By BRUCE DENNILL
Mark Nevin: My Unfashionable Opinion
Analogue tape recording: still a popular choice for “real” musicians and music fans, but not easy to do in terms of availability of hardware and engineers willing and able to go through the hassle of the editing required. Why bother? What was the goal?
It was Phill Brown’s [engineer for Led Zeppelin, Traffic, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley and others] suggestion to record to analogue tape and it is entirely because of the sound – especially for the natural tape compression and gravitas it gives to the bass and drums. Once recorded onto tape we transferred it onto Pro-Tools so we had the benefit of digital editing. It wasn’t a matter of being purists; just trying to have the best of both worlds.
How important was it – in this context – to have Phill involved?
Phill, as you know, has so much experience and it means that we were able to concentrate entirely on our performances. We knew Phill had the technical side of things covered, and he also has an endless supply of brilliant stories about his career, which makes for great between-take banter.
Fairground Attraction come up in most half-decent chats about folk music. Where does this recording approach fit in to that tradition, and if that occurred to you, how important is it to be true to those values?
Strangely, The First Of A Million Kisses [Fairground Attraction’s debut album, featuring the number one hit Perfect] was one of the first all digital albums released – it was DDD [digital recording equipment, digital mastering, digital media]. We recorded to 32 track Mitsubushi Digital tape, then mixed and mastered digitally.
When I formed Fairground Attraction, the idea was to have jazz musicians on folk instruments playing pop songs. I was never a folk musician – I still can’t grow a proper beard! However, I always loved the purity of acoustic instruments, like when The Beatles did songs like Blackbird or Mother Nature’s Son, or the instrumentation on Hunky Dory – all those classic and timeless sounds and arrangements.
My ears tune out when I hear folk musicians singing songs about “fair maidens” and “ye olde taverne”. I want songs that are about life now, not 400 years ago.
One of the things that suffers as a result of the distractions caused by social media or the myriad other digital opportunities is the ability to focus creatively. You’ve turned that on its head by using social media and its negative effects as the inspiration for some songwriting. Do these new songs in some way serve the same purpose as social media – disseminating thoughts and perspectives to an audience that may or may not agree with them; or talking about subject matter that others may find alien or odd but which is now part of their experience?
I suppose so, though it wasn’t a conscious intention to do that, but more that I am expressing my personal viewpoint on what is going on at the moment. More and more it seems as though the world is an enormous popularity contest. I endeavour to make the sort of records that I would like to listen to, intelligent and passionate with humour and pathos. What I am saying is this: I don’t care if what I say or do is fashionable or popular – what I care about is that it is my truth.
Storytelling is an art form that not too many songwriters are really good at, and the same can be said of the ability to connect with people via social media. Awareness of the essence of a thought or a story is paramount if you’re going to be effective in the latter arena: is the same true of a song? Must you have at least a pure kernel to start with or do you meander through the process and only know you’re done when there’s nothing else to do?
There are a lot of different types of songwriters. Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon are master storytellers, but there are a lot of “made up” songs. I find them insulting, as though they were made from some kind of kit for the purpose of making a singer rich and famous. Humanity is made of songs and stories and to treat them with such little respect is an insult to our humanity.
Sometimes I will think I am going to write a song about this or that subject, so then there is a pure kernel, but often the kernel may not be a conscious idea. It’s lurking beneath the surface of consciousness, waiting for the hook and maggot of the writer’s time and effort. And however it begins, there is a sense of completeness that lets me know when it is “done”.
The song Forgotify speaks of the challenges in getting heard as a contemporary musician. What are your thoughts (extrapolating on those expressed in the song) on the opportunities to get your art to someone via digital channels versus the value of older models like record labels or more difficult-to-quantify long-term relationships?
There is good and bad in the way things are now. It has never been easier to get a song “out there”, but there is something to be said for the old model of record companies with their A&R departments as gatekeepers. Now there is an overwhelming flood of bland singer-songwriters who have made an album on Logic and released it on the internet.
An album used to be an event, but now it is usually an annoyance that someone wants you to fund for them through a pledge campaign. No, I don’t want to pay £50 to have dinner with you and get my name written on the sleeve of your beige CD!
The received wisdom in many quarters is that consumers’ attention spans have been viciously attenuated by exposure to social media and being linked to “reality” by seven different devices at any given time. Yet that is, happily, not true for everyone, and there are music fans who still prefer albums to random singles. Was there any plan with this collection to create one linked, multi-faceted project, or was it a case of collating a number of songs written during a specific period and then looking for an angle to hang a marketing idea on?
I just write the best songs I can and then record them the best I can. I never think of what the audience wants, or a marketing plan. I am not sure how things will unfold in the years ahead, but everything is cyclical and I keep turning up and doing it again. On this new record, I express this is in songs like Sing Anyway and The Stars Align: “I’m up on the hill, trying to see forever, but I never will, ‘cause nobody can, but sometimes the stars align and I keep working, until that moment comes along”
You’ve had an incredible career as a songwriter, and a critically successful one as a solo artist, handling your compositions in the way you want to, rather than entrusting them to other creative minds. What is your ultimate recorded sound – the one you’d most like to create or emulate? Much of My Unfashionable Opinion sounds like classic soul and singer-songwriters (Van Morrison comes to mind in many instances; plus the Al Kooper/Ray Manzarek-ish organ playing). What (or who) are you looking for when going into the studio?
One of the first reviews of this album described it as “as honest as it gets” and that is a great compliment to me – that is what I strive for. I am not interested in virtual instruments, like I am not interested in ‘fake news’. To have emotion, music must be “in motion” – the physicality of people wrestling with wood, strings, sticks and skins; vibraphone mallets on metal; revolving Leslie speakers; breath through saxophone reeds; and the lung-bursting blowing of trumpets and trombones. There must be no tippetty-tapping into a software app to “emulate” something. Life is too short to waste it on that nonsense.
On the flip side, is there a sound you’ve striven for for ages, but never managed to get right – perhaps that scenario where you’re heavily influenced by someone but sound nothing like them?
In the past year or so I have been listening almost exclusively to Fela Kuti. I play his records on vinyl in the kitchen good and loud – I want to fill my children’s souls with this thrilling music. While I am not in any way trying or hoping to sound like Fela Kuti, I do regard his records as a gold standard in terms of the spirit of music at its most physical and spiritual.
Much of your approach suggests that looking for a hit is not really a consideration. Something like Sing Anyway, though, could easily connect with a pop/chart-friendly audience (plus all the Mike Scott/The Waterboys fans…). Do you need to adjust your thinking for that possibility? Where does this album and its potential success – particularly if there’s a major spike in demand for your music, as there should be – fit in with your psychotherapy practice?
Good question! At the moment the balance between being a songwriter and therapist is very good and I love both. That said, I want to get the band out playing live much more. There is a ripeness about what I am doing, as though I have arrived at something of a destination, and I want to make a lot of beautiful noise and have a great number of people come to the party. It is all healing and that is my job, whichever form it takes at any given moment in time.