I’ve been great thanks. It’s been a nuts few weeks. I’ve just got back from Australia, sung for the Queen, got a thumbs up from Justin Trudeau, released the video for ‘Lydia’, started a job playing drums with kids in an autistic school (loud!), lost my first game as captain of my cricket team, and celebrated my 33rd birthday. And what’s going on with the weather?
Can you talk to us more about your latest single ‘Lydia’?
It’s a song in which someone is giving advice, from their own hard won experience, that they don’t expect to be headed. It’s bittersweet and slightly opaque so you can read a lot into it depending on your own story. I like that in songs. Even if they mean something very specific to me, I try to express myself in a way that creates a mood, and outlines the shape of the story, but leaves the listener to join some of the dots themselves.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I wrote the beginning of the song a little while ago and it sort of wouldn’t finish itself. It kept hanging around until I almost forgot about it, and then I found it among a stack of ideas I’d discarded. A few different events fed into what the song’s about, but as I wrote the two halves of the song about a year apart from each other, it’s all morphed into a third thing. I’m so inside the song now, that it means new things to me every time I sing it.
Any plans to release a video for the single?
Yes I’ve just released it actually. I made it with two great friends of mine Adam Greves and Adam Lawson, who I worked with on the video for my last single, Holding Hands. The video features the amazing Lavina Co-Op, a real cult figure and living legend of the drag scene in London and New York. The idea was to film a transformation, focusing mainly on someone’s face, and let the pathos of the transformation lead the emotional narrative of the film. Again, like the song we were trying to create a strong atmosphere, but leave a lot of questions hanging in the air. It has an elegiac quality to it that I like.
The single comes off your new album To The Islands – whats the story behind the title?
The title comes from an Australian book of the same name by Randolf Stow. I think it may be out of print now but I love it and it means a lot to me. It was given to me as a parting gift – which is whole other story. The novel though is about a fading christian mission out in the central desert of Australia at the turn of the century and deals the intersection between good intentions founded on unjust premises, the imposition of identity, loneliness, friendship and belonging. Issues that Australia is very much still failing to grasp today, but that on a personal level, really resonate with me right now.
How was the recording and writing process?
I can only write when I’m on my own, and most often the good ideas come during stolen time – snatches of time when I ought to be doing something else. It’s as if only when I’m not meant to be writing, when I’m not focused on it or trying too hard, that I really open up. Unusually for me, I wrote most of the songs for this album in a pretty short space of time and I think that gives the album a real coherence.
The recording process was a rollercoaster, I always find that. It’s such an emotional thing. The guts of the album I recorded in a week with an amazing ensemble of musicians (Chris Hyson, Dave Hamblett and Zac Gvi) in a beautiful little welsh studio called Giant Wafer, engineered by Alex Killpartrick about who’s skills I could wax lyrical. My old friend Fred Thomas produced the album and he really helped to make this album what it is. He knows me and my music so well and is such a polymath, that almost anything I was able to hear, he could help me create. I think he’s the closest thing to a genius I know. Inevitably the whole thing took months and months of editing and tweaking, mixing and mastering, but its the best and most ambitious thing I have ever made and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
What role did Australia play in the writing of the record?
I guess I could call this my ‘Australian’ album, because so many aspects of the record were directly or indirectly influenced by it. At a simplistic love, I wrote a lot of songs in Australia and the title is from an Australian novel. I thought I might move back there and write it in Melbourne, and I travelled around Australia, reconnecting with a lot of my family that I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. But in the end, I came back to London and wrote the rest of it here, but with Australia, and those there, very much on my mind.
Known for playing with different genres – how did you get to balance together on this album?
To be honest, I didn’t try to balance anything. I thought fuck it, I’m just going to do my thing. I wasn’t too bothered about whether it was going to be odd to have an album with a song for voice and three saxophones, voice and string quintet, solo piano, voice and guitar, afrobeat and the rest. I wrote all the songs just me and the guitar, so I knew that musically and thematically they worked together and then from an arrangement point of view, I just let my mind run free. We’re all musical magpies, collecting sounds, influences, stylistic quirks as we go. And to be fair, there wasn’t a huge risk of disappointing or confusing my massive fanbase if you know what I mean. The idea of having nothing to lose is a pretty exciting place to be musically.
What aspect of your life did you get to explore on this record?
This last few years have been real ride. I feel more alive and present than I ever have. So many good and beautiful things have happened. But’s it’s also been quite hard. My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease around the same time that I got married to my wonderful, wonderful wife Rhia. I’ve found myself in some situations where I’m the one who is supposed to know what to do, and I just don’t. All of that’s gone into the record somehow and the themes of identity, memory and hope in these uncertain times, both personally and politically, run through the whole thing.
Any plans to hit the road?
Yes I’m doing some lovely gigs in May in London and I’ll be heading to Scotland for a mini-tour with my pal A. Wesley Chung.
11 May – Kings Place, London (solo), w/ Sarah Colman
18 May – The Glad Cafe, Glasgow (solo) w/A. Wesley Chung
19 May – House Show, Aberdeen (solo) w/A. Wesley Ching
20 May – VoxBox Records, Edinburgh (solo) w/A. Wesley Chung
25 May – The Harrison, London (trio)
What else is happening next in The Magic Lantern’s world?
I’m trying to find the right label to release the album. There are only a handful that I would really love to work with but as ever, if you’re contacting them, it’s probably not going to happen. So failing that, I will press on an release two more singles before releasing the album in October….and trying to win the North East London Cricket League. Didn’t start too well last Saturday, but the only way is up from here!