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In conversation with Clareksville ahead of Heavy Soul


Interview: Jack Foley

Q. It's been an exciting year for you so far, what with the new album, The Half Chapter, and now a new single, in Heavy Soul?
A.
Yeah, it has been kind of crazy; it got very busy, very quickly, which is great, because I guess I was used to just sitting in a room and demoing songs... It's kind of nice to get out there and play to people.

Q. You started writing songs at the age of about 14, didn't you?
A.
Yeah, even a bit before that [laughs]. I probably started taking it more seriously when I came back from Amsterdam, where I lived, and 14 was where I really started taking it seriously, and I realised.
I entered a competition, actually, and this is the first time I've mentioned this, but it was a kids' songwriters' competition, judged by people like Phil Collins and Harvey Goldsmith, and I got to the last ten. I didn't go any further than that, but that kind of made me realise that I did have something, you know? I had something that it seemed that people quite liked; so then I started to take myself probably too seriously for a while...[laughs]

Q. It says in the PR, as well, that you deliberately didn't take what you describe as the quick route to easy success? You did your A-levels...
A.
Yeah, yeah, and I partly kind of wondered about going on to uni as well, you know? But I think, while I was dong my A-levels, in the summer in between the two years, my brother's band, The Dum-Dums, were kind of taking off. They were a three-piece and they were talking about whether I might play keyboards for them at one point, and I think then I realised that there were a few kind of avenues I might take, to get myself into the music scene, and, in the end, I did it the long way, by doing loads of demos, and went out and got a deal, which takes quite a while. I was fortunate to get a management deal quite early on and stuff...

Q. And do you feel that you have accomplished much more by taking that route? Is the feeling of satisfaction greater?
A.
I'm really happy, because it's all I've ever really seen myself doing. You know, I toyed with the idea of, if it didn't work, would I go into media, as I had done media studies A-levels. Maybe I'd do some video editing of some kind, but never really had a big passion for it; it was always, I'd come home from school and write songs, and demo them. So it is really satisfying to actually get to the point in my life where the record company gave me the option of putting the album out. It was like, 'wow, I've kind of done it, you know, the album's coming out in the shops'! And we're not talking about one of the crap albums I'd produced in my bedroom, you know?

Q. It's a really good album...
A.
Thanks, and, as you say, it's been a really satisfying year, this past year.

Q. So have you had any pinch yourself moments during that time, or special moments or highlights you like to look back on?
A.
Highlights... I'd day making the album is so much fun, because I just love getting into the studio and just having a simple song, that I've written on an acoustic guitar, and just thinking about how am I gonna do this? And just being free to experiment; I love that, that's what I really love about recording.
And I think obviously the live stuff... supporting Ron Sexsmith, which was the first tour we did, and was great, because I had always been a big admirer of his music as well. More recently, we did shows with the Polyphonic Spree, which was good... We kind of crammed onto the stage, because there's 24 or 25 of them, and we have a little area to try and get on.
We also did a show with John Mayer, which is the biggest show we've done, at the Hammersmith Apollo. I don't know what it was about his crowd, but they seemed to like what we were doing, so when you walk out in front of three or four thousand people and they get it, you know, that's a good feeling.

Q. And you've got a support slot alongside Sheryl Crow in December?
A.
I'm sure that'll top them all [laughs].

Q. That'll be a massive crowd, won't it?
A.
Well, it's Shepherd's Bush, which is actually not as big as the Apollo, but we're doing three nights, so, you know, it's a really cool venue as well.

Q. It's big, but it's intimate as well, isn't it?
A.
Exactly.

Q. Looking through you're biography, you do seem to have worked with some really good people, such as your producer, Martin Terefe, and other leading names in the industry. And you even have Travis drummer, Neil Primrose, guesting on the album. How did you get to walk in those circles?
A.
Some industry connections have come through the Dum Dums days, such as the main company people they worked with, that I work with. And now Steve plays in my band, so it's sort of like me and the old clan again, which is kind of funny.
But some of it's just... like my record company knew Martin, from way back (he may have produced something for Wildstar at some point), and we just had loads of ideas, about who would produce it.
We hooked up with Martin just to try out, for a two-week period, which was when Neil came in and played. Neil was a sort of connection through my record company as well, but he came down to a gig that I did; he and Dougie were there, and Andy might have been there as well, and I think they really enjoyed it, so when we asked him to come and do it, he was happy to. Which is such a pat on the back for me, there's nothing like that to give you a sort of confidence boost.

Q. Just diverting for a minute, and talking about Neil, do you keep in contact with him, and what did you think when you first heard about the injury?
A.
Well, he was supposed to play on the whole album, and we were really looking forward to having him in. We did a thing in June and the plan was to do the whole of August, and we had Neil booked it, but then he had his accident a few weeks before that. But he's a lucky guy really. But in terms of keeping in touch with him, we cross paths more than anything, because we do kind of work with some of the same people, so we tend to cross paths.
I bumped into him the other day and said it's good to see you up and about. Because I think he had the same injury as Christopher Reeve, so lucky to be alive, and lucky to be walking, so he's a tough one.

Q. And now they're beating each other up in their video?
A.
Yeah [laughs] it's kind of like, 'be careful with him!'

Q. How long did The Half Chapter take to put together then?
A.
Well, I guess, the bulk of it was a month of just solid recording that August. Then we kind of left it for a while, and I just kept writing, because I always do, anyway, and we just thought there were one or two songs that would really work on the album as well. So, we got together again for a two week period, so maybe if you added it all together, with the odd day here or there, it's probably two or three months. It's not like hearing of some bands... some of whom do it in seven days, and some who do it in seven months, or even years, if you're talking about the Stereo MCs, who took ten years!

Q. And you must be delighted with the critical reaction to it?
A.
Oh yeah, well that was probably the only thing I really worried about. Whether the album sells, and all that, is something for the record company to worry about, and if I concerned myself with that, I don't think I'd enjoy what I do. And I wouldn't write, if I was worried about that all of the time.
The good reviews were an absolute pat on the back, especially because we relied on good reviews from people like Q, because that's the kind of magazine that should be understanding where I'm coming from, and they obviously did. I was really pleased with that. Uncut was good, and the Independent gave us a good review, and it means that no matter how many albums you sell, you can always come back and say this is the album who released this album, which had good reviews, rather than trying to fight against bad ones all the time. You see bands that are always trying to live down their past, all the time, and I'm glad that's not going to be the way for me.
I do see the first album as a starting point and I hope the next album will be a step up from it.

Q. The new single, Heavy Soul, has lyrics which scream of frustration, but which are defiant as well, while the song itself retains upbeat melodies all the way through. Was that a conscious decision not to go the way of, say, Radiohead, for instance...
A.
Yeah, it's funny that because when you listen to songs like Heavy Soul, or something, it's actually lyrically very frustrated. But, I think, what I've found, and what a lot of people say as well, is that it's a really uplifting song, but I can't quite figure that out. Maybe it's because sometimes it's good to be righteously angry about something, you know what I mean? And to be able to express that, maybe that's an uplifting feeling...

Q. It's almost like writing about your frustrations but getting something out of it as well, without dwelling on it, or bringing the listener down with you?
A.
Well, I'm not really like a messed up person, so I think it would be wrong for me to put that across. But, obviously, just like everyone else, I've got things that piss me off. I remember when I was a bit younger, I was chatting to my dad about it, and I used to write such kind of miserable songs. People tend to that when they're younger, I don't know what it is, but he was saying that I had to be careful, because people go through this stuff, and writing a miserable song is just like poking a wound and not really offering any kind of solutions, or help. And, as much as maybe I didn't want to hear it at the time, because I wanted everyone to love what I was writing, I think there is an element of hope on the album, and maybe that comes from that. Maybe I realised that you just cannot keep whinging about everything and depress people. Some bands do it, but maybe we all shouldn't go down that road.

Q. They get a tag for it, anyway, don't they, even if they try and move away from it?
A.
Yeah, but I like those bands, too. I grew up listening to Radiohead and stuff, but I just think I'm not quite that intense.

Q. So was Heavy Soul borne out of a particular experience?
A.
Yeah, at the time, a sort of friendship. I really didn't want to write the song for a long time, because I was so close to this person, we were almost like brothers. And you know what that's like, it's almost sort of love/hate? And I just remember being so frustrated with him, on so many occasions, that I just got the point where I felt I had to scribble it down, and it was quite a quick song to write once I got going, cos I knew what I wanted to say.

Q. And now you've released it as well...
A.
Yeah [laughs]

Q. And are you still close to this friend?
A.
Yeah, I am. Actually things are a lot better now, but it was kind of weird for a time there.

Q. And talking of influences, musically you cite the likes of Neil Finn, Bob Dylan, Beck. Have you ever had the chance to meet any of these people, or see them live?
A.
I've seen Neil Finn, but not Beck or Bob Dylan. They are two that I'd really love to see at some point. I mean, I've seen stuff that they've done, but never live.
I remember watching a Beck concert on a flight back from America, when we were in Nasvhille doing some strings for the album, and it's just awesome; I'd just love to see him live. You don't expect someone like that to be involved in dance routines, onstage, but he does it and pulls it off, and he's just brilliant.

Q. And he's so diverse, as well...
A.
Yeah, I mean, you can't really compare Mutations to Midnight Vultures; they are completely different...

Q. Is that something you would like to strive towards, maybe having a different sound for every album?
A.
Yeah, I'll definitely move on. But Beck is unique like that and I don't think that he can be copied.
I probably take more influence from his acoustic side, whereas I can't see myself releasing an album as kind of far out as Midnight Vultures. Some of the songs on that are... well, I don't know how you write songs like that, to be honest. How you come up with those ideas and put them all together, I don't know. He has a very creative mind, that guy. There are so many musical influences all merged into one on that album.

Q. He's almost like the Johnny Depp of the music industry, because he's not afraid to experiment and it always works...
A.
Yeah, it's a good comparison...

Q. So what are your future plans? What are you working on at the moment?
A.
I'm writing a lot at the moment, which I'm really excited about. I'm thinking about doing an acoustic EP, even though I haven't mentioned this yet to anyone I work with. Even if I just have to do it in my bedroom, you know, it's fine. But that's the one thing that, I find, keeps me sane in the whole thing, what with being so busy now, is just looking forward to the next lot of recording; because that's something that's like a comfort zone for me. That's where I'm most at ease, when I'm writing and recording, so it helps to look forward to new projects. I mean I've still got a way to go promoting this album, and I'm committed to doing that, but I also think I need to think about the next thing.
It's probably a little bit premature to think about album two, so maybe like a little EP as a stop-gap between the two.... It's the kind of thing I could do, and produce at home. It doesn't have to sound like a complete finished article, that's the beauty of it. Maybe I'll just do it on a four-track or something, just to try and capture that.
And it just keeps me sane, writing, I think, because I just love it. It's quite natural, I think, for artists to get to the point where you sort of outgrow you're work. I've been proud of this album, The Half Chapter, for a long time, and most of the album has been around for over a year, so it's unusual for me to be proud of something that I've done for that long. And I still am very proud of it, but, at the same time, I've just turned 23, and I think that this kind of age, you grow, a lot, all the time, and a year's like a long time for your influences to change. I guess you kind of grow up a lot in that time, as well. Late teens and early 20s, you grow up and awful lot. And I feel like I can write about different things, as well. Maybe see things from a slightly different angle.

Q. And I guess so much is happening at the moment, which provides more inspiration?
A.
Definitely, but I also look back on things that happened ages ago, but I had a different take on them. So, it can be things that happened ten years ago, or five years ago, but maybe I understand them better these days, and it's fine to write about them in a different way. And that's what I've got to keep doing, otherwise I'm going to get swallowed up by this industry, because it's a weird thing to get used to.

Q. Yeah, I read in your bio, that you once described yourself as a bit of a depressive. Now that you're successful, is it easier to feel happier, or easier to feel depressed if, say, you look at the charts and wonder why something so manufactured can dominate over something which has been created by an artist?
A.
That's been there for a while. In fact, this year, has probably been a slightly more healthy year than most, musically. It's been great to see a band, like Kings of Leon, for instance, who have just kind of exploded. I think this year's not been too bad.
I'm not sure if I get depressed, but then I think being busy, in itself, is good. I don't feel as depressed, at the moment, as I have done. But I've not got a lot of time to think about the things that depressed me before, you know.
Some people say that's not a solution, but it's a means to an end. If you can get through your day and feel like you've achieved something that day, then that helps.
What doesn't help is being a musician who sits at home and writes songs, and then goes out for a coffee, and comes back and watches TV, or plays PlayStation, and are in your own company all the time. That's when you hit the spiral, and I'm glad that I've not got too much time to do that at the moment. It's helping me.

Q. So what are your plans? You have a mini tour, which visits the Underworld this week, and Sheryl Crow at the beginning of December. Any touring plans after that? Are you going into Europe, or maybe America?
A.
Well, we're in Japan at the moment. I went there for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and we're going back in between the gigs at the end of November and before Sheryl Crow. So there's that, and we will look at doing things in America and in Europe; we will get to that, but I suppose we just have to see how things go.
If all this takes off massively, here or in Japan, there will be a lot to do. But I think Heavy Soul will build on what we did with the first single, Secret File, which was more of an introduction song. If Heavy Soul builds on that a bit, which is what I expect it to do, then we have our biggest singles that we're holding on to until next year. So I would have thought it's just got to be a steady build until we start hitting the chart positions we want to be hitting.
It's a process, in itself, because it's difficult for bands that are just sort of coming out of nowhere at the minute. We haven't got a TV show we're a spin-off from, you know. You have got to do it the hard way, and keep touring.

Q. The exposure you're getting from the likes of Xfm and Virgin must be useful, though?
A.
We've had a lot of support from Birmingham stuff, as I'm a Birmingham boy. I'm really pleased that Xfm played the first single an awful lot, while the regional stuff has picked up on this one, so if we can get it all combined, as time goes on, it would be good. But it's very rarely an overnight thing...

Q. So what are you listening to at the moment?
A.
I'm listening to a lot, actually, and been buying a lot of CDs. I bought the Damien Rice album, which I like. It's really my kind of thing, emphatic songwriting. Fairly simple in a lot of ways, but I like the way it's produced. It's not too slick, which I think a lot of acoustic artists make that mistake. It's all too polished sometimes, and sounds over-produced.
The Flaming Lips, as I was making the album, which I have on vinyl. I think it sounds brilliant on vinyl. I'm constantly enlarging my Bob Dylan collection, and I bought some music by The Band recently.
I have kind of embraced music, especially from the Seventies, I think, which is something that I've really taken to, because of the production element. I mean, things were generally recorded to tape and it was a lot more real.

Q. What sort of advice would you have for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps? What are the virtues needed?
A.
Patience and just to do what you do. There's always a lot of pressure to write hits and stuff, and maybe we all kind of succumb to that a little bit, and we're all looking for that killer idea that's going to relate to loads of people. But I just love it when you hear bands that are obviously just doing their own thing, because you need balls to do that.
That's definitely not the way to quick stardom, but I think if you're really into your music, and in it for the music, then just stick to your guns.
Michael Stipe said, recently, when asked the same question, just follow your heart, don't listen to me. And I liked that. No one's got the recipe; you've just got to go on your instincts, I suppose, which is something I'm learning to do a lot more.

Q. Talking of having balls, I read you walked into a record company when you thought you were ready and just started playing your material in order to get a contract?
A.
Yeah, it wasn't the first record company I went to, I did it for a little while. I guess there were different points where I felt, well, this is a good song and I've got a few of those now, so my management used to hook me up with different record companies for kind of like 15 minutes out of their day, and I would just go in, say 'hello' and literally sit in front of one person, or two people maximum, and play what I was working on. I always had a good response, which helps, it wasn't a really disheartening thing. No one was ever, like, 'you're shit'.
You can tell when people really got it or, well, that's not for me, and you always get a bit of that.
But with Wildstar, it was great going to their office, it was such a natural process; from the moment I walked in. I remember breaking a string in the middle of one song and carrying on, with the guitar completely out of tune, and thinking they're probably hating this, and they'll show me the door at any minute.
But they phoned the next day and made a verbal offer, and we got the contract sorted. Since then, they've been great. People tell all these horror stories about the music industry, and it's not been like that for me. I guess I'm just lucky, because I'm sure it has been crap for some people, but I've been lucky with who I've coming into contact with.
I really feel that my managers, Micky Modern and Mark Wood, are a massive part of what I do, which is just a huge help. I don't know what I would do without them, to be honest, cos I'm not very good with diaries, and such, so they are my diary, basically, and they've been involved right from the beginning, since I finished my A-levels, and I just think it's like family, really. We treat each other like family. When you have someone that's close to you like that, and really honestly looking out for your best interests, that helps the whole thing. They can protect me from a lot of the things that you don't want to experience, cos it's largely about not putting yourself in certain situations. You need at least one or two people that you really trust and I've been lucky enough that my management has been that.

Q. And a family member, in your brother, helps too?
A.
That also worked out perfectly, because I wasn't sure whether it was going to work, with regards to getting him involved, partly because of what he was doing. It didn't seem like Steve would want to be my bass player, but as it's worked out, it feels more like a band these days; I don't stamp my way on things, I let people get on with it, and he's a good bass player.

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