Last time we heard from you were fronting Race Horses. Can you tell us about the decision to dissolve the band?
It felt kind-of inevitable because a lot of things were changing for me and for other people in the group. There was a feeling of tension between what I felt was expected of us and what I wanted to do, [due to] the team of people around us, I suppose. Basically, the fun had gone. And I think as happens with bands, you spend less time socially together and then it feels less relevant to write songs together. And fine, you can force that, but I didn’t want to force something and make something that wasn’t good or true.
Having been together for eight years, it must have felt like quite a wrench to end it?
Yeah, it really, really was. And I loved being in a band – I absolutely loved it – so it was a massive, massive real shock.
So that was at the start of 2013, and then you went to Rome. Were you going there to find inspiration for a solo album?
No, it was for a holiday, for a month and a half. I lived there rather than visited, really. I’d never been anywhere for a long period of time on my own, because of being in a band. It’s hard to go away for more than a week or two because you’re in a relationship with other people, so you have to time things. And also I was really driven and I just wanted to play all the time.
So it was the first time where I had an expanse of time in front of me, with no idea of what I was going to do. And I was reading a lot of poets from Italy and I was really into Michelangelo and wanted to see paintings. So I booked a room on Craigslist in a rougher part of Rome, and went to live there with Romans. I didn’t have any idea of contriving an album, and I had no concentrated of idea of reinventing myself. I was just following my interests, learning a little bit of Italian, walking for four or five hours to see paintings in churches. I was lucky to meet nice people there, but I had nothing to lose really.
Why did you return to the UK?
I came back because I needed to get some money and also because Gruff [Rhys] from the Super Furry Animals had asked me to play bass with Neon Neon, [for] a production at the National Theatre Wales, of Praxis Makes Perfect. So it was nice that I came back straight into learning other people’s songs.
When did you start writing your debut, then?
April, 2013. I still wasn’t sure if it was going to be an album or not, really. My idea was just to capture the things that were in my head, but a lot of them were visual as well as musical. I walked into a church in Bristol and heard this really special piece of music and I thought that would be an amazing thing to film: someone walking in from the street into this church, and they just hear this music start up. So then I decided to go back to that place in 2014, and record the same organist playing the same piece that I’d heard, and film myself in the church.
In a way, I was kind-of thinking I’d make a film with music, so I just kept trying to recreate things that had happened, for whatever reason. In Rome, I got my friend to record someone I’d met on the bridge playing accordion. So I was thinking about that more than making an album, but then at the last minute I put them together as a collection. And things started to build as I started to record, and I started to see a pathway. It’s a weird thing because [the album is] a visual narrative in my mind, but it’s almost invisible.
Can you tell us more about your cultural reference points for the record?
I remember I saw a sculpture that completely blew my mind – in the Louvre in Paris – of a dying slave, and I didn’t know who it was by. I was never really into sculpture before. And then at a later time, I must have seen a book of sculpture and loved this particular one, and I realised both were by Michelangelo. There was a gentleness in the movement that really shocked me, because it wasn’t harsh and sexualised: it was really gentle but strong. So that connected me to an earlier time in a way
I was thinking about my grandma a lot too, because she used to play piano; that really gentle, 30s and 40s-sounding piano, like you hear on old jazz and big band records. Growing up, seeing pictures of my grandmother as a theatre director, their world seemed really innocent and dramatic. I felt the same when I saw ‘Casablanca’ or films by David Lean. I think I kept being drawn to these ideas of private life and softness and strength and passion, that aren’t around now. And I saw a film called Jean-Luc Godard called ‘Socialisme’, and it completely blew my mind because it felt like a modern film.
I was an usher at St Martin-in-the-Fields recently, and I remember sitting on these wooden pews, outside the concert hall. I could hear baroque music inside, with harpsichord, and then I could hear people on the square outside busking hip hop and all kinds of stuff. I realised, if I was going to make a record, I wanted to make a record that was truly of me and now, just showing the world as I saw it, but that also included my desire to go into the past and find strength and comfort in a different time. It’s weird to me, when I see people make black and white films – Truman Capote bullsh*t biopics. It feels like a fake – a fraud – to me because that isn’t the world we inhabit. So I was going into specific places in the past, but pulling it into my own world.
You deal with the idea of authenticity in ‘How To Recognise A Work Of Art’. Can you tell us more about that song?
It’s easy to be too serious and forget your sense of humour, and rather than trying to fit in with trends, or feel like I had to be cool in a sort of way, I just thought, “F**k, I’m just going to be myself. If I think something’s ridiculous, I’ll say it’s ridiculous.”
With ‘How To Recognise A Work Of Art’, I kept catching things that weren’t that authentic. You know when people are like, “Check this music out it’s really, really good,” and sometimes it really is incredible, but often you can see the artifice in it. You can see someone is trying to give you a presentation of something really meaningful, but it’s just an affectation. And I think it’s easy to fall into that situation – and I will and I have – but I like the idea of pointing at things and going, “That’s a fake, that’s a fake.”
On the other side of that, it’s funny to me people’s obsession with famous people; the way people preserve all these artefacts of a life, a bit like Paris as a city. In Rome, it was really cool because people still believe in God – rightly or wrongly – so nuns care about God, not about a specific period of Italian painting. So you’ll have amazing columns that are just there in the street, and there’s nothing to stop you pushing something over. I think that was really a breath of fresh air to me, from our sanitised way of taking stuff and making everything really precious. Also, it really excited me that these sculptures I was seeing were Roman copies of Greek sculptures, which is a really beautiful thing. Because then it’s the story or the feeling that represents something for people, rather than being about the ego of the artist.
There’s something really lovely about copying something. We’re in a time where people feel a lack of confidence so they have to put a modern twist on something, and I think that’s just lack of bravery to either do something new and fail, or to be happy copying something old.
Lack of authenticity in music is viewed as a cardinal sin, though.
I think in a way, cyncism can be a really, really dangerous thing because it takes away all possibility of growth. I hope I always make myself ready to be surprised by anything. And that’s the amazing thing: you can go to a gig and see something that moves you. And that can always happen in every period, in every time, beyond any style, you know?
What was the last show you went to that moved you?
I went to see Iggy and the Stooges, ages ago at the Royal Festival Hall when he was doing Raw Power, and that was the biggest one for me. Because I’d been seeing stuff and wondering if I was being too harsh on bands that other people really loved and get enjoyment from. But then I went to see Iggy & The Stooges – and I f**king took my top off, and felt like smashing stuff up – and realised, no, I was right.
What do you personally get out of performing?
Balance. I feel like I can connect to something deeper inside than I can in a lot of normal life: I feel free and can let go of things. I just feel closer to living.
From the ornate arrangements to the fact you assembled a 30-piece orchestra from friends and acquaintances, your debut sounds like it was a huge undertaking. Did you set out to challenge yourself?
Yeah. But I just followed how things sounded in my head, and that was the only way to do it. Money shouldn’t be accountable for scale. What’s sad to me sometimes is people doing things without thinking. You know, you start off and make a band record, and then you’ve got enough money to get strings so you get strings, even though you’re only getting them because people get strings on their second album. But to me this [orchestra] was a group in the same way that a conventional group would be a group. I didn’t feel like I was showing off in any way.
So what’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m going to Rome in March to make a film for ‘Strange Emotional’. I can’t wait. And then I’m touring in April.
Finally, where would you like to be in 12 months time with your music?
I want to be really, really good live, and working in exciting ways that feel stimulating. And I’d like to be secretly working on something else...