Neighbour of the Year tour! Accompanied by my wonderful band on harmonies, flute, fiddle, lapsteel, horn and banjo, I’ll be playing a retrospective set featuring songs from my Monkey Swallows the Universe and Nat Johnson & the Figureheads days, as well as (of course) songs from the new album.
The Figureheads came to a natural and peaceful end, with Kev moving away. I’d started to write more acoustic and sparse songs again too; it was almost as if I was more comfortable making quieter music again, who knows. And over the space of sixteen months, I wrote and carefully recorded a new album, my first solo album.
I’m not giving away much about it at this point, and ideally I’d like you to hear it when it comes out (hopefully late this year) and form your own interpretations before I tell you the stories behind the songs. All I’ll say for now is that it’s an album about dealing with anxiety (though not music-related this time!) and that after the personal success I felt I’d achieved by being open and honest and using songwriting as a tool to help me figure things out on the last album, I embraced that aspect of songwriting again. Writing this album helped me through a bit of a rough year and also helped me to emerge from it a much happier version of me (hello!).
Performing with Hannah and Katherine as ‘Nat Johnson & Friends’ these days is perfect for me and for these new songs. They’re both incredible musicians and amazing women and I feel so safe and happy on stage with them. Our friend Penny pointed out how unusual it is to see two multi-instrumental women on the same stage and that makes me really proud too. Here we are in soundcheck last Friday:
Not Now, Horse
I’ve Been Shot
Dog (live version below)
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the Lyric set. As I said at the start of this little blog series, I’m thinking of touring it in the future. If you’d like to see us play it in your town, let me know.
Thanks again to the audience at Firth Court, to Jo Gavins and Simon Armitage and all the crew at the Lyric Festival and to Ed at Sort Of…Films for the footage. Thanks also to Kev and Graham for having better memories and internet searching powers than me, and to Katherine, Hannah and Oliver for learning a whole bunch of MSTU/Figureheads songs on my whim.
Here’s the live version of ‘DOG’ from last Friday. If you haven’t read what this one’s all about, I explained that over here.
(Re my ‘who called the cops?’ at the end, there was a siren going past as we ended the song, but you can’t hear it on the video!)
After Roman Radio, when the real Figureheads emerged, we started to find our sound. I first heard it in our cover of Don’t Worry Baby (I knew that we were headed in the right direction the first time we reached the chorus in rehearsal) and we developed it more on the ‘What the Heart Pours Into’ EP. I knew after that that we all understood and agreed intuitively how each song should sound – we were all on the same page – and knowing that I could totally trust my band to back up the sentiment of every song let me focus more on the lyrics for the next album. Suddenly, I really opened up.
I’d always found songwriting therapeutic in terms of it being something to focus on and forget about everything else, just that act of creating that consumes your mind and for that short time is all that matters. But lyrically, I’d always been a little bit wary of laying myself too bare in my songs; I’d tended to encode things that were very personal, or make things seem light-hearted when in truth they were serious to me. As I mentioned last time, some openness and vulnerability had come through on parts of Roman Radio, and that’s the lyrical direction I was now going to take. I started to use songwriting not just as a way of venting my feelings but of actively working through stuff.
I stopped worrying about what people might think when they heard it and just concentrated on what was going on in my head. Every song on I’m Across, I’m Ashore is relevant, as I worked through what place music had in my life post-MSTU and reprioritised everything I knew or had known. Astronomy and The Steeplejack both sum up the album in different ways, whilst the songs in between deal with different parts of my thought process as I finally managed to get over the past.
I returned to Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation to release this one, knowing that it would be both the last Figureheads album and the last album to be released on that great little label. It felt right, and it was. This is a really important album to me. It was released on Valentine’s Day 2012.
Hedgehunter – This is about all the things I wanted to be when I was growing up; a musician was never something I considered as a possibility. Suddenly, somehow, that’s what I was trying to be, and then it seemed like it was over and I had figure out who I was again. I had to remember that music isn’t all there is to me. Here’s last Friday’s performance:
I Know I’m Good – This is about the paranoia I had felt for a long time since the break up of MSTU; the pain that came with worrying about people who had never really forgiven me, the people who gave up on me because I wasn’t ‘popular’ any more, all the people I thought judged me, laughed at me or whispered behind my back, whether they actually did or not.
I reminded myself that what other people think of me isn’t what’s important – I know me better than anyone else. I know that overall I’m a good person and that I try my best. No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes and so on. Maybe there are things in the past that I could have handled better but I can’t carry that around with me for the rest of my life.
So it’s peppered with little details about me that only I would notice or understand, reminding myself about what makes me unique in some fairly mundane I suppose ways – not having a fate line on my palm, still feeling like it’s the start of a new school term every September and being at my most contemplative in the Spring (see?), the strange marks like witches eyes that appear on my foot in the summer, the suspicion that I somehow taught myself to read. And then I repeatedly tell myself that I’m nice. Have you told yourself that you’re nice lately?
Here’s the original Figureheads video, made by drummer Neil on a trip to the US:
On stage on Friday, I explained that when we released The Casket Letters, Monkey Swallows the Universe were doing pretty well. We’d got ourselves a lovely following and we were playing lots of great gigs and festivals like Green Man, End of the Road and so on. National press and radio and all that. Everyone expected us to go on to even bigger and better things. No one expected us to suddenly break up, probably least of all the rest of the band.
I loved the music we were making, the gigs we were playing, and making loads of people happy, but apart from when I was writing or when we were on stage, I didn’t really feel that happy the rest of the time. The more popular we became, the more time I was spending managing the band, the people, our problems, the finances, all our bookings. We had a nice guy at the label who sorted out the press and radio for us, and our friend Graham who looked after our website, but that felt like the only support I had. The only other thing I wasn’t responsible for was driving, because I couldn’t. Plus I was working a day job to pay the bills (any money we made went straight back into the band, if we were lucky we’d occasionally take away a bit of pocket money – enough for a night out or a new frock). I didn’t have any training in people management or band management or any of that stuff – I’d just always done it before, and it had been fun when we were small, but it became a huge pressure. I felt that however hard I worked, people always wanted more from me and I couldn’t make everyone happy. I was exhausted. I’d started to lose sight of why we were making music in the first place because I’d got lost in the business of it. I felt unappreciated. I just wanted to create. We started bickering about stupid little things. I had to get out and do something else for the sake of my wellbeing.
Band breakups have often been likened to relationship breakdowns because they can be just as heartbreaking. Trying to break up with four people at the same time is hard, especially when you’re in such a bad emotional place that it’s hard to really explain yourself. And no doubt they felt that I was tearing away a potentially bright future from them. Naturally, as the breaker upper, I took all the blame. I lost not just fans, but friends. It affected every part of my life and a lot changed for me. It would take years to get over, as I’ll explain as the Lyric set progresses further.
Like with a relationship breakup where people cut their hair and go and do all the things they think they’ve been missing, I cut my hair and bought an electric guitar. I amassed a bunch of musicians, anyone who was available to come and play on a new record (including Kev of course and initially Rob from MSTU too) and went into the studio a few months after MSTU had played our last gigs.
That album was Roman Radio, named after a driving examiner who failed me when I was 17. It was released by Damaged Goods Records in 2009. There were a number of different musicians on the album, but out of that group would come the core of Nat Johnson and the Figureheads, i.e. me, Kev, Neil (drums) and Chris (bass).
I’ve always felt that this was the weaker of my albums, but until I put this Lyric set together, I didn’t know why. I used to think that it was because of all the different musicians on it, that perhaps it was because it wasn’t the sound of a ‘settled’ band. But that’s not it. I thought maybe it was because I’d used a different studio than usual to record the majority of it. But that’s not it either. It’s not until I was preparing this set that I realised it’s because of the lyrics on the album and because of all the hurt and anguish that you can hear on it – I still wasn’t over the MSTU break up and it’s written all over this album even though it was unintentional.
The lyrics are spattered with bravado, self-pity, anger, defensiveness, even in the songs where I was trying to be optimistic. Though I thought at the time that many of the songs were about specific people, situations and ideas, hearing them now I can see that they apply to a lot of how I was feeling in general at the time. My favourite parts of the album are where through the anger and bravado, some vulnerability comes through and I can hear a version of me that I can understand, that I almost want to hold my hand out to now, pulling my past self out of the album. I would pull myself out later, but we’ll get to that next time.
January – this song sums up more than any other on the album how I felt at the time and carries for me, the most important lyric on Roman Radio: “I’m trying to regain an ordinary frame of mind, or what love can you find?” Here’s the performance from Friday:
NB the main guitar part for this was written by Figurehead Chris.
A lovely thing happened to me today: the lyrics from Wasted were used in a linguistics lecture on empathy at Nottingham Uni.
Here it is again, released almost four years ago today.
I’ve been watching a magpie couple build their nest over the last few days, in the same tree as last year. They keep choosing sticks that are too long to fly with, so they have to hop from branch to branch to get them up there. I like their stubbornness. I read that magpies tend to stay near where they were born; it’s comforting to think they might have lived in that tree for years.