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 Bruise, Stranger In The House, That 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.
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.