Heart-Shaped Scars, the new album by Scottish singer-songwriter, Dot Allison, just might be the most beautiful record you hear this year.
On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, has gone back to nature.
Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs feature field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.
Musically, she cites Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There’s also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.
“I love that soundtrack and film,” she tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us from her home in Edinburgh. “I got asked to sing a song from it, Gently Johnnny, with The Memory Band, at Glastonbury. I’ve bought the soundtrack on CD and vinyl – it’s featured in my world.”
Heart-Shaped Scars has been a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. Since then, she’s taken time out to start a family.
Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, who worked on the last three Paul Weller albums, it’s a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments is called The Haunting and opens with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”
There’s also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello. “That song started off as a poem called Church of Snow – I wrote it when I was working with Massive Attack,” she says.
“I showed it to 3D from Massive Attack and he said he loved it. He got me to post it on their forum – that was in 2004. The song is quite different from the poem.”
In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars is her most rootsy sounding album so far. “I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she says.
Four of the songs feature a string quintet, and other instruments on the record include ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounds hushed and intimate.
Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long Exposure – “Orchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.
‘I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature’
Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars references several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she says.
In fact, one of the songs is called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It’s autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provides guest vocals.
The record’s most brooding and dark moment is Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.
“I wanted to write a song that was like a mantra, with blocks of vocals and more primary colours – a slab of melody, ” she explains. “I wanted the vocals to be like paintbrush strokes.
“The song has a Juno-106 [synth] on it. There’s a company called BrandNewNoise that makes these interesting little, experimental wooden bits and bobs, like a weird, mutated version of a glockenspiel, which has an internal mic to record what you’re doing, but also a modulation button, so you can loop what you’ve done and then fuck about with it.
“I used that on it. It’s like a marriage between a synth and a wooden glockenspiel. It’s mental the noises you can get out of it, like a moment that sounds like a weird, distorted star. I think I’ve hopefully brought the slightly left-field dance mentality to the sounds – even though they’re quite human.”
Heart-Shaped Scars is a beautiful record. I can’t stop playing it…
Dot Allison: Thank you so much – I really appreciate it.
It’s been 12 years since your last album. Why did the time feel right to put out a new record?
DA: The time was right because my kids are older – I had more space to work on music and I also changed my manager in early 2018, which meant I started writing again, and then the album started coming together.
How did Covid-19 affect the album?
DA: Covid altered my plans, but, thankfully, I’d started the recording process – the bass and the drum, and the bones of the songs that were going to have a fuller band sound were laid down before lockdown. When it came to further recording and production and mixing, that all got delayed.
During lockdown, I started writing on a ukulele and ended up writing four extra songs [Long Exposure, Forever’s Not Much Time, Goodbye and One Love] which changed the plan for the record, because they were strong enough to bump other songs off. In a weird way, lockdown benefited the album.
The ukulele songs began on my phone – I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net. I get it all down, so I don’t miss anything.
Once I captured some bits and lovely moments, slowly, through repetition and playing them, the songs started to take shape and knit together in my head. I then laid them down in a studio at home – just rough recordings, with a ukulele and some harmonies on my voice. I sent voice notes on my phone to Hannah Peel and Fiona Cruickshank, who co-produced the album with me.
‘I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net’
You’ve worked with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, on the record – she’s collaborated with Paul Weller on his last three albums, True Meanings,On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1). How did you and her get together?
DA: I worked with Paul Weller years ago – we didn’t stay closely in touch, but I reconnected with him in 2018. I met up with him – I went to his Black Barn studio for a cup of tea, he played me some songs and he mentioned Hannah Peel. I’d been listening to his album, True Meanings, which I absolutely love. Hannah and I agreed to do something, which I was really pleased about – I love her work. Fiona Cruickshank is a really good engineer and she’d come very highly recommended as someone who could mix the album. She agreed to get involved.
You made some field recordings in the Hebrides, which found their way onto the album…
DA: I had a little handheld recorder – I went up there for the weekend, got up early one morning and went for a walk. I recorded the stream, the sea, birdsong and a rattling gate – I turned a corner around a cliff and there was a Force 7 gale! Suddenly, I couldn’t record anything. I also recorded some birds in Edinburgh – I collected a lot of sounds and created some loops in the studio.
The whole album sounds to me like it was written and recorded in a remote cottage in the Hebrides…
DA: Some of it was written there – Constellations was written on the island.
Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with so many great artists – sadly, some of them, like Andy Weatherall and Scott Walker, are no longer with us. Did their deaths have a big effect on you?
DA:I was devastated to hear about Andy – I loved him to bits. I was very shocked. It was weird because I’m met him only a few months before it happened, for the first time in ages. He was in Edinburgh, and he was with [singer] Denise Johnson…
Who, like Andy, also died last year…
DA: I know… He asked me if I was doing any music, and I said, ‘funnily enough – I am.’ He wanted to hear some of it, but I told him it was unplayable at that time, because it was all on my phone. He said, ‘what do you mean? It’s unlistenable!’ I was like, ‘probably…’
I was planning on sending him something… It was totally shocking and so premature. I also couldn’t believe that Denise had gone too – what the hell is going on? You’ve just reminded me that I’d asked her if she’d wanted to be on this record…
Scott Walker has been a big influence on you and you worked with him…
DA: He was a creative lawbreaker – he totally did his own thing. I ended up recording with him on a song he did with Sunn O))) called Bull. Scott talked to my managers about my voice – we had the same management – and he said that I had ‘great pipes’. I’m having that!
What have been some of your favourite collaborations?
DA: I’m really proud that I worked with Hal David – that was just insane. He got temporarily stuck on the chorus of Did I Imagine You? He asked me to write him a dummy chorus, but he kept one of my lines! That was amazing. I loved working with Paul Weller too – he’s so lovely and he really put me at ease. I get so shy, it’s awful – such a burden.
‘Scott Walker said that I had ‘great pipes’. I’m having that!’
Anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
DA: I’d like to work with Linda Perhacs [American psychedelic folk singer], who made the album Parallelograms – it’s a cult classic. She’s so talented, but she was written off and she became a dental assistant. I’d love to work with Brian Wilson too.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
DA: I’ve been listening to Parallelograms and The Wicker Man soundtrack. I also got an album by My Solid Ground – I’m quite obsessed by a song called The Executioner. It’s quite prog. I’ve also been going back to The Beatles. I decided to listen to all their albums chronologically – it’s the craftmanship of the songs. I started at the beginning and then went, ‘fuck – that’s insane!’
Heart-Shaped Scars by Dot Allison is out now on SA Recordings. It’s available digitally and as a double gatefold vinyl (limited edition pressing of 500) – pre-order it here.
It’s been a busy year for English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard. He’s published the second instalment of his autobiography, Illusions of Happiness, and released his latest album, the brilliant To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection.
The new record – his seventeenth – is a collection of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sings lead and backing vocals and plays all the instruments.
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio – he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain – during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020.
Howard, who is 67, grew up in Lancashire and trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven – he started playing when he was four. His debut album, Kid In A Big World, featuring the single Goodbye Suzie, was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple studios in 1974 and came out the following year.
“The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers.
“I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.”
During the summer, you published the second volume of your autobiography, lllusions of Happiness, which goes up to 1986. There’s a third and final instalment planned in the not-too-distant future. How have you found writing the books? Has it been cathartic? What have you learnt from the process?
John Howard: To be honest, I didn’t know there’d be a second volume when I wrote the first one, Incidents Crowded With Life. It was intended as an online chapter-by-chapter series of events in my life up to my accident, when I broke my back, in 1976. I was astonished when Fisher King told me they wanted to publish it. But reviews were excellent and Fisher King asked me to write a second instalment.
Originally, it was going to go from 1976 to 2000, covering my recovery from the accident through to returning to recording with Trevor Horn and Steve Levine and my move into working in the music business in A & R and Licensing through the ‘80s and ‘90s; meeting my husband Neil, leaving London for Oxfordshire, and finally in 2000 for Pembrokeshire. But Fisher King suggested I split it into two books. So I decided to end Illusions of Happiness in 1986, just before I met Neil, having split from my then partner of eight years, changed jobs and moved into my own apartment. It seemed a good narrative point to finish the book.
‘I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang’
I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang. So writing the book felt very natural, and yes, a little cathartic. It sounds silly in a way, but quite a few members of my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s, so being practical, I wanted to get as much of my life down in writing now just in case there comes a time when “I can’t even remember my name”, as a line in the song Injuries Sustained In Surviving [from the new album] goes.
I didn’t really learn anything from writing the book, as I knew it all already! But it did help put some things into a clearer view in my mind. What I never did, in either book, was comment or judge, I just told what happened – as I saw it – and let the reader decide on who was right or wrong, on whether I, and other people in my life at the time, made the right decisions. What was, was. What happened, happened. There’s no changing that. I just wanted to put it down on paper.
Hopefully, the third book will be published sometime in 2022 – there were two years between books one and two being published, so I’m guessing there’ll be a similar gap before the third is out there. It’s more or less written – there’s just some tweaking and editing to do over the next weeks and months.
The new album is very reflective, nostalgic and melancholy at times. What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the songs? It has a lot of reminiscences on it… Do you think writing your autobiographies made you write more songs about your past?
JH: I think writing the two autobiographies – so far – certainly put a lot of things in perspective. I have an excellent memory but actually writing stuff down that happened 40, 50-plus years ago captured those memories for good and finally gave them placement and sense.
As I say, I’m not one to look back most of the time, but being ‘forced to’ when you’re writing your life story – or a bit of it – did remind me of people, events, experiences, and that would automatically seep into my songwriting. The two processes sit side by side.
Getting older too, of course, one remembers and reflects, rather than anticipating a whole lot more! It is a strange feeling knowing I have probably – if I’m lucky and healthy – another 20, or 25, years left, whereas in my twenties that was indeed a lifetime, with 60 years ahead to look forward to and plan for. It isn’t being maudlin or morose admitting that – it’s a fact.
The album has a pastoral theme – there are a lot of references to nature in the lyrics and also the title…
JH: Yes – the album does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.
The album title is taken from a line in the song Water, which is the closing track on the record and features the sound of crickets on it. Why did you choose it for the name of the album?
JH:Water is based on a dream I had, floating above a lake like a watching spirit. I wrote the lyric as an observer of a scene in which he/she is gradually drawn in until they’re completely part of it. I wanted the track to have an atmosphere of stillness, of silently watching something develop before your eyes – something you don’t understand at first.
Our skies here are very dark at night, so there is always a sense of connection to ‘the beyond’, being able to see the universe above us, watching the shooting stars, listening to the crickets all round us every night, and feeling a kind of wonder about it all. As a songwriter that must affect me.
Once I’d finished the album and needed a title, the line in Water’s lyric, “What’s that beam of light on the lake, to the left of the moon’s reflection?” described for me the vibe of the album – the second part of the line especially. It also lent itself to a sleeve design very well too.
The song My Patient Heart is about living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where you and your husband, Neil, used to be based, and also references Murcia, in Spain, where you live now. Can you tell me more about your inspiration for it?
JH: It’s one of my scene-setting songs, describing life here in the village, which is still very rural, families working in the olive and almond groves, the local church ringing its bells every day on the hour – usually about ten minutes slow!
Our neighbour gives us bottles of his homemade olive oil, others bring us home-grown spinach and various vegetables, and a chap in his nineties gives us jars of his home-made honey. When we had hens we gave people eggs and every summer families from the village come and collect fruit from our Chinese Meddler tree. They seem very pleased to have us as part of the village, which is heart-warming.
But the song also looks to Wales and our life there, which was also very rural. Though no one worked in the fields any longer in Pembrokeshire, everyone had an orchard, cherry trees, gooseberry bushes, wild berries growing in hedgerows. And seasons!
That’s what I miss the most – the seasons. They were definite, expected and regular as clockwork. It’s November here and in the mid-twenties. Sounds great, I’m sure, but my Northern English psyche still expects it to be minus two! I’m not sure I will ever lose that natural expectation. Neil and I do intend to return to Wales, someday, hence My Patient Heart. Everything is about timing, when it’s right. We’re very lucky to be in a position where we can decide when that is.
Let’s talk about Injuries Sustained In Surviving. It’s a great song – quite folky – and I love the title…
JH: Thanks. It was the first song I wrote and recorded for the album. I had Marrakesh Express in my mind when I wrote it, and carried that through to the vocals, where there are no ‘backing vocals’ per se, more three-and-four-layered harmony lead vocals. I became Crosby, Stills & Nash for a day!
The narrative covers childhood, youth and ageing all in one. I have memories of the railway lines behind my parents’ house in Heywood in the ‘50s and going out on day trips as a family in an old Austin jalopy. We went all over the place in that old car until finally one of its wheels fell off and dad abandoned it in a garage, getting ten quid for the scrap value!
The song develops through to more recent thoughts, “Yes, kid, I remember the fire burning, I recall every song I was singing” – I’m talking to myself really.
There’s a bit which is a reflection on my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s, “Don’t wait until your body is a shell of a stranger locked inside a lonely cell, with a thousand silent tales he’ll never tell.” But it ends on a higher note, “Sometimes good things come along you’d never planned, somebody might just sprinkle stardust in your hand.” There’s always a chance.
I think Echoes of Pauline sounds like a standard, or maybe something from a stage musical. What inspired it? Who is Pauline?
JH: Pauline is a real person. I was at school with her in the ‘60s in Lancashire and we were very close, like brother and sister in many ways. She introduced me to artists like Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
I’ve written about her before, in The Flame on Kid In A Big World, and in Pauline’s Song, which I wrote in 1970, but only recorded in 2009. She also gets a mention in a line from Small Town, Big Adventures… “I was Toad, Eniluap was Mole”, referring to when we were both in the school play Toad of Toad Hall in 1968. We always called each other by our names backwards. Don’t ask me why. We were young and did daft things!
We fell out badly in 1970 and our friendship didn’t recover. I can’t actually remember now why we had a row, a really bad argument, but I’m sure it was my fault. I think of her still and hope she’s okay and happy. She was a great person. I did try finding her on Friends Reunited years ago to no avail. Echoes of Pauline is my way of offering her a way back to our friendship if she ever hears the song, which she’s unlikely to do of course. That’s how the lyric began really, a letter to a friend, which will probably not be read.
I wanted the track to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie, keeping the piano quite restrained, not using it to drive the song along with rhythmic chords, but as an occasional texture, letting the song develop slowly without driving it. I used a simple string wash and sparse percussion to build to its more rhythmic end.
‘I wanted the track Echoes of Pauline to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie’
I think that track took me the longest to get right. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound – I listened to Cilla’s track several times before going into the studio – but it was a new way of working for me. I also wanted the lead vocals to be multi-tracked and very smooth, with just occasional harmony lines, using no backing vocal ‘oohs and ahhs’.
I also developed a different way of singing for it, keeping my vocal restrained, not ‘soaring’ which is my usual style, singing from the back of the throat – more soulful rather than a dramatic pop style.
Your latest album is your seventeenth and, this year, it’s 45 years since you first started your recording career. How does that make you feel? You’re in your late sixties now. As a young man in his twenties, did you ever envisage you’d still be making records when you were a pensioner?
JH: Yeah! Who’d have thought it? But in some ways 17 albums in 45 years doesn’t sound that many!
Of course, I had a 20-year break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I worked ‘on the other side of the desk’, in the music industry. In the ‘70s I only made three albums – and two of them went unreleased – so 14 new albums since 2004 sounds much more impressive! The ‘70s and all that went on then feels like a lifetime ago, as though I’m watching it all happen in a movie in my head. I guess 45 years since my debut album came out makes me feel…in my late sixties!
The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious. And yes, I did imagine I’d still be recording now, but I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.
What have you learnt during your career? What have been the highs and lows?
JH: What have I learnt? I guess not to look back too much. I always try to look forward to the next project, the next album – though that’s sometimes difficult when people still – of course – want to talk and reminisce about Goodbye Suzie and Kid In A Big World. Nostalgia is very comforting for people, though my memories of those days are not so rosy. It was a very frustrating and disappointing period for me on the whole, in terms of what eventually happened in my career anyway.
The other thing I’ve learnt is not to have regrets. I’m still in one piece, physically and mentally – most of the time – thank goodness – which many of my contemporaries when I was starting out are not.
‘The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world’
Fame would have been fun, of course, I would’ve loved it, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure about that! Leaving that world of recording in the mid-‘80s and ‘getting a proper job’ in the industry gave me a different perspective – a security I’d never had before.
Also, working as I did with so many established artists over those 20 years and hearing from them how their careers and the music business had treated them, often not well at all, gave me a view of life from the top. I saw it from a different angle – someone else’s experience of what fame can do to you. I think I became less selfish during that time than I had been as a recording artist, when my everyday had been all about “Me, me, me”.
Having to think about and be responsible for other artists’ careers and record releases taught me to be more considerate, more measured. It was my job not to have a meltdown when something didn’t go quite right. I became other people’s buffer, which is quite strengthening.
Now I’m a recording artist again, I happily don’t have the pressure I’d had the first time round from managers, promoters, big record execs and, deadlines. Recording now is done on my own terms, when I want to, how I want to. It’s much more relaxing and no longer about ambition. Being largely unknown does have its plusses! ‘Niche’ is good.
As a professional musician, in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, are you worried about the future of gigs, tours and venues? Will things ever get back to normal? What are your hopes and fears for 2021 and beyond?
JH: I don’t actually gig very much at all – never have. I love performing, but the opportunities haven’t arisen very much in recent years, just the occasional gig in London whenever I’m invited to perform. The last one was at The Lexington in 2019, with Vinny Peculiar, Simon Love and Rogers & Butler, which was really enjoyable.
I gigged a lot in the early ‘70s when I lived with my parents in Lancashire, but once I got to London and signed with a management and record company, recording became my way of life – and it still is.
But yes, I do feel for musicians and bands who can’t gig now. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums. So a whole income stream is cut off straight away.
Who knows where this will all end? Certainly, there will be venues which close and can’t afford to open again. It’s really sad. My husband is a retired actor, and he too has seen friends in the theatre who haven’t worked for months, with no sign that things are going to change for the foreseeable future. Pretty grim.
‘I feel for musicians who can’t gig. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums’
Home shows have helped some musicians, in terms of being able to perform and staying connected to fans, and some artists have monetised their performances, which keeps some income coming in at least. Who knows when we’ll be able to step back onto a stage in front of a live audience again?
What music – new and old – have you been listening to recently? Any recommendations?
JH: A lot of the music I listen to now is old. I will always love and enjoy hearing The Beatles, The Searchers, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Judee Sill, Barry White, Paul Simon, Kate Bush and Roy Harper. They never grow old in my mind – the albums still sound as fresh today as they did when I first bought them, though my vinyl collection was sold off before we moved to Spain, I’m sad to say. Finding room for over 40 boxes of LPs was no longer viable. But I replaced all my favourites with CDs, and that’s still how I listen to music most of the time.
We recently bought a record player, simply because some of my albums, new and old, were being issued and reissued on LP and I wanted to hear them in that format. That led to us buying some of our old favourites on vinyl again. Also a lot of my friends were releasing their latest albums on vinyl – Robert Rotifer and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge, for example – so I wanted to hear those on LP.
More recently, I’ve become a big fan of the band Ex-Norwegian – they have a lovely Syd Barrett psychedelic-pop vibe. I’ve also fallen in love with the music of the French singer-songwriter Olivier Rocabois, the highly talented Joel Little and John Cunningham, whose album Fell, is gorgeous. The Norwegian singer-songwriter-pianist Cecilie Anna, who my friend, the poet Robert Cochrane introduced me to, is also remarkable. I have two of her albums and they’re beautiful.
Finally, you’re a very prolific songwriter? What’s on the horizon? Another album? Any other projects you can tell us about?
JH: ‘Prolific’ is my middle name! Though I do often take months of doing nothing between albums, once I have a project in my head I work for weeks on end until it’s finished. I’ve been having a lovely time recently recording vocals and piano for various friends’ projects, doing tracks and writing occasional songs for them. They’re all hush-hush at the moment and due out next year, but they are very diverse!
‘The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one!’
What I can give you a heads-up on is a very exciting project for me. Kool Kat Musik in the States, which issued To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection in August – my first US release – will be putting out a 2CD ‘Best of JH’ next spring. It will be my first commercially-released Best Of! Edward Rogers (of Rogers & Butler) is curating the collection, Ian Button will be mastering it and doing the artwork, and Ray Gianchetti will be releasing it on his Kool Kat Musik label. I’m very excited about it! Edward has put together an intriguing collection of tracks from across my career, some of them never released commercially on CD before. Watch this space for more details early next year.
I’ve also been sketching out some new song ideas over the past few weeks, which I will start recording probably at the end of this year, or early next. The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one! The story is set in my head, the characters are developing in my mind and, the narrative is growing, I just need to sit at the piano and see if it sounds any good! It will be a challenge, but I love a challenge. Otherwise I might discover what boredom feels like. I can’t have that. Put the pipe and slippers away!
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection by John Howard is out now on CD – in the UK, it’s released on his own label, which is also called John Howard. You can find out more information at his website: http://kidinabigworld.co.uk/
The album is also available in the US – on CD – via Kool Kat Musik, and can also be purchased from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos, which has released several of his albums already.
His latest book, Illusions of Happiness – the second volume of his three-part autobiography – is published by Fisher King Publishing.
Matt Hill is the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner. For his new album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators – he’s decided to put it out under his own name, rather than the moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.
“In 2020 I turned 50 – it seemed the right time to ditch the Quiet Loner name and to release this album under my own name. Finally, I’m Matt Hill again,” he says.
Fittingly, it’s an album that sees him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which is the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, are set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile ofDH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB. The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”
Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.
It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.
This makes for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.
Lench plays cello on Billy’s Prayer, which was written about a fairground boxer – Billy Marchant – who turned professional and became a sensation in America, while singer-songwriter Kirsty McGee provides backing vocals on several songs. For the bluesy and upbeat opener, Stone & Bone, in which the undead rise from their graves in an ancient cemetery to terrorise the Stock Exchange in the City of London, she plays a musical saw in a stairwell, which creates an eerie and ghostly effect. She also adds flute to the gorgeous, pastoral, folk ballad, If Love Should Rise, which was inspired by the stunning landscapes of the Peak District, which is where Hill now lives.
Diehard Quiet Loner fans will be glad to know that Hill has resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the new record, although it’s now called Gary Gilmore’s Last Request – a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, sadly, we couldn’t get Johnny Cash on the phone, but we did manage to have a chat with Hill about his new album, which we think is his best yet, his musical influences, his love of Elvis Presley, his upbringing and, er, his appearances on daytime TV…
You have described Savage Pilgrims as “Americana rooted in British history, based on your own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.”Why do you think US culture played such an important role in your younger years and in the lives of some of the people in the area where you grew up?
Matt Hill: It’s undoubtedly true that American culture dominated working class culture – it still does, except now it’s hip-hop and gaming. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, country music was still a strong influence. I think Western movies played a big part in that too. It wasn’t unusual to see blokes dressed up as cowboys. I don’t think it was just in the coal mining areas – it was right across the UK. But it seemed particularly strong in Nottinghamshire – we even had nodding donkeys, like on Dallas. People probably don’t know, but Nottinghamshire actually had its own oilfield. We had a long-running Americana festival in Newark and there was even a theme park just up the road from me, called the American Adventure. Notts is the Texas of the UK.
While we’re on the subject of classic US culture, you’re an Elvis fanatic, aren’t you? How and why did your obsession with the King come about?
MH: I became obsessed with him when I was about eight years old. It was just after he died and his films were on TV a lot. All I wanted to do was listen to him and read about him. It sounds crazy, but there was actually an Elvis shop about three miles from my house. It turned out it was the only one in the UK and it was in a Derbyshire mining town! The guy who set it up ran the British Elvis fan club too and had a direct line to Elvis and The Colonel [Tom Parker – Elvis’s manager] from his Derbyshire home!
At the very end of your song Gary Gilmore’s Last Request, it sounds like you’re doing a slight Elvis croon. Was that intentional?
MH: As for the Elvis inflection in my voice, people usually spot Costello, but, yeah, Presley is in there too.
Gary Gilmore’s Last Request is one of the more Americana / country tracks on the new record. It’s a very old song – it used to be called Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone – and is a Quiet Loner cult classic and live favourite. Why did you resurrect it for the new album?
MH: I wrote that song in the late ‘90s, after reading Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song. Here was a guy on death row and the one thing he asked for was to speak to Johnny Cash. That one detail blew me away. I did record it around 2001 – for one of those very early Matt Hill EPs. I recorded it again for my aborted second album in 2004, and it was on the shortlist for my Spectrology album in 2010, but it just never seemed to fit on anything. Once the songs for this new record started to come together, as being more narrative and story-based, then it was really clear that Gary Gilmore belonged on this record.
If you were on death row, what would be your last request?
MH: A phone call from Johnny Cash would be right up there on my list too. But he’s not with us, so I’d probably ask for a phone call from Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. They’re probably the closest we’ve got to Johnny.
‘The songs that most appealed to me as a kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child’
Did you get into country music and then Americana from Elvis? Was it a natural step?
MH: Elvis is such a good person to listen to for a musician because he has so many different elements in his music. You will find country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, folk and soul. He really did create a kind of “cosmic American music” of his own in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. I think country music came to me around the same time I start listening to Elvis.
Once I knew about Sun Records, that introduced me to Johnny Cash. I also watched The Dukes of Hazzard and loved the theme song. And then Dr. Hook and Don Williams were two formative influences because that’s what my dad was listening to. I loved the stories in the songs – I hear things very visually, so those songs painted pictures in my head. It’s fascinating to me how the songs that most appealed to me as a 10 or 11 year-old-kid were all about middle-aged people getting divorced. I was clearly a strange child.
You’ve published a zine to accompany the launch of your new album. In one of the articles in it, you say that an English folk singer once said he couldn’t understand why you sang in an American accent and played country. Ironically, you were being authentic to your English roots by playing music that’s come from the US – the stuff you grew up with.
You also say that English folk music wasn’t on your radar until you were in your 20s. Over the past few years, you’ve embraced more folk music though, haven’t you? Songs like If Love Should Rise, Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer feel like they come more from the English folk tradition than US roots music…
MH: I feel like I’ve embraced a lot of different influences on this album and, yes, some of it is more rooted in English folk, but very loosely, because I don’t have much grounding in it. Other than Nick Drake I’ve not listened to a lot. In the early ‘90s I was briefly in a band called Seven Little Sisters that did a lot of Irish folk, as well as bluegrass, so I learned a lot from that.
‘American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing’
You mentioned that folk person who said I wasn’t being authentic. That really troubled me for a long time, because it’s true that I don’t sing in a Nottingham accent. In fact I’ve moved around so much in my life I don’t even speak with a Nottingham accent anymore. But I have always wanted my music to be authentic and true to my own experiences, so that comment really did bother me at first. But that person was wrong – American culture is authentic to where I’m from. No one sang traditional English folk songs in my upbringing.
I’ve worked in prisons – all the lads there rap in American accents but it’s real to their lives. They can identify with the whole ‘gangsta’ thing because it’s about crime, money, family and tough working class upbringings. Just like country music was for a previous generation. To me, authenticity comes from the purity of your intention. The sound of a voice, like the sound of a guitar, or the way you rap, are all just stylistic. The substance of music comes from purity of intention and opening up a channel to the heart.
There are two songs about boxers /fighters on the new album: Bendigo and Billy’s Prayer. Are you trying to tell us something? Morrissey went through a phase where he was obsessed with boxers. Is it a melancholy, Northern singer-songwriter thing? Are you handy in the ring?
MH: To be honest, I’m not a fan of boxing. I find it brutal and I see a class aspect to it that I really don’t like. It’s controlled by very rich people, paying ridiculous amounts of money to watch working class men and women beat each other up. But, on the other hand, boxing gyms play an important role in working class communities. A gym can give kids hope and discipline and self-belief in environments where that stuff is in short supply. So I have mixed feelings about it. But I’m always in search of a good story and Bendigo is a great story and connects to my family and roots. The story of Billy Marchant is fascinating, so I had to put that song on the album too.
Did you have a long list of songs for the new album?
MH: I started with about 25 songs. I worked with Kirsty McGee on the pre-production. She has such a good grasp of songwriting and I really value her opinion. We’d also done a fair bit of touring together, I’d been to Holland and Germany with her and so she knew my live set pretty well, so she helped me whittle down 25 songs into an album. For me, when I’m making an album I always have so many songs – it’s not a case of picking the best 11, but of finding the songs that belong together. I’m passionate about albums for that reason and I get sad that technology formats are rendering them obsolete.
Savage Pilgrimsis a musically diverse record: folk, blues, country/ Americana, gospel and spirituals. What kind of inspirations and influences were you drawing on?
MH: This comes back to what I was saying about Elvis – all those American music forms you mention. I’ve spent my life listening to those, so they come out in the way I perform. Some of that comes from the choices we made when recording too. Sam Lench is really knowledgeable about folk music, so when he added a guitar part on If Love Should Rise he chose a weird guitar tuning, so it sounds proper folky. Four Corners is about a crossroads, so I wrote blues influences into that from the very start. Those sort of musical choices really colour the music.
What inspired the striking album art? I really like the moody, black and white look you’ve gone for – the photos of you are great…
MH: I put out four albums as Quiet Loner and nowhere on any of those albums will you find a photograph of me – not even on the inside. That was a choice. So because this was a fresh start, I decided I would go in the opposite direction and stick a photo of myself on the cover. So then I had to find the right person to work with. I was really drawn to working with Nicola Davison-Reed, after seeing her portrait work online. I talked to her about the sound of the record and the vintage sounds we used – she did the rest. She’s an incredible artist and I’m delighted with the results that she got.
As well as Savage Pilgrims, you’ve also put out a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection. It’s called Twenty/Twenty – An Introduction To Matt Hilland is available as afree 20-track download from your website. How was it going through your back catalogue to put that together?
MH: Prior to lockdown I’d been rehearsing regularly with James Youngjohns, who I’ve been making music with for 20 odd years. James encouraged me to delve into the back catalogue and we were playing songs from that first album. So when it came to putting 20 tracks together, I’d already been looking back and deciding what I liked and what I didn’t.
There are some rarities on it, like She Means Everything, which is Matt Hill does pop-soul! Do you have a lot of unreleased stuff in the vaults? Isn’t there a ‘lost’ album? Will it ever see the light of day?
MH: There is indeed a lost album and that song, She Means Everything, is from it. I recorded it in 2004 – the year Secret Ruler of the World [debut album] came out. I wasn’t a happy person at the time and my anxieties and insecurities got the better of me and I ended up shelving it. It’s something I now regret. That album means a lot to me because it features my friend Chris Evans. He and Mike Harries put a tremendous amount of work into that album and it would be nice to get it released at some point. Chris took his own life in 2013. A few days before he died we had met up and were reminiscing about that lost album and making plans to work together on a new one. It was not to be.
Have you written any new songs recently? Has lockdown inspired you?
MH: I have written some new songs but I’m definitely not getting any inspiration from lockdown. I’ve got a few political songs and there are a couple that I think are decent – one about a soldier coming back from World War II and another about living with chronic illness. I probably only release about a third of all the songs I write.
‘I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living’
What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
MH: I’m hopefully releasing a new album with a band project called The Low Drift, but, aside from, that I really don’t know. So much of how I make my living is tied up in delivering songwriting workshops. These are usually delivered in community settings, like at a homeless centre, in a prison, or at a dementia care home. None of those sessions have been able to continue, but I’m hoping to begin work on a songwriting project that’s being done over the phone.
Longer term, I think we will see a massive crash in the economy and that always hurts funding for the arts and charities. I can’t see music venues reopening until next year. I’m trying to adapt and stay positive, but there is a very real chance I may not be able to make a living this time next year. Sadly there will be many people in that position – not just musicians and artists.
Finally, you’ve had several brushes with fame – and infamy. You’ve appeared on daytime TV – Flog It! and The Jeremy Kyle Show – played at Glastonbury, thanks to Billy Bragg; you once had to shake Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hand, and you spoke with Jimmy Savile about Elvis! How would you like to be remembered?
MH: Thanks for reminding me of some of my darkest days! Yes, it’s true – I have met more than my fair share of villains! For many years I had to go to all the Party Conferences for my job, so I have met so many politicians and journalists, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for meeting Jeremy Kyle, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jimmy Savile! I would be happy to settle for simply being remembered fondly by my surviving friends and family.
Savage Pilgrims by Matt Hill is released on July 6 (Quiet Loner Records).