An Interview with Newton Faulkner

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You may not know it, but Newton Faulkner is one of the UK’s most successful singer-songwriters of this millennium. He has sold over 1.5 million records and been streamed over 180 million times. All of which means it’s time for the Surrey-born artist’s career retrospective and accompanying tour.

Victoria Holdsworth caught up with him to talk back catalogues, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and “being more rhythmical”…

All those years ago, when you started your Green Day covers band, did you ever envisage having a greatest hits album?
Apparently not! [laughs] Not at all. It’s a very, very humbling and odd thing.

What were your aspirations when you were that age? Was it musically inclined or did you want to do something completely different?
When I was growing up, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I was just messing around really. It wasn’t until a good few years later that I thought, you know what, I really do actually enjoy this. Then, I guess as soon as I realised I was enjoying it, I just thought right! I have to do something about this. However, I don’t really have one of those defining moments, where I was watching Jimi Hendrix on the TV or something and thought, that’s for me! I just kind of casually fell into it, and I didn’t really realise just how serious I was taking it, until I wasn’t doing it. I had one of those moments where I was like, oh I see! I do this now.

When you released Hand Built By Robots back in 2007, you seemed to just sky-rocket, and also batted the second album Curse out of the park, but whilst you were still producing many albums, you just kind of disappeared off the radar. Was that a conscious thing or not?
Oh I don’t really know. The whole industry has changed. The amount of music out there is insane now. The way that people listen to music has completely changed too. It’s just a different kind of game now. I love making albums, and I will never stop. Surprisingly, the albums have done really well. I always find it genuinely quite surprising. I haven’t done too badly, [laughs] especially since I’m not in everyone’s faces all the time, I’m quite a functional and jobbing musician, as opposed to a tabloid pop star.

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“I have got some pretty hefty new tricks up my sleeve”

Which album would you say is your favourite from your back catalogue?
No! I can’t! It’s like picking a favourite child. There are ones that I like for a whole different bunch of reasons, then there are albums that I learnt more from than doing others.

Okay, so let me rephrase that question. Which song gives you the most joy to play?

Hmm… well at gigs, ‘Dream Catch Me’ is always really great and fun to play, because everyone gets involved with you, and people tend to really love it, and it is a beautiful thing, but not as fun as something like ‘Write It On Your Skin’ which makes people go completely mental. There are the really quiet, sweet ones like ‘There Is Still Time’ which I think is probably my best song, from a pure songwriting point of view. It’s the really quiet one off the last album.

What, if any, are the most musically significant changes you have made between then and now?
I would like to say that I have got better at doing everything. I should have done by now, [laughs] I do it all the time. I do actually practice and try and push myself. I’ve not sat back at any point and thought it would be okay if I didn’t learn anything more about that. Recently I have been really pushing the multi-tasking side of things, which has been really fun, and I have got some pretty hefty new tricks up my sleeve.

I have read quite a few reviews recently that said that you have become more rhythmical, which I kind of found hard to get my head around, because I always thought of you as very rhythmical.
Maybe they were referring to being more rhythmical vocally, because there are ways of being rhythmical that can feel really normal. But at no point do you really ‘clock’ that, to make stuff that really pricks up people’s ears. To make things sound different, you have to sprinkle some strangeness on it, and I think rhythmically I have definitely being doing that more and more. I think my writing has kind of gone in both ways. I have become more traditional, especially with some of the more recent stuff, almost folk/soul but obviously still a bit weird, because it’s me, [laughs] and I am not very good at being normal.”

newton faulkner interview singer“Opened up lots of doors to me”

Then when I go into experimental mode, it gets stranger that it would have done before, because I’ve got more toys, more tricks at my disposal. I am really looking forward to doing more tech stuff, because I can do more of my own live set up. I have it so I can programme all the samples and send them to the right midi notes and stuff, and I can do it all myself now, which has taken a while to get around to learning, as there has always been someone who has done this for me. But there was a level of detachment for me from just telling someone how I wanted it. Because I was having to ask someone to do it, there was less experimentation involved.

Now I just sit in a room and try out all different kind of things. I am able to reproduce tracks, that before I would have thought of as impossible. Something like ‘Up, Up and Away’, which is a huge production piece, it’s got like 500 tracks of audio on the actual mix, and when I went out to do it live, I was like, ‘I need a band, I can’t do that,’ but then in the last two weeks I have found out that I can do that, and it’s really fuc*ing fun, so it’s really exciting.

I also like the next batch of material after this, which I’m kind of half way through writing, what will be my eighth album and it feels quite different. It’s got a different feeling to it and it’s another reason that I though the best of album, now felt like the right time, because I feel the journey from Hand Built By Robots to Hit The Ground Running, was kind of all searching for the same thing, and it was trying to get that thing right. I felt that with Hit The Ground Running I got what I was trying to get. It didn’t hit me until I had listened to it back for the first time, and I knew that I had found that thing, that sound that I was looking for. So….okay….What’s next?

Last year saw you release ‘Wish I Could Wake Up’, which was billed as your Christmas tune. Was this something you had always intended to do or did it just work out that way?
To be honest, I didn’t write it as a Christmas tune, it was just one of those things which could very easily fit. It had some Christmassy elements that I didn’t really clock when I was writing it, then when I started leaning that way, it was actually really Christmassy, but also still quite subtle which is nice, and I think that it is interesting to see what kind of happens with that every year, because I don’t know if I will ever write another Christmas song. I could just make a different video for it every year for the same Christmas song. [laughs] This song opened up lots of doors to me in European radio, which I was not expecting, I hasten to add. I just thought it was time to release something a little bit Christmassy and then start working towards the next release Don’t Leave Me Waiting, which has got even more people’s attention, off the back of that.

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“This is a line in the sand”

What aspirations do you still have as a musician? Any unfulfilled goals?
I just want to get better. I’m not driven by success as much. As long as I know that I am getting better, year upon year, and I was a better singer than I was last year, or a better guitarist. I’ve learnt to do more stuff, and I’ve learnt a huge amount producing the covers stuff. There was something about the detachment of the songs not being mine, which meant that I could take a step back and be like, right then, how do I make this sound good? Usually the song if it’s been written by me, then I know it inside out, but when doing someone else’s I have all these preconceived ideas already about how it should be.

So how do you differentiate between that, especially when you covered something as iconic as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’? How do you even comprehend it in such a different form?
They both kind of came out of questions. ‘Teardrop’ was very much a case of what shouldn’t I cover, what is too sacred? With ‘Teardrop’ I wanted to stay very true to the original, but also make it feel completely different, especially with the whole guitar arrangement side of it. With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ we literally just sat down and I thought what would be considered to be completely off limits, and completely physically impossible, as a one man and guitar cover. Other than doing an entire opera, it was born from that discussion really. There are bits that I edited out, things I’ve changed and loads of things I could have kept nudging around a bit, to make it work in that form, but I could still convey the same emotions and get the same kind of feelings, at the same time.

They were both guitar arrangement challenges, whereas it wasn’t the same as all the covers on the album. With ‘Pure Imagination’ it’s not an amazingly clever guitar part, but doing that in a way that is true to the original and completely different, was always going to be tricky because you start out thinking how you could create it, how am I going to make it different, and with that, I completely changed the whole arrangement of it. I changed every single chord I think, which gave it a different feeling, and focused more upon the melody, which made it slightly eerier and have a spooky quality to it, which made it a fantastically fun challenge. It’s got to be close enough that is still recognisable though. I even managed to dig up some weird instruments to play. I played a fretless guitar, which I have only ever used on two other songs, because they are almost impossible to play, but it gave me more of a Paul Simon twist on things.

You have eleven UK dates booked in as part of your new tour, which ends in Glasgow in May, but what does the rest of 2019 look like for you?

There are going to be a lot of festivals. I have a top secret project which should come out at the end of summer, which is a really fun side project. I guess I just want to get cracking on the next record. I have absolutely no idea when it will be out yet though. [laughs] I have said that this is a line in the sand, and that what I have done before, or up to this point has been part of one journey, but I feel that this next bit is slightly different. Obviously I need to put time into this to make sure that it is different, in a good way, or it’s not good for anyone. I really want to experiment between now and the next record.

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