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Interview: Newton Faulkner talks new album, touring and songwriting

We caught up with the singer-songwriter as he releases his latest album, The Very Best Of Newton Faulkner… So Far.

Newton Faulkner
Credit: Newton Faulkner

Newton Faulkner first burst onto the UK music scene back in 2007 with the release of his debut album, Handbuilt By Robots.

The album topped the UK charts, went double platinum and spawned the top 10 hit single Dream Catch Me. Faulkner has since followed it up with five more records, most recently 2017’s Hit The Ground Running. Now he’s releasing his first ‘best of’ album, The Very Best Of Newton Faulkner… So Far, before heading out on a UK tour this spring.

I caught up with Newton recently to find out about the new record, his tour plans, how his songwriting process has changed and his favourite covers. Read more below…

Why did you feel now was the right time to put out a ‘best of’ album?

It just feels like a kind of line in the sand time for me. I feel like things have moved. When I went independent that was a huge step, and that was on the last album I did – Hit The Ground Running was a fully independent release. And that felt like a step out on my own. But also in that album I found what I’d been looking for in all the others. So I feel like that album was a stopping point in some ways. So from the first album to that album there is a line. Obviously all the albums are very different to each other – there are some completely acoustic ones and some that are massively produced.

I tend to do the same thing every other album which is quite odd. I tend to start really kind of observational, then go really expressive on the next one, then go really observational on the next one, as if I’m kind of reacting to myself. I think I get bored. So I switch targets each album.

It feels like the right time. I feel like all of these go together, and I feel like what I do next is going to be… not like a full step away, I’m not suddenly going to go screamcore, but it’s definitely going to be further away from the first album than the last album was.

Was it a challenge to decide what to put on the record?

Oh, total nightmare for me. Because I like all the weird ones. They’re my favourite. And obviously the weird ones aren’t really best of material [laughs]. It’s like ‘you want that song?!’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, I’m really proud of that one!’ Some people were looking at me like I was totally mental. But obviously the singles off each album went on, and then it was filling in the gaps and just trying to tick all the boxes of all the kind of things that I’ve done. So it needed a completely acoustic one that was done live with the mic in front of me. We needed some kind of big production-y ones. We needed just something of each vibe. And obviously the track I did with Empire of the Sun’s on there as well, which is obviously very different from anything else I’ve done, but I feel like that was just a really interesting moment that’s worth being on there. Although sonically it does stick out like a sore thumb, but I think in a good way.

Did you notice the change in your music and your as you were going back through your previous albums to put this record together?

I can hear it, but I can pretty much tell how old I was on each vocal. Because as soon as I hear it I’m like, ‘wow, you do not know how to sing, you are really, really blagging this’. And then it’s ‘OK, you know some things, but you don’t know that yet, this must be before this’ [laughs]. And then musically I took over more and more of the production as time went by. I built my own studio in between the second and third, I think I first started working on it. There’s a track on the third album that was done just at my studio, Long Shot. And then after that I started doing more and more production stuff, and obviously I can tell the stuff that I’ve done on my own and the stuff that has been produced by another producer, just because I know my own styles. So there’s that.

It’s interesting. You just change over time. I’ve got much soulier, especially the new stuff. So on Hit The Ground Running there’s a couple of tracks that dip towards it, like Hit The Ground Running and Fingertips were both souly-folk. And there’s a couple more tracks that are going further down that road in terms of the new things – Don’t Leave Me Waiting, and there’s another track that I cannot wait to release, the third single.

We did Wish I Could Wake Up, the one just before Christmas. Which is doing really well in Germany, which I did not anticipate [laughs]. And then Don’t Leave Me Waiting, which is kind of the more single-y single, and then there’s another one that’s hopefully coming out as soon as possible if I have anything to do with it. I think it’s one of the best songs that I’ve had for a little while.

You’re on tour on the UK this spring. What can people expect from your live show?

Well this tour’s really interesting because I’m not promoting a single entity. Normally the challenge is to crowbar as many things off whatever album you’re promoting into it without p**sing people off. The usual tour challenge is you want to get most of the album in without alienating people [laughs]. And obviously some people take that way too far. I think that thing of not playing people’s favourite things because you’re bored kind of misses the point of why you’re still there. I think that shows an inside out way of looking at your job. So it’s trying to make the best set possible out of all the stuff I’ve ever done, which is something you’re not always able to do.

And then setup wise, I was live every day one week experimenting. I’ve learnt how to program a lot of my own live stuff, which I haven’t been able to do before and I really should have learnt, because it’s hugely liberating. And it means that I can put things wherever I want them under my feet. It’s kind of one man band but I’ve taken it a step further.

Something strange happened after the second album. My label at the time banned me from sitting down, because they said ‘sitting down is very Radio 2 and we don’t want you to be Radio 2, so you have to stand up!’ [laughs] Which made my access to sounds a little bit narrower because I couldn’t do as much with my feet and I was just starting to experiment. There was one track where I had the violins and violas on a record that was spinning round, I was playing the cello part with both my feet for the first half and then I switched to single cello notes and kick drum with my other foot. I was getting into that realm, and then I got banned from sitting down. And that’s totally physically impossible standing up without really doing your back in. So after that I went down a different road.

I’m always experimenting with new ways of doing things live and I’ve tried loads of different things. So Hit The Ground Running was written with a loop pedal, just because I thought ‘I’ve never even messed around with one of those’. Which is odd, because a lot of people think of me as a loopy person, but I’m really not. I don’t do it. I did it on two tracks in a two-hour set on the last few tours. But what I do is make a huge amount of noise without doing that, which I think confuses people because they can’t really work out what’s going on. So I’m trying to make it more obvious what it is that I’m doing. Because it’s a strange thing. I think if you’re standing up as well, people don’t watch your feet as much, and if you’re sitting down they’re like, ‘oh! He’s doing things with his feet!’

So I’ve actually completely fried my brain last week, because there are sections of songs where I’m playing guitar with my left hand, bass and drums with my right hand, I had a hi-hat underneath my right foot and a kick drum underneath my left foot. And you’re kind of triggering and playing pretty much the entire track that was on the record, but you’re doing it in real time and you’ve got the flexibility to speed up and slow down and extend the sections. What I don’t like about looping is its rigidness. I find that once you’re in you’re kind of stuck and I don’t really like that, because I do make up a huge amount of the set when I’m playing. I think I’ve made up whole new sections of songs if I’ve felt like it because it’s just me and there’s no-one to shout at me. So once I’m up, I kind of just go wherever I feel like going.

It’s interesting with the multiple setups because there are some gigs where I step out and I’ve got all this stuff, and I don’t touch it, because it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like an intimate gig, and then I’m like ‘actually let’s not, I don’t really need that today, I can just do it with guitar and voice’. And if the acoustics are just right, like somewhere like Union Chapel, you don’t need to go crazy with the multitasking because your voice is just filling the whole room. And then I’ve had other gigs where I’ve gone into the territory of live remixes. So I’ve sped things up and put drums on tracks that didn’t have drums and taken the whole thing up a notch, because I felt that’s what the situation required.

My favourite one was a fresher’s ball. I think my slot was three o’clock in the morning, which is ridiculous – I shouldn’t have taken it really. But I stepped out, everyone was crazy drunk and I was like, ‘right, it’s just me and these guys, how am I going to make this work?’ [laughs] and just whacked on all my effects from the very beginning. I just went totally mental for an hour and a half, and Dream Catch Me was 150 BPM with four-to-the-floor beat. It’s amazing to have that kind of freedom. It’s really exciting, and it’s dangerous, which I like. I was talking to a musician friend of mine and he was like, ‘it’s really weird that you do the opposite of what everyone else I work with does. Everyone else I work with tries to make it as easy as possible, and you seem to be on a mission to make everything as hard as you possibly can’ [laughs]. But I like the challenge of it.

I think live, if you’re pushing yourself to the limit people really feel it and they can tell you’re actually doing things, which is not only technically challenging and musically challenging but the place you’re trying to get to. You’re trying to bring everyone up with you and I use the crowd as another member of the band. There’s some gigs where I feel a bit bad that I don’t pay the crowd – they do a lot of work without realising. I split the room into groups – I think the most I’ve done is five – and I get them all doing different things, and then I’m doing other things, and you’ve got this huge joyous thing. It’s that combination, and you can see people looking at each other like, ‘we sound really good!’ [laughs] It’s a beautiful thing when it goes right. Something like Clouds – there’s a section of that where there’s normally two or three groups, but there are more if I’m by a music college, because most of the music college will come because it’s nerdy enough to get their attention, then I’ll push it further because you can make them do much more complicated stuff. You can get them doing harmonies which is great fun.

So the live show, this time there’s a whole other side to it. I’m making things as complicated as I possibly can on some tracks, and then on the tracks which don’t need as much I’m going to have two setups. One where I’m sitting down – super-complicated sitting down setup – and just a guitar and vocal space, so I can fill both spaces. So stuff like Against The Grain and the quieter acoustic ones, I’m going to do in a space with nothing around my feet so you can see I’m just playing guitar. Because people get confused when I’m playing guitar as well and think I’m playing with a backing track. I’ve had some very strange comments at the ends of gigs! [laughs] Because it’s a strange way of playing guitar, and there’s more of us than ever before, but it’s still not how you usually play guitar, so it can get a bit lost with the percussive stuff. And because it’s tuned all weird as well, it’s going lower and higher than it should, it freaks people out. So it’s quite nice to do that in a space where you can really see what’s going on – it’s just guitar and there’s nothing at my feet. Because again when I was doing the live streams there were people that just had no idea that’s what was happening. Which is interesting because I thought I was making it relatively obvious, and I did explain what was happening at the gig.

I don’t expect people to care. You obviously don’t come to a gig to analyse the setup and work out what’s going on, unless you’re me. But it’s just trying to make everyone happy. For the people that come for the songs, the songs are the best way I can possibly make them sound, and the people that come to see me doing challenging technical things get that as well. But hopefully the people that are into the songs won’t notice. So it’s an interesting balance to try and strike.

Last time you toured in the UK you played smaller venues like the Borderline in London – this time the venues are much bigger…

They’re kind of opposing tours. The last time was the equivalent of carpet-bombing [laughs]. We just played everywhere and it went on for ever. It was the longest tour I’ve done in ages. We were about halfway through and I was like, ‘Really? We’re halfway through? Are you f***ing kidding?! Where else are we going? We’ve been everywhere in f***ing England! [laughs] Where else is there to go?!’ There were some really remote places. But there’s a beautiful thing that happens when you go to places people don’t usually go, because they’re genuinely excited to see you. Whereas in London it’s like, ‘I could be at any other gig, why am I at this gig? Come on, impress me’. But if you’re on Stornaway they don’t get as much action, so it’s a more exciting thing.

What have you learnt from touring and being on the road?

I’ve learnt how not to do a lot of things [laughs]. I’ve been a full-time pirate, which is great fun but ultimately quite unhealthy, which I think should have been obvious before I really started on that. And then it’s a fascinating thing. I think being able to travel for work is an amazing opportunity to learn all kinds of things. Obviously I don’t get to do any of the touristy stuff, so when I’m somewhere I’m not going to be going up the Eiffel Tower, I’m not going to be doing a speedboat tour of Sydney. I’m going to be getting in late, running around like a lunatic and unloading a truck at three o’clock in the morning. But by doing that you get to see things that no-one else gets to see. And you get to really meet people. I think if you’re a tourist you don’t really get to meet people but if you’re working somewhere, you have to build a relationship with people that live there immediately.

It’s a really healthy thing to have to do. I think that’s really good for the human brain. I can’t speak any other language fluently, but I can talk to sound men and I can order drinks pretty much everywhere in Europe. And it’s little things like that.  I try not to take it for granted because there’s not that many jobs where you get to do that. I can’t imagine staying in the same place for work every day. Obviously that’s six months of the year making an album, but then you go from being on your own for six months to being hyper-social and seeing thousands of people every day.

You’ve been doing a countdown to this album on social media going back over the previous albums. Has anything come out of that which surprised you?

Loads of stuff. I basically wrote a relatively open bio of each album. not just what was going on musically and professionally but actually getting relatively personal without going into too much detail. Because I think people don’t know that stuff. Obviously I’m not trying to capitalise on any of my personal life at the time – I kind of shy away from it – but looking back it’s interesting to try and put it into some kind of context.

So with Studio Zoo, which was quite a dark time personally, actually opening up about that a bit more and reading the comments was amazing. I nearly cried. I was like, ‘that’s really nice! It’s nice to know you’ve got my back’. There’s been a little write-up of every album, kind of how it came to be.

You also recently took part in the Homeless Worldwide cover of He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother) – how did that come about?

I knew some of the people involved in making it. In fact everyone, from different places, even most of the PR team – one of the guys is the guy that did the first album. So I knew loads of people involved, and the guy that produced it did a lot of work at ACM and I met him there when I was about 16. And they asked nicely.

You’ve also got a covers disc on this album. Do you have a favourite cover song that you do? And who would you like to cover one of your songs?

I loved doing the covers. It was so much fun, and such a challenge as well, because what I was asked to do is record full versions of things I’d previously taken the p**s out of. Which is like, ‘oh, can I do that in a way which is actually good and not just funny?’ So things like Send Me On My Way, which I’d been poking fun at for years. I love poking fun at the vocal and I’d been doing a very over-the-top version of that vocal for a long time, and then being asked to make it serious. We put new stuff on there as well, like Million Reasons which came out a while ago. From a production point of view that’s one of the best sounding things that’s come out of my studio solely. And then Pure Imagination, I was really happy with where it ended up. Because it’s such a well-known song, such a well-loved song as well. It’s quite dangerous. But I like a dangerous cover. It’s why I did things like Bohemian Rhapsody.

And Teardrop as well. Teardrop came out of a conversation about ‘what songs shouldn’t you cover?’ [laughs] and it was like, ‘well you definitely shouldn’t do that’. ‘Right, let’s do it really well.’ I’m trying to think what other new ones are on there. I’ll Be There, the Jess Glynne track… maybe it was just that and Million Reasons. I feel like there’s one more I just can’t access in my brain right now.

But then there’s things like You Spin Me Right Round, which was another thing that I’d been poking fun at live, and then I was like, ‘not only have I got to come up with an arrangement that’s actually good and not just stupid, but then I’ve got to produce a record that is sonically competitive for now.’ So it was a challenge.

How do you feel your writing process has changed from the first album to now?

I purposely avoided having a system my whole entire career. Because I think then you end up going to the same place. So I purposely give myself writing challenges, and a lot of songs have come out of technical exercises. So I Need Something was a Hammeron exercise. Obviously the notes are in a different order, and I was like, ‘that sounds so boring, and I can’t do it for more than three seconds without it annoying me, so let’s make it a bit more musical’ and things came out of that. And any kind of weakness that I spot. So with Hit The Ground Running, I was like, ‘I’d like to push my head voice a bit more, let’s do something that goes crazy high’. And there’s loads of things that are attacking aspects of my playing, trying to get a really satisfying Swan groove is quite hard so I wanted to something with that kind of feel to try and push myself a bit harder. It’s this constant process of just nudging everything up a bit.

I decided the way I wanted my career to be before the first album came out. I was like, ‘right, what I want to do is try and keep everything on the same level’. So try and make the guitar playing on the same technical level as the singing, and then get that on the same technical level as the songwriting. But now I’ve added production to that because that’s as important as anything else. And then get the production on the same level as all of those. But obviously that is such a moving target and every time something gets better you have to try and make everything else better [laughs].

So if your voice takes a bit of a leap, which mine definitely did – before Hit The Ground Running I cracked some huge internal codes and really dug in. It was during rehearsals for the Human Love stuff as well. I learnt a huge amount about how my voice actually worked, which is great – it opened all kinds of doors to the stuff I’ve done since. But after that I was like, ‘OK, that’s gone up, do I need to dig back in in guitar land to move that up? Do I need to get my Pro Tools manual out again to catch up there?’ [laughs] Especially the stuff that’s been written for the Best Of, that’s very much been trying to push myself technically as a songwriter and write stuff that’s more intelligently constructed, and digging into those classic record feels. I think with the last few things I’ve got it feeling the way I felt it should feel.

Are there any plans for new music any time soon?

Always. I mean, I don’t really stop writing. I just keep going all the time. I’ve got a folder in my studio inside the computer which is technically album eight, which seems ridiculous. The Best Of album and the covers is kind of album seven, but there is an album eight folder which has got quite a lot of stuff in it already. And it doesn’t sound like it could have been on any of the other records. I think it’s in a slightly different space. Which is again one of the reasons to do the Best Of now, because the next batch of material has a different tone to it. But it’s going to take a little while.

Newton Faulkner’s new album, The Very Best Of Newton Faulkner… So Far, is out now.

See Newton on tour in the UK and Ireland this spring:

Monday 22 April – O2 Academy, Bournemouth
Tuesday 23 April – Great Hall, Exeter
Wednesday 24 April – London Palladium, London
Friday 26 April – O2 Institute, Birmingham
Saturday 27 April – O2 Academy, Liverpool
Monday 29 April – Sage One, Gateshead
Wednesday 1 May – Student Union, Leeds Beckett University, Headingley Campus, Leeds
Thursday 2 May – Academy, Dublin
Saturday 4 May – Albert Hall, Manchester
Sunday 5 May – De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Monday 6 May – Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

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