Interview: Newton faulkner

by Sarah Harris

Newton Faulker is a talent of virtuoso standards; carving a path from his Guildford Music Academy education, through the rite of passage in various bands – a Green Day cover act and a funk-rock band noted – he finger-picked, hand slapped, striked, scraped and fret danced his way to become a solo star with an impressive six albums to his name. I caught up with Newton before his headline show in Cardiff to chat about his new album, his thoughts on the music industry and an intriguing upcoming project.

Your new album ‘Hit the ground running’, has a more soul-y vibe; has anything in particular influenced the sound of the new album and the step away from your older sound?

The main thing that guided this record, I suppose, was the lack of guidance. No one was telling me what to do. There was no label; there was no one telling me to produce sound that sounded more like one thing than another. I had avoided doing soul in the past, just because there were too many British, soul singers that were males of the same age kicking about, I thought I’d just wait it out until they’d all stopped. So I went full Gabriel for a bit; I went down a completely different vocal route; I was doing layered stuff, quite harmony based. On this record, I made the decision that I wanted it to be not just achievable, solo and live, but I wanted it to be at its very best when solo and live. Therefore, vocally it couldn’t be a vocal style that needed production for it to work. It needed to be a single vocal that sits proud right in the middle. That’s where I think the soul side came from. Also the ability to do it now, which I didn’t have when I started. There’s tracks on this that I wouldn’t have been able to sing, even four years ago. I’d never have got up to that top note in ‘Hit the Ground Running;’ for ‘Fingertips’ I wouldn’t have had the air. I like learning. I love learning about singing, and I love learning about playing the guitar, so I’m constantly trying to balance out the two. I feel like with this record, they’re both on a similar level and I’d like to continue to keep stepping it up again and again. Step up the guitar next and then try and step up the vocals and just try and keep building it up on this weird balancing act that I decided to give myself as a career.

All your previous albums have found success commercially. Do you place any importance on the charts?

No, not anymore. I put far more emphasis on what people think. So if everyone bought it, and everyone was like, ‘yeah it’s not great’, it’d be really annoying. The fact that the people who have bought it tend to genuinely like it means a huge amount to me. It’s about connection and communication for me. The charts have just got more and more confusing. Now streaming is lumped in as well, it doesn’t really make any sense to me. I think it’ll settle down again at some point and they’ll find a way of making it work. But at the moment, I don’t think it makes enough sense for me to use it as a defining factor. At one point I did kind of want top 10 with this one, but then I analysed why it wasn’t top 10. Other artists who I have huge respect for released records around the same time, so I thought ‘let’s see how they do, let’s see how I’m doing’ and I just realised it’s just really hard at the moment.

What’s your opinion on the music industry at the moment?

It’s a very interesting time to be in music. In terms of what’s happening in the music industry, it’s interesting because a lot of doors have opened; people can make records that would not have been able to make records before. If you go back to the days of massive studios, someone had to see you and want to pay a lot of money so that you were able to record. This kind of filtered out a lot of stuff that never got a look in; it was like you needed something that was kind of close before you recorded it. Nowadays, you can start recording immediately and the whole trajectory has changed. Spotify is fascinating: the ability to listen to music from anywhere in the world, any time you want. I think we were incredibly musically well-educated when Spotify first came out because people got excited and people went off the grid. I think it’s changed, I don’t think people are doing it that much anymore. I think people are now using Spotify in the way that radio used to be used. Spotify is now adapting to that space, whereas when it first appeared, especially amongst musicians and friends, it was very much an exploratory tool. You just kept getting influenced by it, you just kept going until you resonated with something and was like ‘Wait! What’s that? Azebedwin? What does he play? I don’t know what that is, let’s try it.’ That was fascinating and I learnt a huge amount from that. Records that I have made have been influenced by singular Spotify trips where I had gone down a rabbit hole but I feel like people aren’t really doing that as much anymore. Playlists have become more prevalent and that’s led to it kind of taking the space of radio. What I wanted the internet to do was mean that someone could sit at home and write a song that’s just really good and put it out and it just goes to number one globally, for the simple reason that it’s just really good. That can’t seem to happen yet and I’m looking forward to a time when it can. I still think that the majors still have a stranglehold on things and people like being told what to listen to which is quite a weird realisation for somebody who makes music for a living. It’s like, but what if they’re not being told to listen to me? How does that work? It’s a very strange thing.

You used ‘PledgeMusic’ to fund this album. Would you recommend it as a platform to other artists?

I think if you’ve got an existing fan base it’s a really interesting proposition to be able to kind of bypass a lot of the faf that comes with recording an album. I’m not sure how it’d work if you were an artist trying to break out. I think you need the numbers and the people who are there and interested to be able to make it work. For the position I’m in, it’s great. In terms of starting out, it’s probably not quite right, there are probably better ways of doing it.

I heard that you produced a lot of your new album in your home studio. Is that a better environment for you to work in?

I’ve done a lot of the last three records there, all of Studio Zoo was done there, most of the guitar and vocals were done there for Human Love, it was kind of between those two records that I learnt how to make this one work. So on Studio Zoo I really got into recording acoustic instruments and everything was played, there was no programming. Then in Human Love, I learnt loads about programming and got into that and then out of that I kind of learnt what I actually liked and how I wanted to sound recorded. This record just sounds simpler than anything I’ve done for a long time, it’s a sound I’ve been searching for for years. I’ve just got enough of everything without having too much. Previously I’ve swung violently from one side to another, all the production, then no production, maybe a little bit? I’ve found a middle ground now, where it all sounds real, and it all sounds played and there’s loads of mistakes which I love. I hate the modern sensibility to fix and retune and nudge everything all the time. In terms of what music is, it kills it for me. It takes all the emotion from any performance. Even if you’re playing the synth, it’s still an emotional performance, you’re still putting something into that. If you just automatically correct everything without even thinking about it, it loses all its humanity for me. I think singing when it’s done well and isn’t messed with can be such a powerful tool of communication. So I fell against that, I did very little correction and very little editing. It was more about getting the right performance.

You’ve previously played Johnny in American Idiot the Musical. How does it differ performing in a musical as opposed to your own show?

It’s completely different. The main difference is that the audience doesn’t exist if you’re pretending to be a Californian heroin addict. Whereas my shows are so interactive. I will play anything people shout out. This tour has been particularly fun for it, because instead of fighting against it or doing the entire whole show as planned, I have allocated pockets where I ask the crowd, ‘alright guys what do you fancy, okay, you want that song, and you want that.’ At one point, it suddenly dawned on me, I don’t have to just do one of those and make that choice. If the songs are in the same tuning I can actually write a medley and just make it up as I go along because it’s just me, and no one has to know what I’m going to do. So on stage I’ll get like three songs shouted out and I’m like, right that one, that one, that one, so I can change the key of that, move that two frets to the left, and then if it’s got a kick drum or a sub-octave on it I have to tell the sound guys so they know what to open up. So yeah, I’ve just been making it up as I go along and it’s been great fun. I mean, it has the potential to go horrendously wrong but that’s why I like it. I think live shows should be exciting and interesting. What I don’t want to see when I go and see people, is just those who step out, play the record and go off, because that’s just boring. What I’ve started doing recently is that I’ve grown on fun crowd participation stuff, now I get the crowd singing different bits while I’ll harmonise with each half of what the crowd are doing and then when you kind of take a step back and listen to it, it sounds like a really expensive, massive choir with loads of harmonies. There’s this thing you can do when you’re playing guitar, you can imply stuff that people just hear, whether it’s there or not, if you have something up high, and something down low, peoples’ brains kind of imagine the thing in the middle so that you don’t really need the thing in the middle. So if you’re harmonising one part and another part, it sounds like it’s completely harmonised, even though it’s not. You can make this massive noise.

You’ve been working on songs for a film. Are you allowed to tell us anything about it?

No. Nothing except that I’ve done six of them. The most fun thing about it was that it was just a completely polar opposite challenge to usual. Normally what I have to do is stuff that sounds like me. With this as soon as I realised that it didn’t have to sound like me at all, I got all the instruments out that I never get to play. Vocally it was really fun as I was doing these bizarre vocal impressions of other people that I like. Half taking the piss, half just having a really great time. There’s one that sounds like kind of a bit like Nick Cave, a bit like the guy from Interpol with a bit of Iggy Pop chucked in there. There’s another one where I go full Bowie in terms of this massive vibrato that I never do but seeing as I can do it, I thought I should. It was a really interesting challenge. It was that thing of being given a brief. When I first started making the album I was really tempted to be like, can you just send me a brief, just make one up. They were so bizarre, there were things like ‘feeling like a broken music box in a misty forest’. I think I did most of them in one day because I got so excited, it was a load of fun and I got to work with a lot of my friends.

Newton Faulkner’s album Hit the ground running is out now. Take a listen and discover some new vibes!

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