Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.
The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.
All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.
Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.
I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”
When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.
On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.
I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.
Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe.
My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars.
Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.
It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute.
Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.
The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list…
Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.
This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…
A collaboration with musicians Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis,it was a wonderful album – 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.
This month, John releases his brand new long-player, Across The Door Sill, but it’s a very different beast from its predecessor.
His latest offering is a solo voice and piano record that comprises only five songs – three at which clock in at just under 10 minutes – and it was inspired by poetry and childhood dreams.
I spoke to him to find out how the record came about…
Hi John. The last time I interviewed you – summer 2015 – you were just about to release your album John Howard & The Night Mail, which went on to have some great reviews. I saw you and your band play the album launch show in London at the Phoenix Artist Club. It was lovely to meet you after the gig. How do you feel about that record a year on? Has it been a good 12 months for you?
John Howard: It was great to meet you too, Sean, though I always feel I never have enough time after a gig to chat properly to people, so apologies if I was whisking around all over the place and looking distracted. I am still very proud of The Night Mail album. It was a delightful project to be part of – Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis are so creative and responsive. Gigging with them earlier this year in Germany and Austria was a blast, but then, every time I appear on stage with them, I love it. The last 12 months have been mainly taken up with promoting The Night Mail album, but I’ve also been writing the Across The Door Sill album, too.
Your last album was very much a band record – collaborations with Andy Lewis, Ian Button, & Robert Rotifer – whereas your new album – Across The Door Sill – is a solo project. Why the decision to go it alone for this record?
JH: I’d started to write songs for Across The Door Sill before The Night Mail recording sessions in late 2014. I’d spent that year co-writing The Night Mail songs with Robert, Ian and Andy, but once they were finished, demoed and ready to record, new songs started coming through the ether. I knew as soon as the new songs started to come along they were going to be for a solo album, and of course The Night Mail songs were all co-writes with the other band members – save for our cover of Roddy Frame’s Small World.
I never plan anything really – projects tend to come to me, like The Night Mail did. It grew organically during months of conversations with Robert, initially. But all four of us do our own thing too, Robert has Rotifer, Ian has Papernut Cambridge, Andy has The Songwriters’ Collective and his solo material, plus his work with Paul Weller, so The Night Mail was never a band per se, in the way that touring bands are. We fancied writing some songs together, we were pleased with how they came out and decided to record them. It was a happy outcome that [the record label] Tapete liked them enough to sign the album. The Across The Door Sill songs came along out of the ether unbidden. Who Cares – the opening track on the album – was the first to ‘arrive’, and I knew immediately it wasn’t a ‘band song’.
Across The Door Sill is a brave album. There are only five songs – three of which are almost 10 minutes long – and it’s just your multi-layered vocals and pianos. It’s fair to say that you’re not aiming for the mass-market with this record, isn’t it?
JH: I never have the mass market in mind when I write anything. It became obvious 40 odd years ago, when I began recording, that one never puts the words ‘mass market’ in the same sentence as ‘John Howard’, unless the sentence reads ‘John Howard is never going to be a mass market artist.’
In the years since I returned to recording, since 2004, I have always written and recorded what I want to, with no regard for whether it will sell. I just want to write good songs. I believe I write at my best that way. This of course means my music will never make it to Radio One-derful Land…
How did you approach this record? What did you have in mind when you were writing and recording it?
JH: When the words for Who Cares started to come to me and I wrote them down, a long-form, stream of consciousness poem resulted, and I fancied the idea of seeing what happened when I sat at the piano and just wrote what came to me, as I sang the words. I recorded the eventual piano piece, which was inspired by the words, then tried out various ways of singing a melody to the track, recording several takes over many days, sung in different ways. Over a few weeks, I decided which parts of the different recorded vocals worked best and put them all together in a final mix, then built that up with more pianos and backing and harmony vocals. I lived with each mix for a few days before carrying on and building on what I’d done. All through the process I didn’t know if it would work out. It was an experiment, which could have ended up as tuneless nonsense. Some people may think it did!
I knew I’d come up with something different, and liked what I heard, so I carried on working that way, with no mind as to the lengths of the songs, or whether they had choruses, verses or hooks. I just wrote words, which came to me, and then put a melody and chords to them in a free-form, very relaxed way.
I was writing and recording the album right up to the spring of this year, though as I say, I actually began writing Who Cares towards the end of 2014. I’d never worked this way before, literally seeing what happened as I went along, blindly diving in and hoping a song, a track, would come out of it.
I usually write in a much more pop way, à la McCartney – I sit at the piano, see what starts to happen, chords arrive, sometimes sounds accompany them, which become words as the song develops, and a hook emerges, which is what the song hangs on. So, writing in such a free-form way for Across The Door Sill was an experiment from start to finish. I loved working this way though – it was very liberating
What became obvious early on in the process was how the poems were very much made up of images from dreams I’d had since childhood. The closing track, Stretching Out, is made up of many images from dreams I had as a kid, which recurred for years. I have a personal attachment to that track – it affects me each time I hear it. The images and the characters feel as real to me as real life in many ways. And the older I get, the more real they feel, like revisiting old friends.
The songs were also inspired by 13th century poet Rumi’s Quatrains. Can you tell me more about that? How did that influence manifest itself on the record? Is Across The Door Sill a concept album?
JH: I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album – the songs aren’t linked together in a story and there is no narrative linking each one chronologically, but there is a theme – dreams, my dreams, and how I put them into words, albeit words which together seem to make no sense, but as a whole song they do start to form a picture.
Scenarios unfold as you listen to each song. Rumi’s Quatrains was something I found on the internet. I was searching for a phrase which encapsulated what I was trying to do – that is to give myself a new challenge, not stick to methods I’d used before, and put myself out there in a new environment creatively. I found the phrase ‘Across The Door Sill’, which led me to Rumi’s poem, where that phrase basically sums up his poem. It seemed the perfect title for the album.
You’ve said it’s an album that will take a few listens for people to get into…
JH: Oh, several listens I would imagine. Be patient, folks. Stick in there.
Outward is my favourite track on the record – it’s stunning – very moody, nostalgic and reflective. What can you tell me about that song?
JH: Thanks, Sean. Outward was written around a dream I had of waiting for a train, then, as in all dreams, the situation changed without explanation and I was travelling by car into the hills, meeting various people along the way, turning a corner and landing on a beach, turning another corner and being in the midst of a fiesta in full swing, and then finally ending up at the station again, kind of asleep, hearing the platform porter blowing his whistle. It was a dream within a dream really. Again, the vocal was recorded very loosely. I was playing the backing track over and over again, trying different vocal approaches, recording them all, and then choosing what I considered the best bits of various takes and mixing them together into the final mix.
I could hear a kind of old film vibe to the track, and recorded the ‘spooky’ falsetto voice in the background, to add some film noir atmosphere. My old 1970s producer, Paul Phillips, said he thought it sounded like a theme to a ghost or mystery thriller film, so that was a result.
Can you talk me through the other songs? There are funny moments, there are wistful recollections and stories and some wry observations…
JH:Pigs ‘n’ Pies, the shortest song on the album, brought in imagery from my growing up into a teenager through the ‘60s, my hippie years of the early ‘70s, then into working in a music business in the ‘80s, which was a decade (and a business) full of confidence, money and arrogance, then seeing a kind of realisation that, by the 21st century, we’d lost something along the way.
I liked the idea of a chorus of voices coming back as each decade ended, singing ‘It’s a crazy mixed-up world!’ each time – the mantra of the human race down the decades. My dad used to say that, my grandmother used to say it, and now I hear my own generation saying it. The difference now is that, whereas my peers poo-pooed our parents moaning about the state of the world, we were all believing back then that we were entering a golden dawn, the Hunky Dory belief in the human race, and now we too sit aghast at things like Brexit, racism becoming once more a horrific norm in our daily papers, and on our streets, the ghastly and once unbelievable possibility of a Trump presidency. It seems utterly crazy, but the 1930s, and Nazism, were equally round the bend, and similarly came from giving a voice to people who felt ignored and who were looking for scapegoats for their situation, following utter nutcases pointing them the way to the scapegoat of their choice. The blame game has been the human balm for centuries.
Preservation, as soon as I’d written it, reminded me of late 1960s/early ‘70s folk songs – the kind I’d listen to in my bedroom on a record player. It’s very much a questioning of who we are, where we are, why we are, and positioning us as floating aimlessly through a space full of dangers and unsolved mysteries. If we are part of that unsolved mystery, then where are we headed? Is there a solution? Probably not, if I am honest. Fifty years ago I would’ve said, “Of course there is, and my generation will provide it!” Now I feel rather hopeless about things, but somewhere deep down I’m thinking we could possibly avoid the precipice staring at us. There have been times in recent years that I wonder if the human race is worth preserving. It seems to have gone out its way to destroy everything it comes into contact with. Name me one good thing human beings have done for the natural world, apart from a few good people trying to right the wrongs of generations’ destructiveness? Heavens – this is getting rather heavy!
Let’s lighten things up… You’ve worked with Ian Button again on this record – he mastered it. What did he bring to that process?
JH: Ian has great ears. I’d loved what he did when he mastered Live at the Servant Jazz Quarters for me in 2014 and then, of course, The Night Mail album last year. He gets a great warmth, while also giving things an oomph sonically. I wanted Across The Door Sill to sound very warm, wide and big, and he got that – especially his work on the piano sound. He worked hard at that and I literally cheered when I heard what he’d done.
The new album is released on Occultation – how did that deal come about? Wasn’t the album going to be released on your own label?
JH: Yes, originally I was going to put it out on my own kidinabigworld.co.ukimprint and I actually had some CDs manufactured with that in mind. When I sent out review copies to you, and several other reviewers and journalists, I also sent a copy to Nick Halliwell at Occultation, simply as a thank you for all the word-of-mouth spreading he did for The Night Mail last year. I was really surprised when he emailed me a few days later to say he would like to release the album. I hadn’t expected that. I love his label and many of his other acts on Occultation are superb, so to be part of that ‘family’ is truly special. I was very flattered too that he liked the album enough to want to release it.
The new album will be released on vinyl, won’t it?
JH: Yes it will, in fact one of the reasons Nick gave for wanting to put it out on Occultation was that he thought it should be released on vinyl.
“This is an album which should be available on LP,” was what he said to me. That in itself was pleasing, and I’ve seen the artwork for the LP and it’s fabulous. Christian Cook of thinctanc design has done it – the same chap who designed the CD for me earlier this year, when I was going to release the album myself. Christian also designed my 2014 album Hello, My Name Is. Nick asked him to design the LP artwork and it is beautiful.
What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and 2017? Can we expect any live shows and any more records?
JH: I rarely plan, and as regards live shows, that depends if I get invited to do any and whether it’s feasible to do any of them, as I live in Spain. I don’t like being away from home for long periods anymore, so any gig would have to be a one-off, rather than a series of shows.
Nick and I are currently discussing another album for Occultation next year and I’ve started writing songs for it in the last week or so. It will again be different from what I’ve done before, and some of it will be recorded in the UK. Hopefully I’ll start recording it next year, probably for a 2018 release.
What music are you currently listening to and enjoying – old and new?
JH: I recently got hold of Judee Sill’s double album set, featuring her first two LPs. I totally adored her in the early ‘70s but hadn’t listened to her for years. It was Nick Halliwell who reawakened my love for her work when he told me he could hear Judee Sill in Across The Door Sill. I hadn’t actually considered that when I was recording it, feeling it had touches of Roy Harper and Laura Nyro in there (I don’t get through a month without listening to Harper’s Stormcock album at least once), but I also knew there was another sound, another voice in there, at the back of my mind while I was recording, which I couldn’t quite grasp. When Nick mentioned Judee to me it was like a light went on in my head – “Yes! That’s who I could hear somewhere in my memory during the Across The Door Sill sessions!” She has hardly been off my hi-fi since I got the double album recently. Glorious glorious talent.
I’ve also been enjoying Dylan’s Cutting Edge ‘65/’66 outtakes CD too. I had many of those on bootleg vinyl. which I bought in the early ‘70s, but hadn’t listened to for years, and it’s great to have those amazing tracks again. She’s Your Lover Now, I Wanna be Your Lover, wow, genius. And unreleased at the time! Amazing.
Not so new, from last year, Ralegh Long’s Hoverance album is lovely, very pastoral and rather gorgeous, Robert Rotifer’s Not Your Door is excellent, some lovely songs on that, very emotional songs, and of course Ian’s Papernut Cambridge album Love The Things Your Lover Loves is fab. He writes songs you are sure you heard back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they don’t sound like anybody else’s songs. Only Jeff Lynne is as good at that.
Nick has been playing me some of the new Distractions tracks, and they are lovely – some really great songs on there.
I recently acquired a record deck again – I hadn’t had one for years. An LP I have had since the mid-‘70s, Orchestra Luna, was one of the first I put on the turntable and it took me back to my days at CBS when a press lady there gave me the LP. I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it and have treasured it ever since. Their songs are full of Hollywood, Broadway, the Great American Dream, comedy, whimsy and theatrical camp, but with an air of wryness which overcomes the whimsy. It’s fun, but with a mild snarl, and it’s tremendous. As someone once said, it’s like watching a Hollywood musical you’ve never seen…
Austrian-born, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is his most personal and autobiographical record yet, with songs about growing up in Vienna and the death of his grandmother, a Jewish communist and resistance fighter in the Second World War. I speak to him to find out why he felt the time was right to tell these stories and how they’re more relevant than ever in the current European political climate…
I’ve been listening to the new album a lot – it’s a great record…
Robert Rotifer: I’m glad and I’m grateful that you like it because I sometimes find it pretty hard going to listen to because it’s very intimate. People have been telling me they like it, but it was really hard for me to let go of some of the stuff. It’s quite intense and there are just ten songs – I felt that if I put 12 songs on it, it would’ve been too much. Also, these days, you want it to sound good on vinyl and the truth is, the less you put on there, the better it sounds.
I think it works really well on vinyl because, thematically, there are two distinct sides to the record. The first half of the album deals with contemporary subjects, including immigration and the smartphone generation, while the second half is a song cycle about you and your family’s experiences of growing up and living in Vienna.
RR: The songs on the first side give you the background to where the second side comes from. Side one should open your mind – ‘what is this guy talking about?’ – and on side two, you can see where I’m coming from. It has a dramatic curve.
I like the details in the lyrics and the stories that you tell in the songs…
RR: They’re compelling. I couldn’t take into account what people might make of it and I felt there were things that I just needed to write about, which should always be the case. I couldn’t edit myself accordingly to what was going to work with an audience, which was a real self-indulgence, but I’m aware of that.
It’s arguably your most personal and autobiographical record and it’s a Robert Rotifer album, rather than one by your band, Rotifer. Although the guys from Rotifer play on the record, was it always going to be a solo album?
RR: It just happened that all sorts of things conspired – Mike Stone, who plays bass, was very busy and Ian Button (drummer) was busy with Papernut Cambridge. I just felt that I had this personal stuff to get rid of and it seemed right to do the record by myself. Mike and Ian were absolutely fine with it – there was no animosity.
Some of the songs – the title track and Irma la Douce – are about your grandmother, Irma Schwager, who died last year. She was a Jewish communist who fled Austria to escape the Nazis during the Second World War and joined the French resistance. The title track sees you standing outside her old flat in Vienna…
RR: My grandmother died when she was 95. She met my grandfather during immigration, while they were part of the underground Austrian resistance in France – they were both Jewish – not religiously so – but by birth. My mum was born in France when she was in hiding during the Second World War.
My grandparents came back to Vienna in 1945 and moved into a flat that was right next to the Danube Canal – it’s the bit of the Danube that goes right into the city of Vienna. That was one of the last strongholds where the Nazis had hidden.
When my grandparents moved in to the flat, part of the outside wall had collapsed because the Russians had lobbed grenades into the building. Until the very end, you could see bullet scars in the doors and there was a hole in the wood panelling where they’d looked for hidden weapons. After my grandmother died, my mum found pictures of German soldiers in uniform having a jolly in the flat. It had belonged to a Jewish family and was taken over by a Nazi general.
When my grandparents came back, they were offered the flat. For me, it’s a symbolic place and has more to say than just my personal history. With the way politics is going in Central Europe at the moment, I think these stories need to be told – it’s essential to explain to people was it was actually like.
On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, there was a big do, because she was a little bit of a celebrity in leftie circles. I was invited to sing and I sang a song called The Frankfurt Kitchen, which is about a kitchen design from 1928 that was the daddy of all the Ikea kitchens. It was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was a friend of my grandmother’s.
I played it as a tribute to her friend, who had died, and as I was on stage and my grandmother was standing next to me, I said to her that I was glad that she came back to Vienna, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I asked her why she’d come back and, like a shot, she said that it was because they’d won. I thought that was the best reason ever.
When she died, it became obvious to me that that idea of her coming back had gone – I can’t rely on other generations having fought for me. It was really emotional for me and I felt all these songs about Vienna coming out. While they might be about me, they also say something about where Europe – and the world – is at the moment, from Trump all the way to Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer [the far-right Austrian presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated earlier this year].
I don’t want to get too political about it because it’s emotional for me, but it’s about feeling safe.
One of my favourite songs on the album is the opening track, If We Hadn’t Had You. It’s a very personal song that’s about your daughter and mentions an anti-war demo in Hyde Park that you took her to. Can you tell me about the background to the song?
RR: My daughter said I always writing depressing and sad stuff – she asked me to write something nice and I thought that if she’s said that, then the most obvious thing to do is to write a nice song about her. But I wanted to write a song that wasn’t mawkish.
I’ve tried to explain that parental happiness is also withdrawal from what happens around you – you’ve got the luxury of something which is so much more important… But I also wanted to make it clear that because you have kids you don’t have a higher calling. My daughter absolutely loves the song.
You’ve recorded two versions of If We Hadn’t Had You – the one on the album has a guitar solo by you, but the version you released on a EP earlier this year features a saxello solo by 80-year-old Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe, who played on John Martyn’s classic album Solid Air. How did you get him involved?
RR: Living in Canterbury, I was aware of Tony Coe – I’d seen him play at jazz gigs. He was around in the Ronnie Scott’s scene in the ‘50s.
He says that Solid Air was just a session for him – that it wasn’t a very exciting afternoon, but, for the rest of us, it’s good enough!
I got him to play on another album that I was co-producing with Andy Lewis and at the end of the session we still had some time, so I asked him to listen to If We Hadn’t Had You, which I thought could do with some saxophone on it. He really liked the song and I loved what he did.
When I’d mixed my album I knew that, thematically, If We Hadn’t Had You had to be the first song on it, but with the sound [of the saxello], you would expect the rest of the record to have that aspect to it, but it doesn’t – it’s like opening a door to a room that you then don’t use anymore. After thinking long and hard about it, I tried a guitar solo on it and, all of a sudden, it got a different flavour that fitted the rest of the album. I decided to do an EP with the Tony Coe version on it to give credit to it and not lose it.
Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s pretty stripped-down in places – there’s plenty of room for the songs to breathe, with acoustic guitar, organ and horn, but then there’s also some freewheeling electric guitar, heavier sounds and some psych-pop and jazzy touches. It’s a hard record to describe and nail down – it’s almost as if the songs are led by the lyrics, rather than the music…
RR: Yes – completely.
What were you aiming for with this record?
RR: I’m a big fan of French records from the ‘60s and ‘70s – what I like about them is the way the vocals are mixed right upfront, so you can hear what Jacques Dutronc or Serge Gainsbourg is telling you. That’s the opposite of what’s happened in the mastering wars of the zero years. This was the first time I’d ever mixed a record myself and I recorded almost all of it myself.
Writing-wise what I was aiming for with this record was that I wanted to get away from that guitarist’s thing of ‘here’s four chords and let’s sing over the top’. I wanted to write it more like a piano player would. I wrote some of the songs on piano.
I’d like to ask you more about your musical influences. You moved to England from Vienna just over 19 years ago, in early 1997, but you first visited England in 1982, as a 12-year old. What music were you into when you were young?
RR: My parents sent me to Canvey Island in 1982, when I was 12. Before then, I had been terribly Anglophile. It was a formative experience – in 1982 in Essex you saw second-generation mods running around and the look was magical to me. I was such a Beatles fan as a kid and I’d got into The Kinks and The Who.
So when you were growing up in Austria, you didn’t listen to local music?
RR: There was local rock music…. The case for Austrian indigenous pop music, whatever that means, because it’s a multicultural society, is quite important for me. I’ve been the co-founder and curator of the Vienna Popfest, which is a huge thing – it’s an annual festival where tens of thousands of people turn up. It’s anything that you could possibly describe as ‘pop’, but one of the great things about Vienna is that people are very schooled in the avant-garde – they keep an ear open for music that is odd. So at the Popfest you can have people playing something that in no other place in the world would be considered pop.
I like Austrian pop music, but when I lived there, there was this thing called Austropop, which was complacent, stolid and boring pop music. There were people with horrible hairdos and DX7 keyboards… As a teenager, I tried to get away from it as much as possible.
Then there was the Austrian version of Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave thing. It was a mixture of what the Germans did and Austropop, which was even more fake to me.
I sang in English and I always played in very Anglophile bands – there was a mod and ‘60s culture going on. I became a music journalist in ‘91/’92 – I was studying, but I was offered a job because I wrote an article about Billy Bragg that people liked. I then went freelance and got into radio, which I still do today.
I ended up being the Britpop correspondent – I went to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury and hung around the hospitality area. If you were accredited, you could stick a microphone in Jarvis Cocker’s direction and he would talk to you.
Your new album is being released on Gare du Nord Records – a label that you’re heavily involved with. Any other new records and projects in the pipeline?
RR: This is an exclusive. There’s a new Papernut Cambridge album already finished. One afternoon, we decided to try and organise something like The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus – it’s called The Cambridge Circus! I’m really looking forward to that.
With the new Bond blockbuster Spectre around the corner, indie label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (wiaiwya) is releasing a James Bond tribute album called A Girl And A Gun, featuring covers of 007 songs and soundtracks by contemporary acts including Papernut Cambridge, Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long.
I asked Ian Button from Papernut Cambridge about his groovy garage-rock take on Lulu’s The Man With The Golden Gun…
How did you get involved with the A Girl And A Gun project?
Ian Button: I can’t quite remember when I first heard Jerv (wiaiwya) mention the idea – I think it might have been when we were all at The Union Chapel when Papernut Cambridge played a Daylight Music show at the end of 2014.
I probably muscled in just as much as I was invited. The idea fitted in really well with our ‘lost year of cover versions’ – the Nutlets album and our soon to be released EP of John Sullivan theme songs – so I just said yes without thinking.
Jerv is a great friend, and was also a great advisor to us when we started the Gare Du Nord label – the links between all the bands and players on the labels in our little circle are too complex to go into – but suffice to say I’m involved on a couple of other tracks on the album too – drumming, recording etc on Ralegh’s and Darren’s tracks…..and the Papernuts are going to be a sort of ‘house band’ for some of the show on November 7th at The Union Chapel.
Why did you choose to cover The Man With The Golden Gun? What were you trying to achieve with your version?
IB: I went for it because I thought I knew no one else would. It’s one of the real underdog themes. But of course Mark Williamson (Crock Oss) went and chose it as well, and did a brilliant electronic/location recordings version of it too. At the show on Nov 7th we’re going to do a kind of amalgamation of both our versions, which is going to be great fun.
I remember Lulu doing The Man Who Sold The World and being in a sort of Bowie phase in the early/mid ’70s, and The Man With The Golden Gun was definitely the same kind of thing/look/era.
When I got to grips with the music I realised how cool it is – not really any chords, just dark monophonic lines and dischords etc…it took me a while to work out those really Bond machine gun cluster notes at the start. They are very clever!
Like all our covers, I wanted to try and make it sound sort of like the original – not an oblique post-ironic re-work – but I also liked the idea of a bloke singing it instead of Lulu.
It was recorded the way pretty much all of the Papernut Cambridge tracks are formed – I start at home with a basic structure, in this case a sort of synth bass line, a couple of guitar lines and a drum machine.
I used Mellotron sounds (M-Tron Pro) to layer up the brass/strings/harp etc. Then I went to a little rehearsal room to do the vocals and real drums. The drums were recorded with just one mic, but there are three takes all playing at once.
The next step normally is to send the track to the rest of the Nuts so they can add bits – but in this case it didn’t quite happen as usual.
Robert Halcrow was the only one who sent anything back by Jerv’s deadline (bass, real horns, and backing vocals) – everyone else just said they couldn’t add anything – even though I meant for them to replace the programmed parts with real guitars/keys etc. So it’s really ended up just me and Rob Halcrow on this one. But Ralegh Long came up with something maybe better than any music – the video, which is taken from a spoof Bond movie that he and his mates made when they were at school – Blackeye. It’s genius.
Are you a Bond fan?
IB: Not really, I must confess. I kind of liked the ‘60s and ‘70s ones because they were a bit light hearted. Christmas afternoon fodder.
I haven’t seen the Daniel Craig films, but I hear about torture scenes and I kind of don’t really like the idea of them being dark or too scary.
What’s your favourite Bond film and song – and why?
IB: I couldn’t name a movie that’s my favourite, unfortunately. I actually don’t even know if I’ve seen any all the way through – but my favourite song is You Only Live Twice. That strings riff is the cold suburban sunshine of the 1960s, bottled. I also especially like the reggae bit in Live and Let Die.
Who is your favourite actor to have played Bond?
IB: Roger Moore – not least because he and Dorothy Squires used to live near me in Bexley…
What do you think of Sam Smith’s song for Spectre – Writing’s On The Wall?
IB:I had a listen and it didn’t really grab me. But then neither did the Spectres one [Bristol band] that got a lot of attention in that stupid mix up of reviews. I usually don’t like music that tries to be all dramatic, minor key and portentous, although I do make exceptions!
I’m going to use Sam Smith’s lyrics in a university lecture next week, to see if people recognise them by reading a verse in isolation. They sort of don’t say anything about the movie really do they? Not like Lulu, who actually said what’s in the film, totally!
A Girl And A Gun is released digitally on October 23 (wiaiwya).
Indie label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (wiaiwya) is releasing a new James Bond tribute album called A Girl And A Gun, featuring covers of 007 songs and soundtracks by contemporary acts including Papernut Cambridge, Darren Hayman and Ralegh Long.
I asked Robert Rotifer, whose version of Goldeneye is on the record, how he tackled Tina Turner’s Bond belter…
How did you get involved with the A Girl And A Gun project?
Robert Rotifer:John Jervis [who runs wiaiwya] asked, and I would never say no to him, because he is generally speaking one of the best people on the planet.
I think he was already quite far down the list, but at some point the idea came up – it may have been Darren Hayman’s – that all core members of Papernut Cambridge should do a song.
I seem to remember that they all had to have “gold” in the title as part of the concept as well.
Why did you choose to cover Goldeneye?
Well, I didn’t choose it – the choice was made for me. But I was happy to do it because it’s not one of the dauntingly cool John Barry ones, but U2 writing for an ageing Tina Turner, and it has dodgy 1990s production all over it (sorry Nellee Hooper) – so I didn’t feel too worried about ruining a classic.
Actually, I feel a bit of a fraud, Sean, because you are a real Bond connoisseur and I’m just a Bond tourist.
I didn’t even watch that film [Goldeneye] at the time, mostly because I disapproved of the BMW Z3 roadster. Where I’m from, in Austria, driving that car is akin to a public diagnosis of erectile dysfunction. Not a good look for Bond.
What were you trying to achieve with your version? Can you talk us through how you went about approaching the song and recording it?
I wanted it to have a dusty home studio vibe, but in a thoughtfully arranged way. As I was working out the chords, I found myself retracing the steps of Bono and The Edge, trying to go by the Bond handbook and be original at the same time.
That classic rising and falling chromatic sequence was there, but hidden deep down in Hooper’s arrangement. And then there’s a ludicrously anti-climactic, incongruous key change into the chorus that surely would never have happened to John Barry.
Bono and The Edge don’t do key changes, but they probably wanted to show a bit of sophistication there. Imagine those two in a tux, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. You can hear Tina Turner wonder where the hell this thing is going every time that change comes around because it’s just so unmusical. But then I tried to make it work by introducing a melancholy harmony part, and all of a sudden I started to really enjoy it.
By that time I had decided to replace Nellee Hooper’s quasi-trip hop beat with one of the beats on my old seventies Elgam Carousel groove box, embellished with some tambourine and egg shaker. I recorded the bassline next with my Höfner violin bass, then some double-tracked acoustic fingerpicking, at which point the chords started to sound quite beautiful.
Then I added some swells on the Telecaster with my volume pedal, some almost inaudible organ pads and some “harpsichord” using my Clavinova run through a Vox amp and one of Ian Button’s self-made spring reverbs.
Obviously, putting on the lead guitar part was the most fun. There’s this bit at the end, which offered itself for a solo, and I had a great time channelling Marc Ribot through Vic Flick. That was the idea at least.
The biggest problem was the main vocal, because Tina Turner is such a belter, so at first I was going for the opposite approach, really soft and quiet, but that was rubbish. I played it to my wife and the kids as we were about to go out for lunch, and they told me as much.
So I said “Five minutes!”, quickly ran up to the bedroom, perched the laptop on the dresser, put in some crappy earphones and sang it right into my little Zoom recorder without thinking. That was the best I could do to keep myself from getting too self-conscious.
Are you a Bond fan?
RR: That’s a very difficult question. The little boy in me was a huge Bond fan. I coveted that Aston Martin Corgi car with the ejector seat and changeable number plates so badly. Friends of mine had it – it was one of the best toys ever produced. Then when I got into the Mod thing as a teenager, I rediscovered Bond as part of the subculture and the influence he had on Jamaican Rude Boys. Desmond Dekker’s 007Shanty Town alone justifies the existence of Bond in my book.
I really like the idea of loucheness among the civil service – the glamour, good shoes and well-cut suits, even though it’s always two- or one- rather than three-button jackets, which I still prefer.
But there’s never quite enough of that in the films for my liking. There’s too much fighting and shooting and not enough casino scenes. And I’m not even going to mention misogyny or casual racism here – that’s just too much of an open goal.
But then I’m speaking to a proper Bond fan here, so I’m way out of my depth.
What’s your favourite Bond film and song – and why?
RR: It has to be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and We Have All The Time In The World – a clean two in one.
The film because, while still being a cartoon figure (a good thing), Bond is just that little bit more fallible and credible in this one, and it’s actually emotionally engaging.
The song because the writing is just fantastic. Musically, it’s John Barry at his relaxed best. That’s what chord and key changes should be like. And the arrangement is brilliantly restrained, the acoustic guitar is gorgeous, the strings just the right side of dramatic, that beat is funky in an ever so subtle way, the bass keeps pushing it forward all the time, and then there’s Louis Armstrong’s wonderful stoner’s voice on top of it all that sounds aloof and will still bring a tear to your eye.
He already knew he was going to die, so he makes Hal David’s lyrics sound both consoling and existentially meaningful.
“Nothing more / Nothing less / Only love.” You have to be very confident to write that for a Bond song. It was 1969 after all, so people were expected to take chances.
Who is your favourite actor to have played Bond?
RR: George Lazenby – not because I’m an indie snob or trying to be contrarian, but because he was in the best film with the best song.
He was very good looking, too. I read he was a car salesman before he started modelling and acting. That’s exactly the sort of person who should play Bond.
What do you think of Sam Smith’s song for Spectre – Writing’s On The Wall?
RR:I think it’s very good. I just wish he didn’t do that self-pitying, tore-my-skinny-jeans falsetto. Transpose it down and sing it with your proper voice, and it would be a fine tune.
Arrangement-wise, I like the way it never really gets going and resists the temptation to drift into rock territory. I suppose that’s brave in a way.
A Girl And A Gun is released digitally on October 23 (wiaiwya).
With the UK in the grip of Bondmania, indie record label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (wiaiwya) is set to release A Girl And A Gun – a new 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.
I spoke to wiaiwya’s founder, John Jervis, the mastermind behind this fiendish scheme, to find out more…
Just like a James Bond blockbuster, A Girl And A Gun – the new 007 tribute album from indie label wiaiwya – is exciting, exotic, weird and wonderful.
An eclectic array of artists have all come up with their own takes on songs and soundtracks from Bond’s cinematic legacy – both well-known and obscure.
Papernut Cambridge reinvent Lulu’s saucy The Man With The Golden Gun as a groovy,’60s-style garage-rock riot, while World of Fox’s version of All Time High (from Octopussy) is better than the original – they turn Rita Coolidge’s dreary MOR ballad into a hauntingly beautiful, twangy guitar instrumental.
Things get really strange when Picturebox make full use of Q Branch’s gadgets for their spooky Surrender (from Tomorrow Never Dies) – the vocals are sung through an electronic voice box.
I tracked down John Jervis, the head of the mysterious organisation known as wiaiwya, and asked him how he put his sinister plan into operation…
So what’s the story behind A Girl And A Gun? How did the project come about?
John Jervis: I’ve been doing a 7” singles club where people sign up and get seven 7” singles in the post over a 12-month period – one record comes out on every day of the week, and always on the 7th of the month. It has ended up being a bit of a numerical obsession really. I know – it’s tragic.
I’d been thinking of exclusive, seven-based extras to send out to subscribers – something a little special that you only get as a member of the club. You can tell where this is going, can’t you? The plan became getting seven bands to record seven 007 covers to send to subscribers.
Over the last few years I’ve released a few project records; a tribute to Springsteen for his 60th birthday, an Olympics LP for 2012, and a couple of Christmas albums. The core of each is a handful of incredibly talented, exciting artists who are always good to work with – a bit like a cast of returning characters that hold the whole thing together.
So, the bat signal went up, and seven said ‘yes’ – crucially not all of them were Bond fans. Some I suggested a theme to, while others I asked which themes they’d like to do, and they got working on it.
It then became a much bigger project, didn’t it?
JJ: As we all know, a Bond theme is not always the most understated recording, so friends were roped in to adorn the cover versions, and those friends soon realised that they too would love to have a stab at their favourite themes.
Well, I had to say yes, and the whole idea changed – this would no longer be a seven-track download, but a seven-month project, releasing a free cover every Friday from the release of the first Spectre trailer to the release of the film. Every Bond film – EON and non-EON – would be represented and, if possible, no song would be duplicated.
Chats were had at gigs and in pubs, songs were offered and claimed, and within a couple of months we had the full line-up – circumstances change, of course, so a few people dropped out and a few people stepped in, to bring something new to each incredibly well-known theme.
(Ralegh Long and Friends)
We now have a 34-track album, including two tunes from Dr No, The Man With The Golden Gun and Thunderball, and three from Tomorrow Never Dies (!), with a couple of other tracks promised, and the potential to add every future Bond theme!
Are you pleased with the record?
JJ: Overjoyed. Songs were recorded in Texan bedrooms, on Khao Phing Kan (James Bond Island in Thailand); in a Moscow airport, and outside Pinewood Studios – as well of plenty of more traditional studios – by people who have never seen a Bond film or read a Bond book, people that were members of the Bond fan club, people that despise the idea of Bond, John Barry fans, Paul McCartney fans, and a free jazz fan!
Some of the songs were played on church organs, lap steels and ukuleles. We had professional musicians who’ve been releasing records for two decades, as well as debut recordings from bands formed especially to record a Bond theme.
There were also tracks that arrived a couple of months after deadline, and one that was turned around in under 13 hours. There are covers of obscure unused themes, as well as the most recognisable piece of music in cinema, and we’ve even included a Bond film made by one of the acts when he was at school.
What are your favourite tracks on the album?
Now, that’s impossible to choose. Much like the original themes, my favourites change from day to day.
My favourite Bond cover version that’s not on the album is easy, though – Live And Let Die by Geri Halliwell. It’s immense and preposterous!
So, are you a Bond fan?
JJ: I’m a big fan of the music, and love the massive cultural event of a new film release. Although, I never enjoy a Bond film as much as the first time, when you see how all those well-loved components are dropped in – the quips, the locations, the cars, the gun barrel, Moneypenny, M, Q, the gadgets, the girls, the henchmen, the explosions, and of course the theme, oh, the theme. Through the cinema speakers, it always sounds amazing.
If we can momentarily step back to 1982, when I was given a Walkman – although it wasn’t an actual Walkman – for Christmas, along with some record tokens to buy tapes to play… After much pained deliberation in Boots, Woolworths, WH Smiths and Our Price – and with a sizeable amount of advice from my mum – I decided my life would be most improved with the soundtrack of Cats,The Kids from Fame, Complete Madness and James Bond’s Greatest Hits.
I played all of them to death, transcribed lyrics, and memorised sleeve notes. I was a fan of the music of 007 long before I saw any of the films.
Do you have a favourite Bond film?
It’s Live and Let Die. I also have a soft spot for Licence to Kill, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Theme-wise, today, it’s For Your Eyes Only. Last week it was The Death of Fiona [from Thunderball] and the week before it was Adele’s Skyfall. Why? Because they’re Bond themes. Surely that’s enough!
Who’s your favourite actor to have played Bond?
JJ: It’s always the current one and I like a chat over a drink about who should be the next one.
You’re holding a gig to launch the album, aren’t you?
JJ: Yes. Daylight Music is an amazing, free Saturday afternoon residency, putting on three bands between midday and 2pm at the Union Chapel, in Highbury, London – they’ve put on over 200 shows so far. They have been kind enough to host the A Girl And A Gun launch party on the 007th November.
The plan is to get as many of the bands from the compilation to play their tunes, and there’ll be a few surprises – evening dress is requested too. I hope you can make it.
Singer-songwriter and pianist John Howard’s latest project – John Howard & The Night Mail – could be the best pop album you’ll hear all year.
In the first of a two-part interview, I talk to him about writing and recording with his new band, ‘living in exile’ in Spain, his love of ‘60s pop culture, and why he’d rather listen to Revolver than Radio 1…
John Howard released his piano-driven debut solo album, Kid In A Big World, 40 years ago – back in 1975.
Criminally overlooked at the time, it’s now considered a cult classic, but the mid-70s music industry wasn’t ready for an openly gay, flamboyant singer-songwriter…
Late last year, John, who’s now 62, teamed up with musicians and songwriters Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis (Paul Weller’s bassist, DJ / Acid Jazz regular) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge, ex-Death In Vegas, ex-Thrashing Doves) to make a new album – his 15th.
Recorded over four days in November 2014, John Howard & The Night Mail will be released on the Tapete label on August 21.
It’s a wonderful collection of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop (Before) to slinky retro mod-soul (Intact & Smiling), glam-rock (ControlFreak), observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives (London’s After-Work Drinking Culture & Deborah Fletcher) and the moving paean to ‘60s pop culture that is In The Light of Fires Burning, which name-checks Joe Meek, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles and Telstar, among others…
How does it feel to be back, with a new album and a new band, too?
John Howard: It’s always good to have a new album out. I don’t feel I’m ‘back’ particularly, because I’ve been writing, recording and releasing albums each year since my real ‘comeback’ album, The Dangerous Hours, which came out in 2005.
What is great is to be working with these amazingly talented guys, Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis. They’re all fabulous musicians and songwriters, and great company, too.
I am really proud of The Night Mail album and knocked out it’s getting such a positive reaction.
It’s a great record…
JH: Thanks, Sean. I’m thrilled. It’s turned out sounding like we spent months recording it – it’s so polished and a really cohesive set of solid pop tracks, with some lovely songs.
This is an album I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have made on my own. They are songs I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have written on my own.
I love it. I listened to it again the other evening on our roof [in Spain] – the only cool place of an evening right now here – and was once again struck by how great it sounds.
That isn’t meant to be big-headed – it’s an acknowledgement of the terrific effort, time and talent that has gone into making the album by all four members of the band.
Several of the songs are observational – they’re populated with characters and their everyday lives. I’m thinking, in particular, of the tracks London’s After-Work Drinking Culture and Deborah Fletcher.
In my view, they’re up there with other great observational songs by Ray Davies, Blur, The Beatles, The Divine Comedy, and early Bowie… Do you write about real, or imaginary, characters?
JH: Well, those two songs you’ve mentioned have lyrics which were written by Robert and Ian, respectively, so that proves what great lyricists I’m working with!
London’s After-Work… particularly resonated with me, as the lyric described my own situation when I ‘worked for a living’ in the ‘80s and ‘90s at various music companies.
There was a definite belief system at work in all those companies that you had to be a member of The Team, and to prove your membership you were expected to go to the local wine bar after work and mix with your work buddies ‘til all hours.
I never went along with it, I used to purposely leave the office at six, making sure everyone saw me leave by waving and saying “‘bye!” loudly as I left.
I had a great guy waiting for me in our lovely home and there was simply no contest as to whom I wanted to spend my after-work time with.
I had some work colleagues who would get in at 7 a.m. and worked till 8 p.m. then went to the wine bar with other work colleagues and got home after midnight. They used to lecture me that I wasn’t doing my career prospects any favours by not doing the same.
My riposte was always the same, “when the company has done with you, they’ll get rid of you, no matter how late you stay or how many arses you lick while you’re here.”
And sure enough, they all became victims of the companies’ attitude to the ‘loyal’ office worker, the unspoken rulebook – ‘give everything, and get nothing but a salary for a while back.’
I remember one company I worked for arranged a ‘Team Building Awayday Event’ where we were all supposed to take part in sporting activities similar to those in the ‘70s TV programme It’s A Knockout. Each head of department was to ‘take a lead and build colleague brotherhood’.
The fact my department consisted of two girls and me went rather over their heads. I watched one of the first activities when we’d arrived at this damn thing, hurried back to my hotel room and stayed there reading for the rest of the day, claiming an asthma attack, when questioned about my absence that evening over dinner.
There was a definite sense that I’d let the side down – not from my two female departmental colleagues, who were actually just jealous that I’d managed to make such a crafty exit.
My own lyrics are usually about real people I’ve met, or around a story I’ve read or heard about, which then gets rather mangled into fiction as the song develops.
I don’t think Ian has ever actually met a sexual dominatrix like Debs Fletcher, but you’d have to ask him about that!
The opening song Before reminds of something from The Zombies album Odessey and Oracle…
JH: I love that album! Now you mention it, Before does have that Zombies feel about it. I hadn’t considered that until now. It’s my lyric which Robert set to music, so the beautiful structure of the song is all down to him.
I met Colin Blunstone [from The Zombies] when I was signed to CBS in ‘74/’75. He came to the launch concert I gave at London’s Purcell Room and sat next to me at the after-show lunch. I had to keep nipping myself that here was I, just down from sunny Ramsbottom, sitting next to one of the greatest pop vocalists ever whose recordings had filled my little transistor in my box room in Bury, listening to him telling me how much he loved my music!
Rod Argent from The Zombies played on your debut album, back in ’75, didn’t he?
JH: Yes, Rod played on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner on Kid In A Big World and also on the first unreleased (until 2004) version of Family Man, which was re-recorded at Apple when CBS rejected Tony Meehan’s production. I have great memories of Rod making faces like a naughty child in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 as he came up with ever more outrageous sound effects on his Moog for Guess… while Tony Meehan was jumping up and down at the control room window shouting “Yes! Yes!”.
One of my favourite songs on the new album is In The Light of Fires Burning. It’s a very nostalgic lyric, with references to early/mid ‘60s pop culture – Joe Meek/ Telstar, Pink Floyd, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles…
I really like the imagery of the fairground – it’s very atmospheric. Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind that song?
Was it inspired by listening to ’60s pop music as you were growing up?
JH: Ah – that’s one of my personal favourites on the album too. I was brought up in the ‘50s and ‘60s – by the age of nine or ten, I was a huge pop fan and I was surrounded by it on radio, TV and in the music papers and culture, generally.
I always saw the fairground as a kind of example of pop music of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s – all fun and lights and laughter and everyone having a great time with friends while their favourite pop songs blasted out into the evening air. It’s what Sedaka himself has called The Tra-La-La Days, which was what pop music generally felt like then.
By the mid-‘60s, things got much more serious and thoughtful and thought-provoking. Pop stars were no longer pin-ups in Jackie, they were people ‘with something to say’, and their views were often taken as gospel.
It became a kind of new belief system for ‘the youth of today’, Dylan was ‘a generation’s spokesman’, and with that new attitude, the lyrics of pop songs became much more than simply sad or happy tales of love lost and found. They turned into an inward way of viewing an ever-disturbing world, Vietnam, The Cold War, assassinations…
Drugs like LSD were getting many of the talented people around at that time out of what they found too sickening to dwell on. It all felt so positive in ‘67, but by ’69, it all started to go wrong, of course. Utopia did not exist after all.
New realities were being created through the medium of pop – or rock as it became. And with that new awareness of something more than falling in love with your best friend’s girl, and a growing interest in what could be achieved in recording studios sonically, came great records like Tomorrow Never Knows, See Emily Play, Purple Haze, God Only Knows and A Day In The Life.
For me, aged around 14 or 15, it was a terrific time to be a young record buyer. There was so much fabulous and fascinating stuff around it was a case of ‘what can I afford to spend my pocket money on this week?’.
The last part of the lyric for In The Light… tells of how The Beatles changed pop music forever, from playing All My Loving on Ed Sullivan to creating Sgt Pepper in just three years. Astonishing.
When I sent Ian the lyric, I knew he’d get into it and come up with something wonderful for the tune. His band Papernut Cambridge, which is basically Ian under another name, has a gorgeous mid-to-late ‘60s vibe about it.
I always think of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd when I hear Papernut stuff – it resounds with all the stuff I heard on the radio in that glorious ‘66/’67 period in pop and popular culture.
I knew Ian would create a brilliant song from the lyric and when we recorded it and the guys came up with that stunning psychedelic ending in the studio, I was in seventh heaven! How perfect that was.
The first single from the new album is Intact and Smiling, which was written with Andy Lewis. It’s a great ’60s-style mod-soul-pop song. Are you a ’60s pop obsessive?
JH: Obsessive, no. Fan, yes. Because I grew up into my teens in that decade, then ‘60s pop music is part of my DNA.
But I was never a soul fan per se. I bought a lot of Tamla Motown records like Baby Love, Tracks of My Tears, I Was Made To Love Her, etc, and adore all of Marvin Gaye’s stuff, especially his ‘70s material like What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.
I saw Marvin twice in concert in the ‘70s and he was truly sensational. The Mod movement never touched me – far too butch and confrontational for fey old me!
I was more of a studying hippie around the age of 15, and became a fully-fledged hairy by 1970. My pop heroes in the ‘60s were Dusty, P.J. Proby, Scott Walker, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Cilla, all the drama-pop artists. By the late ‘60s, I’d become infatuated by The Beatles, buying everything they’d done to date – every single and album I’d missed while drooling over Dusty and Sonny & Cher.
Once at art college I started buying records by, and going to see in concert, The Incredible String Band, Frank Zappa and Roy Harper – whose Stormcock album is still one of the greatest LPs ever recorded.
And I became a very belated Dylan fan, buying again every album I’d missed in the ‘60s. I’d raved about and bought Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street, but had never been fixated enough to buy his albums – until around late 1970).
The mod-soul influence on Intact & Smiling is all Andy’s, and I sent that lyric to him knowing he’d do something pop-soul with it, incorporating his own particular groove into the music. I loved singing it in the studio, it wasn’t a song I would ever have thought I’d sing, and I had a ball with such a fantastic backing track chugging along behind me. I didn’t however expect it to be the amazingly popular and catchy gem it has become!
The song Control Freak sounds like a nod to ‘70s glam-rock. Are you a control freak?
JH: Yes, more or less. I think that’s one of the reasons I began recording alone!
What has surprised me is how easy I’ve found it letting others take control of many of the aspects of this album. And because the recording sessions were so relaxed and also because I felt ‘in safe hands’ with the guys, I was happy to enjoy the team process when making the record.
The glam stomp thing of the track is down to Ian, who is quite the glam fan man. When Ian sent me his demo to my lyric, it reminded me of Bowie’s Jean Genie, so I decided to sing it with a faint circa ‘73 Aladdin Sane twang.
I actually wanted to re-do some of the vocals as I felt they were pretty rough in places, the double-tracking is very ‘out’ occasionally, but the boys all insisted it was ‘perfect’ and loved the out of phase double-tracking. ‘So authentically ‘70s.’
You can actually hear me right at the end of the track saying “Was that rough enough for you?”, directed at the control room. There was an unrecorded “Yes!” in reply.
Does it feel strange after having a period of keeping out of the limelight – when you were doing your own thing and releasing your own records – to be back working with a new band, co-writers and a new record label?
JH: I can’t say it feels ‘strange’ – I tend to respond to each situation as it comes. I’m quite adaptable as a person, and nothing ever truly surprises or shocks me.
I haven’t consciously kept out of the limelight – I think the limelight has had trouble finding me! Whoever’s operating that thing keeps missing me. ‘Hello! I’m over here!’ has been my mantra for quite some years.
Luckily for me, Robert and his Gare Du Nord compadre, Ralegh Long [English singer-songwriter] saw me waving in the distance and upped my profile considerably in 2013.
A musician friend of mine from way back, when I played him The Night Mail tracks, said “it isn’t better per se than what you’ve been doing by yourself in recent times, but this album will definitely take you to another level”, and that, certainly, the latter bit about ‘another level’, is true.
I can’t say what’s better or worse when it comes to my own recorded output. That’s up to whoever listens to my music to have an opinion.
Doing my own thing on my own label imprint (‘John Howard via AWAL/Kobalt’) for so long – since 2009 – meant I was in total control of what happened with it, who did the sleeve design, I handled all the arrangements and production, the title of each album, who mastered it, when it came out, what sort of promotion I’d do for it, etc. It was all down to me. So letting the reins slacken for this new album has been, well, actually rather relaxing. And I completely trust Tapete – they’re a great record label and they’re doing a wonderful job with the album. They have a fantastic roster of artists who we are now indirectly associated with as well.
It goes without saying, I wholly have faith in Robert, Andy and Ian who handled the production, mixing and mastering of The Night Mail album. My natural experience-created caution, when it comes to getting excited about anything I do, has meant I am weekly thrilled by what’s happening because of the album.
How easy was it to adjust to the process of writing, recording and playing with a new band?
JH: I’ve worked with musicians on and off over the years – obviously in the ‘70s I always worked with other musicians. In fact, when I recorded two singles with Trevor Horn in the late ‘70s, I didn’t play an instrument at all. I just wrote and sang the songs and then left them to Trevor and his fellows Geoff Downes, Anne Dudley and Bruce Woolley to do the rest. I recorded with what became Buggles and Art of Noise before they were Buggles and Art of Noise!
My 2005 Cherry Red release, As I Was Saying, was recorded with bassist Phil King (ex-Lush, now with The Jesus & Mary Chain) and guitarist Andre Barreau (Robbie Williams, The Bootleg Beatles), and we did a few gigs together to promote the album at the time.
Since then I’ve recorded entirely on my own. Circumstances dictated that really, and it was easier in terms of having as much time as I wanted to get something right. I could pop down to my studio at three in the morning and do a percussion overdub which had come into my head – having no neighbours helps – and take as long as I like to finish an album – usually about a year, playing everything myself.
What was it like making the new record?
JH: Writing the songs and making the Night Mail record was uncannily easy. I wrote lyrics with Robert, Ian or Andy in mind, in terms of how I imagined each one would write the melody and the style of song. The boys sent me their lyrics separately to put them to music.
It was always fascinating wondering what they’d do with my lyrics and, I guess, vice versa on their parts, too. Then, once the songs were written and we’d all sent our demos to each other and been very happy with the resultant ten songs, I then got to work demoing all of the songs on piano at home, with a few backing vocal and harmony ideas in there for future reference.
I initially had the idea that whoever wrote the lyric would sing the song, but Robert was very keen that I be the singer in the band.
I had originally imagined the project with just a band name, not with my name at the front. But again, Robert felt that the album should have my name on it. I think it was also Robert who came up with the Night Mail band name, and, of course, he did the front sleeve cover artwork too.
By the time we got to the studios in Ramsgate (Big Jelly) in November last year, I knew the songs like the back of my hand – I’ve always been a detail preparer by nature – and though the boys hadn’t routined the songs in the same obsessive way I had been doing for months beforehand – they are all rather busier than I am these days – as soon as recording began, they all fell into place beautifully. It was as though we’d been playing these songs together for years.
The sessions were so happy and convivial, like four guys having a great time, doing what they love doing. It was a lovely few days. The guys then got together a week or so later and mixed the tracks, then Andy did a final mix, and Ian mastered the album. It was a real team effort. None of it had been difficult. It had all been something of a breeze – much to my relief.
There are rumours that you’ve been ‘living in exile’ in Spain? Is this true?
JH: It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? ‘Living in exile’. But no, I wasn’t. My husband, Neil and I, decided to move to Spain in 2007, simply because we both felt that there was no professional reason to stay in the UK, much as we love the country and miss living in the UK every day.
It was mainly a financial decision to move here. Cost of living is much cheaper here – you get much more for your money with almost everything.
We’d had a large house in Pembrokeshire which we adored, bought for Neil’s parents to come and live with us in 2001, after I retired from working in the music business – which I’d done since the early ‘80s – and Neil had more or less retired from acting. Sadly Neil’s parents both died before they could move in, so we were rather rattling round in there.
Why were you lured out of Spain and tempted and intrigued by this latest project – The Night Mail?
JH: I’d come to a point in my career where the initial media excitement of the reissue of Kid In A Big World in 2003, and my ‘comeback’ to recording new material – which was greeted similarly to how The Night Mail album is being welcomed now – had died down.
I’d started off in 2004 playing some lovely gigs in great venues, like The Jermyn Street Theatre and Cecil Sharp House in London, but it had finally reached a point a couple of years later, where I was literally playing to eight people in clubs in Brighton and Chester.
I remember performing at The Tapestry open-air festival in 2006 and looking out at a field with about six people and a few bemused sheep looking back at me.
There was a sense that the 2004 rediscovery aura which had built up around me had evaporated to an “oh, he’s got yet another new album out now, has he?” attitude.
I’ve always been prolific when inspired, but it was actually beginning to work against me. One journalist was actually reported to me as saying, “the problem with John Howard is he brings out too much stuff, and the mystique simply disappears”.
My journalist and writer friend Rob Cochrane once told me, when I was musing over this apparent waning of interest in my music by 2006, “Your problem, John, is that you’re too happy, too sane and too un-fucked up to be of any interest to many music journalists. Get a drug habit which almost kills you and they’ll be all over you.”
It made me laugh anyway. I accepted it as a fact and decided to just carry on doing my own thing at my own pace, and basically thought ‘sod it if only a relatively few people want to hear it.’
I knew I had some really loyal fans who had stayed with me through thick and many thins and they are still there for me buying everything I bring out – God bless’ em.
But the media interest had completely disappeared by 2007, when my albums were getting no reviews at all.
The move to Spain also came at a fortuitous time, as in 2007 I coincidentally signed my Barefoot With Angels album to Spanish label Hanky Panky.
They organised two gigs for me in Bilbao and in Valencia but again, we had the same problem – getting enough people along to see me. Being a ‘legendary songwriter from the 1970s’ and ‘cult artist’, just two of the tags I’ve been labelled with over the last few years, didn’t, it seemed, mean many people wanted to pay good money to see me perform.
My fanbase, while extremely loyal, is spread thinly around the world, so expecting large turnouts at single venues with very little pre-promotion was frankly pie-in-the-sky by that time. And this was, of course, all before the joys of Twitter and Facebook, which has helped artists like me publicise our gigs much more widely enormously.
It was a chance reading in 2012 of an interview with songwriter Ralegh Long in the online magazine Neon Filler, where he mentioned me and Bill Fay as two of his greatest songwriting influences, which persuaded me to send the magazine a copy of my then new album, You Shall Go To The Ball – a studio re-approaching of some of my 1970s songs from Technicolour Biography, the unreleased (until 2004) follow-up to Kid In A Big World.
Joe Lepper, the editor, not only reviewed the album but also did a fabulous write-up of my music and career up to that point. It was the biggest write-up I’d had for years.
He also suggested I send a copy of You Shall Go To The Ball to Robert Rotifer, which I did.
Robert emailed back to say how much he loved the album and had actually been alerted to my music a couple of years earlier by [songwriter] Darren Hayman, who had attended my 2004 Jermyn Street Theatre show.
Robert interviewed me for his German radio programme on FM4 and during it he asked me if there was a possibility that I might go back to the UK to do some gigs.
I said if the venue was right and the gig was well-organised I would consider it. That was when the Rotifer Mission Machine really got into gear!
He and Ralegh asked me if I fancied playing a support slot at Ralegh’s Servant Jazz Quarters gig in 2013, which I did and it was a blast, so many people came along, the atmosphere was fantastic and it even spawned a live album in 2014, Live At The Servant Jazz Quarters. Robert had very cleverly manoeuvred the situation the previous few months into getting me a band for the gig – beginning by asking if I minded him accompanying me on a couple of numbers and then suggesting Ian as drummer and Andy as bassist for the evening. Unbeknownst to me, Andy had been a fan of Kid In A Big World for years, playing tracks like Spellbound on his DJ nights.
The publicity the gig received from various magazines like The Quietus, and a general buzz about it, generated by Robert, Ralegh and Ian’s label Gare Du Nord, resulted in my then current new studio album, Storeys becoming my most successful for years – even getting reviewed!
Robert’s plan B then sprang into action – he, along with Ian and Andy, wanted to record an album with me, but how to do it while I was living in Spain? There was the rub.
At first we mulled over maybe me recording piano and vocal tracks here in my home studio, then the guys overdubbing backings onto those in the UK. I wasn’t keen on that idea, there’s never a really cohesive sound to projects like that.
I eventually came up with the idea of the four of us writing songs together and really approaching a new album together as a band project. The guys loved that idea, and once we got into gear for that Robert came across Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, which he felt would be the perfect location to record the songs together.
He tied a UK visit by me for the recording sessions into another Servant Jazz Quarters gig, which meant it all made sense on many levels.
Who are your favourite songwriters and artists? What are you currently listening to – old and new artists?
JH: My ‘60s and early ‘70s musical heroes I’ve already covered earlier. Though in songwriting terms people like Randy Newman and Bacharach & David knock me out everytime I hear one of their songs.
Jimmy Webb is up there as a genius I wholly admire and adore and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell are simply astonishing.
I loved early Gilbert O’Sullivan, Brian Wilson’s ‘60s creations take my breath away and Leonard Cohen and Bill Fay are brilliant to listen to still.
I was a big fan of Bolan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, bought all his albums from My People Were Fair… to Slider. After that he got very samey and safe and just kept repeating the same ‘boogie riff’, which got very boring and creatively unchallenged.
I adored Bowie up to Low – that album was totally incredible, as was everything which went before. I still go back to Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Young Americans and Low when I want my fix of D.B.
I covered his tour de force, The Bewlay Brothers, for my 2007 EP of the same name, and it’s now one of my most downloaded tracks to date.
In the ‘80s I got into Prince’s music in a big way – I still love his Purple Rain period and I still enjoy some Prefab Sprout stuff, though the ‘80s Prophet synths all over their tracks make it a little difficult to listen to for me now.
k.d. lang is a genius, I have all her albums. She sings like Karen Carpenter did, hits it right in the middle of the note every time. Stunning.
One of my pet hates in the ‘80s was the way many singers tended to sing ‘sharp’, above the note. Boy George did it often and Tony Hadley did it most of the time – it was a weird symptom of singing in that decidedly odd decade.
Lennon often sang under the note, just under it, which is a lovely thing to hear. Above the note, however little, hurts my ears.
I enjoyed Blur in the ‘90s and I think Damon Albarn is a huge talent. But I loathed Oasis, that “we’re as big as The Beatles” rubbish the Gallaghers spouted in interviews used to leave me shouting at my music mags!
My problem with nearly all pop music now is the way it’s recorded. I absolutely revile auto-tuning, it makes every singer sound like a computer. All their natural vocal sound is removed, replaced by an always in-tune digital horror.
I have friends who can’t hear it and think I’m going bonkers bringing it up everytime they play me a new record they’re in love with.
And the way now that everything is recorded at the same level, loudly, with no light and shade in the productions, even what begin as acoustic-sounding tracks turn into auto-tuned platters from hell. Every nuance is destroyed by this need to shout at us in perfect tune.
I had a go at listening to Radio 1 a few months ago, which I hadn’t done for years. I had to turn it off after three records and felt as if someone had punched me in the face. I had been sonically abused, dear!
I see young new artists performing at some live event on TV, think, ‘they’re good’, then listen to their stuff on iTunes to see if I want to buy it and am immediately hit with a pointlessly auto-tuned voice. Very sad. I run back to Revolver and bask in the light of real talent being recorded with sensitivity, musicality and balance. And human-ness. What’s wrong with occasional vocal flaws? They’re what make a great record stand out from the crowd. Why do record companies insist on getting their artists to shout so perfectly at us? It’s very unpleasant and should be banned, darling.
On the plus side of ‘new music’, it won’t surprise you to hear that I really love Robert Rotifer’s work – he writes great songs with such a tremendous punch about them.
Andy Lewis comes up with some wonderful ‘60s mod-soul ‘classics that should have been’ and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge records are regular spins here at home.
Ralegh Long has a big future ahead of him, his new album Hoverance is a tour de force in fragility set to gorgeous melodies, like curtains blowing in a cool breeze. I also think Alex Highton is an enormous talent. His first two albums are standouts for me.
It’s so difficult though now to get an album by a new artist away, without that big record company ‘branding’ thing that goes on. It’s all so corporate now. Everything has to have a ‘sound’ to succeed in the mainstream, everything is a soap powder which washes all the ‘dirt’ away. I love a bit of dirt. I am a perfectionist in the studio, but I always try to maintain a human quality to my recordings, which all have a kind of ‘60s vibe about them.
Most of what I play on my albums is acoustic and recorded in real time, layering as I go through the song each time, no spinning in. Done ‘the old way’. It means I retain a sense of naturalness, which if any big label or producer got their hands on it would be turned to auto-tuned digital mush in no time.
But there is no chance that any big label or producer would have the slightest interest in me, so I’m safe!
Do you have plans to make another record with your current collaborators?
JH: Oh, I hope so! I’d love to make another one with the boys. In fact, if this one does OK, we’re contracted to do three albums for Tapete.
So, Night Mail fans, buy this one and we’ll get to do another!
To read the second part of my interview with John Howard, in which he talks about about being ‘rediscovered’, his childhood, how being openly-gay affected his pop career, and his plans for the rest of the year and beyond, click here.
John Howard & The Night Mail is released on August 21 (Tapete).