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.
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.
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.’
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.’
going to her house, sitting on the couch, her upon my knee
I miss climbing up some hill, dragging them against their will, saying theirs legs ache
And I miss you too
going to the game, walking home in the rain, calling out the team,
I miss going to the pub, giving friends a hug, putting the world to rights,
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 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