‘We’re too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we’re ‘urban country’’

 

As 2020 draws to a close, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’re compiling our best albums of the year list. One of the late contenders is Black Angel Drifter, by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence, who are songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin.

The record –  their seventh – which came out in November, is a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.

It also includes a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which is even more sinister than the original. In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Jessett about the band’s ‘gothic country’ sound, being outsiders and receiving death threats.

“I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, but I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never been much of a junkie,” he tells us…

Q&A

How did Morton Valence come together?

Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett: Blimey, how long have you got? OK, so Anne was a dancer in a quite well known contemporary dance company, where I was employed as a musician, after just having done a short stint playing with Alabama 3. We toured around all these small-town theatres, and up until this point I’d always thought that dancers were clean living – I was wrong. We developed this nightly ritual of boozy sing-alongs after the shows – Anne was clearly equally in her element singing as she was dancing.

We were both fans of what most people perceived as Okie country singers, like Iris Dement or George Jones, which was quite unusual at the time. Singing harmonies together seemed effortless. Our party piece was Iris Dement’s Our Town, and well, it kind of developed from there.

I think our first proper gig was at Come Down and Meet the Folks – [in London]. We collaborated with a guy called Chuck E Peru and before we knew it we’d morphed into a band. We played some interesting shows back then, touring in Germany with the late St. Thomas (Thomas Hansen), who had an influence on us. He was clearly a troubled soul, but there was honesty and beauty in his music that seemed unconcerned with reality, and he clearly wasn’t playing the game, like most people do when they start in the music biz.

Jeffery Lewis was another great songwriter we played with early on. Anyway, here we are seven albums later, with absolutely no plans for retirement, and hopefully album number eight coming in 2021.

You live in Spain and Anne is based in London. How does the band work? Does it make things difficult? 

RJ: I moved to Madrid in 2018, after just having recorded our previous album Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape. I did so for a variety of reasons that I don’t have time to go into here.

I’m now lucky enough to live in the beautiful province of Granada. I think the last thing we did in the UK was to play some shows with The Long Ryders, back in 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago. As for the practicalities of Anne and me living in different countries, it just gives us a good excuse to travel, and actually, when we get together, it’s always really productive, as there’s a finite amount of time to get things done, which kind of focuses the mind.

How has Covid affected you as a band? Did it thwart any plans you had? How’s 2020 been for you?

RJ: The two adjectives I’d use to describe 2020 would be ‘productive’ and ‘boring’. I think boredom is a great creative motivator and gets a bad rap. So, the great vacuum that is 2020 gave us time to write a new album and make a film, so creatively, 2020’s been good.

Tell us about the film…

RJ: We describe it as an autobiographical, DIY ‘punkumentary’. It started about 10 years ago on a tour of Germany, when these two American filmmakers, both called Mike, tagged along with us with the idea of making a live performance DVD – remember them?

The tour was pretty chaotic, as they usually are, and when the Mikes got the footage back to America, they dismissed it as being unusable, due to the low-quality production values of the film stock. Eventually, we inherited the footage, and yes, it was most certainly rough and ready, but, rather than making us wince, it had the opposite effect. Paradoxically, its graininess, gritty sound and anachronistic video format seemed to essentially capture a spirit of rock ‘n’ roll that we like, so we patchworked a narrative around the footage, archives from our own film experiments and moments from some of our favourite B movies.

Even though Anne and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing, out of the chaos, somehow, we were finally looking at a cohesive piece of work that we called This Is A Film About A Band – literally no other name seemed to suffice. We didn’t want to make another rockumentary of talking heads and tour bus anecdotes and the like – in fact there’s virtually no dialogue at all, but instead it’s captioned, a bit like Top of the Pops 2.

Even though I would describe the film’s protagonist as the music, it does tell our story, and probably the story of lots of bands. Our original idea was to just stick it up on YouTube or Vimeo for our fans, but on the advice of a friend who works in the movie biz, we entered it into a few film festivals where it started to gather a bit of momentum.

We had it premiered at the Doc’N Roll film festival, which is probably the most prestigious film festival of its type in the UK, and we’ve been awarded other laurels. The feedback we’ve had has been incredible, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen in 2021.

Let’s talk about your latest album, your seventh, Black Angel Drifter. It was actually recorded in 2016. Why has it been reissued this year and can you tell us about the vinyl version, which is due out soon?

RJ: For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it – this is all documented in our film by the way.

We’d had some bad experiences, but hey, who hasn’t in the music biz, right? We sincerely believed we could circumvent the middleman, which we did to a point with our own label Bastard Recordings, but there’s only so far you can go with that, and you end up spending more time looking at Excel spreadsheets than you do creating music.

‘For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it’

Finally, a label called Cow Pie, run by BJ Cole, Hank Wangford and Patrick Hart, came to our rescue. They completely get us – we’re not an easy fit that’s for sure. We’re kind of too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we call it ‘urban country’, mainly because we want to have an answer when people ask ‘what kind of music do you make?’

Cow Pie are clearly kindred spirits when it comes to some of our slightly more leftfield ideas – they even put out a track of ours that’s half an hour of crickets chirping, although there is a hidden song in the middle of that one. But of course, their main thing is vinyl, which we’re dead excited about.

The new record originally started life as something by your experimental side-project. How did it end up being a Morton Valence album?

RJ: Back in 2016, we had two bands going in parallel – I guess we’re sadomasochistic… Black Angel Drifter was the name of our other band. We played one gig and recorded an album. Our plan was to make something that not only sounded auto-destructive, but actually was auto-destructive, hence the sole gig.

Songwriting-wise it’s probably the most collaborative effort we’ve put out – we’re really proud of the songs and feel they deserve more of an airing, hence the fact that we’ve taken off the mask and re-released them as Morton Valence. In 2016, Morton Valence were working on a multilingual covers album called Europa, which was a visceral response to Brexit. OK, retrospectively it was very naive – we were trying to avoid being overtly political and simply add something positive to what was an extremely toxic narrative. But we ended up getting trolled with the most sickening death threats – and worse – imaginable, which is what partly prompted me to leave the UK.

So, with everything that was going on in 2016, Black Angel Drifter was put on a hiatus. Fast forward four years, and everything that seemed so terrible in 2016 has been completely eclipsed by 2020, so it just seemed like a perfect time to resurrect Black Angel Drifter.

‘If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning’

Let’s talk about the sound of the record. What were you aiming for and what were the sessions like? You produced it yourselves, didn’t you?

RJ: Much like our film, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, which maybe adds to its idiosyncratic nature. All our other albums have been with a producer of some description.

We recorded it partly down at [pedal steel guitarist] Alan Cook’s garage, my flat in south London and Bark Studio [in Walthamstow, London]. Our sole technical remit to ourselves was ‘does it sound shit? Or do we like it?’ If it was the latter, we just went with it. But if we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country, whether or not we hit the target, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Can we talk about a few of the songs? The opening track, Skylines Change/ Genders Blur, has a dark, menacing, twangy Morricone/Spaghetti Western-meets-country feel, but also reminds me of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as The Jesus & Mary Chain…

RJ: It’s actually an old song that was co-written with Johny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy – a fantastic band that I was lucky enough to play with back in the day. Apart from me shamelessly lifting from Morricone, it definitely owes more than a passing debt of gratitude to Nancy and Lee.

‘If we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country’

If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning, so yes, you’re absolutely spot on about that. It being the opening gambit on the album, we wanted to go straight for the jugular – do something that would either make the listener baulk and go immediately for the eject button, or have the opposite effect. The logic being, if you live through this, you’ll make the whole album.

Black-Eyed Susan is a moody and sinister murder ballad. What inspired it? It’s a disturbing tale…

RJ: It’s another collaboration – this time with the Scottish poet David Cameron, someone who could not be more opposite than his unfortunate namesake. The plot comes from his novel The Ghost of Alice Fields, and he asked me to adapt his poem into a song. I’d never done anything like that before. I write 99 percent of our lyrics, so I guess technically that makes me a lyricist, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a poet. A storyteller, maybe?

I think only certain song lyrics can crossover as poetry, which to me is simply defined by whether something reads well without its given musical accompaniment. Anyway, I was really unsure at first, simply because most individuals have a particular timbre of their own.

I intonate words in a particular way that work their way around a melody, usually as I’m strumming a guitar, and it happens very naturally, so to try and shoehorn someone else’s words into that scenario felt a bit weird. But I was flattered to have been asked, so I gave it a go, and I guess my fears were unwarranted, as the resultant song works well in my humble opinion.

As far as its content goes, songs mean different things to different people. I’ve had people come up and say stuff like, ‘I love that song you wrote about such-and-such, we played it last week at me dad’s funeral’ or whatever, and I’m like, wow, I’m honoured. But I had no idea it was about such-and-such, but that’s the beauty of a song.

‘The Man In The Long Black Coat is a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell’

You’ve covered one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, The Man In The Long Black Coat, and you’ve made it sound even more menacing than the original. Good work!

RJ: As you rightly point out, it’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.

I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.

Playing in tune is a doddle, but to get the sound I was after, the guitars needed to be out of tune, but not just any old ‘out of tune’, it was actually something very precise.

I knew how I wanted the note to sound, but finding something that doesn’t actually exist in any tangible way can be problematic. I suppose I was looking for an optimised sort of disharmony that would really suit the song. You might think that sounds pretentious, but when you listen to the song, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, we found the note we were looking for in the end, it was perfectly out of tune, and we’re very happy.

On If I Could Start Again, a man recounts his misspent life from a prison cell. It sounds like a classic, strung-out country ballad, but it also reminds me of Spiritualized at times. Where did that song come from? 

RJ: Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie. But when I look back, of course there are things I’d do differently, as would anyone, right? Of course, to look back in such a way is also an exercise in futility, which is a good place to start writing a song.

‘I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie’

I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, and yes, it’s definitely got a dose of Spiritualized, and maybe a touch of Tom T Hall. I create a character, and see where that character goes. This guy is a nice middle-class kid who gets it all wrong. He could’ve been an IT consultant or an operations research analyst, but he assumes there’s more to life, he’s a romantic, and the rest is self-explanatory. There’s certainly nothing cryptic in this song, and in terms of my life in music, I’ve made every mistake there is, and if I could start again, I really wonder what I’d do, and as for real life, well I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Sister Pain is one of the bluesier songs on the album. Any thoughts on it?

RJ: It’s actually a slowed-down version of Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle, set to a sludgy spiritual blues chant, backed by an imaginary version of The Stooges as the house band, so it’s kind of like a revue show in a song.

The album features Alan Cook on pedal steel. He’s become a regular member of the band, hasn’t he? How did you get together and what’s it like to work with him? I know Alan from his work with Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) and UK country duo My Darling Clementine...

RJ: Alan provides the backbone of our sound, in particular on Black Angel Drifter, where he’s pretty much ubiquitous throughout. His sound was perfectly described in one review as something that ‘fills the void like a guilty conscience’, and without him the atmosphere would change completely. I’m not sure how we met to be honest, through mutual musician friends I suppose, but he’s been with us for quite a few years now, and he’s obviously extremely tolerant to put up with me.

‘Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever’

Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?

RJ: Wow, that’s always a tough one. All sorts of people are inspiring to me, but very few of them are musicians or famous people. My sister and her colleagues for starters – she’s a nurse busting a gut at the NHS, which trumps everything in my opinion. And I suppose I’ve always admired people who don’t care about being popular or how others judge them.

Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever – a world where you put one foot wrong, you’re an instant pariah. No one gets through life without someone cutting us some slack from time to time, right? Yet we’re so quick to judge and condemn others, and shout about it as loudly as possible, usually on social media.

So, I’m inspired by people who pronounce schedule with a ‘k’ and don’t give a shit, that kind of thing, and far as a main musical influence, that would be my mum for turning me on to The Beatles before I could even walk. Thanks, Mum.

You’re currently planning your eighth album, which is pretty much written and demoed. You plan to record it in London, with pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole producing. What can we expect? Any idea what it will sound like?

RJ: Well nothing’s signed and sealed yet, but the songs are pretty much there, and the provisional plan is to release it on Cow Pie, and yes, we’ve had discussions with BJ. He’s an artist we are huge fans of and who I briefly crossed paths with years ago, when I was knocking around with Alabama 3. But it’s a bit premature to talk about it at this stage to be honest.

Black Angel Drifter is a very produced album, in the sense that a lot of how it sounds was created in the studio. I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact, it’s what The Beatles used to do, but it’s just one way of doing things, and it allows you more space to experiment.

With each album we’ve always tried something different – that’s one bonus of being independent – and with the next one we plan to get the songs as tight as we can first, then go in and record them pretty much live. One of my favourite albums ever is The Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies, which was of course recorded completely live. But it’s early days still, so let’s wait and see.

What are your plans for Christmas? Will it be a dark one, rather than a white one?

RJ: It will be a sunny one actually, because I’ll be in Andalucía.

Finally, what music – new and old have you been enjoying recently?

RJ: My album of 2020 is definitely Distance is the Soul of Beauty by Michael J Sheehy – it really is an astounding piece of poetic beauty. Michael sent me a copy in the post when I was living in Madrid in the summer, and I haven’t stopped listening to it ever since. It’s one of those records where you feel like he’s having a conversation with you personally, rather than playing to an audience, which is a rare talent that very few singers are able to do.

I also love The Delines, and went to see them play just before the lockdown, Willy Vlautin is so talented, it’s ridiculous, and it was good to see Amy Boone in great form after that terrible accident. But my tastes are very catholic, I love the Fat White Family, maybe I’m biased because I’m from Brixton. They remind me a bit of The Country Teasers, who have a film on at Doc’N Roll that I can’t wait to see.

Anne and I have always been fans of John Prine, Tim Hardin and The Carpenters, as well as movie soundtrack composers like Roy Budd or Michel Legrand. These are just the first things that have popped into my head. On another day, it would be a completely different list.

Black Angel Drifter by Morton Valence is currently available to stream and download on digital platforms. A vinyl version will be released by Cow Pie in early 2021.

http://www.mortonvalence.com/

https://cowpietwang.com/

 

Once More Into The Darkness

Picture of My Darling Clementine by Marco Bakker

 

More than 12 months ago, British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) embarked on a project called Country Darkness, which saw them reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.

This month sees the release of their third Country Darkness EP, Vol.3, which will be followed by an album, also called Country Darkness, in November. The album gathers together all of the songs from the three EPs, but also throws in an added bonus, a brand new My Darling Clementine composition called Powerless, which is a majestic country-soul track that’s easily up there with the best of Costello.

Like its predecessors, the new EP was co-produced by Weston King, Nieve and Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Duane Eddy). Pre-production for the four tracks – I’ll Wear It Proudly, The Crooked Line, Indoor Fireworks and Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone?  – took place at Nieve’s home in France and then the recording sessions moved to Yellow Arch Studios, in Sheffield. 

On the album, Elliot, who is a member of Richard Hawley’s backing band, played bass and cello and also arranged the strings and horns. He is joined by fellow musicians Shez Sheridan (guitars) and Dean Beresford (drums) – both Hawley stalwarts – as well as former Van Morrison and Nick Lowe horn players Matt Holland and Martin Winning. 

To tie-in with the release of each of the three EPs – the first one came out in October last year – Say It With Garage Flowers has been publishing  a series of in-depth interviews with Weston King in which he sheds some light on the Country Darkness project.

Here’s the third and final interview in the series, which focuses on the new EP. Weston King also gives us a teaser of what we can expect from his next solo record – he’s going into the studio this month to start work on it – and shares his views on life after lockdown…

Q&A

Last time we spoke, in May of this year, you were in lockdown in Manchester and you told me you were having good and bad days. How are you doing now?

Michael Weston King: Like so many of us, I guess, on a day-to-day basis I’m still up and down. I’m trying to keep busy and proactive, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated.

Not being able to tour and perform for an audience is very frustrating, and a worry financially of course. Our beloved government is hardly helping musicians out with that worry, either.

We have a couple of socially-distanced shows taking place this autumn, in Liverpool and Manchester, and we’re doing the occasional live stream too, but nothing beats touring and that feeling of getting better each night as you get up to “match fitness”. I miss the travel and I miss the engagement with people.

When we spoke in May, you were still looking to record the third and final volume in your series of Country Darkness EPs. That’s now in the can. How did you manage to get it laid down? Did lockdown affect your plans?

MWK: Steve was stuck in France, but we did what we’d done with the other recordings – he sent piano tracks over to us and then Lou and I went into the studio to build on them, before sending them back to him to add additional keys where he felt necessary.

The issue was not getting together with Steve, but being able to get into Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and getting together with the other musicians. We were held up by that in April and May, but, come June, as things eased, we did get back in there and carried on. It was a great distraction from the mundanity of lockdown and a joy just to be hanging out with other musicians, and friends again. Although, not going to the pub after the sessions was a strange, unheard of, experience!

Let’s talk about the songs on Country Darkness Vol.3. What can you tell me about your take on I’ll Wear It Proudly? It’s a song from King of America, which is one of my favourite Costello albums, and one of yours, I’m assuming?

MWK: Yes, it is. I love pretty much everything on King of America. It is certainly in my top three Costello albums.

I used to play Sleep Of The Just, which is from that album, years ago in my solo shows. Covering I’ll Wear It Proudly was a late decision, as it was not on my original list. By the time we had cut the first eight songs [for the Country Darkness project], our choices for the final four songs were tempered by what we already had in the bag, and the need to look for other types of songs, with variety in mind for the full album.

When approaching what to do with this song, my original thought was to give it the “boom-chikka-boom” Johnny Cash treatment – kind of in keeping with King of America, yet still different from the Costello version.

However Steve heard it differently and suggested we try a “Bruce Springsteen Streets of Philadelphia” era-approach. That was a brilliant idea – one that would not have occurred to me – and it really works. It has become one of our favourite tracks on the album.

On the new EP, you’ve chosen to cover Indoor Fireworks, which is also from the King of America album. It’s one of my favourite Costello songs. What can you tell me about your version? You’ve slowed it down and made it a smouldering, piano-led ballad. Hasn’t Lou done a solo version of the song before?

MWK: Yes – this song had been in Lou’s solo repertoire for years, performed simply, with just piano and voice. She also recorded it on her solo album, Calmer, back in the late ‘90s.

Once we started on this Country Darkness project, and adapted our live shows to include a “Costello song segment” – it just made sense to do this song again and make it into a duet. It has since become a firm audience favourite, so we just had to include it on Vol. 3 and the album. We decided to keep it simple and record it just as we have been doing it live – two voices and Lou at the piano. So, this is the only track Steve does not appear on.

The Crooked Line, which was the first single from the new EP, is the most upbeat of all the songs you’ve done for the Country Darkness project. I love your version – Steve plays some groovy organ on it. What inspired that arrangement? The Costello version has a bluegrass feel… 

MWK: There is a moment on our version of Different Finger, from Country Darkness Vol.2, where Steve plays some Augie Meyers-type organ. I really loved it, so when it came to doing The Crooked Line I wanted us to go full Sir Douglas Quintet on it and really highlight that organ sound. The Costello original has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel to it, with fiddles and mandolins playing the instrumental passages, but we went with Vox Continental

What about the song Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? Why did you choose it and how did you approach it? Costello wrote it for soul singer Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), but he turned it down. Your version reminds me of the material Costello did with Bacharach, as it has a bit of an Easy Listening feel, arrangement-wise…

MWK: That will be the flugel horns. Add those and suddenly it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach. It wasn’t an obvious choice, as it is not really a country or country-soul song – it’s a little bit musical theatre in places, and it even becomes quite Brechtian by the end. It is a hard song and we all had moments where we regretted getting into it. The producer, Colin Elliot, really didn’t like it at first, but it has since become his favourite track.

‘Costello’s original version of The Crooked Line has an acoustic, country-bluegrass feel, with fiddles and mandolins, but we went with Vox Continental’

What drew us to it was the fact that there is a male verse which starts: “Why can’t a man stand alone?”, and the second verse is a female one: “Why can’t a woman be just what she seems? So that immediately felt right for a duet.

Lyrically it also asks an import question in these current times. I notice that Costello used some lines from it in his 50 Songs For 50 Days playlist, in the run-up to the presidential election, and it is clear why, with these lines: “Why can’t a man stand alone? Must he be burdened by all that he’s taught to consider his own? His skin and his station, his kin and his crown, his flag and his nation. They just weigh him down.”

I would love to have heard Sam Moore sing it, as am sure Costello would have too. Sadly, he will just have to make do with hearing us sing it! I’d also recommend you check out this 1998 live version, which Costello did on Later… with Jools Holland.

All of the songs from the three Country Darkness EPs feature on your new Country Darkness album, which is out in November. As an added bonus, there’s also a brand new My Darling Clementine song on it – a country-soul tune called Powerless. What can you tell me about it?

MWK: I had the title Powerless for a while – I thought it was good. We so often hear people say they are powerless to something, certainly when it comes to falling for someone. In this song, the female protagonist is leaving her partner of many years for someone else and despite the kids and the history they have, she is just powerless to the charms of the other guy and off she goes.

Lou and I have both had that experience, but I am not telling you which way round…Musically there is a little nod to a Costello song I particularly like from his National Ransom album, which is called That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.

Have you heard any of the songs from Costello’s forthcoming album, Hey Clockface? Any thoughts on them?

MWK: I have heard them, but not played them repeatedly, or really got into them, mainly because they are only out on streaming services, which is not really how I listen to music.

When the album is out, then I will spend some real time with it, while driving – the car is my favoured place to listen to music. Of the four songs he’s released so far, I think my favourite is We Are All Cowards Now.

You’re also working on a new solo album. What can we expect?

MWK: Songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs! There will be no songs about lockdown though, so be grateful for that.

Have you written many new songs recently? What’s been inspiring you? 

MWK: Certainly not lockdown or Covid-19. Most of the songs that will go on the album have been kicking around in one form or another for a good few years. Many were unfinished, as I knew they were not right for My Darling Clementine, but I started to go through them, finish those I thought deserved finishing and discard the others. There are also two or three brand new ones.

One of them is sung from the perspective of a Washington DC policeman who votes for Trump, mainly due to peer pressure, and then starts to regret his actions as he sees what a monster this guy is, and how he is dividing the nation. In the final verse he is asked to be one of the cops on duty when Trump goes to stand outside St John’s Church in that awful PR stunt, when he held up the Bible. Our cop has to stand by him, ‘protecting’ him.

‘My new solo album will have songs about death, losing family members, mental health issues, the current state of the nation and our American counterparts. It’s going to be a real barrel of laughs!’

Picture by Marco Bakker

Finally, back in May, I asked you what you wanted to do after lockdown was lifted. You said you had 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.

How many of them did you manage to achieve? Obviously you did number four on the list, as you made the new EP….

MWK: Well, three out of five. But at least one of those was seeing the kids and grandkids, by far  the most important. Yes, we got into the studio, but we haven’t yet got back on stage. We didn’t get out of the country, though we did get into the countryside: Wales, Herefordshire and Dorset, which was a blessing

My desire to go to the pub has diminished in light of everything – it just doesn’t have the same appeal right now. Table service? Early closing? People anxious about being in close proximity? It’s not ideal.

A couple of my favoured old boozers in Birmingham, including The Wellington on Bennetts Hill are, or were, still allowing drinkers to order at the bar. It is also usually only ever half-full, so there are no worries about social distancing! Writing this, I am suddenly feeling the urge. I’m off!

‘This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now’

We have been to the cinema a few times and that still holds a great joy for me. Cinemas, theatres and music venues are all under threat – it’s a travesty and so sad to see. They are such a part of the fabric of our way of life – they have to be preserved and supported.

This is totally the wrong time and wrong emergency to have a Tory government in power. If we ever needed a caring, considerate and broad-minded person in power, it is now.


Country Darkness Vol.3 by My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve will be released on October 23 on Fretsore Records. It will be available on limited edition 12in vinyl, as well as streaming and digital services. The album, Country Darkness, will follow on November 6 (CD and digital).

For more information, visit: https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/

‘Online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing’

My Darling Clementine – picture by Marco Bakker

UK husband and wife duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – are set to release the second four-track EP from their Country Darkness project next month. 

It picks up where Volume 1. left off and sees the pair reinterpreting the country and country-soul songs of Elvis Costello, aided and abetted by keyboardist Steve Nieve (The Attractions and The Imposters), as well as members of Richard Hawley’s backing band: Colin Elliot (bass), Shez Sheridan (guitar) and Dean Beresford (drums). 

In an exclusive interview, Michael talks us through the songs on the new record – Either Side Of The Same Town, I Lost You, Different Finger – the first single from the EP – and Too Soon To Know; reveals how he’s been occupying his time during lockdown and shares his hopes and fears for what will happen to live music when we emerge from the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Picture by Nick Small

 

Q & A

How are you? How have you been coping with lockdown? 

Michael Weston King: Up and down to be honest. Some days I feel okay with it – I rather like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?’ To quote Charles Bukowski, “I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what?”

Any advice on how to get through it?

MWK: Advice? I’m not sure I am the man for that, but maybe try and achieve something by the end of the day. That could be anything – even if it’s just tidying a room, or clearing stuff out. Set a small task and do it. There is a sense of purpose to be gained from it. Little victories. And go for walks. It’s not always easy, depending on where you live, but natural light is important.

A close friend of mine lives in rural, idyllic Herefordshire and I am very jealous of him at times like these. I live in Manchester – it’s not the greenest of cities, but everywhere looks better when the sun is shining, and, thankfully, it has been of late.

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music have you been listening to –  old and new?

MWK: I have mainly been listening to our daughter, Mabel, practising piano, recorder and drums, and singing at full volume, but when that subsides, it has been a mix of old and new: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Heron, early ‘70s Springsteen, Jessie Winchester, Crazy Horse (without Neil Young) and Jim Ford. I’ve also been getting back into Levon Helms’ Dirt Farmer album.

One of my favourite ever artists / songwriters is Roddy Frame and somehow I had missed out on his album The North Star, which is from 1998.

My pal Danny Champ reminded me about it, saying it was his favourite Roddy album, so that has been a fabulous (re)discovery. God, that album should have made him huge. It has some of his best songs on it – and that is saying something. And, of course, after the terribly sad news about John Prine, I revisited his whole back catalogue.

New releases? I have been enjoying the new Laura Marling album – she is a marvel. There aren’t many who are coming close to her right now. The new album, Song For Our Daughter, is yet to reach the heights of its predecessor, Semper Femina, yet. Maybe it will after a few more plays.

‘Some days I feel okay with lockdown – I like the fact the world is on pause – but then other days are met with an overriding ‘what’s the point?”

I’m also loving the new A Girl Called Eddy [aka Erin Moran]  album Been Around. Her debut – and last album – from well over 10 years ago, was coincidentally co-produced by Colin Elliot, who I have been working with for the last few years on My Darling Clementine releases. I recall Erin and I did a joint show many years ago, along with Peter Bruntnell and Thea Gilmore, for Mojo magazine. I have not seen her since but we reconnected again online recently.

I checked out new albums from Logan Ledger (produced by T. Bone Burnett) and Pokey LaFarge while I was out for a walk recently. The jury’s still out on both of those for me, though Logan has covered what I consider something of a lost country classic, Skip A Rope. Originally recorded by Henson Cargill in the late ’60s, it is a kind of a country protest song.

Have you written any new songs during lockdown? When we last spoke, in October 2019, you said you’d been suffering from writer’s block. Has that passed?

MWK: I wouldn’t say it has passed, but it has eased a little. I still have far too many unfinished songs, and now have an increasing number of new, unfinished ideas. I need a target, a deadline to make me get my ass in gear, a date for when things have to be ready by. I am currently living by the Irish mantra: “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

I have written and completed a new song, called No One Comes Close. It’s about the way the NHS staff have been treated by the Tory government for the past 10 years, and how the likes of Johnson and Gove are now fawning all over the health workers.

It was not long ago they were cheering in the House of Commons, having won a vote not to increases nurses’ wages. It is hypocrisy on the grandest of scales. I feel sick every time I see them clapping on a Thursday night. The song is up on YouTube as part of the Artists4NHS campaign, and I hope it will raise a few quid.

You had plans for a new solo album. What’s the latest on that?

MWK: I don’t record at home – I always go into a studio with an engineer and a co-producer, so until we can do that again it remains just a plan and not a reality. I also have all those songs to finish, so I can’t say really, but I would like to at least record it this year. It has been a long time since I made a solo record, so maybe it could be a double album. One acoustic and one electric?

As professional musicians, how has Covid-19 affected you and Lou?

MWK: It has affected us greatly, as it has so many musicians, especially those of us who make most of our income from playing live. We have lost over 50 shows and I fear there is more to come. That is quite a chunk of change, and even though a good number of the shows have been rescheduled, it still means a long period without income.

Picture by Marco Bakker
Are you optimistic about the future? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’ Are you worried?

MWK: As for forward planning, the great uncertainty means many venues and promoters don’t want to commit just yet. Our next shows are in September and I am getting anxious that they might not happen too.

Long-term I do think it will get back to how it was. People like to commune and come together for things – there is nothing better than coming together for music. My fear is how many venues, promoters and even musicians will be out of business when things are ready to go back?

Even though it is proving a useful stopgap for musicians and music fans alike, online concerts have proved one thing – that you cannot and never will beat the real thing.

Last time we spoke, it was ahead of the release of Country Darkness Vol. 1 – your reinterpretations of country and country-soul songs written by Elvis Costello.
You recorded the tracks with Steve Nieve, keyboardist with The Attractions and The Imposters, and members of Richard Hawley’s band. Vol. 2 is out in June. What can you tell us about the new record? When and where was it recorded and how were the sessions?

MWK: We did exactly what we did with Vol 1. Lou, Steve and I got together to decide on the key, the tempo and the basic arrangement, then we left Steve to record a solo piano or keyboard track from his studio in Paris, setting the feel for the songs, before sending it to producer Colin Elliot back in England. We would then go into Yellow Arch Studio in Sheffield and complete the full arrangement with the band.

Once again, you’ve put your own stamp on the songs. How did you tackle the arrangements and decide on the feel and treatments?

MWK: We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so. Also for Steve, who played on some of the originals, he was keen to do something different.

Let’s talk about the songs. The first track is Either Side Of The Same Town

MWK: Without question, it’s one of our favourite Elvis Costello songs, of any style. I think Elvis must have been listening to a lot of Dan Penn when he wrote this. It is a song mined from the same seam as his song, The Dark End Of The Street, which was a hit for James Carr.

Either Side… was originally written for another great soul voice, Howard Tate, who recorded it before Elvis did.

In 2006, Lou was on tour with The Brodsky Quartet and they performed a version of this song, arranged for quartet and voice by Brodsky viola player, Paul Cassidy, which was based on the original demo Elvis had given to Paul. It’s quite a lot different from how it ended up on Elvis’s The Delivery Man album, and in turn, very different from our version.

We have kept the country-soul feel, but added an extra verse to accommodate a guitar solo and also gone with a more understated vocal approach to it.

‘We have tried hard to re-invent the songs and not just follow the original arrangements. It would be rather pointless to do so’

What about I Lost You?

MWK: That song comes from Elvis’s more acoustic, bluegrass album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and is co-written by Jim Lauderdale, who was also part of the touring ensemble Costello put together at that time.

Lou and I shared a festival bill with Jim at the River Town Festival in Bristol in 2017 and our paths have crossed a few times, most recently at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. Jim is one of the sweetest and funniest guys, and a master of the high harmony. He’s a very fine songwriter too.

The original version of this opens with a guitar riff, which then reoccurs later. We replaced that with Steve’s arpeggiated piano motif. Although written originally for one voice, the song works particularly well as a conversational duet.

What about the first single from the EP, Different Finger?

MWK: It’s a song that just had to be done for this project. It’s one of Elvis’s most authentic honky-tonkers. Like Stranger in the House [which is on the first Country Darkness EP], it is a classic country song, although still with a few songwriting idiosyncrasies that are totally Costello, as opposed to the simplicity of say Harlan Howard or Merle Haggard.

Steve had played on the original, so we wanted to find a different approach, as we have tried with all of these songs, so for this we went with the Marty Robbins treatment. Hats off to Piero Tucci for some stunning accordion playing, and also the beautiful Spanish guitar styling of Shez Sheridan.

The final track on the new EP is Too Soon To Know

MWK: This song turned out much more moody and atmospheric than any of us thought. In 2016, Darlene Love recorded it, duetting with Bill Medley – she approached it in that true ‘60s soul style she is famous for.

I had initially thought we may also go in that direction, but once Steve had set the tone with his spooky keys, and sombre feel, the song went somewhere else altogether, and I would argue it’s all the better for it.

We have taken a more understated vocal approach to try and set it apart from previous versions. Of any of the songs we have cut so far, this track personifies the phrase ‘Country Darkness.’

Picture by Marco Bakker
You have one more Country Darkness EP to release – Vol. 3 – followed by an album of the same name, which will include all of the songs from the project.
What’s the latest on the third volume and when will the album come out?  Have you recorded the next EP?

MWK: Lou and I had got together with Steve in Manchester in March, on a day off during the recent Elvis Costello tour. We were due to go into the studio a few days later, but that turned out to be the week lockdown came into effect. It should have all been done by now. We have five more Costello songs to record, plus a new My Darling Clementine song. It’s so frustrating. I just hope we can resume ASAP.

Do you know if Elvis has heard the first EP?

MWK: We saw him very briefly after the Manchester show and he thanked us for the record. We didn’t really get chance to talk about it much, as he was being ushered out the venue, plus Lou was busy wisecracking with him about his choice of stage exit music – Ken Dodd’s We Are The Diddy Men!

Finally, this country – and many others – has experienced a lot of darkness recently. What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is lifted?

MWK: I have a list of five things:

1) Spending time with my grown-up kids and hugging my grandchildren.

2) Going to the pub with some male friends to drink Guinness and talk nonsense.

3) Getting back on stage.

4) Getting back in the studio.

5) Getting out of Manchester, well, the UK in general. We were due in Spain in June for some shows. I think we may head there!

I actually re-wrote the lyrics for Tom T Hall’s very sweet, but rather saccharine song I Like, and called it I Miss. I’m not sure it needs to be committed to YouTube or Facebook, or maybe it will be, one night, after a bottle of wine… I had a line about missing browsing in record shops, with you in mind, Sean, but I haven’t found the second line yet. Anyway, in answer to your question, here is what ‘I Miss.’

I Miss

I miss
going to her house, sitting on the couch, her upon my knee
and tea
I miss climbing up some hill, dragging them against their will, saying theirs legs ache
and cake
And I miss you too

——–

I miss
going to the game, walking home in the rain, calling out the team,
and dreams
I miss going to the pub, giving friends a hug, putting the world to rights,
curry nights
And I miss you too

——–

I miss getting on the stage, thinking I’m all the rage
Drinks in hotel bars, and cars
I miss driving through the night, crossing borders when it’s light, hearing another voice
and choice
And I miss you too

Country Darkness Vol.2 by My Darling Clementine is released on June 5 (Fretsore Records). The single, Different Finger, is available to stream and download now. 

You can pre-order the 12in EP here: https://linktr.ee/countrydarknessvol2

www.mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/

In my hour of darkness

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

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

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

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

 Q & A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had you met Steve before you worked on this project?

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

Picture of My Darling Clementine by Jeff Fassano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/

 

 

 

Best albums of 2017

IMG_2717 (2)

This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.

Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…

In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.

John_Murry_1400_X1400

The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland –  A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.

Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age: ‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness –  it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’

Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.

Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.

‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’

Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.

It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson  (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.

Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”. 

They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.

My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement. 

A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments  – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.

Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass. 

The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.

It’s great to have him back.

This year also saw the return of another Say It With Garage Flowers favourite. Back in 2014, miserablist duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) released their debut album, Broken Heart Surgery, which topped my end of year poll.

2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year. 

As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’

And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year. 

His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.

Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks. 

Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.

Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and  ’60s organ –  it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records. 

Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record –  sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.

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Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.

Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River. 

Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.

The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…

L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams. 

I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.

And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018… 

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it:

1) John Murry – A Short History of Decay

2) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers We Are Millionaires

3) Morrissey – Low In High School

4) Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

5) Nev CotteeBroken Flowers

6) My Darling Clementine Still Testifying

7) Torn Sail This Short Sweet Life

8) The Rails Other People

9) Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won

10) Neil Young – Hitchhiker 

11) PP Arnold The Turning Tide

12) Gold Star – Big Blue

13) Richard Warren Disentangled

14) The Carousels Sail Home, St. Clair

15) Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

16) The Clientele – Music For The Age of Miracles

17) Ralegh Long – Upwards of Summer

18) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

19) Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

20) Alex Lipinksi Alex

21) Little Barrie – Death Express

22) The National – Sleep Well Beast

23) Juanita Stein – America

24) Martin CarrNew Shapes of Life

25) The Dials – That Was The Future

26) Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat

27) Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time

28) Liam Gallagher – As You Were

29) William Matheny – Strange Constellations

30) Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

31) Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever

32) Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Scenery For Dreamers

33) The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

34) Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes

35) Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution

36) Luke Tuchscherer Always Be True

37) Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

38) Sophia Marshall – Bye Bye

39) Co-Pilgrim – Moon Lagoon

40) GospelBeacH Another Summer of Love

41) Bob Dylan – Triplicate

42) Papernut Cambridge – Cambridge Circus

43) Luna – A Sentimental Education

44) Steelism – Ism

45) The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails

46) Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream

47) Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [UK version]

48) Alex Lowe – Rancho Diablo

49) The Blow Monkeys – The Wild River

50) Colman GotaFear The Summer

 

 

 

Soul from the Deep South of London

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Still Testifying, the new album from husband and wife country duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – sees the band building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record The Reconciliation?

More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

I spoke to Michael to find out more about My Darling Clementine’s love of sweet soul music and get the low-down on the stories behind the songs on Still Testifying

Q & A

On your last album, The Reconciliation?, which was the follow up to your 2011 debut, How Do You Plead? you added some soul to your country sound. With the new record, Still Testifying, you’ve taken that even further and also thrown in some gospel for good measure.

What was your approach to this record? Why have you headed further down the Southern soul road, rather than gone back to your country roots?

Michael Weston King: We had a clear remit with How Do You Plead? – to make an album that sounded like George and Tammy in 1967.

How Do You Plead? was made up of old songs that had been deemed “too country” for either my former band, or my solo albums, along with some new songs written specifically for that album.

We didn’t really think beyond album one, but here we are, on album three, and our remit has changed. We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs.

We have both always loved soul music, and I have been driving Lou mad with all the old country soul stuff I have been listening to over the years, so it just felt a natural progression for us when making this new album.

We hinted at it with the song Our Race Is Run on our second album, but have given that country soul feel – and style of writing – to more songs on this album

‘We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs’

There are some great arrangements on the album – it’s a rich and full-sounding record that’s very rewarding.

I love the brass on the opening song, The Embers and The Flame – particularly the ‘bah-bah-bah’ instrumental break halfway through…

MWK: That was originally a guitar solo that I came up with when writing the song, but once we had added the brass to the arrangement, it was only natural they [the horn players] took the solo, too – the melody is the same, though.

The horns on Just A Woman sound like you’ve been listening to some old Burt Bacharach tunes…

MWK: Yes – that was producer Neil Brockbank’s idea and it was brilliantly brought to fruition by horn player and brass arranger Matt Holland.

The original piano and voice demo did not conjure up Bacharach & David to us, but it clearly did to Neil. And once the French Horns and trumpets went on there, well that was it, and we just fully embraced Burt!

Can you talk me through the writing and recording process for the new album? Did you do basic demos and then work out the full arrangements?

MWK: All our songs are demoed very simply, with voice and guitar or voice and piano. We then get together with the main core of the band and work through them. Most of the songs do tend to work themselves out – it is pretty clear how they should go. Also, working with guys that we have worked with for years now, and fully understand what we are striving for musically – and who share the same musical tastes and influences – makes coming up with the right approach and arrangements a lot easier

Did you have definite ideas for arrangements in your head before you went into the studio?

MWK: Yes – certainly for some of them, and then, as I just mentioned, more ideas came from kicking the songs round in rehearsals.

After that, once in the studio, the more fine-tuned arrangement ideas, and what additional instrumentation we felt was needed, came from the producer, Neil Brockbank.

‘Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, it was a fun album to make’

Was it a fun album to make, or was it difficult? 

MWK: Like with all albums, you go through a roller coaster of emotions – “it’s the greatest record ever made”, or “it’s awful”, but as you get older and the more records you make, you know it will be like this and you just try and let those highs and lows pass you by. Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, yes, it was a fun album to make.

How do you feel listening back to it now? 

MWK: Very pleased with it – especially its diversity. There really is an eclectic mix of styles on the album, which I love, but it still sounds like the same artist. It is held together by our voices.

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It sounds like a record that could’ve been made in Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was recorded in Tooting Bec – it’s Southern soul from South London. How did you capture that authentic vibe in the studio? 

MWK: Like we have done with all our albums – getting the right producer and the right team and the most suitable players. We used British musicians, but ones with a real love and understanding of Stax, Fame, Hi and mid ‘60s- era Atlantic Records. They’re players who, between them, have worked with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Ben E. King, Van Morrison, Dr John and Doug Sahm.

I think too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”. I would have been guilty of that years ago.

Yes, there are some great studios and people there, but also lots of mediocrity – just churning out generic stuff. I like the fact we recorded here with the finest of British players and producers and still captured the spirit we wanted.

‘Too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”’

What were your main musical influences for this album?

MWK: Delaney & Bonnie, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Mickey Newbury, Jim Ford, Goffin & King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, and, if you listen closely to the middle eight of Since I Fell For You, The Searchers and Helen Shapiro!

Yours Is The Cross That I Still Bear is a gospel-tinged track. What can you tell me about that song?

MWK: It was originally written for the German label, Bear Family Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with a triple album box set. They asked us to contribute a track – the caveat being all songs had to have the word ‘bear’ in the title. So I came up with that.

The version used on that album was just piano, guitar and vocals, but it did have a country soul / gospel groove to it, and I always planned to use it on this album. Lou took some convincing, but I think she really digs it now. The song has since been expanded and totally re-worked on our new album.

Lyrically, I had some old friends in mind when I wrote it. A shared history, a time when you did a lot together and then, as you get older, you drift apart and move on to other people and other places, but that bond you forged at an early age stays with you forever – even if you lose regular contact. Those shared times – both the good things and the bad things – are what bind you.

On your last album, there was a song called No Matter What Tammy Said – a retort to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man – and on this record there’s Jolene’s Story –  a sequel to Dolly Parton’s song Jolene. Your song is written from Jolene’s point of view and we find out that she did take Dolly’s man…

I sense a theme going on. Can you think of any other classic country songs that deserve a follow-up? I feel a My Darling Clementine concept album coming on… 

MWK: On our debut, we had Going Back To Memphis – which kind of picked up where the great Tom T. Hall song, That’s How I Got To Memphis, left off.

I think The Grand Tour by George Jones is rife for a follow-up song. Maybe about the people who bought and moved into the house. Or where the wife is now – the one who “left me without mercy”.

How about a sequel to Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe? Isn’t it about time we found out what was thrown off Tallahatchie Bridge?

MWK: Yes – that could be a good one. Lou has actually performed that song live, and does a rather fabulous version of it, I must say.

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

When we last spoke, in 2015, you’d just released The Other Half album – your music and spoken word collaboration with crime writer Mark Billingham. A couple of songs from that piece of work have ended up on your new record, albeit in slightly different guises – The Embers and The Flame and Friday Night, Tulip Hotel…

MWK: All the songs recorded for The Other Half album, either the older ones re-recorded, or the two ones written for the project, were recorded sparsely and acoustically, just guitars, mandolins, a bit of percussion, piano on one or two, but simple and sparse – the same as we performed them in the live show.

Both the new songs were very well received when played live and we always felt they could be enhanced even more by a fuller arrangement. We didn’t want them to remain just as acoustic recordings.

I am so glad we did that now, as they are both very different to the versions on The Other Half and we have also slightly changed the titles of them too for this album.

The Embers and The Flame was formerly called As Precious As The Flame. The fire burning out is an often-used country music metaphor for a relationship that has lost its spark. We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and After The Fire Is Gone are just two prime examples. We have somewhat inverted it here, suggesting that you don’t always need the spark, the flame or the fire. Sometimes the embers are just as important, perhaps even more so.  

Mark Billingham wrote most of the original lyrics for it. We needed a “happy song” to end the story of The Other Half. The reworked version is bigger and bolder and brassier.

And the secret to a long and happy marriage? According to Mark it is “sticking around, no matter how shitty it gets”.

Friday Night, Tulip Hotel – formerly Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel – was written in the car park of The Golden Tulip Hotel, Rotterdam, while watching a couple check out very early, as indeed we had, though for different reasons. They were trying to be discreet about being there, about being with each other, but it was clearly a case of “same time, same place, next week”. We watched them drive off in opposite directions and drew our own conclusion as to how it ended.

Would you like to do another project in the same vein as The Other Half?

MWK: Yes, absolutely –  we would love to do another, though maybe starting from nothing this time, with all new songs, as well as a brand new story. Oh, that suddenly now sounds like a musical!

There are the usual helpings of infidelity and heartache on Still Testifying that we’ve come to expect from My Darling Clementine songs, but Two Lane Texaco sticks out because it’s more of a political / issues-based song – it deals with the effect of the oil industry on small town America.

Can you tell me more about the background and inspiration for that song? It’s also one of the more ‘traditional’ country songs on the album. I can imagine Nick Cave doing a cover of it…. 

MWK: That would be nice, I must send it to him. The opening verse for it came to me while driving along a very unromantic, English motorway, crawling along, due to roadworks. They were widening the road. The song remained unfinished for quite a while until I was watching the Pixar movie Cars with our daughter Mabel. It was all there –  this small town being bypassed due to a newly built highway and the town just dying.

‘The lyric owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s’

The lyric also owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s, such as American Hot Wax and American Graffiti, featuring the iconic DJs Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack, respectively.

Overall, the song is a hymn to the demise of small town America. In fact, small towns anywhere – Megawatt Valley is actually in Yorkshire. Towns that have been affected by an industry that was once its heart and soul, making it a thriving community. And then, that industry abandons the town, leaving the people left behind without work and without hope. And with a faith severely tested… “We’ve sold the family silver but there’s gold still buried underground.”

You’ve just come back from touring the States. How was that and where did you go?

MWK: We go to the US every April, during the school holidays, so our daughter Mabel can be with us too. Which is just as well, as she is now very much part of the show. She even made her New York debut this time, playing with us at City Winery, when we opened up for Ray Benson and Dale Watson.

The tour this time was along the eastern seaboard, from Rhode Island down to New Jersey, with some shows a little further west in Chicago, Detroit and over the border to London, Ontario [Canada].

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You’re currently on a UK tour. What can we expect?

MWK: We are four days into an eight-date run of shows with the full band – they are going great. It’s always a joy, as they are such fine musicians, and for the London show [June 7 –  The Islington] we will have the horn section too. It will be spectacular. Then we’re doing a run of more acoustic shows.

What’s a typical My Darling Clementine tour like? How rock ‘n’ roll are you?

MWK: Not very these days. I have pretty much given up drinking and so has Lou, and touring with your daughter also curtails too many rock ‘n’ roll activities. In fact, she is the one that wants to order room service at 1am and stay up watching TV, while we want to sleep!

Finally, I’m giving you a chance to testify. What would you like to bear witness to?

MWK: Well, my testimony may have been very different had we done this interview a few weeks ago, but in the light of the tragic events in Manchester, a city I love (and I think you do, too), and where two of my children live, and the news a few days ago that Neil Brockbank, who produced this record and our debut album, died suddenly of lung cancer, it is simply this: to cherish as much time with your family, friends and loved ones as possible.

Still Testifying – the new album by My Darling Clementine – is out now on Continental Song City: http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/

The band’s UK tour dates are: 

June 7 –  The Islington, London 

June 9 –  The Met, Bury

June 10 – The Hut, Corby

June 11 –  The Old Stables, Crickslade

June 28 –  Catstrand, Dumfries

June 29 –  Clark’s On Lindsay, Dundee

July 1 –   Old Fire Station, Carlisle

July 2 –  Birnam Arts, Dunkeld

July 6 – Phoenix Arts, Exeter

July 15 – Americana Weekend, Bristol

 

 

‘I was furious writing this book’

 

51eMhWvs7HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Best-selling crime fiction author Mark Billingham’s latest novel, Love Like Blood, deals with the controversial subject of honour killings.

It was a difficult book to write, he tells me, but has more twists and turns than any of his other thrillers…

Q & A

Your new book, Love Like Blood, is the fourteenth novel in the Tom Thorne series. It shares its title with a song by Killing Joke…

Mark Billingham: Yes – it does. I was sitting on a train with Martyn Waites [crime writer] and told him that I didn’t have a title for my book and that it was driving me crazy. We threw some titles back and forth – he knew what the book was about – and then he said, ‘what about the Killing Joke song, Love Like Blood?’ So, in the acknowledgements, I thank Killing Joke and Martyn Waites. It’s actually the first time I’ve named one of my books after a song title.

Your last book, Die of Shame, was a stand-alone novel. What was it like going back to Thorne and writing about him again, for the fourteenth time? Does he still excite you?

MB: Yes – he does. One of the reasons I write stand-alone books is that having taken a break from the series, I can come back to Thorne re-energised and keen to write about him again – that’s the theory. I was very excited to write about him again – especially putting him into this story, as it was one I was very fired-up to write about.

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Mark Billingham

This seems like an appropriate time to talk about the story in Love Like Blood. I’m not going to give anything away, so I’ll just refer to the promotional blurb that accompanies the novel…

‘As DI Nicola Tanner investigates what appears to be a series of organised killings, her partner Susan is brutally murdered.

‘Taken off the case, Tanner enlists the help of DI Tom Thorne to pursue a pair of ruthless killers and the broker who is handing out the deadly contracts.

‘As the killers target their latest victim, Thorne takes the biggest risk of his career and is drawn into a horrifying and disturbing world in which families will do anything to protect their honour…’

The central theme of the book is honour killings and it’s loosely based on a real-life crime – the killing of Banaz Mahmod – a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman, living in south-west London, who was raped, tortured and murdered by members of her family in 2006.

Banaz’s father and uncle were eventually sentenced to life in prison for ordering the killing, along with the three men who had been paid to carry out the act. Several other members of her family were also jailed for their involvement in the crime.

Banaz had been forced into an arranged marriage with a man who physically and sexually abused her, but she left him and fell in love with another man – Rahmat Sulemani. Her family killed her for doing so…

MB: They conspired to murder her and had already tried to kill her once before. She’d been to the police five times, but wasn’t taken seriously. There’s a heart-breaking clip, which you can watch on YouTube, of her being interviewed at the police station, describing her abusive marriage and how she was repeatedly raped, beaten and treated like a slave.

She tried to get away, because she’d met Rahmat Sulemani and fallen in love with him, but she was spotted kissing him outside Morden tube station. That was her death warrant.

She was lured to her grandmother’s house, where she was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered.

‘It’s the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out’

There’s a brilliant documentary about the case, which is called Banaz: A Love Story. I remembered reading about the case and then I saw the documentary and started looking further into it it. It’s probably the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out.

I then had this idea of writing a story about men who were paid to carry out such killings  – not just in the UK, but also overseas.

As Love Like Blood deals with such a controversial and sensitive subject matter, was it a difficult novel to write?

MB: Yes – it was. It was difficult in two ways. I was furious writing this book – very angry. It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real and horrendous crimes. I also knew that it was something that needed to be treated with a degree of sensitivity. I was writing about cultures and religions that weren’t mine. I firmly believe that I have the right to do that – I’m writing about a multi-ethnic city [London] and not every book I write is about white, middle-aged men.

I was careful at every stage. The book was seen very early by a Muslim reader, a Sikh reader and a Hindu reader. I very much wanted to do that, because I didn’t want to make stupid mistakes and I also didn’t want to write anything that anyone might find offensive. At no point in this book am I attacking any religions or cultures. I’ve got nothing but respect for those religions, but I have no respect at all for people who murder in their names. It’s got nothing to do with religion – it’s just murder.

‘It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real, horrendous crimes’

This isn’t the first time you’ve written about real-life, social issues in your books, is it?

MB: No – over the course of 17 books, I’ve occasionally written about things that are actually happening.

I’ve never done tub-thumping stuff, but Lifeless was about homelessness, Die of Shame dealt with addiction and In The Dark was about the pressure of joining gangs. It does feel different when I’m writing books like that, rather than the ones about serial killers or gangland slayings. I’m not saying I want to do it with every book – sometimes the story just doesn’t work like that. Don’t get me wrong – the story has to come first. Love Like Blood is still a thriller that has more twists and turns than anything I’ve ever written. I think it has two stonking twists in it, but I’m not going to give them away.

I hope it still works as a thriller, but obviously I want to draw attention to these atrocities, and the scale of them. There is a minimum of a dozen honour killings in the UK every year, but it is a massively under-reported crime.

Sadly, there was yet even more tragedy to come from Banaz Mahmod’s story. Her partner, Rahmat Sulemani, killed himself in May last year…

MB: Yeah, that happened while I was halfway through writing the book and fired me up even more. It’s odd – when you’re halfway through a book, you usually go into the doldrums and you worry about what you’re writing, whether it’s any good and if you’re doing the right thing.

Then Rahmat Sulemani hanged himself – 10 years after Banaz died – and I thought, ‘yeah – I really want to finish this book’. So I raced through the second half of it. It’s probably the quickest book I’ve ever written.

 

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

You’re a multi-talented man who always has plenty of projects on the go – including some music-related ones. In 2015, you collaborated with country duo My Darling Clementine on an album and live show called The Other Half. Any more musical collaborations in the offing?

MB: Well…I’m in a band called The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. It’s made up of a bunch of other crime writers – Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and Val McDermid, with guest appearances from the likes of Christopher Brookmyre. We’re playing cover versions with a crime theme and we’ll be making our live debut in August.

I’m the only one in the band who isn’t a proper musician! I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives.

On The Other Half album, you co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine called As Precious As The Flame. A new version of it has also appeared on the latest My Darling Clementine album, Still Testifying. Would you like to do more songwriting?

MB: I’ve actually been doing a lot of songwriting. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs and playing guitar – however badly I sing and play. I’m keeping up with all my guitar lessons – as the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers’  expands, I have a new song to learn every week. Like any band though, we’re probably more interested in getting our photo done…

I’m also writing some songs with a musician and composer called Paul Joyce – he’s an old friend of mine.

I write the lyrics, with a few musical ideas, and then I work with Paul on them – he hammers a demo into shape and then we bring in session musicians. We’ve been working on six songs for about six months – we have half an album’s worth and now we’re going to put them out there and hopefully find someone who fancies recording them. I think we’ve written some good songs…

‘I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives’

Would you like to work with My Darling Clementine again?

MB: We’re actually talking about taking The Other Half Back on the road – we’ve had some interest in doing some other dates at the end of this year and the beginning of 2018. Right now, we’re trying to work out when we can all be in the same place at the same time.

Like your fictional character, Thorne, you’re a huge country music fan and you’re currently working on a Radio 4 programme about Hank Williams. What can you tell me about that?

MB: It’s for a show called My Muse, in which people talk about someone that’s inspired them in one way or another. I picked Hank and I’m interviewing various people for it and talking about what his music means to me. I think it will be going out in August. Hank Williams was a mega-star in his time, with massive hits, but, at the same time, he was also putting out this weird, uncommercial gospel stuff under an alias – Luke The Drifter – that was completely different from Your Cheatin’ Heart or Jambalaya. For a long time, people didn’t even know Luke The Drifter was Hank Williams. Every so often, he just felt that he had to do these Luke The Drifter recordings. Maybe he felt guilty about the godless life he was living…

So when you write stand-alone novels, is that your Luke The Drifter period?

MB: Maybe (laughs) – no, that would be the equivalent of me telling my publisher I’m going to write a huge, erotic saga, or a romance novel. Even when Hank was writing hit songs like Cold, Cold Heart, they were really dark. How do you walk that line between being commercial and being very, very dark and edgy? That’s why I’ve always thought crime and country music go so well together.

Time of Death

The BBC has adapted two of your novels, In The Dark and Time of Death, for TV. When will the series – a four-part drama –  be shown?

MB: It’s all done – it was filmed in and around Manchester last year and I think it’s going to be on in the next couple of months.

You’re already working on the next Thorne book, aren’t you?

MB: Yes – I’m about three quarters of the way through it. One strand of the book deals with Spice abuse and the network behind smuggling drugs into prison. The other part of the story is based on a real-life, ongoing police investigation, which I can’t really talk about. So I’m writing about drugs and murder, and as usual there will be some country music thrown in. I’m not doing a Luke The Drifter change of direction just yet.

‘My next book will be about drugs and murder, with some country music thrown in’

Finally, will you be appearing on any more celebrity TV quiz shows? You’ve been seen on Mastermind, Pointless and Eggheads…

MB: I’m actually doing The Chase in a couple of weeks. I think I will have pretty much done all of them by then – unless there’s Celebrity Tipping Point. God, I am such a tart…

 

Love Like Blood – the new book by Mark Billingham – is out on June 1, published by Little, Brown. For more information, visit: https://uk.markbillingham.com/love-like-blood

 

 

“I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album”

markface

 

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, is released in May and is based on murderous goings-on in a therapy session. I spoke to him about addiction, country music and sitting around in his pyjamas all day…

 

The last time we spoke, you’d just released The Other Half – your spoken word album with country band My Darling Clementine – and your most recent Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, had come out.

Now your new stand-alone novel, Die of Shame, is about to hit the shelves. Without giving too much away, what we can expect?

Mark Billingham: It’s a stand-alone psychological thriller and in some ways it’s a very modern take on the classic locked-room mystery, but my locked-room is a therapy group for recovering addicts.

There are six people in a circle who meet every Monday evening to talk about shame, which their therapist is convinced is the key to their problems with addiction and crucial in aiding their recovery.

One person in that group will die at the hands of another. Writing about addiction – a subject I’m fascinated by – enabled me to create a cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, which is always an enjoyable challenge.

My best friend is a recovering addict and his experience and advice was hugely helpful. It’s a very different sort of novel from those in the Thorne series, but the bottom line is that it’s still a murder mystery and one I’m enormously proud of.

 

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Tom Thorne usually makes a cameo appearance in your stand-alone books. Will he crop up in Die of Shame?

MB: Yes, of course he will. And Phil Hendricks is in there as well…

Music is never far away from you and some of the characters in your books – particularly Tom Thorne. What were you listening to while you were writing Die of Shame? Have you heard any new albums that have blown you away? I’m loving Richmond Fontaine’s latest record and I know you’re a big fan of them…

MB: Well, like you, I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album [You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To].

It might even be their best yet, which is ironic considering that it’s almost certainly their last.

I’ve recently discovered Margo Price, who is just wonderful, and I’ve been really enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

I’ve been playing a lot of M. Ward too, and when I really need to get into a dark place, I put on Gorecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. That stuff makes Hank Williams sound like The Wombles!

There’s not too much music in Die Of Shame, because there isn’t much Tom Thorne, but like you say, it’s never very far away…

CS608050-01B-BIG 

I recently picked up the My Darling Clementine Record Store Day EP, which features As Precious As The Flame – a song you co-wrote with the band. It must be great to have a track you worked on out on vinyl?  

MB: Absolutely – it’s a real thrill. I’m very proud of that song, which I think is a wonderful ending to the album and the live show of The Other Half. It’s fantastic to see it on the My Darling Clementine EP.

You’ve been touring The Other Half with My Darling Clementine. How was it going out on the road?

MB: The tour was a lot of fun, but bloody exhausting. Whenever I complained about all the travelling, Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine would just say, “welcome to our world”.

I drove somewhere close to 7,000 miles doing the show, so now I’m appreciating the luxury of sitting at my desk all day in my pyjamas and not having to go further than the kitchen. I adored doing it, though. Michael and Lou remain a joy to work with and I’m very proud of the show we did.

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

Do you have any plans for some more musical collaborations?

MB: Collaborating is something I would highly recommend for anyone who works on their own most of the time.

Aside from the artistic benefits, it’s great to have someone to go for a beer and a curry with at the end of the day. I’m certainly up for doing something similar in the future, should the chance come along. Obviously I’m still waiting for Elvis Costello to call…

It’s going to be a busy year for you, as you’ve got some more gigs with My Darling Clementine planned, you’re promoting your new book in the UK and US and your novels In The Dark and Time of Death are being filmed for TV by the BBC. Can you tell us more about the TV adaptations?

MB: They’ve been filming for a week now and everything’s going well. Danny Brocklehurst has written four brilliant scripts and the BBC have put a fantastic cast together, so it’s really exciting.

Fans of Peep Show will be familiar with Matt King, who plays Super Hans, and it’s brilliant that we’ve got him playing Phil Hendricks.

Obviously, I’m going to spoil everything in a couple of weeks when I rock up to do my cameo, but I’m sure it will be fun.

The stories have changed a bit, as they should when you move from page to screen, and there’s no Thorne at all. The series focuses on Helen Weeks, and MyAnna Buring, who is playing her, is fantastic.

I’m sure some readers will be up in arms because the TV show is not exactly the same as the books, but how can it be? They are different animals and should be judged differently. I’m closely involved with the scripts and as an executive producer, so there’s nothing going on that I don’t completely endorse. We’re just trying to make the best TV show we can.

I fully expect my cameo to wind up on the cutting room floor, especially as I plan to ham it up shamelessly…

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Have you started writing the next Thorne novel yet? When can we expect it to be released and can you give us a teaser?

MB: Yes, I’m halfway through the next one. There’s a new detective in Die Of Shame called Nicola Tanner. In many ways she’s the ‘anti-Thorne’, so I’m having a lot of fun putting her and Tom together in the book I’m currently writing.

Fun is perhaps the wrong word, as I’m actually writing about a subject that is very dark. I don’t want to say too much at this stage – I don’t even have a title yet – but I’ve never felt angrier writing a book. I hope that turns out to be a good thing…

Following on from your appearances on TV quiz shows Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind, you’re going to appear on Eggheads, as a member of a team of crime writers. When can we see that? 

MB: I think it’s due to go out in September. I was part of a team of crime writers, alongside Val McDermid, Martyn Waites, Doug Johnstone and Chris Brookmyre. It was a lot of fun. I’m not allowed to say how we got on against the Eggheads, but I would urge people to watch!

Finally, can you recommend any good books, other than Die of Shame?

MB: Chris Brookmyre’s newest book Black Widow is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed David Hepworth’s book about the music of 1971 – Never A Dull Moment.

Another non-fiction recommendation would be Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. It’s a brilliant history and detailed dissection of the war on drugs and I guarantee it will change everything you ever believed about addiction.

It’s absolutely fascinating and a huge eye-opener.

I’m currently reading John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker novel, A Time Of Torment, which is as sickeningly brilliant as usual. If I didn’t like him as much, I’d hate him…

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on May 5 and in the US by Grove Atlantic on June 7.

For more information, visit http://www.markbillingham.com/

 

 

 

Best Albums of 2015

 

minesweeping

As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee
Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.

Steelism

Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what first attracted you to My Darling Clementine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time of Death

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Other Half

 

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

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

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

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

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

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

 

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