at the beginning…

You’ve recently been showing off your superb music knowledge on the TV shows Celebrity Mastermind and Pointless Celebrities…. You won both of them.

MB: I’ve been a shameless whore. The sad truth is that I just love quizzes. Anything where there’s a buzzer involved, I go mental. On Pointless, it was a magical moment. Up came ‘Elton John albums’ and I leant across to my partner and I said, ‘I’ve got this’. I grew up with those albums and I had them all. I knew every track on them. I like doing music quizzes and I love setting them. If I’m on a long road trip with a friend, we’ll make huge playlists and play beat the intro. I have no life…

Maybe you could have incorporated a music quiz into The Bones Beneath?

MB: Actually, I would have loved to have made the playlist into a CD, but it’s a logistical nightmare. I’ve used song lyrics in my books a couple of times. In my first book, I used a lyric from Costello’s Radio Sweetheart – I had to pay for that. Like Elvis hasn’t had enough of my money over the years! Morrissey let me use lyrics from Bigmouth Strikes Again for free – good old Mozza. But most of the time it’s very tricky, so I try to avoid it where I can

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham?

MB: I’m doing a secret book, but I can’t say very much about it. I’ve written it with three other people – the crime writers Martyn Waites and Stav Sherez and the comedy writer and music journalist David Quantick. It’s a music book and there are some jokes in it. I can’t really say a lot more than that at the moment. I can say that we’ve all had enormous fun writing it…

Are you working on a new Thorne novel?

MB: I’m halfway through a new Thorne book – it will be out a year from now. I’ll finish that in September – hopefully – and it will come out in May 2015.

Do you think certain members of the literary community look down on crime writers?

MB: Well, there’s occasionally that slight element of literary snobbery, but sometimes it goes both ways and I think the lines between the two genres are becoming increasingly blurred. It’s fine by me – I’m very happy to be a crime writer. I don’t have pretensions to be anything else. I’m never going to deny that I’m a crime writer, in the way that some people do, even though their books are full of murder. The ones who claim to feel constrained by the conventions of crime fiction or say that they’re ‘transcending the genre’. We all want to push the boundaries, but it doesn’t need ‘transcending’. If you don’t want to write it, fuck off and do something else. No one’s putting a gun to your head…

Here’s a Mark Billingham inspired Spotify playlist

Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, is out on May 22. It’s published by Little, Brown.

http://www.markbillingham.com