❉ In conversation with Suede guitarist Richard Oakes & producer/vocalist Sean McGhee aka Artmagic, on their new album.
After a break of six years, Artmagic have returned with their second album, The Songs of Other England. For those of us who loved their first album, Become The One You Love, it’s been a long wait.
I met up with the two members of Artmagic, Richard Oakes of Suede fame and Sean McGhee who’s worked with the likes of Andrew Montgomery, Britney Spears and Alison Moyet to talk about the new album and why there was such a long wait after their first.
“We finished the first record in 2011, put it out in 2012. The date kept slipping back because we were working with a PR team who kept asking if we’d put it back,” says Sean, “eventually we couldn’t put it back anymore because Richard was off making Bloodsports with Suede. It came out in July 2012. The following year we got commissioned to do a soundtrack for a documentary which was called Sell by Thirty directed by Dan Hall, of BBC Worldwide. As it happened, the documentary never got finished.”
Richard takes up the story, “Within a month or two of coming off the road with Blood Sports, we started the writing for Night Thoughts. We’d had great reviews and so we went straight on. Meanwhile you and I were trying to fit in our work too.”
The new album begins with a chorus of birdsong, as the music slowly fades in. It’s a slow, contemplative start, neatly setting the somewhat melancholy tone of the album. Through many of the songs on the album we see through the eyes of a cast of characters contemplating their lives. That many of them are concerned with traditional pursuits, farming, fishing, bird watching and poetry it seems that the unique English identity the band is searching for in both the song and the album is to be found within our traditional pursuits.
There’s a yearning melancholy in these characters. The Fisherman in The King of Fishers is lonely and lost. He’s hoping that love will one day hook him like a fish on his line but he finds himself unwilling to take the plunge into the deeper waters of life, not matter how much he really wants to. The farmer of The Farmer and the Field wants to make things grow on his land, to make something out of a bare patch of land. He works with the sound of birdsong in the background, connected to the natural world around him. The Fruit of the Mystery sees an older woman contemplate her life now that’s she’s freed herself from the neuroticism that religion instilled in her.
I asked whether this had been a deliberate choice this time round.
“I love melancholy in anything. I’m slightly suspicious of anything that’s just jolly,” Sean laughs. “I never consciously sat down and thought I want to approach things lyrically from a different direction. Our first record wasn’t autobiographical but a lot of the lyrics were drawn from my life. We wrote Fruit of the Mystery just after Become the One You Love was finished, a song about an old Catholic woman abandoning her faith and I thought that’s a much more interesting place to be.”
“We recorded that on a bit of a whim, not ‘Hey, day one of a new album’”, continues Richard. “The moment the process starts and the journey begins it goes in all sorts of directions. There’s no point really having a preconception of a sound or direction because it never turns out like that anyway.”
“While there are things drawn from my own life here is also a fair amount of metaphor on the record,” says Sean. “I found myself writing these little sketches, so you’ve got the farmer, the fisherman, the birdwatcher, the old woman and Into the Light is about a poet. I have a great deal of sympathy for all the people in these songs. I know they’re lightly sketched but I can see them and the lives they live. The woman in The Boys Own Book of Birds is a middle aged Muslim woman who drives a black people carrier and lives in Essex. I can see the estuary she wants to return to, to do the birdwatching in. The guy in The King of Fishers; I couldn’t figure out why he was alone in this loveless repetitive life. Originally verse two was going to be about him being a late middle aged gay man, who’d lost all his friends to the AIDS crisis in the 80s.I couldn’t make that fly without writing a treatise. It was a bit too on the nose. I thought it was better if he was just sad with that feeling of being lost and frozen. That’s where he is and where we leave him.”
“The poet in Into the Light is actually A.E. Housman, I’m a big fan. He was a homosexual man at the end of the nineteenth, turn of the twentieth century. A lot of his work is wistful poems about young men going off to war, young men going to prison or young men going to be hanged… you can spot what he’s writing about!. I had this image of him writing in his office in Highgate, spending his time working on his translations and his poetry, living this solitary life and I was thinking ‘where’s his succor in the middle of this life?’”
Black Flowers Bloom and The Dark of the Human Heart are both suffused with an edge of uneasiness with the world as it is at the moment. Black Flowers Bloom looks at how past shame and bitterness can poison “every hopeful fruit” that tries to grow in a poisoned atmosphere, while The Dark of the Human Heart takes a really cynical look at human life. It’s a really interesting song and the music positively bristles with anger, reflecting the dark themes brilliantly.
“We won’t say who The Dark of the Human Heart is about,” says Richard.
Sean laughs, “Let’s not go there!”
“Yeah it’s about REDACTED!” Richard reveals. “It wouldn’t be hard to suss it out!”
“It’s really a song about human weakness” explains Sean. “Our theory was in this time of social media and the rise of the Far Right, how as a nation and as a world, it’s amazing how quickly we revert to a horrible, cruel type. People talk about the human heart being where love and affection originates and I started thinking maybe that’s horseshit. Maybe it’s the case that the human heart is the source of all hate and negativity; that desire to see everybody fail and see people suffer. Perhaps it’s the intellect that’s the balancing weight and drags the heart to a level where the two are in sync. I think current events in the world would bear me out on that, which is a bit depressing.”
It’s quite reassuring then that despite these dark themes, the album ends with some hope. Song for the Snowfall is all about how an unexpected snowfall can bring beauty and hope to life. It’s a quiet, delicate song which gives us a little bit of optimism at how we can all be transformed back to being the little child who looks with wonder at the snow, if we try hard. We can all sing for our lives.
This really reflects the theme of the title track, The Songs of Other England. This song is the key to the album as it details the search for England and an English identity through the songs of other singers, especially those in the folk tradition. The traditional songs and their singers are always there for us to find when we need them. Englishness isn’t all about flag waving football fans and Brexit; there are bigger traditions that define us.
Sean explains, “I don’t want to overegg this, because it’s kind of becoming a manifesto, I started listening to loads of English folk music but I didn’t want to bring the musical influence of that anywhere near what we’re doing because I really wanted to keep Richard’s musical voice. Lyrically, although they sound so old fashioned, the narratives in those folksongs address so much that’s still important to us. I think that’s where these characters came from and it’s served us pretty well. It’s a new area for us and I feel like I’ve learnt something as a lyricist.”
“We started work in 2014 and such a lot happened between then and now where you wake up and think, what’s happened now?” Richard carries on, “There was that year when everyone died, then Brexit; it was a different thing every week. That must have had some influence on the album.”
“I had a moment where I thought we had to write a song about isn’t Brexit shit but it’d turn into a diatribe,” laughs Sean. “There are subtler ways of doing that. It’s a really interesting fuel for writing but I think if you try to do it head on, it generally tends to be a bit shit!”
This theme is also very clear in the evocative album artwork. The band has a close relationship with their artist, Peter James Field and there was a lot of collaboration between them on the imagery used this time round, as Richard elaborates. “This time we sent him demos as we worked, then finished tracks and he was thinking of ideas cos he knew we wanted him to be involved again. That probably helped him choose the best image for the album. The album cover image has a row of houses in Shoreham and an expanse of water so it looks like a tiny little island with tiny little houses and tiny people living inside them. That’s how England seems now. Small.”
“It’s also observational; you’re watching all these people and commenting from a distance,” notes Sean, “When he talked us through it, this was the one it had to be.”
Richard Oakes is really at the forefront of many of the songs with far more prominent guitar, particularly on The Boys Own Book of Birds where his lead guitar swoops and calls like the birds wheeling through the Essex sky. It creates a really evocative soundscape, contrasting beautifully with McGhee’s sweeter vocal tones. Oakes’ guitar also suffuses the yearning of Into the Light which, as mentioned, contemplates the life of poet A.E. Housman, pulling at him, almost trying to rouse him into action. While Become the One You Love was very dense musically, this album has more room to breathe.
These new songs have more space within them and these breaks are welcome. The simplicity of the arrangements work well, especially as many of the songs have such warm melodies. The music helps sell the lives of the characters we meet, especially so in The King of the Fishers, where the music ebbs and flows like the water flowing in the river. The treatment of McGhee’s vocals in the second verse really drags the listener down under the water with the fisherman as he’s tempted by the images in his dreams. It’s very effective and works because it’s not over-egged.
I wondered if this simplicity was something they’d aimed for.
“On our first album,” Sean begins, “Richard would demo a full piece of music at home with sample drums, bass, possibly piano and bring that to me. When we worked on the documentary that way of working changed. I would be auditioning melodies in front of Richard which we’d not really done before. It was ‘We need these pieces of music and we need to do it quickly’, I’d sit at the piano, you’d have your guitar and we’d start thrashing about. When we came to think seriously about writing for the new album that was the place we started from; we were going to generate everything together from scratch”
“It was really new to me, nothing like how I’d worked with Suede. Brett always liked to go into another room and write his melodies alone.”
“A good example of how we approached putting songs together on the first record is a track called Submerged,” Richard explains. “It started as a little bit of spidery guitar I brought in and we built this soundscape up around it. We had the license back then to spend weeks and weeks doing that. On this album we wanted to have an idea of what it would sound like before we pressed record.”
Sean picks up on this, “Submerged is a good example of an area I wanted us to stray away from because it was really dense musically. You’ve got the strings, keyboards, bass, guitars, and you’ve also got samples of my shower in there! I got so sick of the sound of my own voice on the first album. I start singing at bar one and don’t stop until the very end of that record! When we were writing this record we thought let’s write musical themes and melodies that don’t involve me singing. I love the fact that The Farmer and the Field has a keyboard solo”.
Richard continues. “It was interesting because we were generating all these ideas together. I’d never worked like that until we started the second phase of writing on Blood Sports. In the first phase, we’d write in the same way we’d always had; writing music at home and bringing it to the band, and saying here’s my art,” he laughs, “but we just weren’t getting any results at all, so we had to all be there in the room together and say “Ok, right, ideas” and do it more as a kind of brainstorming. That was how the best music for Blood Sports came about.”
“Remember early on when we were writing?“ says Sean, “I’d say ‘we need a guitar line here’ and you’d say, ‘I need to go away and think about it’ and I was like, ‘No you’ll be fine!’”
“It took me a long time to be comfortable with that,” reveals Richard. “With Suede you can spend hours playing with different ideas and nobody is bothered, but you have to get used to instant rejection. When you’re working together it helps you come up with the material that touches everybody. Luckily you’re quite open minded about what I come up with!’
Sean replies, “I think it’s important that we both have a power of veto. If one of us really doesn’t like something then the other one isn’t going to force it through. So we came up with 25 ideas and whittled it down to the 14 we finished. Of the left over stuff, there is a couple I’d like to revisit, but they didn’t get used because they’re not really good enough. Bands are often quite dishonest about this, ‘Oh yeah, we wrote 50 songs’ but they don’t tell you that 30 of them were terrible!’
“In Suede we might write 100 songs to get 10 good ones, because the other 90 are just not worth working on. People hear about them and ask you about stuff you were working on, but there’s a reason you haven’t heard it… because it’s shit!” Richard chuckles!
The Songs of Other England really does see Artmagic grow and mature as a band. This is an album that doesn’t necessarily reveal its full worth on the first listen which is great because it has enough ambiguity and beauty within it to reward repeated listens. It’s an understated, melancholy collection of songs and as an album it holds together beautifully. I really recommend you immerse yourself in their wistful little world
As Sean himself says, “The new album puts everything up front. You don’t have to fill every corner, you don’t have to hear a song and it lands first time, you can give it a chance to breathe and give the listener a chance find their way into it. Just be simple. I’m really happy with it”
❉ Artmagic – ‘The Songs Of Other England’ released 15th June 2018 worldwide via Artmagicmusic / AWAL. CD exclusive to http://artmagic.bandcamp.com – preorders now open.