In Conversation: Martin Carr
Back at the end of October, one of 2017’s most intriguing releases quietly made its way into the world. Here at Clash we made an entirely justified fuss about it in our review, but when an album that is both a melodic tour de force and a significant milestone for the artist appears, it’s always worth digging down further to find out the stories behind its creation.
The album is ‘New Shapes Of Life’ and its creator is Martin Carr. For eleven years, he was the songwriter and guitarist for The Boo Radleys before becoming known as bravecaptain for the first part of his solo career. Opting to revert to his actual name as the Noughties drew to a close, he had all but knocked releasing his own records on the head when Tapete Records got in touch.
The resulting album, ‘The Breaks’, was favourably reviewed in these parts, but it didn’t quite scratch Carr’s itch. He describes this new record as the first he has made “where I can stand by every word I’ve written.” At a time when everyone is revisiting the highlights of the year, Clash caught up with Martin to discuss the circumstances behind the creation of an album that surely deserves to be on such lists.
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Why do you think you ditched the guitar in the process of writing this album? Was it literally just a case of wanting to try something new or did it symbolise something you were trying to shake off?
The guitar had become another frustration; I couldn’t wring anything new out of it so I decided I wanted to write the whole album on the keys. My piano playing isn’t great; it was different soundings, tones and colours that I was after. It’s easier to dream at the keys, to take it slow and meditatively. Weirdly, since I’ve started playing the album live, I’ve really enjoyed playing guitar again. I don’t regret leaving them off the album, but they give the songs another dimension live.
You’ve mentioned recently that you had been attempting to make a living as a pop songwriter for others. What did you make of that experience?
I signed a deal with a publishing company that kept me afloat for a few years. Half was back catalogue and half new works. I’ve wanted to be in a position with access to writing for mainstream artists for years. I thought I would be really good at it. I fell for the same reasoning that so many others have fallen for that, because I wrote Wake Up Boo, I was someone who could churn out accessible pop songs, which completely ignores the evidence of 96.4% of my other works.
I wrote a couple of things that I thought were really good, but then I found that what is required is finished tracks, tracks ready for daytime Radio 1 and my production chops are really not up to that, plus I don’t really understand a lot of modern pop music, even though I like some of it. The verse melodies are flat and sound like they’re written on keys rather than sung into the air, trapped and suffocating. Choruses are still great, mind.
Anyway, I was trying to write things I didn’t understand and it was frustrating and I should have concentrated on writing for older artists who still sing songs the way I write them.
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You’ve said you were dissastisfied with your last album, ‘The Breaks’. Why was that? It’s a beautiful record!
I have nothing against ‘The Breaks’, but I am given to drama and bridge burning. There are a couple of songs on there that are among the best I have written, particularly ‘Mainstream’. The problem for me is that I made an album that I had no interest in listening to and even less interest in playing live. I stopped writing songs in 2006 and it’s been a long, slow process in getting to where I am now: a place I should have been in ten years ago.
‘Ye Gods’ was me getting back to putting words and chords together; ‘The Breaks’ was more confident, but not in terms of production. I had no ideas how they should sound so I played my guitar and fortunately there were a couple of beautiful organs and keys in the studio plus someone, John Rea, who could really play them.
What I really wanted, what I’ve always wanted, is a studio of my own where I can make my own music without the constraints of time and budget. I bought one in 2000 but I was screwed on the deal, never used it and lost a small fortune (losing small fortunes is my signature manoeuvre by the way.) I have that now and this album is the result; I’m looking forward to what comes next.
The death of Bowie spurred you on in a powerful way, and you’ve talked about the responsibility of the artist to be honest, but what did his passing mean to you? Was immersing yourself in his catalogue inspiring on a creative level or an emotional level?
Bowie inspired me to focus on something and write about that. Previously, I would decide what to write about halfway through writing, which is never going to work. The song would be unfocused and unfinished. What I took from Bowie (and whether or not it’s an accurate summation of his methods doesn’t matter. The result matters) is that if I use an object, in this case myself, and write about it, explore it, take it apart and put it back together, poke it, prod it, squeeze it etcetera then the focus is always there.
It’s like painting a bowl of oranges: the resulting art is how the painter sees the bowl, it’s themselves they are revealing. I doubled down on this and painted myself. I made a hall of mirrors and in the end I couldn’t work out which one was me. I’m not sure I’m explaining this properly. I can’t remember how much of this was done consciously at the time.
You’ve quoted a particular lyric in the press release and even within the artwork on the sleeve – “Of muted desire and no fit state. I know my place, behind the glass.” The glass/mirror imagery is all over the record. What is the significance of it for you? To what extent are you now on the other side of it?
The best thing about this line is that I don’t sing it on the record. I changed the line from ‘no fixed space’ to ‘no fit state’ early on in the writing, thinking I would redo the vocals at some point, but I never did. I only realised that when I listened to it recently.
The lyric was the one that opened the door for me, the jumping off point for the whole album. This is what the album is going to be about. I’m not going to pick it apart but it places me perfectly, at that time anyway. The mirror symbolises the way I was going about writing, exploring myself, staring into reflective surfaces. The glass is the barrier that I felt lay between myself and everything else. The Van is death.
I always loved the lines from T.S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, “Between the idea and the reality / between the motion and the act, lies the shadow” which Lou Reed later nicked with his “Between thought and expression / Lies a lifetime.” Between all the things I wanted to be, for myself, my family and friends, lay the glass. The medication I take now hasn’t completely removed it but I’m happier with the way I am. In the end, acceptance can be as important as change.
Can you say a little more about the writing process? I know you were working with lots of samples and then playing things back with the keyboard, but what sort of samples were they?
I built songs from sounds; I stretched basslines and chopped synths etcetera. The way I work with a sample is to shape it the way I want and then replace it. The sound has gone but the idea of it remains. I forgot to remove one but I won’t say where for obvious reasons. I was looking for a groove with big strings. That’s the soul music side to it.
You’ve been very open about your mental health around the time of completing the record. Did the record push you to that point with its honesty, do you think, or did completing it allow you to get a better perspective on how you were?
I’ve had problems since I was a teenager. I knew I had them but I was so disorganised, drunk or drugged that I never asked anybody for help. There have been some real lows, even at the height of our success. I’ve been treated for depression but, after a year on medication, I’m still not convinced that’s the problem.
I started out trying to find out what made me tick and the deeper I went, the more the dark stuff came out and I ended up in an intensely manic state. I couldn’t think straight; I was talking to myself or I would try to explain what was happening to me to an empty room. Even after I’d told my partner, I still wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it or not. Then I developed anxiety, which became worse after I started taking medication, but gradually I’ve started to feel better.
The last ten months have been great. I can think ahead and plan for the future for the first time in forever.
You’ve said you couldn’t go back to the music to work on it at all because you couldn’t return to that space but you’ve also said that it’s the first record that sounds like you and that more will follow. Does it concern you that those were the circumstances that produced such a special record in terms of continuing or is it more that you will apply those principles to whatever situation you find yourself in?
It was as if I was under a spell or some kind of fever. It was awful and strange but I made some great music so I kept at it; I didn’t want anything to change. I was working on ten songs but only finished eight. When I tried to write more I couldn’t do it. I mean, I could write songs, songs I liked but they weren’t ‘New Shapes of Life’ songs. Since then, I’ve written ‘Gold Lift’ and laid down a few ideas, but I won’t be writing anything else for a while. I have no doubts about myself now, in the song writing sense. I have everything I need.
Yes, you released ‘Gold Lift’ earlier this year off the back of that hideous photo of Trump and Farage. Coupled with the continuously grim news arising from the Brexit vote, do you find that world events have a direct bearing on how you approach making music or is that sort of song a one off to get it out of your song writing system?
Part of my gloom last year was undoubtedly down to Brexit. Not the result itself particularly, but the realisation that so many people in this country were so prejudiced and full of hate for their fellow human beings, how all of a sudden things became so polarised: you were either Hitler or Stalin.
The worst of it being Farage and his rich little Englander buddies, their lies and hypocrisy. I wanted to stick it to them and I think it came out alright. Politics you can dance to. I’d like to do more of that.
You recently talked about the mixed impact of Spotify and streaming services – on the one hand, they’re convenient but, on the other, not much help for the non-million selling artists. Is this culture at risk of several limiting the amount of new music being made five, ten years down the line do you think? It doesn’t look very sustainable from the outside.
I don’t really understand the impact that streaming services have outside of the fact that if people are streaming your record they are not buying it and if they’re not buying it then your record company are not going to give you money to make another one. I need to learn to be self-sufficient for when that eventuality happens.
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Words: Gareth James // @JustPlayed
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In Conversation: Martin Carr