By Jo Whitby and Celine Lux.
Sheltering from the sun in the shade of a nearby building, we tuck in to our first authentic Italian ice cream on Byres Road in the West End of Glasgow. Believe it or not, Glasgow is currently the hottest place in the UK which means we are, of course, wearing far too much clothing for such glorious weather. We’ve arranged to meet Roddy Hart at a local coffee shop called ‘Tinderbox’, its name a reference to the Cocteau Twins track ‘The Tinderbox (Of a Heart)’ perhaps? After initially seating ourselves at a small table directly underneath a speaker piping out the kind of trendy music only coffee shops play we move across to a recently vacated booth – coffee is ordered and we begin setting up.
Enter Roddy Hart.
Sporting a short sleeved plaid shirt, jeans and shades in hand – there’s something very rock and roll about Hart. We’re convinced his hair possesses magical qualities (we are informed he has just had a haircut). We exchange handshakes and he apologises for the last minute change of plans as we were due to meet the following day.You see, Hart is a very busy man and we’ve been trying to pin him down for an interview for awhile. “I owe so many blogs interviews, I feel terrible” he says as he takes a seat in the booth with us. Since the release of the self-titled album ‘Roddy Hart and The Lonesome Fire’ last year things have been pretty non-stop. Most recently the album gained a place in the longlist for the SAY award (Scottish Album of the Year) sharing the spotlight with artists like Edwyn Collins, Mogwai and last year’s SAY award winner RM Hubbert. An unexpected trip over to Los Angeles earlier in the year to perform on ‘The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson’ also gained the band some well-deserved attention. Pressed for time we hit the record button and begin the interview…
Cat On The Wall: Your music first came to our attention via Middle Of Nowhere Recordings and we realise we’ve got a bit of catching up to do as it’s been 10 years since the release of your first album. What would you say you’ve learned on an artistic and also a personal level over the past 10 years?
Roddy Hart: You have to learn patience. That’s the very first thing that you learn because I started when I was 21/22 and I’d just graduated from Uni. I was offered a deal – I’d put a little 8-track demo together that a guy in the music business heard and passed down to a couple of labels in London just when I graduated and they loved it. The guy flew up from the label the very next day which just doesn’t happen anymore and offered me a deal on the spot. So it happened very quickly and I kind of thought, right, this is how easy it is but you know, you just kind of plod along for awhile. Part of that bubble you’re in – which is the major label bubble – which is a lot of money being talked about, a lot of releases and we’ll put you on TV by summer and then you’ll have the album out by Christmas; so lots being talked about. I was still very wet behind the ears and I hadn’t had much experience. I’d also never really sung in public before…
COTW: Oh blimey! Talk about baptism of fire!
RH: Yeah, absolutely! I’d only done this demo in my bedroom and I’d played guitar in bands before but I was never the lead singer and I’d never played my own songs. But then, for various reasons, the major label deal fell through after about 8 months and we got dropped. I had other guys in the band with me. The label nearly went bust and it was all really, kind of, up in the air. People changed and as these things do, all these horror stories that you hear and we were just like another statistic really… and I thought what do I do? The dream was over and I still had the passion to write music and I wanted to do as much as I could so I pushed on really. I had to start from scratch and I took a job playing once a week at a residency in a bar in Glasgow called The Universal. I was there every Tuesday for £50 a night playing to, you know, 10 drunk pub customers, all that kind of stuff! Then, just gradually over the years, I started to put records out, started to build some kind of an audience. Patience is the biggest thing, you just have to believe in what you do, keep your head down, keep the faith, keep going and hope that your music will find an audience at some point. It’s really funny now the amount of people that think we’re a new artist, that we’ve just begun and it is kind of new in a way, the band thing is new for me and having this big band built around what I do. This actually feels completely right now, it’s just a different chapter for me.
COTW: Throughout all of this did you have a master plan, like an angle that you were keeping focus on?
RH: Not really, I think I always loved recording and I always loved the idea of making an album and that was my passion so I made the first one, I loved it and wanted to make something different the second time. Then I wanted to learn about recording so I did some of it on my own for the third record and for the most recent record we worked with a producer and that completely changed everything, that was the first time I’d ever worked with a producer. It was quite a big producer (Ed. Danton Supple – who worked with Coldplay and Morrissey) who’d made some big records so that was a really different experience as well. That was the first time we’d had a budget to work with a producer so that was really interesting as well, kind of inspiring in different ways. The master plan really has always been just to survive.
COTW: So it’s fair to say that your motivation is about the passion, the art as opposed to success and achievement?
RH: Yeah, I was never interested in being X-Factor famous or anything like that, it just never interested me. I was always in love with writing songs. Even singing, I love it but it’s always been about songwriting for me and I actually only sing as a by-product because I wrote the songs. I used to be in bands that other guys would sing and I would think ‘oh, you’re not singing that line right’. I’ve had to learn being a singer, even now my voice’s the one thing I get the most paranoid about. It took me a long time to learn that your voice is an instrument and on albums my singing style has changed dramatically from album to album. First is was just like, right, this is just a way to get the song out, to translate the song and then you learn it’s an instrument just as much as the way you play a guitar solo or the way you play the piano. You’ve got to sing and think about what you’re singing, think about how you express yourself. That’s been an interesting journey and that’s something you learn with age and experience as well.
COTW: The self-titled album Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire is your first outing as a full-fledged band rather than as a solo artist. Has working with a permanent band changed the way you approach songwriting?
RH: Yeah, so the first three records were very much solo singer-songwriter, a few of the guys that are in the band to this day were the guys that played on those records. In fact on a couple of the records it mentions The Lonesome Fire but it wasn’t really a full band configuration. They were just dipping in and out depending on what tour we had coming up. Then really in the last three years the final two members were added, we’re up to seven people now – which is crazy. Gordon Turner and Andy Lucas came into the band and they really solidified what was already happening in my mind as a songwriter, you know, this big widescreen epic: a mixture of the stuff I loved with the early Bruce Springsteen records and the stuff I love now like The National and Arcade Fire – a mixture of those two things in my head so that’s what we wanted to create. That changed the way I thought about songwriting so definitely with the new album I wrote with them (the band) in mind whereas before I would write a song and then you’d bring them into the process. Now I knew we could take these [songs] anywhere – so here’s the skeleton song but let’s try this in a different time signature, let’s try… I wrote with them in mind very much so that was like a luxury and I also knew they could pretty much handle anything I was thinking of because they’re all amazing musicians as well.
COTW: Do you find that it’s easier on you, even though you are now the official front man, as opposed to just a solo artist, to have a band to fall back on?
RH: This is something we’ve talked about a lot. I don’t know how long the ‘Roddy Hart’ will stay at the front of that band name because it feels like a band now. This isn’t anything that’s coming from them, it’s just that I feel I want to go into the band. I’ve done my solo thing for 10 years. We kind of feel the narrative is: it was ‘Roddy Hart’ for three records, then it was ‘Roddy Hart and The Lonesome Fire’ and actually here’s the band and this is what we do, this is who we are. It just feels right somehow… it frees me up as well. I think people have certain attachments and connotations with singer-songwriters. It’s something that we’ve been battling the last couple of years that people think they’re going to get a certain type of thing and then they come to see the show and it’s big, it’s loud. The days of big Bruce Springsteen- and Tom Petty-type songwriters are kind of long gone and now you have sensitive acoustic singer-songwriters, which is fine, I love all that stuff but it’s not what I do anymore.
COTW: As you’ve mentioned, you’re influenced by the likes of Springsteen, Dylan, Tom Petty and more recently The National and Arcade Fire. I think you’ve managed to successfully draw from these influences without losing your own musical identity.
RH: I hope so.That’s the thing about influences, it’s a bad move if you just have one influence in life and you just want to sound like Bob Dylan because you will just end up sounding like them but if you’re a music fan and you’re into a whole load of different things your influences will converge in such a way that will make it completely unique for you. Not everyone will be into The National and Springsteen in the same way. They might be into similar bands but they’re not going to be into it for the same reasons, they might bring different things to it. Then you have your own voice and it becomes a completely different thing. Influences are a really important part of being an artist, everyone has them and everyone should use them, that’s what inspires you.
COTW: Have you ever had the moment when you’re writing and you go ‘ah, I’m sure I’ve heard that before’?
RH: Oh yeah, all the time. I still put them on records! [laughs] We’ve got a song on my second album which was called ‘Dead of the Night’ and it was a deliberate ode to ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty which has got the best beat ever and it kind of rips off that beat. It’s unavoidable. I think in the early days you want to sound like your favourite artist then the older you get you want to become your favourite artist. It’s a cliché but it’s really true. You’re trying to forge your own identity after a while, those first few records are you getting your influences out.
COTW: I really love the cover artwork of the album, it’s very striking. I’m curious to find out if there’s a story behind it? Who is the artist?
RH: I put a thing out on Twitter saying we don’t want a photo of us on the front and my first three albums were typical singer-songwriter photos on the front. That was fine but I grew out of that and I said we want some really interesting artwork, does anyone have any suggestions? We got some terrible suggestions, really bad things but this one guy said you should check out my friend Rob Marrison. He is an artist, an oil painter, he works down in England in Suffolk. It was just another link that I clicked on out of some of the many we got offered and just the minute it came up the front over was the very first thing that I saw. I was just like, that’s it! I felt an instant connection, it has the darkness and the brooding aspect of what the album is about. That’s very important – the cover of the album needs to represent what the album feels like. So yeah, saw that, loved it, checked it with all the boys in the band and they loved it as well. I dropped him a line and said, look, we don’t have very much money but we’d love your stuff and he was happy for us to use it! He’s amazing, I really hope to be able to buy an original, have one hanging on my wall.
COTW: Now I understand that you raised funds for the record via Pledge Music. How did you find that as an experience? Would you ever do it again?
RH: I thought it was fine. There was slight nervousness before we did it because it’s a bit like going cap in hand to people but what we found was that people who wanted to help us make the album, not just help us make it but they wanted to hear the album at the end of the process, they were the ones that paid and it went really well. We were in a position where we only had so much money to make an album and we had this opportunity to work with a great producer. We knew that’s what we needed to kick us up a level so there was no other option, we’ve got to try and crowdfund this. It was great and people were really generous. They get something in return for it, that’s the great thing about it, you’re not just asking for money for nothing. I don’t think we would do it again, that’s the only thing. I think you can only really ask for it once.
COTW: Once the album was completed how did you come to work with the Highlands based independent label Middle Of Nowhere Recordings?
RH: So we had made the album, it was all done, mastered and ready to go. I got talking to a guy called Robert Hicks who runs Middle Of Nowhere and I’d written some songs with Rachel Sermanni, one of which went on her first album, so we had a connection there because Rob is Rachel’s manager and he put her album out. We were just talking and he said ‘what have you been up to?’; I said ‘we’ve done this record’ and he said ‘you need to send it to me’. I sent it to him and he emailed back about an hour after I’d sent it to him saying ‘I really love this, this is great’. So I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do with it and he said ‘well, we’re a really small label, I just put out Rachel’s album, I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing’ so we left it at that. About a month later we were in discussion with a few other people and he came back to me saying actually I think we should do something with this. I really like him, he’s a music fan and he has this little boutique label that he’s building and he’s got great people on it now. He’s doing it up in the Highlands of Scotland so it’s removed from the London madness as well. He’s attracting a lot of attention with it and it’s really exciting to be part of. It’s kind of young artists, not just Scottish… he’s got Mo Kenny who’s Canadian, he’s got Pete Roe who’s English and did a lot of stuff with Laura Marling – he’s got a good eclectic roster there.
RH: We did a video for ‘Bright Light Fever’ which was the first single to be taken from the album and the video was basically me running very badly across Glasgow but from the east end of Glasgow through to the west end. Craig Ferguson found it on Twitter, he retweeted it to his followers and my phone went mad one day! That was great, that was good enough! Six months later out of the blue we got an email from his producer saying we’d love you to come and play on the show. We got our working visas three days before we flew out so that was right down to the wire. Flew out there, had an amazing time on the show, played the one show and then got called over by the producers after the show had finished and said how do you feel about doing the whole week? It was amazing. It was a no brainer for us, we were right up for it and we wanted to do it. We pre-recorded the five songs over the next couple of days and we flew home before the madness kicked off and everyone found out about it. We were sworn to secrecy before the Hollywood Reporter could report the story. It was mad, I mean, it was completely out of our comfort zone in terms of what we’re used to press-wise. We’d never experienced anything like that and to have a story in the Hollywood Reporter, for it all to go so massive, that was amazing, it felt surreal. Great to be part of but then you come back and you’re playing a little tiny gig in Scotland. It’s back to reality.
COTW: Are you planning to go back?
RH: I hope so. We got a great reaction from doing the show, we hope that we’ll go back out there… because we’re a band and we do things our own way, we have the label but we fund everything ourselves so it just depends on money, getting us out there, has to be the right thing for us.
COTW: Finally, what are your plans for the near future? Any live dates coming up closer to home?
RH: We have a load of interesting stuff going on for the Commonwealth Games. The big thing we’ve got is there’s a newly refurbished band stand, just over the hill past the university. It was an old amphitheatre, a band stand that had been dilapidated for about the last 20 years. It was literally used for brass bands, things like that and they’ve spent £2 million doing it up so we’re going to get to play it on the 26th July which is a big free concert for the Commonwealth Games. That’s going to be awesome. We’ve got nothing planned beyond August but I’m sure things will come up. The other thing we’re doing is starting to write again and hopefully the second half of this year we’ll write and then think about recording.
The self-titled album ‘Roddy Hart and The Lonesome Fire’ is available for purchase here: http://www.monr.co.uk/shop/