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Interview: Blair Dunlop discusses making the album he wanted to make with Notes From an Island

The singer-songwriter gives us a glimpse into the making of his new record.

Blair Dunlop
Credit: Blair Dunlop

Fresh from wrapping up a successful Australian tour, Blair Dunlop has launched his fourth studio album, Notes From An Island, a release that draws on personal experiences, as well as insights into the current socio-political landscape.

He says it is “comfortably my best album to date”, and follows on from the highly-regarded debut, Blight & Blossom (which won the coveted Horizon Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), the 2014 release, House Of Jacks, and 2016’s, Gilded.

The latest body of work features close collaborations with Ed Harcourt, Dave Burn and Gita Langley, plus long-term band mates, Fred Claridge and Jacob Stoney.

I caught up with Blair to discuss Notes From An Island, ahead of his upcoming second Australian tour, gigs and festivals in the UK, and a major Autumn tour.

Congratulations on the new album! What did you set out to achieve on Notes From An Island, and do you think it’s different to work you’ve released in the past?

Thank you. I guess I didn’t set out to do anything other than make an album I wanted to make. As the songs formed themselves, the themes and threads came together to make something cohesive, which is fortunate. In terms of the material, it’s not wildly dissimilar to my previous works, though there are more personal songs, but the production is slightly edgier. I played more electric on this record, but only because I wrote the songs on a particular Gretsch, it wasn’t a conscious decision.

Will long-time fans notice any difference in sound or style? Where did you source a lot of your inspiration from?

I think it’s different enough to seem fresh, but recognisable enough to not alienate them. Again, none of this has been conscious, it just kind of sits there. My inspiration came from personal experiences I had, particularly heightened anxieties I had in 2016. There’s also an element of social commentary, hard to avoid given the current climate.

How did you approach the songwriting for this record and what did you want to achieve?

All I wanted to achieve was a sense of catharsis through the writing, and I definitely achieved that. I had more to get off my chest than I’ve had before. In that sense, it’s probably a more self-indulgent record, but I don’t care about that, I wrote the songs for me. The feedback has been better than ever, though, so it’s not a blueprint I’ll shy away from in the future.

Blair Dunlop

Credit: Blair Dunlop

What was it like teaming up with Ed Harcourt, Dave Burn and Gita Langley? What was the partnership like, and what did they bring to the table? I think you worked with Gita last time, is that right?

Yes, that’s right. They’re all great to work with and they bring their own qualities to the table. I don’t really like co-writing in all honesty, so I’ve got to really like working with someone to work with them on songs. The vast majority of what I do is totally self-penned, but it’s good to exercise that facet of collaborative writing every now and then. Also, Dave managed to get me into the Spurs’ training ground the other day, so that’s a relationship I’m gonna keep cultivating haha.

Going into album number four, did you have a clearer idea of what you wanted out of the end result?

There are certain minutiae within the writing process that I’m always ‘streamlining’, I guess. That’s no different to any previous record, though… it’s just finding your voice as a writer. The recording process was slightly different. The producer, Ed Harcourt, and engineer Dani Bennett-Spragg, were essential to the process and both brilliant in their own right. Getting the balance of personalities right in the studio is so important and I think we got that bang on, between them and the other musicians.

Did you find the current social and political climate affected your writing and what you wanted to say?

Yes, definitely. I never think of myself as a political writer, certainly not in an overt sense. However, the parallels between my personal unrest and the national unrest were patently clear! The album strikes a balance between them, but it’s not a political or concept album in the traditional sense. It’s a personal record with a few wider, societally-framed questions being asked.

Where did you record, and what was the recording and production process like?

We recorded the bulk of the record over two weeks at Hoxa HQ in West Hampstead. It’s a beautiful space, and Ed and Dani were a joy to work with. The perfect balance of steaming through stuff in the day, and a few late-night, whiskey-infused live takes.

Is it important to you to creatively merge genres, rather than stick to one sound or style?

I don’t see it in those terms, really. I think it’s important to draw influence from as many places or ‘genres’ as possible but, tempering your output with stylistic stereotypes will be the death of anything worthwhile, in my opinion.

You’ve just returned from an Australian tour! What’s it like performing to Aussie audiences and what’s the reception like from your fanbase there?

Yes, I’ve just come back from Australia and that was one of the best tours I’ve ever done. Their criteria for what constitutes ‘folk’ music is a lot broader and less compartmentalised. It’s just roots music to them, and that lack of a distinction suits me perfectly, as I often fall between the cracks. The festivals are something else, everyone literally has a sunny disposition.

And, what are you most looking forward to about touring the UK again?

M&S Simply Food.

Notes From An Island is available now via Gilded Wing Records. Watch a live performance of Within My Citadel below:

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