2019 crept in with cautious optimism. I had not long returned to London after the annual Berlin-break with family, when I got to soak up some inspiration for the months ahead. I hosted a Q&A with Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien on behalf of the FAC for a small group of artist friends. Making music for a living can be such a weird and wonderful existence, it was pretty great to hear from someone who’s experienced that level of success and to learn that we all face similar challenges regardless of how high the stakes are. Not only did Ed share lots of brilliant anecdotes, but he spoke passionately about the power of visualisation; to envisage where you want to be, so that you can pave the metaphorical way. As someone who skips years ahead in my mind and conjures up a multitude of scenarios before falling asleep each night, I very much liked the sound of that.
I cannot say that 2019 led me down my visualised path, but I can share some of the musical highlights with you before we take stock and jump into 2020.
“I appreciate this is really short notice, but are you free tomorrow at all? We’re recording a song at Abbey Road for charity as part of our artist collective HEARD and it would be great to have you come play guitar and sing on it”
…I was available. I’d walked from St. John’s underground station to the gates of Abbey Road quite a few times before, as you might imagine, but this was different. I felt like stopping people who were passing me by just to tell them that I was on my way to record at Abbey Road studios (I appreciate that they wouldn’t have cared, but the thought still amused me).
In February, I played my biggest headline show to date. I performed my album Heirlooms & Hearsay + some brand new songs with a full band at Hall 2 in beautiful Kings Place, London. The show included visuals featuring the artwork of James Gardiner, as well as some video footage from my music videos, by the super talented Graeme Maguire. This was a special show for many reasons. It felt like an occasion. The most special thing for me was that my dad flew over to London especially to be there for it. I moved to the UK on my own after school and haven’t ever really had a chance to have my parents or close friends and family there for the big moments. I’m so close to my dad and as the Heirlooms & Hearsay album is all about family history (and actually features him playing piano on ‘Train Tracks’), it was a great gift to have him there.
It’s an amazing feeling when you’ve stepped into something a little too big for your red boots, but manage to pull it off somehow. There were moments when it felt ridiculous to be playing Kings Place – like, having my own, separate dressing room to the band (not needed, I hasten to add), mirror lined with lights and all or when the wonderful stage tech asked me how many seconds of black-out I’d like in between the visuals (can’t say that that’s something I’ve been asked before), but seeing you queue up to come in and having a full room to play to was pretty amazing. I know some of you made a huge effort to be a part of this occasion, like travelling from Manchester and even flying in from Gibraltar… I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Just a couple of days later, I landed in snow-covered Toronto to perform at Folk Alliance, which is a really mad music conference (sort of like SXSW for folk and acoustic music) and go on a small run of dates across Ontario. Sometimes touring can be beautiful escapism, other times you feel the distance between you and the ones you’re leaving behind all too much, every kilometre forming a little knot in your stomach. This tour was both. The snow helped neutralise my feelings. There was so much of it, turning streets into trenches and houses into guesswork. When I think back on this tour, it unfolds like a snow-covered flip book of images in my brain, the expansive horizons, the crisp sky, log fires, thick socks, wide empty streets, musicians jamming in the wee hours, sharing food and wine with house-show hosts, Tim Hortons donuts with terrible coffee to go and singing together with my wonderful tour buddy, Megan Palmer.
OUT OF THE SNOW, INTO FESTIVAL SEASON
I landed back in the UK and one of the very first things I saw was my name on MASSIVE posters for Black Deer Festival, which was a very nice welcome back home indeed. First though, I got to perform at Liverpool’s Threshold Festival, which was the official BBC6 Festival fringe this year. This was the first show since I was about 16 that I played without an acoustic guitar. It felt rathe naked traveling without it… but my Rickenbacker did me proud and continued to accompany me at shows throughout the year. I loved seeing Liverpool so sunny and bustling with music (it usually is, but having two festivals run simultaneously along the docks was pretty special).
Black Deer Festival was a bit of a red letter day, a show I’d been looking forward to all year (the posters all around the country helped!) and a definite highlight of 2019. It was a full band show and, this is very much the unwritten theme of the year, my whole family was there with me, which was an absolutely first and an amazing treat. The first four songs of the set were all new songs and it felt really good to unleash them (more on that in a minute…). There was such a good vibe across the Festival site and as the sun set, the beautiful harmonies of The Staves guided us out of the grounds and back onto the roads.
The last to complete my little trilogy of Festivals was the aptly named Last Train Home Festival, a take-over of Darlington. The line-up was pretty amazing, so I felt very happy to be asked to play. We got to perform in the beautiful St. John’s Church; thank you to Sarah & team for organising such a great event and for having me be part of it.
As I’m writing this, it’s just dawned on me that all three festival bookers were women. That’s pretty great isn’t it? Yay for progress, at least within our little patch of music industry land.
RECORDING A NEW ALBUM
A chance meeting, a fragment of a conversation, can lead to sending out an email, which can lead to coffee and sometimes, that coffee can turn into a milestone event in your life. The beauty is that you can never tell in that initial moment, but only retrospectively, when you chase causality and attribute meaning.
Earlier in the year, after that initial sending of demos and said coffee meeting, I started recording my new songs together with Bernard Butler and that was very exciting, loads of fun and easily the best thing, musically, about 2019. I’m really happy to let you know that we are now finished recording an entire album and are in the final mixing stages, which means new music in 2020.
We recorded sporadically, whenever we both found time, in the comfort of BB’s home. I loved the ease and fun of it all, no mid-album-identity-crisis as is common (even Ed O’Brien says so), just a real tonic to feel confident in the songs and in the performances and to be very sure that they were in extremely capable and empathetic hands. I also got to play Johnny Marr’s guitar and record a french horn, which is something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I’ve known who George Martin was… which as we all know is a long, long, long time (and there’s your Beatles pun, you’re welcome).
WITH LOVE, FROM ME TO YOU
You might know that for the past years, I’ve been hosting a music conference specifically from and for artists called FM2U. What started as a Schnappsidee (German term for a crazy idea) has grown into an annual fixture in my life and a really heart-warming artist community. In 2019 I hosted two, one in Glasgow and one in London. While the organisation and execution is really hard work, it’s always worth it on the day. I love being surrounded by so many artists and love how it attracts the type of people who are generous, kind and open-minded. Speakers this year included Dave Rowntree (my fellow FAC Board Director and drummer of Blur), Bernard Butler (seemed befitting to rope him in!) as well as many amazing artists you should find out more about if you don’t know them already, Jake Morley, Lisbee Stainton, Rosie Bans, Lauren Ray, The Anchoress, Sam Lee, Jellyman’s Daughter, ShaoDow and Austel to name just a few. Thank you to everyone who took part and helped in some way.
50 YEARS ABBEY ROAD
Speaking of annual fixtures, I hosted a ’50 Years of Abbey Road’ charity show in Liverpool together with my good friends Thom Morecroft and Graham Holland. We invite mostly local artists to perform their version of one of the album tracks and play through the album on the night that marks 50 years since the iconic album’s release. I played You Never Give Me Your Money and got to sing Golden Slumbers together with my dad and Thom. It feels like a very strange dream now. The whole year feels a strange dream.
My dad died just over a week later. It is surreal typing that and there is a sense of apprehension in sharing it, but if this piece of writing is entitled ‘2019 and what I did with it’, it would be disingenuous not to. The most important thing I did in 2019 was to spend as much time together as we could. We had a fantastic time and I am so grateful to him. My dad was an extraordinary human and I cannot put into words how much he will be missed and how daunted I am by life without him. I’m glad that some of you got to meet him and even see him play. For those of you who didn’t, here’s a video of him from that night, performing his ode to Liverpool, a place he loved very much (one of the many things we shared).
He almost got to hear the finished mixes to my album, which I’m also very grateful for. Having a positive project like this to focus on, together with him, was a blessing this year.
At the moment, life feels emptier and I’m finding it harder to visualise things for the forthcoming year. If I have been quiet, not gotten back to you or dropped the ball over the past year, I hope you understand.
ENDING WHERE IT BEGAN, SO WE CAN START AGAIN
I ended the musical year with a show in Manchester, a smaller reprise of the beginning, performing Heirlooms & Hearsay in full. That show was hard, but I felt an immense pressure to go ahead with it. For those of you who were there, thank you for your support. I know most of you wouldn’t have known what I was going through or where I was at.
We never do, do we? One person passes us on the street, elated that they’re about to record at Abbey Road, the other walks past feeling they’re about to drown in grief. All we can hope for is that those who cross our path greet us with empathy and patience and that we do the same.
Right now, I’m regrouping and am determined to do this album and the person who inspired it justice. I will need your help, but I know I can count on you. I hope you are well, wherever you are reading this, and I look forward to sharing music with you in this all too futuristic sounding 2020.
BTW, Am I the only one who’s disappointed that Dr. Dre didn’t release an album last year entitled 2022? I’m aware that this is a very niche joke, but my dad would have appreciated it.