Album review: MG Boulter – Clifftown

I’m sure I’ve said it before on this blog; words to the effect of great art being able to conjure up a tangible atmosphere and a distinct sense of time and place. Often it is, as Thomas Merton put it, something that “enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”. Living with this record over the last couple of months, I found myself thinking a lot about this dichotomy, and how true it rings. It’s what great writers are able to do; capture something of the world around them, some universal structure, something familiar, and inhabit the space with new life. And so, with Clifftown, MG Boulter delivers a superb set of songs that chronicle the inevitable, inexorable cycle of suburban life in all its mundane, magnificent glory.

Based on his (and my own) native Southend on Sea – an archetypal faded seaside town that resides on the Thames Estuary on England’s South-East coast, the fictional setting of Clifftown is captured in a set of vignettes populated by old ladies feeding coins into out-of-season seafront slot machines, teenagers shuffling around late-night Co-ops as ‘zombies, waiting for their lives to start’, distant silos looming on the horizon, and girls who grew up dreaming of becoming actresses only to end up endlessly calling out ‘Do you want to party?’ to ten-year-olds in a theme park.

What I admire most about Boulter’s lyric writing is the subtle poignancy with which he manages to capture deceptively simple lives. The characters that populate his songs rarely appear anything other than ordinary, and yet through mundane, everyday acts – such as the protagonist in Nights at the Aquarium marveling at the ‘colourful and innocent’ fishes behind the glass and wondering ‘maybe I can be colourful and innocent too?’ – he manages to reveal complex lives. As a songwriter, I’ve long felt that his principle strength lies in his ability to leave a listener with the impression that the people that inhabit his songbook – from the narrators through to the fleeting mentions – carry on living their lives long after the needle reaches the runout groove.

Musically, it feels very much the most playful of his records to date. Arrangements (particularly on tracks such as the aforementioned Nights at the Aquarium, and Fan of the Band, both of which – somewhat unexpectedly – have shades of Paul Simon) seem to be edging towards new pathways. Two clear highlights of the LP are the almost glacial Icy Paw, and Pilate – both of which benefit from Andy Bell’s excellent, deft production touches. Repeated listens on headphones are rewarded with layer upon layer of subtle detail in the mix. As ever, long-term collaborators such as Paul Ambrose, Lucy Farrell, and Pete Flood are integral to the community spirit that courses through these songs too. There’s a palpable camaraderie that jumps out of the speakers and manifests as genuine warmth – and this is never more evident than on the extraordinary closing track, Pilate, which actually dates back to a session in 2016 that essentially served as the genesis of the Hudson label.

In short: Clifftown is another fine LP from one of the finest songwriters (that I know of) in the UK. Boulter’s music has often looked to the colourful history of the Estuary for inspiration, but never before has he documented this particularly English suburbia in such a rich and evocative manner. It also helps that – in tracks such as The Slow Decline, Simon of Sudbury, and Remnants – the record contains some of his most impressive, and gently-experimental, songs to date. Now, I could keep writing, delivering hyperbolic sentence after hyperbolic sentence, but it’s probably best to let you scroll down, listen to three tracks, and form your own opinion. In terms of my one though; I wholly recommend. It’s a richly observed, life-affirming work, and – like its predecessor – sure to be cropping up on more than a few end-of-year lists.

Clifftown is released on April 23 through Hudson Records. You can pre-order the LP here.

A track by track guide to Clifftown, with MG Boulter

Photo credit: Jinnwoo

Originally I’d wanted to publish a piece on the album alongside an interview with Matthew regarding its themes and the recording process. However, if you saw my short piece on Midnight Movies back in early March you may well be aware that he’s produced a podcast series that ties in with the record. So far there have been three episodes released – all of which I’ve found immensely enjoyable – which are available wherever you get your podcasts from. Anyway, between this and the in-depth interview I published last year to launch this blog, I felt that it would risk treading old ground. With this in mind, I asked Matthew whether he’d consider writing a short track-by-track guide to the LP instead. Ever the professional, he already had one written and ready to go.

Midnight Movies

I walk around the streets of Southend-on-Sea and its suburbs at night. In the summer the seafront is alive with people and in the 1990s boys used to descend with their souped up cars and slowly crawl around the loop of the esplanade. It used to feel so dangerous driving down there with my dad when we were kids to drop relatives off on the other side of town. It was like living in a movie scene with all the neon lights and fairground sounds.

Soft White Belly

The old lady referred to at the beginning of this song was someone I had once observed standing in an empty arcade in the off season and with a small plastic tub of pennies she was methodically feeding the one armed bandits. It looked like an Edward Hopper painting, the last bit of life before the void. On the opposite shore to Southend is the Hoo Peninsula and the Isle of Grain in Kent. It is dotted with vast silos and chimneys which have been a constant backdrop to my living here.


Southend is a place where kids grow up and then ninety percent of them flee for London after working the menial jobs at the co-ops and curry houses. They then return to raise their own kids here. It’s the natural cycle like salmon swimming upstream.

Nights at the Aquarium

All seaside towns have an aquarium. Southend’s aquarium sits at the east end of the seafront. It emits salty mudflat smells and is usually full of excited and noisy kids. The cafe has porthole windows and it’s nice to sit there at weekends and pretend you’re out at sea. This song is about losing your troubles in the quiet subterranean world of water. 

The Author of All Things, She Speaks

This is an esoteric song written about the patterns beneath the plough, the layers of life that have gone before us which accumulates whether we are aware of it or not. 

Icy Paw

Kids jump off the quays and jetties in Old Leigh during the summer. It’s a dangerous pastime as many harbour stumps and fishing detritus lie just beneath the water.  I was thinking of the jetty on Canvey Island when writing this song. It’s a huge finger pointing out to sea and was used for pumping oil into the nearby Shellhaven. Local heroes Dr Feelgood named their debut album after it and sang about the oil refinery, its flames burning in the night.

The Slow Decline

This song starts in Peter Pan’s Playground theme park (now known as Adventure Island) where there is a small stage under the rollercoaster. Presenters take to this stage in the summer and over blaring music they pump the children up into fairground ecstasy. Southend has a superb homeless charity and sadly in the summer months, some years back, homeless people were setting up makeshift camps on ‘the cliffs’. I reference them here standing under the Arches, which is a nod to the row of beachside cafes which are housed in the arches under the road that leads up the cliff.

Simon of Sudbury

If you live in Clifftown you go on holiday elsewhere. Simon of Sudbury was the Archbishop of Canterbury during what was commonly known as the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. He was beheaded by the rebels on Tower Hill in London. Someone retrieved his head from a spike and took it back to a church in Sudbury, Suffolk where it remains on display to this day. This song is about my quest to visit it.

Fan of the Band

This song is a homage to the pub rock gigs I used to play on Saturday nights in my younger days when the pubs were full of characters. These people, who had seen the first great era of local bands like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hotrods, would always be offering you drunken advice as they propped up the bar.

Night Worker

When I first began gigging in London I often found myself running down Fenchurch Street for the last train home. The cabbies would always be there having a smoke and waiting for those who missed it so they could get a fare for the way home. The City is gloriously empty at night and in the foyers of the huge glass towers of insurance companies and banks you will often see lonesome security guards whiling away the night. It seems very romantic to me. 


A song about those times you find a camera full to the brim of a past life.


What if Pontius Pilate had been sent to Southend-on-Sea instead of Judea? I wonder sometimes if Southend is just a provincial identity forgotten by the louder noise of London. 

For more information on the project, including loads of interesting bits on the podcasts, you can check out Matt’s blog.

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Girl From Winter Jargon – Song for the Waves / Matilda

Photo credit: Mark Blizard

Since starting this blog I’ve yet to encounter another piece that has kicked, screamed and fought as much against being compiled as this one has. Thwarted by a comedy of errors ranging from unseen emails languishing in junk folders – with both parties wary of sending potentially irritating follow-ups – to delays caused by two house moves (one each), it’s a piece that originally was intended to coincide with the release Girl From Winter Jargon’s recent double A side 7″ back in February: the brilliant Song for the Waves / Matilda. Naturally all of the limited edition lathe-cut physical versions (released through the North East’s Butterfly Effect label) are long gone now, but the good news is that you can obtain both – as well as her debut single from 2019, Without Apology – as downloads via Bandcamp.

Before hearing either of the songs that make up the double A side, the first thing I did was was check out a live performance of Without Apology. I’ve embedded the YouTube clip somewhere below in the second half of this piece, and given that you’ve read this far, I guess it would go without saying that I thought it was great. It’s the perfect introduction to what she does too; kind of like what you might get if you dropped The Cure, Journal for Plague Lovers Manics, Pixies, Shakespeare’s Sister, Thom Yorke, The Anchoress, and Tori Amos into the large hadron collider. Or nothing like that. Essentially Girl From Winter Jargon is making precise, literate alternative post-punk with a hint of a pop edge and it’s not difficult to see why plaudits have come from the likes of BBC Introducing and 6 Music.

With its layers of intricate squealing guitar, slap bass, shattering glass, and spectral harmonies, Song for the Waves is an inventive and muscular beast with a healthy dark streak of self-referential humour running through the lyrics that confidently walk a line between earnestness and everyday vernacular. A couple of favourites include ‘You said you would never hear a happy song from me / I maintain that you were never listening properly‘ and ‘Judges judge you, counselors counsel, teachers teach / Come and do the job that you signed up for / Make your mind up please’. It’s bold and impressive stuff, and for a song with a fairly dark sting in its tail, remarkably light.

If Song for the Waves represents an oncoming twilight, then its companion piece, Matilda, is very much the daylight that balances it out; specifically that golden hour where the light falls just right and everything looks glorious. A more laid-back affair with a much slower tempo, it’s a gorgeous song (I don’t really want to use the term ‘ballad’) that calls to mind, among other things, The Bends-era Radiohead. Its gentle atmospherics and shimmering arpeggios gradually build in the manner of something like Fake Plastic Trees, with the dialled-back arrangement carving out acres of space for the vocal to take centre stage. Again it’s an interesting lyric – based on the Roald Dahl story – and the delivery is exquisite, in equal parts vulnerable and searingly powerful. As with Song for the Waves, the arrangement and production are such that I’d advise you plug in a semi-decent pair of headphones, close your eyes, and let these songs carry you off somewhere.

A conversation with Girl From Winter Jargon

Photo credit: Rob Irish

Despite calling these things ‘conversations’, usually when I put them together they’re the result of me sending several questions across to an artist and then awaiting their response. It’s something I always look forward to – reading their answers – and I hope that it interests other people too. Anyway it’s a misleading yet aesthetically pleasing term for what I often fear might be seen by some as a glorified questionnaire, but I’ve yet to find a better alternative. The reason why I’m talking about this is because this time I thought it would be interesting to send questions across piecemeal, wait to see where the responses went, and allow them to dictate where the so-called conversation would go next. In an ideal world I’d have the time, energy, and windows of opportunity to do interviews over Zoom etc. like everybody else, but alas our son is very erratic in his sleeping patterns – well, he’s pretty erratic in everything he does (but hey, that’s neurodiversity for you!).

So you probably wouldn’t know any different from reading through this, but what follows is an interview conducted over several weeks via email and Instagram. Thanks to Rachel for sticking it out and providing some really great insight into her work.

• I’m intrigued by your name, which is quite unusual to say the least…

Winter Jargon was formerly a band, but it’s also a made-up phrase that I used to write everywhere (and say to myself) from being young. The complete sentence was always, “O’ for the winter jargon.” Most people assume I’m Girl From Winter Jargon. They’re not wrong, but I don’t quite think of it that way, because I’ve always thought of Winter Jargon as a place. (Or possibly a state of mind?? I’m not sure). It was born out of childhood imagination. Am I making any sense here??? 

• Ha, I think so. Now that you mention the idea of a place, it kinda does. I think it’s a great name anyway; at first I was drawn by how jarring it is, and how I just couldn’t process it… and even now, having a clearer idea of where it’s coming from, it still feels pretty odd. Also, I can’t help but wonder what kind of place Winter Jargon is?

I always imagined it as a wide open wintry landscape; the kind of space where there’s very little concealing your view, so it’s virtually impossible to gauge distance, because distance is infinite. White. Cold. Sensory. Peaceful. Solitary. Powerful. But there’s also hidden forests and sheltered areas to live in, with bonfires and cosy, whimsical elements. The laws of physics can be bended and reshaped there. (If you want them to be!) 

I was drawn to the word ‘Jargon,’ because I liked the idea of hidden meaning within language. It’s that whole idea that there are certain things which can be concealed from others that are beyond their comprehension and understanding. I like to imagine that a younger version of myself actually found that place and now inhabits it, hence, “Girl From Winter Jargon!”

• Who would you say are your main influences? Matilda really reminds me of Radiohead around the time they made The Bends. To my ears it doesn’t sound a million miles away from something like Fake Plastic Trees. I love the melody, and the way your vocal just goes everywhere… high, low, almost raspy in places. And your guitar playing is quite something (particularly on Song for the Waves). I can definitely hear early Manics in there too – glimmers of Gold Against the Soul or The Holy Bible in places. Then there’s those kind of spectral backing vocals…

That’s funny, (and interesting), because you’ve actually pinpointed some of my biggest influences… but I wouldn’t necessarily have made those specific connections to the actual songs. If anything, I’d say there was probably a conscious influence with Radiohead for Song For The Waves (the erratic-ness of the guitars in Paranoid Android shall we say) – but now you’ve mentioned the Manics, that makes absolute sense too. I love James Dean Bradfield’s spiky, angular guitar solos especially in mid-90s era. And yeah, I can actually see what you mean with the ghost vocals too, though I don’t think I would’ve spotted it! Matilda definitely has a 90s vibe I think, so the Bends comparison is pleasing. 

I think that compositionally, I like to pick and choose from a variety of genres and influences. I like a lot of 90s alternative guitar aesthetics; grunge and indie… I like a lot of 50s & 60s music, though I’m not sure to what extent (if any) those influences creep into my music. Classical music. Jazz music. I was a big Tori Amos fan growing up, so there’s more than likely the occasional Tori note in my vocals. There’s also a band called the Dresden Dolls who had their own unique brand of “punk cabaret” or dark cabaret. They’re a piano/drums combo and I really love the quirky, theatrical elements in their music. When I was younger, my ears always honed in on melody and harmony. In recent times, I seem to be more drawn to music that is challenging and mentally stimulating; rhythmic, complicated stuff, like Primus for example. As time goes on, I suspect I might become increasingly interested in odd time signatures, but I’m not quite there yet.

• How does a song typically come together for you? Are you a journal-keeper? Are you building everything up from loops? I think there’s something really interesting about how your songs seem to be built over these unwinding figures and odd, disjointed melodies rather than bog standard chords – which everybody does…

Initial ideas for songs usually happen very quickly and unexpectedly. I could be out on a walk or watching television etc. My phone is full of voice memo song sketches, often recorded during inconvenient moments, for example, I was once watching a film at the cinema, didn’t want to miss any dialogue and resorted to humming gently into my phone! Other times it’ll happen in moments of procrastination. Rehearsing for gigs etc… 

In more recent times, I’ve written new songs based on accidental short loops that I’ve found within other songs I’m working on. I’ll end up duplicating and renaming the project so that I can build something on the accidental loop. If any of those songs surface, I imagine they’ll be quite strange! 

Ideas themselves are driven by distraction and never in short supply, but it takes me a long time to actually complete my recordings. I’m indecisive and don’t always choose the easiest or obvious route. I’m fortunate to have found Rob Irish, who is able to make sense of what I want within a mix! 

• You play quite a range of instruments on your stuff. I was particularly drawn to the clarinet weaving around the guitar on Without Apology. I was wondering how you started out, and how you ended up playing so many instruments to such a high standard?

With ‘Without Apology’ being my solo debut, the clarinet parts were important! I began lessons when I was 8 years old. Presumably due to a lack of school funding, the entire class were made to take some sort of audio music test and four of us were then deemed ‘worthy’ to learn a woodwind instrument of our choosing. I couldn’t read music, but nevertheless continued with the clarinet lessons throughout school. I even joined the school woodwind band (which was pretty much mandatory) and wasted everyone’s time staring blankly at sheet music while playing the notes I thought sounded right! I think having ‘official lessons’ served as justification with certain teachers to ‘grant access’ to the music rooms during break and lunch times. The doors were usually locked but I would always find ways to sneak in. The head of music didn’t like me and was always kicking me out. I think there was a huge amount of snobbery that existed toward self-taught musicians. Playing by ear was discouraged, never nurtured. All I cared about was getting access to those pianos. I was obsessed! Shutting me out only made me more defiant. With pianos, you’ve a very clear visual of all the notes laid out before you, which I think helps you make better sense of how they relate to one another. From there, I suppose it’s a case of adapting the same rules to other instruments? I think I was about 14 when my older brother bought himself an acoustic guitar beginners’ bundle. He didn’t take to it. I did. I still have the guitar. She’s called Lucy.

The production is amazing. I love the clarity and precise nature of your arrangements… again, the intricacy of the different parts all complimenting eachother. Could you talk about your recording process? Also you mentioned your collaborator Rob Irish earlier, and I was curious as to what he brings to the mixing and mastering process…

Thank you. I record all the parts myself at home; it’s quite a slow, painstaking process. I like to take my time and try different things before making any final decisions. My arrangements will often evolve naturally over time; I’m always in favour of trying to capture accidental, ‘of-the-moment’ weirdness where possible, but at the same time, everything is carefully considered and deliberate, so maybe there’s a blend of both extremes? Home recording is a relatively new thing to me and I’m still finding my way with it. Moving forward, I’d ideally like the execution to become quicker; more primal, less obsessive.

When it comes to mixing/mastering, I know how I want my music to sound but I can’t quite get it there myself, hence the need for assistance. Rob Irish is a very good match for me in that respect because his qualities are helpfully counteractive to mine; he is patient, orderly, unassuming and reassuring. There always reaches a point with my music where I’ll completely lose perspective. I overthink. I get indecisive and overwhelmed and will start to doubt myself. Having an outsider perspective is therefore important. I’d never want to work with someone who was opinionated or forceful with their views, and I definitely don’t want to be told what to do. Rob doesn’t do that. He is respectful and objective, but is also happy to step in and make decisions when asked. With the latest releases, [Song For The Waves & Matilda] I recorded around 100 individual tracks a piece, and sent them through to Rob, along with an initial rough mix and many, many notes. We’ve yet to work together in the same room. Quite literally, hundreds of messages and (hilarious) audio clips will be sent back and forth between ourselves, revising and revising, until we’re both happy with the final result. Somehow, Rob is able to make sense of the chaos. His own original work with The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens is very grand-sounding, cinematic and experimental; that’s actually the reason I wanted to work with him. Listening to a person’s own work, (as opposed to the work they do for other artists) gives you a better sense of who they really are, and what they might be able to bring to the table. In production, “bigger” does not necessarily equate “better,” but it’s good to have options. I sensed he would know what to do with multiple layers and would not be fazed by my weirdness!

• One of the things that jumped out at me was that the double single came out on limited edition 7″ vinyl, with the hand-printed sleeves. I was interested in what draws you to the physical format, and also in the print that forms the cover…

Honestly, as a listener and fan, I get a bit annoyed when something isn’t available on a physical format, so naturally, I want to apply that same basic principle to my own releases. Having something that is tangible and visual to accompany the music is important; more of the senses are involved and it’s a lot more personal. The record was released with Butterfly Effect from Darlington. Every month, they release a small run of limited edition, lathe-cut 7” vinyl featuring music made by Artists from the North East of England. The idea is to create something that is highly unique and collectible. With my own release, I included a card with an envelope, three hand-made lino prints, lyrics, download codes and a hand-written ‘thank you’ on a small piece of paper. The cover artwork itself features a character I made up called Daniel; he’s a visual representation of Song For The Waves. A lot of the song’s lyrics feature in the design itself: elephants, knives, radio waves, breathing in ions etc. He has a bass clef for an ear and I’d say around 90% of Song For The Waves’ bass line is slapped, so it sort of fits?

You can find more information on Girl From Winter Jargon on her website and on Bandcamp.

Like what I’m doing with I Said Yeah? All content on here is free, however you can support the blog (and help sustain my caffeine habit) here.

New track: Midlight – Emergency Song

The release of Midlight’s debut single, Sink to the Level, last August marked them out as a band with something truly special going on. It was a track with a sense of atmosphere so thick and heavy that I wrote about it as a ‘living, breathing, constantly shifting organism’. Following this came the equally impressive Pandemonium in December – a song that’s already racked up over twenty-three thousand streams on Spotify alone. I don’t particularly hold much stock in numbers (probably because all of our track titles are followed by ‘< 1,000’ on Spotify) but there’s no denying that it’s an impressive tally for a song that was self-released only three months ago. Also, the song is fucking great. The point I’m labouring towards is that there’s a clear pattern to what is happening here.

With no live shows or anything like that due to obvious reasons, the London quartet have spent the last twelve months writing and recording new material in their self-built studio space. With this in mind, third single Emergency Song hits like a raw, still-smouldering document of where we are collectively right now. Following the success of its predecessors, it’s the first Midlight track to be released via Brighton-based indie label Airdriver Records. As before, it’s a rich, ever-moving arrangement that somehow feels impossibly light and airy –  despite a menacing undercurrent that feels completely at odds with both of those words. Lyrically, the band paint with impressionistic, enigmatic strokes – and it’s driven home by a nuanced vocal performance that could well have come straight from the Thom Yorke playbook, full of melodic twists and turns where you least expect. Musically, a lone acoustic guitar provides the grounding around which everything else moves. It’s all about the tiny details too – with subtly-distorted vocals floating in and out, delicate chiming guitar, understated percussion, abrasive violin scrapes (calling to mind both Warren Ellis as well as Jonny Greenwood’s work on Radiohead’s Daydreaming), and some group vocals that come together to create distinctly eerie bed of sound.

It won’t be for everyone, but if you have a soft spot for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or even Coldplay’s still-brilliant Parachutes, then this could well be right up your street, so to speak. I hope they continue to pick up the plaudits they clearly deserve, because there really aren’t many bands about that I know of who are operating at the level that these four guys are. File under: brilliant.

A conversation with Midlight

• Hi guys. Thanks for getting involved with the blog. I’ve been interested in what you were doing since I heard Sink to the Level back in August, and I thought Pandemonium was a great follow-up too. When I saw you were releasing your first track of 2021 I thought it would be cool to throw a few questions over.

First things first, I absolutely love Emergency Song. I think the lyrics are really interesting too… lots of people are releasing music directly influenced by the last year, but I think you judge it well in terms of avoiding the obvious pitfalls. I was wondering whether you could just give a little context on the song and where it came from?

Isaac: The song evolved out of an idea George had early in the first lockdown. We all really liked the essence of the song, and when we managed to get back in the studio together it grew very naturally. The song felt very relevant and was a way of us expressing how we felt about the pandemic. The song is kind of a reflection not just on the pandemic, but also the way the pandemic has allowed us space to look at what life was like before, and perhaps imagine what we would like it to be after.

George: Sometimes it’s easier to write a song from your own perspective, and sometimes it’s easier to write from someone else’s. At the time this song was written in March 2020 it was definitely easier to do the latter. The song is obviously about recent events but it also felt important to not be too specific about subjects. It’s important people interpret stuff in their own way with any context or subject they want to.

Owen: Once we were able to get back in the studio together it was something we all wanted to work on, and the instrumentation and arrangement of the song came together pretty quickly.

• One of the things I picked out in my review of Sink… was the atmosphere. Your stuff has this density and weightiness despite having all that space in there. Like with the new song, for me there’s almost more being said by the atmosphere of the song than perhaps lyrically. Like an overwhelming sense of the confusing times we’re all in has literally seeped into the song. This is a really long winded way of asking how that happens, and whether you think about the instrumentation as of equal importance?

Ollie: Yes I think ‘space’ is a really good way of putting it. Isaac’s guitar often plays quite an important part in controlling the character and size of the space, and any changes in it throughout the song. I also think in a more subtle way we always try to create space around the drums – sometimes close-in or sometimes giving it a bit more room. I also recorded some violin for Emergency Song at the beginning and throughout – I wanted to do something simple but quite clear in its tone and I hope that comes off!

Isaac: That is definitely very important to us, and is perhaps the starting point for a lot of our writing. We put a lot of emphasis on the mood and feeling of the song when it is being assembled. I think we also try to weave all of our separate parts, instruments and sounds into a cohesive whole that at times is in tension with itself and sometimes at ease. With Emergency Song, we were exploring both the chaos and confusion due to the pandemic, but also the monotony and repetition of life before it.

Owen: I think the instrumentation can be just as important at conveying the feel of a song as the lyrics, and can be used either to enforce the imagery of the vocals, or to contrast with them in a way, and to give meaning where the vocals might be intentionally leaving space. So yes we pay a lot of attention to where the instrumentation takes the atmosphere of the song, but we’re also careful to make sure it goes where we want it to go in the context of the lyrics.

Your bio says that you’re originally from Brighton, but have set up shop in London. I must admit that I get a pang of envy when I read about your studio space. Could you give a little information on how this came about, but also what you think having this space has given you? I mean, from the perspective of a listener, I think there’s a level of depth (and emotional and musical intelligence) in what you’re doing that marks you out…

Ollie: Yeah, the studio has been really good for us. One of my friends was running this gallery space, and they had a spare room down in the basement.. It was a no brainer really. It’s given us the time to just mess around in our own way. It’s quite shut off from the outside – there’s a few bits of noise from the road which filters down through the ventilation but other than that it feels very private. We basically started with an empty room, so had to build it up from scratch with recording equipment – microphones, interfaces etc. And then I spent a week soundproofing the whole room which was fun. I also quite like collecting odd pieces of recording equipment – we have an old Drawmer compressor which I found in a Cash Converters for £10, and then other bits of homemade percussion – shakers, ocarinas etc.

Isaac: The studio has given us a lot of freedom to lock ourselves away and explore what we sound like. We have been building the space and everything that is in it for quite a long time and all the things we have accumulated contribute to our musical identity. I also think that writing, producing and recording our own singles has given us an appreciation of the process of generating consumable music – it’s hard! But we have learned a lot from it.

George: It’s given us the opportunity to try stuff and be comfortable throwing it away, there’s no attachment to a song or pressure to release it because we paid for 3 studio days recording it. That relays into the end products that people hear – they’re the best things we had to show, rather than the most recent.

Owen: We’ve been really lucky with our space. It allows us to capture a moment when something feels right, an example being the live take of Sink, which ended up forming the foundation of the recording. I think this is a large part of what produces the atmosphere you mention.

• How do you tend to work together? Sounds like a lot of collaborative work. Could you expand on your process, both in terms of writing and recording?

Isaac: The songs normally start with an idea from George, normally a seed of a song written on an acoustic guitar and with singing. Then we build on this all together, writing all parts iteratively and collaboratively, often trying to focus on bringing out the message or emotional core of the song, rather than diluting it with overly complex elements.

George:  We are honest with each other, we respect each others opinion, and there’s a deep level of trust that we have built up over many years. That being said, I personally still have a level of paranoia over everything I might bring to the other guys because it is like putting yourself in the firing line over something that comes about quite intimately. It’s difficult to be completely objective with every song because in order to get to the point of sharing it with the rest of the band, I’ve told myself it’s good. I hope that makes sense. 

Owen: Recording-wise, we don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, and we approach every song slightly differently. That being said, generally we track the bass and drums first together with guide vocals, and we always try to use whole takes as we think there’s something to be said for having the rhythm of the song as a single take, which includes acoustic guitar as well. Recording electric guitar is its own beast as Isaac often adds a lot of atmosphere and supporting sounds as well as his main parts, and we make sure sonically that they fit. Vocals often come afterwards, and George spends a lot of time making sure they convey the emotion he wants them to. Then at the end we might add any percussion or other sounds if we feel it’s needed.

Ollie: The recording process is always fun to play with I think – because we’re doing it all ourselves we’ve kind of gone down the path of setting our own rules and ways of doing things. For example having a phone recording the drums as well as the usual mics gives us a smashed distorted sound that we can feed into the main drum mix. Some of the stuff in Emergency was recorded at home – I did the violin at the beginning just in the living room of my flat as we couldn’t use the studio at the time.

• In terms of your influences, in my review was kind of picturing a cross pollination of A Moon Shaped Pool, Laughing Stock, and Coldplay’s Parachutes. I feel guilty mentioning the latter because they’ve gone on to make a few, shall we say, questionable records… but that first one is still spectacular! It’s a compliment, honest. Anyway, how do you feel about those, but also who are you listening to when you’re working on stuff?

Isaac: You are bang on. Radiohead, Talk Talk and Coldplay are all massive influences for us. I think that we have some collective influences, and also some quite diverse individual influences. At the time of writing Emergency Song I was listening to a lot of country and rock and roll from the 60s, like Ricky Nelson. We tend to draw on influences from across electronic music as well. We appreciate the power of simplicity in all sorts of music.

George: Well, AMSP is one of the albums we all collectively would have in our top 10 so thanks for that. From my perspective, the use of acoustic guitar on the album is sort of a sonic and composition standard I aim for. Laughing Stock is an album that made us step back and explore different ways of building interest and tension in simple and powerful ways. I know that personally my love for music and songwriting is kind of owed to the first four Coldplay albums. I don’t really care what people might think of that because I probably wouldn’t like some music that they’re in to as well. I think this song in particular has shades of both A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida as albums. Each month I feel like we are individually listening to different stuff, which is the beauty of having four people creating something, even if sometimes that can make it hard. I’m listening to All Things Must Pass by George Harrison at the moment, which probably doesn’t rub off much on this release, but I’m sure it will for our next one.

Owen: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the albums you’ve mentioned. Something those three bands have in common is a sense of trust and connection which you can feel in a big way in their music, and it’s something we all relate and aspire to as well. A big positive of being in a band is that we’re often in different phases of what we’re into, things which sometimes trickle into our music, but we always have a strong core of music and artists that we share at the heart of it. Personally I’ve been listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave recently, two of my favourite artists that I always come back to. There’s a rawness and imperfection to both that I love, and the arrangements on Grace are so unusual that they take you on a journey in a way that not many albums can.

Ollie: Those three albums and bands have been very important for us. We initially got into Coldplay when we were all at school together, Radiohead happened at uni, and then Talk Talk has been a more recent one. Our listening habits vary quite a lot as you’ve probably already guessed – at the moment I’ve been listening to a lot of David Berman’s albums (Silver Jews and Purple Mountains), and experimental club (Loraine James, Jennifer Walton).

• What are your plans for the future? Obviously the last year has been a strange one, but are you planning anything specific beyond playing this stuff live at some point. I’m guessing you’ve been working on a lot of material…

Ollie: We plan on releasing an EP at some point. We basically have a large body of work that we’re constantly working on, reconfiguring, and adding to. We’ve definitely got an EP or two, perhaps even something longer who knows. We’re going to keep working and writing and when it feels right we’ll be releasing in longer formats for sure.

George:  We are looking at gigs for this summer and autumn, whether or not they will be support or headline slots is TBD. We should hopefully have some new faces coming to the gigs and knowing the songs before they arrive, which would be a first for us. Like Ollie says, an EP is on our minds and we will be sure to get around the country to support a release like that.

Isaac: Regarding live, I just can’t wait to be playing gigs again. We have spent a lot of time being quite insular with our music, and even releasing music in lockdown feels very strange, very disconnected. I am very excited to have a more direct, real connection with an audience. We do have some plans in mind, and everything is so uncertain at the moment that it feels like we have to be very flexible, but in short, we have loads of music that we are constantly working on and are looking forward to getting out into the world.

Owen: Obviously the live aspect of being in a band is something we’ve missed massively over the past year. We have a lot of material that we’ve been working on, and we find that playing songs live often changes our perspective of them, and I’m looking forward to our music being guided by that aspect of it again. Also I think we’re getting to the stage where we feel ready to produce a body of work soon, and so we’ll look to tour with that as well.

• Finally, there’s a clear trajectory set out if you look at the streaming numbers (which in general I don’t really care too much for), but looking at the growth and the support you’ve had from Tom Robinson and Shaun Keaveny on 6Music, I can’t help but wonder what you define as success? What is the ultimate goal for you?

George: I think success is having a community of people that actively engage with our music, and linked to the ultimate goal of doing music full-tme and fulfilling a sense of purpose. I resonate with your feelings on streaming numbers, but this year of all years, that’s one of the main things we have had to go on. It might not tangibly mean the same as selling a record, but it really has cast the net to start finding our audience which is the major benefit of streaming. Having support from 6Music was a major goal that we set out before our first single, and it’s come quicker than we probably thought it would. Shaun has been really genuine in showing an interest in our stuff and we will never forget the day he played Sink to the Level on his show without informing us. It was a bit of a head wobble moment for me. 

Isaac: It’s all very strange trying to measure how well you are doing, especially when you don’t have any real, human interaction with an audience. That said, I am very proud of what we have managed to do in such an uncertain time, and I am sure we will keep on building on it. I suppose the ultimate goal is to keep making music, keep learning, and try to get our music into the ears of the people that it will mean something to.

Owen: We all share how you feel about streaming numbers – in a time where it feels people are putting a lot of importance on it, we place more value in people connecting with our music in a meaningful way, even if that’s at the expense of numbers. We’re trying to build a community that connects with us and vice-versa, and the ultimate goal is to carry on making music we’re excited about, and to hopefully become self-sufficient in the process

Find out more about Midlight on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also download the singles from Bandcamp.

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EP review: Faithful Johannes – Is Hopeful

Typically late to the party, I’ve only just gotten around to listening to this four-track EP from Durham City’s Faithful Johannes. Released back at the beginning of February through Win Big Records, with a sold out limited run of 8″ lathe cut vinyl, it follows 2019’s debut LP Thrills & Bills. Keen readers of the blog (humour me) will no doubt recognise the name from December, when I shared the excellent It’s OK to be Alone (This Christmas) – a belter of a tune born from bewilderment at the hysteria over whether we’d be able to sit down and eat dry turkey with each other at Christmas during a global pandemic. There’s a lot to be said for an artist that understands the power of a good festive song, and there’s no way I would’ve stumbled across the brilliant Is Hopeful without my interest being piqued by that one in particular.

Anyway, onto the EP: it’s superb. From the minimal, clean artwork through to the lo-fi electronic backing, everything is on point. The arrangements are not too dissimilar from something you’d find on a shit-hot Sega Megadrive game – albeit one with a soundtrack by Thom Yorke, Mike Skinner, and Jarvis Cocker – and there’s nothing bad about that. Sparse synths, some clean drums, and – on Different – an earworm of a bass lick are all that’s needed to conjure up a soundscape that perfectly fits Faithful Johannes’ expert, intricate, relaxed delivery.

On the subject of the delivery, one of the things I most admire here is the way that he plays with meter and rhyme. Often couplets are packed with jaw-dropping internal rhymes and lines that spill out and fall in unexpected places. Also, you’re never far from a line that either jumps out and puts a grin on your face or causes you to spit out your coffee. A clear highlight for me is Dust, with its heavily bit-crushed synths and weirdly affecting chorus of ‘I’ve a definite memory of floating to the ceiling as a child / and moving by willpower from room to room / unnoticed by the adults below / you might think that I’m lying, but believe me I’m not trying to‘. There’s a distinct unsettling vibe that hangs over the track, but right at the death when it risks sounding too bleak it’s undercut by a final line that acts kind of like a pin stuck into a bulging balloon.

And that’s the thing about Faithful Johannes. There’s a fine line between too little and too much, and lesser artists aren’t really able to see it. You know, it’s so easy to throw all that extraneous shit onto a track just because you can, but it takes a lot more skill to strip things right back and get every element absolutely nailed-on. The EP is an utter joy. Short, sharp, and life-affirming. I recommend.

A conversation with Faithful Johannes

• I’ve been listening through the EP a lot recently. Genuinely love it. I recommended it to my friend recently by saying it was like a Sega Megadrive game soundtrack made by Thom Yorke, Jarvis Cocker, and Mike Skinner. Now I don’t know much about spoken word stuff, or rap, so I was wondering how that description sits with you. How do you see yourself?

Hi Adam, thanks.  They’re four strong references, it sits just fine!  My friend Ross had a Megadrive and Mickey Mouse Castle of Illusions’ melodies still come easily to mind.  I used to call what I do barely rap, because I didn’t want to my skills to be judged as a rapper, but I then worried that that sounded like I was trying to distance myself from rap or say “don’t worry, it’s not really rap – you’re safe here non-rap fans”… so more recently I’ve gone for spoken word electro – but neither is very satisfying, I’m open to new suggestions.  I think maybe it’s somewhere between US indie rap, the Fall, Pulp and John Shuttleworth.

• You walk the line between sincerity and humour really well. Thinking about a song like Different, or the chorus of Mistaken – they seem to be loaded with meaning – but you have a great way of kinda deflating the tension with stuff that comes out of nowhere and makes you laugh as a listener. I don’t know… there’s something very British maybe about being afraid that God saw you lose Uncle Arthur’s gold ring. Of all the things to be afraid of. This is one of my trademark rambling non-questions, but I think I’m asking about how you ended up walking that line? Did it take a while to get there?

Hmmm, don’t know.  It definitely did take me a long time to get there.  My voice has come to me slowly, I had no confidence in my teens and was tentative in my twenties.  As much as there is a conscious aim, it is to express something honest that chimes with people or moves them, without it seeming put on or mawkish.  And part of being honest, or expressing your personality is putting plenty of self-deprecating humour in. Life is ridiculous. I am ridiculous.  Every day.

• How did you end up making music. I’m presuming you started out with spoken word?

Quite the opposite really, music came first.  My sister liked a boy who played guitar, she got a Stratocaster copy for her birthday, neglected it and I picked it up.  I’ve been in bands or musical projects of some kind since I was about 12, it has been a thread that’s run through my life and found me many valuable friends and kindred spirits.  In 2014, I’d been in a bit of lull for a couple of years, I’d moved from Sheffield to Durham, wasn’t playing live, was writing very little. Then I was mixing a track for my friend Jonny, and he suggested I put some words to it.  I did.  It sounded better spoken.  We became a duo called Outside Your House, expanding on the style off that first track.  I liked a lot of leftfield rap music, and was influenced by that, but what we were making ended up sounding nothing like them. Jonny was really positive and encouraging, which gave me confidence and helped me improve my writing.  We played shows around the North East of England quite a lot – hitting drums, playing kids’ keyboards. I used to take a stool to climb on because there weren’t always stages, I put my lyrics on big signs because the PAs weren’t always good, we sometimes did raffles mid-show, gave out presents at Christmas, tried to be memorable.  When we started Outside Your House, I borrowed the name Faithful Johannes from a Grimm fairy tale for myself as an insurance policy for when we broke up.  OYH went on indefinite hiatus on the night of our debut album launch in 2017 and I carried on solo as Faithful Johannes from there.  My writing and delivery has gradually become more fluent and detailed, and as Faithful Johannes I started to mix a cappella spoken word pieces into my sets, especially to open with and quieten the room.  I almost always play music gigs rather than spoken word / poetry nights.

• What are the main influences on the Faithful Johannes sound, but also on the way you approach writing?

The musicians who have the strongest influence on what I do are Owen Ashworth, who was Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and is now Advance Base, and rappers Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti.  All incredible, affecting storytellers, often hilarious, always direct and accessible. I did a couple of online workshops last year with Brooklyn-based rap genius MC Paul Barman, which have challenged me to write more often, daily if possible, and made me take the creative process more seriously.  It was like a switched flicked. My writing clicked into a fluency I’ve not felt before.

• How do you tend to write stuff? Specifically I was wondering whether the tracks develop hand in hand with the words, or whether you start out spoken word. The balance between the diction and flow with the melodic stuff is really strong…

I tend to start with a rough beat and some synth/piano chords, maybe a bassline, then I’ll start writing the lyrics to that, putting a few lines down at a time.  Although I always have a notebook handy, I tend to write lyrics on the computer – it’s easier that way to make revisions, revisions, revisions until you’ve written yourself to the end of it.  I try and write daily in a notebook, even if it’s only a couple of lines, these sometimes make their way into songs, but generally not.  So, the music and words normally get written together.  Occasionally, I’ll have a track finished, then completely ditch and replace the music, but leave the words virtually intact.

• How do you record? You play everything on the EP, right?

At home on Cubase.  Yes, I play everything on the EP.  I try to, not exactly give myself rules, but to stick to using a few relatively basic soft synths and plug ins that I like the sound of.  Sinnah and Helm and both excellent free soft synths I use a lot.  We got a free piano off a friend of a friend a couple of years back, which is starting to creep onto some of the recording (it’s on Fog on the EP), and is helping me when I’m stuck on where to go next on a tune.  I like to put found sounds, or field recordings in, or put something rough in to give a warmth to the track, not just relying on electronic instruments or sounds.  Mistaken on the EP is entirely made of samples of my voice, I’m really please with how the drums came out in particular on that one. 

• The 8″ version of Is Hopeful looked amazing. The artwork is really great too. One of the things that I really like about your stuff is that there are some really good covers. The Thrills & Bills one is really cool too. Anyway, are you thinking of releasing more stuff in this way in future?

Yeah, both those covers were by Oli Heffernan at Ack! Ack! Ack! Design, he’s fantastic and also an incredible, extremely prolific musician.  I’m not naturally a good delegator or collaborator, but have realised that I’m better off asking other people to do my artwork if I have enough time in the process.  Daniel Redhead, did my Feel Good Hit of the Summer cover last year which I’m really happy with.  My next album cover illustration is something special too.  I only did 10 copies of the EP on the 8” vinyl, but they sold out in less than an hour, which was a nice confirmation that people love records still, and definitely something I’d do again.  I did a short cassette run of the EP afterwards, there’s still about five of them left at Win Big Records.

• Finally, you mentioned that you were working on the second album at the moment. Is there anything else planned for this year?

I have a 12 track story album coming out in September, which will be on vinyl – I should get the test pressings today at some point!  There’s a couple of standalone singles out in the next couple of months. I’m working on two parallel new EPs with a producer doing all the music.  There’s a collaborative album I’m working on with a few people, that I’m a small cog in.  I put a Christmas single out every year…. So yep, loads of stuff on the way.

You can find Faithful Johannes on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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New track: Ali MacQueen – Loretto

There are a few key artists whose names when mentioned as influences usually draw me towards something that lands in my inbox. Three of those most likely to elicit a response are Radiohead, Beck, and Neil Young. On the occasions that something turns up with one of these words orbiting around it, it can often be a disappointing listen. When a song arrives that nods to all three, well, it’s gonna have to be good. It’s like when somebody makes a cottage pie on MasterChef. You can see Torode and Wallace just waiting to pull it apart. Of course, I’d never waste time pulling apart a cottage pie or a song. Anyway, sometimes you just take a deep breath, put on a pair of headphones, press play, and find yourself blown away by what you’re hearing. Obviously that’s the case with Loretto.

Described by MacQueen as being ‘about getting out, moving on, leaving things behind, starting something new and the excitement and promise of it all’, Loretto is an addictive four minutes of alt-rock/americana that packs some serious punch. Built around a loose, no-thrills decayed drum loop underneath the kind of widescreen chord changes that wouldn’t seem out of place on Beck’s Mutations or Sea Change, it’s the kind of song that keeps building and building – adding layer upon layer of intensity as it sprawls out like a slow moving tide that creeps ever closer. The beauty of it all is how much space is still retained in the mix, even by the final third when MacQueen’s vocal is riding a wave of guitar feedback and some luxurious-sounding strings. Not that there’s ever too much going on; the arrangement is such that each part is never doing more than it needs to – from the thick, rolling bass that underpins everything, to the laid-back acoustic, and the lyrics that drop tantalising fragments of imagery.

Having cut his teeth in a variety of bands around the Luton and Nottingham scenes (including the Steve Lamacq-championed The Autoplan) before – more recently – undertaking a long recovery from a severe brain operation, Loretto serves as something of a mission statement that promises yet more riches in future. So taken was I with the track that I felt compelled to reach out to Ali with a few questions via email. I was quite keen to ask a little more about his process and to see what his plans were for the rest of the year and beyond. After all, I know that I won’t be the only one eagerly looking forward to whatever comes next. For me this track is right up there with anything I’ve heard in 2021, and after the year we’ve all had, its sentiment couldn’t be more apt.

A conversation with Ali MacQueen

• Hi Ali. I love the new song. The first thing that caught my eye was that someone had mentioned Beck’s Sea Change. Usually that’s shorthand for just some sad bloke with an acoustic guitar, but I can’t help listening anyway. Anyway, I thought it was great – and more than worthy of the comparison – and it got me thinking about how you’d arrived at this sound. I love how that roomy lo-fi drum track just points it on course and lets it sprawl out too. It’s kind of like a distant cousin of The Golden Age… I think there’s a question in here somewhere?

Thanks. I think the “sad bloke with acoustic guitar” image is one that’s easy to reach for, but it’s about the person behind that guitar. I really dig Beck, and the way he’s able to be so inventive with seemingly so little, and just be open to trying new things, not get stuck in a rut, but still be identifiably him, even when trying new things. But yes, his acoustic stuff is great. And I love a roomy lo-fi drum track; the rawness of them just stops things being so polished, and are a hook in themselves. I’ve always liked bands that combine acoustic guitars with those, like David Kitt and The Folk Implosion, and latterly Sharon Van Etten and Cat Power – it seems to give the vocals more room to be heard. And letting it sprawl out is true; I love songs that build and build, like Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and The Beta Band’s “Dry The Rain” – those were my kind of sonic reference points when trying to shape Loretto. 

• I saw that the title and the chorus kind of came to you by coincidence, from seeing the word ‘Loretto’ sprayed on a wall. Is that something that happens often when you write, or was it something that caught you off guard and opened a new avenue?

It totally took me off guard when that happened. I saw the graffitti, began to hum the chorus, and that was it. Sometimes, I tend to overcomplicate things and think too much about what should go where in a song. But for Loretto, I worked out the chords for the chorus, and the vibe for it was set – I just went with the kind of mellow, laidback flow of it.

• How do you typically tend to write? Are you a fastidious note-keeper for instance, or do you collect snippets on your phone? Is songwriting something you feel you need to work at or does it just sort of happen? And how does that work… 

I suppose 60% of the time, I’ll come up with a nice chord sequence or riff, and try and write around that, but I usually record snippets on my phone and a dictaphone in my room, which means I can have scraps of songs and riffs all over the place. I’m not a fastidious note keeper, but I wrote lots of notes in my journals, does that make sense? But usually once I stumble onto something good, I’ll keep playing it until it’s 90% there. Do I need to work on songwriting? Absolutely. There are times when songs and lyrics come easier than other moments, and it’s normally driven by the vibe or feel for a song. I think Loretto marks a turning point for me – it’s got a definite theme to it, and I’ve only written about 3 or 4 songs ever that have a defined narrative to them. I remember reading an interview with Ray Davies about his Kinks output, and he said editorialising his songs meant they were stronger, and there’s a lot of truth in that. While they don’t always have to be about someone, I think developing a clear narrative and signposting those with lines that ring true to us all.

• Can you talk me through your recording process? How does a song move from a snippet of melody sparked by a piece of graffiti on the street through to being a fully-fledged, luscious recording? 

For Loretto, I had a strong sense of what I wanted it to sound like from the start. As a demo, it was actually really simple, so building it up from there to a certain level, without Pro Tools-ing the fuck out of it was important. The song itself has a definable feel to it, and through the lyrics, I could get a good sense of the imagery surrounding it; that kind of midwest US scene actually helped to shape the song. My recording process though I guess is quite methodical. Because it’s just me in the studio playing all the instruments initially, I have to be quite organised I guess. That’s not to say I’m not winging it to some degree – I don’t go into the studio with a plan or anything, I just start laying rough tracks down and if they’re good, they’ll stay. When I start a studio session, it’s kind of scary in a way – you only have about 8 hours to make sure that what you come out with is going to be absolutely bang on. It’s also down to having a good producer who can thread bits together, make suggestions, and who you can have a good relationship with, which I do with JB Pilon who produced Loretto. But the whole enjoyment and life of a song comes from the actual process of creating it. Perhaps it’s a bit distracting to focus on ensuring you get a good outcome – I’m really at home in the studio and totally get lost in it. Personally, that kind of mindset is better for me as an artist, rather than starting to record something with the aim of getting a specific type of track or definable “hit” at the end.

• What kind of stuff do you listen to, and are there any artists whose DNA that you can specifically pinpoint in your own work? 

Like anyone, I suppose it varies, but at the heart of it, I guess it doesn’t stray too far from indie rock, alt rock, folk rock and singer/songwriters. Lately it’s been a lot of Kurt Vile, Phosphorescent, Rolling Blackouts CF, The Oracle Sisters and The Besnard Lakes. DNA-wise, I’d say there’s a fair bit of Beck, the more instrumental and layering parts of Radiohead, a bit of PJ Harvey I guess, the way she can make songs dark but melodic I think is really interesting. A lot of people say the Verve, which I find interesting. I mean, I was into them growing up, especially Nick McCabe’s guitar and how he made such dense soundscapes, so there’s probably a bit of that in there too. 

• Beyond the release of Loretto, what are your plans for the rest of the year? 

Well, I’ve got some time booked for a studio in April to record and then release another track. And then there’s already talk of some gigs happening at some point, which is exciting and well, slightly challenging as it’s only me at the minute really. I know a lot of musicians and people in bands, so it won’t be too hard to find people to play, but it’s just how many people I’ll need to really recreate the sounds of the type of songs I’m writing and the direction I’m going in. Big, anthemic, but laid back at the same time.

• How tempting was it to allow the acapella chorus at the end to keep running and running? Ha. I know if it was a song I’d written there’d be at least one extended version… 

Absolutely, I would have loved to have really run with that and then build it back up again, but as it’s my first proper release I had to keep things focused, you know? But who knows… maybe when the album comes out, I can really get OTT indulgent and make it an epic 7-minute version with echoplexes, male voice choirs, bagpipers, consultant astrologers y’know, your typical diva behaviour. 

You can find out more about Ali MacQueen on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Loretto was released in March 5 via Blaggers Records.

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A conversation with Smotherly Love

Arriving in my inbox during the death throes of 2020, Smotherly Love’s debut EP was very much one of my favourite finds of the year. A pitch perfect tapestry of exploratory psych pop that taps into the same retro futuristic vibes as the likes of Tame Impala, LA Priest, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Predestinate Grooves is a real statement of intent. There’s also shades of early(ish) Floyd rattling around in there too – the good stuff, like some of Ummagumma or the stuff on Atom Heart Mother that isn’t Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast. What makes everything even more impressive is that Smotherly Love is essentially a one-band-band; with everything written and performed by Essex-based Sam Masters.

In addition to his considerable musical and lyrical chops, Masters has also recently put together an inspired animated video for the EP’s standout Effort Vs. Reward. Featuring a bizarre cast of reptilian characters, it’s a real joy that’s more than worthy of four-minutes-and-thirty-one seconds of your time. Since hearing the EP for the first time in December, I’ve been keen to throw a few questions at Masters via email too, so scroll down to find out a little more about how these songs (and these lizards) came into being.

• Hey Sam. The video is great. I really like the style, and it kind of reminds me of underground 90s stuff – kinda like it could have been made by some crazy guy on Adobe Flash who hasn’t seen daylight for months. Hopefully that’s a compliment. Something about seeing a Norwich City shirt pop up feels very odd too. Anyway, where did the idea come from and how did you go about making it?

Thanks! I certainly became the crazy guy without daylight drawing it all – mainly it was my entire January! It was all done with free software – basically a drawing app and iMovie – it’s about 1000 or so individual pictures all about 0.2 seconds in length on screen. It took just way too long, but I certainly learnt more than I ever expected to about Lizards along the way. I’m not even totally sure where the initial idea surfaced, I just thought it would be cool to have a video for the track and a kinda ‘homemade’ feeling animation was a good match for it. Animals instead of humans taped into the slightly odd psych feeling I wanted from the music, so with no prior expertise in animation I just kinda went for it. I wanted to try to reference bits of myself (the guitarist lizard’s Norwich shirt for example) and all the instruments used are based on what I recorded the track with. A few people have made reference to it looking a bit ‘Bojack’ which I can only take as a compliment I suppose!

• As for the EP, I thought it was equally cool. I picked out a couple of (I guess) broad references in my little write-up, but I was wondering who your influences are?

When I write, I like to have a few tracks from artists handy, that I admire, and write music in a world I’m aiming loosely for. I think that this helps sharpen the focus a little, you think ‘how did they do that’ and ‘why is that bit so good’ and try to bring a little of that into the track. So on this EP I had Crumb – Locket, Hookworms – Ullswater , and Tame Impala – It Isn’t Meant to Be floating around, and I’d flick back to them when feeling a little stuck. Lyrically I would have to say I’m in awe of BC Camplight and his honesty, so I suppose I felt that as an influence in places too.

• Am I right in saying that you play pretty much everything on Predestinate Grooves too? I particularly love the 60s psych kind of stuff you have going on. You strike me as the kind of artist that might have a collection of interesting gear…

I did play it all on the record, for better or worse. Everything bar the drums was recorded at home through my UAD interface, and the drums were all done at a friend’s studio (Lomond Rooms) in Camberwell. If I’m going to be totally honest, although I tap into that sort of retro nostalgic sound, almost everything I use is modelled! I’m a fraud really. I’d love to own Fender Twins, Roland synths, organs, tape machines, guitars from the 60s etc. but I also have to eat… I have invested in decent quality emulations, and good microphones, but actually half the fun for me is using the modern software to try to manipulate my sounds and tones, to tread a balance between ‘vintage’ and modern. The guy who mixed the EP – @mixperspective – also did an amazing job giving everything this analogue warmth, saturated tape feel which I think gives music like mine a bit more musicality in a way.

• How does a song come together for you? Are you kind of building and experimenting straight into a DAW, or are you writing and then arranging after the bones are in place? The EP is so rich in pretty much all areas – lyrics, parts, instrumentation – and I’m curious as to how you get from the initial idea to finished track? Do you start on a particular instrument? I guess this is a question about your process… both writing and recording.

My writing process is probably best described as chaotic. I do work straight into a DAW, and usually a riff, or keys, or even weird synth noise is the jumping off point I have to get going. From there it’s just basically constant experimenting, building layers, trying ideas until something properly sticks. I think I know when something is feeling right very quickly, even if it takes a long time to get to that point. I spend a while shaping my sounds before I play them, I think it helps me put the expression into the performance when I have a clearer idea of what it will truly sound like within the mix. Also, I’ve really had to embrace deleting things as well! With my tracks it’s easy to get totally swamped in sections with too much happening at once so trimming back in the right places has been important. Lyrically I tend to write as I go with the track, so a certain phrase or melody will come in over say a verse section, which then helps me find a transition into something new.

• Are there any plans to play this stuff live?

I’d absolutely love to play these tracks live, however, being a one man operation currently I need to find willing people to play my tracks with me! Hopefully when venues start to open again I can try to find and convince people to join…

• Back to your influences – if you had to pick, say, three records that mean the most to you, what would you go for and why? (Apologies if this sounds like the kind of question Cilla Black used to ask on Blind Date.)

I wish I could just list off all these totally obscure 60s psych bands and give myself  ‘music nerd kudos’ but I’m gonna to be a bit more honest. These are records that mean a lot to me in terms of the place I try to write from but also as just records anyway. I would also add that there’s about 20 more that I could have very easily interchanged in here! Certainly I can say that Radiohead’s In Rainbows would have to feature. I have been listening to that album since I was 17, it’s almost therapeutic now. I listen to it in a bad mood driving home from work, when I’m chilling on a Sunday afternoon, when I’m nervous about to take off on a flight, just everywhere. It just opens up and swallows me and I find myself completely immersed within it. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion means a lot to me. It’s an album that’s filled with such strange and odd sounds and motifs but it’s just nothing but perfect pop songs within it. I think its a real influence for my writing as it showed me that there’s room for the weird and different everywhere. Tame Impala – Currents would probably round this list off nicely, I mean it’s unrivalled production should be enough, but actually I think that it’s quite a brave record, he could have carried on with his fuzzy more guitar-driven records but he
moved forwards into this glorious polished sound and it worked so well. It’s always a benchmark I hold up with my writing.

• Are there any particular ambitions for Smotherly Love? I mean, is there a goal in mind for this year – other EPs, videos, an album? – but also are you thinking about any long-term things beyond that?

I’m writing away now. I’ve got a few tracks that are really feeling good, which will require some proper recording and mixing, and I’m really excited to get them polished. These will probably be drip fed out slowly, as singles to try and get a bit more attention paid to them. Beyond that I’m always wanting to find new things to do around my tracks, the video I did was really rewarding (excuse the pun) so maybe more in the works there. I feel like this EP is very much the beginning and I’m keen to see where it goes on from here!

You can find out everything you need to know about Smotherly Love here.

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New track: Inland Murmur – Waterline

There’s something delightfully late-80s/early-90s about this new track from Cardiff indie three-piece, Inland Murmur. Consisting of Hannah on bass and vocals, Alan on guitar, and Toby on drums, guitars and vocals, they have a sound that falls somewhere between Out of Time-era REM, Broadcast, the Killers, and latter-day New Order. There’s a gentle wistfulness running through the track (in no small part due to Hannah’s lead vocal) and a well-balanced, dynamic arrangement that juggles the free-flowing momentum of the guitars with a taut drum track. Basically what I’m trying to say is that it’s a well-written song, the kind that slowly creeps up on your subconscious as opposed to reaching out and bludgeoning you. I was drawn into listening based on their name – with at least part of it reminding me of early REM – and the cool artwork (always a good sign) so it was a pleasure to find such a gem. Check out their previous single, Icarus, on Spotify too. As with Waterline, it’s a lovely thing, and it showcases a very different side to the band. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one keeping an eye out for their first EP later this year.

You can find out more about Inland Murmur on their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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New track: MG Boulter – Midnight Movies

I’m sitting at the dining table in my father-in-law’s flat in the picturesque Scottish coastal town of Troon, my embarrassingly old Macbook groaning loudly as I look out over the vast cobalt blue expanse of water that separates us from the snow-covered peaks of the Isle of Arran. Over the past forty-eight hours or so I’ve listened an awful lot to MG Boulter’s Midnight Movies, and my intention has been to use this valuable time when my wife and I get to leave our son with our wonderful babysitter for our weekly four hours of freedom to write a few words about it. As I’m sure you’ll already have guessed; I am struggling to begin. My mind is racing and I can’t seem to settle on the right words.

What I am certain of, however, is that it’s a rather wonderful four minutes that lands like a reassuring, welcoming hug at the end of a miserable journey. Anybody familiar with Boulter’s previous work will have a pretty clear idea of what to expect, and while there aren’t any major surprises in store, there’s something about Midnight Movies that feels even more assured than what’s come before. Aside from being a songwriter of the finest calibre, this new material just sounds so good. It’s in the warmth of the acoustic guitars, the clarity of Boulter’s vocal, the strings that gently work their way in and out of the arrangement, the roomy piano that enters for the final third, and the kick and hi-hat playing off of the guitar melody (itself referencing Night Driving from 2018’s Blood Moon EP) and steering the song to its close. Expectations for the forthcoming Clifftown were always high, and Midnight Movies does absolutely nothing to change that. It’s gorgeous.

Recorded with longtime collaborator and producer Andy Bell, and due for release via Hudson Records on April 23, Clifftown features a roll call of musicians that include Pete Flood and Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead), Lucy Farrell (The Furrow Collective) and Richard Warren (Spiritualized, Mark Lanegan and Dave Gahan) to name but a few. You can find more information on the project, as well as pre-order details, here. Also of interest is The Clifftown Podcast – a companion piece of sorts to the new LP that explores some of the stories and themes that permeate the record, as well as the rich history of Southend-on-Sea and its surrounding areas. Check out the first episode below.

You can find MG Boulter on Facebook, Bandcamp, Twitter, and Instagram.

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New track: Almost Sex – Rest Up

Almost Sex snuck into my inbox a few months ago with their last single, Charmer. I wanted to write slid into my DMs, because it feels kinda sleek and sexy – much like their music – but it’s a little too ‘down with the kids’ for my liking. And I’m writing this from deep within a concrete hellscape on the grey Scottish coast. Nobody slides anywhere here. They hobble, sometimes shuffle. Plus it was an email, not a DM. Writing a good email is much harder, and theirs was intriguing.

Since then I’ve found myself listening to Charmer and (its predecessor) Knockoff a fair few times, so when it came to new material I was expecting some more crisp, laser-guided, precision-engineered modern pop music. It was quite a surprise to find that their forthcoming EP eschews the aesthetic of the first two singles in favour of a more lo-fi, acoustic palette.

It really suits them. Although shorn of the aural bells and whistles that made the previous two singles so intoxicating, Rest Up retains the power and the mystique that makes Almost Sex such an irresistible proposition. It’s a stripped-back affair for sure, but it’s just as potent and – much like the structure of Charmer in particular – just when you think you’ve got it sussed out, there are still surprises in store. These two can do no wrong. I recommend.

A conversation with Almost Sex

The new track is great. A departure in sound from the first two singles, but I really like the raw sound. I think I saw somewhere that the new EP is one of acoustic demos, but that kinda implies that they’re still works in progress. How come you’re releasing these songs now, as opposed to with the more elaborate approach of Charmer and Knockoff? I should also add that I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the release too…

We had written around 11 rough demos in the first two months of our remote collaboration, but when we finally came together to record, we ended up writing “Knockoff” and “Charmer” from scratch. We decided to release our third single, “Rest Up,” to kind of commemorate the way we had been writing together before we met in person. Most of our initial demos were just voice memos on our phones, and sometimes there is something so lovely and sweet about these lower quality recordings. We wanted to find a way to clean these up but keep the essence of the tracks, which is why “Rest Up” is recorded so differently.

• One of the things I found really interesting when I first came across you was your bio, which is quite enigmatic. How did Almost Sex come about? Also, it’s an intriguing name..

We met on a dating app in March of 2020 and bonded over the music and poetry we were both working on at the time. Within a week of matching, we had a few rough demos thrown together, and decided we needed a name for the project. Warren had a list of potential band names in her phone, and Almost Sex was the first on the list. The name seemed to fit what we were doing, so many things were almost happening, and we liked the idea that our songs would be so good, that listening to them would be…Almost Sex.

• Your writing intrigues me. I have spoken to a lot of songwriters since starting I Said Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve stumbled across anybody else that works in the way that you do – with one person providing the lyrics and the other the music. I mean, a lot of people do it, but not many people do it well… which you seem to do. I was wondering what you think makes your musical relationship work, but also how one of your tracks comes together?

When we were working remotely, the tasks of writing lyrics and melodies were almost completely separate. I (Warren) would write the lyrics and Nick would write melodies from there. The advantage to working this way is it pushed us both out of our comfort zones, and led to some pretty awesome demos. Since meeting, and being able to work together in the same room, things have become a lot more fluid; we can both give and get immediate feedback, so we each have our hands in more areas of the final product.

• Obviously last year was a bit of a write-off in many respects. In terms of launching your music though; what were your expectations, and has the response so far been what you envisaged?

Finding a partner on a dating app and forming a romantic as well as artistic connection was a huge item on the list of the unexpected events of 2020 for both of us. We believe in the music that we make, and we have incredibly supportive friends and family, so we are really proud of how our music is being received so far. Trying to get our music to new listeners without playing live shows, and in a way, marketing ourselves as a new couple, is something neither of us were really prepared for. As new DIY unsigned artists it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve really enjoyed working with some local folks like Bands do BK, who premiered Rest Up, Trevor Brenden our close friend and photographer/videographer, and our favorite local radio station, Radio Free Brooklyn.

• What kind of stuff do the both of you listen to, and what would you say are the main influences on the music that you’re making?

In the week after we matched, we made each other playlists of our favorite songs of all time, and found that we had a ton of artists in common, artists like Alt-j, Bon Iver, Modest Mouse, Neil Young, M. Ward, Dope Lemon, and Bright Eyes. We actually combined these and posted the playlist on our artist page, here. As for influences, all of the above artists and more. As you mentioned, the songs we have released so far each have a distinct vibe. We try not to limit ourselves with defining a genre or style, and plan to keep experimenting with our sound as we go.

• Finally, what are your plans for the future. Obviously there’s the new EP, but are you planning anything beyond that?

We absolutely cannot wait until it is safe for everyone to get back to live shows. In the meantime, we plan to round out two EPs, with our two different production styles. We will also be performing virtually on February 11th at 7:00 est, to celebrate the launch of Stuck In Notes, Volume II.

Check out Almost Sex on their Instagram and website.

Like what I’m doing with I Said Yeah? All content on here is free, however you can support the blog (and help sustain my caffeine habit) here.

New track: Sugarmoon – Autumn Leaves

I featured Sugarmoon on the blog last year when they released the lead track from their previous EP, The Only One. Like the other two tracks on the EP, it was a lovely thing; full of charm, joy, and it displayed a real gift for bittersweet melody. To give you an idea of the kind of ballpark they operate in, I described them at the time as sounding “kind of like Belle and Sebastian dressed as the Mamas and the Papas, playing a Brian Wilson song in a Ritchie Blackmore dream.”

Naturally when I saw that the Bristol five-piece were gearing up to release new material I was excited to see what else they had in store. Judging by their excellent new single Autumn Leaves, the answer is more of the same – which is in no way a bad thing at all. I am, after all, writing this about a band who take their inspiration from an eclectic range of sources and have a knack of sounding different with every track. And so Autumn Leaves continues their run of quietly confident, melancholic, warm, vintage pop – this time with some slinky Rhodes and a truly wonderful lead vocal from Sophie Jones thrown into the mix. I think I love this band.

As with The Only One, the new single is accompanied by a gorgeous video constructed from Super 8 footage. Writing on their Instagram, the band have said of the video:

In this second film, we enlisted Bristol animator and all round talent @stopmoharriett to look through the hours of footage we had, and craft a new tale that flowed hand-in-hand with Autumn Leaves. The result is a bittersweet snapshot of two people reflecting on good times they shared. We love the idea that this footage, when seen through new eyes, can be retold into something completely new.

A conversation with Ryan McMurtry and Sophie Jones from Sugarmoon

I really enjoyed your last EP. One thing I did think was great was the variation across the three tracks, and that you don’t seem limited to one particular style. It’s the same with fashion or the idea of what’s ‘cool’ or not; in the nicest possible sense I think you stand out a little from a lot of bands. Do you think much about a certain sound or style when you write?

Ryan: Firstly, thanks so much! I think as a group, we have a wide range of different things we like but we bond musically mostly over classic folk, blues, jazz and pop sounds. We don’t actively try to pursue any particular style, so it tends to be anything goes with song ideas, but by the time we have all chipped in and moulded something it usually comes out with some resemblance to those four genres in some way.

How do you work as a band when it comes to writing material. Do you chip away at songs as a group, or are you bringing in individual ideas and arranging them together?

Ryan: Usually, we come up with ideas at home on our own, it might be a full song or just a chorus or a riff or whatever, then we bring that to practice and everyone just says what they like or don’t like, suggests changes etc and we do that until we’re happy with it!

Sophie: I think they also evolve over time, as we play them and some things work and others don’t. Ryan is a bit of a songwriting machine – he often comes with three or four complete songs, that we then work out harmonies and instrumental bits around. We’re never short of new material and I think it keeps everyone inspired!

How did you get together as a band?

Ryan: So I worked with Sophie outside of music, and she played in a band with our keys player Joe. The three of us got together to jam, just covers for fun, and found we had great chemistry as musicians. So we found Dave (bass) and Ollie (drums) through Gumtree! We got really lucky with it because they are both awesome and have fitted us so well.

Autumn Leaves is a beautiful track. I was wondering whether you could talk a little about A) what it’s about, but also B) the process of recording? I’m guessing because of the restrictions this last year it’s been a different experience…

Ryan: Thank you! And sure, so:

A) It’s kind of about when you feel a change coming in your life, and it feels sad and bittersweet at the time. We talk about love in the song but change of any kind can be hard in life. But it usually works out for the best!

B) The recording was indeed very different for it. It started as a fun project to keep us all busy during lockdown and a chance just to learn some new recording skills, but the song began taking shape and we thought it sounded great, so we decided to release properly. 

It’s actually different to how we played it live before lockdown. It was in a different key and I sang it, but I lost my voice completely during lockdown 1, so we changed key and Sophie tried singing it, and it blew us all away, so we kept it like that!

Sophie: I really love singing this song! Ryan used to sing it at his solo gigs and it was always one of my favourites, so I feel very smug being able to steal it away! I think of it as being about the end of a relationship – not a loud dramatic one, but just one that’s naturally closing but you don’t want to let go just yet. 

We also made a really beautiful video to go with it (well, we basically forced Ryan’s girlfriend Harriet to do it!) which looks like a cool, French film with subtitles. It’s actually made from real cine footage of my grandparents on holiday in the 70s in Europe. I never knew either of them, but I have their piano, so for me, the song is kind of connected with them now too – how sweet it is to be able to see them on film, and how sad that I never got to play music with them.

Has the last year changed the way you approach music in general?

Ryan: We were definitely more of a ‘live’ band before lockdown. We played regularly and really thrive of live performance and sound, so it’s been strange without that. We have just focused instead on getting better at recording at home and taking time to create cool art to accompany our music, like videos etc. We can’t wait for live shows to return though!

Sophie: Definitely – we realised quite early on that if we didn’t record during lockdown periods, we would end up not playing as a band at all. It’s actually made us think about how we structure songs too, what works recorded vs live, and the satisfaction of having a few takes at something til you get it right. But I’m dying to get back to playing live!

• I get a sense from your socials that you’re itching to play in front of people again, but what would this year ideally look like for you?

Ryan: You’re right, playing in front of people again is what we’d really hope for, but who knows if that will happen this year! If not, then we’ll focus on staying close as a group, sharing new and weird ideas with each other, and being creative at home with new songs / recordings.

Sophie: Exactly – and just in case we’re faced with another year of musically twiddling our thumbs, we have some cool non-gig stuff in the pipeline. We’ve got more singles coming out and an animated video, which we’re super excited about!

You can find Sugarmoon on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Autumn Leaves is available to purchase via Bandcamp.

Like what I’m doing with I Said Yeah? All content on here is free, however you can support the blog (and help sustain my caffeine habit) here.

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