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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

The best of 2020 in ten songs

It’s the end of the year, and as promised here is the inaugural I Said Yeah yearly round-up. It’s exciting stuff. I know, I know…

I’ve been thinking a little bit about what the best approach for this kind of thing would be. I’ve only been writing since July, so the idea of having the top five albums would be kind of pointless, as I’ve probably only covered five in total. To be honest, I’d be amazed if I’ve managed to do that many. Writing about an album (or an EP, for that matter) in any meaningful way takes fucking ages. That is, of course, unless you’re one of those shitehawks taking a tenner a pop on Musosoup to listen to twenty-odd seconds of most of the tracks and cobble together some inane rubbish mixed with the band’s press release (fifteen-plus if you count the charge on top for all that nonexistent advertising you’re *definitely* going to get across social media). Cough cough. Ahem.

I got sidetracked again there. I’ll save anymore ranting about that stuff for the follow-up piece on my recent Payola article that’s in the works. The point I had been trying to steer myself towards was that the idea of listing albums and EPs seems a little too restrictive, as I’ve covered far more single tracks. Also, I’m not really comfortable with the idea of ranking them in order of how good they are. The whole idea with I Said Yeah is that I only cover stuff that I think is great, and therefore worth sharing. Plus, ranking music in that way reminds me of lists on MySpace, the anxiety of choosing the right top 8 friends, and that small picture of Tom. Smiling Tom. Wholesome Tom. You’d never see Tom being summoned to appear in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

Anyway, now that you’re sufficiently briefed bored; here – in no particular order – is a list of ten of my personal favourite tracks featured on this blog in 2020.

Asylums – Catalogue Kids

Southend-on-Sea’s Asylums hit the ground running after a year away with the insanely good Catalogue Kids. As the first taster of the material on their third LP, Genetic Cabaret, it pulled no punches either. Essentially they took everything they did well on their first two records and stamped into overdrive. Recording with the legendary Steve Albini in Chicago seems to have unlocked a new confidence in the band, and nowhere does it leap out at the listener more than on Catalogue Kids – although it must be said that its follow-up single, Platitudes, is also right up there. Both hit like an early Manics single too; full of restless energy and channeled anger, and I’m all for that. Anyway, the album that followed was their best yet, and with the band working away in isolation over the last six months on new material, don’t rule out album four arriving before 2021’s out.

Check out my original review of Genetic Cabaret, as well as a short interview with Luke from the band, here.

Peter Cat – The Day After the Funeral

Peter Cat’s debut album, The Saccharine Underground, is full of literary-leaning pop songs in the vein of The Divine Comedy, Pulp, and Franz Ferdinand. It’s the kind of rich, finely-crafted record that doesn’t come along very often, and in an alternate universe it’s surely picking up plaudits left, right, and centre. I’d like to think it will become something of a cult classic in the years to come, and from my limited communication with its architect – Glasgow-based Graham Neil Gillespie – I imagine that he’d be perfectly happy with that. The Day After the Funeral is the standout track on the record – dealing with the cold mundanity of life, death, fried eggs, and much more. The final third has me welling up every time. It’s stately, elegant, poetic, profound, modest, and extraordinary all at once. Go listen, and maybe snag yourself a copy of the LP on vinyl while you can.

Check out my reviews of ASMR and The Saccharine Underground, as well as an in-depth interview with Gillespie here.

Izzie Yardley – I’m Still Here

Recorded remotely over the first lockdown period, I’m Still Here is a song that deals with the concepts of absence and grief to great effect. It’s a truly sublime thing; built up from a sparse live take of just Yardley and acoustic guitar, the song is augmented beautifully by an understated string arrangement which helps to elevate it further still. In my review, I harped on for ages about how there’s music for music’s sake and then there’s art. Months later, I stand by it: I’m Still Here stands as a timeless piece of work that still moves me. Rather than blather on about the track anymore, I’ll point you back to that original piece. Also, before you go, make sure that you check out Yardley’s previous, equally-beguiling single, Aurelia, too. Here’s hoping for some new material over the next twelve months.

Beckah Amani – Standards

I was watching some documentary on Sky Documentaries the other day (could there be a more middle-class, privileged opening than that?) and somebody was saying something to the effect of “great art doesn’t just reflect the world around it, but it has something to say about it”. Anyway, that’s the way that I feel about Beckah Amani’s Standards. Released in the wake of the BLM protests over the summer, it’s without question the most powerful two-and-a-half-minutes of music I heard this year. Just Amani’s extraordinary voice set against her sparse acoustic guitar; the track pulls no punches in chronicling what it’s like to grow up as a young black woman in a predominantly white neighborhood – and specifically the pressures to conform to the standards of others. It’s devastating. What a song, and what a talent. Her follow-up single, Stranger, is out now and – spoiler alert – is also awesome. Check out my review of Standards here, and look out for an interview with Beckah in the new year.

Matti Jasu – A Love Story

Matti Jasu’s Up and Running is one of the real highlights of 2020 for me. I lived with it for a long time before finally posting my review, and picking a favourite from it has proved to be no easy task. However; the melancholic, bittersweet A Love Story – with its gorgeous brass and string swells, mellotron, and Soft Bulletin vibes – is a real gem. If you’re a fan of the Flaming Lips, Beck, the Walker Brothers and early Wilco then you’ll find a lot to love here. Every now and then as a blogger you find yourself wondering why you are bothering to write about new music, then you come across somebody like Jasu and it all makes sense. There’s so much great music being made right now – and in a lot of cases you have to look past the Miles Kanes of the world, and the sniveling little buzz bands on Jools Holland, and dig a little deeper to find it. With four equally-brilliant LPs under his belt, Jasu is the real deal. Check out my review of Up and Running, as well as an interview with Matti here. Also, get over to Bandcamp and order his back catalogue.

Merry Christmas – Magnets

As with Matti Jasu and Peter Cat, Tokyo’s Merry Christmas released a pretty flawless LP this year. Before I say anything about Magnets, I just want to throw it out into the universe that the physical version of The Night The Night Fell is a beautiful thing, complete with some gorgeous illustration work (by Yuki from the band) that further brings the unique story of the record to life. You can get it from Bandcamp right now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Merry Christmas are a band that put as much thought into their artwork as they do into their music, and I love that. Anyway, it was difficult to pick a track from the album – as it’s full of songs that are contenders – but one of my absolute favourites is Magnets. As a track, it kinda encapsulates everything that’s great about Merry Christmas; it’s surprising, ambitious, melodic, uplifting, melancholic, a little ramshackle in places, and a lot of fun. Other highlights include the more straightforward (or as straightforward as Merry Christmas can get) Shapes Appearing, or Meredith Bites the Earth, but for me it’s the understated emotional heft of Magnets that hits hardest. Check out my review of the album here, as well as a great interview with Ben and Yuki from the band here.

Campbell Sibthorpe – Good Lord

Campbell Sibthorpe’s Ytown EP was the second release that I covered on the blog back in July, and I had a strong sense at the time that it was going to be right up there fighting for the top spot in whatever end-of-the-year list I would inevitably end up doing. Ytown itself is a near-perfect seven song collection that vividly paints the story of a young man returning to his hometown, revisiting memories and reliving the emotions that come with the journey. It’s the echoes of the adolescent yearning to leave one’s hometown, seen through the eyes of the same little kid who left returning as an adult. The songwriting is right up there with anything I’ve heard this year, and the production – also by Sibthorpe himself – is superb. Of all the tracks on the EP, it’s Good Lord that just shades it for me. It struck me as being perhaps the most powerful and cathartic four minutes on an EP absolutely packed full of them. There are a lot of people looking forward to new music from Campbell, and I’m very much one of them.

Read my review of Ytown here, and an in-depth interview with Campbell here.

SMSR – Gentle Seed

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me came in the form of Jakarta’s SMSR; a five-piece whose stock in trade is a shit-hot hybrid of prog, rock, indie, psych, jazz, and pop. Of their three superb singles this year, the mysterious, poetic, and magnificent Gentle Seed left the biggest mark on me. If you’re a fan of Tame Impala or Grizzly Bear, these guys may well be right up your street. There’s an undeniably 80s vibe running through their music, but it’s buried underneath a modern aesthetic – with slick production and unconventional song structures that keep you guessing. This track in particular benefits from a gorgeous ethereal vocal that flawlessly ties everything together. In short; Gentle Seed is brilliant, as are the band. Check out my original review here.

Funeral Lakes – Eternal Return

Eternal Return is the opening track from Canadian duo Funeral Lakes’ 2020 EP, Golden Season. It takes a special band to walk the line between all-out protest and accessibility without toppling straight into preachy sloganeering, and that’s what’s so great about what Chris Hemer and Sam Mishos are doing. Their music is fueled by an anger at the world around them, yet channelled succinctly into finely-crafted indie folk anthems. Eternal Return is a treat, from beginning to end – building from a relatively sedate opening into an exhilarating coda that takes aim at “toxic masculinity and the scourge of petro-nationalism, along with the misery fueled by the false promises of politicians”. Fans of their compatriots Arcade Fire will no doubt find a lot to like about Funeral Lakes, but there’s a lot more to them than superficial similarities to one of the greatest bands of their generation. As with everything in this list, I look forward to whatever comes next for these guys.

Check out my review of Golden Season here, and an interview with Sam and Chris from the band here.

Mehalah Ray – Nevermind

Much like Izzie Yardley’s I’m Still Here, somewhere up above, Mehalah Ray’s Nevermind is one of those tracks that seemed to float out of nowhere and completely floor me. Essentially a song about cutting away something (or someone) that’s holding you back in order to move on and thrive in the long run, it’s a slow-moving beauty of a track that moves over you like a wave of emotion. Underneath the gorgeous woodwind swells, shimmering electric guitar, and brushed percussion is a rich, earthy acoustic guitar that keeps things moving ever-forward. It’s the kind of song – like Yardley’s – that almost has the power to lift you from one place and into another. Utterly gorgeous work.

Read my review of Nevermind here.

A little about the future of the blog

So that’s that. I never presume that anybody really looks at this stuff, but I’ll say it anyway: thanks for reading and I hope that you might have found something amongst these ten songs that piqued your interest. And, if you’ve genuinely read a bit of my writing over the last few months: cheers for that too. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care that much about numbers and stuff – because on some level I think everybody does – but I genuinely did not expect to end 2020 with 350 followers of the blog on Instagram, and 200 on Twitter. Of course, the stats for the actual site are way, way lower – still hovering under 3,000 views, with the highest view count of a single piece at 117 – but it’s cool to know that some people are looking, and that some of my writing has meant as much to some artists as good, honest, organic reviews have meant to me when our band have had a cool write-up. If nothing else, that’s why I spend time writing this stuff.

The plan is to keep going in 2021, although posts will likely be less frequent and shorter in length. Time is scarce, and on top of this we’re back to focusing on getting another record made, so – between caring for my son who rarely sleeps, spending time with my wife, making a record, and keeping up with I Said Yeah – it’s the blog that can be reeled in a bit. In truth, I never envisaged covering this much stuff in the first six months or so, and unless I wind it back a bit there’s no way I can continue to do it. After all, it’s just me here. So I’ll still be here writing about stuff, shouting into the gaping abyss of the internet, and generally paying it forward, but more sporadically and in more compact posts – probably more like the round-ups in these last two. That’s it really. Please keep sending me cool stuff and I’ll see what I can do…

Have a good Christmas. Be seeing you.

December round-up

With Christmas fast approaching, I’m struggling to keep up with everything that needs to be done – both in terms of this blog, and more importantly, real life. We have a very unusual routine at the best of times in our house, but at a time like Christmas (especially during the pandemic) it’s just crazy. I’ll save you the boring details, but essentially because time is at a premium I’ve decided to combine a few bits I’d committed to covering in some way into one bumper festive package.

It’s very unlikely I’ll be posting anything substantial on here until the new year now – possibly with the exception of some kind of ‘best of‘ thing looking back over the last six months of me harping on about new music, and maybe with a top five of my favourite releases or something like that. I dunno. Seems like that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do, right? Kinda like episodes of American sitcoms where the writers run out of good episode ideas and just stick loads of clips from the funny ones together. God, it was a sad day when even The Office did it… although having said that, it was nowhere near as painful as every single second that Nellie was on screen. Awful Nellie. Awful, awful, awful. If the long-rumoured reboot has to happen – as we all know it will – then please, please, please don’t do it with Nellie involved. Awful. Awful Nellie. PLEASE.

Anyway, before I do all that; here’s some cool stuff that ideally I wanted to write about in a little more detail, but… you know… life gets in the way someone’s. To top things off, I knocked the passenger side wing mirror off our car yesterday morning by reversing into our brown wheelie bin (luckily not upending it and spilling a good 50lbs of rotting food and fat slugs into the road) and then we got the dreaded call from NHS Test and Trace today too. Isolation until the twenty-third. Merry Christmas.

Native Son – Metro Dread (EP)

Released last month, Native Son’s Metro Dread is an insanely good seven-track debut EP that takes in jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, soul, trip-hop, and dance – often in the same song. As a writer, performer, and producer this guy is something else. A couple of months back I wrote about a track called Domme Kinderen – a track that was like an explosion of ideas all competing for your attention at the same time… kind of like a toddler with a two-litre bottle of Dr. Pepper, and the rest of the set is just as vital. On paper, it’s one of those releases that you’d think would be all over the place, but in practice it’s masterfully done.

Highlights: The whole thing is essential listening, but the skittering, scuzzy, jazz-chords-and-sax juggernaut that is Ragtime takes it for me.

FFO: Frank Ocean, Prince, Blood Orange, King Krule, LCD Soundsystem

The Vice – Songs For No One (EP)

Mikkel Dahl and Jesper Klinge are no strangers to this blog, having featured a couple of months back with their excellent single, Things I Tell Myself. The Copenhagen-based duo specialise in intensely-melodic, smart, introspective pop songs that have a habit of burrowing deep into your subconscious. Songs For No One is an intriguing debut EP, showcasing their intelligence and experimental nature across six diverse tracks.

“The only reason I do what I do is to have fun. It may sound weird as almost all of my songs are dealing with some kind of melancholic loneliness, but it’s always been very important to me to find the stuff in there that makes me laugh. I guess I found a way to welcome my sadness with a smile and I hope that translates in our music.”

Mikkel Dahl on Songs For No One

Highlights: The aforementioned Things I Tell Myself still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when I first heard it. Likewise its predecessor and first single, F.U. – but it’s the new tracks like the fragile Music, with its baroque flair, and the closing Realest Feeling that have been stuck in my mind for days. At under twenty-minutes though, there’s really no reason not to check out the whole thing.

FFO: Tame Impala, Phoenix, The 1975, LA Priest

Anna McLuckie – Water The Plants (Single)

Frequent readers of my writing (let’s pretend that they exist for the purpose of this piece) will perhaps be familiar with the name Anna McLuckie. Over the past couple of months I’ve written two pieces covering the most recent EP by her band Diving Station, which is a real joy. Anyway, Water The Plants is the first single to be taken from her forthcoming LP – Today, Everyday – and, true to form, it’s another beautiful thing. Much like her work with Diving Station, it’s an intensely intricate affair that draws upon rich instrumentation – this time a very rustic-sounding ensemble of acoustic layers that join the dots between contemporary songwriting and traditional folk.

“I think what I like most when writing is to observe feelings and thoughts that are experienced by everyone at some point, but in the moment of them happening feel particularly intense or significant. In Water The Plants this is specific to a time when I was frustrated with the repetition of everyday life and how much power these small things had over me. A lot of these observations are meant to be comically petty and I wanted the end section with the choral “ahhhs” to almost be like a sigh of release from this.”

Anna McLuckie on Water The Plants

To accompany the track, McLuckie has enlisted Stockport-based artist Luca Shaw – who also provides the artwork for the LP – to create a vibrant animated visual capturing the mood of the piece.

Beckah Amani – Stranger (Single)

It feels as if there’s a thousand rocks tied to my feet / The air I breathe in is as thick as bricks

So begins (and ends) Beckah Amani’s follow-up to Standards, which – if you missed it – was her extraordinary debut single from a few weeks back. Whereas Standards saw Amani tackle issues of race and white privilege head on, Strangers has its sights set firmly on toxic relationships. As with its predecessor, it’s a stripped-back affair that makes the most of her considerable lyrical, melodic, and vocal talents. In short: the Queensland singer-songwriter is phenomenal, and one gets the feeling she’s only going to get better with each release too. Strangers bodes very well for 2021.

While on the subject of Beckah Amani; she’s also just dropped a rather stunning visual for Standards. Have a look below, and get following her over on Instagram pronto for further updates.

Remy Sher – Fool’s Gold (EP)

The first thing I thought when I heard Remy Sher’s Rain in LA a couple of months back was something along the lines of ‘this guy was born 30 years too late’. And I must stress that I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s more that the music he’s making is very reminiscent of a certain time and place; namely Laurel Canyon, 1973. It figures too, as Sher is a young artist that hails from the very place that seemed to be the beating heart of sun-kissed 70s rock.

Anyway, I was completely won over by Rain in LA – with its classic sound and surprising twists – and have been looking forward to seeing what else Sher had up his sleeve. The answer is a very promising debut EP. Described by Sher as a “four-track tale of love, heartbreak and the road ahead“, the EP was recorded in Los Angeles with a live trio – at the centre of which is Sher’s grounding acoustic guitar. It’s an interesting listen, and one that is full of ideas that point to a bright future.

Highlights: For me, it’s still Rain in LA taking the title, but the other three tracks are more than worthy of your time. A close second is the restless, shape-shifting Movie. The sound of the three stripped back tracks really suit Sher’s writing, which fizzles along with a frenetic energy, and I look forward to seeing where 2021 takes him.

FFO: Dylan, David Crosby, Randy Newman, Tobias Jesso Jr.

Brits & Pieces – Various Artists (Album)

Love it or loathe it, the 90s undoubtedly represents a hugely influential time for British independent music. This was a time when the term indie still largely referred to the actual word independent too; some time before it was reduced to shorthand for boys in skinny jeans wearing T-shirts and ties, and awards ceremonies sponsored by Wella Shockwaves. Not that I’m bitter of course. Anyway, why am I going on about this?

The reason is because of Brits & Pieces; a new compilation CD featuring a plethora of young guitar bands, curated by a chap named Marc who happens to run a brilliant Twitter page that shares its name with the album. Inspired by classic 90s compilations like Shine, his idea was to do a similar thing featuring young bands financially affected by the pandemic – with all money going back to those artists.

If you’re old enough to remember a time when Pulp got to blow £100k on a video (This Is Hardcore. Worth every penny), the Super Furries spent their advance from Creation on a tank with a soundsystem, or Mansun threw £25k onto the concourse at Liverpool Street Station in rush hour, then you might be the kind of person interested in this. It’s available to order via Rough Trade now. Be sure check out Brits & Pieces on Twitter too.

Night Bus Revival – Tragic Magic (EP)

Due to be released on December look p of up of pop 11, Night Bus Revival’s Tragic Magic makes for an intimate, intriguing listen. Fans of artists in the vein of Father John Misty, Bon Iver, and Souljacker-and-Shootenanny!-era Mark Oliver Everett will find a lot to love in these five songs, and with good reason too – each one exuding a lo-fi charm and an honesty that captivates. There’s also something about the circumstances around the EP that appeals too; much like Bon Iver’s fabled For Emma, Forever Ago, these confessionals are born out of a relocation from the city to the countryside. While the rural British landscape might differ considerably from remote Wisconsin, the sentiment still rings true. There are plenty of surprises in store, and more than enough depth to his songwriting to keep you returning again and again.

Highlights: Opener Nowhere sounds not unlike a distant cousin to something from Beck Hansen’s songbook circa Sea Change, but it’s the desolate, raw 2:47 am on the hotel bathroom floor that stays with you long after the lights go out.

FFO: Father John Misty, Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, Eels

Smotherly Love – Predestinate Grooves (EP)

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t conclude this round-up with something new and exciting from Essex. Smotherly Love is the pseudonym of multi-instrumentalist Sam Masters, and Predestinate Grooves is his first EP. Truth be told, my plan had been to publish this article yesterday and be done with it for the year – but this really jumped out at me. My first response (the laziest one) was that Masters has a similar sonic palette to Kevin Parker. While this is true to a large extent, it’s also a disservice to his work as there’s an awful lot going on beneath the surface. There’s a real tenderness on tracks like the gorgeous closer Water, Revisited that contrast with the more straight-up psych jams.

In addition to Masters’ stellar songwriting and the pitch-perfect production, I really like the short instrumental sequences that serve as mood pieces between the tracks. Crucially, none of it feels contrived either; just the result of a writer with an endless supply of ideas. Speaking as one half of a band whose last (desperately unsuccessful) record was a psych-pop maximalist blowout pushing forty tracks, I dig.

Highlights: the sprawling 60s-psych groove of Effort vs. Reward rolls along on a sweet, thick, repetitive bass line that pulls you in and rewards you with some great guitar work. Likewise the brilliantly-named The Slipping Forecast, and the falsetto-soaked gem that is Unsafe Lenghts. To be honest though, it’s all fucking brilliant. Looking forward to what will follow.

FFO: Tame Impala, early Pink Floyd, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The Flaming Lips