Newton Faulkner: “finishing this new album completely broke me”

Finlay Holden chats with indie-folk-pop artist Newton Faulkner about his upcoming 7th studio album 'Interference (Of Light)'.

Finlay Holden
19th April 2021
Amidst the chaos of the last 13 months, the hard-to-define career musician and multi-instrumentalist Newton Faulkner has been making the most of the excessive free time to work hard at crafting his 7th studio album, Interference (Of Light); a multi-faceted LP that unites his core roots with a deft and current production hand, amalgamating in a record which draws upon many sonic influences. Here he speaks in-depth with Finlay Holden over zoom to discuss this process as well as his experience adapting to the ever-changing music landscape.

What you been up to recently?

Over the last couple of weeks, I took a bit of a break. To be honest, finishing this new album completely broke me! It’s partly because the amount of work that needs doing in that last stretch is pretty mental, and as soon as it was actually done everything that had happened during that time suddenly dawned on me – the global stuff has been totally mental, and some unbelievably heavy personal stuff happened as well, so now I’m putting myself back together a bit.

Do you usually get so deeply immersed in your projects that everything else becomes a blur?

Kind of, yeah – I work in a pretty obsessive way when I’m in the zone. My favourite time to work is also really early in the morning, which I think is a clear space that no one messes with; between 5 and 9 in the morning, no one is awake to text you and get in the way. No one fucks with you for a while and it’s nice. Creatively, a lot of my brain doesn’t wake up until a bit later so a lot of doubt just doesn’t exist in that space… I’m not awake enough to perceive it, I’m ambushing my own mind.

Getting up at 5am shows a lot of dedication… is that a characteristic you think is fundamental to success as a career musician?

Dedication is right up there, you have to love working in music because the amount you have to do that work is unfathomable. The thing that I’ve seen break more artists, in a bad way, is their own mental stability. Success is an absolute minefield psychologically; you’re surrounded by people who only tell you what you want to hear. Having the ability to keep an eye on reality is one of the most important things in order to stick around for a long time. Either you’re aware of reality, or you’re completely oblivious with no shred of reality, I’ve seen both work.

Do you often find that you have to view music as a ‘job’?

You have to sometimes. There are the creative sparks which are fun and easy; your brain hasn’t constructed these ideas, they just appear effortlessly. It’s finessing these ideas and finishing them, both in writing and production… sticking with things is the hard part which is genuine work.

Speaking of production, was it important to step up your self-production game on this record to take full creative control? Was there a moment where that ability fully clicked for you?

On each album, I’ve learnt more, so my production journey has been a long one. The first track I did myself was ‘Longshot’ on album 3; I then did all of Studio Zoo which was probably a bit early as I was very much still learning, so that was a bit mad; from there I worked with lots of different producers and learnt more making Human Love than I did with anything else. The production was big in a way that wasn’t quite my style, but I absorbed all the techniques and ways of constructing tracks from the ground up. On Hit The Ground Running I implemented that, so as soon as I had a song idea I’d be thinking about the layering and that became part of the writing process in a way that it hadn’t before. That was the first album where I really hit the core of my sound in terms of the way I capture my vocals and guitar, so that was set at that point.

Newton Faulkner is touring in October 2021, including a show at Newcastle University.

Is it fun to create challenging live performances for yourself?

For live shows, I think I was coming from the wrong end… I was always trying to make the record that feels like a live show or do a live show that felt like a record, and I could never quite get the right combination of those two sides. You need that sonic scope, and there are so many things you can do now, so many toys to play with – it seems insane to cut yourself off from that.

I played so many instruments on this record, which normally I’d try once for a demo and realise I’m not good enough. This time around I knew I’d have at least a year of nothingness to make the album so I decided to dig in and learn; I spent 3 days learning one bassline properly, a week learning Hi-Hat drumming, a whole day in bed reading manuals!

Is time something that usually constrains you when we’re not in a pandemic?

God yeah, it’s been really hard! It’s always a bit of a rush, if you have bumps in the road the deadlines don’t move so you just have to get everything done very quickly. Music always has to be ready for a certain date, even classical music was written for events which won’t move just because the composer can’t decide whether to play an F# or a G. That kind of pressure in music is not a new thing, but this record needed… well, it’s very experimental compared to how I’ve worked before. I’ve used brass sections, arranged strings, worked with samples in new ways; I needed time to work out how to fit it all together. I spent four months working on one track, ‘Better Way’, every single day – that’s an insane amount of time. My family are never going to listen to it again.

I think taking control of the production yourself has also allowed you to voice those experimental aspects as you envisioned them more effectively also.

Yeah, there are tracks where I’ve sat on my own and done it before, and it gives you a lot of focus when it’s all from one mind. I’ve gone off-grid sometimes here too, which I had to give myself permission to do; if beats feel like they want to be early, in the past I would correct that and fit layers around it to make sure everything’s perfectly in time, whereas this time I’ve moved to whatever feels right. It takes more than twice as long to do that, it can take weeks to get that feeling to work. ‘Leave Me Lonely’ is an example of that, the intro feels so loose and just very human, you want to maintain that human raw feel.

Do you think the increasing accessibility of self-production tools is enabling the youth to express themselves more freely through their music in the modern industry?

There are so many things like that changing the industry, it’s relentless. It’s not just the gear aspect – you could make a track from a laptop maybe 7 or 8 years ago; it was possible, you’d have needed a good laptop though. Anyone now can make music, the gloves are off in that area. Before that, you’d have to get the nod to go into a studio to get access to gear and be able to make a record, but now anyone can make music and put tracks together, equipment prices are accessible to most people as opposed to £8,000 microphones which just aren’t as necessary as they once were.

I remember the early days of courting between the internet and music, I was there for Myspace and all that stuff. There are so many layers of approval that you need for streaming, and the way it works is still quite dysfunctional at the moment. The relationship between streaming and the labels, playlists… it’s all just got a bit messy, and unnecessarily so in my opinion. Everything could be a lot freer and people could still make enough money.

Anyone now can make music, the gloves are off in that area.

Newton Faulkner

Have you noticed lots of issues with how music businesses work behind the scenes?

I’ve seen it from every angle now; I’ve been signed to major labels, I’ve released stuff independently… everything has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s an industry with a lot of barriers, so a huge amount of validation comes from being on one of the few remaining major labels, they still carry a lot of weight. Streaming was disastrous to them originally – I don’t understand why they let Apple make iTunes when they had all the rights to the music! They’ve manoeuvred themselves into an extremely advantageous position with streaming services now, far more so than artists have.

I’m sure many artists you know have issues with the very principle of streaming services, but they’re almost unavoidable now.

Musicians have been outraged for hundreds of years. If you look at sheet music – people were furious about sheet music! They were angry and wrote letters to the Queen saying ‘you can’t print my music, then people can play it themselves, what the fuck would they need me for?!’ Artists have been outraged forever and at some point you have to accept that things change, you need to react to that change and figure out how to make that work for you. It’s been interesting to observe the trends of all the mediums.

It’s been fun watching the vinyl resurgence over the last few years too.

Vinyl sales are doing okay now - I’ve got a real sentimental attachment to them myself, even though it was before my time really. I should be more nostalgic for CDs but I just don’t feel that so much. I have great respect for each medium, though, they’ve all carved their own areas now. With this record, we’re actually doing a separate release format for each medium.

Is that something that came about after you’d established all the songs first?

Yeah, when we were putting the releases together I realised that for digital streaming platforms, there’s no limit on time but interludes just don’t make sense – we have 17 good tracks, so that’ll make sense so people can listen through it, shuffle it, add stuff to playlists – whatever they want. Interludes on the first album come up on random sometimes, and it’s a 15-second thing; like who wants to hear that? The song intro is separate to the actual tracks, which makes no sense for streaming.

For vinyl, sometimes you have to spread out an album over 2 discs and you only end up with like 2 or 3 tracks per side. Vinyl’s split between the really focused listening where you put on headphones to sit still and have a deep experience, and the event where someone throws one on when you have friends over; that part of the vinyl culture seems to be very prevalent, so for that purpose having 3 tracks per side isn’t very user friendly.

All these formats are more different now than they’ve ever been, so marking those differences and giving each medium the respect they deserve for their quirks is important.

Interference (Of Light) joins the ranks of Newton Faulkner's six previous studio albums, including his double-platinum debut LP Hand Built By Robots.

As someone with a long, fleshed-out discography, do you think it’s important to have those gateway moments, such as singles on a playlist, to bring people over to the full LP experience?

Definitely, I don’t have anything against the whole playlist culture – I’m a part of that too. Playlists serve a purpose, the same as all the other mediums. There are a lot of people working to make streaming services more sensible for songwriters because unless you have a producer credit or singer credit, there’s not enough finance coming in to make a living - unless you’re in the global top 2%. Music is one of the most important and affecting art forms out there, and it’s weird that it’s fallen off in terms of surviving from it – that’s a tricky one that requires reworking.

Do you have a closing message for the fans who have been waiting for this record in terms of what to expect and what you hope they can get from it?

It’s been a crazy process and I’m still getting used to the fact that it exists. Everything that I have absorbed and learnt from previous records has been given the space and time to come into fruition here, and so it goes a lot further sonically than I’ve tried before. There’s stuff going in all directions – some songs are well into the deep end of experimentation, and others would fit into modern pop. The name guided a lot of the approach, the whole ‘Interference (Of Light)’ idea came pretty early in the process and that reflects how I’ve taken on the album. There’s an underlying principle of allowing varied colours to shine through; I’ve translated that sonically in that vivid audible characteristics appear and reappear, I really had the ability to be a lot more open with sounds here and that’s expressed all the way through the record.

Newton Faulkner’s Interference (Of Light) is due August 2021. He is touring in October 2021, including a show at Newcastle University; you can pre-order the album and buy tickets to see him live here.
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