Interviews

Made by humans, for humans: Newton Faulkner discusses his most authentic LP yet

British troubadour Newton Faulkner has five hit albums under his guitar strap. His latest LP, his first independent release named Hit The Ground Running, is yet another to add to the list.

I caught up with the guitar slapping, folk dwelling, soul singing dread head to find out more about his new release, why it’s his most authentic work yet, his return to Bluesfest this year, and more.

newton faulkner interview bluesfest

On the day he released his sixth studio album Hit The Ground Running, we caught up with guitar phenomenon Newton Faulkner.

HAPPY: You’ve been announced to play Bluesfest for the first time since 2013, what’re you most looking forward to about playing there again?

NEWTON: It’s always amazing, last time I was there, there was 10CC, and Credence Clearwater, and it was incredible! So I can’t wait. Also, the crowds are really good! They’re music crowds, it’s not fashion based, or anything, they’re just there to see people play, it’s a great vibe.

HAPPY: Definitely! For those who are yet to see you play, what can one expect to see and hear in your live shows?

NEWTON: Well it’s just me on my own but I make a huge amount of noise, I’ve got quite a lot of toys. I play lots of stuff with my feet, I’ve got bass pedals on my feet, and kick drums, it’s kind of a futuristic one man band set-up. The thing I love about that is it gives me the freedom to really mess around, which if you’re looping you don’t have because you’re kind of locked in, in terms of tempo and feel and section wise. I don’t like what it does for that. So, the way that I do things means that I can improvise with all my limbs at the same time, and kind of adapt to the crowd. If it’s like a whole hype set then I use kick-drum on everything, and if it’s like a church I might use it at the end of one song but I’ve gotten used to bringing it in and out.

HAPPY: Cool. You released your sixth studio album, Hit The Ground Running today. Congrats! Talk me through the writing and recording process of the album.

NEWTON: Yes! Well this is my first independent release, this is also the first record that hasn’t been A&R’d so there was no one telling me what they thought I should do, I kind of just did whatever felt right, which is considerably easier, and way more fun. Also, I built a studio at my house, I produced bits of other albums, and did all of Studio Zoo, but Studio Zoo was very, very stripped back so this is my first studio album that I’ve done myself. It’s the most I’ve ever done on an album on my own, I wrote, produced and engineered more of it on my own, so it’s kind of properly my baby this time, it feels great.

HAPPY: Awesome. So what kind of lyrical themes are present on this record?

NEWTON: All kinds of things. It was written over a long period of time so it kind of covers quite a lot of different emotions, but it’s my usual vibe. I am quite hopeful as a human being, but after analysing some of my previous things I realised that I’m always telling people that it’s going to be alright, so there’s one song on this new album that’s kind of like a ‘what if?’ song, what if everything’s not going to be alright? Which is a possibility at the end of the day really, so I wanted to acknowledge it and delve into that vibe. It’s definitely a happy album, but there are some pretty heavy concepts.

HAPPY: So do you have a favourite song on the record?

NEWTON: I like all of them, otherwise I wouldn’t have put them on there (laughs). Don’t Understand I’m really pleased with from a production standpoint, Been Here Before is immensely hard to play so for guitar nerds that’s probably the one, and Carry You I was really happy with lyrically, so it’s different things for different moods.

HAPPY: Cool. How do you stay inspired when it comes to your guitar playing?

NEWTON: The way that I write is all based around my own weaknesses, so like twelve years ago when I was writing I Need Something it was a hammer on exercise as a way to build up strength in one hand, then I realised my poly rhythm stuff could probably do with a kick which is why I did Been Here Before, I hadn’t done much stuff that was heavily swung so the first track is proper old school, and was an exercise in that. And then Fingertips is a really slow 6/8 swing, and that’s another feel I haven’t used so I’m kind of constantly attacking my own weaknesses, which is how I’m getting better. Well, I hope I’m getting better (laughs).

HAPPY: How would you say your new album differs from your previous releases? From what I’ve gathered it’s more a mixture of folk and contemporary sounds.

NEWTON: Yeah, in part there were several things I was definitely trying to reference; I was referencing my first record because I felt like I was allowed to now, if I’d done that on the second one people would’ve been like ‘oh, he’s done the same thing twice’, but since it’s ten years old now I figured I was probably allowed another crack at it. Then I gave myself a set of Brian Eno-esque rules, and obviously you break them of course, but to begin with I wasn’t allowed more than five noises per track. So that meant I had a vocal, a guitar part, a piano, some drum sounds, and one other noise, and that noise became the thing that made it modern or not. So with it, it was made last year and without it, it could’ve been made at any point in the last 50 years.

Also the vocals are much more soulful than anything I’ve done before, I kind of actively shied away from that because even before my first record came out I was on tour with Paolo Nutini, and James Morrison, and that whole wave of British soul singers and they were doing that and I thought ‘if they’re doing that I want to do something else’. And so I kind of leant towards more Peter Gabriel style roots, less soul but kind of a different use of my voice, and I still love that, I’m still going to do that, but stuff like Fingertips is so technically challenging to sing.

One of my other rules was that I was only going to try and have one vocal wherever I could, because on the last record without even thinking I just double and quadruple tracked my vocals, which is a cool sound, kind of Beatles like, but it means that the vocals don’t have to be as good, because if you have four half decent vocals then it sounds super cool, whereas if you’ve got one, that one has to be fucking bang on for it to work! So that was the challenge I set for myself to push my voice harder, and I did in so many ways.

HAPPY: Awesome! You mentioned that this is your first independent release, and I understand that you started your own record label Battenberg Records, what spurred on that decision?

NEWTON: Everything! The whole industry has kind of gone that way and I’ve done everything I can do with majors really, I did the major label thing which at the time was totally the right thing to do and I did a label services thing which is half way between being independent and not. I’m sure it can work but for me it didn’t quite fit business wise, it felt a bit clunky. So, with this one we were like actually we don’t need anyone, and this record has done considerably better than the one before.

I think all my records have been pretty much the same standard in terms of writing and production but it’s the business side of things that changes what happens, and because this one was independent, I think people just preferred it, they felt more connected to it because they could tell nobody was saying ‘I think you should do this, I think you should lean this way’ it was just me in a room, producing myself, it was like the purest version of me in terms of the way I was recording the guitars and pianos, the treatment of everything, and how roomy it was. I love room sounds, and they’re not fashionable in music right now at all, everything is super clean which I find painfully boring! I like hearing where things were recorded, I like hearing people breathing between lines, because music is made by humans, performance is a huge part of the emotional reaction to records and it’s getting edited out, so I’m always protective of that vibe. I think that’s going to be the blueprint for everything I do from now on, it’s going to be coming back to this core sound. I want to add things around the sides, and I’ve started working on my next record already, I’ve been back in the studio trying out ideas and I can kind of see vaguely where the next album is leaning already.

HAPPY: And where is it leaning?

NEWTON: It will probably change, but it’s in a similar space in some ways to this album, but it’s gaining a more slightly classic sound, in that it’s referencing older stuff but still with all the twists that were in the last record. It’s looking fun to sing so far.

HAPPY: Cool. Now as we know, your first release was a huge success, do you or have you felt pressured to live up to that level of success with your following releases? You reference the first LP quite a bit throughout Hit The Ground Running.

NEWTON: No, not really. That album’s success was an accident anyway.

HAPPY: So what defines success for you?

NEWTON: Well, the most important thing for me is that it’s good, that I think it’s good. Even if everyone in the world was telling me that something is super cool, if I don’t like it then I’m never going to believe it, I’m not convincible in that respect (laughs). So, yeah it’s being honest, and also gigs! If it goes down well at a gig then it’s good to me because you can’t fake anything in that environment it’s impossible to make the song better than it is, it’s impossible to cheat my actual ability to do my job, whereas in the studio you really can. So I think if it works live it’s a success.

This record definitely does that, the last tour was the best I’ve ever done, especially vocally because I gave myself two fairly epic challenges; One was that I made the album incredibly hard to sing, and then I toured for a solid three months, the longest tour I’ve ever done, so it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the longest I’ve ever had to do it (laughs). But I feel like I’ve landed, I feel like I’ve stopped trying to do things and I’ve just started doing what I do, it’s a really nice feeling as an artist to reach that point, to not feel like I have to play games and follow trends, I got quite a lot of validation with this album that I was actually trying to do the right thing the whole time.

 

Newton Faulkner tours Australia in 2018. Grab your tickets here.

April 1 – Factory Theatre, Sydney
April 2 – Lizotte’s, Newcastle – Matinee
April 2 – Lizotte’s, Newcastle – Evening
April 4 – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
April 6 – The Gov, Adelaide
April 8 – Jack Rabbit Slims, Perth

Also appearing at Bluesfest Byron Bay.