‘I wear my songs on my sleeve, so anything that happens in my life will come out in them’

Ryan Martin

Wandercease, the title of the latest album from Hudson Valley, New York-based singer-songwriter Ryan Martin, is very appropriate for these days of lockdown, but funnily enough, the name wasn’t intended as a comment on the Covid-19 crisis. 

“I never made that connection!” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers. “The title comes from my great grandmother, who was a poet. When she found the home that she knew she would settle in and raise my grandfather in, she gave it the name ‘Wandercease’. It represents the dream that I’m always searching for.”

The record came out late last year and soon found its way on to our ‘Best Albums of 2020′ list, thanks to its stunning and infectious pop melodies, rich and layered symphonic sounds, loops and electronic touches, and occasional nods to Americana.

Epic opener, At Dusk, has a glorious ’70s AM radio/ soft rock and pop feel, I Just Wanna Die is a galloping country song, with twangy guitars, and the shuffling groove of Fathers To Daughters is fleshed-out with pedal steel, organ and horns.

The album is full of irresistible melodies, but there’s an underlying sadness to many of the songs, like the achingly beautiful chamber pop of the title track, on which Martin sings, “My love, here is the song I meant to give you long ago, but I just couldn’t find the words – a songwriter’s curse”, and the first single, Coma Kiss, which is a bouncy, soulful, retro pop tune, but was written about a failed relationship.

“I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them,” says Martin.

Described as his ‘most musically adventurous and emotionally dynamic record to date,’ Wandercease took shape after his relocation to the Hudson Valley from New York City. It was produced by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim, Joseph Arthur, Chuck Prophet) at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Pixies, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr.).

Siegal called on a whole host of local musicians to play on it —some of whom were fresh from working with artists such as David Byrne, Cibbo Matto, and Lana Del Rey. Guests include singer-songwriter and classically-trained harpist Mikaela Davis, who sings harmony vocals on Coma Kiss and also appears on several other songs.

“Kenny brought in Mikaela because they’re friends,” explains Martin. “Her voice blended with mine in a way I hadn’t heard before and it was exciting. She’s a massive talent and I’m grateful she was a part of this record.”

Q&A

How was 2020 for you and how has the Covid-19 crisis affected you?

Ryan Martin: Things are OK, more or less. I haven’t missed a meal. I get to see my family. I have good friends around me. The pandemic made it harder for the release of Wandercease, I think. I can’t tour, so that’s a bummer, but I’m happy it came out when it did. I just hope to continue writing songs and recording, and hopefully play some shows in 2021.

Are you worried about the future of live music? Will it ever get back to normal, or will it just have to adapt?

RM: I worry, yes. I think it may take some time to get back to the way it was. I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute. I’m looking forward to doing my part and playing a lot when I can and when it’s safe.

Let’s talk about Wandercease. It’s your most musically adventurous record yet – it has a lovely, rich, lush and layered sound. How did you approach the record? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like? 

RM: Thanks. I kinda brought the songs and let the sounds come to the group and have everyone collaborate. I’ve kinda had the chance to make the records I wanted, and now I felt like opening the door to other ideas. A lot of the credit goes to Kenny Siegal and the musicians, but I think you’ll find my ideas there too, like the woodwind and strings.

‘I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute’

On that note, there are some great arrangements on the album. What influenced and inspired the treatments of the songs? The record has a warm feel and is heavy on melodies. There are strings, horns, woodwind, synths, vibes, organ, pedal steel, loops, backing vocals…

RM: Yes I’m a melody guy I think, above all other things. I hear that first usually. And then you get to find other melodies within the songs, as you start to record and arrange. I think Jared Samuel [keys player ] is also great at that. He and I have a similar production sensibility – we both kept feeding each other’s enthusiasm for trying new ideas.

How were the sessions for the album? It was produced by Kenny Siegal at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, New York, and mixed by Paul Kolderie. What was Siegal like to work with? Did you enjoy making the record? Was it an easy record to make?

RM: It was a really great experience. Kenny has become a friend and I would work with him again any day. Old Soul is a special place. There’s so much there in terms of instruments and the rooms all bleed together, so it inspires musicians to play together and record live, which we did for a lot of the record. It was easy, but I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be on it and to rise to the level of talent I was surrounded by.

There are a lot of musicians on the album…

RM: Bringing everyone in for overdubs was great. Most of the musicians were Kenny’s friends and musicians from up in the Hudson Valley.

‘I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create – the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day’

You’ve relocated from New York City to the Hudson Valley. How’s that working out and did it have an influence on the new record, from a sonic point of view, or from the songwriting and the subject matter?

RM: Yeah – well the move was a part of a larger change, so I think it influenced the music and the songs. I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them. I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create. It’s helpful and the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day.

What’s your approach to songwriting? What process works best for you?

RM: My approach is to try and keep the channel open and hope that something comes out that inspires me. Once it moves me I can keep it around and hopefully finish it sooner rather than later. Sometimes they come quick, but some I’ve been sitting on for months and years. It’s not something I can force. It loses its power to me if I try and finish lyrics for the sake of finishing a song. But at the same time there’s something to be said for completing it as an exercise, but I’m not that good at that. I usually have to care deeply to be motivated.

Let’s talk about some of the songs and get your thoughts on them. At Dusk is an epic way to start the album – it feels almost like a symphonic, ’70s pop/soft-rock song, but in a good way! What can you tell us about it? It’s a big-sounding song…

RM: I’ll take that! Thanks. I think this song was about embracing the pop elements – bringing attention to the hooks and the big moments. I’m happy with how the band came together on that one and how the vocals were arranged. Also Paul Kolderie did an outstanding job realising the true nature of the song in the mix.

Coma Kiss is a great, instant pop song. Where did it come from and what inspired it musically? It has a kind of breezy, retro, soulful feel…

RM: The core of the song came out quickly and flushing out what I wanted to say came further down the road, which is usually the process. I think Kenny was big on making it feel really good and danceable, which I was on board with.

I Just Wanna Die is one of my favourite songs on the record – it has more of a traditional Americana / country-rock feel than some of the other tracks…

RM: That came about quickly – it’s a fun song that has a heavy topic. That’s kinda been my calling card I guess – you can dance to it, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s anything but carefree and easy to swallow. We experimented with the arrangement of that song – there’s a great version where we slowed it down and wrote a bridge, but in the end I thought that the fast-paced, ‘train beat’, ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach was the way it should be and it was the way it was written.

Orphan Song is another Americana-type song. What inspired it? 

RM: That song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out.

Fathers To Daughters sticks out on the record, as it has loops and is more rhythmic than some of the other songs. Did becoming a dad for the first time inspire the lyric?

RM: Yeah – wandering around New York with my daughter, when she was two and three inspired it. Watching her experience all the joy and magic of the world, and the innocence she had. My role as her father hit me profoundly and still does. I’m gonna be a big part of this person’s life and I need to take responsibility for that. And also the overwhelming, overflowing love I have for her and creating that bond in her earliest years of life. Falling in love is the best thing in the world and it makes me wanna sing about it!

Orphan Song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out’

What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations?

RM: Yeah. I’ve listened to a lot of Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and also some instrumental music like Hammock, as well as Sigur Ros – heavy, melodic, beautiful music. Right now I’m listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 a lot.

What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why? 

RM: My preferred way would be to listen to vinyl records in the living room with no distractions, because it’s the best way to get absorbed by the music. A second way would be to listen to CDs in my car. I played a CD on my computer for the first time in over a year or two and after listening to MP3s for so long I was blown away by how good it sounded. I like to listen with intent and be captivated, as opposed to a passive kinda background thing. Though I do that too.

So what’s next for you in 2021?

RM: I’m gonna keep writing and finishing some songs and recording at home. Maybe I’ll tour in the fall and spend some time in Europe, when the pandemic calms down.

Wandercease by Ryan Martin is out now on High Moon Records.

https://ryanmartin.bandcamp.com/

 

 

‘Fame would have been fun, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure…’

It’s been a busy year for English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard. He’s published the second instalment of his autobiography, Illusions of Happiness, and released his latest album, the brilliant To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection.

The new record – his seventeenth – is a collection of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sings lead and backing vocals and plays all the instruments.

To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio –  he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain –  during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020.

Howard, who is 67, grew up in Lancashire and trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven – he started playing when he was four. His debut album, Kid In A Big World, featuring the single Goodbye Suzie, was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple studios in 1974 and came out the following year.

“The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers

“I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.”

Q&A

During the summer, you published the second volume of your autobiography, lllusions of Happiness, which goes up to 1986. There’s a third and final instalment planned in the not-too-distant future. How have you found writing the books? Has it been cathartic? What have you learnt from the process?

John Howard: To be honest, I didn’t know there’d be a second volume when I wrote the first one, Incidents Crowded With Life. It was intended as an online chapter-by-chapter series of events in my life up to my accident, when I broke my back, in 1976. I was astonished when Fisher King told me they wanted to publish it. But reviews were excellent and Fisher King asked me to write a second instalment.

Originally, it was going to go from 1976 to 2000, covering my recovery from the accident through to returning to recording with Trevor Horn and Steve Levine and my move into working in the music business in A & R and Licensing through the ‘80s and ‘90s; meeting my husband Neil, leaving London for Oxfordshire, and finally in 2000 for Pembrokeshire. But Fisher King suggested I split it into two books. So I decided to end Illusions of Happiness in 1986, just before I met Neil, having split from my then partner of eight years, changed jobs and moved into my own apartment. It seemed a good narrative point to finish the book.

‘I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang’

I love writing, words come fairly easily to me – lines of songs arrive in my head while I’m ‘busy doing other things’, as Lennon once sang. So writing the book felt very natural, and yes, a little cathartic. It sounds silly in a way, but quite a few members of my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s, so being practical, I wanted to get as much of my life down in writing now just in case there comes a time when “I can’t even remember my name”, as a line in the song Injuries Sustained In Surviving [from the new album] goes.

I didn’t really learn anything from writing the book, as I knew it all already! But it did help put some things into a clearer view in my mind. What I never did, in either book, was comment or judge, I just told what happened – as I saw it – and let the reader decide on who was right or wrong, on whether I, and other people in my life at the time, made the right decisions. What was, was. What happened, happened. There’s no changing that. I just wanted to put it down on paper.

Hopefully, the third book will be published sometime in 2022 – there were two years between books one and two being published, so I’m guessing there’ll be a similar gap before the third is out there. It’s more or less written – there’s just some tweaking and editing to do over the next weeks and months.

The new album is very reflective, nostalgic and melancholy at times. What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the songs? It has a lot of reminiscences on it… Do you think writing your autobiographies made you write more songs about your past?

JH: I think writing the two autobiographies – so far – certainly put a lot of things in perspective. I have an excellent memory but actually writing stuff down that happened 40, 50-plus years ago captured those memories for good and finally gave them placement and sense.

As I say, I’m not one to look back most of the time, but being ‘forced to’ when you’re writing your life story – or a bit of it – did remind me of people, events, experiences, and that would automatically seep into my songwriting. The two processes sit side by side.

Getting older too, of course, one remembers and reflects, rather than anticipating a whole lot more! It is a strange feeling knowing I have probably – if I’m lucky and healthy – another 20, or 25, years left, whereas in my twenties that was indeed a lifetime, with 60 years ahead to look forward to and plan for. It isn’t being maudlin or morose admitting that – it’s a fact.

The album has a pastoral theme – there are a lot of references to nature in the lyrics and also the title…

JH: Yes – the album does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.

The album title is taken from a line in the song Water, which is the closing track on the record and features the sound of crickets on it. Why did you choose it for the name of the album?

JH: Water is based on a dream I had, floating above a lake like a watching spirit. I wrote the lyric as an observer of a scene in which he/she is gradually drawn in until they’re completely part of it. I wanted the track to have an atmosphere of stillness, of silently watching something develop before your eyes – something you don’t understand at first.

Our skies here are very dark at night, so there is always a sense of connection to ‘the beyond’, being able to see the universe above us, watching the shooting stars, listening to the crickets all round us every night, and feeling a kind of wonder about it all. As a songwriter that must affect me.

Once I’d finished the album and needed a title, the line in Water’s lyric, “What’s that beam of light on the lake, to the left of the moon’s reflection?” described for me the vibe of the album –  the second part of the line especially. It also lent itself to a sleeve design very well too.

The song My Patient Heart is about living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where you and your husband, Neil, used to be based, and also references Murcia, in Spain, where you live now. Can you tell me more about your inspiration for it?

JH: It’s one of my scene-setting songs, describing life here in the village, which is still very rural, families working in the olive and almond groves, the local church ringing its bells every day on the hour – usually about ten minutes slow!

Our neighbour gives us bottles of his homemade olive oil, others bring us home-grown spinach and various vegetables, and a chap in his nineties gives us jars of his home-made honey. When we had hens we gave people eggs and every summer families from the village come and collect fruit from our Chinese Meddler tree. They seem very pleased to have us as part of the village, which is heart-warming.

But the song also looks to Wales and our life there, which was also very rural. Though no one worked in the fields any longer in Pembrokeshire, everyone had an orchard, cherry trees, gooseberry bushes, wild berries growing in hedgerows. And seasons!

That’s what I miss the most – the seasons. They were definite, expected and regular as clockwork. It’s November here and in the mid-twenties. Sounds great, I’m sure, but my Northern English psyche still expects it to be minus two! I’m not sure I will ever lose that natural expectation. Neil and I do intend to return to Wales, someday, hence My Patient Heart. Everything is about timing, when it’s right. We’re very lucky to be in a position where we can decide when that is.

Let’s talk about Injuries Sustained In Surviving. It’s a great song – quite folky – and I love the title…

JH: Thanks. It was the first song I wrote and recorded for the album. I had Marrakesh Express in my mind when I wrote it, and carried that through to the vocals, where there are no ‘backing vocals’ per se, more three-and-four-layered harmony lead vocals. I became Crosby, Stills & Nash for a day!

The narrative covers childhood, youth and ageing all in one. I have memories of the railway lines behind my parents’ house in Heywood in the ‘50s and going out on day trips as a family in an old Austin jalopy. We went all over the place in that old car until finally one of its wheels fell off and dad abandoned it in a garage, getting ten quid for the scrap value!

The song develops through to more recent thoughts, “Yes, kid, I remember the fire burning, I recall every song I was singing” – I’m talking to myself really.

There’s a bit which is a reflection on my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s, “Don’t wait until your body is a shell of a stranger locked inside a lonely cell, with a thousand silent tales he’ll never tell.” But it ends on a higher note, “Sometimes good things come along you’d never planned, somebody might just sprinkle stardust in your hand.” There’s always a chance.

I think Echoes of Pauline sounds like a standard, or maybe something from a stage musical. What inspired it? Who is Pauline?

JH: Pauline is a real person. I was at school with her in the ‘60s in Lancashire and we were very close, like brother and sister in many ways. She introduced me to artists like Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.

I’ve written about her before, in The Flame on Kid In A Big World, and in Pauline’s Song, which I wrote in 1970, but only recorded in 2009. She also gets a mention in a line from Small Town, Big Adventures… “I was Toad, Eniluap was Mole”, referring to when we were both in the school play Toad of Toad Hall in 1968. We always called each other by our names backwards. Don’t ask me why. We were young and did daft things!

We fell out badly in 1970 and our friendship didn’t recover. I can’t actually remember now why we had a row, a really bad argument, but I’m sure it was my fault. I think of her still and hope she’s okay and happy. She was a great person. I did try finding her on Friends Reunited years ago to no avail. Echoes of Pauline is my way of offering her a way back to our friendship if she ever hears the song, which she’s unlikely to do of course. That’s how the lyric began really, a letter to a friend, which will probably not be read.

I wanted the track to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie, keeping the piano quite restrained, not using it to drive the song along with rhythmic chords, but as an occasional texture, letting the song develop slowly without driving it. I used a simple string wash and sparse percussion to build to its more rhythmic end.

‘I wanted the track Echoes of Pauline to have the same vibe and feel as Cilla Black’s Alfie’

I think that track took me the longest to get right. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound – I listened to Cilla’s track several times before going into the studio – but it was a new way of working for me. I also wanted the lead vocals to be multi-tracked and very smooth, with just occasional harmony lines, using no backing vocal ‘oohs and ahhs’.

I also developed a different way of singing for it, keeping my vocal restrained, not ‘soaring’ which is my usual style, singing from the back of the throat – more soulful rather than a dramatic pop style.

Your latest album is your seventeenth and, this year, it’s 45 years since you first started your recording career. How does that make you feel? You’re in your late sixties now. As a young man in his twenties, did you ever envisage you’d still be making records when you were a pensioner?

JH: Yeah! Who’d have thought it? But in some ways 17 albums in 45 years doesn’t sound that many!

Of course, I had a 20-year break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I worked ‘on the other side of the desk’, in the music industry. In the ‘70s I only made three albums – and two of them went unreleased – so 14 new albums since 2004 sounds much more impressive! The ‘70s and all that went on then feels like a lifetime ago, as though I’m watching it all happen in a movie in my head. I guess 45 years since my debut album came out makes me feel…in my late sixties!

The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! It was what drove me from my first gigs when I was 17. I was very ambitious. And yes, I did imagine I’d still be recording now, but I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world, packed with thousands of fans and headlining at massive festivals. So the fact that I’m still recording without all those ‘trappings of success’ is a very nice surprise.

John Howard in Vienna. Photo: Robert Lettner

What have you learnt during your career? What have been the highs and lows?

JH: What have I learnt? I guess not to look back too much. I always try to look forward to the next project, the next album – though that’s sometimes difficult when people still – of course – want to talk and reminisce about Goodbye Suzie and Kid In A Big World. Nostalgia is very comforting for people, though my memories of those days are not so rosy. It was a very frustrating and disappointing period for me on the whole, in terms of what eventually happened in my career anyway.

The other thing I’ve learnt is not to have regrets. I’m still in one piece, physically and mentally – most of the time – thank goodness – which many of my contemporaries when I was starting out are not.

‘The only thing I envisaged in my twenties was becoming a gigantic star! I thought I’d be selling millions of albums and doing concerts at The Carnegie Hall, playing at huge stadia around the world’

Fame would have been fun, of course, I would’ve loved it, but would I still be around to tell the tale? I’m not sure about that! Leaving that world of recording in the mid-‘80s and ‘getting a proper job’ in the industry gave me a different perspective – a security I’d never had before.

Also, working as I did with so many established artists over those 20 years and hearing from them how their careers and the music business had treated them, often not well at all, gave me a view of life from the top. I saw it from a different angle – someone else’s experience of what fame can do to you. I think I became less selfish during that time than I had been as a recording artist, when my everyday had been all about “Me, me, me”.

Having to think about and be responsible for other artists’ careers and record releases taught me to be more considerate, more measured. It was my job not to have a meltdown when something didn’t go quite right. I became other people’s buffer, which is quite strengthening.

Now I’m a recording artist again, I happily don’t have the pressure I’d had the first time round from managers, promoters, big record execs and, deadlines. Recording now is done on my own terms, when I want to, how I want to. It’s much more relaxing and no longer about ambition. Being largely unknown does have its plusses! ‘Niche’ is good.

John Howard at The Lexington, London, in 2019. Picture by Melani.

As a professional musician, in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, are you worried about the future of gigs, tours and venues? Will things ever get back to normal? What are your hopes and fears for 2021 and beyond?

JH: I don’t actually gig very much at all – never have. I love performing, but the opportunities haven’t arisen very much in recent years, just the occasional gig in London whenever I’m invited to perform. The last one was at The Lexington in 2019, with Vinny Peculiar, Simon Love and Rogers & Butler, which was really enjoyable.

I gigged a lot in the early ‘70s when I lived with my parents in Lancashire, but once I got to London and signed with a management and record company, recording became my way of life – and it still is.

But yes, I do feel for musicians and bands who can’t gig now. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums. So a whole income stream is cut off straight away.

Who knows where this will all end? Certainly, there will be venues which close and can’t afford to open again. It’s really sad. My husband is a retired actor, and he too has seen friends in the theatre who haven’t worked for months, with no sign that things are going to change for the foreseeable future. Pretty grim.

‘I feel for musicians who can’t gig. Those who have been gigging for years must feel completely bereft, and financially it affects them because gigs are where most independent artists sell their albums’

Home shows have helped some musicians, in terms of being able to perform and staying connected to fans, and some artists have monetised their performances, which keeps some income coming in at least. Who knows when we’ll be able to step back onto a stage in front of a live audience again?

What music – new and old – have you been listening to recently? Any recommendations?

JH: A lot of the music I listen to now is old. I will always love and enjoy hearing The Beatles, The Searchers, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Judee Sill, Barry White, Paul Simon, Kate Bush and Roy Harper. They never grow old in my mind – the albums still sound as fresh today as they did when I first bought them, though my vinyl collection was sold off before we moved to Spain, I’m sad to say. Finding room for over 40 boxes of LPs was no longer viable. But I replaced all my favourites with CDs, and that’s still how I listen to music most of the time.

We recently bought a record player, simply because some of my albums, new and old, were being issued and reissued on LP and I wanted to hear them in that format. That led to us buying some of our old favourites on vinyl again. Also a lot of my friends were releasing their latest albums on vinyl – Robert Rotifer and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge, for example – so I wanted to hear those on LP.

More recently, I’ve become a big fan of the band Ex-Norwegian – they have a lovely Syd Barrett psychedelic-pop vibe. I’ve also fallen in love with the music of the French singer-songwriter Olivier Rocabois, the highly talented Joel Little and John Cunningham, whose album Fell, is gorgeous. The Norwegian singer-songwriter-pianist Cecilie Anna, who my friend, the poet Robert Cochrane introduced me to, is also remarkable. I have two of her albums and they’re beautiful.

Finally, you’re a very prolific songwriter? What’s on the horizon? Another album? Any other projects you can tell us about?

JH: ‘Prolific’ is my middle name! Though I do often take months of doing nothing between albums, once I have a project in my head I work for weeks on end until it’s finished. I’ve been having a lovely time recently recording vocals and piano for various friends’ projects, doing tracks and writing occasional songs for them. They’re all hush-hush at the moment and due out next year, but they are very diverse!

‘The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one!’

What I can give you a heads-up on is a very exciting project for me. Kool Kat Musik in the States, which issued To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection in August – my first US release – will be putting out a 2CD ‘Best of JH’ next spring. It will be my first commercially-released Best Of! Edward Rogers (of Rogers & Butler) is curating the collection, Ian Button will be mastering it and doing the artwork, and Ray Gianchetti will be releasing it on his Kool Kat Musik label. I’m very excited about it! Edward has put together an intriguing collection of tracks from across my career, some of them never released commercially on CD before. Watch this space for more details early next year.

I’ve also been sketching out some new song ideas over the past few weeks, which I will start recording probably at the end of this year, or early next. The next album will be a – wait for it! – concept album! Gasp! Are there still such things? I have no idea, but I’m doing one! The story is set in my head, the characters are developing in my mind and, the narrative is growing, I just need to sit at the piano and see if it sounds any good! It will be a challenge, but I love a challenge. Otherwise I might discover what boredom feels like. I can’t have that. Put the pipe and slippers away!

To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection by John Howard is out now on CD – in the UK, it’s released on his own label, which is also called John Howard. You can find out more information at his website: http://kidinabigworld.co.uk/

The album is also available in the US – on CD – via Kool Kat Musik, and can also be purchased from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos, which has released several of his albums already.

His latest book, Illusions of Happiness – the second volume of his three-part autobiography – is published by Fisher King Publishing. 

 

‘It feels good to finally have a solo record out – it should have come out years ago…’

Sophia Bye Bye

UK singer-songwriter Sophia Marshall has just released her first solo album, Bye Bye. Formerly one half of Americana duo The HaveNots, from Leicester, Sophia decided to go it alone in 2015.

Bye Bye is a strong, confident and varied debut record – from the killer, radio-friendly guitar pop of Losing You, to the gorgeous, late-night, organ-soaked country of  Flares, the jaunty, ’50s rockabilly of Missing Piecethe edgy and disturbing, trip-hop-tinged Hey Al, Woah! and the sea shanty Drunken Sailor.

I spoke to Sophia to find out how the album came together…

Q & A

Hello Sophia, but I should really say ‘Bye Bye’… How does it feel to have your first solo album out there? Was it scary going it alone?

Sophia Marshall: It feels good to finally have a solo record out – I feel like it should have come out years ago. It’s actually not too scary going it alone, as, funnily enough, I have managed to surround myself with even more influential musicians and confidants, which is very different from previously being in a duo.

Are you pleased with the record? 

SM: I’m really pleased with it, considering it was mostly done on a shoestring, pulling in favours. I like to think we did well. And I’m proud to have worked with some wonderful musician friends, including Andy Jenkinson, who produced the album. He breathes life into my ideas. And lets me try silly things.

Did you have a big pool of songs to dip into? How did you decide which ones made the final cut? It’s quite an eclectic album – pop, country, rockabilly, a sea shanty and even a bit of trip-hop…

SM: At first, the songs were recorded fairly sporadically. I only really wanted to get polished versions of some old songs down. There was no real deadline set initially, but. at the start of 2017, I decided it needed to be completed and officially released. Conveniently, I was inspired to write some new songs, which were added to the list.

Where was the album recorded and what was the process like? Was it an enjoyable record to make?

SM:It was partly recorded at Andy’s home studio, definitely all mixed there, and partly recorded at The Paddocks Studios, [in Melton Mowbray] – a place I once lived and worked.

Normally, I demo the songs on my own before taking them to the band, or sometimes just Andy, to see how they can be developed. It’s the people who make the process enjoyable. It was great working on my own material, but, at the end of the day, the people around me inspired and encouraged me, which is a real blessing.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. Losing You is a big, guitar pop tune – very instant and infectious. Where did that track come from? It sounds like your shot at getting on the Radio 2 playlist…

SM: That’s a fair comment. Radio 2 airplay would be splendid. Losing You was actually on the never released, third HaveNots album, Weakender.

Liam Dullaghan [from The HaveNots] and I wrote the song in a slow, acoustic fashion, but I had wanted to pump some indie-pop/ folk-rock life into it for a long time. My new bandmates helped me to do exactly that. I also added the middle eight, which I guess came from some Britpop musical influences of my teenage years.

‘Flares was written by candlelight, under the influence of red wine, on an acoustic guitar’

Flares is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track?

SM: What can I tell you about Flares? It was written by candlelight, under the influence of red wine, on an acoustic guitar, in a house I had been in for less than a year, after a huge chapter of my life had ended. I was finally switching my focus from looking backwards to looking forwards.

When we came to record it, I had been listening to Frazey Ford’s Indian Ocean. Obviously I had listened to it non-stop when Sarah [Marshall – Sophie’s sister] and I were backing vocalists for her on that first album tour of the UK, but it wasn’t until about a year later the album stopped feeling like homework and I could enjoy it for all that it was. So I think there’s a sprinkle of Frazey in Flares.

Missing Piece is very ’50s/ rockabilly-country. Where did that track come from? 

SM: It was originally written in the same vein as a Camera Obscura song called Fifth In Line to the Throne – a lot slower and ballad-like, but I think this changed around the same time I decided to shake up Losing You. I guess I was fed up with the melancholy sound of things for a while. It’s about the realisation that you don’t actually mean all that much to a person who had once made you feel like a huge and special part of their life.

Hey Al, Woah? is one of the darker songs on the album – arguably the darkest. It features the lines: “You can’t go around saying shit like that to girls”, and “you should know no means no”…

Where’s that track coming from lyrically and musically? It’s very personal – a disturbing and edgy song, with shades of ’90s trip-hop. It has echoes of Martina Topley-Bird, who sang with Tricky…

SM: It was a very late addition to the album – a very new song. I spent a lot of time with a songwriter who loved Portishead. I think the feel of Hey Al… comes from that, but, lyrically, it was inspired by a person who I had exhausted my every effort of politely saying ‘no’ to. I’m not easily intimidated, but the psychological disturbance got to me – something snapped. I started worrying that the next girl may find his approach threatening…

Earlier this year, you played live in the basement of The Green Note in Camden, supporting  US singer-songwriter Chris Mills – you did two nights in a row. I went to both shows – they were great. Chris has been a big help and influence on your career, hasn’t he? He worked with you in The HaveNots. Aren’t there some unreleased songs from the recording sessions you did with Chris?

SM: Chris has always been a great help and, indeed, a great influence on me, musically. There is a whole album of HaveNots songs still unreleased, which Chris Mills produced.

Losing You, as I mentioned earlier, was one of them, and, actually, also Beauty Sleep, which I used on my album. I just didn’t want those songs to go to waste after all the hard work Chris and the team in Chicago had put into them. But even before that, Chris had helped Liam and I get over to tour America and release our first album Bad Pennies over there, too. Chris has a great heart and is a great songwriter.

Full Band Promo Pic

How did you launch your new album? Didn’t you do a six-hour, live-streamed house concert tour of the Midlands? How was that? You’ve been touring with Case Hardin, too. What was that like?

SM: I did more than a six-hour tour! It was more like 12 hours and it was a great, Challenge Anneka-style adventure. Pulling up at my old music college where I met Liam, racing off to a coffee shop near where I live now, and then over to a music shop in Nottingham, where I have a habit of drooling over all the acoustic guitars.

Then we started running behind schedule, when another Leicester venue performance at Firebug was late, which made us late for our Melton Mowbray appearance, to the point where the venue’s owners apologised, but said they couldn’t put us on, as the main band had arrived. But, as we walked off, people who had been waiting ran after us and managed to set up a last-minute gig at a bar down the road. Then we stopped to eat and catch our breath before an intimate. live-streamed performance of Flares, while we waited for the Simon and Garfunkel tribute band to finish at The Musician, so we could serenade people out the back of the bus while they left the gig.

We had a handful of shows with Case Hardin and Samantha Parton and Jolie Holland (The Be Good Tanyas), who were all so nice to catch up with again after years of being out of the scene myself. We also opened for The Sadies in Bristol and we had a sold-out show with Eilen Jewell.

What music – new and old – are you currently listening to?

SM: I’ve been enjoying the Samantha Parton and Jolie Holland album Wildflower Blues. The title track is my favourite. I also made a point of revisiting the Tom Petty album Wildflowers, which I thought was a good one to follow that. Also Mountaintop Junkshop, who are from my hometown.

Finally, what are your plans for 2018?

SM: I’ll be catching up with admin, checking the festivals and, hopefully, starting work on some new material. We have gigs in March 2018 and I’m working on a monthly, free download EP, having a bit of fun with some pop songs.

Bye bye, Sophia…

Sophia Marshall’s album Bye Bye is out now: http://www.sophiamarshall.co.uk/

 

INTERVIEW- Lucette: “When I was little, I dreamt of being Shania Twain”

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Last year, I saw 21-year-old singer/songwriter Lucette play at The Ruby Lounge in Manchester, where she was supporting The Secret Sisters. 

I was knocked out by her gorgeous voice and the way in which she turned her hand to country, pop, folk and blues.

For someone so young, she has an impressive list of  influences, from Bobbie Gentry to Ryan Adams, Townes Van Zandt and traditional murder ballads.

Now she’s gearing up for the release of her debut album, which is due out later this year. I spoke to her recently to find out more about it.

It’s been a while since we met each other in Manchester. What have you been up to since then?

Quite a bit actually. I’ve written and recorded a brand new album. Just after I left the UK and Ireland last year, I flew down to Nashville and recorded six new songs. Also, in the summer of last year, I made a music video for my song Bobby Reid.

I was really impressed by your live performance. You reminded me of Bobbie Gentry, vocally. Is that a good comparison?

It’s funny you say that, as I’d actually cite her as one of my biggest influences, especially in my writing. Her Ode to Billie Joe record is one of my favourites and it’s a good clue as to what my album will sound like.

I liked your live cover version of Ryan Adams’s Sweet Carolina.  Are you a big fan of his?

I’d say he’s in my top five, if not my favourite. So I guess you could call me a fan. Heartbreaker is my favourite album.

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Mine, too. Your debut EP, Baby I Want You Home, came out last year. How was it working with producer Dave Cobb, who’s also worked with Waylon Jennings and The Secret Sisters?

Dave is unbelievable to work with. He’s really helped me to become the artist I’ve always wanted to be. I’d almost be inclined to call him a really cool, older brother, who leaves new records out for you and tags you around with his friends, or something. I think we are like family, too. We’ve gotten to know each other so well that I will literally fly into Nashville and we’ll take a song of mine, or write a new one, and record it within days. I think we just get each other.

Your debut EP  is really varied. The title track is ’60s pop, there’s country (Dream With Me Dream) and also a dark, haunting murder ballad – Bobby Reid. Who and what are your main influences as a songwriter? 

Two years ago, when I was writing a good portion of the album, I was really into ’60s country-pop artists like Skeeter Davis. While recording, I wrote the song River Rising, which sprouted into other folky, darker songs like Bobby Reid. There’s this really cool quote by Flannery O’Connor that says, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”. I love that quote because I feel like I relate to it. The darkness and melancholy in my music comes from my most inner thoughts. I think these fictional stories like murder ballads, about dark characters, are a part of myself that I didn’t embrace until writing stories in song. I’d say Bobbie Gentry, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, and Irish ballads and traditional music have been the greatest influences on my writing.

What was it like recording in Nashville ?

As cheesy as it may sound, it was seriously a dream come true. I got to write with a cowboy called Brent Cobb. Within my first week of arriving it was like, okay, I’m actually recording in Nashville, and I’m writing with a cowboy with a dip in his lip. Dave really cares about making good, organic, and memorable music. Working with Dave and other musicians on my album reinforced that I was in the town where the best of the best recorded.  It altered the way I look at making records and changed the course of the rest of my career.

When can we expect to hear your new material? Will the album come out soon?

I’m hoping to release it sometime in the spring of 2013. I’m aiming for April.

What was it like growing up in Edmonton? What sort of music did you grow up with? Did you sing and play piano when you were a child?

Edmonton is probably the best place for a kid to grow up. Similar to Nashville, it has a small town/big city vibe. I went to Catholic church every Sunday, which I think had some sort of weird influence over the way I write.When I was little, I always dreamed of being like Shania Twain – I really wanted a denim-on-denim outfit like hers. I grew up mostly on country. Alberta is Canada’s cowboy country, and I loved that culture growing up. My grandmother introduced me to Elvis, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who are still some of my favourite artists. Then I got into Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. I never sang in front of anyone, only in church when I was trying to behave. I started piano lessons at eight years old, but I quit after a couple of years. I picked it up again in junior high, putting speakers next to the piano and figuring out songs by ear.

What music are you currently into? Hmm. I really like Hem, Father John Misty, my good friend Meg Olsen (she just released her new EP), and The Carter Family. But then there are always my staples, which were mostly mentioned throughout this interview, but also include Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, the Everly and Louvin Brothers, Neil Young, Ray Lamontagne and, of course, The Secret Sisters.

What are your plans for the rest of 2013? Well, after this album and video are released, I hope to tour as much as I can. Everything is in the works right now though, and boy, am I excited.

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Lucette on Soundcloud

http://www.lucettemusic.com