After 23 years living in Manchester, singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar moved back to Worcestershire, where he grew up. His relocation inspired him to write a concept album, Return of the Native – a brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, featuring a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.
Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy.
In an exclusive interview, I ask Vinny to give me a track by track guide to the record. “It was a learning curve and cathartic,” he tells me. “I was putting some old demons to bed…”
Q & A
Hi Vinny. Let’s talk about your new album. The songs were inspired by you moving from Manchester back to Worcestershire, where you grew up. How and why did relocating inspire you when it came to writing songs and making this album, which is the follow-up to 2016’s Silver Meadows?
Vinny Peculiar: Hi Sean – good to speak with you. Moving back has been cathartic. Return of the Native was inspired by the changes, reflections and, up to a point, the memories I have of former times here. The ideas seemed to ebb and flow into songs soon after the move. I suppose, in some ways, I was writing to make sense of the changes, the end of a long-term relationship, the start of a new chapter…
How are you finding it living in Worcestershire? Is it good to be back?
VP: I’m settling in. It feels good, but it’s taken longer than I expected to connect. I still seem to spend a lot of time on the M6 – the lure of the North is never far away.
Is Return of the Native the first Worcestershire concept album? I can’t think of any others, can you?
VP: I’m not aware of any, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some obscure folk singer got there before me…
Where did you make the record and who worked on it with you?
VP: The recording of the drums and bass and some of the noisier guitars was done in Whitby Studios, Ellesmere Port, with my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] , Bobby Kewley [bass, cello] and Rob Steadman [ex-Parlour Flames] on keys. The vocals were recorded and edited at home, as were the acoustic guitars, percussion and keyboards.
The serious sheen was added in UNIT 31, in Pershore, by co-producer Dave Draper, who turned a half- decent record into a great sounding one, I like to think.
Was it an easy album to make?
VP: It was something of a learning curve for me at times – the challenge of mic placements, street noise and the neighbours’ dog were all sent to test me – but it felt emotionally cathartic, like I was putting old demons to bed, especially in the more intimate, confessional songs.
I thought it would be fun to do a track-by-track guide to the new record. Let’s talk about each of the songs individually – I’ll throw in a few of my own thoughts and you can tell me more about the tracks and what inspired them. Here we go…
Track By Track Guide to Return of the Native
The Grove and The Ditch
This is a glam-rocking start to the record. We’re taken back to teenage street gangs of the ’70s. What was the inspiration? It’s quite possibly the only pop song to name check Tony Blackburn…
VP: When I was at school, my Bromsgrove friends and I were routinely terrorised by the Redditch Mob – they’d come over to Bromsgrove and pick a fight with us after school. We weren’t very hard and got regularly chased – it became the norm, they’d accuse us of being in the Bromsgrove Gang and we’d leg it! The song is set in 1974, when Tony Blackburn was dumped by his girlfriend and famously cried in public on Radio 1 – he really was in bits. Many of the other references in the song are from that time – The Rocky Horror Show, winters of discontent were everywhere. Glam rock was just about alive and kicking, but punk rock was about to confine it to history…
Malvern Winter Gardener
I think this is one of the best songs you’ve ever written. It’s beautiful, wistful jangle-pop and is about an eccentric local character – a once famous rock star, who’s reflecting on the gigs he played in the ’70s, at the Malvern Winter Gardens, and the bands he saw back in the day…
VP: Thanks, Sean. I used to go to the Winter Gardens in Malvern as a young teenager – the bands I mention in the song were some of the ones I saw. It was a magical place to me. The song’s narration is from the point of view of a burnt-out rock star who lives in Malvern, working as a gardener and lamenting the glory days.
The idea of using that voice came from conversations with older musicians in the local music shop and the pub. I understand Ted Turner, who played guitar in Wishbone Ash and gets mentioned in the song, used to live in Malvern. I was also informed the cover of Argus [by Wishbone Ash] was shot in the Malvern Hills, but my subsequent research suggests otherwise…still I’ve included it in the song, anyway.
The dangers of English Civil War battle re-enactment. Please discuss…
VP: There’s a Civil War re-enactment society just down the road from me – I walk past it when I go to town. I’m fascinated by people who a dress up to re-enact battles – time travellers, if you will. There’s a particular escapism – a kind of discipline that I admire. The song came from a ‘what if?’ scenario – ‘what if your re-enactment became real and someone got hurt?’ and it grew from there.
The hero of the song dies in battle and returns as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend, who marries the undertaker. I wrote it as a picky little folk song, but it morphed into quite an epic – a twanging, jangling affair. I think it’s one of my favourite songs on the record.
What’s the story behind this song? It sounds like it’s named after a Chinese restaurant…
VP: I’d drive past Golden City – and you’re right, it’s a Chinese restaurant here in Blackpole – routinely, when I was in the process of moving from Manchester to Worcester. It’s a rather striking, modern, detached roadside building and I was intrigued. It’s also the name given to San Francisco, which is one of my absolute favourite places to be. The song is about change, hope and moving on, as well as addressing doubt and uncertainty…
Return of the Native
This is the title track and it name checks Rik Mayall, alongside a whole host of other people and local characters who’ve come from Worcestershire…
VP: Yes – there are a lot of name checks in this song – they’re affectionate recollections. The song is derived from a ‘making a list’ approach, I’ve done this with a few songs before where there’s no linear story – a more random approach. Many of the characters are fabricated, but all have local reference points…and Rik Mayall was born just down the road from me, so that has to be worth celebrating. Many of the other landmarks were significant to me when I lived here, all those years ago. I suppose you could say it’s a spontaneous memory song, in the Kerouac tradition of bop prosody, or was it Ginsberg? I digress…
A Girl From Bromsgrove Town
More jangle-pop… This is a sad tale of a girl who left you for the girl next door! Care to shed any more light on this affair?
VP: After visiting my father in his Bromsgrove nursing home, I found myself loitering outside a former girlfriend’s house, waiting for my mother. It was a flashback-type moment, and it set me reminiscing. It’s a true story…
‘Clifford T. Ward taught me for a year – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music’
The Singing Schoolteacher
This is a very poignant and reflective song, which is about your English teacher, who found brief fame as ’70s M.O.R. singer-songwriter, Clifford T. Ward. It talks about the influence he had on you and how pop music shaped your early life. I guess he was the first famous person you knew and he had a major impact on you… How did he inspire you?
VP: Clifford T. Ward taught me for just a year. He took a less than typical approach to teaching. If we didn’t fancy poetry, he gave us permission to opt out – nobody did – and he had long hair, very long hair, so he was immediately one of us. I don’t remember much about the actual lessons – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music. He was on John Peel’s record label, Dandelion Records, and he wrote songs for Bronco. All of this was incredibly exciting. When I told him I had musical ambitions, he was the only teacher who took me seriously. I never got to know him as an adult. The song tracks my relationship at a distance, but it’s very much a tribute to his memory and his inspiration when I was young.
The first time I heard this song, I laughed out loud! Eminem ends up in Droitwich by mistake and mayhem ensues when the locals get their hands on him. There’s even a ‘Vinny Peculiar-doing-the-Pet-Shop-Boys’ West End Girls’ rap vocal! How the hell did you come up with this? It’s bonkers…
VP: I first heard the ‘Droitwich-meets-Detroit’ naming aggregation from my daughter. It amused me no end, setting off some flight of fancy, whereby Eminem, befuddled by endless touring, ends up in Detroitwich, where he’s abducted by the mob, before being rescued by P Diddy. I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich when I knew no better – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song somehow. It is sort of bonkers, yes – I can’t really argue with that…
‘I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song’
On Rainbow Hill
We’re plunged back into more familiar Vinny Peculiar territory – this is another poignant, reflective, melancholy ballad of lost love. Can you elaborate?
VP: It’s a readjustment song – it’s all about moving on. End of a relationship stuff.
David Swan Riverman
Another song about a local, eccentric character… David Swan Riverman regularly feeds the local swans and ducks and looks out for them. Do you know him? Is there a nod to Nick Drake’s Riverman in the title? I like the haunting, psychedelic feel of this song….
VP: There are a lot of guitars on this song and cellos, too – beautifully played by Bobby Kewley. The haunting Nick Drake-ish-ness is kind of accidental, but I can see what you mean. It’s a droning, root note affair. I don’t actually know David Swan, but I’ve seen him at work and it’s kind of mesmerising and dazzling seeing so many swans assembled at feeding time on the river. Crowds gather around – it’s a beautiful spectacle.
This is one of my favourite songs on the album. It sounds like your years living in Manchester have influenced this elegiac song of lost love. I think it has a Joy Division / New Order feel and it references Ian Curtis lyrically…
VP: This was a cathartic song to write, too. Sometimes songs write themselves and you look at them and think ‘is that really me?’ This was such a song. It’s a final acknowledgement – a song that’s hopefully fit to end a record. I wasn’t that aware of the Manchester influence, but I can hear it now you’ve mentioned it. I suppose it’s hard to ignore it after living there for the best part of 23 years.
‘I’ve started making demos for a new album – it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record’
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the songs, Vinny. Finally, what’s next for you? Any projects in the pipeline?
VP: I’m currently working on a collaboration with the poet Anna Saunders, writing music for poetry. We hope to perform live in the future.
I’ve also started making demos for a new album, which we plan to record and mix live in just five days – the very opposite in many ways to how I typically put records together. It’s not going to be a singer-songwriter album – it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record. It’s a collaborative project with the musicians formerly known as Parlour Flames – the file sharing has commenced. I have no idea how long it will all take, nor under which name it will emerge, but it feels kind of exciting and new, which is a good sign, I think…
Return of the Native by Vinny Peculiar is released on June 1 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records).