It seems that Newton Faulkner has something of an affinity with the inventive cover version.
On his chart-topping double-platinum 2007 debut album, Hand Built By Robots, there was a fresh twist on Massive Attack’s Teardrop, with several more inspired covers following before Newton’s fresh take on Major Lazer’s Get Free last November.
You may have seen the accompanying video for the latter, this distinctive crossover folk-rock artist cutting off his trademark red dreadlocks while singing, suggesting a new chapter in an already-stellar career.
That was the lead single on the 31-year-old’s fifth album, Human Love, and while so far it hasn’t reached the dizzy heights of debut top-10 hit Dream Catch Me eight years before, there’s plenty of love out there for this singer-songwriter and percussive guitarist.
And similarly, while Human Love is yet to have the impact of his previous four LPs – all of which made the top-10, with two topping the charts – this artist is more than happy with the early reaction, not least live.
Album opener Get Free showcases what his publicists called ‘an evolution in sound’ for Newton, and across the tracks the album that followed features several high-profile credits in the pop world. It’s mixed by Cenzo Townshend (The Maccabees, Jungle and George Ezra), while Step in the Right Direction was produced by Cam Blackwood (George Ezra, London Grammar, Florence and the Machine), Far to Fall was co-written by Ed Drewett (One Direction, The Wanted, Olly Murs) and Shadow Boxing was produced by Australian duo Empire Of The Sun.
Human Love is certainly a grower. More commercial than my listening would normally involve, maybe, but think of a harder-edged, more soulful Ezra and Sheeran with a few Florence and the Machine-type touches and that afore-mentioned Faulkner invention. The catchy Up, Up and Away is another fine example, while Passing Planes and Far to Fall have all the hallmarks of big pop hits, and my particular favourite is Newton’s collaboration with Tessa Rose Jackson on mighty crossover dance track Stay and Take.
Then there’s the radio-friendly Shadow Boxing, with its Seal-like feel, and the album’s quirky title-track finale, with echoes of Neil and son Liam Finn for me. In fact, there’s not a duff track on there. Let’s face it, as an album it should be riding the charts, and Newton should have his third No.1 album.
Newton headed out on the first part of a UK album tour in November, including a Liverpool Academy date, with a second leg getting underway next Wednesday, March 30, at Manchester’s Albert Hall.
When we caught up on the phone it was barely days after the death of David Bowie, an apt place to start, not least as Newton covered Life on Mars at a Sunflower Jam charity do at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, accompanied by Rick Wakeman, the prog legend who played piano on Bowie’s original 1973 hit.
“That was just insane, and Rick was lovely.”
So what did David Bowie mean to Newton?
“He was a massive musical inspiration. Undeniably awesome – lyrically, musically, creatively … across the board. Amazing.”
In a similar way to how it took Bowie time to make an impact, it’s clear that this artist has also worked hard to break through.
“There were loads of gigs before things took off, and that’s the centre of everything I do. I think that’s partly why this album sounds like it does. We wrote it to be played live.
“We had a really good festival season the year before last, with an incredible crowd reaction, thousands and thousands jumping. But that had to be the end. I had nowhere to go. So I wrote an album that was basically everything that could happen after that.”
Is Human Love a good indication of where you’re at now?
“Yeah, just going out for festivals! We have a European tour then a UK tour, then straight after that we have the festival season.”
What was the thinking behind splitting this tour, with shows before Christmas then the rest this Spring?
“We needed a bit of time to get our heads around how we were going to do it. Before this, I’ve always been out of synch. I had a band when I started promoting Hand Built By Robots, but then for the second album – considerably bigger sounding – I went completely solo, which was a massive challenge.
“When we were towards the end of making that album with Mike Spencer (who worked on his first three LPs and whose past credits range from Kylie Minogue and Jamiroquai to Ellie Goulding, Emeli Sande, John Newman and Rudimental), I had rehearsal rooms with loads of gear in there, and had a key. I was working all day recording then listening back, sat in this chair, to this massively built-up album, thinking, ‘Sh**! How am I going to do this live!’
“This time I wanted to move everything closer together and I think it’s the closest I’ve come to matching the sound of the records live.
“I’m also using some of those sounds. Technology has moved forward so much it’s easy to attach sounds now. I’ve even got a guitar I attach samples to.”
Has Newton’s custom-built guitar become part of him, like BB King’s Lucille?
“Not quite yet. It’s complicated. It’s not the programming. The guitar’s amazing to play but it does a lot so it’s a case of working out best how to do the other stuff.”
What inspired you to explore that percussive style of playing guitar?
“It was pretty early on. It was like a lazy epiphany. I realised if you want to get noticed playing guitar normally you have to be so insanely good to rise through the ranks.
“But if you do something really f***ing weird, it’s much more instant! I had a week where I thought I’d invented what I was doing. But then someone said, ‘Have you heard this guy?’”
“They played me (Austrian fingerstyle guitarist) Thomas Leeb, who’s amazing. Thomas was really good friends with (late great Irish guitarist) Eric Roche, and they played together.
“I was taught by Eric for a couple of years, and it’s just a really innovative area of playing, with a lot of people pushing the boundaries.”
When I saw Paul Carrack play Preston Guild Hall in late 2014, he had another inventive percussive guitarist supporting – Elliott Morris, who seemed a kindred spirit in that respect.
“I’ve known Elliott for years, and love seeing other people doing it. There have always been pockets in America and here. And it’s really exploded these last couple of years.”
You’ve toured with the likes of James Morrison, Paolo Nutini and John Mayer. I’m guessing you’ve learn a bit from all three?
“Yes, and I also toured with John Butler, another amazing player, an Australian artist.”
When I interviewed Colin Blunstone, we talked about The Zombies’ first single She’s Not There being a big hit that they never really topped for a few years. Does that seem familiar?
“I kind of hit the ground running, but was caught off guard a little. First time I ever played Dream Catch Me from start to finish was on Scottish television. That was a bit of a shock.
“I’d been doing I Need Something for all the promos, because it’s a better visual song.
“Dream Catch Me worked spectacularly well for radio, but I felt I needed something that had more impact if you saw me playing it. What I didn’t realise was that people really wanted the single instead!”
Despite the success of the albums that followed, it must have been satisfying to see hi fourth album, Write In on Your Skin, also top the charts.
“That was amazing. It took everyone by surprise … definitely me. But I just want to keep doing this until I die, pretty much. It’s a simple plan! And with a studio in my house it helps.
“We worked with some amazing people too. Sam Farrar’s an official member of Maroon 5 now, then there’s Empire of the Sun and Tessa Rose Jackson – an awesome Dutch artist.”
What does Newton feel Cenzo Townshend, Cam Blackwood, Empire of the Sun and his co-writers brought to this album?
“It’s a really powerful team, and we had a lot of fun, going back and forth. Sam’s in LA, with Empire of the Sun there too. It was fascinating, the polar opposite of me and my purely acoustic approach.”
For all the studio craft there, Newton also mentioned two tracks recorded chiefly as demos which ended up on the album, ‘surviving that whole process’. So perhaps it doesn’t always pay to over-tinker.
“Well, yes, and something like Carole King’s Tapestry was all done within a week, maybe even three days. We’ve got much slower!”
So where does his home recording take place?
“East London … in an old dog biscuit factory, near Bow and Canary Wharf.”
Newton has strong links to Surrey too, having been born and bred in Reigate and studying at my hometown Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music.
“I spent a huge amount of time in Guildford, doing a contemporary guitar course, a higher diploma. That was amazing.”
In fact, there’s a return trip to G-Live on this tour on April 12th, while Newton’s also played Guilfest a couple of times in the past.
There have been many other big festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, not least Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight, Beautiful Days, Connect, Latitude, Lollapalooza, Radio 1’s Big Weekend, South by South West, T in the Park, V, and one of his personal favourites, County Kildare’s Oxegen.
And you only have to listen to the highly-likeable Newton’s live recordings to see how much fun he has playing to audiences. In fact, at times he must pinch himself in this dream job.
“Yeah – most days! And the festival season’s mental. Everyone – band and crew – worked towards T in the Park and Oxegen, which was absolute carnage.”
In a good way, I’m guessing.
“In a really good way! One year involved Party Boy (from the Jackass TV series), always slightly odd. There was also Mumford and Sons. They’d just got going. It may have been their first festival season.
“I remember we decided to move this 30ft inflatable frog across the whole site and re-inflate it the other side. Yeah – the festival season is a bit of a crazy time. And there are so many. I can’t keep up any more.”
If the record sales ever dry up, could he survive on that circuit and out on the road?
“I have kind of reached a point – possibly even before this album – where I could just tour and do festivals for the rest of my life.
“It’s a nice reassuring thought – reaching a point of stability. In the world of music that’s very rare, and a very beautiful thing.”
There’s no danger of you going back to playing in a Green Day covers band then?
“No! I might squeeze in a cover now and again though.”
What’s the set-up for your forthcoming tour dates?
“A three-piece – me, my brother (Toby Faulkner)) and an incredible drummer (Toby Couling), all of us really working hard, doing lots of stuff. I can make my guitar sound like a couple of parts but also do things with my feet, like a one-man band, pushing things to the absolute limit.
“A couple of tours ago I realised how unbelievably technically challenging it was. I don’t think anyone actually knew what I was doing. It went so far that to understand it you had to stand next to me to see what my feet were doing. If you need to do that, it’s time to try something else.
“But this is ridiculously fun for me, and reports back from the last tour were amazing. People find it really fun to watch.”
There’s certainly something about a three-piece band dynamic (possibly all the more so when you have Toby times two on board). You all have to contribute.
“Yeah, and at the moment, my brother’s playing maybe 10 instruments, while at one point the drummer’s playing keyboard and drums – his right hand on the drum, his left on the keys.”
I mentioned Newton’s initial Green Day covers band, and there was a little funk rock too. Was that all part of his apprenticeship?
“Definitely, and when you’re learning an instrument it’s good to do as much as possible. I’m still trying to expand. I even did my first proper guitar solo on the last tour, the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It’s just not what I do!”
You do realise you’re talking to someone who thinks a proper guitar solo is a one-note affair, like on an early Buzzcocks track.
“Well, I’m a massive Dave Davies fan. His solos are brilliant. It sounds like they were dangling a guitar outside a cage and just opened the cage door. Such aggression. Awesome.”
If Newton and big brother Toby write together and live together, ‘driving each other completely mad’, are they also prone to a few Dave and Ray Davies type fall-outs?
“No, we’re too chilled out … too lazy to argue. We’ve got too much to do anyway.”
Talking about family, what about the Battenberg link to the Faulkner clan (his full name is Sam Newton Battenberg Faulkner)? Are you related to royalty down the line somewhere?
“It’s very vague. I’m not quite sure how many people would have to die to make me the Queen. But there’s a lot. It would involve a sex change too!
“We did try to find out recently. I think it involved a Prince who got his chamber-maid pregnant, really far back on my Mum’s side. If anyone can let us know, I’d love to know.”
Have you a liking for the pink and yellow check sponge cake of the same name?
“Yeah, I’m a big marzipan fan!”
When not performing or eating cake, it appears that Newton has a modelling sideline too, having recently been spotted sporting ponchos for an international magazine.
“That was a strange day for me. It was a massive magazine too, an Italian style magazine.”
Staying with fashion matters, how about the dreadlocks he shed on the Get Free promo video. Was that his take on Bowie killing off Ziggy Stardust, a statement about moving forward?
“Kind of. I didn’t cut them all off though, or shave my head – although that was talked about.”
That would have made for a very long video if you had.
“It was slightly more of a risk than I was prepared to take! I had no idea what my head would look like. And in a video, it’s completely irreversible – probably not the time to experiment!”
Those dreads had been part of you for at least half of your life.
“More than half. I’ve had them longer than I didn’t have them!”
Girlie question, but did it feel weird without them?
“Round the sides, yeah – being able to feel the back of my head. The first time I was out in the wind and it touched the back of my head I juddered for about half an hour.”
Finally, with a little time elapsing since Human Love’s release, let’s talk about the concept behind the album.
“I really like Human Love, the track. Such a weird groove. We gave the guy a challenge, asking if he could make it sound like a giant bug on a robotic horse … and he did!”
What came first, the title or the words?
“The lyrics. We usually work backwards, but I always try to experiment. It doesn’t always work out, but I’ll try anything – random chords, just playing bass, any starting point. Always worth a try!”
Did you decide at that point that was your theme and that was where you were going?
“We’d written most of the album by then.”
It certainly carries a positive message that seems to sum the feel of this album up neatly. In Newton’s words:
‘When I’m with you, I feel like taking on the weather
Me and you, taking on the world together.’
“Well, there are enough horrible things happening in the world. It’s subtly-heavy though, content-wise. Even the happiest song, Far Too Fall, is probably the darkest if you look into it.”
Newton Faulkner’s tour starts on Wednesday, March 30 at Manchester Albert Hall, and runs through to Saturday, April 23 at Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion.
There are already four festival dates confirmed for 2016, with two shows on Chipping Norton’s Great Tew Estate in July and then Tunbridge Wells’ Forgotten Fields and Ledbury’s Lakefest in August.
For further information about Newton Faulkner and more dates, head to www.newtonfaulkner.com.