Guitarist Newton Faulkner live-streamed the recording of his fourth album, Studio Zoo, and accepted suggestions from the ‘audience’. Thousands of fans were logging on. It was like starring in his own, one-man episode of Big Brother.
WITH his dreadlocks and hazy smile, Newton Faulkner seems super laid-back. He is, until he has a deadline.
“I’m very relaxed. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever handed in a piece of work late,” says the singer-songwriter, from Surrey, in London’s commuter belt. “I remember getting ready for bed one night and the phone rang — ‘we need an acoustic version of [1971 Labi Siffre hit] It Must Be Love — in the next half an hour’. My response was along the lines of , ‘okay… let me put the kettle on’. And off I went…”
Faulkner’s conscientiousness was tested last summer while making his fourth record, Studio Zoo. To publicise it, his management suggested Faulkner set a three-week deadline for recording and that he live-stream it on his website. Naturally ebullient, Faulkner was up for it. He assumed his record label would disapprove. “I thought they would have an issue with me just putting all this unreleased music out there. My expectation is that they would let us go ahead, insisting that we kept the sound muted, for copyright reasons. Actually, they were very keen. They even suggested we put in more cameras,” he says.
The first day was bizarre. He was intensely aware that thousands of fans were logging on. It was like starring in his own, one-man episode of Big Brother. “The opening half hour, particularly, was just so awkward,” says Faulkner. “I was incredibly self-conscious — patiently talking to the camera, explaining what I was doing. Once we got that out of the way, and got down to the actual work, it was fine.”
Having an audience forced him to raise his game. Rather than mucking around and seeing what worked, he was highly deliberate. Faulkner had to make decisions and stick to them.
“On my own, I would probably have put loads of things on, then taken them all off again. Because of the unique situation, I was more careful. I would ask people, ‘how do you feel about shakers on this song?’ The response was so passionate on both sides of the debate. The degree to which some people loved shakers, and some loathed them, was, frankly, ridiculous.”
The three-week limit was problematic. He suspects his record company agreed to the experiment on the assumption that he would miss the deadline. He was determined to not miss it.
“I came prepared. For instance, I had a tour of Australia in the lead-up and set myself a challenge: ‘in Australia, I’ll work on guitar parts’. I had to go away somewhere else and I made sure I would finish my lyrics,” he says.
Alongside the live streaming, he had a clear goal: to write an LP that captured the Newton Faulkner live experience. The problem, as he sees it, was that earlier albums were over-produced. His record company was eager for a breakthrough hit that would make Faulkner a household name. An accommodating chap, he was happy to work with their suggestions.
But he soon realised he wasn’t that sort of artist. Lavish adornments did not bring out the best in him.
“My favourite tracks are the ones that are slightly strange sounding — and quite minimal. Production is a curious thing — it does completely change a song, changes how you perceive the lyrics, what you think of the artist in general. It is a very powerful tool. You have to think about how you use it,” he says.
Faulkner enjoys the studio, but he loves the road. It is fashionable for artists to complain, but Faulkner is never happier than in the back of a tour van.
“I start to miss it after a while,” he says. “I need the road. It’s good for me. If I don’t have a few gigs to keep me ticking over, I start to lose all purpose. It’s strange — I’m not sure what it says about me as a person.”
Faulkner was born in 1985 and grew up in the well-to-do village of Reigate. He didn’t take up guitar until he was 15. He played with a variety of local rock bands and was influenced by Green Day and Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
It was while studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music in London that he met Irishman, Eric Roche, a tutor who challenged him to step outside his zone of comfort. “He was a genius, in my opinion,” says Faulkner. “It was because of him that I am where I am today. He was the one who showed me that you could go into music from a very different perspective.” Faulkner broke through in 2005, on the back of his cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. Indeed, for a while he was synonymous with the eclectic covers that he always sprinkles into his live shows (a YouTube search will uncover Faulkner-ised versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Steve Wonder’s ‘Superstition’).
“How the covers thing happened is that someone asked me to do a version of [Wild Cherry’s] ‘Play that Funky Music’ for radio. I had half an hour to come up with something. The response was insanely positive. I was hearing stuff like, ‘this is the best cover version EVER’. Which is crazy, obviously, but nice to hear. Ever since, people have been setting me bizarre challenges and I’ve done my best to pull them off.”
-Newton Faulkner plays Olympia, Dublin, on Thursday, Cork Opera House, Cork, on Friday, Seapoint Ballroom, Galway, on Saturday.
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