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.
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