Timing is everything when you’re a musician. You can be on the verge of ‘making it big’ but then suddenly even the best laid plans start to falter and there’s not much you can do about it. Justin Clayton started his music career as a backing guitarist and collaborator eventually heading out on his own in 2000 with his superb debut album ‘Limb’. Signed to an American indie label and a respected publishing company it seemed like everything was indeed going according to plan. With new material on the way, Cat On The Wall caught up with Justin for an in-depth chat about his experiences in the music industry, his creative processes and finally what his hopes and plans are for the future…
Cat On The Wall: Your first album ‘Limb’ was initially only released in the US back in 2000 and then you released the album again in 2005 on your own imprint. What made you decide to re-release it? Was releasing it on your own imprint a good experience? Would you do it again?
Justin Clayton: Limb was well out of print by 2005 and the record label I had originally been signed to, who had released the album, had no copies left. I guess they needed the storage space. I was able to get back the rights to the album though.
I had the album re-printed because in 2005 I was playing a lot of gigs in Los Angeles and people were asking me after the shows if I had any CDs to sell, or where could they find my music online. At that time I could only tell people to try to find a second-hand CD somewhere. So I borrowed some money and found a local place to print 1,000 new copies of the album from the original master CD. I also got it up on iTunes and other online stores. Mainly it was just to have something to give or sell people if asked, albeit old material.
Yes I’d do it again; meaning I’d put something out on my own imprint. The nuts and bolts of it are pretty easy. Once you’ve made an album or EP you just need the cash to get the physical CDs made and come up with a record label name. How to then market something and promote it is another matter entirely.
COTW: It’s now been a decade since the making of ‘Limb’. How would you reflect on the last 10 years on a personal and an artistic level?
JC: Things have been quite difficult since I made that album. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d planned.
I began the last decade signed to a newly formed, well-funded indie label. I was also signed to a great publishing company (Warner Chappell) and with an album finished. Pretty soon things got a bit ugly with my label and I felt that I needed to get out as soon as possible once I could see that things were not going to get any better and while the album was still fresh. One issue was that the album was only released in North America but it was supposed to be released in the UK which I believed was important seeing as I’m from the UK and the album was not American sounding at all. The market should have been Europe. We had offers for great distribution in Europe…from big labels, but my label turned them down! They will have had their own business/big picture reasons for doing that but it didn’t help my situation. I was able to find another label to buy me out of my deal and pick up the album and try to keep the momentum going regarding radio airplay in the US but it didn’t happen in the end – I never signed that second deal. While all that was going on we lost that momentum and people who were interested before had moved on, I’d ran out of money to live on and before you know it it’s all over!
So, lawsuits and all that nice stuff froze my career for about 3 years.
After becoming ‘unfrozen’, and having got the rights to my album back I tried to license the album myself in the UK and I managed to put out a single through and indie label in the UK but it was too late by then; Radio 1 didn’t want to play it. Various bands like Coldplay and Starsailor had appeared by then and become successful and my stuff compared to that was more scrappy sounding although perhaps similar in mood, but I was told I sounded like a poor version of those guys, even though I made my album before them. Timing has a lot to do with this stuff.
Reflecting on the last 10 years, most of it for me has been not giving up and trying to find a way forward and out of an unfortunate mess!
Regarding things on an artistic level I just kept writing and demoing like a madman and tried not to lose my mind, the latter in which I failed miserably at. Ha.
Basically the last seven years or so for me have been writing and gigging, leading to various false starts with various labels and business situations. Everything has changed in the music business, and I think for the good, in many ways.
I tend to accidentally write what’s going on in my life at the moment, so a lot of the above drama and its consequences are all in the songs I’ve written over the course of the last decade.The hope is that your songs don’t all end up being too self indulgent and you can write about stuff going on in your own life that still remains universal.
COTW: In the past you’ve been what I guess you could call a behind-the-scenes musician for other artists. Is this still something you do? What made you decide to take the solo route?
JC: I began my working life as a guitar player so that’s all I knew, and the decision to go solo and attempt to sing and write whole songs (as opposed to the occasional co-write for other people) was really to try something scary and new. I had met with Warner Chappell publishing in LA one day to see if they liked any of my songs. I only brought in four demos and to my surprise they offered me an artist deal (as opposed to staff writer type of deal) so it appeared that I had to be the singer. That was a bit from left field to me but I thought what the hell, why not try? I just threw myself in the deep end and no doubt made an idiot of myself early on playing tiny gigs figuring out how to be a frontman. The whole thing ended up being much more fulfilling and weird and interesting than being the sideman. I’ve always been quite a shy person so on a personal level I just find it very curious that I now have no fear at all on stage singing and spilling my guts like that. Doesn’t make sense to me, but I enjoy it regardless. “Enjoy” is the wrong word really. It’s much deeper than that.
I would still like to work for other artists but I basically had to let any other work stuff go and immerse myself fully in the solo thing.
I suppose after a long enough time doing your own thing the phone stops ringing if you’re not careful; producers or other artists you might have worked with before find other players they like. Now I don’t have so many connections. I don’t work very much for other people at the moment except for friends usually, when they ask. In the last few years I’ve only played on two albums as a guitar player for someone else. Sometimes I play the occasional gig around town as a guitar player. I did some gigs for Gemma Hayes not so long ago; who I notice is in your 100 albums of the 00’s. She’s one talented lady. Nice to see her on the list!
COTW: You completed some recordings in 2008 and the tracks are now waiting to be mastered. What can you tell us about the new songs? Did you have a set plan for recording? How did you end up in Sweden?
JC: Yes, those tracks are still waiting to be properly mixed as well as mastered. A lot can happen in a mix; lots of choices to make and different ways to take a song at that stage.
The songs themselves are a selection of songs that seemed to fit together at the time. I have a lot of songs unrecorded over the span of 8 years or so. Some you lose interest in, some stick with you. For the recordings in question we recorded about 23 songs in total and most were songs written close to the time of recording. Maybe other songs I have that we didn’t record are better but it just felt right to me record the more recent stuff. All you can do is go with your gut and hope that you make the right choices.
There was a ‘concept’ behind the whole thing… the song choices and the sound is mainly all in my head. I tend to need it all to be cohesive… something you can distil down to one idea. Same with a song. Make it about one idea.
This time round I was trying not to worry so much about whether the songs were too dark and introverted regarding the lyrics and I wanted it to be raw sounding and not as vague as my only other album to date – but there is no album until it’s mixed and 23 songs become 13 songs in the correct order, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
I had a generous offer from a producer I met in LA, Sheldon Gomberg, who had a nice studio there and we managed to start recording an album in LA on a tiny budget and I was lucky enough to have various friends come in and play drums, strings, keys, whatever stuff I couldn’t do myself. Then shortly after that window of time was up to work with Sheldon I was able to carry on and record more tracks in Sweden at producer Andreas Ahlenius’s studio in a town called Gavle, an hour’s drive North of Stockholm. I had got in touch with Andreas and basically said “I have this much money and what could we do for that?” He told me he could give me three weeks so off I went with all my gear to Sweden. I went to work with Andreas because that’s where we had recorded ‘Limb’ 9 years earlier and I had found it such a great environment to work in back then, great people to work with and I always hoped I could end up there again one day. So I was lucky enough to go back there and work with the same drummer Christer Bjorklund who was still there, in Gavle. They had a bass player friend, Samuel Heller, who lived around the corner, so we became a 3-piece (including me) and we cut the basic tracks live all pretty quickly, much the same as the first album. We had a few weeks of non-stop recording and no sleep and managed to record and finish another thirteen songs.
Good musicians seem to grow on trees over in Sweden. Curious.
COTW: What’s your creative process when writing music? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
JC: It’s quite simple a process for me these days but it’s something I don’t quite understand myself. Depends on the song or piece of music as well.
I don’t write journals or poetry or anything like that so I don’t have some long personal database of ideas going on though I do keep an ongoing list of ideas for song titles. Titles seem important to me.
When it’s time to say something in words it’ll come up in a song. In a way, instead of keeping a journal, the song is the journal but with more intent behind it.
For inspiration I don’t need a lot. It’s basically always there, everywhere around. What can I say? The curse of being sentient is inspiration enough, isn’t it? Generally I always feel inspired to do music.
On occasion I may hear some music and be inspired to write something that gives me the same feeling as that music, but just in some abstract sort of way.
When writing a song I’ll pick up my acoustic guitar and close my eyes, hit a random chord and just let it ring. Then I imagine in my head what might sound good after that ringing and I’ll play that, and another chord, and in a few minutes I’ll have a chord progression going that seems like something worth pursuing and something I might want to sing along with. This way it always sounds new to me and it just feels natural. I like to approach things like it’s the first time I’ve ever done it so I allow myself to forget what I know and pretending to myself that I have no idea what I’m doing. It keeps things fresh. There are only so many chords but still, one simple chord next to another can feel different from one day to the next, at least for me. Resonates differently… the air is different. Sometimes I also like to write on bass guitar or piano, but I end up taking a different approach there, especially with the piano ’cause I’m a hack on the piano so it’s more of a struggle.
After or during working out a chord progression I’ll start mumbling a vocal melody, with whatever vague words sound right to me but that don’t mean anything yet.
Usually the first melody that pops up is what I end up sticking with. I tend to trust the original ideas. It’s hard to explain; for me it’s all a bit effortless if I’m in the right frame of mind. There are so many directions you can take a song that at some point early on you have to decide to go ‘this way’ with the song and stick to it. In the big picture for me it’s melody first and everything else is secondary.
So once I have a sketch of a song, then I’ll stop and think more about the general vibe and what I want to say and I’ll work on lyrics. Then back to more melody and chords, more attention to detail… refining stuff, altering chords or bits of melody. I suppose the more holistic approach is what I do. Everything relates to everything else and I switch back and forth between the different elements until it eventually seems like a complete thing. I also usually have three or four songs on the go at the same time and I switch back and forth between them in the same way. That way I get a feeling that the songs relate to each other and maybe it helps to maintain a cohesive sound in everything you do. It’s like starting out with a big blur and gradually bringing everything into focus. All very ‘organic’ and from the ‘ether’ if you forgive the new age type metaphors. It’s also extremely all-consuming for me and I do take it very seriously, it means something to me. I can easily stay up for 24 hours (no drugs) working on a song. I guess you’d call that obsessive.
After I think I have a song I throw up a mic and make a rough insta-demo and once I’ve heard it back and if I’m happy with it I’ll dive into recording a proper demo immediately, working out all the instrumental parts as well; drums, guitars, weird noises, keyboards, arrange the strings if there are strings in my head etc. I always feel the need to get it all down as soon as possible in case I forget what it was that I was going for in the first place. I also get quite obsessed about how everything in a track should fit together, especially bits of melody. So I’ll spend a lot of time coming up with instrumental parts that play off the vocal, be it the bass part or the guitars.
Generally the whole thing takes me a day or two to get it to a state where I can leave it alone and then I’ll come back to it a few days later to see if it was a piece of crap or not!
Occasionally I’ll take the opposite approach. I might want to try to write a drum groove orientated thing and I’ll just come up with a drum pattern and build a piece of music around that and then do the words and melody on top, but that would be the exception.
COTW: Who is Vanessa Freebairn-Smith and how did you come about to work with her?
JC: Vanessa is a cellist based out of LA and a fantastic one at that. Her résumé is rather ridiculous. I met Vanessa back in 2003 on a job… we were both hired to play some showcases for the same artist. We became friends and starting playing together for fun, my own stuff. I was playing gigs with my band around town and she joined up, playing cello, and she learned to play guitar to cover stuff I couldn’t cover while singing and thus she became our secret weapon, the female multi-instrumentalist in the band. She plays piano and sings backgrounds also. She comes from a classical background whereas I certainly don’t… I have no clue about music theory and I don’t read music, so it was, and is, always ‘interesting’ when we try to communicate about parts to play seeing as we don’t really speak the same language. We somehow end up making it work. She’s also turned me on to a lot of great classical music.
Lately we do gigs just the two of us without a full band so we try to make a set as interesting as possible with lots of instruments on stage, and usually she’s the one stuck with the job of running around the stage switching instruments. I’m stuck at the front singing so I get off lightly in that regard.
COTW: When can we expect a new album? Will you tour?
JC: It’s all about money now. Need to finish up the mixing of songs we last recorded and see if anyone is interested in getting behind the end result.
I’m not signed, have no management or anything so who knows if an album release is going to be a possibility.
I would definitely like to try to get some more of the songs in movies…
There are no plans for a tour. It costs a lot of money to tour and without a finished product there seems little point in spending that money, even if I had it.
I did a little acoustic tour in the UK with Vanessa in 2008, opening for Gemma Hayes. That was the last tour I did.
COTW: What are your plans for the near future?
JC: At the moment I’m moving around, living out of a suitcase so it would be nice to be able to stay in one place and just work. Currently I’m in Los Angeles seeing what I can get going with my songs. Not sure where I’ll be in a few weeks but wherever it is I would like to be meeting more musicians and making new contacts and just making music. I’d also very much like to get into scoring soundtracks for film.
I just want to be able to make a living making music that I like. That’s a luxury, I know, but that’s what I would like. Just that! No fancy car, nor fame.
I had a meeting with an A&R person at a label just today from out of the blue, so who knows? You never know.
Interview by Jo Whitby