Nashville-based duo Until the End of the World – husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Ian Webber and Meg Olsen – have a name that’s very apt for these dark times we’re living in, but they actually took their moniker from the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same name. In fact, their debut single, Just Let Go, which came out this summer, was influenced by Wenders’s road movies, as well as the films of David Lynch.
It’s a gorgeous, stripped-down, six-minute ballad, with Olsen on lead vocals and Webber on guitar and backing vocals, that recalls the fragile, dreamy, country-psych-folk of Mazzy Star.
New single, another slow song, the equally lovely Stars Fall Down, has a slight ‘50s feel, thanks to its twangy, late-night guitar sound. “I was imagining Richard Hawley-esque guitar tones and I’ve been inspired by a French band called The Limiñanas – it’s like lo-fi Velvet Underground meets Serge Gainsbourg and I love the vibe,” says Webber.
Adds Olsen: “When I first heard the music for Stars Fall Down, it set an immediate tone and mood for me. I gravitate towards melancholy themes – love gone wrong, etc. The lyrics flowed really easily from that initial mood that was set by Ian’s guitar. I think I wrote the first draft in an hour and we finessed it slightly from there. I was genuinely happy with it, which is rare for me.”
The Until the End of the World project began in April this year, during lockdown, as Olsen explains: “We started very superficially working on ideas together on piano and guitar in our living room, but then Ian started composing things up a storm. He encouraged me to sit down with the piece of music that would become Just Let Go and he just kept it really low-key and simplistic. We liked the end result, so we kept going from there.”
Talking about Just Let Go, Webber says: “It was a lot of me figuring out how to record everything myself, without a producer or engineer. When I was recording the basic tracks, I wasn’t sure if I had reached three minutes or not, so I kept going, so that’s why it ended up a six-minute song.”
‘I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me’
The duo are planning to release an album in the first part of next year – hopefully in the spring. “It’s a little over halfway done and it’s been an interesting and exciting process,” says Olsen. “And it’s something that I’m not sure would have happened without the lockdown.”
She adds: “This project has been such an interesting learning curve for both of us. Ian has had to navigate recording and producing, and I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. I normally go into the studio with finished, or almost finished, songs. In this case, I was coming into fully-formed music and having to work out melodies and lyrics from there. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me and for both of us as artists.”
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but they feel fine…
British singer-songwriter Ian Webber, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, has just released his most political album to date.
Op-Edstackles social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy.
Musically, it’s very stripped-down – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle.
Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.
First single, Radio Zero, is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Ian to find out why he’s made such an overtly political record and what it was like recording it in Nashville…
Q & A
Your new album Op-Eds totally surprised me, as it’s a lot darker and much more political than I was expecting. Did you deliberately set out to make a political record? And if so, why? What was the starting point for this album?
Ian Webber: The starting point for this album, and pretty much all my projects, was the music I was listening to and absorbing before I began writing it. This time it was The Velvet Underground and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s a strange combination, but both were essentially using blues-based chord sequences, keeping it fairly simple, so the vocal melody could take the priority.
The first couple of song ideas were very New York Warhol/Reed inspired. ‘Late night, up on the corner’-type songs, so that’s where my head was to begin with.
I also had a really great hallway with excellent reverb, so that was a good place to stand and sing ideas in a low vocal key.
I had no idea that the record would turn political at all – that really only started when I took breaks from strumming to catch up on daily news. I was intrigued by articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. I discovered really compelling stories, which in turn inspired me to create mini stories as lyrics.
Lyrically and thematically, the album deals with social and political issues past and present, including protesters affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline, women’s rights, the plight of families in Syria, politics in Virginia and immigration issues… This is heavy stuff.
Was it difficult to write such political songs? How did you tackle the issues without sounding trite, or patronising? Was it a worry or a risk?
IW: The universal theme was a common bond that I felt with other humans – all of us moving through life.We all start out the same way, wanting the simplest things, and that gets lost as we grow up.
The world as a whole is a small place. I’ve travelled a lot and you find, whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and, in a small way, shed light on the bigger issues, too.
I don’t proclaim to be a learned scholar, but I really wanted to produce something that was a document of the times. This was the world through my eyes in 2017, living as a Brit in a very American, southern culture.
‘I’ve travelled a lot – whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and shed light on the bigger issues, too’
Musically, it’s a very stripped-down album – it’s mostly just you and your acoustic guitar. Was that how you wrote the songs?
IW: Yes – I certainly had this idea that I would try to do the whole record alone.
I always have voice memos lying around, and when I played them in the car, or through headphones, they sounded great to me. I guess that made me want to make the album in essentially the same way, but obviously, with a better mic than the one on my phone.
Where and how did you record the album and who did you work with?
IW: I recorded the record at Historic RCA Nashville Studio A, thanks to my ex-band mate Dave Cobb, who runs the place, and who helped make time between projects for me to go in and record
There is a huge tracking room that’s big enough for an orchestra. I basically set up in the middle and sang live and played guitar. The natural reverb in the room is insane, and there were minimal overdubs. It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and Gena Johnson, Dave’s engineer, who produced the record.
‘It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and the engineer’
One of my favourite songs on the album is The Regime – it’s very haunting…
IW: The Regime started as a chord sequence that was similar to the ideas on my last record [Year of the Horse, from 2015] – walk down progressions and minor chords, of course!
The lyrics were based on an interview that a family in Syria gave to the New York Times, about trying to survive war in the city.
When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart. That song is a kind of companion to Follow Me, which deals with leaving that kind of scenario behind and having to find a new home in a foreign land.
Another standout track for me is Frontline – it has a ’50s Sun Records feel. It’s an acoustic, rockabilly protest song…
IW: That’s a cool observation, Sean! The love of ‘50s rockabilly music seems to be a recurring theme on my records, but I can’t say I had it in mind when I was writing the song… I have been having a Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession lately, so certainly that was in my brain at the time…
The song Spirit of Houston comes from a similar place, doesn’t it? What’s the story behind it?
IW: That’s the only collaboration on the record. I started the year chatting, via email, to an old singer friend of mine, Sam Smithwick. I was inspired and jealous of his ability to write blues songs. We had been sending each other finished ideas, kind of like a pen pal would write letters. One song he sent had no vocal, just a guitar riff. I took the idea, added words, looped the riff, and sang to it live in RCA Studio.
Lyrically it’s about the 1977 National Women’s Conference for women’s rights. Last year, I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, and the signs I saw and the voices I heard made me want to become more educated.
‘When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart’
In the last couple of years, you’ve moved from L.A. to Nashville and you’ve become a father – congratulations! How much did relocating and having a son have an influence on this album?
IW: There were a few reasons for the move from L.A. to Nashville. I started out in Atlanta, playing music in the ‘90s, before moving to Seattle and then L.A. Coming back to the South was a way to reconnect with the culture and some amazing musicians I had played with. I got to do some touring for the last record with some former bandmates that still lived here, so it was kind of a homecoming of sorts.
My son, Wilder, was still inside his mum Meg’s belly when I was writing and recording, so his influence was there, but in little kicks. He did get to hear Fire on the Water being recorded, when Meg sang the backing vocals while pregnant!
You’re an English guy living in the U.S. What’s your take on Brexit and US politics at the moment? Is this album your chance to try and make sense of it all?
IW: I have my British passport, my Green Card, and am hanging on to my accent. Living abroad definitely makes you more nostalgic and somewhat patriotic.
One thing about living here is that the news is generally US-based, so Brexit is something I feel like a tourist talking about. From what I hear, it’s going to affect a lot of musicians from touring as freely in Europe. I would rather see a world without boundaries and barriers.One of the least political songs on the album is the first single, Radio Zero. It’s about escaping fake news and bad news and listening to classic rock ‘n’ roll instead. I think your vocal on the track has a slight Bowie feel to it…
IW: At the end of it all, I am a music lover, and so Radio Zero is a nostalgic look back at when I was lying on my bed as a teenager, late at night, scanning the radio for a good song. John Peel was still around, and also some AM pirate radio stations, so cracking rock ‘n’ roll was something I tuned in to and fell asleep to. David Bowie was one of my first musical loves, so maybe he was sending me messages through the wavelengths on that one. I hope so.
Finally, on that note, it seems apt to ask you what music – new and old – you’re currently enjoying?
IW: I like that you added the old and new line there… Currently in my mind – new:
This year’s Say It With Garage Flowers number one album can be easily filed alongside Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker as one of the greatest breakup records of all time.
Broken Heart Surgery by singer-songwriter Pete Fijalkowski (Adorable and Polak) and guitarist Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) is intimate and stripped-down, with nods to Johnny Cash, Spiritualized, John Barry and The Velvet Underground.A raw, deeply personal, melancholy album, it documents the breakup of a relationship and the aftermath, but is shot through with plenty of gallows humour and deadpan wit.
On the record, there are several lyrical references to material possessions – leaving them behind, or being saddled with someone’s else’s old stuff. There’s a lot of emotional baggage involved, but also a lot of physical baggage, too…There are some brilliant lyrics on the album – some of which made me laugh out loud when I first heard them. For example, “Hope – it’s more addictive than coke. Yeah – it’s cupid’s cruel joke…” (Betty Ford) and “[she] just left me with cutlery and a whole pile of her duff CDs…” (Queen of Stuff).
When I spoke to Pete earlier this year, he told me: “I wanted the album to reflect the various aspects of a breakup, so while some of the subject matters are taking place more in the head, there are others that have a very physical location and an obsession with small details – the division of objects between a couple (Breaking Up), the forgotten objects left behind in a now half-empty flat (Queen of Stuff) or the changing soundtrack to a couple’s life as their relationship deteriorates – from furtive whispers and kisses, to slamming doors and uneasy silences (Sound of Love).”
Asked what he wanted to achieve with the album, Pete said: “First and foremost, I wanted to make an album that I was proud of.”
Rest assured, he can hold his head up high – it’s a stone cold classic.
While we’re on the subject of masters in melancholy, Morrissey made a welcome return this year with World Peace Is None Of Your Business – his first album in five years. His best long-player since 1994’s Vauxhall & I, it was a glorious comeback record, with epic ballads (I’m Not A Man, Mountjoy), unabashed pop songs (Staircase At The University, Kiss Me A Lot, The Bullfighter Dies ) and lavish, exotic arrangements, including mariachi brass, strings and flamenco guitar.
Alas, due to a dispute with his record label, Harvest, the album is currently not available on Spotify or iTunes, so, instead, here’s a YouTube clip of the mighty Staircase At The University…
Other notable 2014 albums included Fair Warning by folk-rockers The Rails; Charade – the debut album from LA-based country singer Meg Olsen; A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye by San Fran garage-psychers Cool Ghouls ; Phantom Radio by the Mark Lanegan Band, which explored dark, electronic territory; The Breaks by former Boo Radley Martin Carr – gorgeous, lush guitar pop – and Alexandria by alt. country artist Chris Mills, which was his first album in five years and saw him team up with a new backing band – The Distant Stars.
Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt impressed with his solo album Hendra, which featured former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on a poignant set of songs that, at times, recalled the legendary John Martyn, while Cherry Ghost’s latest record, Herd Runners, was a soundtrack for the lost and lonely, similar to Richard Hawley’s late night laments…
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention News From Nowhere – the ‘long-lost’ debut by ’90s Britpop band Speedy. Recorded in 1997, the album finally saw the light of day earlier this year and was well worth the wait. The band even reformed and played live for the occasion.
I played a small part in getting the album released – a 2009 blog I wrote about the record attracted some interest and one thing led to another…
Here’s a list of my favourite 30 albums of 2014 and a Spotify playlist to go with it.
Charade – the debut album by LA singer-songwriter Meg Olsen – is a brilliant collection of cinematic, dark, melancholy, country-rock and pop songs. Its lyrical themes include ill-fated relationships, restlessness, the ‘masks’ people wear and wrestling with your inner demons. Laced with Hammond organ, pedal steel and twangy guitar, these are intimate songs for the wee small hours of the morning. I spoke to Meg to find out more about the record…
Congratulations on Charade – it’s a great album. How does it feel to have it out there?
Meg Olsen: Thank you so much. It feels so good. It was honestly such a whirlwind that it wasn’t until I was holding a physical copy of the album in my hands that it sank in that it was actually finished. I was in shock for the first few weeks and I am finally starting to be able to enjoy it. Now I’m ready to get out there and play the songs live…
You made the album with the help of crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. How did that work out for you? Would you recommend it to other artists?
MO: Well, firstly, I am forever grateful to the people who backed my Kickstarter. They have been beyond wonderful – you included!
I could never have finished this record as quickly as I did if not for those funds. It would have taken at least another year – maybe longer.
In the end, the Kickstarter method was an enormous amount of work and I did spend more than I raised, so it wasn’t 100% crowdfunded, but I do think it was totally worth it. I would recommend it to other artists, so long as they are willing to do the research and to put all of their energy into it.
It really forces you to focus on being your own PR department, which, if I am honest, is not my favourite thing to do, but now I have an album… so, it’s a double-edged sword. I do think it is an invaluable tool for artists to have access to, if they are willing to put in the effort and, of course, see the project through, as promised.
The album has a late night, melancholy, country-pop sound and there’s a lot of twangy guitar on it….
MO: Well, I am a late night, melancholy kind of girl, so I’m glad that came across! I think I was really testing the waters with my first EP [Deal From The Bottom, which came out in 2013].
I knew how big of an undertaking a full album would be, but once the EP was out, I was really itching to expand upon that thread in an album form. I had most of the songs all ready to go, so it was just a question of working out the arrangements.
The overall themes are sort of dark and cinematic – ill-fated relationships, restlessness, the ‘masks’ people wear to please – or hide from – others and to hide from themselves, and wrestling with your demons. You know, all very upbeat subject matters! It’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a pop album, really… The twang is definitely present, maybe even more so than on the EP.
Going into it, I knew I wanted to keep a bit of that Americana element (pedal steel, banjo, etc), but when we got into the studio, it became clear that the record would have a decidedly twangy undercurrent.
I think the fact that my voice is clearly not a ‘country’ voice helps maintain a little of that indie-rock edge, though… or maybe it just confuses things, but I like blurring the genre lines a little. It keeps things interesting.
What was the recording process like?
MO: I worked with Daniel Dempsey again – he produced the Deal From The Bottom EP and we recorded it mainly at Bad Transmission Studios in LA, apart from some of the vocals, which we actually tracked in my little house in Laurel Canyon.
Several of the musicians who were on the EP came back for Charade, including Ian Webber (from The Idyllists/ The Hopelessly Devoted) on acoustic guitar and electric and Sam Gallagher (Meg Myers / The Idyllists) on drums.
My producer introduced me to a super-talented guitarist named Aaron Andersen – Aaron end up playing all of the pedal steel, some lap steel and some of the electric guitar, too. His work really helped to build the overall feel of the record – he upped everyone’s game.
As for me, I played piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond organ, but we did bring in a more seasoned pianist to play on a few songs like Take Me Dancing and A Fine Way to Go. It was an awesome group of collaborators.
You covered Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground on the album and dedicated the track to the late, great Lou Reed…
MO: I’m a big fan of Lou Reed’s work – both with The Velvet Underground and solo. I knew I wanted a cover on Charade and I think it is interesting when people cover songs written by a member of the opposite sex. It can really shake up the story and make you see it in a different light, rather than trying to get one-up on the original, which is, obviously, never going to happen.
There was a short list of contenders, but Pale Blue Eyes seemed to cover themes akin to my own songs, so it made sense to record that track. We actually recorded it about month before Lou passed away. His passing made it all the more clear to me that I had made the right choice. It became a memorial tribute by chance, but it was originally intended as a kind of thank you to Lou for all of the wonderful songs.
What music are you listening to – and digging – at the moment?
MO: I’ve been listening to Nina Persson’s new solo record, Animal Heart, which is a fun, poppy record. I really love her voice and lyrics.
I just saw Neil Young play a show earlier this month, which was incredible. That set me on a complete Neil kick – mainly, Live at Massey Hall 1971 and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Also, I’ve been on a real vinyl buying binge lately – specifically 45s from the 1960s. I’ve been listening to people like Roy Orbison, The Byrds and girl groups like The Marvelettes.
You launched your album with a special show at Bar Lubitsch, in LA. How did that go?
MO: The show was really great – special and intimate. I love playing at Bar Lubitsch. It has a really cool vibe, as LA venues go. People came from far and wide. I had a full backing band, I wore a vintage dress with rhinestones and champagne was cracked open. It was very much a success in my book.
So, can we expect any more gigs and new material soon? Would you like to play in the UK?
MO: I will be touring in the US this summer and playing loads of local shows too. I would love to play a show in London – I lived there some years back and it’s still my favourite city. There’s nothing official yet, but there is a chance it could happen in the fall, so fingers crossed.
As for more recording, nothing is set in stone, but there are a few ideas brewing, so we shall see… We’re about to shoot a music video for Scissors + Fire, which I am very excited about. I can’t wait to get started on that.
I’m also working on a few other collaborations. One is with an art museum in The Netherlands, which should be a really fun project. Mostly, I’ll be focusing my energy on touring and getting my record out there…
Meg Olsen’s track by track guide to Charade
“This is the first song we recorded that wasn’t on the Deal From the Bottom EP. I wrote it several years ago now and I knew it would be on the album pretty early on. The protagonist in the song wants to get out of a situation with every fibre of their being, but the person they are with – whether it be a friend or lover – is being sucked into the glitz and glamour of the scene not realising that it’s an illusion and it’s empty. It’s like watching a train wreck in progress.”
Scissors + Fire
“This was one of the last songs we recorded and it was also the newest. Scissors + Fire is about a relationship that was really doomed from the beginning – my favourite subject! Ha! It’s two self-destructive people bouncing off each other, while inflicting real damage as it comes to a head.”
Follow You Blind
“This song is about the restlessness that I think all humans encounter from time to time – some more than others. In this case, it’s about feeling constricted by a relationship when you know you should be happy in the moment. I’ve known so many people who have been in that exact position.”
“This song was actually inspired, loosely, by a book I was reading at the time, Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. It’s about the idea of waiting for someone to return (both physically or emotionally) to the life that you’ve built together. Being so blindly in love with someone that this person literally stays in one place for weeks, maybe years, to the extreme that the house and plants start to grow out of control and take over. Those things that hold you hostage while you wait for this person to come back. But what if they don’t? I think that’s another song…”
Pale Blue Eyes
“I talked about this earlier, but I knew I wanted to include a cover and this was on the list early on. It fits in with the themes of the other songs quite nicely. It’s a simple and beautifully bittersweet song.”
“This was another song that was kicking around for ages. It was originally going to be a stripped-down affair with just moody, reverb-drenched electric guitar and vocals. In fact, we had been playing it out that way, but when we got into the studio Sam (my drummer) started up with this almost bossa nova beat. We started jamming the song and we all loved it, so it stuck. One of the main themes that the album deals with is this idea of hiding ourselves behind masks – the lies we tell each other so we don’t create waves, or because we are afraid of being alone. Charade is about what happens when that blows up in your face. When the curtains fall and you’re exposed.”
Corners of Bars
“This was one of the songs on the EP and one of the first to be recorded. I wrote it on the piano quite a while back now and it’s still one of my favourites. It’s pretty straightforward and autobiographical as my songs go. I’ll leave it at that!”
A Fine Way To Go
“This song was a test of my self-editing skills because I had about six verses originally. I decided it really needed to be leaner. The song is about those times when you knowingly get yourself into a situation that is bad for you but it’s so much fun that you tell reason to take a hike. You’ll worry about the consequences later…”
Deal From The Bottom
“This was one of those rare cases where the words and the melody came all at once and it was more or less finished in an evening. I love the banjo part that Jonathan Clay (of Jamestown Revival) plays on this track. It’s about a guy who really loves this person but neither of them can seem to commit – they’re never in the same place – mentally and life-wise – at the same time. So he tries to numb himself and his “little black book” is his drug of choice.”
Take Me Dancing
“We recorded the vocals and piano live in the same room. I wrote this song several years ago. It’s about friendship and, again, the masks we hide behind. Not being able to see through that when someone may really need help.”
“This song started out as a chord progression and a melody that would eventually become the chorus. It stayed a half-idea for quite a while and then suddenly one day it all came together. Theme-wise, it’s clearly about betrayal, but also the dynamic between the sea and the weather was an influence. I’ve spent a bit of time in Cornwall and the sea and weather seem to really interact with each other there. You can’t help but thinking maybe they are engaged in a lovers’ row. California beaches aren’t quite the same.”