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Big Loops vs Feeling Naked: Newton Faulkner On Stripping Things Back

Thursday, 15 September 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

If he’d been alive when it first entered the popular lexicon, it’s highly likely the phrase ‘One Man Band’ would have been coined to describe Newton Faulkner. A sonic wizard who combines rootsy, eclectic songwriting with a mastery of technical equipment, whenever this multi-instrumentalist hits the stage on his lonesome, you’re guaranteed a thrilling experience that, depending on the night, could either be bombastic and boisterous or intimate and tender. 

Since achieving instant success and recognition on the back of his top ten charting debut single Dream Catch Me in 2007, Faulkner has proven himself to be one of the most idiosyncratic artists to enjoy both mainstream acclaim and the adulation of devout gear heads and serious musos.

Armed with a complex and seemingly contradictory mixture of attributes, the folk-based songsmith has, over the course of seven very different studio records, and during thousands of gigs, pushed his early acoustic sounds into all kinds of different territories thanks the use of cutting edge tech, a constantly evolving vision and staunch refusal to repeat himself. 

Following 2021’s ‘Interference Of Light,’ a genre and era-hopping colossus shot through with the guitarist’s endearing positivity, he emerged from lockdown to put on one of the most ambitious tours of his career as he strove to recreate the album’s densely layered tunes via a bountiful arsenal of interwoven loops.  

Once that trek was complete, however, he decided it was time to flip the script and return to his roots. Spanning the length and breadth of the UK, the singer’s forthcoming Feels Like Home Tour will see him stripping things back, embracing minimalism and letting the primal power of his musicianship do the talking. 

To quote one of your post-lockdown tweets from earlier this year, how has your ‘dehermitisation’ been going?

My dehermitisation is going well. I’m adapting to, is it real life? Normal life?  Whatever life it is. To be honest, lockdown, for me and most musicians, socially, it was like we’d been in training for it for a long time before it happened. You’re used to spending days, weeks, potentially months in a room working on your own stuff.  When that was suddenly enforced I didn’t really notice for a while. So it suited studio life but totally ruined touring life and made it impossible.

During lockdown you created ‘Interference of Light,’ which is a record of uplifting sounds and emotions. You’ve always crafted positive music, but did you feel a responsibility to lift listeners after the pandemic?

I’m always thinking about the listener but it’s dangerous if you just write what you think other people want to hear. It’s not honest. So it has to start from either an observationally honest or internally honest place and then, from there, you can learn things. I didn’t feel a huge amount of responsibility but what I wanted to do was take advantage of the unique situation of having what felt like all the time in the world.   

I was very conscious of not writing anything for lockdown because I just thought, as a project, that gives it a finite shelf life. I also figured that, once we were out of the other side, people would not be in a rush to be like ‘Oh, should we revisit that lockdown feeling?’ So I was writing for coming out of it and, strangely, a lot of the stuff was about acceptance.

I didn’t realise that was me desperately trying to give myself advice that I wasn’t taking. A lot of stuff happened just before lockdown, which I won’t go into, but it was bad. Instead of dealing with it I made an album and the whole time I was making it these themes were coming across. Loads of stuff about acceptance, forgiveness, moving on. None of which I was doing.

I put up a huge amount of mental structures that were basically ‘I’m working. I can’t deal with this until I’ve stopped working.’ And I basically finished, totally crumbled and had to deal with the stuff before lockdown, lockdown itself, and everything that came with that. It is ironic that all that positivity was what I needed at the time. 

You spoke about throwing out the rule book on the album too, which seems strange because you’ve never seemed like an artist who operates under restrictive conditions. What were those rules and how did you break free from them?

It was one singular thought that got in the way of things: ‘I love this, this is fun. It’s everything I want to be doing right now…but it’s not very Newton Faulkner.’ In terms of where I’ve been, it was basically that ‘what would Newton Faulkner do?’ thought. As much as he’s very real, and he is me, he’s also very fictional. He’s not me at all. So it was trying to fulfil something that’s an external construct that other people have made. Especially when you’re working with labels. They’re very much like ‘You can’t go there.  You can’t do that.’ Something like Sinking Sand was totally off the charts and people would be ‘Absolutely not. Can’t do that. That’s too heavy.  Too weird.’  

So I stopped thinking about where I’d been and what I thought people wanted, did what felt right, and followed it as far as I possibly could. It was also about not pigeonholing myself, which I didn’t realise I was doing. Sinking Sand was something I’d played in soundcheck thousands of times. It’s one of my favourite things to play but I didn’t feel I was allowed to do it. And when I did play it live, people's reactions were so much fun. I had a megaphone and masses of distorted guitars and it was just like,‘Yes, this is a lot of fun.’             

What was the thought process behind doing your forthcoming stripped back tour and what do you find so powerful about that format compared to the bigger production you adopted last time out?

I like every tour to be different. I was really happy the other day because someone came up to me and said ‘I’ve seen you so many times, it’s totally different every time’ and I was like, ‘That’s good…I like that.’ It’s always just me, but you also don’t know what me is. I loved it [the last tour].  All the gear was amazing. I took it as far as I could and Killing Time was a real high point because it had something like 30 channels of audio all flying in different directions. What led to that was the fact I’d been in the studio for longer than I’d ever been in the studio before. So when it came to going on tour I felt naked without basically taking the studio with me.  

But since then I’ve had to do festivals, gone out with just a guitar and felt the raw power of that. It’s all little steps up so, if I do a stripped back tour now, that will massively improve my playing because I’ll keep adding stuff and embellishing arrangements and finding new things and pushing it further. If I focus on that for this tour, next time I come back to the big loopy stuff I’ll be able to do things I couldn’t do. I want to push that further and then put it all together.  

What’s your set up like for this tour?

To begin with it was just guitar and vocal. I was always going to have the kick drum and then this one other bit of gear I had a feeling about. It’s called a junk hat. That is a dustbin lid crumpled with black wood on top of it, with holes poked through it, and bits of metal poked through that, and a few chains, and you open and close it.  

My kick drum is on my left foot. I’ve tried loads of things with my other foot.  I’ve tried playing bass, triggering 808 clap things. That’s been fun but the annoying thing with any kind of clap that’s digital is you see people looking for it and they can’t find it because they can’t see it. And there’s some disconnect between the recorded sound and the raw physicalness of everything else because I’ve got wooden strings rattling and harmonics and all of that’s coming from the guitar.

So this [junk hat] arrived the day before a little gig I was doing. The idea was to do some of the same material as the mega loopy tour, but the response was completely different. With the kick drum being real and the snare being there everyone started dancing, in the first bar, and kept moving the whole set. It was such an immediate response and to do with not being perfectly in time but the right amount out.  

Also, having it coming from me, if I want to push a guitar thing late I can push the guitar and the snare exactly the same amount of late so everything’s kind of undulating. It’s like seeing a really good band who play together all the time.  They’re speeding up and slowing down, it’s all happening naturally and it feels right.  Because I’m doing different kick drum and hi-hat patterns, and it’s all driven from what’s going on with the guitar, it works in this very visceral guttural way and it communicates.                                      

How do you create an ebb and flow to these bare-boned sets that are well paced and keep people engaged without having all the big production tricks at your disposal?

A lot of it is about the songs. I’m going through seven albums’ worth of stuff.  There are loads of different feels and it fizzes in every direction from the folky picky singer songwriter vibe all the way up to the bigger production tracks. But that’s where the playing becomes part of the focus because the production elements are coming from harmonics, percussive stuff on the guitar and all those extra things, tunings and voicings, not being what you expect. All that makes a track seem bigger or smaller, as well as what I’m doing with my feet between the kick drum and the snare  coming and going. There are tracks where that will be right in the whole time. That will be a good vibe thing. Then there’s other tracks where it will be smaller and intimate.  

I am going to talk quite a lot. Probably more than I did on the big loopy tour.  Everything was very set because all the sound had to change at the same time.  Whereas with this I’ve got total freedom because I’ve just got my guitars around me.  I’ve no limitations if I want to move from one track to another. I can go anywhere.  A lot of the time I’ll get songs shouted at me. I got heckled by a six-year-old child at one of the festivals and he was like, ‘I really like I Need Something, that’s one of my favourite songs and I’d like you to play it right now.’ So I just did.  

If it stirs me I can move everything around. If it feels like the right kind of acoustic space to be really quiet I can kind of suck things in and fill that space. If it’s Saturday night and kicking off I’ve got everything at my disposal to make a huge amount of noise. How I decide what’s gonna happen is going to be based on the push and pull of the room itself, the people and where things are leaning. A lot of people rehearse sets and do a very defined thing, which I’ve done in the past, but with this I want to keep it a bit freer.

Newton Faulkner Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat September 17 2022 - LLANDRINDOD WELLS Pavilion Mid Wales
Sun September 18 2022 - BATH Komedia
Tue September 20 2022 - CHELTENHAM Cheltenham Town Hall
Thu September 22 2022 - NEWARK Newark Palace Theatre
Fri September 23 2022 - BRIDLINGTON Spa theatre
Sat September 24 2022 - LYTHAM Lowther Pavilion
Sun September 25 2022 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Wylam Brewery
Tue September 27 2022 - BILSTON Robin
Wed September 28 2022 - SHREWSBURY Theatre Severn
Thu September 29 2022 - NORTHAMPTON Roadmender
Fri September 30 2022 - BARNSLEY Birdwell Venue
Sun October 02 2022 - BLACKBURN King Georges Hall
Tue October 04 2022 - BUXTON Buxton Opera House
Thu October 06 2022 - HOLMFIRTH Picturedrome
Fri October 07 2022 - GLASGOW Oran Mor
Sat October 08 2022 - EDINBURGH Queens Hall
Sun October 09 2022 - YARM Princess Alexandra Auditorium
Tue October 11 2022 - LIVERPOOL Floral Pavilion Theatre
Wed October 12 2022 - EXETER Exeter Phoenix
Thu October 13 2022 - BEXHILL ON SEA De La Warr Pavilion
Sat October 15 2022 - SOUTHEND Palace Theatre
Sun October 16 2022 - CAMBRIDGE Junction 1
Tue October 18 2022 - LONDON Islington Assembly Hall

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