Following his death, I decided to take a few months off, to deal with family matters and try to come to terms with his untimely passing. However, in true entertainment tradition, the show must go on, so today I’m updating Say It With Garage Flowers with some news that also acts as a tribute to my dad’s extraordinary career and his wonderful legacy.
On Sunday February 6 2022, I am staging a charity concert in honour of my dad. It will take place at Shanklin Theatre, on the Isle of Wight, where my dad was born and bred and spent his life.
Dad loved the Island – he made a name for himself there and was never lured away by the bright lights of Fleet Street, or national radio, although his great reputation was known all over the UK and across the world.
During his amazing life – almost 50 years of it spent interviewing stars of stage and screen, as well as local people – he decided to stay on the Island, with his family and friends. Shanklin Theatre was a venue that my dad was very fond of – it’s where we held the wake for his funeral in November – so it’s very fitting that the tribute concert will take place there.
‘On Sunday February 6 2022, I am staging a charity concert in honour of my dad. It will take place at Shanklin Theatre, on the Isle of Wight, where my dad was born and bred and spent his life’
As a nod to the showbiz TV series, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, I’ve called the concert Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – A Tribute To John Hannam. The line-up of performers will include national and local musicians who dad liked, admired and supported – most of whom he interviewed at some stage during his career.
So, who’s on the bill? Headlining the night will be British husband-and-wife country duo, My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. Last year saw the release of their fourth album, Country Darkness – a project which saw them collaborating with Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions) and reinterpreting some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs.
Also performing on the night will be singer-songwriter, Matt James – the former drummer of ’90s anthemic indie-rockers Gene.
Earlier this year, Matt launched his solo career with his debut single, A Simple Message. The follow-up, Snowy Peaks, is released digitally on December 10, and there’s an album planned for next year.
The consumer magazine Hi-Fi+ called Matt, ‘A very gifted songwriter and a master of telling stories.’
Local Isle of Wight musicians, or those with a connection to the area, will also be performing on the night. There will be appearances from Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race and The Chesterfields); professional singer and actress Amy Bird; reformed ’80s band Bobby I Can Fly; Chris Clarke, who was the bassist in UK Americana act, Danny & The Champions Of The World and runs Reservoir Studios in North London; local guitar legend, Brian Sharpe (The Cherokees) and, finally, local duo Bob and Bertie Everson.
Tickets are available here and cost £10. Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight. Doors open at 7pm.
My dad loved music – of all different styles. Thanks to him, my sister Caroline and I are both big music lovers too. I have fond memories of him playing music in the house when we were growing up.
Through my dad, I got my passion for ‘60s music. For Christmas, birthdays and Father’s Day, I always used to buy him albums by current bands and artists that I thought he might like. Luckily, he always did – usually because they sounded like ‘60s acts he’d got me into in the first place…. I shall really miss our listening sessions and chats about music.
Dad got me into legendary twangy guitarist Duane Eddy – one of dad’s musical heroes and also one of mine.
In 2018, Dad and I were lucky enough to be invited to see Duane play a gig at the London Palladium. We sat in on the sound check – it was basically our own private Duane Eddy gig – and then we watched the show and met Duane backstage.
It’s a night I’ll never forget, especially as when I shook Duane’s hand, he said to me: “This night is all about heroes.” I was with two of mine, and dad was with one of his. It was truly special.
Let’s make Sunday Night At Shanklin Theatre: A Tribute To John Hannam a night to remember too.
Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam: Sunday February 6 2022.
A night of live music in memory of legendary Isle of Wight journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, who died in autumn 2021.
Featuring My Darling Clementine, Matt James (Gene), Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Matt Hill, Brian Sharpe, Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird, Bob and Bertie Everson.
Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital.
Gun culture, genocide, Covid, environmental disaster, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and consumerism – these are just some of the themes that inform American Lullaby, the ninth studio album by Dean Friedman.
But, as is typical of the quirky, US singer-songwriter, who is best known in the UK for his 1978 number three hit, Lucky Stars, a duet with Denise Marsa, the wildly eclectic record, which includes pop, soul, jazz and funk, is loaded with off-the-wall humour, which means that even though Friedman is often tackling dark and disturbing subjects, the album isn’t a depressing or harrowing listen.
“I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of pretty gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us over Zoom from his home studio in Peekskill, NY.
It starts with the majestic and epic title track, which is one of the highlights – a lush, orchestrally-aided piano ballad with shades of Rufus Wainwright – and then heads straight into jazz territory with Too Much Stuff, a wry song about hoarding.
Halfway Normal Word laments how lockdown put a stop to some of the simple pleasures of everyday life, the ukulele-led trad-jazz of The Swing of Things is an optimistic ditty about trying to return to some sense of normality after the pandemic, while on the tight, slick and smooth funk of The Russians Are Coming, Friedman sings in a Russian accent for this tale of political corruption and shadowy goings-on in the corridors of power.
There’s more politics and funk, but with a hint of electro, on Ridin’ With Biden, and final song, On A Summer’s Night, is an atmospheric, chilled-out ballad that calms things down after all the madness.
‘I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi’
We asked Friedman to tell us his thinking behind the new album and what inspired this collection of varied songs and styles, which he self-produced in his studio at home.
“I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music,” he says.
Did you write the majority of the new record during lockdown?
Dean Friedman: Yes – 90 per cent of it.
Were you planning on making a new album anyway, or did being stuck at home accelerate your plans?
DF: Last March, I was just about to step on a plane and do a 40-city UK tour. Within 24 hours, it was blown out of the water. I had an album planned – I’ve been crowdfunding them for years. In fact, after Marillion, I was one of the first artists to crowdfund an album.
Keeping in mind the severe suffering that so many people have endured, I would say that lockdown imposed a pause on the planet, which I think most people found really refreshing. As a musician, it gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career. It was a pleasure to be able to really dig into the material. I had more time to explore and try and realise the vision that I had in my mind for how the songs should sound.
It’s a very rich-sounding album, with a lot of varied arrangements on it – strings, jazzy piano, harmonica, ukulele, soul, funk…
DF: I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music. Every song is different, but one of the common denominators is that I think of myself as someone who writes short stories set to music.
Once I’m into the early development of a song, it will generally suggest what sort of musical idiom it is and what sort of production treatment will favour it the most. I kind of let the story guide me, but there are also lots of juncture points in that process where I find myself making a conscious design. Do I want to do it on a ukulele or a guitar?
‘Lockdown gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career’
Or sing in a Russian accent, like on For the Russians Are Coming…
DF [laughs]: For that, I had a tale I wanted to tell – it was a true story and I drew on source material – the Congressional Record and the Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the US election. I read a good part of a 1,000-page document and tried to make sure the song was accurate.
Once I’d written it, I tried to capture the essence of what I was trying to impart. It did occur to me that relaying it in a Russian accent would be appropriate. I’ve never done anything like that before. I took a wild shot – partly because of lockdown, the extra time and the lack of pressure, and the fact that everything was messed-up and bewildering – and in some ways it gave me the courage and licence to take chances that I might not necessarily have taken under normal circumstances. It cracks my friends up, but I’ve gotten really good responses from it so far. What’s your take on it?
SH: I think it’s fun – it made me laugh. It’s a good Russian accent.
The title track, which is the opener, is my favourite song on the album. It deals with gun culture, genocide, slavery, the 2017 Paradise shooting in Las Vegas and how America got to be in the state it is today. You then follow it with Too Much Stuff, which is a lightweight, jazzy number about being a hoarder. The first two songs are a real juxtaposition…
DF: I’ve always done that – even in my live shows. I don’t want to put people to sleep, and I want to present a broad palette of human experience and human nature. That element of humour is crucial to understanding and surviving our surreal existence here on this Earth. Without it, nothing makes sense.
The title track nicely sets up the album for some of the issues you go on to talk about, doesn’tit?
DF: It does precisely that – that was my conscious intent. The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery. The common denominator is our incomprehensible obsession with guns and the degree to which they make us adept killers. Why are we the number one military power, at least for the moment? It’s cos we’re really great at killing people! It’s one of our greatest talents. Look, I love our country and I’m proud to be an American, but not for every reason. On American Lullaby [the song] I’ve tried to tell a 400-year history in a six-minute pop song, which isn’t easy to do, in as gentle as way as possible.
‘The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery’
All lullabies tend to be infused with these horrible things that happen to babies – like the bough breaking and the cradle falling in Rock-A-Bye Baby. The poor kids falls out a tree and gets hit on the head by a cradle – the point being that, in a strange way, lullabies instil some kind of warning to those little humans just entering the world about all the perils that are out there in front of them, but in a way that doesn’t scare the hell out of them.
That to me is what the album is all about – to impart dire messages in comforting and soothing ways, like a lullaby. Be aware of all the horrible things that are going on in the world but try and avoid them.
The whole album is sort of my attempt, for myself and, potentially listeners, to make some kind of sense of all the crazy shit that’s gone on for the past six years – from the day America woke up to a failed gameshow host and con artist being president.
We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House. The world has gone so far astray that any sense of normality is hard to recapture.
Myself and everyone else on the planet had this sense of befuddlement and confusion – I was incredulous at what was going on, but we had to get on with our daily lives and get stuff done. I wanted to provide a context for that and to chronicle my experiences, my understanding and my bewilderment of the past six years.
Did you write the record as a concept album?
DF: After writing the first couple of songs, I realised that inadvertently what I was doing was chronicling these surreal experiences of current events. Once it dawned on me that was the case, I did consciously address topics that fell within that brief. There are a couple of songs that aren’t 100 per cent in the script, but even then I was leavening some of that heavy, sober and difficult material with some measure of humour and silliness.
‘We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House’
There’s been a low-key, underlying sense of anxiety about what’s going to happen next because, clearly, our leaders don’t have a fucking clue! Even if they did, they don’t have the competence to execute any kind of solution that’s appropriate.
For myself, I also felt compelled to write something that was optimistic and uplifting – a song like The Swing of Things. When you’re in a funk and you’re having a really tough time, you don’t want to get out of bed. That song tries to acknowledge that and people who are experiencing it, but also say, ‘that sucks but sometimes you’ve just got to get back into the swing of things.’
SH: We talked about lullabies earlier. What keeps you awake at night?
DF [laughs]: Like every other indie artist, with rare exceptions, I serve as my own promoter for my tours and gigs. That means that all the responsibilities are down to me. So what keeps me awake at night is wondering whether I’m doing enough to let people know that I have a new album coming out, and that I have a tour coming up in April.
The other thing is that I have a little dog called Lola – she’s from the Czech Republic and she only weighs about four pounds. I live in a semi-rural part of New York State – about an hour north of New York City.
I worry that some kind of bird of prey, like a red-tailed hawk, will swoop down, see little Lola and think ‘what a tasty little snack.’ I’m always out in the backyard with an air horn to distract the hawks. So far it’s worked out okay.
Dean Friedman’s new album, American Lullaby, is released on August 27, on his Real Life Records label.
Now, five years later, he’s been busy in his basement again, working on his latest album, Journey To The Sun, which is his twelfth, and the follow-up to last year’s sublime King Of Madrid. Written and recorded during lockdown, it’s a more sparse and stripped-down sounding set than his last few releases – gorgeous, haunting and folky, but with some vintage electronica sounds and even a couple of spacey sci-fi instrumentals. Yes – that’s right, Americana fans, don’t choke on your pale ale, but there’s a lot of synth on this record…
Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, is an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno; the lovely Lucifer Morning Star has warm, burbling synths and chiming 12-string guitar, while Heart of Straw is classic Bruntnell – an aching, acoustic, country-tinged ballad – and recent single, You’d Make A Great Widow, is laced with his trademark wry humour and melancholy, but wrapped up in one of the prettiest melodies you’re likely to hear all year.
Some of the songs were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie, while US musician and mastering engineer, Peter Linnane, lays down some Hammond and pump organ, concertina, Mellotron and piano, and Iain Sloan plays pedal steel guitar on the track Dharma Liar.
‘Americana fans, don’t choke on your pale ale, but there’s a lot of synth on this record…’
“I felt like I wanted to make more of a solo record, which just so happened to coincide with the pandemic,” says Bruntnell. “That meant more acoustic guitar, and I bought a bouzouki in March last year, which really was a catalyst for quite a few songs being written in a very short timeframe. Oh, and I got a drum machine and a new synthesiser too.”
So is he going through an electro phase? We spoke to him to find out…
How have you coped during the past year and a bit? Has it been tough making a living as a musician?
Peter Bruntnell: At first it was tough, but then I started doing a live stream every Thursday, which seemed to go quite well, so that was one gig to look forward to each week – once I got used to it. Oh, and then I started writing, and before I knew it, I’d written an album’s worth of stuff.
Did Covid affect your plans to make the new album?
PB: Well, it just meant that I had to record and produce it all myself, but that sort of suited the vibe of the songs.
‘Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, is an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno’
You recorded and self-produced the album at your home, in Devon, where you have a basement studio. Peter Linnane, who plays keyboards on the record, and is based in Boston, sent you his parts, didn’t he?
PB: Yeah – I sent the first song to Pete, to ask him if the light compression I had on the mix was okay for the mastering job. He came back to me saying it was fine, and he sent some pump organ and concertina parts, in case I might like to mix them in. I had a listen and liked all his parts, so I kept them, and that became the pattern for nearly every song thereafter.
Let’s talk about the sound of the record – it’s more stripped-down than some of your last few albums, with acoustic guitar, bouzouki, keys – organ, synth, Mellotron – and a drum machine. Did you set out to make a ‘back to basics’ album? Was it a reaction to your last couple, which have had more jangly, electric guitar and a fuller band sound?
PB: I did feel like I wanted to make more of a solo record, which just so happened to coincide with the pandemic. That meant more acoustic guitar, and I bought a bouzouki in March last year, which really was a catalyst for quite a few songs being written in a very short timeframe. Oh, and I had bought a drum machine and a new synthesiser too.
What inspired the album, musically?
PB: Apart from a bit of Brian Eno, I’m not sure what other influences directly inspired the songs. Maybe some Brian Wilson…
What about the synth? Are you going through a Kraftwerk, or Bowie Low phase, or doing a Neil Young Trans?
PB: Sort of. I’d been listening to Another Green World by Eno and had been thinking about doing some more ‘electro’-style stuff for a while now, so it all just fell into place. And Low has been one of my favourite records for years.
Tell me about the bouzouki? Is there a story behind it?
PB: I bought it hoping it would inspire some songwriting, which it did. Because I don’t know how to play one, it forced me to be more experimental than when I write on a guitar.
What can you tell me about the first song on the album, Dandelion, which is one of my favourites on the record? I love the arrangement – it has a haunting, folky feel, but with some lap steel on it, too. It’s a very striking and atmospheric song…
PB: It was written on the bouzouki and was maybe the first one. It has atmosphere, with just vocals and bouzouki, so I didn’t have to think too hard about its production. I have a piano in the hall which I can’t play that well, but for sparse two or three finger chords it sounds great.
Lucifer Morning Star is another one of my favourites on the album. What can you tell me about that song? It’s a lovely track…
PB: Thanks. It’s one of my favourites for some reason too. Bill Ritchie came up with most of those lyrics. It was the last song written – maybe the feel of the record was already established, so I kept it similar when arranging the parts for it.
‘I’d been listening to Another Green World by Eno and thinking about doing some ‘electro’-style stuff for a while, so it all just fell into place’
You’ve done a great cover of the traditional folk song Wild Mountain Thyme on the record. What prompted that and why did you include it?
PB: I recorded it about five years ago, because I love the song and wanted to keep busy recording. It seemed to fit among these new songs, so it made the album.
Your last album, King of Madrid, had a song called Widows Walk on it and this record has You’d Make A Great Widow. Are you now intending to have one widow-themed track on each record?
PB: Hah! No – that’s just a coincidence. My wife was talking one day about what would happen if I died and jokingly said, “I’d make a great widow”. That’s where the idea came from.
There’s a great video for the song, in which you get to play a zombie. How did that come about?
PB: I thought it would be fun to get loads of ‘widows’ in it, so I wrote a post on Facebook to see if people would film themselves miming to one of my songs, and I got a great response. And then the ghost and zombie idea just came to me.
Heart of Straw is a gorgeous track. Where did that one come from, and why did you decide to use a line from it as the title of the album?
PB: It’s another anti-government song – yawn. I just stumbled around until I found the right words. It could easily be Etonian rather than Utopian, and ‘Head of Straw’ rather than ‘Heart’. I was just looking for an album title that I liked the sound of and ‘journey to the sun’ seemed like a good idea at the time.
‘Lockdown meant that I focused on writing more than normal, as there wasn’t much else to do’
The album feels melancholy and reflective, with themes of loss, longing, regret and death. Do you think the Covid crisis affected the songwriting lyrically and also the mood of the record?
PB: Maybe – it’s difficult to say. Lockdown meant that I did focus on writing more than normal, as there wasn’t much else to do. I wasn’t really expecting to have an album written and recorded by the end of the year.
You’ve recorded some instrumentals for the album – the spacey The Antwerp Effect and Moon Committee. I think they sound like incidental music from a ‘70s sci-fi TV show, or a film soundtrack. Would you ever consider making an instrumental record, or writing and recording a soundtrack?
PB: Yes – I’d like to do more. I might go more ‘electro’ for the next album. I really don’t know yet…
‘I wasn’t really expecting to have an album written and recorded by the end of the year’
What was your lockdown soundtrack and what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
PB: Over lockdown I watched more TV than listening to music – all the usual stuff, like Netflix, etc. I have an Alex Chilton live in Baton Rouge album in my car at the moment, along with Jordan the Comeback by Prefab Sprout.
What are your plans for the rest of the year, now things are slowly returning to some kind of ‘normal?’
PB: To play live as much as I can and travel – even if it’s in the UK.
On that note, when all travel restrictions are lifted, and you’re allowed to take a ‘journey to the sun’, where would be your ideal destination – and why?
PB: Italy, Spain or France – anywhere in Europe would be great. I love Europe and hate Brexit!
Journey To The Sunis released on June 11 (Domestico Records). You can pre-order a signed copy here.
Straight Songs of Sorrow by US singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) was our favourite album of 2020.
His twelfth solo record, it served as a companion piece to the gravel-voiced grunge survivor’s autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, which also came out last year.
The book, described as ‘a brutal, nerve-shredding read, recounting his journey from his troubled youth in eastern Washington, through his drug-stained existence amid the ’90s Seattle rock scene to an unlikely salvation at the dawn of the 21st century’ was brilliant – often harrowing and painfully honest, but shot through with black humour.
Its accompanying soundtrack, Straight Songs of Sorrow, was one of the best – and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made.
Reviewing it last year, we said: ‘It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues sounds of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases. Like the book, the shadow of death hangs over these songs, and there’s plenty of drugs and [self] destruction thrown in for good measure too.’
Earlier this month, via social media, we contacted Lanegan, who’s recently relocated from his home in L.A. to live in Ireland, told him we’d chosen Straight Songs of Sorrow as our best album of last year, and asked if we could interview him. A day or so later, he dropped us a line and told us to send him some questions.
So here’s our exclusive chat – a no-holds-barred interview in which we cover a lot of ground, including his thoughts on the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown, the future of live music, collaborating with other artists and his approach to songwriting. He also gave us an update on some of his future projects.
“I am most settled when I’m unsettled,” he tells us… so settle down and enjoy our one-on-one encounter with Dark Mark.
How’s it going? How are you coping with the Covid crisis and lockdown? What kind of frame of mind are you in at the moment?
Mark Lanegan: I can’t complain. What can you do when shit is out of your control, except roll with the punches? My frame of mind is a surprisingly good one, given the global situation. I’m taking this time of enforced lockdown to get work done, which is what I enjoy most anyway. I am someone who has historically thrived in isolation.
As a professional musician, you’re used to being on the road a hell of a lot. What effect has Covid had on you? How was 2020?
ML: 2020 was the slowest year in my adult life – by a thousand miles. That’s one of the very few reasons why I appreciated it. When you are my age, the years just fly by, and, for me, 2020 stopped time.
Are you worried about the future of live music? What needs to be done to address the situation? What are your hopes and fears for gigs and the year ahead?
ML: Well, it goes without saying that I would like to be on the road. That’s been the lifeblood of my existence for 30-plus years and I don’t want to stop moving now. Never mind the fact that nearly all of my meaningful income is from live shows. But honestly, if I’m concerned about anything, it’s how this thing is going to impact society as a whole. Might this possibly be that moment in history where a giant global crisis is the excuse for the powers that be to finally eradicate civil rights and personal freedoms? Governments love, and have been known to create, such opportunities. I think that’s what people should be keeping an eye on, not when they can get back to normal. Because let’s face it, things might likely never be ‘normal’ again.
‘Might this possibly be that moment in history where a giant global crisis is the excuse for the powers that be to finally eradicate civil rights and personal freedoms? Governments love, and have been known to create, such opportunities’
You recently relocated from L.A. to Ireland. What prompted the move and how are you settling in? What effect has it had on you?
ML: Well, I’ve been to Ireland many times and I’d thought about moving here for years, but some commitment or another always prevented it. When it became obvious that I would not be allowed to work as I am accustomed to for an indefinite period of time, it became the ideal window for other change as well.
Has moving to Ireland inspired you musically?
ML: I don’t really need inspiration to write music, or anything else really. It’s something I’m hardwired to do. Like breathing or fucking.
Whereabouts in Ireland are you living and what’s it like?
ML: I’m in County Kerry and it’s as physically stunning a place as I’ve ever been. More so probably, but it’s the people here who make it so great. They are the best.
‘I don’t really need inspiration to write music, or anything else really. It’s something I’m hardwired to do. Like breathing or fucking’
Have you moved all your possessions and your studio etc. to Ireland, or did you just up and leave?
ML: I came with the three 70 pound bags that my frequent flyer status on United allowed. I had one bag of clothes and two bags of recording equipment, small synths and drum machines. Everything else I left in storage in California. I’m renting at the moment, waiting to get into this house I’m trying for, and if that happens I suppose I’ll get my stuff shipped over in a container. But I’d just as soon start again anyway. You don’t own things – they own you.
You’re a very prolific songwriter and artist. In the past four years, you’ve released three studio albums, a Christmas album – half of which was new recordings – and a remix album, plus you’ve collaborated with Duke Garwood on the record With Animals, and you’ve worked with other artists, like Humanist, as well as touring the world. Are you a workaholic? Do you constantly write and think about your next musical projects?
ML: I am most settled when I’m unsettled, so to speak, and there is something about being in a constant state of creation that keeps me engaged with life on a level that nothing else does, so I keep working. Most people never even get the opportunity to find out what it is they truly love. Most people are locked into a job they either hate, or simply tolerate, so they can keep eating and have a place to stay those few hours they’re not at the job.
I have been incredibly blessed to live the life I have and I feel like I would be pissing on that gift if I didn’t work everyday. And I only call it ‘work’ for the sake of answering this question. For me it’s something else altogether.
What’s your songwriting process like? How does stuff come to you? Which instruments do you write on and do you write music or lyrics first, or does it differ?
ML: I’ve only known two people whose music I love that take words written previously and then make them fit a piece of music. Simon Bonney, [Crime & the City Solution] who I consider to be one of the all-time greats as far as voice, phrasing, melody and lyrics, which in my opinion are the four keys to a great singer, and my 15-year- old nephew, David, who is advanced to a degree I never got until my forties. So I guess what I’m saying is, in my experience, it takes a genius, or someone who has developed in a different way than most guys I know, to write words first.
‘Most people never get the opportunity to find out what it is they truly love. I have been incredibly blessed to live the life I have and I feel like I would be pissing on that gift if I didn’t work everyday’
I make a melodic/rudimentary lyric map by instinct the first time I am hearing a piece of music I’m supposed to be writing, either for someone else or myself, and then I fill the words in later. It’s the music and the melody map, plus whatever words I might throw into that first round off the top of my head that indicate to me what the next words should be, and so on. My method is far from scientific – it’s more like building a fence.
You’ve collaborated with so many great artists. How do you choose who you work with and do you have any favourite collaborations? Which are you most proud of?
ML: I’m proud of every collaboration I’ve been a part of, because I have been blessed to have made music with so many artists whose work I admire, either for them, or myself.
For a guy like me who came into music by accident and who is still one of the least musically proficient musicians around, I have had incredible good luck. And my only criteria for doing something is: ‘can I get it done in the time frame required, is it something I can do to a degree of self-satisfaction and to the satisfaction of whoever it’s for, or is it outside my comfort zone and challenging?’
‘I often turn things down if what they want is a boring, rote performance. People who can’t see past the basement floor deserve to be enlightened. That low, low voice is old hat and so uninteresting. I can actually sing, if anyone wants to know’
I always say “yes” to things I initially perceive as outside my box because that is the shit I really get off on. I often turn things down if what they want is a boring, rote performance in what some people think of as my most compelling voice. But when I am asked to sing something in my lowest, low baritone I either turn it down, or do it how I think it should be done. I then give it back and come up with a reason why I can’t redo it. People who can’t see past the basement floor deserve to be enlightened. That low, low voice is old hat and so uninteresting. I can actually sing, if anyone wants to know.
Is there anyone you’d like to work with? Who would be your dream collaborator?
ML: Brian Eno. The same answer I always give to this question.
Straight Songs of Sorrow was my favourite album of last year. I gave it some very favourable reviews. I think it’s your masterpiece. How do you feel the record was received?
ML: I usually don’t pay too close attention to how a record is received because it’s really none of my business.
The only reason I really give a damn if anyone enjoys what I do is in how it impacts my ability to make another one.
What I’m saying is that because I am being given money to make these records and a large part of my personal income is a result of the music, it’s not a bad thing if a certain percentage of people who hear it connect to a degree where they are willing to put down cash to buy the next thing, or to come to a show, because that is what ultimately allows my continued existence as a pretend artist on this plane.
How did you approach Straight Songs of Sorrow? Did all the songs come quite naturally to you once you’d written your book? What was the writing and recording process like?
ML: It was all done extremely fast because it didn’t even hit my radar until a month before my previous record was to be released, and I was booked on a three-month tour for that. Jeff Barrett, the boss at Heavenly, [record company] dreamed it up and once I had agreed, it had to be done before I left on that tour, if it was going to come out around the same time as the book it was meant to be a companion piece to. Luckily I had already been writing, playing and recording songs myself that were influenced by the sort of brutal experience of writing the book, so I had a lot of the bones of the album already recorded.
Which was more cathartic – making the album, or writing the book?
ML: I don’t know if I’ve received catharsis from anything I’ve done. For me, more often the process of creating does the opposite – it brings shit out into the light I would rather not think about. But that’s the price you gotta pay I guess.
Some of the songs on your last album, and parts of your book, are very dark and harrowing. What was it like going back to those dark places?
ML: Not great, as you might imagine. As a rule I try to stay in the here and now, not looking back or future-tripping. I feel as though that’s been one of the keys to my survival.
By its nature that kind of book requires a shitload of backtracking and with it came a lot of grief, pain and self-reflection over things I had never thought about once they were done. I have pretty fierce powers of denial, but faced on a daily basis with things I had done, people I’d hurt, friends no longer here, youthful trauma, generational sickness, damage, all that, it almost buried me. I’m not gonna lie. I would never do it again.
‘I don’t know if I’ve received catharsis from anything I’ve done. For me, more often the process of creating does the opposite – it brings shit out into the light I would rather not think about. But that’s the price you gotta pay I guess’
Straight Songs of Sorrow is a very eclectic album – more so than your previous two records, Gargoyle and Somebody’s Knocking, which were mostly more electronic-based/ influenced. Was that intentional, or did it come about quite organically?
ML: I had started writing on an acoustic guitar for some of the songs, which was something I’d not done in quite a while. One of the things asked of me for this record was that I try to incorporate elements of my early Sub Pop records into it. So it ended up being sort of a combo of those old records and the records I make today. People are forever saying I should make acoustic records again and I find that to be a bit sad and short-sighted. Imagine how fucking boring your life would be if you only ever got to do the very first thing you ever did and never progressed beyond that? That would be like being Chubby Checker and only ever playing The Twist. Fuck that, thank you very much.
I really enjoyed your Black Phoebe 12in EP, which came out last year – it was a collaboration with your wife, Shelley Brien. Can we expect an album? What’s it sounding like and when will it come out?
ML: Yes and it should be out next year, sounding like more of the same. Before that, Ecstatic records boss Alessio Natalizia – Not Waving – is putting out another version of the EP, all of it remixed by him. It’s rad.
‘People are forever saying I should make acoustic records again – I find that to be a bit sad and short-sighted. Imagine how fucking boring your life would be if you only ever got to do the very first thing you ever did and never progressed beyond that? That would be like being Chubby Checker and only ever playing The Twist. Fuck that’
What are your plans for 2021? Are you working on a new solo record? What’s inspiring you?
ML: My plans are to finish the novel I’m working on and finish a book of uncollected poetry, writings, drawings and ephemera that I’m currently doing, in addition to two other poetry books I’ve finished this month. One is out next month, the other later this year.
My friend Wesley Eisold, of Cold Cave and American Nightmare fame, is the guy who encouraged me to start writing poetry. His publishing house, Heartworm Press, is putting out my next two books of poetry, in addition to the split book we did together last year, Plague Poems. When he first read these two new books, he rightly pointed out that in a way these were part two to the memoir.
‘I hope to start my own record in the summertime. I can’t say how it’s going to turn out, but I know how I’d like it to be, and that’s as fucked up as possible’
Poetry can be just as revealing as bio stuff but way more beautiful and mysterious, which is the kind of thing I most like to read, listen to in music, and write and record myself when I am able to. I’m working on a couple of records right now, as well as Black Phoebe, and I hope to start my own record in the summertime. I can’t say how it’s going to turn out, but I know how I’d like it to be, and that’s as fucked up as possible.
Are there any more musical collaborations in the offing?
ML: Yes, I’m always doing stuff with and for other people – usually one or more tunes a week.
I really like the new single you’ve just made with Wax Tailor – aka French hip-hop producer Jean-Christophe Le Saoût – which is called Just A Candle. How did that collaboration come about and can you tell me something about the song?
ML: JC got hold of me via email and sent me an early version of the music. I sent him back something – I want to say that it was the same day. Then we met up when I was doing my last tour of France, hit it off and discussed the song, music and life in general.
Over the course of several months, maybe even a year, I continued to do different versions and try different things on the song. It might seem really straightforward when you hear it, but JC and I tried a truckload of different approaches and things to finally hit upon what you hear.
I really appreciate his artistry and attention to detail. It’s a pleasure to be involved in a process with someone who cares as much as I do about making music.
Thanks, Mark. Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
ML: Today I was listening to John J Presley and Fields of The Nephilim. Yesterday it was Iggy, Jim Ghedi and the From Brussels With Love comp. It’s always something – new, old, whatever.
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.”
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 Duskis 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.
New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom’s second solo album, Circles, is one of our favourite records of the year. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks has cranked up the guitars and embraced his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, power-pop and country rock.
Speaking from his New York apartment, which he describes as “a shoebox”, he says: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”
He’s certainly achieved his goal – recent single, the brilliant What’s The Over/Under?, is an infectious power-pop song – “I’ve never had too much of a handle on what I want until I fuck it up” – with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on its predecessor, the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom does his best Marc Bolan impression.
Circles is full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.
Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, has echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard is reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.
Winstrom, who is 37, also looks to the ’90s and early Noughties for inspiration – on the moving, cello-assisted ballad, I Walk In Circles, he channels Elliott Smith.
Two years in the making – writing and recording – Circles was produced by drummer Jeff Bills (The V-Roys and Steve Earle), who also worked on Winstrom’s debut album. The songs were committed to tape just before the coronavirus hit.
‘The world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one’
“We were lucky for sure – we were basically 99 percent done, so we were able to lean on some very talented friends with home studios to add the odd overdub here and there,” he says. “And engineers John Harvey and Mary Podio were super-savvy to invent a new workflow that let us finish mixing remotely.”
He adds: “We were really fortunate. I mean, obviously, the world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one.
“For my own sanity, I feel like I’ve been working up to this album my whole life. I’m 37 years old – it’s 37 minutes long. Coincidence? I think not. But I do feel like a good chunk of my lifetime is living in these songs. The highs, lows and in-betweens, to quote Townes Van Zandt. I hope folks dig it. I do.”
How are you doing? Congratulations on Circles – it’s a great record.
Jake Winstrom: I’m good – just chugging along and trying to stay safe, like everybody. Thanks so much. I’m very happy to hear you dig the record.
You’ve said that your first solo album, Scared Away The Song, had too many “singer songwriter” type songs on it and not enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock and roll tunes. With Circles, that’s not something you can be accused of. How did you approach this album?
JW: I definitely wanted to broaden the musical spectrum on this album. The last one, maybe due to time and cost constraints, ended up veering a bit too much toward what folks call “Americana”, I guess – lots of acoustic guitar-based, rootsy-sounding songs and what have you.
I had several more rock songs written for that record, including What’s The Over/Under? but we ran out of time on the day we tracked with a full band. So with this one we moved full band, electric songs to the top of the pile. And I wanted more moments of fun and levity in the songwriting. I think I had Bruce Springsteen’s The River in mind. What’s the saying? Shoot for the stars but settle for the moon? Hah. I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll.
How were the recording sessions? You worked with drummer / producer Jeff Bills again on this album. What did he bring to the process? Why do you like collaborating with him?
JW: The recording sessions were so much fun. I love recording and Jeff is just fantastic. He brings so much to the process. He has a real ear for songwriting and arranging.
I’d send him my four-track demos as soon as they were done and then we’d start ping-ponging arrangement ideas. And his production process is all about the song. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds on minute lyric edits and things like that. He really hammered this record into existence. He also has a great talent and Zen-like patience for mixing. Which I do not. Hah! So it’s a good musical marriage.
You have a great band on the album. How did you choose the musicians that you wanted to work with?
JW: We did have a truly great band for these sessions. Putting it together was easy – I just rang up my friends and they very graciously all said yes. On the last record, Jeff and I had kind of a rotating cast of musicians from song to song, depending on the sound we were going for. On this one I wanted more cohesion, but we didn’t have time to rehearse.
I knew we’d need a versatile group that could hammer out arrangements on the fly. We ended up with a veritable wrecking crew: Jeff on drums, Peggy Hambright on keys, Dave Nichols on bass, Greg Horne and George Middlebrooks on guitar, and Jeff Caudil on backing vocals. That’s some serious muscle.
Some of the takes are live, aren’t they? Do you normally record that way? My Hiding Place was done in one take, wasn’t it?
JW: Everything started with us playing a song three or four times to get a good live take. My Hiding Place was one where it all just kinda fell into place in the room – even the vocal. I think it must’ve been the mood lighting in Scott Minor’s studio. Hah.
‘The studio where we recorded half a dozen songs is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic’
Where did you make the album?
JW: We did it in Knoxville [Tennessee], with the exception of some vocals recorded in Brooklyn. We started at Scott Minor’s Wild Chorus studio, early last year. We recorded half a dozen songs there. The studio is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic. I wanted to record there because one of my favourite bands, Count This Penny, did their absolutely gorgeous album A Losing Match there.
It had a live room with no dividers between the guitar amps and drums, which made Jeff a little nervous, but I loved it. To quote the Rolling Stones – let it bleed! A little Telecaster in the cymbal track never hurt anyone. And that’s where My Hiding Place was recorded. It definitely has that room’s stamp on it.
We recorded the second batch of songs at Top Hat Recording [in Knoxville] last fall. The engineers are a super-sweet married couple – John Harvey and Mary Podio – who built a house with their dream studio inside. It’s a fabulous, comfy place to hunker down and make a racket. We mixed the entire thing there too. We still had six songs to mix when lockdown hit, but John and Mary were very savvy and invented a new workflow that allowed us to finish things up. They’re really smart, great people.
Luckily, you pretty much finished the album prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. How was isolation for you? Did you write any new songs during lockdown? Did it inspire you?
JW: It’s been fine for me. I’m thankful to still be gainfully employed. I guess I’ve mostly been entertaining myself by getting this record finished and out into the world. So after September 25 [album release date] it’s time to find a new hobby!
I’ve written a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found it to be a particularly inspiring time. I miss hearing snippets of subway conversations and weird one-sided cell phone arguments while walking down the sidewalk.
You’ve relocated from Knoxville, Tennessee to New York? How’s that? Do you like living in New York? How has it influenced your writing and music?
JW: I love New York! I’ve been here for eight years now, I think. I reckon once I hit the decade mark I’ll be ‘official’. Hah. I like to think about songs while I’m walking, so New York is perfect for that. You can get into kind of an unconscious rhythm zigzagging through neighbourhoods while turning things over in your mind. I remember coming up with What’s The Over/Under? and My Hiding Place while making my way through the East Village.
What’s The Over / Under? is one of my favourite songs on the record. What can you tell me about the track? It’s a great power-pop song, with a killer chorus, Rickenbackers and horns.
JW: I think I was in a hardcore Buddy Holly phase when I wrote that. I wanted to write lots of strummy, propulsive, open chord songs without too many minor chords. It’s easy to disappear down the minor chord rabbit hole sometimes. I remember coming up with the chorus, then having to Google what “over/under” actually meant. I don’t do sports betting or anything. It’s funny the things that tumble out of your subconscious mind sometimes…
The first single, Come To Texas She Said, reminds me of T-Rex – it’s a glam-rock-country-boogie!
JW: Hah – that’s awesome! “Glam-rock-country-boogie” sounds like my ideal genre. I was ruminating on the title Come To Texas She Said for a while. And once I kinda broke the verse melody everything else fell into place. It’s a song that’s gotten a big reaction live since I started playing it a year or so ago.
Jeff and I had many conversations about the arrangement. He actually went rogue – as he is wont to do – and initially produced a whole different version from his home studio, overdubbed on top of my four-track demo. It was actually really cool. The track included a mini V-Roys reunion, with Paxton Sellers laying down a groovy walking bass part. It had horns too. But ultimately we felt it was too Americana-y. Too much like the last record. I wanted to let it rip.
We recorded what became the album version during the Top Hat sessions. Dave Nichols’s elastic bass line really makes it for me. And Peggy Hambright’s call-and-response electric piano is so great – it reminds me a little bit of Harry Nilsson’s records.
‘I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-’70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma’
There are several classic rock ‘n’ roll influences on the album. Think Too Hard reminds me of The Beatles, Revolver-era, Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror has a Tom Petty / Springsteen feel, and My Hiding Place and Kilimanjaro have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe. Are those artists all big influences on you? What were your musical reference points for this record?
JW: Wow, thank you – that’s extremely high praise. Yes – I love everyone you just mentioned. I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-‘70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma. And I think Peggy channelled a little E Street magic with her organ part on Loose Change, so those were all reference points I had in mind.
It’s funny, though – Jeff absolutely hates it when I say something like “hey, why don’t we try playing this song like Tom Petty, or The Bangles, or Syd Straw?” He’ll really flip his shit! He thinks bringing up musical reference points cheapens the creative process or something. He’s a purist I guess – hah. So I have to go and whisper those ideas to the rest of the band when he’s not paying attention…
I Walk In Circles has an Elliott Smith feel, doesn’t it? Are you a big fan?
JW: It does. I was trying to emulate his kind of hushed, double-tracked vocals. His records are so beautifully crafted. I actually came to his music late. I saw one of my favourite artists, Marika Hackman, cover his song Between The Bars when her tour came through Brooklyn last year, and that kind of set me off on an Elliott Smith tangent.
Some of your songs have a country influence. Did you grow up with country music in Tennessee? What were your influences when you were younger?
JW: Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.
I think during my sophomore year I picked up Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road at the Disc Exchange and fell in love with everything about it – the songs and the sound, which actually has some Beatles-y touches, thanks to the Twangtrust production. That led me to Lucinda co-conspirator and Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris, as well as The V-Roys.
Then it was down the yellow brick road to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and on and on and on.
‘Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.’
What’s your songwriting process?
JW: Songwriting for me almost always begins with improvising – picking up a guitar and strumming/singing while I walk around the apartment. Maybe getting the gears moving by playing someone else’s songs and then seeing if I can hit on a melody or chord change that peaks my interest.
Those ideas will usually live in my iPhone audio notes for a while, waiting for words to flesh them out. That’s when I find it helps to walk around the block and get a change of scenery. Anything to trick myself into not thinking! Staring at a blank page isn’t the way to do it – at least not for me.
Are you hoping to play live when things get back to normal?
JW: I hope so. I’ve had offers to do outside things during the pandemic, but it’s just so dicey, safety-wise. Plus a lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play, so I’m basically a public safety risk! We’ll definitely do something once life gets back to normal. It would be fun to play the record in sequence. Of course, by the time it’s safe to do that, I’m sure I’ll be on to the next album.
‘A lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play live, so I’m basically a public safety risk!’
How hard has it been as a musician being unable to play gigs to promote your new record? Are you worried about the future of the live music scene?
JW: I’m lucky in that I have a day job. I’m gutted for my friends that make their living playing music. It’s a really brave, hard life. And then to have the rug yanked out from under you by this…
Yeah – I’m really worried for the small venues. The sweaty little clubs that are so important for artists honing their craft. I’m terrified that by 2022 all the ones here in New York are going to be replaced by Chase Banks and Chipotles. And watching concerts on Zoom and Instagram Live ain’t gonna cut it. The pandemic has proven that much.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
JW: Stay vertical! I hope to venture down to Tennessee to spend Christmas with my family. We’ll see what the state of the world is by then. Fingers crossed.
Can you recommend some music – new and old? What are you into at the moment?
JW: Ooooh – let’s see. X’s new album Alphabetland is frenetic and fabulous. Girl Friday, this L.A. band I saw last year and fell in love with, just put out their first LP, Androgynous Mary. It’s a total blast. Great harmony singing and fiery guitar playing with stellar songwriting and arrangements that twist and turn. I’ve also had the new Haim record on repeat since it came out this summer.
As far as oldies, Fire On The Bayou by The Meters has found its way back to my turntable many times this summer. I’ve also been digging into Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love album, which includes several Elvis Costello covers.
Finally, have you heard Nick Piunti, who’s a power-pop singer-songwriter from Detroit? Your music often reminds me of his – I think you’d like him. I’m going to recommend that he checks you out. Have a listen to this:
JW: I haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation. I really dig this song! It reminds me a bit of Cheap Trick, in the best way. Total melodic confidence and barnstorming guitars.
Circles by Jake Winstrom is released on September 25 – it’s available on streaming and download services, as well as vinyl.
Emma Swift’s new album of Bob Dylan reinterpretations, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, is one of the best covers records we’ve ever heard.
The Australian-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter has put her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she’s remained reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.
“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”
Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.
She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
Swift even reinterprets one of the songs from Dylan’s latest record, Rough and Rowdy Ways, on hers – the reflective and stately ballad I Contain Multitudes. Her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.
“Like many of the great Bob Dylan songs, I Contain Multitudes is a magnet, a fly’s eye view of the cultural miasma in which we wander,” says Swift. “It’s magnificent and heartbreaking – a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and all that might be redeemed. To me this song has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”
Blonde On The Tracks is a record that was born out of crisis, as Swift explains: “The idea for the album came about during a long depressive phase – the kind where it’s hard to get out of bed and get dressed and present [yourself] to the world as a high-functioning human. I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively.”
She adds: “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but this period was especially wordless. Sad, listless and desperate, I began singing Bob Dylan songs as a way to have something to wake up for.”
Work on the album began at Magnetic Sound Studio, Nashville, in 2017, but it was the Covid-19 lockdown that brought the rest of the project to fruition. Swift worked with Sansone over email to polish up the six songs that had already been recorded, but her versions of I Contain Multitudes and Simple Twist of Fate were laid down in April and May this year, at home, and overdubbed via correspondence.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Swift during lockdown in Nashville, to find out why Dylan’s music means so much to her, why Blonde On The Tracks, which can be purchased via Bandcamp and from record stores, won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites, and her plans for her new independent label Tiny Ghost Records.
How has lockdown in Nashville been for you? How have you coped – both personally and professionally?
Emma Swift: I have been in lockdown and haven’t left the house since the beginning of March, so although I am technically in Nashville, it feels, in a way, like I am on an island. I don’t see any of my friends or colleagues or even venture to the supermarket. All communication – for food, for friendship and for work – has been done online and it’s definitely weird.
The idea of “coping” is one I struggle with because, in many ways, we’re still deep in this Covid experience, so it’s hard for me to have perspective on it. Am I coping? I don’t know. Right now, the virus is worse than it’s ever been in Tennessee. Each day brings new challenges. On the one hand, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work from home, on the other, my primary source of income is as a touring musician and all that work is not going to return for a long time, so that weighs heavy on my mind. I am constantly seeking distractions. I read a lot.
I have insane, one-way conversations with my cat [Ringo]. “Who’s a good boy? Yes, Ringo’s a good boy! Oh, Ringo you’re such a good boy. Ringo have I ever told you what a good boy you are? Look at your little face! You’re such a good boy.” There’s a lot of that.
How did you first get into Dylan’s music and what does it mean to you?
ES: I’m not from the generation that grew up when Dylan began making records, so for many years most of my discoveries were made well after that – through albums I bought at record fairs and charity stores and songs I heard on the radio. My first memory of hearing a Bob Dylan song is The Byrds version of Mr Tambourine Man, which got played a lot on the golden oldies station I listened to as a kid.
I can remember watching clips of the Traveling Wilburys on music TV – I adored Handle With Care, though Roy Orbison was the one I was drawn to at the time. My first Dylan album was Blonde on Blonde, which I must have acquired when I was 17 or 18. I’ve been under the sweet, sorrowful spell of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ever since. My love of the artists that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t exclusive to Bob Dylan though. I’m just as influenced by Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Gene Clark and Lou Reed to name a few. I’m a kid of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m quite old-fashioned really.
You’ve recorded a version of I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t it brave to tackle a brand new Dylan song?
ES:It didn’t feel brave to me – it just felt like a song I was utterly magnetised by and compelled to do. For me, it’s a love song to all that is great about music and art and poetry. It’s a confession, a hymn, a celebration. Like many of the Dylan songs I am drawn to, it’s a little bit funny and a little bit sad. I laughed out loud the first time I heard him sing: “I paint landscapes/ And I paint nudes.”
As for my interpretation of it, it’s very lo-fi. It was recorded in the lounge room at my place on a Zoom recorder, with Robyn Hitchcock on guitar, and then sent to my producer, Patrick Sansone, for overdubs. Patrick’s a brilliant man who can do a lot with not very much. I’m lucky to know him.
Interestingly, on your versions of the songs, you haven’t changed any of Dylan’s lyrics to make them sound like they’re being sung from a woman’s point of view. What was your thinking behind that?
ES:They are being sung from a woman’s point of view – mine. I just haven’t changed any of the gender pronouns to make it sound like it’s coming from a heteronormative context. It’s not how I view the world.
You’ve said that you can learn a lot about melody by singing someone’s else’s songs? Can you elaborate on that? What has making this album taught you?
ES: I’m pleased that the record is coming out because historically it hasn’t always been easy for me to put music out. I can be apprehensive. I can be scared. I can be very self-critical. People can be brutal. And you have to feel safe enough in yourself to be able to say, ‘I like it and no-one else’s opinion matters’, to be able to release music. It took me a while to get to that point.
As for learning about melody, every time I put a record on I become a student. My ears are primed. For that matter you can learn a lot about harmony too, if you let the recording take the lead and try to find a different part.
Which other singers / artists do you admire, other than Dylan? Who inspires you?
ES:Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power, Sandy Denny, Nick Cave, Billie Holiday, David Berman, Robyn Hitchcock, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, Patti Smith, Johnny Marr. Even though it’s music, I guess what inspires me musically is artists who really love words. Artists who read books. Artists who care about the world.
Am I right in thinking Blonde On The Tracks won’t be available to stream on Spotify and other digital music sites? You have strong views on streaming and royalties / payments to artists, don’t you?
ES: Blonde On The Tracks is available as a digital download, vinyl, CD and cassette. I’m selling it through Bandcamp online and it has distribution, so folks will be able to go and pick it up from their favourite local record store as well. There’s never been a better time to support small business.
You are right, I’ve been quite outspoken online about wage exploitation from mainstream streaming services. I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that these outlets are good for “exposure”, while some of the best musicians I know find themselves now out of a job due to Covid-19. You can’t eat exposure! You can’t pay your rent with exposure. It’s just another bullshit argument for trickle-down economics – an argument which fails to take into account that the music industry is bigger than its bigger name stars.
‘I’m tired of corporate music companies spinning a line that mainstream streaming services are good outlets are good for “exposure.” You can’t eat exposure!’
What’s the latest on your planned album of original songs, Slow Dancing With Ghosts? Have you been writing any new material? Is there another record in the offing?
ES:Slow Dancing With Ghosts is all set for release in January 2022. I have recorded eight songs so far, but they are not quite finished as all the overdub sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19. There are some really lovely people playing on this record. I’m pleased to say that once my depression lifted I was able to write new songs, and that will be what is on offer here.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently and how do you listen to it?
ES: I listen to music through digital downloads, the Bandcamp streaming app, vinyl and CD. Though it’s been brutal on other fronts, 2020 has been a great year for new music and I’ve been enjoying the recent albums from Marchelle Bradanini, Luke Schneider and Becca Mancari.
I just bought the Prince Sign o’ The Times 7in singles collection that Third Man is releasing and I’m excited about that. And I’ve got the new Dylan album, plus quite a large vinyl collection that goes back decades. I come back to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira probably more than any other record.
What are your plans for the rest of the year when things get back to normal?
ES: I have big plans to play this album – and my own new songs – live. I’m just not sure when it will be safe for me to make that happen.
You’ve started your own label,Tiny Ghost Records. Any plans to sign any other artists to it and put out their records?
ES: One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence. I couldn’t find a record label in 2020 that was artist-friendly enough for me. Even the cool ones are still in bed with the streaming services, so that wasn’t really an option. The new Robyn Hitchcock album will come out on Tiny Ghost in 2021. I’d love to sign other artists eventually, I just have to get the business off the ground first. I’d also encourage any artists who are looking for a label to consider starting their own. If it works for Gillian Welch and Courtney Barnett, it can work for you too.
‘One of the main reasons for starting Tiny Ghost Records was because I am a mouthy brat and I like my independence’
What are some of your favourite cover versions of Dylan songs?
ES:Okay so what’s wild here is that I could list versions of just one song and it would go on for pages. I could talk about Joan Baez’s Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind for days. Betty Lavette’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, particularly when sung live, is glorious. Robyn Hitchcock doing Visions of Johanna is pure heartbreak. I have to say, with this project, I couldn’t really listen to other people’s Dylan songs for a while because I needed to just be with the source material. I’m also not too interested in a rigid list of favourites – the list is ever changing.
Finally, did you ever think about calling the new album Blood On The Blonde? Maybe that could be your next record – reinterpretations of Dylan’s murder ballads?
ES: [laughs] No, I didn’t…
Blonde On The Tracks by Emma Swift is released on August 14 (Tiny Ghost Records).
RW Hedges (Roy Hedges) makes beautiful music that harks back to a golden age of songwriting and belongs in a different time and place.
His latest 7in vinyl EP, The Girl In The Story, out now on Wonderfulsound – includes three tracks taken from last year’s album, The Hills Are Old Songs, which was inspired by the American Old West and was one of our favourite records of 2019.
The title track of the EP is a lovely, timeless, acoustic-led ballad with a bossa nova feel, a twangy electric guitar solo and early Beatles harmonies, while Prairie Moon sounds like it’s from a classic Broadway musical set in the Wild West, and Trail of the Setting Sun is an atmospheric and cinematic instrumental that doffs a cowboy hat to the Spaghetti Western soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone, who died earlier this month.
Like cowboy campfire stories, The Hills Are Old Songs features a whole host of characters – alluring women, strangers with no names, outlaws and river boatmen of old Missouri.
A record that’s been lovingly crafted by Roy and his co-writer, producer, musical partner and label mate, Luca Neiri, it’s the follow-up to the 2018 album, The Hunters In The Snow, which was a more melancholy and personal collection of songs, autumnal and perfectly suited to late-night listening.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Roy and Luca to find out about their relationship, the art of songwriting and their influences and inspirations.
How did you two first meet?
Luca Neiri: We went to the same school – we did art and drama together when we were teenagers.
Roy Hedges: We were 13. Someone said to me, ‘there’s this new guy who is quite funny, he’s like you – I think you’d like him.’ I said, ‘what? I’m not happy about that.’ I met him and I thought he was fantastic! I can remember that day quite clearly.
LN: We ended up being in bands together – we had a band called Starky when we were 15. I moved away to Brighton to study fine art.
RH: Starky were the most famous band who were never famous – we were so famous that no one knew who we were. Sam Williams, who worked on I Should Coco for Supergrass, produced some of our stuff. People could see we were good…
After you went your separate ways, you both decided to work together again after a few years apart, didn’t you? How did you hook up?
LN: I was working with Colorama [Carwyn Ellis] – in the studio, doing production, and also doing The Monks Kitchen [London-based band]. Roy and I met up again in Hyde Park – I hadn’t seen him for about five years and I told him that I wanted to work with him again, to help him develop his songs. That was the beginning of The Hunters In The Snow.
RH: I was a bit shocked.
[To Roy]: Prior to working with Luca on your last two albums, you’d put out your debut record, Almanac, in 2008, and an EP called AHeart Broken, which was released in 2014…
RH: At the time of the first album I was listening to a lot of jangly, layered guitar music, like Buffalo Springfield and The Kinks. It’s somewhere between Scott Walker and The Beatles, but it’s also a bit of a bedroom record, with some Beck and Evan Dando influences. It’s a bit obvious, with riffs, but it’s done quite well, although some of it is too fast. Our production is a lot more gentle and considerate.
LN: At that time, you were still learning how to make records.
You record your music in your shed studio, which is in the back of beyond, in the Buckinghamshire countryside. What’s it like and how does it influence you?
RH: It’s on the site of a mini Victorian gardenette and it really helps us and the music that we record – it’s very beautiful.
LN: It’s like Watership Down.
RH: We’ve written an album of animal songs that we hope to put out in the future. Being in a place where you’re surrounded by animals, it can’t help but feed into the music.
LN: It’s inspiring.
RH: I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have. The only way I want to get prestige is in the music that Luca helps me to make. I don’t want to be regarded as someone who is up his own arse. Even though I’m outspoken, I have a tender centre and I need to be outside of that realm.
Do you write together or separately?
LN: A bit of both.
RH: We do work together… On The Hunters In The Snow, I wrote most of the lyrics.
LN: It was what he wanted to say, but what I wanted to play and produce. On the last record [The Hills Are Old Songs] we both wrote the lyrics. Roy would have an outline of an idea and then we’d have a conversation and try and get into the character and what he’s trying to say. He would be pacing up and down…
RH: He’s Richard Rodgers and I’m Larry Hart. One of our things is that ‘song is king’ – it’s a bit cheesy, but it makes sense for us. Those old songwriters bound their songs to their themes and characters. When Luca is producing, he answers to the song and so do I, when I’m writing a melody or a part that I think it needs. You have to constantly challenge yourself or each other, but in a gentle way.
LN: The first album we made together was more about Roy and his feelings…
RH: It was about my sadness.
LN:The Hills Are Old Songs was written from other people’s points of view – we took Roy’s character out of it.
‘I can’t live in a place like London – I had to get away from society. If you want to make music in London, it’s all about how much money and prestige you have’
How do you write songs? Do you sit down with an acoustic guitar?
RH: Nowadays I write in the shower, or when I’m on a bike or a bus.
Let’s talk about The Hills Are Old Songs. It was inspired by the Old West and cowboy ballads, but you’re also influenced by the Great American Songbook and old Broadway musicals, aren’t you? How did the concept for the album come about?
LN: It was happenstance, but I’d read books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. We’d also studied the music of Broadway and we’d watched Oklahoma! I had an idea about the Old West.
RH: In August 2018 I bought a book, in Devon – The Westerners, by Dee Brown, and I already had a book on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as well as Badmen of the West and The Oxford History of the American West. I suddenly realised I had all these books and it came together.
I like western noir and I also had an epiphany watching South Pacific. We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side of the West, like brutal hangings. We tried to put some of that into The Hills Are Old Songs – in the second song [Deep In The Valley] the protagonist is an outlaw who is killed by his father.
LN: On this album, we knew what were doing and where we were heading. We tried to make it like a soundtrack, as it had a theme – it has a soundscape element.
We were listening to a lot of Marty Robbins and people like that. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and quiet drums in the background – neat and simple. We took that on board. For me, as a player and a producer, I was thinking: ‘what are the pieces in the puzzle?’ There’s a framework that’s already there – country music – but we’re reupholstering it.
RH:Haven’t Seen Her In A While was recorded first – that gave us the vision – and My Dearest kept us going until the end.
We’ve made a playlist of songs that inspired the sound of The Hills Are Old Songs: Sam Cooke’s I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,I’ll Be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding…
‘We watched old ‘70s documentaries about the Old West – they had cheesy production values and lovely music that made you feel like you were riding in a wagon, but they also showed the darker side, like brutal hangings’
What is it about the Great American Songbook that inspires you?
RH: Yip Harburg was the guy who wrote the lyric for Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? He knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality – we like to think that we do too. It’s a fine balance between being sentimental and being cheesy and overly saccharine, or coming across as creepy or disingenuous. In that respect, our song Old Missouri was the hardest song to do, as I’m not a river boatman…
The worst thing about music these days is that it’s ego-based and no one is telling stories. In the modern world, everything is so complicated and everyone’s in such a rush. One of the most important things in songwriting is coherency – especially in lyrics. Nobody writes coherent lyrics [nowadays].
The Great American Songbook writers used to marry the lyrics together and the subject matter was things that human beings find eternally fascinating – like a city or a blue moon. Nowadays it’s ‘I have a feeling,’ and ‘I do this…’ I don’t care how they feel or give a fuck about what they had for breakfast! The problem is that nowadays we live in a time of individualism, whereas in those days [of the Great American Songbook], it was a time of collectivism – we need to return to a time of collectivism in order to progress.
[To Roy]: You also like doo-wop and old rhythm and blues music, don’t you?
RH: If Luca wasn’t producing some of my stuff, it would sound more like the Traveling Wilburys, but, thankfully, it sounds a little bit more like The Fleetwoods.
What other projects are you working on? What would you like to do in the future?
RH: We’ve been writing two other albums – one is an album of animal songs and the other is a love album. Hopefully Luca and I will write some songs that someone else will sing, rather than me – to send a nice song out there [to someone else] is such a nice goal. I want to be a songwriter more than I want to be anything else – I don’t see myself as a singer per se, I see myself as a songwriter.
I want to get my songs out there, but I want them to be understood in the right way. We can’t wait for the world to catch up – it has to catch up with us. We are a bit scruffy and rough around the edges, and we’re getting on a bit, but we really love doing music.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel his European and UK spring tour, Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger turned a negative situation into a positive one by hastily putting together a brand new, digital-only album called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it’s made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that he’d demoed and quickly forgotten about.
It’s a brilliant collection of intimate Americana and Dylanesque folk-blues tracks.
The loose, raw and lo-fi recordings really hang together well as an album, and, if anything, it demonstrates that Jerry’s discarded songs are better than many artists’ officially released ones.
In an exclusive interview from his apartment in Toronto, Jerry tells Say It With Garage Flowers how he pulled the album together so quickly, reveals details of a series of forthcoming online gigs streamed live on Facebook and suggests a suitable soundtrack for these days of isolation…
How’s it going? Are you safe? What’s the situation like in Toronto?
Jerry Leger: I’m well and doing what I can to stay safe and keep my distance during the handful of times I’ve had to leave my apartment. A state of emergency was announced in Toronto and everything is changing by the day – stores and other places are closing and there are more guidelines for what we need to do to protect ourselves and others. It’s a good thing to help us get through this as soon as possible.
Sadly the coronavirus has meant you’ve had to postpone your UK and European tour. How do you feel about that? What impact has it had on you financially?
JL: Well, it was a major blow, very disappointing and, as you can imagine, financially devastating. It’s being rescheduled for next spring – I’m hoping that things will have settled down by then. Of course, our health is the number one priority for all of us, but it is very stressful. You’re dealing with how the present has been affected and worrying about how the future looks.
After a few days I was able to calm my mind down a bit and not worry about things too far into the future. All it does is create more anxiety and I have enough of that already. The virus has put a lot of things into perspective for me. My girlfriend Laura has helped a lot and I’ve also been coping by staying busy and by thinking of creative things I can do from home.
I started the year off by catching up on a lot of reading and also writing more, so I’m gonna do more of that and get back to sketching, which I find stress relieving.
How are you coping with being indoors all the time?
JL: I’ve actually been enjoying it to some degree. I haven’t cracked up yet! After my big European and UK tour was postponed and Canadian dates were cancelled, the first few days of recommended isolation were spent dealing with that and what to do next.
I had started the year off writing a bunch of songs, but, of course, the pandemic put my creativity on hold. I’m easing back into the mindset for when the mood and inspiration strikes.
Can you recommend any songs for the period of isolation? What’s your soundtrack?
JL: I’ve had Gordon Lightfoot on – it’s comforting for me. It’s hard to say though, ‘cos I’m always listening to records if I’m home and now I’m home a lot, so a lot of records have been played.
I had Ray Charles, Irma Thomas and Kris Kristofferson on last night. For the first few days, I had a lot of Beatles and solo Beatles on, ‘cos I also find that comforting in moments of deep worry.
The first song I was ever obsessed with was In My Life, around the age of four. As I’m writing this, I have King Of America by Elvis Costello on.
Great choice! One of the positive things that’s emerged from the crisis is that you’ve released a new digital-only album, Songs From The Apartment, via Bandcamp. How did you manage to turn the project around so quickly?
JL: I thought it would be cool to release a surprise album and I had folders and folders of demos for songs that had never seen the light of day.
I think I needed a distraction last week after dealing with so much. I started listening to some of the tracks and heard a lot of merit in them. I also loved how relaxed, intimate and raw they were. I thought it was good timing, with a lot of us having to be indoors. We’re all in it together.
A fan sent me a message saying that he loved the sound of it – he said it sounded like I was right there in the room with him.
I put it together last Thursday [March 19] and chose 10 songs that I thought really worked. My buddy Aaron Comeau helped with EQing and doing the levels on them. The photo for the cover – by LPPhotographs – was one that I always loved. I always saw it as a cover and it worked perfectly ‘cos I’m sitting in my apartment with my acoustic guitar.The album is made up of unreleased songs you had lying around. Are there a lot of songs in your vaults? Was it easy to choose which songs to include?
JL: Yeah – there are a lot of songs that I have recorded in demo form and also some studio outtakes for that matter. I just write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere.
A bunch of the tunes I don’t even remember writing, which made it fun to listen to and put together. It also made it easier to choose certain ones ‘cos I’d have a less bias opinion coming back to them if they were good or not.
‘I write all of the time – I don’t hunker down and write the next album in a cabin somewhere’
I think they’re all from the period of 2015-2018, except Leaving Now, which is from 2013. There are some that stayed in the back of mind as being good, but I doubted I’d return to them for a future album ‘cos time changes that for me.
I’m more focused and excited about what I’m writing in the moment. This worked perfectly putting the collection together.
Your ‘lost’ songs are better than a lot of artists’ officially released songs, aren’t they?
JL: Well that’s a matter of opinion!
Songs From The Apartment is a lo-fi, stripped down album. How and where were the songs recorded?
JL: They were recorded in my apartment on just a little recorder with an internal microphone. Very rough. They were all songs that were demoed and either not chosen to go into the studio with, or tried in the studio but left off the albums.
Basically before making an album I probably would have 30 or so songs and we’d pick 15-18 to go into the studio with and then 10 or 12 would make the cut.
Some really great ones are never returned to after the initial demo and that’s because they may not fit the feel I’m going for at the time, or it’s a similar idea or sound to a different song that I prefer. For example we recorded Tomorrow In My Mind and Ticket Bought for Time Out For Tomorrow [2019 album] and I felt they both had a similar feel, so I decided on the former.
You’re doing some online gigs on Facebook in the next few days, streamed live from your apartment?What can we expect from the performances?
JL: It’s gonna be interesting, I’ve never live streamed before and never had any interest in doing it.
I had thought about live streaming a show before ‘cos I found myself watching a couple of Lucinda Williams shows on her Facebook page and I loved them. It made me think ‘OK, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad’, but I never got around to doing it.
I think in these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do in the meantime and also try and keep afloat in an industry that has already been suffering for years. I’m doing these online shows for the folks that can’t come and see me and they’re cool with the virtual version for now.
Anyone can watch and I hope they do, but each show will also have a special hello to a country that we no longer will be visiting this spring. I completely understand if it’s not up some people’s alley and they’d rather not tune in. For me, I’m gonna do what I usually do when I’m around the house – play some music. I’ll play some new and old songs, plus some covers if it strikes me.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Traveler’s Prayer is one of my favourites. What can you tell me about it? I like the line – ‘trees blow in the Halloween air.’ It’s a very wintry song…
JL: That’s really interesting, as I got a couple of emails from fans in different countries that also love that song. I wrote the words first and set it to music, recorded the demo immediately afterwards and then completely forgot about. That recording is the only time I’ve ever played it. It’s so relaxed and unaffected.
That’s what I love about Songs From The Apartment. Nothing on it was intended to be heard by anyone other than myself or Mike Timmins, who produced the last few albums. It’s also why the guitar is out of tune – ha! I don’t remember the inspiration for that song, but I think the time period of Halloween recurs in my songs because I love that time of year.
‘In these strange days we’re all trying to figure out what we can do to try and keep afloat in an industry that has been suffering for years’
Hoodoo Brownhas a Dylan feel. What was the inspiration behind it? It sounds like an outlaw blues song…
JL: Yeah – it’s an outlaw song. I read about Hoodoo Brown who was the leader of a gang in the late 1800s. I just dug the name and made up the rest.
I remember working on that song longer than some of the others and I felt it never got off the ground with the band. I couldn’t get the sound I wanted. This solo version has much more of the energy and urgency that it needed. Actually, that’s probably the Dylan connection – that and the fact there’s a lot of words crammed into some of the lines. I dig a lot of the words and ideas in it.
It was written specifically for the Nonsense side of my album Nonsense and Heartache, so that’s why it has that bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll feel to it.
Poor Man’s Farewell is a beautiful and poignant folky song. Where did that come from?
JL: I don’t really remember, but I think it was on my mind how a lot of us look down on the poor or the homeless and never think about their story. Everyone has a story.
I actually had an idea that it would be a secret song at the end of Nonsense and Heartache. Kind of like Train In Vain from The Clash’s London Calling, which is not listed on the sleeve.
Leaving Now is a sad song that’s about the end of relationship. Can you shed any light on it? I think has an early Dylan feel. It’s folky – almost ragtime…
JL: We tried that one for the Early Riser album, but I don’t think Mike Timmins felt it fitted, or was good enough. I always thought it was catchy, though – you could hear someone covering it. Yeah, you’re probably right. Dylan is such a big influence on me, that there are elements that have and always will continue to show up.
There are quite a few sad songs on the album. Is that a coincidence?
JL: The sad ones are always the best! It definitely wasn’t the concept, but I think I gravitate towards sad songs. So many Everly Brothers songs that I love are really just a drag, aren’t they?
What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?
JL: Seeing my friends, family and the band and playing on stage again in front of people. It’ll be nice to have the UK and European tour and other shows rescheduled to make up for lost time.
The title of your last album, Time Out For Tomorrow, seems eerily prescient in the light of the current situation, doesn’t it?
JL: I know! I couldn’t help but instantly think of that. The album title now has a whole new meaning.
To buy or stream Jerry Leger’s latest album, the digital-only Songs From The Apartment, go to his Bandcamp page here.
Three years ago, West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski released his second album, Alex.
One of our favourite records of 2017, it was a collection of stripped-down, raw and bluesy, autobiographical songs, recorded in Berlin with Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and it reminded us of Bob Dylan singing The La’s.
Now he’s back with not one, but three new singles! Jigsaw is a haunting ballad – imagine Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game crossed with classic ’70s Neil Young; Everyday is a cover version of a Buddy Holly song – Alex has slowed it down and added some gorgeous, Richard Hawley-style, twangy guitar – and Hurricane is a re-recorded, full-band version of one of the standout tracks from his last album, with a jangly 12-string sound, organ and a wailing, Springsteen-esque sax solo.
In an exclusive interview, we sat down with Alex for a chat to get the lowdown on his new songs, and find out how his next album, which is being recorded this year, is shaping up. He also found time to tell us about his crazy dreams and a scary mushroom trip he once had…
Hi Alex. How are you doing? The last time we spoke was in 2017, after the release of your last album, Alex. What have you been up to since then?
Alex Lipinski: I’m good, thanks. I’ve pretty much been playing all over the UK and writing songs since we last spoke. I’ve played a bunch of festivals, which were great. More recently, I’ve been playing some shows with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale), which have been fun.
Late last year, you released a new single – Jigsaw. It reminds us of Chris Isaak and vintage Neil Young…
AL:I wrote most of Jigsaw one morning at my friend’s house, in Washington D.C, where she was living at the time. I picked up a guitar that was lying around and the chords and melody instantly came out – it’s always nice when it happens that way. I actually heard Neil Young’s Harvest-era drums in my head when I was picturing how I wanted it to sound.
The song is accompanied by a mysterious video, in which you walk around a deserted coastal town, bury a briefcase on the beach, get picked up in a car and bump into a strange masked character. What does it all mean and where did you film it?
AL: The idea for the video stemmed from a mushroom trip I had at some point over the past couple of years – Hawaiian cubensis mushrooms, to be precise. I was in the middle of the trip and going through a bit of an ordeal. I can laugh now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time.
The scenario I was in kept repeating itself – I was stuck inside this loop and couldn’t work out how to break out of it. With the video, I wanted to make something weird.
Around the same time I had the idea for the story, I had watched The Wickerman, so that may have had some influence. The video was filmed around Sand Bay Beach in Weston-super-Mare. We had quite a few confused and concerned stares from dog walkers and nosy neighbours when myself and my nephew, who was wearing a rubber rabbit mask, were digging and burying a suitcase! I don’t think anyone called the police. The large white building is a psychiatric hospital. The video was shot completely on an iPhone 11 Pro.
Your new single is a cover of Buddy Holly’s Everyday – you’ve slowed it down and the guitars have a Richard Hawley feel…
AL: Everyday came about from a jam at a soundcheck. I had been playing around with the song previously, slowing it right down – almost crooner-style.
Graham Nicholls, the lead guitarist, was setting up and he had this Richard Hawley- style tremolo sound he was trying out, so I started singing and playing the song and he joined in. Adam, my brother, sings the other main vocal on the recording, so it gives it that Everly Brothers feel. It was the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, so we thought it would be a fitting tribute to release the song as close as we could to that date, to mark the occasion.
There’s another new single on the way soon – a re-recorded, full-band version of Hurricane, from your last album. It has a much bigger sound than the original, with jangly guitar, Springsteen-like sax and some organ….
AL: The new version of Hurricane is how I actually heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head. It wasn’t until I slowed it down and lowered the key at a gig, almost by accident, that I decided to record that version on my last album. I wanted this big Clarence Clemons/Bobby Keys-style tenor sax solo during the instrumental.
‘The new version of Hurricane is how I heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head’
We recorded the new songs at Canyon Sound Studios, in Bristol. Nic Dover, who runs the studio and engineered the sessions, is also a great sax player, so he stepped up and nailed it in two takes. The latest recordings act as a kind of bridge between the last album, which is completely stripped-down, and the next album, which will be recorded with the full band.
Let’s talk about your next album. Is it written? If so, when do you plan to record it and release it?
AL: The next album is written, but there’s always new songs that are being added to it, so it’s a case of working out which direction I want to take it. I’ll be recording it this year and, hopefully, it will be out by the end of 2020, however it may be an early 2021 release. Making a body of work to be proud of is more important to me than trying to rush it out.
You made the last album with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, at his studio in Berlin. Any ideas about how you’re going to record the new one? Who are you going to work with?
AL: Working with Anton in Berlin was a great experience. He’s a ridiculously talented guy and also a great person. The album was completely stripped-down – the songs were presented in their raw, skeletal form and recorded live.
Myself and Adam [on guitar] were set-up facing each other, almost in a circle, with a bunch of mics around us and a giant RCA ribbon mic in the middle – the same microphone they used to use on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.
‘The next album will be heading in a different direction. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and country’
Adam was kind of learning the songs as we went along – I’m left-handed and he’s right-handed, so it was easy for him to see which chords I was playing. In eight hours we had the main nucleus of the record done.
The next album will be heading in a different direction, as I’ll be recording it with my band. The singles that are coming out were recorded at Canyon Sound in Bristol, with Nic Dover, and he’s also great and easy to work with. He has a great ear and the studio has great gear. So we’ll see what’s possible and figure it out.
What’s going to influence the sound of the new album?
AI: Recording with the full band immediately gives the music a new direction and approach. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and country – all these small glimpses of influences that seep out and merge together. That’s down to each individual player who brings something to the band.
Jon Whitfield (drummer) is a top jazz player, so he has his style, which allows us to take a song dynamically wherever we want it to go. Paul Quinn (keys/organ) and Graham Nicholls (lead guitar/lap steel) are both great players that sprinkle their magic dust, giving each song what it needs and, more importantly, knowing when to allow the song space where it needs it. And myself and Adam have been singing and playing together since we were teenagers, so we have this weird brotherly connection and understanding. So everything gels nicely.
Lyrically, the next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than that last album, which was quite a personal record. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous, leaving it up to the listener to think for themselves, and not spelling it out.
Some of the songs could mean various things for different people and I guess that’s the beauty of creating something.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, it’s highly unlikely to not have been affected by what’s been going on politically in the UK, and if what’s been going on doesn’t make you angry, then you haven’t been paying attention. So I guess parts of that anger and frustration have slipped into some of the lyrical content.
Some of the themes also stem from dreams I’ve had over the past couple of years. I’ve been having these really vivid dreams, which are centred around a kind of post-apocalyptic town that feels both alien and familiar at the same time. A kind of blend of the future and nostalgia, and the line between reality and fantasy. I have absolutely no idea why I’ve been having these dreams, but I’m keeping a note of them.
‘The next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than the last album, which was quite personal. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous’
What music are you listening to at the moment – new and old? Did you have a favourite album of last year?
AL: I’ve been listening to Townes Van Zandt quite a lot recently, especially the Live at the Old Quarter album. It’s a great live recording from 1973. The audience is crammed into this tiny venue. You can hear the cash till and the beer glasses – you can almost smell the sweat and cigarette smoke coming off the record. It reminds me of the 12 Bar Club, on Denmark Street in London, where I used to play a lot. Full of character and characters, and a great jukebox. Sadly developers moved in and the venue is no more, but it used to be a magical place.
I’ve also been listening to Gene Clark’s No Other album, which was re-released at the end of last year, and Andy Shauf’s latest record [Neon Skyline], which I’m enjoying.
There were some great albums that came out last year. I thought Michael Kiwanuka’s record [Kiwanuka] was a masterpiece. Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars was great – Moonlight Motel is one of the best songs he’s written over the past few years. I loved Wilco’s Ode To Joy. The Purple Mountains album [Purple Mountains] was amazing and also tragic, due to the circumstances. I loved Devendra Banhart’s Ma and I thought Bill Callahan’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest was beautiful.
I played Son Volt’s Union a lot. I also really enjoyed Sharon Van Etten’s last album, Remind Me Tomorrow. I saw her live at the Green Man Festival last August and she blew me away. Her song Seventeen, from the latest album, is a killer.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
AL: The plan for this year is to record the new album. I also want to play live as much as possible. Since the last album was released, I’ve been playing all over the UK and in Europe, and, even now, people are still discovering the record, which is great. So I’ll be playing shows, both solo and with the band.
Last year I helped my sister arrange and put on a series of gigs to raise money for the Save The Children Yemen Crisis Appeal. The first set of gigs were ‘Songs of Dylan’ – we invited a bunch of local, and not so local, artists to perform a couple of Dylan songs each. The first gig was in Hebden Bridge, and we also arranged concerts in Bath and Bristol. We’ve had some great musicians come and play at those shows and the response has been amazing – we’ve managed to raise over £2,000 so far. We’ve also hosted ‘Songs of Simon & Garfunkel’ and ‘Songs of Joni Mitchell’ concerts in Hebden Bridge, too. The situation in Yemen is horrific and we’ll be arranging more Songs For Yemen gigs this year, with a big one in London being planned in the coming months.
‘If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want?’
I’ve also started a night in Bristol with my friend James Maclucas. It’s called Wolfmoon. It’s an evening doused in the spirit of the New York coffee houses of the 1960s, set in the intimate setting of Friendly Records Bar, on North Street. Three artists play a 30-minute set, completely unplugged. There are guest DJs and plenty of ale on tap. The next one is on Thursday February 27.
If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want? I haven’t been paid to say that by the way…
Jigsaw and Everyday by Alex Lipinksi are out now on A Recordings. Hurricane will be released on March 20.
Alex plays The Water Rats, London, on February 12, with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale) and Sadie Jemmett. Tickets are available here.