Interview with Newton Faulkner

Newton Faulkner, English singer, guitarist, and songwriter, and I are talking about the song ‘Killing Time’ from his new album. It’s a cathartic, hopeful anthem about the difficulty of last year’s lockdowns. 

“I think I take the responsibility of putting things out into the world quite seriously,” he says. “It definitely intensified when I had a child – my son’s ten. And also just generally in life, I think the stuff that you put out into the world tends to loop back around. It’s a mixture of the butterfly effect and just generally wanting to make people around me happy. So I believe that if you hold the door open for someone they’ll be nicer to everyone else for the rest of the day, and it’s a ripple that runs through everything.”

This remark is characteristic of him, he’s a very pleasant chap – a fact clear as he speaks over Zoom from his home recording studio where, emblematic of his boyish enthusiasm, a toy Optimus Prime helmet is mounted on the wall. Even the circumstances of the one time he got arrested are very Newton Faulkner: an old lady misunderstood his intentions when he tried to help her carry her bag. 

“But then,” he continues, “there’s a song on [the previous album] called ‘Alright’, and the main tagline is ‘What if it’s not going to be alright?’”

And in fact it hasn’t been.

“Now, I don’t want to go too deep into this, but after the [new] album was finished I basically had a small mental breakdown. There was a huge amount of intense personal stuff that happened just before the lockdowns and during the first few there were some fairly horrendous things going on. It was bad, a bad time. And all of that was while I was making this record, and a running theme of the record is acceptance, which now seems ironic because it turned out that the reason I was singing about it was because I knew it was actually what I needed to do. I thought I was already doing it – but I wasn’t. It turned out what I was actually doing was locking it in a small box and just being like right, it’s only going to open if I get totally pushed over the edge. It was very much an old-school British stiff upper lip ‘Oh, carry on, let’s keep going, moooove’. And then when I’d finished making this record suddenly two, maybe even three years’ worth of emotional baggage hit me like an absolute brick and I totally broke.”

He continues to speak about this for at least eight minutes, making further confessions, using terms like ‘intense personal journey’, and mentioning also how he’s been reading about and practicing meditation (my initial question had been about how he finds his calm). Then: “I’m guessing you wanted quite a short answer. But I don’t fish – that is my answer.”

He’s candid also about what seems to have been for years both a fundamental difficulty in his life and an integral part of his identity: 

“You have an album that does ridiculously well in your early 20s, you just get thrown out into a whole tornado of a world that didn’t slow down for such a long time. And I think I didn’t really have to think about much other than just keeping going for like a really long time. I remember when it stopped and I was like, what is this thing. Don’t I have to be somewhere? No you don’t, you’ve been working solidly for six or seven years, so we want you to take a break. It really panicked me, I was like no I can’t … Entertainment in general is such a strange way to spend your time. You can really dig yourself some holes. Most people tend to go mad at one point or another.”

He mentions that, for a long while, he excessively relied on performing as a source of personal validation. The absence of live music last year meant he had to deal with this. 

The opening track of the new album ‘Sinking Sand’ is troubled in tone but aside from some introspective moments, the other songs mostly don’t convey the darker state of mind he had while recording them – at least, not musically. Repeatedly there is sumptuous production and colourfully outsized choruses – a friendly, extroverted personality translated into sound. It’s clear that music is a positive force for him, a way of usefully repurposing personal difficulty. And, while we’re still talking about his gigging experience, he makes sure to emphasise why he lives this vocation in the first place: “I absolutely fucking love it.” 

I ask him about his favourite gigs he’s done – one of which, he says, was the Albert Hall in Manchester three years ago, where “something magical happened”: “I almost felt like I was watching it … I think there’s an element of out-of-body experience with gigs, because you have to try to put yourself in the minds of people watching and try and work out where you should go next … And it’s those moments. It’s definitely that that drives me more.”

“As a conduit for connection?” I ask.

“Yeah, music as a form of communication.” 

One of the last individuals he’s tried to communicate with through music is a tortoise. You can see this in a recent video of him singing one of his new songs to Edie (that’s their name) on his Instagram. He and I talk about Edie in detail.

“The song I was singing was Cage. The main thing of the chorus is you either stay where you are or you break all the bars of your cage. Which is a slightly cruel thing to say to a tortoise because they’re not really capable of such things.”

This animal discussion later covers depictions of space whales in science fiction (“There’s always like a lot of sci-fi where you get these giant sea creatures that are in space for no reason”), prompting him to enthuse about Disney’s Treasure Planet. However, we do actually get to talking about his recent recording.

So, I ask, why is the new album called Interference (of Light)?

“I started just digging around and found this scientific principle of the interference of light, which is when light hits oil on water – and it’s these colours that appear, these kind of swirls. And I got really excited by the idea of trying to recreate that musically. Because it’s a general lack of rules in terms of the ways that the colours are: they’re not geometric patterns – they’re very loose and swirly. And they’re very intense. Which I really like the idea of musically, because it definitely filtered through the whole album in how I approached the instrumentation. Because normally I’m like well, we don’t have brass on anything else, so we can’t suddenly have loads of brass on one track, it would be weird. But with this I was like, do you know what, it’s just another bold splash of colour. In terms of the genres… Like ‘Sinking Sand’ – loads of the tracks are out on their own stylistically and sonically.”

The lyrics on Interference are more cohesive. They range from vague portraits of personal pain to emotional documents of different periods in Faulkner’s relationship with his fiancé. While most of the songs in the latter group are variably joyful, some of them, written when he was in Australia before the pandemic began, are about the difficulty of being on the other side of the world to one’s lover. He notes that this theme became unexpectedly relevant in 2020 – as did the song ‘Killing Time’, with its description of a ‘silent town’.   

Faulkner is discernibly in a different phase of his musical career to when he started out. He says that with this album he’s moved past the need to centre his songwriting around the acoustic guitar, and that the more accessible, homemade aspect of modern music production has been creatively liberating. And yet the public only gets to hear a narrow sliver of his growing eclecticism: when I ask if he would consider going completely left-field with future music, he explains that there’s plenty of things he’s recorded “with weird little instruments” which he hasn’t shared with the world because they’re “just really weird”. Intriguing – I hope he releases them one day.

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Sam Gardham

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January 2022
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