Hit The Lights: Newton Faulkner: 'Limitation Opens Up Other Bits Of Your Brain'

artist: Newton Faulkner date: 09/18/2009 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Newton Faulkner: 'Limitation Opens Up Other Bits Of Your Brain'
When it comes to the art of songwriting, many musicians have their preferred method. Conventional songwriting means a track's beginnings usually spawn in the form of a riff, which is then expanded upon. However, some wish to push themselves. One such musician happens to be English singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner, whose native success is quite impressive. Limiting himself, and in however shape or form that may take, the results of such endeavours will speak for themselves in time. Sophomore album "Rebuilt By Humans" will be where Faulkner either builds upon his initial success, or where the man's popularity gradually fades. However, it's through gigging that he'll ultimately succeed, or fail. July 2007 debut "Hand Built By Robots" eventually climbed to the top of the UK album charts, eventually achieving double platinum certification. Third single "Dream Catch Me" lent a hand in its success, charting at seventh and fifth on the British and Australian singles charts respectively. When time came to cut a follow up for Newton Faulkner, a major setback occurred. Whilst on a family holiday in France on Boxing Day 2008, Faulkner slipped on ice, shattering his right wrist. The artist flew back to the UK for treatment the next day, his wrist being sliced open and a plate bolted to his bones using nine pins. Within a matter of days, Faulkner played guitar again. The accident spawned the title of Faulkner's second album: "Rebuilt By Humans". One of the earliest tracks written for "Rebuilt By Humans" was inaugural single "If This Is It", penned in a basement flat behind Harrods in Knightsbridge, the reason behind writing there being the fact he knew no-one in the area. "Won't Let Go", meanwhile, was written in a Tokyo hotel room. In a tiny room under the stairs at London's Miloco studios, much of "Rebuilt By Humans" was recorded with producer Mike Spencer. Through RCA, the album will be released in the United Kingdom on September 28th. During mid August, Newton Faulkner telephoned Hit The Lights' Robert Gray to discuss "Rebuilt By Humans". UG: Hello? Newton Faulkner: Hey, it's Newton Faulkner. How are you Newton? I'm very good. How about you man? I'm ok. I heard there was some drama there, with the fire alarm or something. Yeah, the fire alarm went off. I don't think there was actually a fire. Ok. Would it be alright if I began the interview? Yeah, of course man. The title to your second album, 'Rebuilt By Humans', refers to a near career-ending you suffered on Boxing Day 2008. Could you talk through that accident you suffered? Yeah. It's a really boring story - I should make up something better. Basically though, I just slipped over and landed really badly. Ok. As you said, you could've fabricated a really good rock 'n' roll story around that injury. Yeah. I should come up with something better - I'll hire someone to write something (laughs). I don't know. It's such a bore - it was just ridiculous, actually. My brother and sister were in France snowboarding, and I was there too, but landed in hospital, which just sucked (laughs). We had to move all kinds of things; the tour went back a good few months, and recording obviously moved back. Actually, I think the accident had a positive effect on my playing. It gave me a chance to step away for a tiny bit, just so that I could sort out the mild technique type things. Due to that injury, you obviously had to take a step back for awhile, as you said. Does that provide you with a new perspective? A little bit, yeah. Definitely. Also, it was my right hand that was damaged - it was my right hand that I couldn't use. For that reason, I spent a couple of weeks just hammering on as it was the only thing I could do. That's really made my left hand much stronger. When I actually started recording, I was quite surprised at just the difference in my left hand's strength more than anything. Yeah, it was pretty interesting.

"I was writing material for 'Rebuilt By Humans' roughly two to three months before my accident."

Did the injury to your right wrist cause any long term effects? I don't think so. Actually, I can never suffer the same accident again as there's a rather large metal plate in my right wrist. What's weird is that due to the fact two of my tendons are stuck together, I can't move my thumb and index finger independently. It doesn't seem to have affected my playing at all though, aside from when I try to bend my thumb without bending my index finger, which I think will disappear when the scar heals a bit more. Following that accident you suffered, how did 'Rebuilt By Humans' develop? I was writing material for 'Rebuilt By Humans' roughly two to three months before my accident. I really focused on composing new material, but then my accident obviously happened. I had to take a step back somewhat, but I was still fairly constructive. I tried playing even when it was in a sling, though I just plucked the strings and did everything at half speed, just working out how things were going to work out. Some artists find writing and recording a second album to be notorious, calling it "the difficult second album". Yeah. I was absolutely fine, and I'm not quite sure how or why, but for some reason I was. Partly, I think that was because 'Hand Built By Robots' was actually quite rushed in a lot of ways. "Dream Catch Me" was actually released before we finished the album, so we had to move really fast to complete 'Hand Built By Robots'. The album wasn't the culmination of ten years worth of writing, but was a few months of panic, and a couple of things I had lying around - a couple of older songs that were still good enough to be used. My writing has been on quite a steep curve though, and has changed a lot. A lot of 'Hand Built By Robot''s songs were written in the last few months leading up to recording, as I became better at writing. You said that your writing has changed a lot, so what new directions does 'Rebuilt By Humans' venture in? Sonically, I've been thinking a lot bigger, and I've managed to separate the live thing. With 'Hand Built By Robots', I was always a bit confused with why the album didn't sound more like I sound live. When I played live, it was just me. By separating the two in my head, and by not constantly wishing everything should just be me on my own, I've opened some doors in terms of writing. When I play guitar onstage, I also play pedals with my feet, which are like the bass pedals of an organ, linked to string sounds and bass sounds. I'm kind of doing both at the same time, which has allowed me to catch up with the sound of the record. It does mean I can make a hell of a lot of noise on my own, and I'm really happy with my live guitar sound. Did that come as a result of handling gigs in support of 'Hand Built By Robots'? That experience, and everything? Yeah. It was pretty much three years of playing solidly. I didn't stop to record 'Hand Built By Robots', and gigged while recording - I was sent mixes. I didn't feel like I had that much input, and not because anyone was standing in my way, but just because I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing. Well, I didn't at the time. I didn't have a huge amount of recording experience, but tried to write the best songs I could. Basically, I tried to write the best live songs I could. Were the circumstances surrounding 'Rebuilt By Humans' different than those which surrounded 'Hand Built By Robots'? 'Hand Built By Robots' eventually topped the UK album charts, and I'm assuming you didn't expect that. No no, not in the slightest. I don't think anyone involved in 'Hand Built By Robots' actually thought it would do that at all. So your record label didn't say "Write another "Dream Catch Me"", or something to that effect? "If This Is It" was one of the earlier songs written, and as soon as that was written, the label relaxed quite a lot, as it was like "Oh cool. We've got the first single. This is cool". They then just let me get on with writing a bit, which was cool. It was really nice just to be able to write things, and challenge myself writing wise as well. I love giving myself writing challenges. I wrote "If This Is It" just with pedals, and without touching a guitar. I wrote the whole song just with my feet, which was really interesting, as you're limiting yourself. Is there any reason why you opted to limit yourself while writing certain songs? That's an unconventional approach to songwriting. Limitation actually opens up other bits of your brain, I think. You try to write a song, but just limit yourself to two strings. It's just an interesting way of working. Your brain is so focused on that, and that relaxes the rest of your brain to be more creative. Is limiting yourself a way of gaining concentration as well? Yeah. I do the same thing live. If I'm worried about a really big gig, I'll add something to a song, which is just an extra, tiny bit of complication. It's something that no-one will really notice, apart from me, though the occasional guitarist might say "That was quite clever". It's just an extra bit that I really want to get right, because then I find that the rest of the gig goes a million times better. My brain is so focused on this one tiny, little detail that the rest of the gig almost happens naturally, without me having to think about anything. It's quite an interesting mental trick. Do you suffer from stage fright? Yeah, definitely. I headlined the Grassroots Festival in Jersey, and was pretty nervous. I was on my own. It's quite a daunting prospect.

"'Rebuilt By Humans' has a flow to it, and a wholeness to it."

When you preview new material before a live audience, is that also daunting? I started performing new material real soon, as I completed a whole tour immediately after recording 'Rebuilt By Humans'. I was in the studio, and then immediately toured after that. I still received occasional mixes, but all of 'Rebuilt By Humans'' recording and ninety percent of its production was completed before I went on the road. In writing 'Hand Built By Robot''s material, you participated in some songwriting collaborations. Is that the same case with 'Rebuilt By Humans'' material, or was there less collaboration? I haven't actually compared, though it'd be interesting to take a look at that. I really enjoy co-writing though. I find some people really interesting to work with, and I do think co-writers will ultimately make me a better writer. By working closely with other people, you can just learn little tricks and so on, as well as just ways of getting songs out which you might not think of. I love writing with my brother (Toby Faulkner), just because it's really fun. A press release issued for 'Rebuilt By Humans' states that the album is "slightly juicy but less flamboyant" in comparison to 'Hand Built By Robots'. Would you agree with that statement? It was probably something I said, but I'm just trying to work out exactly what I meant by "less flamboyant" - I probably said that in some type of context. So yeah, I don't really know if I agree with that statement or not now (laughs). Slightly juicy but less flamboyant? 'Rebuilt By Humans' is definitely bigger and smaller at the same time. The electronic parts are much more prominent, but there's probably the same amount of electronic parts on the album as there was on 'Hand Built By Robots'. On that album, the electronic parts very much underpinned things. On "Badman" for example, however, there's a part at the end which is definitely as loud as the guitar. The electronic parts are on the same level, which I think bring out the guitar even more since they sound juxtaposed - "Badman" has a completely acoustic guitar, and a weird synth noise. It works, I think. Also, there's one track that we recorded completely live, which was actually just nerve-wracking as hell. I just sat there in a studio, and in a room on my own with a mike in front of my mouth, and a mike in front of the guitar. Basically, I was just told to then record the song, which was really nerve-wracking. You recorded 'Rebuilt By Humans' at Miloco studios in a tiny room under the stairs. What did that provide the album's tracks with? Considering the success of 'Hand Built By Robots', your record label might have suggested you work in a really flash studio with all these knobs and so on. It was a decision I came to. Between me and the producer, we just thought it was the best place to record 'Rebuilt By Humans'. It worked really well, I think. The room was just big enough for the two of us to be in, so it was quite intense, but that meant we got a lot done. We both really enjoyed working on material, so we just kept going a lot of the time. I had a lot of fun, I must admit. We travelled to bigger studios to record some parts with strings and so on, but I do think that if we recorded the whole album somewhere bigger, it would've had a different vibe. I do think there's a certain amount of attention to detail on 'Rebuilt By Humans', and I feel that came from being in such a place. As you recorded 'Rebuilt By Humans'' tracks under the stairs, did that mean there were no distractions? Yeah. The room under the stairs of Miloco studios is just literally a room which has a computer, speakers, a couple of synths, and enough room to play guitar in, which was cool. That affected the mood of 'Rebuilt By Humans', and the other aspect which affected the album's mood was the fact I moved into London just after Christmas. I moved near to London Bridge, and that had quite a big impact. 'Hand Built By Robots' was written out in the country near Gatwick Airport in Surrey, so it had a different vibe. I guess it's the difference between going to sleep to the sound of squirrels and birds to going to sleep to the sound of sirens and screaming - it's a different vibe. That added a certain amount of urgency to the sound. In recording future material, do you see yourself continuing to work in smaller environments, or do you see yourself working in bigger environments? I actually bought a mobile ProTools rig, so I see myself taking advantage of natural spaces a bit more, especially for recording. I really like the idea of all the guitars and all the vocals being recorded in the same space, and finding somewhere which has a really nice sound, but just naturally. I can mike up the room then, as opposed to using the usual artificial reverb. Would you describe that as more of an organic approach? Recording in natural spaces is a more organic approach to reverb. I'm always seeking ways to make albums feel like a whole entity, and not just a collection of songs. That's probably the reason why 'Hand Built By Robots' did what it did as an album, in that less people knew just about "Dream Catch Me". More people got into the album itself, and heard these strange little things, wanting to know how it all fitted together. So you mean that it isn't about the impact of one song, but the impact of all of an album's songs combined? 'Rebuilt By Humans' has a flow to it, and a wholeness to it. How would you describe your working relationship with producer Mike Spencer? On 'Rebuilt By Humans', there was a really proper collaboration. With a lot of the songs, I actually thought in production terms when I wrote, whereas with 'Hand Built By Robots', I don't think I did that at all. All of that album's songs were written as live things, and then I was asked "What shall we do with the record?". I said "I have no idea". This time however, as I wrote, I thought "Oh yeah, man. This time we can do this, and we can do that. We can have military drums just underpinning" and so on. Yeah, it was just really fun. Mike is really good with synths, and synth sounds - he really knows his stuff. He's really meticulous as well, and has an attention to detail. Whenever I sat on the sofa not being able to keep my eyes open, he would still go every time. We just get on really well, and he completely understood what I tried to do. Do you see yourself continuing that relationship with Mike Spencer, or do you see yourself self-producing? I would like to learn more from Mike first. I'd definitely like to record another album with him, and then I'll see where I end up after that - I'll see what I'm thinking next (laughs). It depends. The way I write will change, and the way I play will keep changing.

"My writing has been on quite a steep curve though, and has changed a lot."

In terms of lyrical content, what topics does 'Rebuilt By Humans'' tracks touch upon? All kinds of things. With 'Rebuilt By Humans', the album's lyrics are a lot more specific. On 'Hand Built By Robots', there were quite a few songs that were stream of consciousness - something like "To the Light", has quite a lot of little concepts in it. With this album though, each song has a much more precise lyrical nature. The lyrics touch upon quite a few things (laughs). I've been with my girlfriend for ages, though we broke up for three months, and then we got back together. Due to that, 'Rebuilt By Humans' has a break up song and a get back together song, all just from those three months (laughs). Are those songs quite intense then? Yeah. One of them is more intense than the other, though the get back together song is a bit more happy. You wrote 'Rebuilt By Humans'' first single, "If This Is It", near Harrods in Knightsbridge. Actually, it was the same type of idea that compelled me to play with just pedals. I wanted to be somewhere in London where I didn't know anyone, and where I didn't really know anywhere to go out to. For that reason, it was quite a focused writing space. Eventually, I went behind Harrods in Knightsbridge, just because I didn't know anyone behind Harrods in Knightsbridge (laughs). Yeah, it made a lot of sense. It worked really well, and was a good three weeks of solid writing - a lot of material was written in that room. A military drummer from the Royal Artillery performs on "If This Is It". Is there a reason why you chose a military drummer to appear on that track? That was such an interesting character to have around, and just fitted with "If This Is It". It just made perfect sense, as we made a mock up version of the song in ProTools, a sampled type of thing. That really added a finishing touch to the whole thing, and added so much pace and intricacy to the song. "If This Is It"'s lyrics are about gigging. Yeah. "If This Is It"'s lyrics are completely just about playing live. For anyone else, it could be about anything they love doing, but for me, it's very much about playing gigs. And also, a music video was filmed for "If This Is It". I had a few ideas which we sent out as a starting point, but we eventually settled on a frozen in time theme. That's a concept I feel has been used before, but I think the way that the director wanted to film the video was quite interesting. I liked the hand-held camera aspect of "If This Is It"'s video, which stopped the video being too slick, and caused it to be a tiny bit wobbly. Also, the amount of motion in the camera made more of the things that were completely still. 'Hand Built By Robots' was released in the UK during July 2007, but didn't receive its US release until April 2008. For 'Rebuilt By Humans', what are the US release plans? With 'Rebuilt By Humans', we'll likely have the same release plans. We'll arrange a simultaneous release with Australia since 'Hand Built By Robots' went really well there, so we'll definitely do that. Also, I think the album's German release will happen around the same time. With America though, I think we'll hit them a bit later once again. Is there a reason behind that decision? Yeah. If you're going to release an album, then it's worth releasing that album in line with a few other things. Releasing 'Rebuilt By Humans' in America when I have to be in England touring is a less powerful statement than releasing the album in America, and actually being there at the time (laughs). You can then actively promote a given album. That's a good point, and true. Obviously, most artists issue their respective albums globally around the same date more or less. But that's only when you get to a certain level There has to be a certain amount of global awareness to allow you to do that, I think. That's true. Do you have plans to crack America? I think America will take a long time, since it's a massive place. I'll keep going back, and will keep gigging. It's the gigs that really make the difference, and it's the gigs that people talk about. That was definitely the case with 'Hand Built By Robots', where gigging added a huge amount of momentum to the album. Just need to go over there, and play. It's the same as everywhere else. In Europe as well, I want to spend more time actually playing. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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