You’re touring Europe with Wild Beasts. How have audiences been responding to the new material?
Well, this will actually be our second night with them. But I think people really like it. It’s the first time ever I’m seeing people dancing in the audience, or moving around. (Laughs) We’ve tried to select more rhythmic songs, because if you’ve heard the first album you know that my music is usually quite downtempo. I still do a solo part of the set, but I also really like to be able to do something a bit more lively and in your face.
When did you begin work on Aforger, and what was your starting point?
I started in March 2015. We’d come off a really long support tour and I was keen to get writing as soon as I could. The inspiration came from a couple of sad things in my life. I came out of quite a long relationship and also I’d come out to my father and everything was up in the air. I’d been away on tour for so long I felt a little bit uprooted, I no longer had a partner and I wasn’t talking to my father at all, so it came from a place of being not really sure of what I was doing.
It was an intense writing period where I wrote a lot of songs, but this time it was very different because we weren’t recording in our bedrooms, like we did with Whelm. We actually had a recording studio, which felt really luxurious and we spent a lot of time in there, all the way up until December of 2015. It feels like such a long time ago now, but such is the music industry that things sometimes take a long time to get turned around.
Aforger marks a move away from Whelm’s minimalistic aesthetic, towards electronics and more expansive arrangements. What inspired that change?
Before I started writing this record, I set some parameters for myself. I knew from the offset that I don’t want to repeat myself and I wanted to make sure each record really has its own identity. [This time] I wanted to be really, really bold. So, initially, I actually didn’t want to use the piano, and I thought I was going to try writing the music first and then do the words. I didn’t want to write a break-up album, and I wanted it to be a lot bigger, involving a lot more people and using more electronics in places.
Some of these parameters didn’t work out for me, but I didn’t make that a big issue. I did use piano in the end, because it just felt natural, and also I ended up going back to writing lyrics first. But with the actual sound of the record, as well as experimenting with synths, I play guitar, and there’s also the brass band and the choir... I almost wanted to chuck the kitchen sink at the record, and then refine it.
As you mentioned, Aforger is a lot more personal, lyrically, than Whelm. What gave you the confidence to open up?
The first album was, essentially, all of the songs I’ve ever written. I mean, it felt coherent to me and it worked, but going into writing this record I knew I had to draw on personal experiences to a certain extent. Many people have asked me how it’s been to be so open and honest and personal with this record, but the truth of it is that I just wasn’t thinking about people listening to it when I wrote it. I only thought of writing good songs, and that’s all I ever think of.
For that reason, I’m writing these songs and really putting everything into them and it wasn’t until I got the response from my record label about certain songs on the record saying, “Wow, this is really open and honest,” that I went, “Oh f**k, yeah it is.” (Laughs) We finished the record quite a long time ago, and that’s actually allowed me to distance from myself from it in a sense. I’ve sat with it, listened to it, dealt with it, and now I feel able to let other people hear it, because it’s not as fresh and raw for me. It’s almost like an old diary in a sense. But I’m completely reconnecting with it now that I’m playing it live.
Björk cut her Vulnicura tour short because it was too painful to perform those songs live. Even though Aforger isn’t a break-up album per se, it does deal with painful experiences...
Absolutely. I was actually at her last show before she announced that she would be cutting the tour short, so I felt very privileged to see that last performance. That album really connected with me, but I think I was quite intimidated by hearing, what I think is, potentially the best break-up album I’ve ever heard. I thought, “I can’t touch that and I’m not going to go near the subject.” So I wanted to write about something a lot less specific to me – more all-encompassing, a broader idea – and I’m really happy that I did.
It gave me more creative freedom as well, and for that reason I think I am able to perform these songs. I often write songs with dual meanings, as well. Often, the most personal song of mine also has another story involved, so I don’t always have to completely put it all on myself. I can sing about other things, and I can connect in different ways.
The title ‘Aforger’ comes from the idea of forgery. Can you tell us more about that idea?
Well, with the relationship I came out of, it was kind of because it all came out there was a big lie throughout the end of our relationship. And it was one of those moments where I couldn’t believe anything around me anymore. I didn’t know who to trust or believe, and it threw up all these questions about what was real in my life. You think, “If that could be wrong, and I really believed in that, then maybe everything else is wrong?”
Also, I’ve always been interested in big ideas – who are we, why are we here – and I was inspired by this idea that maybe there’s fiction and deceit in everything we do. There’s obviously a darkness to it, but with forgeries there’s a lightness to it as well, because with every forgery it’s its own piece of artwork. So, yeah, reality and fiction and deceit is the thread that runs through everything.
You’ve cited ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ as reference points for Aforger. Why did dystopian narratives strike a chord with you?
There were a couple of things in my life that happened where technology was apparent to me. I was at a family wedding and someone was on their phone. A friend looked down and saw they had a photo of their mother who had passed away as the screensaver on their phone, and they said to them, “I can’t believe you have that there, reminding yourself every day of that tragic loss that you went through.” And their response was that they had to have it there because it always reminded them of her and made it feel like she was present all the time.
My immediate reaction was, “Well it’s just pixels on a screen.” And that moment tied in with something that happened to me, where I was constantly seeing these reminders online... I mean Facebook does that, and I think a lot of people get upset about it, like, “One year ago today, this happened”, and sometimes it’s not always positive events, because the algorithm isn’t intelligent enough to know about sensitive issues. I was tying this in with ‘Black Mirror’, because all the information that haunts you is just digital, and it doesn’t actually have any human element behind it. Certainly, in my culture and where I live, people are so reliant on their phones, or any technology, and it all ties in.
The working title for the album was ‘Reality Control’, taken from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. “Reality control” made total sense with what I was talking about but it was too strong, and too negative. It works for technology as well. We’re all posting things online about how good our lives are, and how perfect they can be, but of course we all know really that’s not the truth. So technology really plays into reality for me, and in so many ways.
It’s often difficult to come away from Facebook or Twitter or Instagram feeling good about yourself, or about the world, and yet as a musician, your social media channels must be very important to your marketing. What’s your relationship with social media?
Well, it’s mixed. I often say to myself, “If I wasn’t a musician, would I have Instagram and Facebook?” I do question it, definitely. The thing is, I’m quite fortunate because where I’m from, in Dorset, my mum doesn’t have a mobile phone, she doesn’t have the internet, she doesn’t have a laptop, she doesn’t involve herself in any of that. The only way I can get into contact with her is to call her up on a landline, or write her a letter, or go visit her. When I go home, I have no mobile signal and no WIFI so you get an opportunity to completely detox. I literally have to climb a hill to get some signal to make a call. So my manager is always quite frustrated when I go away because he can’t get in touch with me. (Laughs) But I enjoy technology, and I am a bit of a geek sometimes. But equally I could go and sit in a cabin and write with a feather and quill and pot of ink, and really detach myself from it.
Is there anything you’ve particularly learned about yourself in the making of this album?
I learned that it’s better to be direct. With my first record, I was very proud of the poetic nature of it. With this record – and in my day to day life – I feel so much more confident and happy to be more direct, more honest. I don’t feel like I have to prove something, and I feel quite happy sitting in a group of people and just listening. I don’t feel that pressure that sometimes we feel to say something clever for the sake of saying something. Because these things that happened in my life made me re-evaluate myself a little bit. I feel a lot more able to be direct, and when I sing my songs on stage I feel like, “Well, I believe in this, so I can run with it.” I hope people enjoy it but I don’t feel the need to prove myself, I guess.