Making Hitsville: Charlotte Hatherley on the Alchemy of Ash's 'Free All Angels'

Tuesday, 13 September 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Music often plays a pivotal role in our formative experiences. Just one listen to certain songs can instantly stir up a whirlwind of memories and emotions, transporting us back to a time when anything and everything seemed possible. For former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, that perfectly sums up the making and subsequent success of the band’s chart-topping masterpiece ‘Free All Angels'.  

Having joined the Northern Irish trio of Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray in 1997 as an 18-year-old, following their barely post-pubescent smash hit album ‘1977’, London-born Hatherley and the band got off to a flying start together when A Life Less Ordinary—taken from Danny Boyle’s film of the same name—rocketed into the top 10 of the UK singles chart.

It seemed like the newly minted quartet, enhanced by a rhythm guitarist who was drafted in to give the band a full-bodied dual guitar crunch, were destined to go from strength to strength until the wheels came off with 1998’s darker and less instant ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’. Having failed to match the success of its predecessor, the pressure was truly on when the foursome began work on a third album that would blast them back into the critical and commercial stratosphere.

Propelled by Shining Light, and featuring 13 potential hit singles, 2001’s ‘Free All Angels’ is a masterful collection of sun-drenched pop hooks and fizzing overdriven punk flavoured rock. Performed by a super-energised youthful collective, it’s an era-defining gem that still sounds as fresh and endearing as the day it was released.

Prior to a glossy reissue and Hatherley rejoining Ash to perform that offering in its entirety for a series of anniversary shows, we spoke to the former Nightnurse guitarist, who’s gone on to have a career less ordinary as solo artist, session musician and composer, about crafting their magnum opus and her ambiguous departure from the group, while also discovering why it would be bloody magnificent if Tim and the boys gave her a call the next time they hit the recording studio.

It’s been 21 years since ‘Free All Angels’ was released and it’s rightly hailed as a classic. Why do you think it’s such a successful and enduring piece of work?

At the time there were so many singles, six or seven singles, and it just felt like every song was a hit. It’s rare to have that on a record. You probably have two or three singles, but it kind of felt like we were doing a Michael Jackson. It felt like that summer went on and on and on and there was just single after single and video after video and you’re touring it the whole time. I think it had longevity in a way a lot of albums don’t.

With the exception of Someday every song is a pop-punk summer banger. It was rare to have that many upbeat songs and it was calculated. We wanted it to be fucking hitsville. That was the intention. That summer we played over 50 festivals all around Europe. It was an absolute trip and a dream for a band to have an album like that and when you condense that into a festival set list, alongside the songs from ‘1977,’ it’s an irresistible feelgood experience. I can totally see why it connected. There’s a special alchemy that happens in the studio with certain records.      

In stark contrast, ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ wasn’t as well received and had the band on the brink of bankruptcy and Tim in the grips of depression.  What do you think went wrong for that record and how did you rectify it for ‘Free All Angels?’

Well, again, it comes down to the singles. It didn’t have a big singalong Goldfinger, Oh Yeah or Girl From Mars. It was much more introspective but, of course, that was my first record with them, so when I joined I was like ‘woo hoo’ let the games begin, but by that point they were all suffering from burnout after ‘1977’. Tim was going through writer’s block and feeling intense pressure. I was 18 and oblivious to all that stuff. Everything was great for me. The record went top 10. For me that was fucking amazing. So I didn’t have the same experience as the boys with ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’.  For me it was the beginning of an amazing adventure and they’d already toured the world and had number one records. They were coming down from their trip and I was taking off.  

But with the first record, you’ve been playing for years, collected loads of songs, you’re good to go. Whereas having to start from zero after touring the whole world, and be expected to come up with something else, Tim was under pressure to be the next Brian Wilson and it wasn’t easy. ‘Free All Angels’ felt easy. The songs were just coming and coming.

We went to Spain to record it and it was a fucking laugh. I think Tim was in love. That probably contributed to a better state of mind. The stakes were high but, again, I don’t think I felt it as much. I was 20 at this point.  Still in the honeymoon phase. It wasn’t until it went to number one and I saw how emotional they were that I understood the pressure. It was a special time and I don’t think ‘Meltdown’ or ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ had the same feel as ‘Free All Angels.’        

When did you first hear the songs Tim had been writing and what were your initial impressions? 

I’ve got tapes in my studio of handwritten notes for most of the songs. It was exciting. He would come with pretty much fully formed songs and then there were other songs Mark had written. Me and Mark would bust out some riffs. I can’t remember what the songwriting process was. I think Tim went off and wrote a load of songs, got his shit together, came back and we probably all got in a room and made sure it all worked before we went into the studio. Some moments on ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ were figured out in the studio, but ‘Free All Angels’ was very much written and demoed. It felt much more complete.       

What makes Tim such a special songwriter?

He just has a natural way with melody. It’s not unusual to see him with an acoustic guitar knocking out beautiful songs. He loves music. He’s always listening to music and people who are big fans tend to be the best writers. There are hidden depths to Tim. There’s a lot of joy in his music but it’s not just one note summer love songs. 

There are different shades to his songwriting. On the surface he’s, perhaps, the happiest man in the world. Sometimes I’m like ‘there’s got to be something else going on inside Tim’ and I think those other parts of his personality come through in his songwriting. ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ was a big distillation of that, of being much more complicated than you initially see. I love different shades and emotions and he seems to capture it really well. He’s a very honest songwriter.         

Do you have a favourite contribution to ‘Free All Angels’, one that won’t be credited in the album sleeve?

The Burn Baby Burn guitar solo, I remember playing that and it being cool. I know it sounds strange but, because Tim was the lead guitar player, I was just kind of like ‘oh, wow’ when he said ‘why don’t you write it?’ You have your set roles in a band: ‘Tim plays the lead guitar’ and I do the other stuff.  So I was happy about that and it felt like a nod of approval from Tim the guitar god. I remember playing that in the studio and feeling thrilled that I’d written and played it, and then it was a big single.   

Tim’s hooks are delivered beautifully by your harmonies. At what point did you realise how well your voices blended? 

When we did Tim [Burgess]’s listening party recently, it was the first time I’d heard the record for many many years and I was struck by how up front my vocals were. I don’t remember them being so audible. I remember when we did Envy…when was Envy? Was Envy before ‘Free All Angels’ or after?

It was on the ‘Intergalactic Sonic 7”s’ compilation that followed. 

I remember singing a lot on Envy. I fucking love that song. It was always a tough balance because, with ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’, those early gigs after I joined were so anarchic and everyone was shitfaced on stage. I was drinking a lot and wasn’t focused on singing at all. I was just singing backing vocals and trying my best to get away with it. Whereas with ‘Free All Angels’, I don’t want to speak for Tim, but I took my vocals a lot more seriously. We had vocal lessons while warming up for the gigs. I probably thought ‘I’ve got to sing all these harmonies so I’d better do a good job’ because I sang so much in the studio. I’m really proud to hear all those backing vocals. You’re right, they work really well with Tim’s.    

I was at one of your first warm up gigs with the band in 1997 at a place called The Tivoli in Buckley. It was wild.

When I joined, Mark was passed out constantly on stage. That was the template. I was getting paid, I’d just left school and that’s what I would have been doing anyway. I just happened to be doing it on stage, but for ‘Free All Angels’ there was a moment where I took the musicianship much more seriously and I think we all stepped it up, especially for the live performances because it was such a strong record.           

You said in 2007 you weren’t sure if you left Ash or were fired. How do you look at that now?

I look at it as young people who weren’t able to communicate properly. I have nothing but love for the guys. I was ready to leave but I think they pushed me and I’m really grateful for that. It was the right thing to do. They knew I wasn’t happy and said ‘we think you should leave’ and I said ‘alright then.’ So it was mutual and, as with all these things, at the time it felt very intense. I was 26 and it was time to move on. Now I’m 43 and can see it for what it was, but we remain close and we’ve always kept in touch. Tim, especially. We’ve been good friends over the years and he’s always been very supportive of whatever I’ve been doing.      

You’ve rejoined them for the anniversary shows, but might there ever be one last hurrah in the studio where you make another album together?

That’s a very good question. No one’s asked me that. Maybe? I know we all have kids now and, for me, the idea of touring the world feels completely insane, but I would never rule it out because I know how things go, being a creative musician. I say one thing one week, someone asks me to do something irresistible the next week, and I’m off doing it. It’s very hard to predict so I would never say no to that.    

Since you left you’ve amassed a broad amount of experiences and have a fantastic CV. Was that always something you wanted to do and, in which case, did you feel creatively unfulfilled in Ash?

No. I would have never predicted my career path. It’s not something you can plan. I was in a band when I was 15. I wanted to play guitar but I never wanted to be a frontperson. Doing that solo record (‘Grey Will Fade’) in-between ‘Free All Angels’ and ‘Meltdown’ was a great experience because there were songs I’d written that were never going to be on an Ash record. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to say ‘hey, listen to my songs.’ Maybe I should have been, in hindsight, because Tim was always supportive. I just felt too awkward about it to say ‘I’ve written these songs, do you think they could be on the album?’ I thought it was easier to do it on my own, go off with a couple of friends and do my record.  

But I feel very privileged I was in Ash when the music industry was thriving. It was exciting, there was so much energy and it was so much fun. I feel incredibly lucky we were there at that time and had a number one record and I went on Top Of The Pops. It was like the feast before the famine, for the music industry. ‘Free All Angels’ is not just a record, for me it’s that time of being 21 where everything felt really hopeful. Before it all went to shit.

Ash Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu September 15 2022 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Sat September 17 2022 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
Sun September 18 2022 - LONDON O2 Forum
Fri December 16 2022 - BELFAST Ulster Hall

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