Interviewed: Newton Faulkner
by Alex Mathie
With his mischievous grin and unmistakable ginger dreads, Newton Faulkner offers me a word of advice as he keenly thrusts a bottle of 11.5% beer under my nose- “you need to check out the bar downstairs. It has some unbelievable ales!”
Faulkner is a living example of why never to judge a book by its cover. His matted hair and towering presence conceal a true English gentleman; here is a well-spoken, modest and impeccably mannered musician. With a double platinum debut album and multiple chart-topping singles worldwide, the release of his hugely anticipated third album, Write It On Your Skin, seems likely to add yet another accolade to Faulkner’s already strained belt of success.
Settling into conversation among a plethora of foreign beer bottles and a number of well-stocked fruit bowls, it becomes apparent that his infectious excitability should have come as no surprise. “‘Live’ is where the music happens” he tells me. “‘Studio’ is fun, but it’s so exciting to hear songs working the way you imagined them working when you were writing them months ago.”
While he recorded upcoming material, Faulkner played a series of intimate gigs around the country, performing in whatever environment he could find, be it village halls or people’s kitchens. “One night I played twelve new songs; that’s almost unethical” he quips. “I’ve been blown away by people’s hunger for new stuff. Now that it’s all gone on YouTube, I’ve even had a couple of people who have known all the words to everything, it was amazing.”
However, it’s not all been plain sailing over the last two years. When I inquire as to why the release of the new Sketches EP coincides so closely with the forthcoming album, it seems that his label, Sony BMG, have some skeletons in the closet. “This album alone has seen three different Managing Directors”, he reveals. “I was ready to put something out last summer but Sony weren’t in a position to release.” As if realising he might have overstepped the limit of label bad-mouthing an artist can get away with, he quickly adds “although, in hindsight, I’m glad it worked out that way.” Regardless of whether this was meant in earnest or not, Faulkner does admit that the experience changed the album considerably. “The whole vibe has solidified a lot”, he admits. “It’s solidified in a way that separates it from the other two; it’s a lot looser, a lot rawer”, something he credits to the circumstances of its recording, which was split between his home studio and “some guy’s garage” in Los Angeles. “It was very un-LA”, he jokes.
Despite Faulkner’s assurances that the album is set to be considerably more stripped back than its predecessors, he tells me that any new influences are few and far between. “Musically, I’ve become kind of reclusive, actually. Occasionally I’d hit a point where I’d play something and think ‘oh, that sounds like that other thing’, but I preferred the album to inspire itself. When I listened to anything remotely radio friendly, I’d catch myself analysing what it is that makes it radio friendly, so now I just listen to completely bonkers stuff – Primus, Captain Beefheart, Buckethead.”
Yet, as with any conversation about influences with Faulkner, eventually it comes back to his close friend and mentor during his time at the Academy of Contemporary Music, the late Eric Roche. “Eric had a profound influence on my playing”, he tells me. “Him and Thomas Leeb, who helped me arrange one of the tracks on the new album”. It was Roche who inspired Faulkner to do more with the guitar than just tug at the strings, to play the entire instrument, and to incorporate into his music the percussive slaps, slides and swipes that have arguably become Faulkner’s trademark sound.
Having told me that one of his biggest guidelines is staying true to what he calls his ‘musical ethics’, whereby he promises never to write for the sake of writing; never to write disposable, vacuous chart-toppers, it’s no surprise that the upcoming release will have what Faulkner describes as “a layer of melancholy” hiding among the summery melodies. “It’s very positive, but it’s not positive about the way things are now – rather the way things could be. It’s optimistic.”
This, he admits, is something he’s pleased about. “Stuff that’s just overly happy”, he adds with exasperation, “is almost patronising. It’s too ‘bubblegummy’”. He places great importance on his records being primarily something that he’s genuinely pleased with, sometimes even if that means settling for more limited commercial success, like his sophomore release, Rebuilt By Humans. “There’s all these weird rules you have to meet – to get on Radio One and to satisfy the label, among other things, so it’s a lot of balls you’re having to juggle to get it to land in the right spot. But probably my biggest ball”, he adds with a boyish snigger, “is making it something I’m something I’m really proud of.”
It was only when Faulkner walked out onto the stage later that evening and treated his audience to a set that catered for fans both old and new, as well as showcasing the best of his upcoming material, that we realised just how skilled a juggler he must be, having created something that, based on his effervescent performance and the abundance of charismatic banter, he enjoyed just as much as we did. As he orchestrated a riotous rendition of the album’s title track, complete with enthusiastic audience participation, everyone seemed to simultaneously realise what a treat we’re in for come July. Write It On Your Skin is hotly tipped to be a bestseller this summer, and it looks almost certain that the modern day guitar icon could have another runaway hit on his hands.
Write It On Your Skin is released 9th July by Sony BMG.